The Past is History

OxNet North East students explored the notion of History with Professor Giles Gasper, Durham University, in this year’s third OxNet Seminar. They started by discussing the question ‘Why study History?’ to which they replied – to learn from the past, because it’s interesting, and perhaps to make predictions about the future. They then explored the notion of what ‘History’ really is – is it inherently linked to people and experiences, or can we classify learning about the earth or the cosmos as ‘History’? Is it a standalone subject, or does it link to other disciplines like Politics and Sociology? The seminar certainly started with more questions than it answered, which challenged students to be inquisitive and feel comfortable with not always having an answer.

The seminar then moved onto the course reader, where students read and discussed an extract by John Arnold, entitled ‘Framing the Middle Ages’. Arnold argues that we shouldn’t ignore parts of history that don’t match up with the modern day, such as the Middle Ages. Students began by sharing common preconceptions about the Middle Ages, using words like ‘savage’, ‘violent’, ‘ignorant’, ‘superstitious’ and ‘religious’. They grappled with the difficulty of truly defining the Middle Ages, due to its complexity and broad chronological span, but concluded that the lightbulb saw the shift into the ‘modern’ day.

Students finished off by discussing how to actually find history, and all agreed that a historian needed evidence – be it writing, buildings, artefacts, or the physical landscape. They conducted close textual analysis of medieval contracts concerning groups of monks and the Bishop of Hereford, and were surprised to see the self-conscious nature of these documents – it was explicitly stated that the contracts were put into writing to preserve the information for future generations.

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