Concerning Mediaevalism

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Reader Zinemin asks an excellent question:

What was it like to study mediaeval history? How did studying Physics and studying mediaeval history compare? Which did you enjoy more and why?

Zinemin is of course referring to the fact that I have a seldom-mentioned BA in mediaeval history, in addition to my degree in physics. I don’t talk about mediaevalism nearly as much, for two principle reasons: (1) I have been doing physics pretty much full-time for the past two-and-a-half years, and (2) the middle ages simply don’t surround me all of the time in the same way that the laws of physics do. I am therefore grateful for the chance to discuss this subject.

As to the meat of the question: since I was only enlisted in the three-year degree program, I didn’t get to undertake any original research*, and thus my only experience comes from the classes themselves. My experience studying mediaeval history was therefore something that depended heavily upon which professor happened to be teaching it; during the first year of my undergrad, I had an absolutely horrible professor who lectured straight out of the textbook and assigned no fewer than eight lengthy essays during the course of the year, the guidelines for which were unpardonably vague**, and most of which were based around lengthy, melodramatic and self-pitying religious texts. She was also a devout Catholic and tended to go out of her way in order to present her church in as good of a light as possible***.  While I didn’t swear-off the study of the middle ages after I finished her class (A- average, in case you were wondering), it was not something about which I could work up much enthusiasm.

That lasted about a year, until my best friend from High School invited me to take a survey course on Islamic History with him over the summer; I wanted to spend time with him, so I accepted. That same summer, I also enrolled in a course in the history of Western Esotericism (which didn’t actually count as a history credit, although it probably should have****), solely out of personal interest. The Islamic History course was alright: I felt I learned alot (like for example, did you know that a major cause of the decline of the Ottoman Empire was New World silver flooding Europe after Spain conquered the Aztecs? Now you know), although the professor was a great believer in rote learning; he also seemed to be of the impression that my friend and I were lovers, and would shoot us ‘knowing’ glances whenever he mentioned, for example, that Sultan Mehmed II was probably bisexual. The Esotericism course, on the other hand, was absolutely amazing! There is so little of value written about this subject that finally having a chance to approach it from a scholarly perspective was absolutely illuminating. And to think, just how many of these documents are just sitting there, untranslated, gathering dust on shelves in libraries in Europe for no other reason than post-Enlightenment presentism! It was also there that I learned that what I really loved was the history of ideas–even the false ones. It’s quite amazing to watch them grow and change over time.

In any case, by the end of the summer, it occured to me (going through my course calendar) that I had actually by that point accrued enough credits in history that it would be a trifling matter for me to declare a second major (in addition to my pre-existing one in physics) and get another degree. So I did that.

Unfortunately, my University’s history department was chronically understocked with mediaevalists (a large influx of Marxist faculty members during the 1970s and ’80s had to some extent created a culture antipathetic towards the era) so getting the remaining courses I would need proved to be something of a challenge. Still in fourth year, I was able to find an art history course (which I quite enjoyed: my final paper was on illuminated manuscripts, with which I fell hopelessly in love), a course on science during the middle ages (which I also quite enjoyed if for no other reason than that it helped to give me perspective on everything that I had learned during my scientific education, and which overlapped fairly significantly with the previous course on esotericism) and a course on the Crusades, which sadly had to be cancelled due to the professor becoming pregnant, and no one else being capable of teaching it: I took my case to the head of the department, who agreed to let me take History of Modern Business Enterprise instead, provided that I wrote all of my essays on ‘Mediaeval subjects.’ That course, I’m sorry to say, was absolutely horrifically boring (I did my essays on the Hanseatic League and the Champagne Fair), but at least I had the satisfaction of knowing that I easily did much, much better in it than all of the humourless and prepily-dressed Business Administration majors whop were taking it for their Humanities credit. The final course that I took in history was, by necessity, a first-year course with no relation at all to the European middle ages, so I shall not bother to discuss it here.

As to how history and physics compared (and more particularly, which one I enjoyed more) that largely depended upon my mood. Studying history gave me this wonderful feeling that the past, made up as it was of innumerable worlds now vanished, was somehow still sitting there, lurking just outside of reach; like I could practically touch the textiles being carried to market by Italian merchants, or feel the fires in an old stone monastery keeping the monks warm. Physics, on the other hand, came with its own joys: the greatest of which is that indefinable feeling of flight that you experience when you see some natural phenomenon, realize that you can explain it in terms of physics, and come away with the feeling that the universe is fundamentally a rational and aesthetically beautiful sort of a place.

So which did I enjoy more? It was a bit of a toss-up at the time, honestly. Perhaps some of that was vainglory; perhaps I felt that physics was the one I was supposed to prefer and that’s why I ended-up doing it. I’m not entirely certain.

All that I know is that, right now, after having spent two and a half years doing nothing but physics, I aminclined to say that I prefer history; but that may just be because anything that isn’t physics presently seems preferable if only for its novelty.


*Not, mind you, that undergraduates usually get to undertake original research in this field regardless of their degree program, since of course reading mediaeval documents usually requires a high degree of knowledge of archaic languages. I do know some Latin, but it’s all Ciceronian and trying to read mediaeval documents knowing only Cicero would be roughly equivalent to trying to read modern English documents knowing only Shakespeare.

**Indeed, at the time I recall describing the writing of such things as being like a brutal interrogation by someone who doesn’t speak English: you want desperately to tell them what they want to know but you just have no idea what that is.

***At one point, she actually said that she had difficulty understanding how someone as smart as Saint Augustine could have been taken-in by the obvious falsehoods of Manichaeanism. I was too young and naive about the proper role of students to ask her how, exactly, Manichaean doctrine was objectively more ridiculous than Christian doctrine.

****The problem was that the head the history department at the time was an expert in 19th century America, and he took umbrage at the fact that the course syllabus didn’t mention the anti-Masonic movement–even though it was completely tangential to the main thrust of the course.


About thevenerablecorvex

I have the heart of a poet, the brain of a theoretical physicist, and the wingspan of an albatross. I am also notable for my humility.
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4 Responses to Concerning Mediaevalism

  1. zinemin says:

    Thank you so much for answering and for this great description! It does sound fascinating. I am jealous of you that you had to chance to do both… When I was a child I wanted to become either an archaeologist or astronomer. I have always felt extremely happy walking through ruins and, as you say, feeling that there is a lost world there just out of reach. Maybe I should get another degree too… 🙂 For example, I would love a class on Islamic history. I know way too little about this.

  2. n8chz says:

    You, my friend, are a Renaissance woman.

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