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Ordering the medieval past : England and the continent compared

Peter G. J. M. Raedts

Communio Viatorum, Vol.46:2 (2004)

Introduction: Most medieval English churches display on their walls a proud list of all the incumbents that served the parish, from the times that historical record keeping began, usually the twelfth or thirteenth centuries, till the present day. In their simplicity these lists are an impressive testimony to a sense of solidarity with the whole of the past that still prevails in large parts of England. Holland, too, has its medieval churches. In these churches lists of ministers are also displayed, but they all, without exception, start in the year that the Reformation was introduced to that particular parish, somewhere in the 1570s or 1580s, it is as if the medieval clergy had never existed. The lists show a will to make a clean break with the medieval past. The inscription on the wooden beam that replaced the rood screen in the “Old Church” in Amsterdam sums it all up: “The abuses introduced into God’s Church age by age, were suppressed here in the year fifteen seventy eight.” Behind the beam the chancel is empty, no altar, no choir stalls, nothing. The pulpit in the nave has been the centre of the church from 1578 till the present day.

This example shows the difference in appreciation of the medieval past in England and on the continent. The English view of the Middle Ages is uncontroversial and untroubled. There is no doubt in the English mind that the thousand years between Rome and the Renaissance are an intrinsic part of our past and that we owe much to the Middle Ages for which we can still be thankful: the origin of parliamentary government, the clear distinction of spiritual and temporal authority, the founding of schools and universities and the rise of literacy, and, of course, the beginnings in Italy and Flanders of a successful commercial economy that became the foundation of Europe’s dominating position in later ages. For English historians continuity between then and now needs no argument, it is taken for granted. Sandy Murray writes in the introduction to his Reason and Society in the Middle Ages: “In studying Europe in the central middle ages we study the first direct recognizable ancestor of the society we still live in.” In this he agrees with Richard Southern in his classic The making of the Middle ages where he writes in the introduction that in the central Middle Ages Europe became the chief centre of political experiment, economic expansion and intellectual discovery in the world. Perhaps the most stunning proof of English belief in the continuity between the present and the medieval past is Patrick Wormald’s recent, passionate plea for the “reality of an early English nation-state,” that can be traced back into Anglo-Saxon times. To a scholar from the continent of Europe, even if he dislikes post-modernism just as much as Wormald does, such a plea for continuity is incomprehensible, because it is the expression of a serene and untroubled view of the medieval past that is in the sharpest possible contrast with the acrimonious debate that has surrounded the inheritance of the Middle Ages on the continent of Europe since the days of Romanticism up till now. In this contribution I would like to make some observations on this remarkable difference in approach to the medieval past between England and the continent.

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