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Reviewed by:
  • What is Medieval History?
  • Kathleen Neal
Arnold, John H., What is Medieval History? Cambridge, Polity Press, 2008; paperback; pp. ix, 155; 4 b/w illustrations; R.R.P. US$19.95; ISBN 9780745639338.

In an unassuming form, John Arnold has produced an engaging and insightful manifesto for medieval studies, and it makes unexpectedly gripping reading. Like an airport thriller, the action begins in line one with the interrogation of Bartolomeo, a priest, his torture and the revelation of a magical plot to assassinate the pope. But this is not Dan Brown, and even as he tells the tale, Arnold is already picking it apart, showing how the fabric of the historical record can seem to uphold the popular image of 'the medieval' while simultaneously challenging both it, and its implicit separation from 'the modern'. Indeed, the problem of what exactly 'medieval' means – how it developed as a concept, how this continues to affect the way we think about it, and the problems this presents – is one of his consistent themes.

Although there is medieval history in this book, it is principally about doing medieval history. Inherited frameworks for understanding and undertaking medieval history are the focus of the first chapter. Arnold's historiographical observations are brief, but have a fierce clarity. He examines the development of the discipline, chiefly in Britain, Europe and America, observing both the common threads and the subtleties that distinguish 'national' approaches. Conscious awareness of this texture of the discipline is important both in reading the work of others, and in framing our own, and this concise summary will be especially appreciated by senior students.

In the next section, Arnold turns his attention to practical matters. What exactly are the archives or sources to be used? How and where did they survive or come to be collected? What skills are required to engage with them? He addresses himself to students who may be unfamiliar with the answers to these questions, but in fact it remains important to reflect on these issues irrespective of your experience in the field. The practicalities of archive survival, for example, directly affect the uses to which the materials can be put and the assumptions that can be made about them.

In the third chapter, the interdisciplinary nature of medieval studies is explored and celebrated. The fruitful contributions of anthropology, archaeology, art history, economic history and cultural theory to the foundational academic model of enquiry based on archives of primary sources are discussed in enough detail to reveal the important broadening influence they have exerted. [End Page 185] There are also some insightful – and gently humorous – observations about the tendencies of the disciplines to be suspicious of each other and even (wilfully?) to misunderstand. Arnold's amusement, and ours, is directed at showing how silly and counterproductive such academic 'towers' can be. He cautions, however, against uncritical adoption of methods that may have been designed for purposes very different from one's own. For example, while applauding the usefulness of economic approaches in distilling rich social information from account books, he notes the tendency for graphs and other 'scientific' presentations of information to appear factual and static, when in fact the history they reflect is just as fluid and partial (in both senses) as any that can be gleaned from a chronicle or literary text. He never argues that this means other methods should be shunned, but only that every academic action should be taken consciously.

In the final part, Arnold faces the issue of why we do medieval history at all. He responds to a tradesman's query – 'Much call for that, is there?' (p. 119) – by arguing for the possibility of medieval history as a 'craft', performed to order with an artisan's care and skill. But 'to what ends?' (p. 120) he asks himself. His answer is constructed as a set of challenges to practitioners, but it is really a call to arms. Doing medieval history, as he notes earlier in Chapter 1, 'has been and will always be a political act' (p. 22). This book is about being conscious of that fact, and coming to informed decisions about how to work in the field. There could...


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pp. 185-186
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