Spiegel nicely summarizes the usual justifications: that studying the Humanities helps us to understand "what it means to be human," and the updated version of that: the emphasis on critical and reflective thinking that is central to the study of the Humanities. But then she says this:
"Given the current situation of the world, I can't think of anything more important than reaffirming the intrinsic humanity of all peoples, however different ethnically, religiously, politically, or even medically. The great and abiding task of the humanities is to cultivate appreciation for the immense variety of the ways that peoples and societies live and think. […] The humanities teach this most importantly of all the disciplines, in that they require an imaginative, not merely objective or logical, investment in their investigations."
So how does this relate to research in Medieval Studies, a field that I love, but that I sometimes feel can be a little self-indulgent? Spiegel points out that the medieval world is the West's very own historical Other, alien to our own society in many ways, yet intrinsically tied to us. As such (and this is my own musing on the subject now), it informs us that we cannot responsibly interpret our past through the lens of the present; even more importantly, we cannot take a teleological approach and assume that our present is the result of an inescapable evolutionary process. It forces us to exercise that historical imagination that Spiegel speaks of, and then – hopefully – to apply the results of that imagination to ourselves.
I would never suggest that we look to the medieval past for precise parallels or solutions to our own problems of, say, relations between church and state, between members of different religions, or between men and women. But these are persistent questions, and thinking critically about how our own historical Other addressed these issues can shock us out of presentist thinking and the sometimes disastrous complacency it can produce.