My wife is “summering” at a law firm in Atlanta, which means that I have found myself making small talk at a distressingly large number of dinners, cocktail hours, and corporate retreats of late. Conversations with lawyers are all pretty much the same. Since they are prestigovores, the initial small talk is taken up with my resume and institutional affiliations. We then proceed on to my dissertation, a complete non-starter, leaving us with half a drink’s worth of conversational space to fill, and more if the event is outside and the ice is melting quickly.
If this is a second or third drink conversation, there’s a good chance that the lawyer is going to confess to me in suitably hushed tones that they aren’t really sure when the Middle Ages were or what qualifies as properly medieval. I tend to respond with an anecdote that I’ve been meaning to blog about, and so here goes:
Last semester there was no room for me to TA in the English department, and after a hard scramble, I ended up in the History department in the Renaissance Italy course. It was actually a much better fit for a medievalist than it sounds, because (depending on who you ask, of course) the Renaissance in Italy kicks off in the middle of the fourteenth century, when the parts of Europe that I study (England and France, mostly) are still classified as medieval.* In fact, as it turned out, one of the main themes that the professor had planned for the course was the difficulty of separating out most of the things we tend to label as “Renaissance” from their “medieval” antecedents.
During a discussion section, I wanted to make the point that, although contemporary popular accounts of the Middle Ages tend to emphasize lawlessness and barbarism, late medieval societies were in fact extremely litigous. Building off a similar exercise we’d done in class with the word “Renaissance,” I asked the students to play a game of free association by giving me any word or concept that they thought of as especially “medieval.”
The first student offered, “knights.”
The second thought for a second and said, “swords.”
The third quickly added, “shields.”
After some delay, the fourth produced, “horses!”
Seeing where this was going, I paused to clarify. “Ok, I think we’ve got knights and the associated paraphernalia thereof pretty well covered. So, other than knights, what do you think of when you hear the word ‘medieval.”
The fifth student said, without irony, “armor.”
Again, I narrowed the scope down to “Medieval things that have nothing to do with knights, their weapons, armor, clothes, or mounts.”
I turned to the sixth student, one of the best in the class, who quickly produced, “peasants.”
Since this was my Friday section, attendence was spotty at best. There was only one student left, who looked me dead in the eye and said, “They took all of them.”
“Knight, sword, shield, horse, armor, peasant… and, that’s it?” I asked.
“They took all of them,” the student said definitively.
Roughly a thousand years of human history boiled down to its essence: knights, things found on or around knights, peasants, and they took all of them. I decided not to go for a second trip around the room.
Now, don’t get me wrong. I don’t tell this story to shame my students–or, rather, I don’t tell it merely to shame my students (who you shouldn’t feel too bad for, since almost all of them left the course with A’s or A-‘s, because, hey, that’s Yale). I tell the story at cocktail parties to lawyers to make them feel better about what they don’t know about the Middle Ages. And I tell it here on my blog, because I’m actually curious about this one. If I had to boil it down to seven, what are the seven things that people ought to know about the Middle Ages?
Judging by my label cloud,** the seven things I associate with the Middle Ages are, roughly: Beowulf, King Arthur, Marginalia, Manuscripts, the Bayeux Tapestry, Popes, and Latin.
If you’re a medievalist, either amateur or academic, consider this a challenge: What are the seven things that people ought to think of when they think of the Middle Ages? “They took all of them” is not an option.
*So, by rights, this should make Chaucer a sort of time-traveler, since, as a young man, he visited Renaissance Italy and then went back to Ye Olde Medieval England to write works inspired by his intellectual successors.
**Counting only medieval concepts and not my ragbag of pop culture obsessions. Otherwise, yes, the Middle Ages consists of Dan Brown, Harry Potter, Angelina Jolie, not boobs, boobs, The Da Vinci Code, and Orlando Bloom.