Being Human in the Middle Ages

The Pfälzische Krone: the last surviving item of the English medieval crown jewels. Now in the Residenzmuseum of Munich. Made for an English queen around 1370.

by Professor David Crouch

One of the most difficult questions for any historian to answer is exactly how much like modern people were our ancestors.  The further you go back in the past, the harder it is to answer.  But it’s not a trivial question.  Deep down, we need to know if there is something about our humanity that spans the centuries; the title deeds of our humanity if you like.  Back in 2009 I set up a first-year course which I called ‘Being Human’ (from the impressive BBC fantasy series of that name which was being broadcast at the time).  The idea was to address themes like love, anger, home, gender and sexuality as they were experienced in the medieval centuries, to see where we have diverged, or not, over the centuries.  The most successful parts of the course were when you could actually confront medieval attitudes.  Medieval proverbs were a case in point.  What would you make of the medieval saying: ‘There’s a limit to everything – apart from beating your wife’?  In 1176 a member of the court of Count Philip of Flanders actually sat down to explain that proverb away.  Surprisingly (or not) he refused to justify its literal meaning, just blandly saying that getting too emotional over anything was a bad thing.  In 2012 Cambridge University Press asked me to write a general textbook on Medieval Britain, and the lectures and seminars of Being Human provided the template for it: it was published this year.

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