Interview with Stephen Harris and Bryon L. Grigsby

For any medieval scholar, this Misconceptions About the Middle Ages is a welcome addition to the bookshelf.  It is an attempt by historians to correct the many modern misrepresentations about the medieval period, with over thrity essays covering a wide range of topics, including the church, daily life, science, art and warfare.  We interviewed the editors, Stephen Harris, Assistant Professor at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, and Bryon L. Grigsby, senior vice president and vice president for academic affairs at Shenandoah University, about this book.

1.  While I think many first year medieval history lecturers will say this book is long overdue, I was wondering how you came up with the idea of developing this project?

It started on-line in an academic discussion list. It was coming on the end of the semester, and people were talking about typical student mistakes, as teachers do. Then, the discussion became serious. We all agreed that a book or website about student misconceptions would be very helpful. List members offered ideas about topics. And after some humming and hawing, Bryon and I volunteered to put it all together. Some list members volunteered to write something up, and the project was born. It was a communal effort.

2. In the media today, one can come across references to people living in a ‘medieval society’ or ‘back in the Middle Ages’ and they are always make these statements as a type of negative comment.  Why do you think that despite decades of ever improving scholarship, many (if not most) people still view the medieval world as a kind of backwards age?

There are a number of reasons. Some are that we can feel better about ourselves if we treat our ancestors like fools. We also like to associate ourselves to the Renaissance or Enlightenment, not the Middle Ages.  So as our society changes, our understanding of the Middle Ages, and consequently, the misconceptions continue. Also, we mistake scientific progress for moral and social progress–as if a better toaster makes a better world. As to what most people think, I don’t know why the stereotypes continue. Maybe they’re useful as ammunition in current arguments. Maybe most people have more immediate problems to worry about. Or maybe we teach the story of human history as if we were progressing, starting out like children and maturing over the centuries. For my money, I’d put Thomas Aquinas up against Jackass: The Movie any day.

3. The essays you included in this work cover a wide range of topics. How did you to work towards finding the right essays to place in this book, and were there any topics that you would have liked to cover if you could?

It wasn’t easy. We collected a lot of ideas, which was good and bad. It was good because it gave us more options. But it was bad because we realized how many misconceptions there really were. And that was a little depressing! We read a lot of on-line syllabi from teachers and professors around the country. Then, we picked the misconceptions that we thought were most common in the classroom. We still have a long list of misconceptions, and I can guarantee that five minutes with any teacher will add to it.

4. Do you think this book would be useful as a textbook for university and college students, and how might you use it in a teaching capacity?

I do.  I think it is especially useful for introductory classes, including Western Civilization courses but can also serve the more advanced student in an upper class medieval literature or history class. It confounds the stereotype of the Middle Ages that you mentioned earlier. And it illustrates how complicated life was back then, with its competing viewpoints and cultural tensions and different priorities. We’ve arranged the book so that it also illustrates how to go about doing research. Students can see how to start with a general topic, like medieval warfare, and get into the thick of scholarship quickly and accurately. We tried to make the book useful both for its content and its method.

5. In your introduction, you discuss how “recent, major developments in medieval scholarship” (pages 2-4) have made an impact on what we know about the Middle Ages. Could you give us a short comment on these developments?

As I note in the Introduction, one of the most important advances has been technological. Thanks to the internet, more people have access to the primary sources than ever before. And with digitization projects like Google Books, whole libraries are suddenly at our fingertips. Another advance stems from the expansion of college education, which means more professors, bigger libraries, more research, and so on. In short, we have more people peering into the darkest corners of the Dark Ages than ever before. And of course, all of these technologies are available to students in high school and grade school, too. This means that teachers have greater opportunities to get students involved in the primary sources. The downside is that without good guidance from teachers familiar with secondary material, students are likely to make the same mistakes scholars have spent generations correcting.

 We thank both Stephen Harris and Bryon Grigsby for their answers.

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