The cranky, shadowy world of medievalism is in uproar at the news that Melbourne University is to drop its Viking Studies Programme. As many as seven people have tutted, quite a number of post-doctoral research fellows have mentioned it in the pub, and at least one boiled egg was very messily decapitated indeed by a Reader in Anglo-Saxon Literature at a northern Russel Group university as a result of being told the news over breakfast.
Ahem, no not really. Rather ashamed of all that actually. Medievalists and Liberal Democrats have much in common. Both are perceived as niche specialists on a hiding to nothing, our very existence seems for some reason to offend the Labour party beyond sanity, while the robustness of our collective intellect and the rigour of our method is grudgingly admired by others in the know. Most of all we share a common frontier of self-deprecating humour that sometimes makes us far too accommodating of ridicule. Mainstreamers have a go at us for being irrelevant and fail to understand that their argument is as circular as time; if a lot of people say something is irrelevant, it proves nothing more than that it is irrelevant to them.
Anyone who has studied history or something similar will have experienced at some point that strange tug towards the esoteric, the unfashionable, the full-on bizarre, some hidden corner of their subject that fascinates them out of all proportion to the amount of space it occupies in the National Curriculum. It seems that at Melbourne University, the Viking Studies programme is being dropped in spite of exceptionally healthy student numbers. Somehow that vague received wisdom that medievalism is irrelevant is enough to outweigh the on-the-ground democracy of quite a lot of people being really jolly interested, thank you very much. People are on the whole efficient with their brainpower and other resources; if a significant minority think that studying medieval history is the most important thing they could be doing with their lives, then it’s fair to say that they get a lot out of it, intellectually and personally.
History is relative. No one period of history has innately more value than any other. Not a single person born during the twelfth century is any less complex, any less deserving of study and understanding than a person alive today. No common experience – be it in the form of a shared pop culture, the self-promotion of an expansionist nation state or the song of a victorious warrior band – is inherently superior to any other. You learn as much about human beings, law, society, constitutions, institutions and ideology from studying medieval history as any other sort. Any historical studies teach you to build your own skeletal way of understanding a society. After you’ve learnt to do that, you can flesh out the skeleton an infinite number of times in any way you wish. I could take the same tools I learnt studying medieval history and use them on the French Wars of Religion without a problem. I won’t because there are far more important things I could be doing with my hair, but I could. (Oh, it’s a joke, it’s a joke. Early modernists, lay down your arquebuses)
It’s because of this total mismatch between the general received wisdom and the actual real-life relevance of medieval studies to many people that I feel the Melbourne Viking Studies course leader is being a little too understanding here. She wasn’t even consulted on her subject being axed. But decency compels her to admit that the world will go on without Viking Studies. Yes, but that isn’t the point. If we really need to slim down spending on humanities in order to boost the sciences and maintain technological progress (in itself arguable) then fine, but why is it medievalism that suffers? Shearing away subjects on the grounds of chronological distance is going to result in monohistory. This will be a real loss to education and western thought and it will happen partly because medievalists, like Liberal Democrats, are just so damn reasonable.
Medieval societies essentially faced the same problems as modern ones, as this clip demonstrates