As he weighed the fallout from his recent appearance on the highly
publicized History Channel special, “Dark Ages: 600 Years of
Degenerate, Godless, Inhuman Behavior,” Philip Daileader, professor of
history and the University Professor for Teaching Excellence at the
College, counted the pros and cons. On the positive side, he is getting
e-mails from people around the country who want to know more about the
Early Middle Ages. On the negative side, some viewers who have watched
the program think they know all there is to know.
Appearing in a television production always involves a gamble for a professor. Academic peers routinely turn up their noses at such endeavors because they do not want to participate in what they deem the sensationalism and superficiality of the lowest common denominator. For Daileader, the very title of the piece, the “Dark Ages,” was problematic. “When you’re teaching a college class, especially at a place like William and Mary, instead of walking in and saying that these are the Dark Ages, you frame it as, Are these the Dark Ages?” he explained. His confidence did not get a boost when he entered the basement of a New York bar where the “talking head” shots were filmed. Amid the heat, his own sweat, the smoke from the smoke machine wafting across his face and what he referred to as “a Tiki lamp that looked as if it had been bought at a ‘Survivor’ yard sale,” he knew his students, once they saw the television special, would be inclined to “rib” him.
Surely enough, by combining state-of-the-art computer graphics with images of real horses and real actors, “The Dark Ages” depicted the period, which for its purposes began with the sack of Rome by the Visigoths in 410 and ended with the launch of the First Crusade to the Holy Land in 1095, in the full-action debauchery designed to attract a mass viewership. Given that Daileader understood that television would teach with images, as opposed to with questions, he was not displeased with the cinematic license the director, Chris Cassel, took. “I did watch it,” Daileader said. “I was pleased that their facts were largely accurate in terms of what happened and when. There were more severed heads than I was comfortable with. The violence was played up; in fact, my wife actually stopped watching it after a while. She said it was just gruesome and grotesque.”
Daileader, as did other historians who contributed to the project, tried to nudge the film toward elements of the period that could not be visually centered. “We tried to complicate the story,” he explained. He takes it as a personal victory that a segment on daily life was included. “My hope is that people will watch the program, and if they want to be entertained by decapitations, that is fine, but as long as they come away thinking that there was more to it than simple barbaric violence, then my participation in the project was worthwhile.”
Does that mean that Daileader will show the film as a resource in one of the classes he teaches on the Middle Ages? In jest, he explained, “Given how mercilessly my students teased me after the initial showing, I’m hesitant to bring it to the attention of those students who haven’t seen it.” His serious answer likewise was “no.” At best, he may present the project’s prospectus as an examination question to students who are studying the Middle Ages by asking them to take the treatment and make it better. It is the type of question that is perfect for a history class at William and Mary, he suggested.
“We know that our students’ ability to absorb information is stunning,” he said. “The ability to go into that mass of information and pick out what they need to solve a problem is the bar we need to get our students over, so I’m thankful to the History Channel for giving me my next take-home examination.”
What we need to know
There are aspects of the early Middle Ages that everyone should know.
The History Channel program concentrated on some of them, including the
reign of Justinian, the Eastern emperor who in 532 lured 30,000
detractors to the Hippodrome and slaughtered them, as well the rise of
Charlemagne, who temporarily imposed order on a world depicted as being
in chaos. “The biggest question of European history is how did this
area at the far end of the Eurasian landmass, whose historical role up
until 1000, literally had been as a punching bag for the rest of the
world, become, as one historian puts it, ‘the predator’ as opposed to
the ‘prey,’” Daileader said.
Essentially, people need to know that the Dark Ages were very different from the present in terms of everyday life, such as how long a person could expect to live and how he dealt with illness, Daileader explained. He listed several touchstones. Although the family has not changed in terms of function, it has changed in terms of structure. “We don’t have marriage by abduction anymore,” he said. The way in which people think about religion also has changed. “You cannot have a sense today of how important saints’ relics were,” he said. “During a period that whenever you got a headache or an abscessed tooth and there was nothing you could do, people relied on the bones of saints for their medicinal purposes.” The social structure, likewise, was different in that it involved class and obligations. “My students need to understand this because they need to know that the type of society we live in, a very atomized, liberal society, is a product of historical forces that are fairly recent,” he said. “When students understand that the present way of living is in some ways peculiar, it helps them understand that if things were very different 200 years ago, it can be expected that things will be very different 200 years down the road.”
Extrapolating for the present
An undercurrent of the History Channel special seemed to be that
civilization may be in danger of entering another period reminiscent of
the Dark Ages. Daileader suggests that a global societal catastrophe
could result in “the disappearance of urban life or a loss of literacy”
that could be comparable in scope to that of the Dark Ages. “Things
certainly could get worse, and as a medieval historian, I always expect
things to get worse, but you can’t go back,” he said. “What’s done is
done. I think every historical moment is unique; it is the product of
specific circumstances that cannot be replicated.”
He took issue specifically with the premises of two ongoing national conversations. One asserts that unwanted immigration caused the downfall of the Western Roman Empire and likewise will destabilize the United States. “The United States and the Roman Empire are so different, and the Germanic barbarians of the fifth century and the Mexican immigrants are so different that I find those comparisons to be superficial,” he said. The other involves the Crusades. “Because on the surface it’s Christianity vs. Islam, people say it’s the same thing. What I try to point out is that the situation in the 12th century was so unlike the situation now. Then you’re dealing with an upstart Europe that’s trying to catch up with the rest of the world, and you’re dealing with an extremely confident Islamic empire that historically has dominated its neighbors economically and technologically. That creates a dynamic that is totally different from the present world in which it is Europe that has technologically outstripped the world and the Islamic world is feeling inferior.”
As he suggested that most attempts to draw insights from the Dark Ages for the present are misguided, Daileader laughed. “This flies in the face of our desire as historians to be useful,” he said. Nonetheless, he maintained that the differences between the two periods were great enough that to draw a connection “ends up distorting the present rather than illuminating it,” he said.
Still, people in the United States do seem to have an increased interest in the Dark Ages. Daileader attributes that interest to a sense that more and more things are beyond our control. “When the United States is confident about ourselves, we like to study the High Middle Ages,” he suggested. “When we’re not confident, we look to periods of crisis and disaster as a means of gaining insight into our own future.”
Although he will continue to discourage attempts to “too easily make connections” between the two periods, he acknowledged with a grin, “This confidence loss could be big business for people who study the Dark Ages.”