Graham A. Loud and Martial Staub, eds., The Making of Medieval History (Rochester, NY: York Medieval Press, 2017)
Reviewed by: Oliver Raker (firstname.lastname@example.org)
The Craft of Medieval History: Past, Present, and Future
In The Making of Medieval History, the reader encounters nearly a dozen different perspectives on the place of medieval history and its craft in the wider context of historical discourse. Graham Loud and Martial Staub have edited and compiled a series of essays looking at the development of medieval history as a craft, as well as some of the struggles the field has experienced in the last two centuries of its development. Based on lectures given in 2011-2012, the articles all contribute to a better understanding of the place medieval history holds within the historical community, and the wider social world as a whole. A brief overview of each article and its contribution to the wider discussion is in order before offering general comments on the place of this work in a historiographic context.
The volume itself separates the included essays into five distinct categories. The first contains two articles centered on the idea of invention and reinvigoration of the craft of history in the medieval world. Jinty Nelson provides the first article in the series, in which she argues that the idea of invention can reinvigorate the study of the medieval period if done correctly. The key is to use invention in the positive sense, in the same way it was understood in the medieval period. Ian Wood follows Nelson by examining the reciprocal nature of the historical novel and traditional narrative history. The two articles match well together in their hope for a reinvigorated field of medieval history.
Patrick Geary and Michael Borgolte provide the substance for part two of the volume, examining the creation of a European identity. Geary warns against the creation of identities through the use of medieval history. He argues that both division and unification between peoples have been argued for in European history where the phenomena were not truly present. Michael Borgolte is likewise critical of the formation of European identity from medieval narratives, but for a different reason. Through examining the source of conflict between nations in the Middle Ages, for which the beginning was the change from polytheism to distinct monotheistic religions, Borgolte provides a strong argument that the study of medieval history has been far too Eurocentric. Instead of focusing on the people and religions in Europe alone, the author urges historians to extend their field to include a far wider population.
Part Three centers on the ideas of national identity and myths of origin for medieval peoples. Bastian Schlüter details how German efforts for unification have often recalled images from the medieval period in order to find legitimization for their cause. Joep Leerssen further explores the application of medieval myth in nineteenth-century Germany, focusing on the role of iconography in that process. Bernhard Jussen’s essay wraps up this portion of the work by looking at how German and French political movements have shaped what the historical community and wider public think of Charlemagne, detailing the changing ways in which he has been portrayed alongside those movements. Transitioning from a series of essays on national identity, the volume moves toward larger trends of contact between disparate groups.
Richard Hitchcock and Christian Lübke provide articles in which they explore medieval power struggles and contacts between people, subjects which have attracted little scholarly attention in recent years. Hitchcock focuses on eleventh and twelfth-century Iberia, discussing the political motivations of various religious groups in their struggles with one another. He argues against an assumed depopulation on the peninsula that had been seen in the historiography leading up to recent years. Lübke likewise attempts to show connections between peoples which he argues historians have largely ignored. The author argues that a meaningful association between Slavic and German peoples can be traced to the Middle Ages, and that this connection warrants a larger space in the wider historiography of national identity building.
The final two essays in the volume, from Christine Caldwell Ames and Peter Biller, explore themes related to the apparent distance between modern conceptions of the medieval world and our own. Caldwell Ames examines the oddity of supposed American medievalist separateness from the subjects they study. The argument of separation has been based mainly on religious difference, pointing out a lack of heresy in the Americas. However, the author counters this argument and shows that American religious persecutions were not so different from those of the European past, opening up avenues of research for future historians. Peter Biller provides the final essay of the collection, in which he warns against anachronism in the study of the medieval world. He discusses the gap in vocabulary between medieval and modern conceptions of religion. This final essay provides a nice return to the subject of Jinty Nelson’s opening essay dealing with the mindset and vocabulary of invention.
The Making of Medieval History strikes a valiant balance between historiographical overview for the field while still providing starting points of historical narrative and evaluation. Such a balance is not an easy endeavor when dealing with such disparate topics as those covered within the volume. The collection contains valuable groupings of various issues throughout, based on a clear thematic approach. The contribution to the field should not be understated, especially in the way the essays help medievalists to better understand the field in which they work. Graduate students would be well served to pick up this volume early in their studies in the medieval field, in order to get a sense of the issues they may encounter in their studies, while also gaining valuable insights into the various paths the field will likely take in the coming years. This work is well worth the cost, and provides the reader with much more than a simple overview of how historical inquiry into the medieval period has developed throughout the centuries. The gap may indeed be wide between our world and that of medieval subjects, but this monograph does well to provide avenues for beginning to close that gap.
Central Michigan University