Medieval History, Heroes, and Legends

A Live Chat with Professor Dorsey Armstrong, Associate Professor of English and Medieval Literature at Purdue University

On December 16, 2015, Professor Dorsey Armstrong sat down for a live Q&A session with her fans from across the globe. The chat is over, but the transcript is posted below for you to enjoy.

photo of Professor Dorsey Armstrong
Professor Dorsey Armstrong

ARMSTRONG: Welcome, everyone! I’m excited to answer your questions! (Although I’m afraid I DON’T know the actual location of the Holy Grail, alas.)

PETER B. REITER: How was knowledge disseminated before the printing press? Or was it?

ARMSTRONG: Important texts were copied by hand–usually by monks in monasteries–and then the manuscripts would be circulated among learned or religious communities, and often read aloud. Literacy was less than 10%, so most information was disseminated orally.

MARC: Thank you for making the “dark” ages a lot more light than it seemed when I studied it in school. Why do you think this incredibly lengthy and varied period has such a dim reputation?

ARMSTRONG: I think it’s a simple matter of so little surviving from the period–with such a low literacy rate, and most information being circulated orally, there just aren’t the records that we scholars use to reconstruct the period that we have in later centuries. So we have to rely mostly on archaeology, rather than documents, etc.

DAN: What are your thoughts about Ardrey’s notion that Arthur was a pagan from the north who subsequent church writers “converted” to a Christian from the south?

ARMSTRONG: The simple answer is that there are as many Arthur candidates as there are scholars who work on the question. But most scholars agree that the preponderance of the evidence shows an Arthur-type figure in either Wales or the South of England, and I tend to agree with those scholars. There MAY have been a DIFFERENT figure in the North who was a real historical person and whose legend has been conflated with the mainstream Arthurian tradition.

Poll results to the question "what was the greatest advancement to come out of the medieval period?"

NORM: Has the discovery of Richard the III’s burial site and the analysis of his remains brought any new revelations of the man and his deeds?

ARMSTRONG: The most exciting thing for many of us was to discover that Shakespeare was RIGHT about his hunchback! But in all seriousness, it adds another layer to the idea that maybe he wasn’t the horrible murderer of the princes in the tower that posterity has labeled him as, and that his reputation was undergoing a besmirching shortly after his death as part of the Tudor propaganda machine.

TIM THE ENCHANTER: What… is the air-speed velocity of an unladen swallow?

ARMSTRONG: African or European?

CASANIDREW: Did Arthur exist? Was he Roman?

ARMSTRONG: I think there WAS someone who was an “Arthur-type” figure who existed at the right time, in what we call “sub-Roman Britain” and this guy was probably, to my thinking, both associated with the native population and with the Roman civilization that had recently withdrawn from the island. While we can’t be entirely sure, my guess would be he was a Romanized Celt–hence his ability to inspire and lead such a large group in a resistance against the Anglo-Saxon invaders.

photo of Professor Armstrong at Stonehenge
Professor Armstrong at Stonehenge

ISABEL: I’m a 7th grader doing a school project on medieval cathedrals; what do you think is the most important thing to include?

ARMSTRONG: The most amazing thing to me was the fact that this undertaking would take years–even decades–to complete, and that SO MANY people had to be working on it at the same time. Also, the cathedrals serve as a testament to the amazing architectural and engineering abilities of the designers and builders. It is astonishing to see what medieval people were capable of–they were certainly just as intelligent and resourceful and artistic as anyone working in architecture, building, or engineering today.

MARK B.: What advice would you give to a new writer? I’ve spent over 30 years in the Information Technology field and now I would like to pursue writing. I have found that writing everyday for about 15-30 minutes (500 words) works best for me as opposed to thinking about something specific or making an outline.

ARMSTRONG: I think this is absolutely the right approach–write, and write some more, and keep writing! You get better at it the more you do it! Also, READ. Read as much as you can in a variety of different subjects. It also helps if you can join a writing group, and you and the other members can share your writing and offer feedback and comments to each other.

DAVID CALTON: I listened to multiple of your courses and enjoyed them all. Before the Teaching Company my only historical knowledge was Judaic, glad you also covered those topics.

ARMSTRONG: Thanks so much!

