Posted by: Audrey Thorstad | November 13, 2011

National Identity and Medieval History

Traditionally I write about what I have been up to in this blog, however, to be honestly I have been doing what all eager PhD students have been doing…researching every chance I get. I have learned a lot over the past few months of working, but I have also been attending as many ‘extra-curricular’ lectures as possible, they are usually quite interesting and provoke thought channels I had previously not explored.

A lecture series which is currently being held at the Universities of Leeds, York and Sheffield called the White Rose: ‘The Making of Medieval History’ has just been underway. This lecture series is taking place over the whole academic year and includes two lectures and a workshop at each session (over the span of two days). Each university will host two sessions, so it promises to be quite the series. If you want more information about this lecture series see:

The theme for this first session was ‘national identity and notions of myth’. Both speakers incorporated medieval history into national identity of today. The first speaker talked about Rus’ land (or present day Russia) and the second talked about the notion of medieval Germany in the 19th and 20th centuries. Both lectures were extremely interesting. The workshop/round table discussion truly brought about a wide ranging and thought-provoking discussion as well.

What truly got my thinking was how coming from a country with no medieval history has affected my interpretation, thoughts and interest of the medieval past. In school the Middle Ages was never mentioned, until university of course, but we would just start American History at 1492 when Columbus sailed the ocean blue (a little rhyme we were taught). This apparently is where America started, the start of our history. However, after Columbus, more or less, got lost and by chance landed in the present day Bahamas, history classes in the US usually jumped to the lead up of the American Revolution. This is most likely due to the fact that a lot of horrific events happened. However, this point aside, I find a lot of Americans looking to their ancestors to find their identity. Don’t get me wrong I most definitely consider myself American, and probably possess a lot of American stereotypical traits, but I also look to my grandparents (and even further) for my history. For example, as you might have guessed by my last name I am Scandinavian, thus making me have a very strong tie to the Vikings. This might seem peculiar for someone not from the States, however, after talking to other Americans (mostly Steve) they feel the same way/believe it is a wide spread phenomenon.  Moreover, coming from a ‘Scandinavian’ state I believe a lot of other ‘non-historians’ have this very same feeling. For example, our football team is called ‘Minnesota Vikings’. So the nostalgia for wanting to identify ourselves with some past is very present and quite a commonality amongst Americans.

I think this mainly due to the fact many Americans are not descendants of the original settlers, a lot of us are second, third and even fourth generations. Our families are relatively “new” in terms of history. So in order to fill the void of uncertain pasts we cling to our ancestors’ pasts and assimilate ourselves in a way where we are distinctively Irish or Italian or Scandinavian etc. However, since I do not/cannot incorporate myself in English medieval history (which is what I study) then perhaps it is to my advantage. Although at times I feel like it might be a disadvantage; in that, it’s not a part of me, it’s not my history, it’s not my culture. This medieval history is from some far off land called Anglie; the land of the Angles, the Saxons, the Normans, the Vikings; the land of King Arthur, castles, Old English, kings and queens, Chaucer, Shakespeare (I could go on for ages); this land I have for some reason developed a deep passion for. The rich history, legends, traditions and myths of this island, many of which are still alive today, come to life for me and so maybe coming from a place where the Middle Ages were all but fantasy and magic has actually helped me continue to be passionate about this ‘magical’ time and place. Of course, I still don’t believe it was literally magic, but for me the Middle Ages are shroud in this veil of mystery, historians will never truly know everything that ever happened, yet if we can piece together tiny shreds of evidence and make even the smallest picture of life, death or anything in between it is just one step closer to unveiling that shroud. I know the non-historians reading this probably have gotten quite bored, but this lecture series has made me think of why and how I love the Middle Ages so much.

So I guess I shall leave you with a few questions: How do you identify yourself? Where did this identity stem from? Has your identity changed dramatically over the years? Why do some people (myself included) feel the need to ‘have’ a history stemming from somewhere other than America? And finally, what has shaped your passions? Could it have anything to do with your identity?

Until next time, keep reading, exploring and learning.

P.S. For those of you who read this blog just to make sure I’m safe (Mom Thorstad I’m speaking of you), yes, I’m safe, well and working hard, as usual. J

Here are some pictures of Bonfire Night, cookie baking and a walking adventure with Richard on the Meanwood Valley Trail.

Bonfire in Hyde Park for Guy Fawkes Night

Intensively making cookies 🙂

The best castle cookie anyone has ever made.

Richard’s way of cleaning up aka vacuuming everything off the counter.


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