Use and Misuse of the Middle Ages


Even today, the Middle Ages continue to be misused for political or ideological ends in some countries; vigilance remains necessary. The scholarly community needs to orientate itself towards the dialogue with the general public and work to ensure that its voice remains heard. Misleading or fantastical pictures of an imagined Middle Ages need to be confronted with the results of solid research. There is a danger that the faculty of historical judgment and with it cultural memory will be lost; the need for a comprehensive scientific engagement with history is today particularly pressing. Once already, during the course of the 19th century, romantic conceptions of the Middle Ages, to which many renowned historians contributed, took on a life of their own to underpin aggressive nationalist and authoritarian ideologies. As much as a wide public interest in history is to be welcomed, it is only through the constant scientific engagement of professionals that misuse and arbitrariness in dealing with history can be countered.

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The medieval research tradition should, of course, at the same time bear in mind its own history, having too often in the past been knowingly or unwittingly complicit in ideological distortions. Interest in the Middle Ages fed for a long time on romantic conceptions, which were often tied in with anti-modern tendencies. A period in which authority was accepted without question, in which everybody had their place in uncomplicated environments and where faith offered answers to all questions appeared to be an attractive antithesis to modernisation. Many historians provided material to support this image, the consequences of which were reactionary, corporate statist ideologies. Those national movements that sought the origins and justification of their aggressive ideologies in the Middle Ages or specifically in the migration period were even more dangerous. Whereas the Germanic peoples had to serve as brave, noble ancestors and role models in Germany, they provided the image of the brutal enemy in France and Italy. The history of the discipline is certainly not immune from such tendencies, which were often argued with great conviction in contradiction of the sources. No historian is free from contemporary biases; what is important, is that one is open about the restrictedness/ conditionality contingency of his or her interest in history. The Institute for Medieval Research is seeking to meet this challenge.