DOUG: Are you familiar with Rodney Stark’s writings on the Middle Ages? The Dark Ages were not dark (a big Armstrong theme! 🙂 Capitalism started way before 1800. When do you believe “capitalism” started and where?

ARMSTRONG: Capitalism, in some form or another, has always existed, I think. But if you want to talk about the development of merchant/trade economy, Italy is the place to begin–the Italian city-states in the high middle ages had extensive trade networks throughout the Mediterranean and into the east and Africa. It was because of their trading networks that Arabic numerals were introduced to replace Roman numerals. Italy was also the location of the first bank in the medieval world.

ROGER DONWAY: Which is your favorite Arthurian film?

ARMSTRONG: “Monty Python and the Holy Grail” remains, to this day, the best Arthurian film AND the best film about the Middle Ages ever made.

LESLIE: How did you decide on the Middle Ages as your field of study? Were you always interested in that time period? Was there a particular event or book that inspired you?

ARMSTRONG: From a very young age, I was absolutely fascinated by the fact that, in many ways, the Middle Ages seemed like a completely foreign, alien place and time, but then at other moments, medieval people and events seemed so recognizably modern. I would say I became interested in the distant past as early as elementary school. I was also always a fan of science fiction–the distant future. And I had FABULOUS medieval lit college professors who made me fall in love with Chaucer and the Arthurian legend.

LARRY: Without methods of telling time, how were arrangements made for meeting, assembling groups of people, etc.?

ARMSTRONG: Most medieval people were much more acutely aware of time of day based on the movement of the sun, etc. Also, the local church or monastery in a particular realm would regularly ring the bells to announce certain hours of prayer–matins, prime, nones, compline, etc. Most medieval people would have heard the bells or been able to look at the sky and figure out the time pretty easily.

poll results to the question "who was the greatest mind of the medieval period?"

ROBERT M.: People need heroes and legends. People are resilient, but civilizations are fragile. How can we turn the need for heroes and legends to the service of strengthening civilization?

ARMSTRONG: I would turn the question around, and say that we find heroes and share their stories as a way of creating an identity or defining a people/nation. In many instances a single individual COULD create/influence a community that would rally around that person and identify with him/her (King Arthur is an obvious example here; so is Alfred the Great and Charlemagne) but I think people often strengthen their civilizations by identifying a hero and rallying around him/her.

CHARLES ADE: It is said that the Renaissance reflected a revival of Classical learning and values. What precipitated that revival in the High Middle Ages?

ARMSTRONG: This is a great question–and one that I could spend pages answering. I think that a major factor that contributed to a change in medieval society was the Black Death, which ravaged the medieval world from 1348-1350, and so changed society that it set it on a path that would lead to the early modern period. That’s a really broad answer, I know, but generally accurate, I think. But also, the gathering of learning and important texts that Charlemagne and Alfred the Great did in their respective kingdoms served as important repositories that laid the ground work for the revival of education and learning in the Renaissance–and that’s back in the 8th and 9th centuries!

ROGER DONWAY: Which modern novels about the Medieval Period have you enjoyed, Arthurian and other?

ARMSTRONG: How much time do you have?!? If I have to give a short answer, I’d say that Mary Stewart’s Arthurian novels are amazing. The medieval portion of Geraldine Brooks’ People of the Book was absolutely stunning. And I learned SO MUCH about monasticism, the relationship between Wales and England, and so much more from Ellis Peters’ Brother Cadfael murder mystery series.

LESLIE: Thanks for the reading ideas. And I love the Ellis Peters books too.

ARMSTRONG: Her other books, written under her real name, Edith Pargeter, are also some of the best I’ve ever read.

poll results to the question "which literary interpretation of King Arthur is your favorite?"

MARIANNE D’ANGELO: Given the fact that most people were illiterate, does this not favor those of us who live past the period in the sense that the great works of art depicting so many biblical stories might not have been created if they were not necessary to service a people who could not read?  I also say……good comes from bad.

ARMSTRONG: Absolutely. The stained glass windows in churches and cathedrals would be the most obvious example of works of art that were meant to communicate a story to a largely illiterate population.

Video graphic from the Great Course "Great Minds of the Medieval World"

DUSTIN: What can you tell me about the Knights Templar?

