Among the historians who studied and wrote about the 12th century, there are two big names: Charles Homer Haskins and Joseph Strayer. They have been remarkably influential in the field of medieval studies, and were able to set the tone and the agenda for much medieval scholarship during the 20th century. What made them so influential?
Charles Homer Haskins
It would be difficult to underestimate the influence of Charles Homer Haskins in the field of medieval history. Haskins was, in large part, responsible for the foundation of the Medieval Academy of America in the early 1920s. This is the professional organization for medievalists.
He had a somewhat unusual background. He was a prodigy. He learned Latin and Greek while still a young boy. By the age of 20, he had received a Ph.D. in the field of American history. Although he tried teaching American history for a few years, he decided to branch out into the field of medieval history. This required yet more advanced training, and so, to become a medievalist, he had to go to France to study.
Haskins taught at Harvard University from 1912 to 1931, but he was far more than just a medieval historian. In his own day and age, he was also a rather important political figure in certain respects. He was, for example, one of the closest advisors to President Woodrow Wilson. When President Wilson traveled to Europe to attend the Paris Peace Conference in 1919 and 1920, where the Treaty of Versailles was hammered out and which brought an end to the First World War, among Wilson’s top three advisors was Charles Homer Haskins, the medieval historian.
The Renaissance of the Twelfth Century
Haskins’s most important book was published in 1927: The Renaissance of the Twelfth Century. In Haskins’s day, this was to throw down the gauntlet in front of other historians. The notion that there could be a renaissance during the Middle Ages seemed rather odd then.
Haskins argued that the 12th century, which he defined as a rather long century, one that reached far back into the 11th and far ahead into the 13th centuries, was a period of remarkable intellectual vitality and creativity. It was, indeed, a ‘renaissance’ every bit as important, as creative, and as energetic as the Italian Renaissance of the 14th and 15th centuries.
Haskins’s prose, although a bit flowery and dated, conveys a sense of how vigorously he was challenging prevailing concepts of medieval history. Take, for example, the following passage from the opening pages of The Renaissance of the Twelfth Century:
The title of this book will appear to many to contain a flagrant contradiction, a renaissance in the 12th century. Do not the Middle Ages, that epoch of ignorance, stagnation, and gloom, stand in the sharpest contrast to the light, and progress, and freedom of the Italian Renaissance which followed? How could there be a renaissance in the Middle Ages, when men had no eye for the joy and beauty and knowledge of this passing world, their gaze ever fixed on the terrors of the world to come?
In order to make his case, that the Middle Ages was less dark and static than commonly supposed, Haskins focused very heavily on the high culture, history of architecture, art, philosophy, and literature.
Haskins and Political History
In his desire to make the Middle Ages seem more normal to his readers, he focused much of his attention on those developments such as the rise of the university, whose legacies were still visible in the 20th century.
It is ironic that Haskins is best known today for The Renaissance of the Twelfth Century, as he was not primarily a cultural or an intellectual historian. He was, first and foremost, a political historian, and an institutional historian. Yet, the same approach that permeates The Renaissance of the Twelfth Century can also be found in his works of political history.
Take his Norman Institutions, which was published in 1918. In Norman Institutions, Haskins studied the institutions of the Norman government. He showed how, over time, these institutions became more efficient, sophisticated, specialized, and rational. He did so in order to show how elements that he associated with modern governments—efficiency, rationality, and specialization—could be found already emerging in the medieval period among the Normans.
This is a transcript from the video series The High Middle Ages. Watch it now, on Wondrium.
Joseph Strayer: History and Politics
Joseph Strayer was Haskins’s most influential student. Strayer taught at Princeton University for many decades, beginning in the 1930s. He is influential, not just because of the high quality of his work, but also because his position at Princeton University allowed him to train a large chunk of the medieval profession.
Strayer, unlike Haskins, did not branch out into intellectual and cultural history. He stuck, with remarkable fortitude, to political and institutional history. Yet, his approach to the Middle Ages and medieval history in many ways mirrored Haskins’s approach to medieval history. Just as Haskins was actively involved in politics in his own day and age, so was Strayer. In the early 1950s, Strayer was recruited by the CIA, and Strayer would bounce back and forth between Princeton, New Jersey, and Washington, not infrequently cutting classes, in order to go put out some brushfire in some obscure part of the world. Strayer always claimed that medieval historians made terrific CIA operatives because they were especially good at drawing conclusions based on very fragmentary evidence.
Learn more about heretics and heresy.
On the Medieval Origins of the Modern State
Strayer’s most famous book is entitled On the Medieval Origins of the Modern State. This book was published in 1970, and it represented a distillation of many decades of work that had previously appeared in monographs.
Strayer focused on institutions such as the English Parliament, and on trends—such as the increasing ability of medieval kings to directly tax their subjects—that seemed to have immediate relevance for understanding how 20th-century governments had grown so very powerful.
It is easy today to pick out the weaknesses, and some would say the blind spots, within Haskins and Strayer’s visions of medieval history. However, they provided new perspectives on the Middle Ages, especially in the manner in which they relate to modern government and society.
Common Questions about Charles Homer Haskins and Joseph Strayer
Charles Homer Haskins learned Latin and Greek and received a Ph.D. in the field of American history. He decided to branch out into the field of medieval history, and to become a medievalist, he had to go to France to study.
In The Renaissance of the Twelfth Century, Haskins argued that the 12th century was a period of remarkable intellectual vitality and creativity. It was, indeed, a ‘renaissance’ every bit as important, creative, and energetic as the Italian Renaissance of the 14th and 15th centuries.
Norman Institutions focused on the institutions of the Norman government. Haskins showed how these institutions became more efficient, sophisticated, specialized, and rational over time. He did so in order to show how elements associated with modern governments could be found already emerging in the medieval period among the Normans.
Joseph Strayer, in his most famous book entitled On the Medieval Origins of the Modern State, focused on institutions such as the English Parliament, and on trends—such as the increasing ability of medieval kings to directly tax their subjects—that seemed to have immediate relevance for understanding how 20th-century governments had grown so very powerful.