An interview with Andrew Taylor, Professor of English
1. What is the importance of Medieval and Renaissance Studies?
Medieval and Renaissance studies cover about a 1000, maybe 1300, years of Western European history. A lot went on, and we inherited many medieval institutions, universities being one of them. To a much more important degree than most people realize, we live in medieval structures. If you want to change these structures, you have to know how they were formed and where they come from. The way we process and organize information, from page numbers to educational structures, all goes back to the medieval times.
2. What makes Medieval and Renaissance Studies so interesting?
It shows you what people are capable of enduring; indeed, they often lived in extremely brutal conditions. Yet despite all that brutality, culture went on, poetry was written, music was composed, great buildings were constructed. In the midst of appalling violence, people managed to do extraordinary things.
3. Because the Faculty offers a major in Medieval and Renaissance Studies, the program needs to be combined with another major or minor. What are some of the most interesting combinations you have seen?
It depends on your interest. Some people combine it with Classical Studies, while combining it with any classical or modern language program is also fantastic; it’s a very natural combination. The Digital Humanities minor is also a great bonus to your degree, because if you are planning on becoming a medieval historian, you need to know about the digital tools you’ll be using in the job market.
4. You mentioned the job market. How does this program prepare you for it and what are our students looking at in terms of possible careers?
I think the Medieval and Renaissance major is good training to develop good analytical skills in general. I know a lot of students who have gone from Medieval and Renaissance Studies to External Affairs. There are a variety of jobs in the government for which this type of training is very useful, as well as the obvious career paths, such as teaching, business and law.
5. What makes Medieval and Renaissance Studies relevant today?
Studying history could be compared to playing a video game in which you’re driving down a road in the dark at high speed, and it keeps changing. If you’ve been playing the game for a while, you have a better understanding of how you can handle the next sudden change. You can’t predict it, but I think you can find yourself a bit better able to cope with it, to recognize the change when it does happen.
6. Can you give us examples of how Medieval and Renaissance Studies appears in current popular culture?
The big example at the moment would be Game of Thrones. A generation earlier, I would have said Lord of the Rings. Game of Thrones definitely focuses on the violence of medieval times; it aims for realism and it is, in fact, realistic in some ways.
Out of Lord of the Rings came Dungeons and Dragons, and out of Dungeons and Dragons came a vast selection of medieval-themed video games. Most video games rely heavily on medieval sorcery material. Even games such as Grand Theft Auto are inspired by medieval studies, since they are quest-driven, a game in which the journey is linked to a very specific quest.
7. Why is Game of Thrones so popular?
Whether you read the books or watch the show, Game of Thrones is widely unpredictable. If you are used to Hollywood narratives, you can pretty much tell which characters are going to die, which aren’t, and so on. Hollywood narratives can only be so cruel; Game of Thrones is much more brutal that way. The costumes are magnificent and it’s beautifully filmed on multiple continents, and every culture is visually distinct. For those of us lucky enough to live in our civilization, our lives can seem pretty boring, so when a show explores what it would be like to live on the edge, in a much more violent setting, that’s a large part of the appeal.
8. From your perspective as a medieval scholar, what’s missing from Game of Thrones?
What the show doesn’t have – and this doesn’t seem to bother anybody – is any sense of moral purpose. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings had a whole variety of key stories about good versus evil. Shakespeare, for example, also has that kind of conflict: you have good and bad kings, the powerful versus the weak, a sort of fight between the good and the bad. You don’t find that in Game of Thrones. There is no indication whether or not the cycle of violence is going to end. I find it interesting that it doesn’t affect people to be following a narrative that doesn’t seem to go anywhere, or doesn’t have an ultimate solution that would end any conflict.