two boxers, in red and blue, fighting

Medieval vs modern – which is better?

Two disciplines, both alike in dignity,
In fair Oxford, where we lay our scene,
From ancient grudge break to new mutiny,
Where student ink makes student hands unclean.

The ultimate rivalry: modernists vs medievalists. We all have our preferred area, but which is objectively better? The OHR editorial team caught up with a medievalist and a modernist to find out why they think they have the superior affiliation.

“It almost felt as if I had no choice but to choose a medieval paper for either French or Spanish, as if I would otherwise be betraying the history of my college. But before university, the oldest texts I’d studied had been by Shakespeare. I felt utterly unprepared. And whilst this feeling hasn’t exactly disappeared, I’ve learned that the medievalist tutors expect little prior knowledge, which is something not often said of Oxford tutors. In my experience, creativity is valued beyond knowledge in studying medieval literature, since tutors appreciate how little we can discern about the texts’ history anyway.

Whilst my modernist peers argue that the medieval papers must be difficult and boring, I think that they’re possibly easier, since there’s a painful (but sometimes convenient) limit to what you can learn as fact. This creates a wealth of opportunity for speculation, which is what makes medieval studies both frustrating and fascinating.

It seems more frustrating, however, when trawling through Old French dictionaries, written half a millennium after the text I was trying to translate, and ending up resigned to never knowing the meaning of a word or the explanation behind a grammatical rule. It is a perfectionist’s nightmare, but a medievalist’s necessary sacrifice. 

The linguistic layer of obscurity is only one of such layers, amongst issues such as the relationship between cultural and social perspectives in a text and its context. Le Livre de la Cité des Dames (1405) is a pro-feminine novel by the first professional French writer, Christine de Pizan. Christine develops a complex philosophy towards gender, which is partially lost on the modern reader, who cannot comprehend how radical it was to view (albeit some) women as equally virtuous as men. She argues that women are only inferior intellectually in so far as they are uneducated in comparison with men (not as a result of their nature or God’s will), in line with her advocacy for the education of girls. 

Raison (Reason), a female figure of wisdom, visits Christine in the novel and tells her they will build a city for virtuous ladies, but “a celle ou vertue ne sera pas trouvee les murs de nostre cite seront forclos” (“the walls of the city shall keep out she who does not possess virtue”). 

So how can we reconcile her contradictory perspectives, both pro-feminine and yet also derogatory towards women? The answer lies in the literary context. Raison also appears in Le Roman de la Rose (c. 1275), a novel satirised in Christine’s work for its misogyny. The reader is reminded that a character’s perspective, even when that character represents the author (since Christine herself is a character in the novel), does not equal that of the author. This is particularly true of Christine’s novel, a hypothetical social experiment which humours derogatory perspectives. 

When approaching any medieval text, it is essential to appreciate how distanced you are from the original intended readership, whose understanding of devices such as satire almost entirely eludes the modern reader. It is precisely because of this problem that the promotion of medieval scholarship is so important, in order to make the texts and their history more accessible and understandable. In this way, studying medieval literature in a foreign language involves analysing all types of potential comprehension difficulties one can find within a text. It therefore requires you to constantly revaluate your own biases and perspectives, a practice which is essential far beyond this area of study.”

– Isobel Cree, third year French & Spanish at Merton College

“I was a somewhat late convert to modern history. Growing up history had always felt like the domain of medieval monarchs and heroic knights. It just didn’t feel like history knowing my parents and teachers had experienced it. Despite my initial reticence, recently I’ve found my love of twentieth-century history growing stronger. Particularly, my two favourite examples are the Cold War (everyone who knows me will already be painfully aware of this), and American political history. Both of these are not only enjoyable to study, but vital for being able to understand what has helped shape the modern world we live in.

Anyone in an older generation would be able to tell you exactly where they were on the day of the 11th of September 2001; a true watershed moment for this century. 2021 has witnessed both the twentieth anniversary of this tragedy, and the withdrawal of NATO forces from Afghanistan. The pertinence of this demonstrates how beneficial an understanding of modern history is. The Cold War was not a conflict in the usual sense, with the United States and the Soviet Union indirectly facing each other in proxy wars and ideological rivalry. The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979 led to a response from the mujahideen who were backed and funded by many including (unsurprisingly) the United States. Over the following years, conflict and civil war would plague the country, facilitating the rise of the Taliban and the creation of al-Qaeda under Osama bin Laden. This highlights how modern conflicts and tragedies can have their roots earlier than they seem and that although the Cold War came to an end by 1991, its ramifications are still felt throughout the world to this day.

Furthermore, I’ve recently been reading about the rise of modern American conservatism, and the role that Barry Goldwater – the 1964 Republican presidential candidate – played in this. To understand the current situation of American politics, it’s important to look at this period. The rise of conservatism resulted in a greater sense of polarisation between the Democrats and Republicans; something that is only more apparent nowadays. Moreover, it provides an insight into the rise of politically conservative individuals, including Reagan and Trump; thus helping to understand the current political situation the United States finds itself in and how in turn this can influence more global developments.

However, it would be amiss for me to say that modern history is only useful. This would neglect how genuinely enjoyable studying it is. A particularly fond memory I have from my A-level class is laughing at the infamous incident of Khrushchev banging his shoe on the table in front of him – at the United Nations! He also complained when on his historic visit to the United States in 1959 he was banned from visiting Disneyland for security reasons. There is just something oddly amusing about a man who could have brought about nuclear war being upset over something like this.

Medieval history certainly does have its merits and I did rather enjoy writing an essay in Hilary on the rise of the Mongols. Nevertheless, modern history for me reigns supreme. This is thanks to the relevance it has to our lives today, alongside both the ease of research and the truly fascinating things it is possible to discover about some of the world’s most famous individuals and events. It is, to put it plainly, simply better (sorry medievalists). “ 

– Josh McGrane, second year History at University College

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