Assumptions that strangle students’ understanding of the Middle Ages
This is Discussion 1 in a series laying the groundwork for the later stages of this ETMH project. It overlaps and can be read in conjunction with the article on students’ preconceptions in the HA publication Exploring and Teaching Medieval History.
The Deficit Mindset
I have a logical, scientific mind because I live in the modern world
You had a sincere belief in your religion because you lived in the early modern world
They were superstitious because they lived in the Middle Ages.
These lines attempt to sum up how we generalise negatively about the Middle Ages and how easily we assume that everything is so different and so much more superior today. This deficit model of thinking – assessing medieval society and people by how far they appear to fall short of life today – seems to be at the heart of many negative preconceptions about the period. There’s nothing new in this – people have taken comfort from looking down on the Middle Ages for centuries – but, despite the alternative perspectives provided by historians’ research, our culture continues to condescend to and underestimate the people of the Middle Ages, creating negative interpretations students pick up from films, computer games, TV comedy etc.
The central assumption made about the people of the period is that they were less intelligent than ourselves. Initial findings from the research Jason Todd has been undertaking suggest that at least 90% of over 700 students surveyed see the people of the Middle Ages as less intelligent than ourselves. It’s obvious, isn’t it – they didn’t have mobile phones, electricity, etc etc so they must have been less intelligent.
This means that in planning a scheme of work, whether at KS3, GCSE or at A level, we need to give due weight to identifying and challenging the preconceptions which seriously hinder students’ understanding of the period.
Some Seriously Misleading Assumptions
The list below identifies some of the misleading assumptions which undermine students’ capacity to understand the lives, motives and decisions of people who lived during the Middle Ages. These ideas may not be held explicitly (i.e. students may not realise they have these ideas unless asked) but the tendency to make judgements based on comparisons with today means these assumptions lurk unspoken in students’ minds – and they’ll still be there at A level if unchallenged at KS3.
A time of continuity – there was little or no change of any kind during the Middle Ages
An absence of new ideas and thought - people were almost all illiterate and uninterested in learning which contributed to an absence of new ideas
An age dominated by superstition – people were gullible, unable to apply logic or challenge what they were told by authorities so, for example, hardly anyone asked questions about religious beliefs.
People could do nothing to safeguard their health - people were fatalistic about their health, relied on magical remedies, made no attempts to clean streets and were uncaring about dirt.
Individuals, especially the nobility, were only interested in their own ambitions – people were self-centred, uninterested in the welfare of others or of communities in general.
Violence was widespread – there was general use of and acceptance of violence in everyday life with a much higher level of violence than in other periods.
Kings were able to behave like tyrants – there were no limits on the powers of monarchs who were able to behave however they wished and had no concern for the welfare of their people.
Treachery was commonplace – nobles were eager to rebel to enhance their own power and wealth and there was little concept of loyalty
People didn’t travel – and had little knowledge of the world beyond their immediate locality nor any interest in wider events.
These are all seriously misleading generalisations and I could quote any number of extracts from historians to challenge them but I’ll choose just one. I’ve used it before but it definitely stands repetition because of the respect the author shows towards the people of the Middle Ages. It’s from Dr David Crouch’s introduction to his book Medieval Britain c1000-1500 (Cambridge 2017):
‘Reading these chapters will take you back amongst the medieval people of Great Britain, and, if you’ve not met them before, I think you’ll find that they were not at all what you might expect from the use of that adjective. … [they] had a high idea of the rights of the political community of their various realms and an ability to articulate it from which we still benefit. They despised and resisted political corruption; sought true justice; hoped the best for their own lives and for their children, whom they loved; met the horrors of pandemic and disease with a fortitude that humbles us, their descendants; and pursued their own prosperity with enterprise, doggedness and originality … For all our differences, medieval people were our ancestors in thought, aspirations and manners, as much as in our genes.’
Why is Challenging these Assumptions so Important?
The assumptions listed above may seem caricatures, but they exist and feed off each other, creating a one-dimensional, utterly negative view of the medieval world. It’s important to create courses that challenge them because:
1. They are poor history. Students deserve to be introduced to a more representative, more realistic picture of the period.
2. The great medievalist, Sir Richard Southern, said ‘we learn by being puzzled and excited …’ In my experience students do learn more when they are puzzled about the behaviour or choices made by an individual or group. Puzzlement leads to interest and wanting to find answers – and reading! There’s no chance of puzzlement when students simply assume that medieval people had one-dimensional motivations i.e. they were simply greedy, ambitious or not very bright.
3. Treating the past with respect isn’t easy when there are so many references in popular culture that deride the past. If students are to build respect for the past they should start as early as possible and in secondary schools that almost always means with the Middle Ages.
4. Good answers to GCSE and A level questions need to show more complex understanding of the period than is reflected in the list of assumptions above. It is far easier for students to develop more sophisticated answers if they see the medieval world as complex and varied, its people as varyingly intelligent and principled as people today.
