Of all the careers that one might choose, the profession of medievalist is not generally seen to be among the most promising.
I know this, because I have spent the past few weeks informing friends, relatives, and co-workers that I am leaving my brief (but, I like to think, promising) career in university administration to read for a master’s degree in medieval history at the University of Oxford. And amongst all the congratulations and best wishes (because the people I know are very nice and well-brought-up), my announcement has generally been met with looks of puzzlement and concern that my cheery declaration, ‘Oh, I don’t know what I’m going to do with it!’, surprisingly does little to allay.
I do understand their reservations. Bills must be paid, and gloriously un-pragmatic academic subjects like medieval history are showing increasingly less potential to assist in that effort. I have considered this. (In fact, I have resigned myself to the fact that at the tender of age of 20-something I have quite possibly just resigned from the highest-paid position I will ever have.)
On the other hand, while I do harbour hopes that my history degree will lead me in the direction of an academic career, my reasons for applying to the programme were relatively unconnected with being able to ‘do’ anything with it afterwards. One doesn’t climb Mt. Everest for the sole purpose of cementing one’s career as a mountain guide. For this next year, I am embarking on an expedition of my own, on an unparalleled adventure of the mind set appropriately amongst the magically anachronistic higgledy-piggledy of Oxford’s chain cafés and dreaming spires. (Of course, to those in the know, I may look more like a six-year-old setting out to explore the back garden with a compass and a magnifying glass. Whichever the case, it should be an adventure!)
And why medieval history? Every historical place and period has its own fascinations, and my attachment to the medieval era is admittedly as much emotional as it is academic. Frequently misquoted and often misunderstood, it seemed to be an era in need of as many friends as it could get.
In return, it offers rich rewards. The study of medieval history is the study of every foundation upon which our current society and civilization is founded. It is the root of our governments, our nation-borders, our universities, our faiths, our literature, our languages, and our wars. At the same time, it is a foreign counter-foil to the modern world, against which the ideals we barely knew we held can be tested and compared and brought to light. The medieval era is humanity in stark relief, struggling against every hardship and evil, recreating a world out of civilizational collapse, creating nations out of tribes, and warlords into kings, combining the loftiest of ideals with the basest of realities.
How’s that for a good day’s work?