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David Rollason on How the Study of Early Medieval Europe Can Extend Far Beyond the Classroom

Early Medieval Europe 300-1500: The Birth of Western Society

Teaching history at the university level does not have to be limited to a broad chronological framework.

David Rollason, author of Early Medieval Europe 300-1050: The Birth of Western Society, discusses the larger aims of teaching history and how the study of early medieval Europe can help students not only in the classroom but also in future studies. Read the full article here.

Teaching history at university level should be much more than a matter of inculcating detailed chronological outlines of different periods together with more and more recondite facts. It should be about preparing and encouraging students to understand, to be critical of, and to develop the confidence and experience to undertake historical discussion and ultimately (for those who wish) historical research at as deep and challenging a level as can be achieved.


In view of these aims, early medieval European history is a particularly appropriate subject for a first-level course or module. It is rarely studied by students fresh from school, so it plunges them into new material. With all caution due to the dangers of teleology, it is a period which raises broad issues, formative to European history – the nature of kingship, for example, the impetus for conversion to Christianity, the development of medieval urbanism and trade, the nature of ethnicity. It is a period especially notable for the innovative character of interpretations applied to it in recent historiography. And it absolutely requires its students to consider a wide range of evidence, from documents to archaeology, from coins to sculptured crosses, from sacrificial burials to great churches.


Early Medieval Europe 300-1050: The Birth of Western Society, unlike any of its competitors, approaches the period with a sharp focus on teaching it in line with the observations set out above. It does provide a broad chronological framework, assisted by a series of thematic time-lines for each section, but its primary purpose is to give students guidance and encouragement in thinking for themselves about the fundamental issues of early medieval Europe.


Each chapter is structured around a series of questions, which are explored through scholars’ developed interpretations or models and through evidence which the students themselves can access. Giving access to the evidence is a key priority – sometimes by citation of sources in translation, sometimes by the book’s lavish illustrations with the detailed commentaries on them, sometimes by directing students to published materials in translation. All this is further enhanced by the material available on the companion website.


Always, the emphasis is on showing students ‘not what to think but how to think’ (R. I. Moore). The book does not expound the author’s views or lay down any dogmatic judgments. The initiative should always be with the students, and the chapters of the book aim to encourage students to take sides regarding the questions, to develop them further, and hopefully to create new ones.


The questions explicitly form the basis of the guidance on research and reading with which each chapter finishes. Guidance is given on the interpretative positions of the authors and the items are organized around the questions which the chapter has discussed. This is much more than just a ‘list of sources’ or a ‘reading-list’. So, at a purely practical level, the book offers purpose-made preparation for seminar- and essay-work, and this is enhanced by the companion website which gives practical guidance on organizing a course or module on this period.

The sort of question-based thinking and evidence-based discussion which this book is aiming to foster has an importance beyond the immediate course or module. The sort of questions it addresses are applicable to other periods and areas. If students have been encouraged to consider in depth the nature of royal power in the early Middle Ages with a sophisticated understanding of the academic issues at stake, they will be better prepared for considering power in other periods, developing hypotheses and models, and testing them against the evidence. And, indeed, these skills are transferable to other contexts separate from the study of history, so that the attitudes and habits of mind they will develop are themselves valuable, transferable skills.

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