5. Much coverage of the period at KS3 is likely to cement rather than challenge these assumptions if taught without explicit reference to these assumptions – all those wars and rebellions, all that hardship and plague. Do students realise people ever laughed or had new ideas in the Middle Ages?
6. Giving students a more positive, intriguing and varied picture of the Middle Ages may make them more likely to approach medieval history at GCSE or A level positively or more likely to choose medieval options at university.
There are no resources at the end of this discussion which provide instant answers – those resources will come much further down the line of this project. For now, here are some thoughts on the consequences of the discussion so far:
1. When planning a course, we need to give due weight to identifying and challenging the preconceptions which strangle students’ understanding of the period. In my view, the three most important elements of planning are therefore:
a) what you want students to learn and take away from the course in term of historical knowledge and understanding of how history is studied
b) the features of those topics students are likely to struggle to understand
c) the preconceptions that students are bringing to the course about the period and its people (and about how we study history).
2. Students need to be made aware at the beginning of a course of their assumptions about the Middle Ages and that these may change during the course. For more on this see the suggestions HERE …
3. Instead of cementing deficit-model thinking – by failing to challenge ‘how far are they falling short of life today?’ assumptions – we ought to include work exploring what the people of the Middle Ages were doing successfully, what improvements they were making in their lives, what qualities they had that we can admire or were similar to our own and what ideals and principles were important to them.
4. However that last point doesn’t mean creating a heavenly glow around medieval life! Elements of the assumptions were true for some people at some times but students need to explore the variety and contrasts of the period to learn to challenge generalisations (one of the great benefits of historical study). We therefore need to help students see and understand the paradoxes of human behaviour, for example people’s ability to think logically and idealistically but also behave quite differently, driven by emotions and prejudices - or how decisions were often not based on the best choice available to an individual at the time but on the least-worst option, the one least likely to have terrible consequences.
To exemplify these last points here’s a passage from Carl Watkins’ book Stephen: The Reign of Anarchy (Penguin 2015 page 14) – exploring the situation in the late autumn of 1135 as Henry I neared death:
‘The temptation is to write these barons off as blood-soaked and on the make: looking forward, perhaps, to the moment when, on Henry’s death, restraints loosened and financial demands were stilled, and their own ambitions might be given a freer rein. And yet these men were not – for the most part – sword-wielding thugs. They were sharp political operators who were conscious that they had a great deal to lose, as well as some things to gain if, when the king died, chaos should ensue. There was no incentive for those who lived so well in the Norman house to pull it down about their ears. But here lies the rub. For running under the surface of such rational calculations were feuds with neighbours, quarrels among kin, grievances against the dead king and his old regime. Rationally – collectively – barons could surely see the virtues of order, but suppressed emotions and frustrated ambitions would have the power to generate violence when Henry died and the king’s tough love was lost.’
All this sounds very grand and complicated, impossible maybe when thinking of Y7, but I have always found it best to set out the principles and the grandiose aims and then work towards the manageable details, keeping centrally in mind that a course can’t take up more time than teachers already have, however grand the ideas! This project will be no different, especially as I’m starting with the aim of creating a different approach to medieval history at KS3, building students’ respect for the people of the period through more representative coverage of their lives.
Other issues therefore need writing up before I get to the ‘working through the detail’ stage, including issues of periodisation and building big enquiries around those issues. Next however is an exploration of teaching about individual people in the Middle Ages. The study of history is very much about real, individual people but do students learn anything that helps them understand human behaviour, then and now? What can the study of medieval people contribute to this? I’m really looking forward to writing about that!
Some Related Material on
Students’ Preconceptions and the Nature of Medieval Life
1. Articles in ETMH
(You can can download 'ETMH' in its entirety from the HA website HERE …
What would you like teachers and students to know …? – Pages 8-11 HERE …
(A series of short contributions from medievalists on either the period c1000-c1348 or c1348-c1530 – these challenge some of the preconceptions about the Middle Ages listed above)
Identifying students’ preconceptions about the Middle Ages – Pages 72-74 HERE …
How can Key Stage 3 support teaching about the Middle Ages at GCSE and A level? – Pages 75-77 HERE …
What time does the tune start? – Planning at Key Stage 3: Helping students see the bigger pictures of the Middle Ages – Pages 98-105 HERE …
2. In addition
Articles by Dr Eleanor Parker on superstition and learning in the Middle Ages and Sara Butler on the nature of violence in the Middle Ages – see ‘Gleanings August 2018’ HERE …
Stephen J Harris and Bryon L Grigsby (eds), Misconceptions about the Middle Ages, Routledge, 2008 – thirty short essays on a range of misconceptions.
For other suggestions of reading for teachers who haven’t studied the Middle Ages see ‘An introductory guide to reading about the Middle Ages for new teachers’ HERE …
Constructive feedback is always welcome, particularly anything that will help other teachers.