Modernizing the Middle Ages: Professors discuss research, studies about medieval times

Having origins in the 4th century, St. Pancras Old Church continues to stand as the busy St. Pancras International Train Station rumbles nearby in London, England. Victorian architects remodeled the church in the 1800s. (Olivia Bergmeier | Collegian Media Group)

There are a plethora of subjects to study at K-State. Campus is full of engineers, scientists, teachers and more — and a lot of these careers are focused on the future, inventing new technology and training future leaders. One place we don’t explore as often is the past — specifically, the study of medieval times.

David Defries, associate professor of history, focuses on religious and communal dynamics of medieval Europe.

“They viewed each other as parts of a whole,”Defries said, referring to the period’s difference from today’s individualistic society.

He explained this concept further as “the idea of being an individual in a group that fits in.”

Defries also addressed some misconceptions with the medieval era. He said many students who take medieval history classes come in with a romanticized perception.

“They actually appreciate the accurate picture more than the things that got them here in the first place,” Defries said. “A lot of the stuff we associate with the medieval is actually from the early modern era.”

Wendy Matlock, associate professor of English, specializes in medieval poetry from the years 1200 to 1500. She shared what the study of the past can bring to the present.

“Why people are interested in it is that it continues to be important,” Matlock said, “A lot of our cultural tensions can be understood as having origins in the Middle Ages.”

Students come into medieval literature for many reasons, Matlock said. Some are fascinated with “Chaucer and The Canterbury Tales.” Others really like J.R.R. Tolkien’s “The Lord of the Rings.”

“A lot of students find they’re interested in this subject because of Tolkien,” Matlock said. “Tolkien’s prominence in pop culture inspires a lot of interest in the middle ages.”

Matlock also shared how she got into studying old English and medieval poetry.

“I fell in love with with the language, I fell in love with the humor, I fell in love with the way it denies expectations, and I found myself teaching it,” she said.