It’s hard to tell just how clever the marketing people at Lego are. But the email they sent me a few weeks ago to advertise their new Lego castle set couldn’t have been more appropriate. Even though I’m no longer in my youth, I spent far too much of my childhood playing with Lego. And of course I like medieval things…or I wouldn’t be writing this blog post!
At the same time, I’m a little bit conflicted. The new Lego castle is being marketed at wealthy, nostalgic adults in western Europe and North America; it costs £345 and is self-consciously designed to echo the Lego castle sets of the 1970s and 1980s.
Why is this a problem? you might ask, and what this has got to do with studying history at university?
Well, it’s as if Lego haven’t changed their ideas of castles and the whole medieval period at all during the intervening years. This makes me wonder whether their adult Lego enthusiasts have (or haven’t) changed their own ideas too. The new set is very much like anyone's idea of a western European castle – it’s a big, boxy, stone building with crenellations and arrow slits, and mostly inhabited by knights or soldiers. Yet this is actually the sort of fortification that was typical for only two or three hundred years of the millennium-long medieval period. Medieval scholars are grateful that, of all time periods, it’s the medieval period that gets depicted in Lego. But there is much more to the medieval past than western European castles.
Castles were also the preserve of only the wealthiest level of society. Obviously this is a toy that can’t (and shouldn’t try to?) depict a whole society, but it’s always interesting to see how popular depictions of the past simplify it. BA History students taking the Public History module in year 2 get to ponder these sorts of issues in more depth. (If you can explain to me why the 2022 castle aimed at adults includes a pointy-hatted wizard then please get in touch! Although a lecturer in the English department has told me that presence of a wizard is less of a problem than the LACK of dragons, which so frequently crop up in medieval literary texts and modules.)
You’ll also hopefully be reassured to know that medieval history at Birmingham covers far more than the Lego or Key Stage 2(?) version of it. The first-year module ‘Discovering the Middle Ages’ has a vast geographical spread, looking at everywhere from Greenland to the Mediterranean to East Asia. Its chronological range takes you from about 500CE through to about half-way through the middle ages, to c.1100. By the end of this module, you’ll have plenty of proof that, although western European castles were indeed a real thing, they were not necessarily normal in what we might now call the Global Middle Ages.
The point of studying medieval history isn’t just to explain the trajectories of societies before 1500; studying it helps enrich your understanding of the world after 1500.Dr Chris Callow
Birmingham also has a strong tradition of teaching social and cultural history. While Lego set designers aren’t so interested in the lives of peasants or enslaved people, or in the growth of Christianity or Buddhism, we definitely are. Understanding the lives of ‘ordinary’ people and understanding major cultural transformations are things we think are important.
When you arrive at Birmingham we don’t expect you to have done any medieval history before, and we don’t compel you to do it except in year 1. But doing just a little bit of it gives you a better sense of what it’s about and what medieval historians research and teach. The point of studying medieval history isn’t just to explain the trajectories of societies before 1500; studying it helps enrich your understanding of the world after 1500.
If you discover you like medieval history, as some students do, then there are options and Special Subject modules that allow you to broaden and deepen your understanding of this whole millennium of human history. If you really, really like it, you can do your final year dissertation on it. There’s probably even a good dissertation to be written about medieval-themed toys and their fandoms!