ARMSTRONG: A lot! They were the first order of Monk-Knights established, meant to protect pilgrims who were traveling to the Holy Land, and over time they set up an impressively extensive network of strongholds and treasuries. But the most important thing, I think, is that their reputation was maligned and they were subjected to torture, trumped up charges of treason, and execution primarily because the French king wanted to get his hands on their massive wealth.

GEORGE ORBAN: In your lecture on Arthur in Hollywood, you mentioned a new film being made that just might have some semblance of historical accuracy. Any updates about the film?

ARMSTRONG: As far as I know, the first of several films by Guy Ritchie on the Arthurian legend is in production–I’ll be sure to update you when I hear more!

ROGER DONWAY: Do you think the cultural elements we consider characteristically Renaissance would have emerged earlier but for the Black Death? Or did it, in some ways, hasten the Renaissance? (Or both?)

ARMSTRONG: I think, without a doubt, that without the transformative event of the Black Death, medieval society would have kept on being “medieval” for much longer–maybe well into the eighteenth century. The Black Death utterly transformed the social order and made it possible for there to be movement among classes and opportunities for advancement and education that hadn’t existed previously. In this sense, the Black Death was a GOOD thing–pretty much everyone who survived was better off.

poll results for the question "how do you think a medieval-era person would react to a modern day Renaissance Fair?"

JOE D: Hi Professor! What separates the High Middle Ages from the mid-Middle Ages?

ARMSTRONG: Actually, the High Middle Ages IS the “mid-Middle Ages.” I think it’s just easier to say “high” than “mid-Middle.” Scholars generally divide the Middle Ages into “Early” (around 500-1000), “High” (1000-1300), and “Late” (1300-1500).

NED: What are the most important contributions to western civilization and humanity as a whole that can be attributed to individuals, groups or events during the Middle Ages?

ARMSTRONG: A great question–but huge! Two things that come immediately to mind: the introduction of Arabic numerals via Italy in the 13th century (doing basic math with Roman numerals was stunting economic growth!) and Gutenberg’s printing press, which made the dissemination of knowledge much easier.

BILL: Why was the table round for King Arthur.? I had a course where the professor had visited the USSR for PBS interviews. Professor noted there were no round tables in the Kremlin.

ARMSTRONG: Actually, the Round Table is not mentioned in relationship to Arthur until 1155, when the poet Wace describes it in his Roman de Brut. He makes a point of saying this was created so that everyone who sat at it was equal. He MAY have been the first to invent the Round Table, or he may have been drawing on an older, oral tradition. But this is the first time we see it in the literature–over half a century AFTER the historical Arthur lived.

JAMES VAN DONGEN: Interest in medieval history seems to run in cycles, peaking for a few years and then declining. (It’s always been of interest to me!) Where are we now… is interest among students increasing or decreasing?

ARMSTRONG: At the present moment, the emphasis in our educational system seems to be on STEM subjects. I think the tide is about to turn again, however, as history teaches us so many important lessons. I think it’s unfortunate that there’s not more emphasis on a well-rounded education that includes not only the liberal arts but also the sciences. Medieval scholars understood the need for this balance very well!

PETER B. REITER: What are STEM subjects?

THE GREAT COURSES: Hi Peter – STEM is an acronym for Science, Technology, Engineering and Math education.

DAN QUAIN: Where are the major efforts in research for the Arthurian period focused? Is most of the information being obtained from archaeological sites? I presume most of the written archives have been thoroughly evaluated already. Or are they still yielding information?

ARMSTRONG: Just yesterday, the great Arthurian scholar Geoffrey Ashe emailed me to say he had come across a fascinating mention of an Arthur-type figure in a medieval French text which no one had discovered until now–so it’s still happening (we’re going to publish a piece on this discovery in the journal “Arthuriana” in early 2016). But at the moment, most of the exciting finds DO seem to be coming from archaeology.

photo of Professor Armstrong at the tomb of Arthur and Guinevere at Glastonbury Abbey
Professor Armstrong at the site of Arthur and Guinevere’s tomb at Glastonbury Abbey

CARL B: How did people travel from place to place especially long distances?

