Medieval Germany in America

Medieval Germany in America

By Patrick J. Geary

German Historical Institute Annual Lecture (1995)

18th century map of germany

Introduction: Do Americans have anything to learn from the history of Germany in the Middle Ages? If one looks to the professional study of history in America for an answer, it would appear that for American medievalists, the answer is ―very little.‖ According to the American Historical Association‘s membership records, there are today some 928 historians in the United States who indicate that their primary area of research and teaching is medieval history. Of this number, only 14, or 1.5 percent, consider Germany their primary area of research. However, these statistics are misleading. The number of American medieval historians who are actively engaged in research and publishing in medieval German history is actually much smaller. I would estimate that there are probably not more than a half-dozen. At American universities, the history of Germany prior to the Reformation holds almost no place in the educational curriculum. Within American society at large, when sociologists, political scientists, and humanists examine the distant past of our modem society, they look to England and France to understand the world from which America sprang. When they explore parallels and patterns in traditional Europe, they likewise avoid German-speaking lands almost entirely. Moreover, when Americans look for models of how to study this deep past of our common heritage, few if any rely on the centuries-old tradition of German historical studies but rather turn almost exclusively to the English and French historical traditions. This situation is beginning to change, thanks to patient work on both sides of the Atlantic. Yet how this situation came to be says much, not only about medieval Germany in America but about the at times tortured relationship between German and American intellectual traditions during the past century.

This lack of interest in medieval Germany stands in sharp contrast to the state of historical studies a century ago. Medieval German history and German scholarship played a major role in the creation of modem historical studies in this country in the second half of the nineteenth century. For the first generations of scholars of historical studies, German history was deemed an essential part of the training, not only of medievalists but of all historians. No better qualifications could be imagined than to have studied in the great medieval seminars of Germany or to have been a Mitarbeiter (fellow) with the Monumenta Germaniae Historica, the great center of medieval German history. The founders of the professional study of history in America had largely been trained in Leipzig, Berlin, and Heidelberg, and the twin German disciplines of medieval history and philology were particularly significant in this process, first at the University of Michigan and Harvard University, then especially at Johns Hopkins University‘s Seminar in History and Politics, which is widely considered to be the founding institution of the professional study of history in this country. Although not primarily medievalists, these scholars had learned the historian‘s craft in seminars dedicated to medieval Germany, and they brought both the method and the subject home with them.

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