Much More than "Ornament"

Charles Clarke has a right to be believed, and I do believe him, when he says that his recent remarks about medieval history (and other medieval studies) have been misrepresented and that he is not at all hostile to this particular study. Nonetheless what reported – that medievalists are merely ‘ornamental’ and that their study is not deserving of public funding – even if it is not a fair reflection of what was said, in itself requires an answer. I would make three points about it. It seems that medieval history has as good an effect in developing the brain power of students and their mental flexibility to turn their minds to wherever they are needed as any other subject. My pupils have gone into all walks of life and done very well in them. That discipline of reading on a new subject, perceiving what is interesting in it for oneself, understanding the salient points, and writing about it lucidly, seems to be very much a transferable skill. And surely it is transferable mental skills which our society most needs where it is no difficult to predict the fast-moving developments of the future. I should say that all subjects that are able to develop the mental power, and capacity for interest, of students, are wealth generating subjects. Medieval history interests very many students. The remarkable thing that I have discovered over four decades of university teaching is that what interests intelligent students often has very little to do with its closeness to or distance from the present time. My pupils are interested in the Carolingian Renaissance because they are interested in how other societies and ruling elites tried to define and foster their own cultures. That is, they are interested in how any society conceives its cultural substratum. They are curious about why the hard-bitten administrators who founded Oxford colleges in the Middle Ages wanted the majority of their scholars to study Theology! It is always thrilling to see how Beowulf, Bede’s Ecclesiastical History, Augustine’s Confessions, the Letters of Abelard and Heloise, the Visions and wonderful music of Hildegard of Bingen, the architecture of a twelfth-century parish church like Iffley here, and much else besides, speak to, and move, many human beings of all conditions, regardless of period. If one aim of university education, indeed of all education, is to enlarge our human experience and our perceptions of where we fit into human experience ourselves, many students find many different and equally valid ways of achieving that. Whatever students find the most interesting, I would argue, is what most effective in developing their mental power and making it most useful to society. If one wants to understand the modern world, it is important that society as a whole should not have an artificially foreshortened perspective on it. Whether one is for against greater integration into Europe, for instance, it is important to understand how and why the concept of Europe goes back Charlemagne c.800 – and not further back. When I was medieval history tutor at St Peter’s, we had weekly group discussions for the historians in their first and third years. What this showed up, as the modernists were the first to agree, was that there were no artificial cutoff points before which a period was irrelevant to considering continuum of history and historical problems. For instance, many the first strings in the knots, where the seventeenth-century Scientific Revolution was concerned, were untied in the Middle Ages. Again the medieval Crusades cannot be unimportant to us, if they are important to how Israelis perceive their situation today. So on the grounds that medieval history is one good developer mental power and flexibility capacity for taking an interest, university level; that it speaks meaningfully as more modern periods do to a significant proportion of intelligent students; and that society as a whole is the poorer any foreshortened perspective what concerns it; I hope Charles Clarke may be influenced to think that it is as deserving government support as any other area of the humanities, and to modify his reported draconian position. Professor Henry Mayr-Harting, Christ Church, is Regius Professor Ecclesiastical History.
ARCHIVE: 3rd Week TT 2003