ARMSTRONG: Simple answer: with their feet. But there is this formula: 1:6:23. That means if it takes you 23 days to walk a distance, it would take you 6 days to cover the same distance on horseback, and just one day to go by ship. So when traveling long distances, sea travel was quickest, if not the safest, way to go. For example, if you lived in Cornwall and wanted to go to London, it would be much quicker for you to sail around the south of Britain instead of traveling overland.

NATALIAR: Professor Armstrong,you really bring your courses to life and I have enjoyed each one of them. (Thank you!) Which is your favorite?

ARMSTRONG: I liked all of them for different reasons. The Arthurian course was the most fun, because it’s been my main subject of study for so long. But I loved the Great Minds course because I got to spend so much time on so many fascinating individuals, really digging into their contributions and biographies. The Turning Points course was awesome because it reminded me how a single event can change the course of history. And the Medieval World allowed me to cover so much ground! And of course, as an English Professor, good writing is SO important to me, so I really enjoyed doing Analysis and Critique.

STANA: In your Great Minds Course, you mention that before moving to Paris to be tutored by Abelard, Heloise received a first class education in a well-endowed convent. Also, that she believed that marriage was unnecessary for those those joined in mind and spirit. How did she come to be raised in the convent? And given the fact that she was a girl, although a brilliant one, how was she allowed to study philosophical works that led her to her views on marriage?

ARMSTRONG: Heloise’s example is SO important because it proves that there WAS an interest in educating women, and that there was (there MUST have been) a much more liberal attitude toward them in the 12th century than was the case in the 13th and beyond. She must have come from a well-to-do family to be placed in the secure environment of the convent. She was probably not the only woman to receive an excellent education in the twelfth century–but later that century, for a variety of reasons, attitudes toward women became much more misogynistic. She and Eleanor of Aquitaine stand as examples of what women COULD do in the 12th century, and how these opportunities got shut down in the 13th.

MARSHA PRICE: I understand that the romance of Lancelot and Guinevere is a later addition to the King Arthur story. Did the author have a basis for including this in his version or did he just make it up?

ARMSTRONG: You’re right that Lancelot appears to leap onto the stage fully formed in the works of Chretien de Troyes in the 12th century. I personally find it hard to believe that Chretien simply made him up out of whole cloth. On numerous occasions Chretien mentions that he’s working with material from Breton storytellers (descendants of the people who left Britain for France in the fifth century). I think there may have been some oral stories that were circulating which Chretien drew on for his depiction of the relationship of Lancelot and Guinevere.

ROGER DONWAY: I subscribe to “Arthuriana” but much of it is over my head. Is there an outlet where scholars in the field write for the educated public?

ARMSTRONG: I understand your frustration–there seem to be either academic publications or very amateur-ish blog-type things and nothing in between for an intellectually curious, intelligent, audience who would like to avoid Ph.D. “jargon.” The closest things would be the occasional article in a magazine like Discover or National Geographic; but as far as I know, no publication devoted solely to the Arthurian legend currently exists in this “middle ground.” I wish I had better news!

ISABEL: I really hate doing rewrites on my papers; do you have any advice to make it easier?

ARMSTRONG: It IS one of the MOST difficult things to do! I used to procrastinate TERRIBLY when it came to this, until I made up some rules for myself, like “okay, today I’m going to spend JUST one half hour on this paper, and then I can put it away, and the sooner I do that, then the sooner I don’t have to worry about it until tomorrow.” Then I would actually set a timer, sit down, to work, and not feel so much pressure because I knew it was just a half hour (or 20 minutes, or whatever).

photo of Professor Armstrong filming on set of Great Minds of the Medieval World
Professor Armstrong filming on the set of Great Minds of the Medieval World

ISABEL: Was Robin Hood based on a real historical figure?

ARMSTRONG: The short answer is: probably. There is a HUGE body of literature on this. I’d recommend starting with the work of Thomas Ohlgren and Stephen Knight (especially their introductions to literary accouts of Robin Hood). They map out the evidence pretty succinctly.

ISABEL: Is there an author or book from or about the medieval period that you would recommend to a 7th grader?

ARMSTRONG: Andrew Langley’s Medieval Life might be a good place to start.

DOUG: Perhaps a dumb question (because you might have covered this or it might be general knowledge), but was King Richard of the Crusades patterning himself after the legendary Arthur?

