Should the Liberal Democrats be doing more to support the Vikings?

The cranky, shadowy world of medievalism is in uproar at the news that Melbourne University is to drop its Viking Studies Programme. As many as seven people have tutted, quite a number of post-doctoral research fellows have mentioned it in the pub, and at least one boiled egg was very messily decapitated indeed by a Reader in Anglo-Saxon Literature at a northern Russel Group university as a result of being told the news over breakfast.

Ahem, no not really. Rather ashamed of all that actually. Medievalists and Liberal Democrats have much in common. Both are perceived as niche specialists on a hiding to nothing, our very existence seems for some reason to offend the Labour party beyond sanity, while the robustness of our collective intellect and the rigour of our method is grudgingly admired by others in the know. Most of all we share a common frontier of self-deprecating humour that sometimes makes us far too accommodating of ridicule. Mainstreamers have a go at us for being irrelevant and fail to understand that their argument is as circular as time; if a lot of people say something is irrelevant, it proves nothing more than that it is irrelevant to them.

Anyone who has studied history or something similar will have experienced at some point that strange tug towards the esoteric, the unfashionable, the full-on bizarre, some hidden corner of their subject that fascinates them out of all proportion to the amount of space it occupies in the National Curriculum. It seems that at Melbourne University, the Viking Studies programme is being dropped in spite of exceptionally healthy student numbers. Somehow that vague received wisdom that medievalism is irrelevant is enough to outweigh the on-the-ground democracy of quite a lot of people being really jolly interested, thank you very much. People are on the whole efficient with their brainpower and other resources; if a significant minority think that studying medieval history is the most important thing they could be doing with their lives, then it’s fair to say that they get a lot out of it, intellectually and personally.

History is relative. No one period of history has innately more value than any other. Not a single person born during the twelfth century is any less complex, any less deserving of study and understanding than a person alive today. No common experience – be it in the form of a shared pop culture, the self-promotion of an expansionist nation state or the song of a victorious warrior band – is inherently superior to any other. You learn as much about human beings, law, society, constitutions, institutions and ideology from studying medieval history as any other sort. Any historical studies teach you to build your own skeletal way of understanding a society. After you’ve learnt to do that, you can flesh out the skeleton an infinite number of times in any way you wish. I could take the same tools I learnt studying medieval history and use them on the French Wars of Religion without a problem. I won’t because there are far more important things I could be doing with my hair, but I could. (Oh, it’s a joke, it’s a joke. Early modernists, lay down your arquebuses)

It’s because of this total mismatch between the general received wisdom and the actual real-life relevance of medieval studies to many people that I feel the Melbourne Viking Studies course leader is being a little too understanding here. She wasn’t even consulted on her subject being axed. But decency compels her to admit that the world will go on without Viking Studies. Yes, but that isn’t the point. If we really need to slim down spending on humanities in order to boost the sciences and maintain technological progress (in itself arguable) then fine, but why is it medievalism that suffers? Shearing away subjects on the grounds of chronological distance is going to result in monohistory. This will be a real loss to education and western thought and it will happen partly because medievalists, like Liberal Democrats, are just so damn reasonable.


Medieval societies essentially faced the same problems as modern ones, as this clip demonstrates


  1. Well, arts people are always getting told that their funding is being cut in order to boost the sciences. Obviously The Wizards are counting on the two groups never talking to each other. I wonder where all the money is going…

  2. Begs a question – what are universities actually for?

    If you accept that they have finite resources, what criteria should be used to decide on priorities?

    There has been an awful lot of fuss over the last year or so about cuts to physics courses that no one wanted to attend. (I blogged about it:

    Word on the street though is that physics courses in other universities are now thriving as a result of the cuts in capacity elsewhere.

    Should government decide what courses are taught ‘in the national interest’? It scares the willies out of me to hear MPs jumping on populist band-wagons slagging off media studies degrees when the economy is now dominated by entertainment and other services. No doubt these are the same MPs who sing the praises of Grammar Schools as a means of keeping the masses in their place and pine for a Britain of smoke-stacks and spinning jennies.

    University education is also increasingly an international affair. I’m guessing there are plenty of Viking Studies courses in Scandinavian countries (where they are probably just called history 🙂

    Sentimentalism and some mis-placed notion of national interest (which in politicians minds usually amounts to the same thing – ‘it’s not like it was in my day’) surely cant be the right approach. If the funding follows the student, even creaky old conservative university institutions will catch on to which courses the students want to study.

  3. In my ideal world, a lot of what people currently study at university would be studied vocationally. For example, you can get a degree in ‘Computer Games Development’, despite the fact that this is an entirely practical occupation; you can be very good at it without ever having set foot in a university and I’d go so far as to suggest that most people who do study it at university don’t end up being very good at it. When I was at university, these courses were known as ‘bums on seats’ courses, the objective being to reel in gullible students with a course that has a name like the job they want to do. What people actually learn on these courses are a very poor introduction to the job, as employers will be well aware.

    Viking Studies, on the other hand, seems like the kind of thing that universities are meant to be there for, their very purpose being to teach those things that cannot be easily learned any other way. I’m at a loss to see how the education system needs to be reformed to protect the latter form of education from the increasing popularity of the former. (Assuming, of course, that it does; two anecdotes don’t make a comprehensive data set).

  4. Welcome to the “Charles Clarke is a moron” society—it takes the average politics blogger very little time indeed before they have to attack the bastard for something.

