In her widely read reflections on the causes and consequences of human violence in the modern world, Hannah Arendt pauses at one point to consider the function of progress and academic research since the beginnings of the modern university in the nineteenth century. She writes,
The irrational nineteenth-century belief in unlimited progress has found universal acceptance chiefly because of the astounding development of the natural sciences, which, since the rise of the modern age, actually have been ‘universal’ sciences and therefore could look forward to an unending task in exploring the immensity of the universe. That science […] should be subject to never-ending progress is by no means certain; that strictly scientific research in the humanities, the so-called Geistes-wissenschaften that deal with the products of the human spirit, must come to an end by definition is obvious. The ceaseless, senseless demand for original scholarship in a number of fields, where only erudition is now possible, has led either to sheer irrelevancy, the famous knowing of more and more about less and less, or to the development of a pseudo-scholarship which actually destroys its object.
Arendt's general observation provides a helpful backdrop for an evaluation of the role academic researchers and their work have played for the ongoing process of re-creating and re-inventing medieval culture in post-medieval times. In fact, her passage encapsulates some of the major conflicts that shaped the academic reception of the Middle Ages since the 1850s: the attempt of scholars in the humanities to emulate the quantitative and positivistic methods in the natural sciences to find acceptance at the modern university; a certain hegemony of German scholarship in these attempts, as implied in Arendt's summarising of these scientific paradigms with the German term Geisteswissenschaften (‘humanities’): and the opposition to this German hegemony and methodology by twentieth-century American scholars like Arendt herself. Clearly, the history of academic practices, including the study of the Middle Ages, needs to be seen within the context of various other social, political, and cultural forces. From among these, the inclusion of imagined national communities and their various usable pasts is crucial for a comprehensive understanding of the modern academic construction of medieval culture. More sections available at Google Books.