Shallit Lecture: Medieval Castles and Political Ecology

Though we live in what we consider “modern” times, we don’t have to look much farther past a Google search of wars today or the evening news to read about the armed, systemic conflicts that still grip our societies. Wars and political unrest may be thought of just the purview of the Middle Ages, with their iconic castles, wars, and disease, but they are still a part of modern life. Could an analysis of medieval castles, then, shed light on the politics of today? Dr. Matthew Johnson of Northwestern University says that they “controlled, delimited, and defined flows—flows of things, of animals, and of people—circulating in and around the castle and its context,” so it’s possible that they could.


The Event

On March 21 at 3pm in room 1060 in the HBLL, Dr. Johnson, who is from Northwestern University, will give a presentation titled: “Towards a Political Ecology of the Medieval Castle.” Of this topic, he says, “Traditional, culture-historical approaches have stressed [the castle’s] military role and function.  More recently, influenced by theoretical trends, scholars have discussed the castle’s social and symbolic role, the castle as a stage setting for elite identities and practices.” This is precisely what Dr. Johnson will be centering his remarks on: “I focus on how the castle and its surrounding landscape work to control, delimit and define flows — flows of things, of animals, and of people, circulating in and around the castle and its context.”

According to BYU Anthropology, who will sponsor the event, the intended audience are those affiliated with the department and anyone else who is interested in the topic. They “hope the audience enjoys the event and learns something new about the subject!”

Why Study the Middle Ages?

alnwick-castle-castle-alnwick-northumberland-68683But why is studying the Middle Ages- medieval times- important? Weren’t they a barbaric time where everyone died from disease and warfare? Absolutely not! The Bonnie Wheeler Fund website characterizes the era as one of change: “The late period [of the Middle Ages] included the rise of the university system of education and an explosion of artistic expression and architectural innovation, particularly in the construction of cathedrals and castles. It is in this period as well that we see the rise of urban life and the development of a middle class.” All of these innovations are directly affecting us today.

One can argue that we need the Middle Ages to fully understand our own political situation. “In this time of geo-political unrest, we have powerful lessons to learn from events of the Middle Ages,” according to the Bonnie Wheeler Fund website. Understanding the dynamics Middle Ages can help us understand our current position.

pexels-photo-208562 Dr. Matthew Johnson

Matthew Johnson is a professor and graduate advisor in the Anthropology Department of Northwestern University. His research is directed to theory and British and European societies from AD 1200-AD 1800. The archaeologist recently completed a field study at places in southern England, including Bodiam Castle. Johnson has also written a plethora of books:  Behind the Castle Gate:  From Medieval to Renaissance and  Archaeological Theory:  An Introduction to name only a few.

What’s your favorite era of history?


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