    Ye gods, that’s as bad as putting Ruth Kelly in charge of equality, and that statement from DFES is even worse. Can we get them out of office ASAP please? Even the Tories weren’t that bad when it came to the idea of learning things.

    Gah—a fair few of my planned but never going to get written posts are going to be inspired by the book I just finished, on the events surrounding 1688. We went to war within the last ten years over events started because of a battle fought in 1289 FFS. Gah!

  5. Don’t worry. He’s still just as much of an idiot, I’m sure. I should have flagged up that it was from a couple of years back probl’y – this happened while I was in PhD-land, and so it sticks in the mind rather (as if you’re not already paranoid enough about being useless as a doctoral student).

    If you send funding after the student in the way Ed describes, presumably you do get a reduction in people following the sciences – though it probably has a good impact on remaining courses because they get to concentrate more resources in one place – and an increase in people on both media studies and computer games development course. And apparently, plenty of people who are interested in the Vikings. Hm, if this does slow down technological progress, is that such a dreadful thing, I wonder (have been reading John Gray)?

  6. After following the ‘offend the Labour party’ link I wondered if Gillian Evans, the Cambridge medievalist who refered to Charles Clarke as a ‘philistine thug’, used deliberate irony in choosing to describe him with the name of an ancient near eastern nation. Call the historians for an explanation!

    And in support of medieval history, one of the most potent lectures I have ever attended involved a historian of the crusades comparing the rhetoric of the crusaders with the rhetoric of George W. Bush.

    Also, I did enjoy the video, which – like so much in the People’s Republic – made me laugh. Keep up the good humour and good politics.

  7. Many thanks, Bill! It’s really pleasing to get encouragement from beyond the inbred bloggers’ circle (not that I don’t love you, inbred bloggers).

    I remember reading about that lecture – was it Jonathan Riley-Smith? Possibly it was a sign of things to come, and what may happen is that medievalism will enjoy a resurgence as the 21st century goes on and the parallels get more irresistable – failing states, disastrous pandemics, burgeoning populations being unsupportable… Cheery stuff, I know.

  8. Of course medieval history is a Good Thing, and the decision in Melbourne is cultural vandalism. But I think that once we try to defend the subject in terms of ‘relevant’ skills or knowledge then we’re on to a loser. (Even though studying medieval history does provide both.) We live increasingly in a permanent present of disposable cultural and material consumption. Anything which reminds us that human experience doesn’t have to be this way, that humans can flourish outside the playpen of our own experience, should be encouraged. Our basic assumptions (‘common sense’, ‘human nature’ etc) are always contingent on historical circumstances, but we can’t see that unless our historical imagination reaches back beyond colour television. So medievalists (and Liberal Democrats) should defend medieval history and similar subjects on the grounds that they challenge our assumptions, not that they help train more efficient ‘competitors’ in a race which isn’t worth winning.

  9. Bernard of Chartres, I am extremely diverted by the notion that early medieval monastic holy men might be wandering cyberspace leaving comments on blogs. There’s a book in there, if only Douglas Adams was still around to write it.

    I think we are essentially in agreement; I don’t make any reference above to the worth of medieval history as measured in job markets, and I concur there’s no point in doing so. You’re also bang on about challenging assumptions. I think one of the reasons we’re so stuck with this left wing-right wing business is that very few lawmakers, journalists, thinkers or commentators operating these days know any history worth a damn pre-1850. I wrote something the other day about localism in education in which I found a medievalist sense very useful.

    The point I was labouring here was that medieval history is, in essentials, the same as any other kind. The particular assumption that worries me about the period is that it is somehow – flatter? Less real? Less complex? Populated by people with narrow, one-dimensional viewpoints? Everything the renaissance scholars said, essentially, and what a fantastic intellectual con-trick they have pulled on. One of the most irritating and unintentionally hilarious articles I ever read was by Polly Toynbee (I can only imagine your surprise) in which she slagged off schools for teaching any medieval history at all (do they??), including “irrelevant” figures like Henry II and King John. How unhappy for her that she alighted on the founder of English law as we know it and the signatory of the Magna Carta.

  10. I can’t find the Polly Toynbee article on the web, do you have the reference? (Although why I should be looking for such a thing when there are so many worthwile things to read I’m not sure).
    Searching for it reminds me, though, how often ‘medieval’ is used in a perjorative sense by people who have no idea what medieval European societies were actually like, still less the nature of their continuing influence. They usually mean ‘something I consider old-fashioned and don’t like’. The notion of ‘medieval’ is indispensible to the concept of the ‘modern’ world. This alone can provide the basis for a critique of most of our assumptions…

  11. No, I can’t find it either. I remember it was in the Radio Times around about 1993-1996 (anger has a long memory) but it wouldn’t be important enough to be part of her online oeuvres. She was actually reviewing some programme about the ancient Greeks – the thrust of her argument was “Why do we learn pointless medieval history in school and nothing about the ancient Greeks?” which if anything is even more shocking that the shortened version I described above.

    Hehe, yes, re “medieval” as a perjorative. I remember doing the Great Reform Act for A-level, and the bit in the textbook that was supposed to shock us and make us realise what a Good Thing the GRA was was the fact that the constituencies in 1832 were the same as they’d been *since medieval times*, argh aaargh, buckets of blood etc. Flip that on its head (as I did, being even then an incipient medievalist) and a medieval system lasted up till 1832! How impressive!

    Interestingly, I’ve just read John Gray’s Heresies in which he discusses the re-legalisation of torture. That would be an interesting debate to have from a medieval perspective.

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