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Why Do the Middle Ages Still Matter Today?

Medieval Europe is both chronologically and geographically distant from us. Given how distant the High Middle Ages are from us today, the answer to why one should study medieval history is not obvious.

Modern-Day History Lessons 

In some ways, knowledge of medieval history is extremely beneficial. First and foremost, medieval history provides a context for comprehending the modern world. To understand what makes us unique as people living on the brink of the twenty-first century, you must first understand what came before us, because there are many institutions, ideas, beliefs, and values that we regard as unique to the modern era. These are ideas that only we could have had, despite the fact that they have been around for a very long time and have nothing strangely modern about them.

Discover the various “Inquisitions” that existed in medieval and early modern Europe. 

There are many institutions, beliefs, and ideas that we believe have always existed and are impervious to change, when in fact they are very unique to us living in the modern era. To understand what is unique about the modern and what isn’t, what was prone to change in the past and is likely to change again in the future, and what hasn’t changed much and is unlikely to change in the future, you must first understand the Middle Ages.

Mutation and Rejection Lesson 

Knowledge of medieval history is useful not only for contrasting it with modern history and pointing out similarities and differences. Knowledge of medieval history is useful because it allows one to identify the points of contact between the medieval and modern worlds, as the modern world is a product of the Middle Ages.

As institutions survived from the High Middle Ages into our own day and age, the process by which the modern emerged from the medieval was sometimes one of continuous mutation. However, the modern has sometimes emerged through a rejection process, as individuals looked back on the Middle Ages and attempted to create something new and different.

To understand the ideas of post-medieval figures like Martin Luther, Galileo, and Voltaire, you must first understand medieval history, because, while they did not live in the Middle Ages, they were well-versed in it. Their writings and actions were influenced by the Middle Ages and their ideas about the Middle Ages. To make sense of what they said and did, you must first understand what was going through their heads.

Discover how Francis of Assisi founded a new religious order. 

The French Revolution and the unification of Germany in the nineteenth century were both attempts to deal with the legacy of the Middle Ages. To understand why these events occurred and why they took the path they did, one must first understand the medieval forces and processes that ultimately led to these events.

Social Theory Lesson 

Middle Ages authors described their society as one of “orders.” There were three orders in total. The oratores (Latin for “those who prayed”) were the first order. This is a reference to medieval European clergy. The bellatores (Latin for “those who fought”) were the medieval warrior aristocracy. According to high medieval authors, the laboratories (Latin: “those who labored”) comprised the third order, which included anyone who did not belong to the first or second orders.

Notice how the groups are defined by their function and what they did, rather than by their wealth or possessions, as we usually define class these days. Take note of how the various groups’ relationships are assumed to be harmonious. Under normal conditions, each group will assist the others. Such an idea does not inform modern concepts of class, which assume that the natural relationship between classes is one of struggle and can only end with the destruction of all but one class. 

Learn more about women’s roles in medieval society. 

Theorists would have us believe that medieval society was not as harmonious as it appears. Those who described a society of orders were attempting to create one. Nonetheless, even though there is a gap between reality and the ideal, knowledge of the ideal provides a deeper understanding of what distinguishes modern ideas on society.

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