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‘As long as we think about the Middle Ages as a dark time, we will remain dark ourselves’

‘As long as we think about the Middle Ages as a dark time, we will remain dark ourselves’

Every era builds its own version of the Middle Ages, and the modern age is no exception. Oleg Voskoboynikov, the youngest full professor at the Higher School of Economics, talks about the reason for the popularity of metaphors that refer to that era, why the ‘Suffering Middle Ages’ group on VKontakte [Russia’s largest social media site — Ed.] is not the same thing as medieval studies and how the desire to be different from everyone else can lead a student to study the Middle Ages.

To be like no one else

In 1993, I entered the Faculty of History at Moscow State University, although I did not intend to become an historian. I liked medieval monuments and foreign languages. My late grandfather, a diplomat, knew many languages. I missed having him alive, and I always wanted to be like him.

I studied and taught foreign languages intensively, and I did a lot of reading, translation and interpretation. In five years, I learned Spanish, German, Latin and Greek (the latter was the worst — it came to me very difficultly). Later, I took up Old Provençal, Hebrew and Arabic, but I didn’t achieve much.

After graduation

In 1998, I enrolled in postgraduate school, and later in the French College at Moscow State University. A year later, I went to France, where I studied for six years at the School for Advanced Studies in the Social Sciences. This school is the spiritual headquarters of the famous Annales School where Le Goff and Le Roy Ladurie taught. My mentor, Jean-Claude Schmitt, recently retired. In 2002, I defended at Moscow State University, and in 2006, in Paris. In my dissertation, which was based on scholarly manuscripts, I analyzed the picture of the world in the time of Frederick II of Hohenstaufen (mainly in Southern Italy the first half of the 13th century). It served as the basis of my first book, ‘Soul of the World’, which was published by ROSSPEN in 2008.

Medieval studies  difficult but honourable

When a young person goes into medieval studies, there is an infinite number of unknowns. To get involved in it, one must be a little abnormal... In a sense, medieval studies is a discipline for the few — strict, fundamental, and requiring painstaking work. Either you are able to learn four, five, six or more languages, or you are not able. Either you have time for it or you don’t. In my opinion, it is difficult but honourable.

Life has a way of dictating its own terms. For example, in 1998, when everything collapsed and crisis broke out in the country, I started trading Italian furniture. However, I didn’t neglect academia. I did a little writing, published, but mainly I read in the subway what I had managed to make copies of. It was difficult to be systematic in my work, even at the venerable department at Moscow State University.

Humanities at HSE

I am grateful to HSE for its support of medieval studies. My colleague Julia Ivanova introduced me to Irina Savelieva, head of the Institute for Theoretical and Historical Studies in the Humanities, which is currently named after the late Andrei Poletayev. For several years, I have taught university-wide courses as part of their humanitarian programme electives. But my main job was still at Moscow State University until 2009, when I was called to build the History Faculty at HSE, a challenge I accepted.

I decided to teach a subject that had never taught before – the history of art. Doing so has considerably changed my own picture of the world and my ideas about teaching. I had something to let go of from my old life, but I agreed because I like our team: Igor Danilevsky, Alexander Kamenskii, Pavel Uvarov, later Oleg Budnitskii, Mikhail Boytsov, and the young ones — Dmitriy Dobrowolski, then Andrey Iserov, as well as art critics Lev Masiel Sanchez and Elena Sharnova. All of us are somewhat similar, but we each have our own voice, own rhythm, and style of academic life and thinking. As part of the newly formed School of History under the Faculty of Humanities, I am certain that we keep it, because a big faculty, fortunately, does not aim to make everything uniform.

Laboratory of Medieval Studies

Exactly three years ago, when Mikhail Boytsov, one of the best Russian medievalists, arrived at HSE, we were given the opportunity to open the Laboratory of Medieval Studies. Several interesting scholars are now working there (Andrey Vinogradov — a Byzantinist, Mikhail Dmitriev — a specialist in Polish studies, and Fyodor Uspensky who specializes in Scandinavia). Each is working on his own project.

The seminar that I teach with Mikhail Boytsov — ‘The Symbolic Middle Ages’ — is devoted to various aspects of the spiritual heritage of the medieval West.

In 2013, HSE hosted an annual conference that has taken place since 1992 by the Micrologus group, which brings together medievalists from a dozen countries. I have long dreamed of bringing these people together in Moscow — people who, like me, were studying a medieval picture of the world. The international repercussions of such an event are not measurable by scientometrics, but it is clear to any medievalist that they are very significant. And it happened. The theme of the conference was the idea of ​​harmony in culture and society of the Western Middle Ages. This was interesting to us, so it was also interesting to our colleagues and students.

