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‘Game of Thrones’ and ‘Lord of the Rings’ Prove Interest in Middle Ages

From October 7-9, the second annual ‘Dynamic Middle Ages’ school of young medievalists took place in Moscow. After its conclusion, participants talked about what they find interesting in the Middle Ages and the parallels they see between those times and today.

Reunification of the academic community

The ‘Dynamic Middle Ages’ training school took place for the first time in October 2012 on the initiative of Mikhail Boytsov, head of the Centre for Medieval Studies, and Professor Michael Borgolte of the Humboldt-University in Berlin. Nikolaus Katzer, Director of the German Historical Institute in Moscow, soon joined them.

Boytsov says that it was not long after the first school that he began to meet the young medievalists who had participated as presenters at the most reputable international conferences. This year, the school has new partners – the White Rose University Consortium and the Heinrich Heine University (Düsseldorf, Germany). It was therefore decided to hold the second ‘Dynamic Middle Ages’ in three phases: in 2014 in Moscow, in 2015 in Sheffield and/or Leeds, and in 2016 in Düsseldorf.

As noted by Boytsov, before World War I, medieval studies in Russia were in no way inferior to western European medieval studies. The two were actually at one with one another. This unity was broken for decades due to Soviet isolation. In recent years, Russia has again seen the emergence of experts who enjoy well-deserved recognition around the world. However, these phenomena are still at the individual level rather than the systemic.

‘The “Dynamic Middle Ages” is just the tool needed to reunify the academic community,’ says Boytsov. ‘Young historians from Russia have access to contemporary, world-class research methods, and their peers from other countries are aware of the serious potential of medieval studies in Russia, as well as the usefulness of learning eastern European history for their own scholarly research.’

Present another person’s project for 15 minutes

The school this year gathered 17 participants from universities in Bulgaria, Germany, Hungary, Italy, the Netherlands, Russia and the UK. Classes were led by eight teachers representing the HSE’s Centre for Medieval Studies, Heinrich Heine University, Humboldt University in Berlin, the University of Mannheim, the University of Leeds and Bielefeld University. The school was also attended by researchers from Austria, Taiwan and the U.S.

Classes were held in the form of lectures by professors and discussions of graduate students’ dissertation projects. Professors’ presentations focused on a particular aspect of medieval culture and society that is particularly close to their own research. This served as a way for graduate students to be introduced to their professors’ research interests, favourite sources and research methods.

After the lectures, analysis of dissertation projects began. What was unusual was that projects were presented not by their authors, but rather by other graduate students who study quite different subjects. Presenters had 15 minutes to accurately describe the content of the future dissertation, highlight its strengths, formulate questions to the candidate, point out places where the research was controversial, and, as much as possible, give advice. The author was given five minutes to respond to questions and comments, which was followed by discussion with other students and professors. Everyone joined together to identify conceptual weaknesses, provide useful recommendations on methodology and fill gaps in the historiography of the question under discussion.

‘Students showed great interest and asked very substantive questions,’ said Professor Annette Kehnel of the University of Mannheim, who participated in the ‘Dynamic Middle Ages’ for a second time. ‘Studying the Middle Ages is really difficult, because you have to learn ancient languages, but people dedicate themselves to it.’

Hypnotic power

What attracts students to the Middle Ages? ‘I think it’s some sort of attraction of another culture with the distance in time rather than with the distance in place,’ said Professor Kehnel. ‘It’s a bit like ethnology. They have a chance to study a foreign culture which is a long time back but it allows us insights into ourselves at the same time.’

Mikhail Boytsov agrees with her assessment. ‘The Middle Ages are truly hypnotic. A number of generations of European historians who have worked since the 16th century on the image of the Middle Ages have invested so much in their own hopes, fears and illusions that now almost everyone can find something attractive in it, if not to admire, then at least to tickle the nerves,’ he says. ‘It comes as no surprise that the “demand” among students for the Middle Ages over the last several decades has been quite stable.’

Interest in the Middle Ages is most evident from the fact that today's mass commercial products use medieval imagery, says Boytsov. ‘Lord of the Rings’ and ‘Game of Thrones’ cannot be called historical films, but they are saturated with references to the Middle Ages. Of course, the Middle Ages of popular culture is not the same thing as the Middle Ages for a professional medievalist, but they are not isolated from one another. Historians are not closed off in their academic world.

Why the Middle Ages? What’s so interesting? Here’s what the young medievalists themselves had to say.


Pietro Delcorno (Radboud University Nijmegen, Netherlands), studies medieval religious history

I find it interesting how our society has evolved, and to take a critical look at what we see around us. People living in western Europe in the Middle Ages acted and thought very differently from how we do today, but that time is closely linked to many elements of modernity, and this relationship can give us some ideas for the future and for critical perception of the present. We are too focused on the ‘now’ and are losing our sensitivity.

Here is just one example of the connection of the Middle Ages to our lives - western European cities. Last year I was in South Africa and Brazil, and the difference in the relationship between people and territories in these regions versus in Europe is striking. There they have young cities and long distances; here there are very old towns every 40 kilometres. This is the legacy of the Middle Ages.


András Kraft (Central European University), studies the history of Byzantium

Since I was a kid, I have always liked that history. The Middle Ages are a personal passion. I like understanding the underlying factors about what’s happening today. Especially interesting is the continuity between Byzantium, which I study, and Russia. If you look at the modern West, its relationship with the Middle Ages is not as obvious, but it is still there, and lies, for example, in the continuity of the understanding of rationality, in the perception of what kind of state there should be, or, say, in such phenomena as anti-Semitism or religious persecution. After all, these were born in western Europe during the High Middle Ages.

The Middle Ages offer a lot of research topics. Antiquity and the history of the ancient world have more or less been studied, but in the Middle Ages there are still a number of gaps.


Svetlana Yatsyk, postgraduate student in the HSE’s Faculty of History, studies religious rationality and sanctity in the medieval West

For me, the Middle Ages are interesting because there are a lot of myths that put it in a negative light. My inner fighter for the truth makes me look for reasons to ‘rehabilitate’ the Middle Ages. For example, I try to show that in addition to modern Western rationality, which Max Weber wrote so much about, there were other formats for full-fledged rational thinking. For example, scholasticism combined Christian theology with the ancient natural philosophy and logic.


Daria Safronova, postgraduate student in the Faculty of History at Lomonosov Moscow State University, studies the political history of Spain in the early Middle Ages

I do not deny the parallels between the Middle Ages and modernity, but history is interesting to me primarily due to the fact that it involves ‘discovery of the other.’ In the Middle Ages, the perspective on phenomena that seem timeless was very different from what the modern perspective. We will hardly learn to think in the same way as people in other times thought, but in breaking stereotypes of thinking, it’s possible that we may see an alternative experience. For me it is an intellectual exercise.

Maria Glazyrina, fourth year student of the Faculty of Law, intern for the HSE News Service 

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