Why the Middle Ages Matter Today

From a lecture series presented by The Great Courses

Medieval Europe is very far removed from us, both chronologically and geographically. Given how removed the High Middle ages is from us today, the answer to the question of why one should study medieval history is not immediately apparent.

Medieval knight in front of a castle

Lessons about the Modern World

In certain ways, a knowledge of medieval history is very useful. First and foremost, medieval history provides a context for understanding the modern world in which we live. To understand what is distinctive about us, living on the cusp of the 21st century, you need to know what existed before us, because there are many institutions, ideas, beliefs, and values that we regard as peculiar to the modern period. These are ideas that only we could ever have had, when in fact, these have been around for a very long time, and there’s nothing oddly modern about them.

Learn more about the various “Inquisitions” that existed in medieval and early modern Europe

There are many institutions, beliefs, and ideas that we regard as having always been in existence, as having been immune to change at all, when in fact they are very peculiar to us living in the modern period. To understand what’s distinctive about the modern and what isn’t, to understand what was prone to change in the past and likely to change again in the future, and to grasp what has not changed very much and will probably not change in the future, you need to understand the Middle Ages.

Society in the Middle Ages had three orders: The clergy (first order), the warrior aristocracy (second order), and anyone who did not belong to the first or the second order (third order). Medieval social theory purported to describe society. In reality, it was an attempt to create that which it claimed to describe.

Lesson on Mutation and Rejection

Knowledge of medieval history is useful not just because one can juxtapose it with modern history, pointing to similarities and dissimilarities. Knowledge of medieval history is useful because one can identify the points of contact between the medieval and the modern, for the modern world is the product of the Middle Ages.

Sometimes the process by which the modern emerged from the medieval was one of continuous mutation, as institutions survived from the High Middle Ages into our own day and age. Sometimes, however, the modern has emerged through a process of rejection, as individuals looked back upon the Middle Ages and tried to create something new and different.

This is a transcript from the video series The High Middle Ages. Watch it now, on Wondrium.

To understand the thoughts of such post-medieval figures as Martin Luther, Galileo, and Voltaire, you need to know about medieval history, because although they did not live in the Middle Ages, they knew about the Middle Ages. The Middle Ages, and their ideas about the Middle Ages, informed their writings and their actions. To make sense of what they said and did, you need to know what they had in the backs of their minds.

Learn more about how Francis of Assisi created a new religious order

Such important modern events as the French Revolution and the unification of Germany in the 19th century were all attempts to deal with the legacy of the Middle Ages. To understand why these events took place, and why they followed the course they did, one needs to know the medieval forces and processes that ultimately led to these events.

Lesson on Social Theory

Authors in the Middle Ages described their society as one of “orders.” There were three orders, to be specific. The first order consisted of the oratores (Latin: “those who prayed”). This refers to the clergy of medieval Europe. The second order, called the bellatores (Latin: “those who fought”), meant medieval warrior aristocracy. The third order, according to high medieval authors, consisted of the laboratories (Latin: “those who labored”), and included anyone who did not belong to the first or second order.

Notice how the groups are defined by their function and what they did, rather than by what their wealth or what they had, which is how we tend to define class these days. Notice how the relationship among the various groups is assumed to be harmonious. Under normal circumstances, each group will help the others. Such an idea does not inform modern notions of class, in which it is assumed that the natural relationship among classes is struggle and can only end with the destruction of all the classes but one.

Learn more about the role of women in medieval society

Medieval society was not as harmonious as theorists would have us believe. Those who described a society of orders were trying to create a society of orders. Nonetheless, even though there’s a gap here between reality and ideal, knowledge of the ideal gives one more understanding into what is distinctive about modern ideas on society.

From the lecture series The High Middle Ages, taught by Professor Philip Daileader

Keep Reading
Carnival in the High Middle Ages
The Rise of Europe in the Middle Ages
Europe’s Dark Ages and Charlemagne

Images courtesy of:
by Unknown via Wikimedia Commons