ARMSTRONG: Not a dumb question at all! I would say that Richard was not terribly deliberate about this, but also, pretty much every monarch sought to try and connect himself to Arthur (it was Richard’s father who was King Henry II who supposedly discovered the information about the whereabouts of Arthur and Guinevere’s tomb and had it conveyed to the monks of Glastonbury). Later on, Henry VII named his eldest son Arthur. Henry VIII had his own portrait painted on the Winchester Round Table. English monarchs were ALWAYS trying to connect themselves to Arthur!

TONYOCONNOR1234: Any thoughts on Shakespeare’s maligning of Macbeth?

ARMSTRONG: Not really. Except, as a proud descendant of a Scottish border family (the Armstrongs bred the border collie), I would say it’s typical of the English to try and make “us” look bad. They had been doing it from the early Middle Ages on!

AUGUSY: When you examine an ancient document, how do you determine if it’s fact or fiction?

ARMSTRONG: It can be tough, especially with something that purports to be a “history” or “chronicle” but contains fantastic passages. (I especially love when the otherwise very reliable Anglo-Saxon chronicle reports “and in this year dragons were seen in the skies over Northumbria”). The best we can do is first understand that the medieval understanding of how history should be written is very different from our own.

We also have to compare texts with other known versions, or other histories that report on a similar period, and also there is the archaeological evidence to consider. But some texts are straightforward fiction, so those are easier to categorize (Lancelot’s rescue of Guinevere in “The Knight of the Cart” for example). But plenty feel free to blend the two.

FRANK: Love your courses as well – I am an early middle ages junkie, and can’t get enough. I know that we have limited information available to us from the first millennium from Europe, where we had wood buildings, not stone, and a limited number of literate individuals around to tell the story. But I would love to have more of an understanding of what daily life was like. What tools did they use, what was daily life like, what clothes did they wear, how often did they take a bath, etc., etc.

ARMSTRONG: Your best bet here would be to check out my Medieval World course from the TTC, and also take a look at Frances and Joseph Gies’ Daily Life in the Middle Ages. It’s a HUGE question, but those might be some places to start.

SLARROW: Do you have particular favorite fictional authors who set their stories in the historical/geographical periods you study?

ARMSTRONG: Ellis Peters/Edith Pargeter was a meticulous researcher–her historical fiction The Heaven Tree Trilogy and the four books on The Brothers of Gwynedd is superb, as is her lighter work as Ellis Peters on Brother Cadfael. Ken Follet’s Pillars of the Earth, while it has some flaws, helped me understand how to build a cathedral! Sharon Kay Penman’s novels are excellent. Graham Shelby’s books on the Crusades are marvelous, but I fear are now out of print. Although it’s post-medieval, I feel like Hilary Mantel got in a time machine and then came back and told us what she had found. Also, Connie Willis’ Doomsday Book is a great mashup of Sci-Fi and historical fiction. Bernard Cornwell’s novels are also good.

PAUL STRINEL: What do you think of professor Francis Pryor’s theory that there was no real Anglo-Saxon invasion, but a slow steady migration as stated in the BBC documentary “King Arthur’s Briton”?

ARMSTRONG: I think there was both–an initial wave lasting a couple of years that was (relatively) sudden and traumatic for the native population, and then, a steady migration after that. And around the year 500, someone (Arthur) stopped their westward movement, and in some cases, the Saxons seem to have stopped their encroachment and headed back eastward.

CARL B: Dominican Friars were forbidden to ride animals so they walked from place to place. Were there established routes? Did they require protection?

ARMSTRONG: Short answer–yes and yes. They would follow established routes to get from place to place, and when possible, might have joined with others for some of a journey as there was greater safety in numbers. While some DID move about the countryside alone, it could be dangerous. Keeping to well-traveled routes with lots of foot and horse-traffic would be safest, even if they were traveling individually.

video graphic from Professor Armstrong's course

: What role did luck play in some of the greatest battles of the Middle Ages? E.g., the Battle of Hastings in 1066 when William could have just as easily lost were it not for luck.

