Learning the middle ages

I pulled this old article by James Palmer out of my bookmarks last night. I’ve found my interests wandering lately from the Middle Ages to the American West.

Don’t know why that is. If I had wanted to do western history, my parents were total geeks. I was mysteriously attracted more to medieval stuff, and now I’ve been doing it for 50 years or more.

So, I’m asking myself, “why study the Medieval world?” I’ve been particularly interested in the processes of ethnogenesis and group identity.

Palmer teaches a course called Power and Identity after Rome. He says, “This is a good topic to get students into. Arm them with some ‘origin legends’, some medieval historical writing, and a bit of archaeology, and get them to assess the relative merits of the two sides. Students can quickly find themselves developing critical skills to form cogent arguments on the basis of fragmentary evidence, while working on the ability to make independent judgements. Plus they are engaged in a current debate while doing so, namely what it means for an individual or group to invent, develop or appropriate a particular identity label.

Does talking about how to learn medieval history seem off-topic for a post about my wandering interests? It’s not. There’s an intimate connection between how you learn and what you learn.

Palmer continues, “Exploring the past is often to enter an intellectual gymnasium. It is a place to practice critical and analytical skills, while one learns to be forensic in one’s approach to information and the construction of arguments. It is a place in which the imagination can be used and trained. Hopefully my students can take the skills they develop and do interesting things with them.

This, I think, is why this Palmer article interests me. History is an intellectual exercise. It’s hard. It’s work. It requires discipline and reading and thinking. I’ve wandered away from the world where there are people with an academic interest. The people I know are having fun with wild, crazy, way out stuff. Many of them, genealogists included, want to play modern fantasy with some medieval color.

So, the American West is the more grounded option right now. And, I’m learning something from it. I always thought it was like a fish trying to study water. For someone embedded in the American West it’s hard to get distance. I’m learning, though, that the modern West is not the Old West. I’ve missed out here, assuming I already know. More on that later.

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