Illuminating the Middle Ages

Sunday 21 October, 9.30am until 10.15am, Garden Room

Historically, our understanding of the Middle Ages has tended to be coloured by the ‘Dark Age’ label, which casts this as a time of cultural famine and stagnation in contrast to the Renaissance and our Classical heritage. Even the dates of the period – roughly between the end of the Roman Empire and the beginning of the early modern period – are obscure and disputed. Medieval studies are seen by many as irrelevant, and are under increasingly threat as a university discipline, while the undoubted appeal of a Dark Age-inspired drama like Game of Thrones has more to do with its exotic barbarism than any real insight into our history.

Yet medievalists insist the era has a wealth of thought, art and culture to rival that of any period in history, to such an extent that scholars now talk of the Carolingian, Ottonian and twelfth-century renaissances, emphasising the richness of an era once considered barren. Poetry from ‘The Wanderer’ to ‘Piers Plowman’, visual art, castles and cathedrals that still dominate the landscape, philosophy, religious and political writing, the foundations of modern science – all these are accessible to us. And there are signs that we are beginning to look more carefully at what is there. Thoughtful TV series on the Crusades and medieval manuscripts, the brilliant British Library exhibition of illuminated manuscripts from the royal collection, versions of Beowulf and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight by leading modern poets, all attest to a thirst to know more about what this period has to offer.

So what lies beyond King Arthur and the Round Table, and some bawdy poems by Chaucer? Is this a period that deserves to be better understood? Might medieval beliefs and attitudes to society, to mankind, to culture and literature offer insights into issues – from the relationship between church and state to the place of man in the universe – that still concern us today?


Dr Elizabeth Boyle
research fellow, St Edmund's College; affiliated lecturer, department of Anglo-Saxon, Norse & Celtic, University of Cambridge

Albert Fenton
graduate, Anglo-Saxon, Norse, and Celtic, Trinity College, Cambridge; web copywriter

Lindsay Johns
writer and broadcaster; (non-residential) Fellow at the Hutchins Center for African & African-American Research at Harvard University

Dr Levi Roach
lecturer of Medieval History, University of Exeter

Richard Swan
writer and academic

Produced by
Richard Swan writer and academic
Recommended readings
The ‘Dark Ages’ were a lot brighter than we give them credit for

We still view European history as taking off with the Renaissance and Enlightenment, but this position gets more out-of-date the more we learn

Richard Swan, Independent, 17 October 2012

The Anglo-Saxons are coming!

Over the last six months I have come to see that the Anglo-Saxons were more subtle, more sophisticated, more human and more important in terms of our everyday lives today than I had ever imagined.

Graeme Kay, BBC Radio 3, 11 October 2012

Five Contributions of the Middle Ages

You can study a past civilization like an anthropologist observes the people of some South Sea Island, or you could simply relax and appreciate the way they did things, enjoy their art and architecture, literature and music, and peraps try to understand how their society worked and how they looked at the world.

Lynn Harry Nelson, Virtual Library

Closing the Book on Celtic

Growing nationalism in the UK’s constituent countries threatens the study of Celtic languages and history

Elizabeth Boyle, History Today, 1 August 2012

Is it time to get Anglo-Saxon about England's local government?

The government wants a new era of localism and civic engagement. But rather than thinking up new ideas, should they be looking back into England's distant past for inspiration?

Justin Parkinson, BBC News, 26 April 2012

Red and blue heavens

For those who already love medieval manuscripts the exhibition is unmissable. For those who don’t (yet), there is a wealth of treasures and surprises that constantly make you recalibrate your assumptions and understanding

Richard Swan, Culture Wars, 5 January 2012

The Carolingian Renaissance

Melvyn Bragg and guests discuss the Holy Roman Emperor Charlemagne and the Carolingian Renaissance.

In Our Time, BBC Radio 4, 30 March 2006

The rise of the clicktivists: will the revolution be digitised?

"The Battle of Ideas is a weekend like no other. I found the 2011 festival immensely stimulating. It gave me a great deal to think about, and a whole new list of books to read - from Virgil to Vygotsky. On to greater battles in 2012!"
Ken Macleod, award-winning science fiction writer; author, The Restoration Game and Intrusion

follow the Academy of Ideas