ARMSTRONG: Some of the most amazing things in history have happened because of luck–or, in the words of the “Beowulf” poet, “Luck will often save a man if his courage hold.” In 1066, William got lucky, in part because Harold Godwinson was on a high from the victory at Stamford Bridge, then marched his men at an exhausting pace south, and instead of waiting for William’s troops to run out of supplies, decided to engage them right away. And because William definitely had courage–and shrewd tactics–he won the day.

J.D.: As I try to instill my love of history in my children, I am always looking for reading material to assist me. Could you recommend something definitive on Eleanor of Aquitaine?

ARMSTRONG: Depending on their ages, you might start with Sharan Kay Penman’s mystery novels that focus on Eleanor–I find historical fiction to often be the “way in” to a love of the past. Also the Brother Cadfael murder mysteries are a good way to get people interested. If you want a biography of Eleanor, there are MANY. Alison Weir’s biography is quite good, as is Ralph Turner’s.

THOMAS N. HELGET: Whatever got you interested in the Middle Ages? My high school in the early ’60s completely skipped this period from the Fall of Rome until maybe the Reformation.

ARMSTRONG: It’s just the way I’m made, apparently–from a very young age, I was ALWAYS interested in the VERY distant past or the VERY distant future. I find myself bored with just about anything happening after 1500 or before the Starship Enterprise set out on its initial five-year mission. My husband, a scholar of American Literature, is often driven to despair because I’m like “When was the Civil War again?” but can talk at length about how a manned mission to Mars would work and the techniques used by the builders of Stonehenge.

JAMES BROWN: In your Middle Ages course you state that Clovis’s army offered to convert to Christianity. But another lecturer in another courses puts it the other way around, that Clovis ordered his forces into the river to be baptized. What is the evidence for either version?

ARMSTRONG: The short answer is that the sources conflict, and the answer may be somewhere in the middle. It depends which Merovingian scholar you choose to believe.

GEORGE ORBAN: I’m curious as to why there is so little attention given to Eastern Europe during the Medieval period, as that part of Europe made many significant contributions.

ARMSTRONG: You’re absolutely right that Eastern Europe tends to get short shrift quite often when we discuss the Middle Ages. The easy answer is that there are a paucity of sources compared to what we know about France, Italy, England, etc. For example, for a long time it was thought that the Black Death never struck the heart of Eastern Europe, because we have almost no evidence mentioning it. Turns out, archaeological evidence reveals it WAS hard hit. What we really need is more dialogue and sharing of info among scholars who work on western and eastern Europe, and that’s starting to happen.

But I think it’s been a language barrier more than anything else–scholars who work on the west can usually read scholarship written in English, French, German, and Italian (you are told in grad school you MUST learn these languages just to be able to read research) but the initial stages of important research in the east are usually done by scholars who publish in their native languages (Czech, Serbian, etc) and there is a lag time before that work gets recognized as important enough to be translated and shared more widely. This is starting to change, which is exciting, as all kinds of new info is available to flesh out our picture of the medieval world as a whole!

VICTOR OCHOA: Apparently, Morte D’Arthur is a romance and not particularly a novel. I am aware that novels started roughly in the eighteenth century with, I think, Clarissa. My question is, there is some debate. or I have an idea that there is a debate, the Nathaniel Hawthorne’s 4 books are romances properly, and thus are not novels? Do you know of this item?

ARMSTRONG: I don’t know enough about Hawthorne to speak authoritatively, but I will say that I ABSOLUTELY believe that, while Malory’s Morte Darthur IS a medieval “romance” it also can be called a proto-novel because of its comprehensive quality, chronologically ordered events, and a vague element that I will simply call its “sensibility.” The greatest living Malory scholar in the world, PJC Field, chose to treat the text like a novel.

VICTOR OCHOA: Love your course: Analysis and Critique. I have a question about getting professionals, not associated with my current institution, interested in my book, my dissertation. I live thirty miles from the University of Illinois, where I have earned two degrees. I cannot yet get anyone to read my dissertation thus far written, or to engage with me in any way about it, because I am presumably “no longer associated with this institution.” How do I break down specious barriers and prejudices? Thank you, professor. Otherwise signed, Disappointed in Danville (IL).

ARMSTRONG: Congrats! You have moved into the realm of the “independent scholar.” I would move past trying to get “the institution” to acknowledge your work and move to trying to get portions of your thesis published as articles in scholarly journals.

