A Medievalist on Savage Love

One viral post can vastly magnify your impact as a scholar — that’s good news, not a cause for despair

Hartwig HKD / Creative Commons

May 11, 2015

On April 22, to the delight and surprise of many academics on social media, the noted sex-advice columnist and social critic Dan Savage published a long letter on the website of The Stranger, an alternative weekly newspaper in Seattle, from a medievalist as his "Savage Love Letter of the Day: A Medievalist Schools Dan on Medieval Attitudes Toward Sex."

Savage had referred to a conservative Muslim man as following a "medieval version of his faith." A pseudonymous letter writer took erudite and witty issue with the casual appellation of medieval as a pejorative, first showing why medieval was the wrong term, then explaining why it matters. The writer, who turned out to be Matthew Irvin, associate professor of English and chair of medieval studies at Sewanee: The University of the South, in Tennessee, followed the Savage Love practice of signing off with an amusing acronym. He wrote, "Sorry for such a long letter, but it allowed me to put off my grading for a while. Best, Middle Eastern Dude Is Entirely Victorian, Alright? LOL." (For newcomers to Savage’s column, letter writers often sign off with a phrase that can be turned into an acronym, which, in this case, would be MEDIEVAL.)

The letter went viral, at first among academics on social media and then more broadly. Within a day, it had more than 5,000 shares on Facebook, hundreds of tweets, and the numbers are still rising. The comments section, moreover, is filled with people delighted by the letter. They are reminiscing about their history and literature classes, suggesting The Stranger add an "Ask a Medievalist" column (I am available, if Irvin is too busy grading), and praising Savage for running Irvin’s letter.

Clearly, the humanities are alive and well in the comments section of this newspaper. And the success of the letter shows two things: First, it’s possible for academics to pursue casual or informal paths of public engagement to great effect. Second, there’s an audience ready and waiting for academics to do just that.

In the letter, Irvin writes, "The Middle Eastern boyfriend wasn’t taught a medieval version of his faith, and radical religion in the West isn’t a retreat into the past — it is a very modern way of conceiving identity." He argues that the appellation matters because "the common response in the West to religious radicalism is to urge enlightenment, and to believe that enlightenment is a progressive narrative that is ever more inclusive." However, the Enlightenment, Irvin continues, is responsible for "the modern army, the modern prison, the mental asylum, genocide, and totalitarianism as well as modern science and democracy."

I exchanged emails with Irvin about the letter and its aftermath. He’s very happy with the whole experience, if finding it a bit surreal to go viral amid the rush of the end of the semester. He’s been reading Savage Love for a long time, interested in the writer’s relationship with Catholicism and sexuality. But at first he didn’t even know his letter had been published because that day he was attending a faculty meeting that lasted until 10:30 p.m. His wife told him "a medievalist" had a letter up at Savage Love, and even she didn’t know he had written it. Then he broke the First Law of the Internet and read the comments (the second law is "don’t feed the trolls"). He was delighted at what he found.

He wrote the letter not hoping that Savage would publish it, but just that it might be useful. Savage, Irvin wrote in an email, "talks about identity publicly in a way that is both intelligent and very accessible and I hoped that he could take what I gave him and use it for good. I was surprised (and flattered) that he simply posted my letter without comment."

He also wasn’t expecting such a widespread response, even once he knew his letter had been published, but he didn’t worry about the reactions of his fellow medievalists. "Everyone was friendly and considerate, making sure I was OK with my name being attached to it in public, and making some good but kind criticism," he said via email. "I wrote this in the afterglow of directing the Sewanee Medieval Colloquium, which always reminds me how thoughtful and kind medievalists are, even in large groups."

Like Irvin and other medievalists, I’ve been very concerned about the widespread misuse of "medieval" as a common pejorative, a phenomenon that extends far beyond Dan Savage and his discussion of sexual mores. The American and British media frequently describe ISIS, for example, as medieval. The Washington Post called the Ferguson police department medieval. That label seems to be a way of imposing chronological alterity between "us" and something we don’t like, dismissing abhorrent groups and ideas as belonging to the past, as opposed to forged by the present.

It also just irritates me. As Irvin said in his letter, "OMG no one gets us."

Irvin, though, sees any interest in the medieval, no matter how inaccurate, as an opportunity for a teachable moment. He was happy that Savage used "medieval."

"I do think that the misuse of ‘medieval’ is widespread, because ‘medieval,’ as a term itself, is part of our ideology of modernity. Therefore, it’s everywhere in our culture. However, I don’t think it’s really a problem to combat, but one to use," he said. "I was initially interested in the medieval period through religion, and felt the artificial nostalgia for an ‘age of faith’ that never existed. That feeling got me invested, and brought me to a bunch of fantastic medievalists. I was happy that Dan Savage used ‘medieval’ because it offered a chance to engage with him and with his large and intelligent group of readers. The fact that ‘medieval’ is entering popular discourse, even if it is misused, is a tremendous opportunity for medievalists." As evidence, he cited the fact that so many commenters at The Stranger enjoyed and shared a letter on contemporary issues glossed by a medievalist.

His only regret about his letter: He worried that he came off as too negative about religion, because that’s not his view at all. Religion offers a pathway into different historical periods, and lots of his fellow medievalists, like Irvin, find their way into the field in reaction to their own feelings about faith. We need, he said to me via email, to "present the Middle Ages not as a historical reservoir of normative identity, whether religious, political, or sexual, but as a stumbling block to establishing such norms in modernity. Thinking about the difference and sameness of the medieval and the modern, I hope, allows us to think about what it is to become modern, rather than to be modern."

As should be clear from his comments, Irvin is a sophisticated thinker. He’s also a well-respected scholar, runs a major conference, and publishes widely. And yet this letter has already been read by more people than will ever read his scholarship or take his courses. That’s the nature of public engagement. One viral tweet, letter, comment, op-ed, or media appearance can vastly magnify your impact.

That’s good news, rather than cause for despair. What’s so clear from the comments is that "the public" — or at least the interesting slice of humanity that reads Savage Love — is eager for the kind of expertise that only comes with a career as a scholar. Specialized research feeds public engagement. In this era of information overload, expertise (and credentials) give readers, editors, radio hosts — the public and their gatekeepers — confidence that your views matter.

The problem isn’t that public engagement overshadows scholarship, but that public engagement is hard to do well, and that academe is not set up to encourage and reward academics who reach a broad audience. As terrific as Irvin’s letter and the public response has been, hoping Dan Savage will publish our correspondence is not a system. We need to build professional models of public outreach, models that are rewarded in our tenure, promotion, and hiring system, and to include guidance about how to pursue public engagement in graduate training. The public is ready to listen.

Meanwhile, Irvin is moving past his brief brush with Internet fame. His grading, he assured me, was now well in hand.

David M. Perry is an associate professor of history at Dominican University. His blog is How Did We Get Into This Mess? and he writes on occasion for The Chronicle and Vitae. Follow him on Twitter @lollardfish.