The heroic knight slays the dragon and rescues the damsel from the tower of a gray castle, ultimately winning her heart and the rule of the kingdom. This is Medieval history, as Americans have come to know it, in a nutshell: a world of fantasy and action thanks to Hollywood’s portrayals of the period. Could anything good come out of the study of medieval history that doesn’t involve Heath Ledger or Sean Connery vying for the part of the leading man?
A team of researchers at Queens University in Belfast are attempting to prove that, yes, medieval studies do have an integral role in the world today. In 2002, they received a grant for nearly a half million dollars from Britain’s Arts and Humanities Research Board, the American equivalent of the National Endowment for the Humanities,to study origins of British myths of identity through medieval texts.
[imagine]The project called “Imagining History” began in September 2002 and will be funded over a three-year period. Researchers are closely examining the Brut, a popular Middle English prose chronicling the foundation of what is now Britain. It derives its name from Brutus, a Trojan prince and conqueror, whom Britain was named after. The Brut also accounts for subsequent reigns of King Lear and Arthur, two of the most familiar figures of medieval times.
The group believes the “English Brut tradition” has current relevance in the histiography of Scotland, England and Ireland. “By having a tradition of colonial activities recorded in texts like the Brut, the English could continue to legitimate this or the other political and military campaign in the later Middle Ages,” said Stephen Kelly, co-founder of the project.
The project got the name “Imagining History” from a platter of theories on the discourse of history. One American Palestinian scholar Edward Said theorized that we construct history to consolidate our sense of identity and to reaffirm Otherness. Hayden White has argued that history uses the same strategies that fiction also encompasses.
“History is not so much about truth as about what we imagine to be the truth,” said Kelly. “What we imagine is shaped through our ideological, religious and political affiliations, as demonstrated in the last 30 years of Irish history.”
Back when the Brut was conceived, medieval writers had a different sense of history than current historians do. Researchers at the university are careful to consider the ways in which both medieval writers and they themselves construct history.
Scholars of medieval study have almost universally overlooked the Brut, even though more copies of the Brut exist than any other works from this period, excluding the Wycliffte Bible. Kelly attributed the lack of interest to the text not being “engaging” to literary researchers or historians. Also, the amount of work needed to complete the examination of the 181 surviving manuscripts can be overwhelming to scholars as well.
Each manuscript is being studied using microfilm of the original text, which is enlarged and cleaned-up by researchers. They have discovered marginal notes in many of the manuscripts, which lead researchers to believe the works have been used as a way of tracing ancestral roots.
“Our studies reveal that people have always been concerned about who they are and how they came to attach themselves to one tribe or another,” said Kelly and fellow co-founder Jason O’Rourke in a press release in June of 2003. “The research gives us pause to reflect on the situation here in Northern Ireland where issues of cultural identity are at the root of our recent troubled history.”
Researchers aim to recover the text and use it to examine the interrelation between ideologies and loyalties. They also hope to develop cultural mapping, which will allow other scholars to access a database of information about the Brut for their own research. In order to accomplish this, they are tracking the roots of each text and following how it has passed through generations and locations. It isn’t so much what the text says that researchers are interested in but also the ways in which the actual manuscripts have been used and passed on.
In recent years, the discipline of medieval studies in a university setting has been the center of a fiery debate, propelled by comments made by Britain’s Education Secretary Charles Clarke. “I don’t mind there being some medievalists around for ornamental purposes, but there is no reason for the state to pay for them,” The Daily Telegraph reported Clarke as allegedly telling a gathering at University College, Worcester in 2003.
After attacks from the medieval community, Clarke wrote a letter to the Opinion page of the Telegraph, saying his quotations were taken out of context. He said he was in no way attacking medievalists themselves but instead the “medieval concept” of a university as a community of scholars, which, in his mind, does not justify financial support without a wider sociological and economical role.
“His views on medievalists are further evidence of his government’s utilitarian notion of education,” Kelly said. Informed by what Kelly calls the Reaganite-Thatcherite social philosophies “…the Blair government is committed to turning universities into factories churning out workers for so-called ‘knowledge economies’.”
Recent studies done by Manchester Metropolitan University found that more directors of top companies earned a history degree than any other credential in the U.K.
“Classical and medieval history turn out people with super brains and the employer can be happy that someone has stretched themselves,” said Ruth Lea, head of the policy unit at the Institute of Directors in The Sunday Times last month.
Even more than just developing and catering to skills, historical studies have a place in society today, says Kelly. “As the Bush government conducts its benign colonial adventure in the Middle East, the lessons of history have never been more important.”

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