Frontiers of Medieval History: Religion, Gender, and Geography

FROM THE LECTURE SERIES: THE HIGH MIDDLE AGES

By Philip Daileader, Ph.D.College of William & Mary

Beginning in the 1960s, there was a shift in the study of medieval history. Medieval historians became increasingly willing to shift attention to those aspects of the medieval past that seem bizarre— away from the center to the frontiers of medieval life, in non-political spaces.

Artwork depicting the medieval method of Cruentation. A body in its coffin starts to bleed in the presence of the murderer.
Many aspects at the frontiers of medieval life—spiritual and social—are now finding representation in historical studies. (Image: Wolfgang Schild/Public domain)

Medieval Traditions

Historians are now looking at medieval traditions that were cultural dead ends. These things simply did not leave any direct descendants in the modern period.

Let’s take the study of ‘trial by ordeal’, that is judging of the truth or falsity of someone’s statement by having them undergo a dangerous task; for example, by having that person plunge his or her hand into a kettle of boiling water and seeing if it healed in a few days. This would not have appealed to historians Charles Homer Haskins and Joseph Strayer because, “Well, we don’t do the ‘ordeal’ anymore.” Now, however, medieval historians are devoting more and more attention to that. The theft of saints’ relics, one of the major businesses in high medieval Europe, seems distasteful today, but historians are now studying this phenomenon in greater detail.

Historians are more willing to accept that sometimes what they study does not have immediate, instant relevance for the 20th century. They study medieval history not just in order to find the seeds of the modern taking root and then sprouting; they are willing to highlight those areas of disconnect between modern and medieval, in order to allow individuals living today to understand just how very different, in many respects, the Middle Ages were.

Needless to say, the explosive growth of the historical profession in the ’50s and ’60s led to an outpouring of research. We can point only to a few specific books that encapsulate, in some ways, the important changes that the field of medieval studies has undergone.

This is a transcript from the video series The High Middle AgesWatch it now, on The Great Courses Plus.

R.I. Moore and Medieval Social Deviance

R.I. Moore wrote a book titled, The Formation of a Persecuting Society: Power and Deviance in Western Europe, 950-1250. This book focuses on the history of social deviants and their persecution in high medieval Europe, and it seeks to locate the origins of modern intolerance in the High Middle Ages.

Artwork depicting the massacre of Cathars.
Intolerance of all kinds, especially of the religious kind, marked medieval Europe. (Image: British Library/Public domain)

In this respect, it almost completely reverses Haskins and Strayer’s approach to medieval history. Whereas they sought to identify what they regarded as best about the modern world in the Middle Ages, Moore does the opposite. He seeks to find the roots of what is worse about the modern world in the medieval past.

Learn more about the Medieval Inquisitions.

Medieval Women and Religious Practices

Equally worthy of mention is Holy Feast, Holy Fast: The Religious Significance of Food to Medieval Women by Caroline Walker Bynum, who is one of the most famous medieval historians working today. Walker Bynum has gone to the history of female ascetics, female saints who were famous for their sometimes gruesome practices, their self-mortification, their starvation, their eating of the pus that oozed from the sores on their emaciated bodies, but she is not studying these practices in order to shock readers.

She has decided to study these practices in order to show how they made sense within the context of the Middle Ages. She explores how, when one understands how medieval individuals regarded food, the body, and gender roles, that this behavior was not really aberrant; it was almost logical. Bynum has indeed opened up a remarkable window onto medieval mentality.

Global Understanding of History

The sea change that has taken place, that is taking place, within the field of medieval history, has had another component as well. The world has become more and more of a global village, as time and space no longer matter quite as much as they once did.

Image illustrating a battle on the frontier between Christian Europe and Islamic Spain.
More historians have shifted their focus to areas where medieval Europe met other cultures, often violently. (Image: University of Minnesota/Public domain)

As different parts of the world have become increasingly interdependent, historians have grown dissatisfied with history that examines each region of the world in isolation. Instead, historians are focusing more and more on interactions between medieval Europe and other parts of the world.

They have focused increasingly on frontier areas, those places where medieval Europe met different civilizations such as Spain, which was partly under Islamic rule during the Middle Ages; on Syria and Palestine, where the Crusaders’ states were surrounded by a much larger Turkish and Arab population; on Eastern Europe, where Germans and Slavs were living side-by-side; or on the Anglo-Norman Celtic frontiers, in Wales and Scotland, and Ireland.

Learn more about the demography and the commercial revolution of the High Middle Ages.

Medieval Frontier History

When Haskins and Strayer worked, they tended to focus on two geographic regions in particular: southern England and northern France. This was because those were the seats of royal government, and they were mostly interested in the functioning of royal governments. That once-firm center of gravity no longer exists, and instead, historians have poured out to the peripheries of Europe, and it is in the history of those regions that the most innovative work has been done in recent decades.

One book that marks a high point, though is hardly the end of this historiographical trend, is Robert Bartlett’s The Making of Europe: Conquest, Colonization and Cultural Exchange, 950- 1350. In this book, Bartlett has gone to all the frontier regions of Europe: Spain, Syria, Palestine, Eastern Europe, Ireland, and Scotland, and compared how these areas differed in terms of their experiences of conquest and colonization.

It is a remarkable tour de force, and this emphasis on frontier regions has also affected how we study internal developments in medieval Europe. More and more historians look for those changes that would allow Europe to become a conqueror and a colonizer during the High Middle Ages.

Now that you know about how 20th-century historians have written about medieval history, perhaps you have an even sharper understanding that courses on medieval history are made, not found. Historians cannot afford to close their minds to any field of historical endeavor because our understanding of any one aspect of medieval history depends on our understanding of the whole.

Common Questions about The Frontiers of Medieval History

Q. What was ‘trial by ordeal’ in the Medieval Age?

In medieval times, ‘trial by ordeal’ was a way of the judging of the truth or falsity of someone’s statement by having that person plunge his or her hand into a kettle of boiling water and seeing if it healed in a few days.

Q. What does R.I. Moore focus on in The Formation of a Persecuting Society?

R.I. Moore’s The Formation of a Persecuting Society focuses on the history of social deviants and their persecution in high medieval Europe, and it seeks to locate the origins of modern intolerance in the High Middle Ages. Moore seeks to find the roots of what is worse about the modern world in the medieval past.

Q. What does Caroline Walker Bynum talk about in her book Holy Feast, Holy Fast?

Caroline Walker Bynum has gone to the history of female ascetics, female saints who were famous for their sometimes gruesome practices, their self-mortification, their starvation, their eating of the pus that oozed from the sores on their emaciated bodies. She explores how, when one understands how medieval individuals regarded food, the body, and gender roles, that this behavior was not really aberrant; it was almost logical.

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