Encountering History through Primary Sources: Medieval England

As we prepare for this year’s International Congress on Medieval Studies in Kalamazoo, Michigan, we reflect on the significance of our immensely popular series of primary source texts: Readings in Medieval Civilizations and Cultures. The series, edited by Paul Edward Dutton, has now reached twenty volumes, and has made it possible for instructors to design new and innovative medieval history courses. To mark the publication this season of the new edition of Medieval England, 500-1500: A Reader, and to celebrate the contributions of the RMCC series, we are pleased to share the following post by Katherine Allen Smith on the joys of teaching and learning through primary sources.

As a first-semester undergraduate, my favorite class was a 100-level history course on “England from Julius Caesar to Elizabeth I.” The class struck that perfect balance between big-picture and personal narrative, and our professor had a knack for telling stories that were memorably sad (Orderic Vitalis’s father leaving his eleven-year-old son in a Norman monastery), dramatic (remember the ailing Richard the Lionheart directing the Siege of Acre from his silk-draped litter?), or gross (think William the Conqueror’s corpse bursting during his funeral at Caen). He lectured from an ancient notebook, turning its onion-skin pages so carefully as to imbue them with an aura of mystery. We freshmen mostly listened and tried to write everything down, the bolder of us asking questions. (As one of the shyest students in the class, I rarely raised my hand, though I was often puzzled by the discrepancies between the pronunciation and spelling of so many English place-names, not to mention the intricacies of medieval currency.)

This course helped me see that doing history could be as exciting as detective work—like Inspector Alan Grant tackling the mystery of the “Princes in the Tower” from his hospital bed in Josephine Tey’s The Daughter of Time—and awakened me to the existence of primary sources (a foreign concept to many American high schoolers of my generation). These firsthand accounts were a revelation to me. You have to admit, it is pretty incredible that we can eavesdrop on sixteenth-century court gossip via ambassadorial communiqués, or peruse Henry VIII’s personal household budget (and, by the way, you would not believe the quantities of meat and fish he and his courtiers consumed). At the end of that first semester in college, I declared a History major and spent much of the next three-and-a-half years learning as much about the past—in particular, about the medieval and early modern centuries in Europe—as I could.

The further I’ve gotten from my undergraduate experience, the more clearly I can see the immense value of the critical reading and research skills I gained at college, but also how much I missed out on. In four years of studying history, I learned a great deal about kings and wars, the growth of political institutions and legal systems, but relatively little about the 99% of people who were excluded from power in the past. The vast majority of the historical actors I encountered were men, though at the end of my college career I took a fabulous class on premodern private life which fully integrated women’s experiences (using the groundbreaking first edition of my co-editor Emilie Amt’s Women’s Lives in Medieval Europe: A Reader, published by Routledge in 1993). My college self’s view of what constituted a valid historical source was also quite narrow, being confined to things like chronicles, legal records, letters, and speeches; certainly I had little sense of how one might “read” archaeological findings, works of art, or literature as primary sources.

Graduate school opened my eyes to social and cultural history, to considerations of how variables such as race and ethnicity, gender, social class, and age intersected to shape the experiences of historical individuals, and to the ways in which material culture and literary works could illuminate the past. When I began teaching my own courses, I was eager to expose my students to a multiplicity of historical perspectives, and to share with them the excitement of encountering the past through a wide range of primary sources. I began building classes around the innovative primary source collections that were coming out in the 1990s and early 2000s: Michael Goodich’s Other Middle Ages: Witnesses at the Margins of Medieval Society (University of Pennsylvania Press, 1998) formed the basis for a class on the experiences of marginalized groups in medieval Europe, and I was so taken with Jacqueline Murray’s wonderful Love, Marriage, and Family in the Middle Ages: A Reader (University of Toronto Press, 2001) that I created a course with an identical title just so I could teach it. In the years since I discovered Murray’s reader, I’ve developed several courses around UTP’s Readings in Medieval Civilizations and Cultures series: Alexander Callander Murray’s From Roman to Merovingian Gaul and Paul Edward Dutton’s Carolingian Civilization have provided foundations for courses on Late Antiquity and the early Middle Ages; the first and now second edition of The Crusades (edited by S.J. Allen and Emilie Amt) has seen me through a dozen iterations of a course of the same name; and since 2006 I have been using the first edition of the Medieval England reader in my class on England from the Romans to the Tudors.

Working with Emilie on the second edition of Medieval England: A Reader was great fun because it allowed me to revisit that class where I first discovered my love for history, and to add new sources that I think will delight, intrigue, and move students. It was also a real challenge, since we were eager to retain the strengths of the reader’s first edition. Published in 2001, it was notable for its inclusion of many different types of texts representing the experiences and perspectives of medieval English women as well as men, members of different socio-economic classes, and a range of political and spiritual viewpoints, as well as for its incorporation of lesser-known sources alongside old standards of English political and legal history. We aimed to preserve these aspects of the collection while expanding its chronological breadth and incorporating new sources that would offer instructors the possibility of teaching thematically and encourage students to draw comparisons over time and get creative with sources. In the end, we produced a second edition in which fully one-third of the material is new. Here are some of the highlights.

Recognizing that most surveys of English history begin before 1066, we crafted a new first chapter to highlight key events and institutions of the Anglo-Saxon period from c. 500 onwards, and allow students to assess the impact of the Norman Conquest on the English. Many new sources are meant to work in conjunction with retained sources to elicit questions about continuity and change: readers might trace the concerns of rulers and subjects over several centuries, compare wills made by Anglo-Saxons with those of late medieval Londoners, or trace the evolution of attitudes towards English Jews. We were also keen to include examples of new genres that historians have used creatively in recent years, such as household account books and proof of age inquests, which give a sense of the texture of daily life in the Middle Ages. Finally, the second edition highlights the potential of non-textual sources to shed light on the past, and encourages readers to put texts into conversation with other forms of evidence. We hope you and your students will enjoy juxtapositions like an account of twelfth-century siege warfare with the plan of a contemporary Norman castle and Polydore Vergil’s account of the Battle of Bosworth with a description of Richard III’s recently rediscovered burial.

This is just a small taste of the new material in the second edition of Medieval England: A Reader, which was just published this semester. For my own part, I am very excited to begin teaching with it! Now, back to working on my syllabus….

Katherine Allen Smith is Associate Professor of History at University of Puget Sound.