Ways of talking about the past

There are different ways of speaking with the past, of studying and understanding it. I know that our students run the popular ‘Suffering Middle Ages’ group on VKontakte, responding to what is called the spirit of the time. This is also speaking with the Middle Ages, but it is not medieval studies. Social media allows for what you would never tell or show a university audience. I can also sometimes either wittingly or emotionally comment on the finer points of medieval life, but the synthesis is always serious.

Myths about the Middle Ages

I get depressed by the myths about the Middle Ages, even those among historians. I agree that we can’t get rid of them, because there never was a Middle Ages, and every era that has followed has built its own version of the ‘Middle Ages’. Now, when there is a serious failure in our financial system, or in our high-brow culture, or even in a highly constitutional democracy, journalists easily convince us that there is some kind of ‘rollback’ to the ‘Middle Ages’, a collapse of the ‘postmodern’, Crusades, fanaticism and things of that nature. They feel no need to back up their wild collective unconscious metaphors by referencing serious literature.

One of the tasks of medievalists both here and in the West is to educate, so we are committed to a wide audience despite the complexity and specific esoteric nature of academic studies. I am certain that as long as we think about the Middle Ages as a dark time, we will remain dark ourselves.

The current characterization of the Middle Ages in the history of thought is far from the total condemnation that was common among 18th century educators and their successors; judgment and condemnation in today's academia in general are not accepted.

Despite the absence of history as an independent discipline, medieval historians laid the foundations of modern historical scholarship. Parisian and Oxford mathematicians of the 14th century — four centuries before Newton — came close to the law of universal gravitation.

So-called Gothic architecture gave no less to the architecture of the 19th and 20th centuries than the Renaissance or modern classicism. Not only in technical terms, which is obvious from the first glance at the Eiffel Tower, but also aesthetically, if you look and read Le Corbusier, Sullivan, Mies van der Rohe, and Gropius. Look at the Torre Agbar in Barcelona, and you'll find in it the arch of Gaudi, and his Sagrada Familia — the medieval dream of atonement.

When Irish and British monks in the 7th and 8th centuries, having experienced obvious difficulties with Latin, decided to rewrite books with separate words instead of writing scriptura continua, as was done in antiquity, they laid the foundation not only of modern books, but also the practice of reading ‘about oneself’ and modern literary consciousness, an intimate relationship to the text. From this arose literary subjectivity.

The word ‘computer’ goes back to the Middle Latin ‘computus’ or ‘compotus’, which the British and Irish monks of the 7th to 9th centuries designated as the calculation of dates for movable feasts of the liturgical calendar that were not tied to the solar and lunar calendar, primarily Easter.

In short, if they want to, people can find the origins of just about anything in the Middle Ages, rather than in Antiquity or the Renaissance — whether parliamentary democracy, banking or even the airplane. You won’t believe it, but virtual space, without which none of us could get along, is also medieval; ‘virtualiter’ in the sense of ‘conditionally’ is a term of scholasticism.

Why am I not in Paris?

I don’t know, maybe I should have stayed in Paris. French medieval studies are among the strongest in the world, and they are maintaining their position despite the omnipotence of the English language. Any medievalist knows certain French magazines where really important work is published. There the environment is excellent.

But then I was drawn to Moscow. It seemed that I would be able to teach something to someone at Moscow State University and that I could be a mediator between East and West. I grew up in the Yeltsin era when the instinct was to emigrate, I think, was relatively low. At any rate, those of our generation who left were mainly single young women. I am glad that I had the opportunity to take part in creating a medieval studies school here at HSE. The feeling that you are doing important work that is valued keeps one afloat even in our difficult times.

Lyudmila Mezentseva, HSE news service

See also:

Seeking Answers in Medieval Russian History

On May 31, Valerie Kivelson, Professor of History at the University of Michigan, will be delivering a seminar entitled ‘Visualizing Empire: Muscovite Images of Race’. Professor Kivelson is an expert in Medieval and early modern Russia, history of cartography, history of witchcraft, religion, and political culture, among other topics. She is the author of 'Desperate Magic: The Moral Economy of Witchcraft in Seventeenth Century Russia' and a guest editor of 'Witchcraft Casebook: Magic in Russia, Poland and Ukraine. 15-21st Centuries'.

HSE Tenured Professor Oleg Voskoboynikov Has Won the Prix Maurice Wachsmacher

Associate Professor at the Department of Social History Oleg Voskoboynikov has won the Humanities Prize 2014 for his translation into Russian of French art historian Roland Recht’s Le croire et le voir: L'art des cathédrales, XIIe-XVe siècle (Believing and Seeing, The Art of Gothic Cathedrals) in a volume published by the HSE Publishing House. The prize was awarded by the French Ambassador to Russia, Jean-Maurice Ripert who signed a certificate at the ceremony for the winner to travel to France.