Medieval Baltimore: Using American Medievalism to Teach about the European Middle Ages
Imago Temporis: Medium Aevum, No.6 (2012)
Although the Middle Ages is present and alive in popular culture, for instance in movies or other forms of entertainment such as reenactments or computer games, teaching its history at college level still requires an exercise of the imagination. The research on history learning in American contexts clearly suggests it: we need to find ways to make the study of the medieval past more locally rooted in order to create a necessary level of familiarity; at the same time, we need to keep it intellectually engaging and open to visions of diversity. The article describes the experience of teaching undergraduate college students the history of Medieval Europe through individual research projects using the city of Baltimore (USA), its buildings, monuments, museums, and the professional medievalists working and residing in the area. The students collaborate in a web-based project with texts and multimedia objects, thus building a repository of the knowledge they have acquired through their research projects about the urban landscape of this American city and its social history, and about the Middle Ages as an object of history but also of cultivated memory, creative inspiration and esthetic appreciation in contemporary America.
In truth, the term ‘Middle Ages’ has no more than a humble pedagogical function, as a debatable convenience for school curriculums, or as a label for erudite techniques whose scope is moreover ill-defined by the traditional dates. ~ Marc Bloch, The Historian’s Craft.
To introduce college and university students to the study of the Middle Ages is a complex, uncertain task. One of the main difficulties derives perhaps from our scarce knowledge about how adult students today learn history. For instance, we do not know for certain which modes of communication are successful in exploring and building familiarity with the pre-modern past. Such familiarity can be defined as “an ability to recognize and situate a substantial common store of references about a consensually shared past”. Many scholars and teachers have expressed concerns about a current erosion of this familiarity. Without it, they argue, the difficulty of learning history increases at all levels of the curriculum, because a common ground and basic factual or chronological orientation are lacking.
As the events, protagonists and developments of the historical period we call the Middle Ages take the character of arcane lore for our college students, we see the very resilience of popular images of “the Middle Ages.” Those images are present and persistent in today’s changing public sphere. They are embodied in the world of digital fantasy games and entertainment, in movies, as well as in popular practices of reenactment and performance self-classified as “medievalish”. Politicians cultivate new uses for the ever-present adjective “medieval”. Occasionally, those images emerge in the classroom. As such, they can and have been used in teaching, mostly taken as by-products of the “pedagogical device” that the Middle Ages has not ceased to be.
How could the latter direction become, for undergraduate students, more systematic and more productive as a learning mode? Such was my point of departure in the project I am about to present. I would like to describe here one experience of teaching the history of the Middle Ages by using concrete examples of American medievalism. “Medievalism” refers to the emergence of images and perceptions of the Middle Ages after the eighteenth century, including the works of scholars and also artistic, architectural, literary, visual and musical creations inspired by historical realities perceived as “medieval”.