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Magna Carta: Teaching Medieval Topics for Historical Significance

Magna Carta: Teaching Medieval Topics for Historical Significance

By Scott Alan Metzger

The History Teacher, Volume 43:3 (2010)

Introduction: The Middle Ages are an immensely important era in the Western experience. The thousand years from the “late Antique” period after the fall of Rome through the growth of the Italian Renaissance and the final collapse of Constantinople in the fifteenth century saw the emergence of social, cultural, political, and economic forces that directly shaped the modern world—the Christian Church, notions of international law and rules of war, transcontinental trade, representative councils, and nationstates. Unfortunately, medieval studies are often marginalized or trivialized in school curriculum. World history is not always a distinct, required subject, and as a result, only a smattering of medieval topics get covered in “World Cultures” or “global Studies” classes during units on europe. even where world history does get its own course, sometimes in the rush to get to modern history, the Middle Ages can be glossed over. As a result, the whole medieval era is sometimes dismissed as “dark Ages” without relevance to our world today.

Still, the medieval era continues to fascinate millions of people. Consider the popularity of medieval-themed movies like Braveheart and Kingdom of Heaven, video games like Medieval Total War and Assassin’s Creed, and numerous fiction novels about the Knights-Templar. This popularity is a double-edged sword. it means that for all the talk about how kids find history “boring” in school, clearly a lot of them are interested in medieval subjects. But, it also means that in quite a few classrooms, medieval studies get reduced to simplified claims, colorful stories, and disconnected activities. Perennial favorites include drawing castles or cathedrals, looking at weapons and armor, and reading about crusades, plagues, and how generally miserable medieval life must have been. it is not that any of these is unimportant or could not be done well, but often missing are considerations of broader historical significance that stress how the medieval experience connects to wider historical development.

With the approach of the 800th anniversary of Magna Carta, the famous charter of rights from medieval england, we have a timely and useful example for considering what a focus on historical significance could look like. This rebellious document abrogated by the english king not long after it was signed represents broader significant issues in the Western experience with connections long after 1215. We gain a better understanding of its historical significance by looking at chronology, context, causation, and contingency. This historically rich way of looking at Magna Carta demonstrates how school curriculum can more meaningfully incorporate medieval studies.

Click here to read this article from the Society for History Education

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