The top flight journals all practice “double blind peer review” which means that your article comes in and is sent as an anonymous piece to an expert reader who has no idea who you are, or if you have an institution, or if you are the most famous scholar in your field. That expert will then offer a reader’s report (an analysis of your argument) and recommend publish, reject, or revise and resubmit.

Those reports can often be HUGELY helpful as you work toward refining and developing your research. Get published in enough journals with enough important articles, and then you can move on to sending a book proposal to an academic press. If your research is sound and original, the institution attached to your name won’t matter so much. And once you have a publication reputation, you can certainly aim for jobs that WILL get you an institutional affiliation.

WILLIAM OF SUFFOLK: How did people know when to wake up for a dawn departure?

ARMSTRONG: I’ve often wondered this myself, and would assume church bells (the local church was tolling bells for everything all the time!) but I also consider the fact that if you live near a church, you probably had learned to tune that sound out while you were sleeping. I would have to guess that someone who would be awake during the nighttime hours for their particular job (watchman, tavern owner, a servant in a large household, etc.) would be asked to waken someone before they headed off to sleep

KARIGRAPHY: The Medieval Ages are such a fascinating time period. Are there opportunities for employment for students who study that time period in a college program and/or advance degree once they graduate?

ARMSTRONG: Alas, the academic job market has almost ZERO openings in this field. Library science or archive work has a bit more in the way of opportunities, and for those who are really interested, seeking out internships at museums that specialize in the period would be a way to get a foot in the door.

SUSAN MOORE: Would you discuss the importance of the Irish monks spreading knowledge throughout Europe? How important was this? What was the extent of dissemination?

ARMSTRONG: Thomas Cahill’s How the Irish Saved Civilization is the best book on this subject, and he has said it so much better than I could!

photo of Professor Armstrong holding sword
Professor Armstrong ready for battle!

GARY THOMPSON: I can trace my genealogy to Charlemagne, Lady Godiva and Henry II.

ARMSTRONG: Fun fact: a study a few years ago determined that pretty much 3/4 of the people living in Western Europe could plausibly trace their ancestry back to Charlemagne! Henry II is a pretty good bet for almost anyone of English descent as well!

ROBERT STELL: Was there an actual “dark” period during the early Medieval period? When did this period begin, and when did civilization start to come back? If there was no dark period, then why do we say renaissance — rebirth? Rebirth of what?

ARMSTRONG: Right after the fall of the Roman Empire. If ever there was a “dark” time, the fifth and sixth centuries were IT! Collapse of infrastructure, loss of centralized government, incursions by” barbarians” throughout the medieval world, no record-keeping–people were thrown back on their heels and were just trying to survive.

JAN L HEINRICHS: What was the attitude of the medieval Church officially toward the Arthurian legend, other than some abbeys/monasteries trying to profit from a spurious connection?

ARMSTRONG: Generally neutral or positive. One abbot in Germany decided to get his congregation’s attention by bringing King Arthur into his sermon–it worked. The church was conscious of appealing to its parishioners. Consider the presence of King Arthur in carvings and mosaics in churches in Italy as another example.

MD: Why do you think the moniker “dark ages” is so often repeated? Clearly there was a tremendous amount of thought produced during this period, much of it in the religious arena. … Marc has just asked the same question in a different way!

ARMSTRONG: Although there was an actual dark age right after the collapse of the Roman Empire, that term was usually used by people of the Renaissance who sought to compare themselves favorably to those who had come before them. Advertising and propaganda!

MICHAEL NIEBAUER: What geographical area was most impacted when the Black Death swept though Europe? My guess is the Germanic states since this area is so large. I very much enjoy your courses.

ARMSTRONG: When you check out my Black Death course which is coming soon from the Teaching Company, you’ll see that the horrifying answer is: ALL OF IT. 60% of the population: dead in the space of five years. EVERYWHERE (except for Iceland and parts of Finland). It is death and tragedy on an almost global scale and it is still hard to wrap my mind around.


Dorsey Armstrong is Associate Professor of English and Medieval Literature at Purdue University, where she has taught since 2002. She holds a Ph.D. in Medieval Literature from Duke University.
Her course Great Minds of the Medieval World is available to stream on The Great Courses Plus.