Myths and Mysteries of the Middle Ages (2018)
In 1478, officials in Berne, Switzerland, summoned an infestation of beetles to appear before the bishop in a formal judicial proceeding to explain the damage they were doing to local grain yields. Unaccountably, the beetles failed to appear, though the bishop later said that he had heard their “vicious and abominable answer” and failed to be persuaded by it. Nor were the beetles alone in the dock: throughout the medieval and Renaissance periods, animals were arraigned and even executed on a variety of different charges. Human motives and emotions were often attributed to the defendants; so also were factors regarded as exculpatory, as in 1457 when seven piglets, condemned to death with their mother because of a violent attack on a local boy, were “let off” because of their youth and inexperience. At times, animal defendants even had counsel to represent them in court, such as the advocate who in 1713 contrasted the industry of his termite clients favorably with the laziness of the monks who were prosecuting them.
Cases like these inevitably excite our curiosity, as do tales of lost treasure, vanished civilizations and intriguing personalities like Robin Hood and Arthur. It may not be the case that everybody loves a mystery, but most of us do, and one of the main goals of this class is to allow students to explore certain perennially “cool” subjects like druids, bog bodies, the Picts, the Templars, the Shroud of Turin, and more. We will read medieval ghost stories and talk about the origins of Halloween, consider the writings of long-vanished Christian communities, and contemplate the manner in which modern concerns about gender have reshaped our understanding of figures like Joan of Arc. We will look as well at modern mythmakers like J.R.R. Tolkien, who used medieval tales and images as the basis for stories designed to speak directly to twentieth-century concerns. And at the end of the class, we will apply the critical methodologies we have learned in the course to Dan Brown’s best-seller The Da Vinci Code and consider the nature of its appeal to contemporary audiences.
However, while fun subjects like these will form the backbone of the course, there is a more serious purpose to it. I have chosen to organize the class around a series of individuals, groups and events that pose problems for historians either because of the nature or scarcity of the evidence about them, or because the world view in which they are grounded is one that we no longer share. My intent in this course is not to provide students with a narrative account of the middle ages but, rather, to introduce students to some of the practical, philosophical, and ethical basics of how we as modern persons think about and make use of the past. In many ways, this is a course about "fake (historical) news" and how we can learn to recognize and counter it. How do historians distinguish fact from fiction, for example, particularly in cases like the Templars or Arthur, where the stories that have grown up around the originals have taken on a life of their own, obscuring from view what can actually be known about them? What happens when sources contradict one another, or are so blatantly partisan as to call their reliability into question? How do modern perspectives and priorities influence the way historians perceive the past, and what does it mean for history to “change” from one generation to another? These are the types of issues that will constitute the real “meat” of our course, and it is my hope that students will leave captivated and intrigued not only by the subjects that brought them into the course, but by the discipline of history itself.
Two 2-page micro-essays with mandatory rough drafts, graded on standard UW scale and peer-reviewed: 20% each
Midterm and final exam (each covering half the course), graded on standard UW scale: 15% and 20% respectively
Four 1-paragraph reflections on reading, graded by percentage completed rather than content: 5%
Bluebook of in-class lecture responses, graded by percentage completed rather than content: 5%
Participation in section and/or lecture: 15%
Josephine Tey, The Daughter of Time (NOTE: to be read for Friday discussion week one)
Karen King, The Gospel of Mary of Magdala
Andrew Joynes, Medieval Ghost Stories
James J. Wilhelm, The Romance of Arthur
Judith Bennett, Cecilia Penifader: A Medieval Life