The Popular Medieval History Hated by MedievalistsHistorians in the News
tags: popular history, medieval history
Daniel M. Lavery is the “Dear Prudence” advice columnist at Slate, the cofounder of The Toast, and the New York Times bestselling author of Texts From Jane Eyre and The Merry Spinster.
You may have encountered William Manchester’s A World Lit Only By Fire: The Medieval Mind and the Renaissance in a high-school reading list (I have a dim memory of finding it under the ‘Suggested Reading’ section of a European history syllabus myself) or any number of pop-history endcaps in a Waterstones or Barnes and Noble over the last 30 years.
It blends together, for me, with some of the mythopoetic bestsellers of the late 80s and early 90s, your Iron Johns and Women Who Run With The Wolves – surprisingly pleasurable nonsense cobbled together by someone whose credentials at least suggested they ought to have known better, and devoured hungrily by a grateful nation. Manchester was a journalist who came up under the mentorship of H.L. Mencken, and by all accounts his popular biographies of Churchill and Kennedy were fairly well-received, so I have no idea what moved him to suddenly attempt a brief history of the entire Middle Ages, but it’s the most prominent example of a type of book that fascinates me: The amateur/popular history of an entire field that’s largely beloved (or at least successful) outside of said field and widely loathed within it. Of course pop histories are not written with academics or specialists first in mind. I don’t mean to suggest that any book written for a general audience would necessarily or automatically inflame subject-matter experts; some generalities, elisions, collapses, differences in goals, etc, are to be expected. The necessary elements for this type of book, I think, are unexpected or outsized success (say, making the bestseller list, or becoming a staple of high-school syllabi), a consensus of hostility within the field, and the repetition or introduction of high-profile myths about the field to the general public.
“This is an infuriating book. The present reviewer hoped it would simply fade away…Unfortunately, it has not: one keeps meeting well-intentioned, perfectly intelligent people (including some colleagues in other disciplines — especially the sciences) who have just read this book and want to discuss why anyone would ever become a medievalist…Historians of the migration period may find it annoying to read that the Magyars arrived (apparently) in the fifth century.”
I will say this for Manchester, there’s something of the pleasure known as the hater’s delight to be found in a book so fundamentally contemptuous of its subject.