The Chronicle Review

Don't Be Snobs, Medievalists

Pui Yan Fong for The Chronicle Review

August 24, 2015

We medievalists have had a pretty good run in academe. We were admitted in the final third of the 19th century after we proved that our subject was complex (read: science-like) enough to warrant professionalized study. European nations’ desire for origins, to use the title phrase in Allen J. Frantzen’s influential book, helped expand the field into the second half of the 20th century. Even in America, although her very existence was predicated on leaving "old" Europe behind, academic work on various medieval heritages thrived to the point where every humanities department boasted at least one medieval specialist.

However, there is now a manifest discrepancy between the large number of students who request that we address their love of Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings, Game of Thrones, and medieval-themed video and computer games on the one hand, and the decreasing number of medievalists hired to replace retiring colleagues on the other. We are no longer protected by our involvement in preserving European heritages, an involvement often joined up with primordialist, jingoist, and colonialist mentalities discredited in the Western world by the 1970s. And we are as endangered as the rest of our humanities colleagues by the advent of new areas of scholarship, the intimidating popularity of the STEM disciplines, and politically motivated cuts to the liberal arts.

What can we do?

Perhaps we should begin by admitting that in enjoying the splendid isolation that allowed us to learn a lot about medieval culture, we have failed to share that knowledge with the public. As a result, a single 178-minute movie, Braveheart, could wipe out what 150 years of scholarship had established about the Right of the Lord’s First Night (a feudal lord’s rumored right to take the virginity of his serfs’ newlywed daughters). Meticulous source study since the Enlightenment about the horrific crimes committed during the medieval crusades hasn’t stopped schools from naming their teams Crusaders. And tens of thousands of learned books and articles about medieval knighthood have had no influence on white supremacists’ appropriation of allegedly chivalric virtues. It is clearly time to lower the drawbridge from the ivory tower and reconnect with the public.

Many whom we brand as "amateurs" or "dilettantes" invest more energy in engaging with the Middle Ages than some professors do.

One way to do this is to intervene aggressively in the media when the French National Front appropriates Jeanne d’Arc, New Hampshire legislators feel textually beholden to the Magna Carta, British politicians combat contemporary jihadism with a late medieval treason law, or Prince Philip is appointed to a knighthood of the Order of Australia, a title the illustrious heritage of which dates back to ye olde 1975.

Once medievalists and the public become reacquainted, we should build coalitions. Instead of disdaining the broad public interest in medieval culture, we should acknowledge and respect that many whom we brand as "amateurs" or "dilettantes" (terms etymologically indicating "love" and "delight") invest as much or more time, energy, and money in engaging with the Middle Ages than some of us professors do. Collaborating with these natural allies will strengthen, not endanger, the discipline.

The Society for Creative Anachronism has added more to our knowledge of medieval culture by practicing blacksmithing, re-enacting the Battle of Hastings, and performing historical dance than D.W. Robertson’s decision, albeit substantiated by learned footnotes, that all medieval art was created and needs to be read according to the principles of patristic exegesis. Similarly, Michel Guyot’s megaproject of rebuilding a medieval castle, Guédelon, from scratch over a 30-year period, based on 13th-century building plans and without modern technology, yields infinitely more information than another 50 essays obsessing about the authorship of the anonymous Nibelungenlied or Cantar de Mio Cid. Moreover, sites like medievalists.net and publicmedievalist.com communicate valuable information more effectively to academic and nonacademic audiences than dozens of academic journals accessible at subscribers-only sources like JSTOR or Project Muse.

We need to stop dissecting medieval subject matter as if it were too distant and "other" to be relevant now. Instead, we should acknowledge that today’s notions of the medieval are informed by a veritable palimpsest of previous imaginations since the Renaissance humanists started spurning the 1,000 years between themselves and a glorious classical antiquity as a "dark" age.

The future of the field may depend on reconnecting it to the powerful fascination among our students and the general public.

Accepting this notion, advanced by Leslie J. Workman in the journal Studies in Medievalism and Carolyn Dinshaw’s book How Soon Is Now? (Duke University Press, 2012), implies that we see ourselves not as omniscient outsiders but involved contributors to the continuing cultural process of inventing the Middle Ages. It also means that we include in our teaching and speaking portfolios the study of the reception of medieval culture. This encourages students and public audiences, as Towson University’s Medieval Baltimore project and Tulane University’s Medieval New Orleans seminar have done, to detect the traces of medieval culture in the architecture, rituals, entertainment, language, and politics of their own backyards. Finally, it suggests that the gatekeepers of academic medieval studies (editors, advisory-board members, and external reviewers for tenure and promotion) need to recognize that the future of the field may well depend on reconnecting it to the powerful fascination with all things "medieval" among our students and the general public.

To make it possible to help shape and harness this interest, universities should support early-career faculty and graduate students’ efforts to be public medievalists, relating the Middle Ages to postmedieval times. Of course, some of us, tired of traditionalist resistance to change, have already begun to pursue para-academic venues. The members of the BABEL Working Group, for example, employ crowdfunding, and other alternative, nonhierarchical, and cross-disciplinary practices and alliances to escape the status quo. Other groups and organizations, like the International Society for the Study of Medievalism or Modernités médiévales, have created similar independent spaces, albeit within the boundaries of the academy.

Add these efforts together, and we medievalists might extricate ourselves from the isolationist confines of 19th- and 20th-century medieval studies and embrace a broader and more egalitarian mélange of academic and popular medievalisms. If we join ranks with the so-called amateurs, we will ensure a continued critical as well as affective engagement with medieval culture. In the process, we might revivify our discipline and contribute to the health of the humanities.

Richard Utz is chair of the School of Literature, Media, and Communication at Georgia Tech. A version of this essay was presented as a plenary speech at the 50th International Congress on Medieval Studies at Western Michigan University in May.