Why the Middle Ages Mean So Much for Us Today and Tomorrow

Chronicon Pictum

The Challenges of the Humanities, Past, Present, and Future: Why the Middle Ages Mean So Much for Us Today and Tomorrow

Albrecht Classen

Humanities, Vol.3:1 (2014)

Chronicon Pictum


Every generation faces the same challenge, to engage with the past and to cope with the present, while building its future. However, the questions and problems inherent in human life remain the same. It is a given that our society can only progress if we work toward handling ever newly rising demands in appropriate ways based on what we know and understand in practical and theoretical terms; but the drumming toward the future cannot be a one-way street. Instead, we have to operate with a Janus-faced strategy, with one eye kept toward tomorrow, and the other eye toward yesterday. Culture is, however we want to define it, always a composite of many different elements. Here I argue that if one takes out the past as the foundation of culture, one endangers the further development of culture at large and becomes victim of an overarching and controlling master narrative. This article does not insist on the past being the absolute conditio sine qua non in all our activities, but it suggests that the metaphorical ship of our cultural existence will not operate successfully without an anchor, the past. I will illustrate this claim with reference to some examples from medieval literature, philosophy, and religion as they potentially impact our present in multiple fashions.


One of the critical questions which medievalists face above all pertains to the foundation of their own discipline and its relevance in the modern world. By the same token, of course, many other cultural historians, to cast the net as widely as possible, find themselves in the same boat because as time moves on, each new generation turns away from the past in order to find its own path toward the future. When I studied history in the late 1970s and 1980s, I met many peers for whom 1789, or the French Revolution, was the absolutely earliest starting point of anything having any relevance for us today. I am afraid that this time limit has moved by now up to 1945, or to the end of the Second World War. And we will have to wait only a few years until the next generation might use 1989, the fall of the Berlin Wall, or the Iraq War since 2003 (until 2011) as the exclusively relevant marker for their own historical time frame. In other words, the issue is highly relative and fluent, yet the basic concern never changes and needs to be addressed constantly again because the importance of past ideas for the present does not go away, except that the attention and interest by the present generation is fading. Literature departments at North American universities tend not to shy away from cutting positions located in the premodern world, and replacing them with new ones dealing with film, minority literature, immigration issues, or business and marketing strategies. The situation, unfortunately, might be even worse in the U.K., in the southern European countries, and probably also in the northern countries. I cannot address the case of Asian, African, South-American, or Australian countries.

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