Historians Charles Homer Haskins and Joseph Strayer had a remarkable influence in the field of medieval studies. Both Haskins and Strayer approached medieval history in a very specific fashion. Like all historians, they saw what they were prepared to see, and what they were not prepared to see, they simply overlooked. But later historians began to focus less on the political aspects and more on social history.
Focus on Government
Charles Homer Haskins and Joseph Strayer focused on how medieval governments became more streamlined, efficient, and rational, and how these governments brought order to the chaos of the High Middle Ages. Indeed, by showing how medieval governments conferred benefits upon those who lived during the High Middle Ages, Haskins and Strayer were implicitly arguing for the legitimacy of their own brand of pre-1960s liberalism.
This is not to suggest that Haskins and Strayer did something intellectually dishonest. Far from it. They did not decide to go to the field of medieval history in order to find something that would legitimate their own political views, and they certainly did not invent their findings. Their work is rock solid.
Nonetheless, by focusing on institutional history, politics, and high culture, such as philosophy and theology, Haskins and Strayer were focusing their attention on a very small political and intellectual elite. The vast majority of those who lived during the High Middle Ages do not appear in the pages of their books.
This is a transcript from the video series The High Middle Ages. Watch it now, on Wondrium.
The Bias of Historical Documents
While many of those who lived in the High Middle Ages would have agreed that stronger, more efficient governments made for better protection, nonetheless, there is always the nagging problem of perspective, and the extent to which the authors of the documents on which we rely for the medieval period have spun medieval history.
Most of the documents from which Haskins and Strayer worked, indeed, from which all medieval historians must work, were produced by royal governments, or by ecclesiastics with a strong interest in having efficient royal governments to protect the Church and its property.
Royal bureaucrats producing the documents which we read, and ecclesiastics, had a material interest in portraying royal government as a good thing, and one is always left wondering that if we had more sources produced by the unruly castellans—heaven forbid—by peasants themselves, the opinion of high medieval institutional developments might be very different.
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Demographics and History
Medieval history has been affected by broader changes within the historical profession, and perhaps the most important reason why the sort of history that Haskins and Strayer wrote is not much done today has to do with demographics. Just as demographics were the most important force for change during the High Middle Ages, demographics is the most important force for change in the field of medieval historiography.
The historical profession exploded in size during the 1950s and the 1960s, as the number of people who went to college or university likewise exploded. An institution like The College of William and Mary might have had five or six historians on the faculty in the early 1950s. Today, you would expect to have somewhere between 25 and 30, if not more.
This vast increase in the size of the historical profession, in the number of people doing history, meant that a new sort of individual was beginning to enter the ranks of academia. Haskins and Strayer, and most of the historical professionals up to the late 1950s or early 1960s, were what sociologists would later term “WASPs”. They were white, Anglo-Saxon, and Protestants, and they tended to be from relatively affluent backgrounds. Haskins was a true Anglophile.
A Variety of Historians
This sort of historian became increasingly rare as more and more people gained entrance into the historical profession. All sorts of individuals who had previously not been writing medieval history, began to write medieval history in large numbers: women, Jews, Catholics, African-Americans, and working-class individuals. These historians, historians with one of these backgrounds, consciously or unconsciously, felt little connection to the sort of history that Haskins and Strayer wrote. They felt little connection to high culture, to political history, because their ancestors played very little role in the political history of high medieval Europe. Their ancestors had played relatively little role in the philosophical and theological history of high medieval Europe.
Thus, historians of these different sorts of backgrounds began to do a sort of history in which their own ancestors figured prominently. They tried to write a sort of history with which they could feel a personal connection, and turned more and more to the field of social history, which, since the 1960s, has gradually begun to edge out political history as the main area of historiographical endeavor.
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What is social history? Well, social history focuses more on groups, especially groups that did not figure prominently within the political narrative of high medieval Europe: peasants, women, Jews, heretics. The shift to social history, to the study of marginalized groups who could not be found in older history books, has also led to an increasing emphasis on history of popular culture. Not Thomas Aquinas so much, but those ideas that were shared by the population at large; for example, the veneration for saints’ relics.
Because of this increasing emphasis on social history—the history of peasants and heretics, for example—the field of medieval history has become quite a bit less celebratory that was when Haskins wrote The Renaissance of the Twelfth Century.
Common Questions about Perspectives of Medieval Historians
Most of the historical documents from which Haskins and Strayer worked, indeed, from which all medieval historians must work, were produced by royal bureaucrats. The persons producing the documents which we read had a material interest in portraying royal government as a good thing. Ecclesiastics also had a strong interest in having efficient royal governments to protect the Church.
With the change in backgrounds of the historians, the focus of medieval history also shifted away from kings, courts and royalty, and into what came to be known as social history.
Social history focuses more on groups, especially groups that did not figure prominently within the political narrative of high medieval Europe: peasants, women, Jews, heretics. The shift to social history, to the study of marginalized groups, has also led to an increasing emphasis on history of popular culture, those ideas that were shared by the population at large.