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27 August, 2015

Public Medievalism Un/Limited: A Response to David Perry


One of the things I was hoping to do with my Kalamazoo plenary and the recent short piece in the Chronicle was to give a voice to some of those who don’t always have access to the “big microphone” in medieval studies, those who have often been excluded from participation in academic projects involving medievalia. I feel this may be a kairotic moment to have an open conversation about matters of participation, amateurism, enthusiasm, specialism, etc., because new technologies have provided us with ample opportunity to communicate outside the formerly tightly controlled means of communication. The joyous hybridity offered by medievalists.net, which brings scholarship to broad audiences and examples of playful and serious practice to scholars, the incredible extra-academic successes of the Babel Working Group (also: In the Middle, and Eileen Joy’s punctum press), or the Medieval Electronic Multimedia Organization, and many others, make me hope that the future interest in the Middle Ages can continue to grow without the demarcation lines erected in the late nineteenth century (and carefully maintained ever since). After all, knowledge about and the enjoyment of the Middle Ages are not owned by scholars, but belong to everyone.

I am grateful David Perry decided to respond to my Chronicle piece with his “Power and the Limitations of Public Medievalism,” because it gives me an opportunity to explain myself a little more. Perry is part of the “choir,” as he says, “ready to sing” if he were my intended audience. Of course, my article was written for a mixed audience, for those ready to sing with me as well as those who would prefer for academic processes (academies; societies; publications; tenure, etc.) to stay as they are and define as meritorious only work that specifically excludes amateurs, re-enactors, critical makers, etc.  Carolyn Dinshaw, a scholar with impeccable credentials, has given us a powerful example of how “amateurism” is what unites scholars and non-scholars; Jürgen Lodemann, a novelist, has created a fascinating retelling of the Nibelungenlied (Siegfried und Krimhild, 2003) that offers a textual union of scholarship, fiction, and myth.  More can be done, and I think the time is NOW. 

Perry disagrees with me when it comes to my optimism about the consequences of a more public medieval studies. He writes:

The problem is that the profession is being restructured in ways that, legitimately, de-emphasize period-based and geography-based fields; and, less legitimately, propose a false dichotomy between skills education and liberal education, with the money and attention going heavily towards the skills side. These attacks on the nature of higher education are not enrollment-dependent, but structural, designed to steer students away from courses in the humanities and arts. We can embrace modern medievalist expressions all we want, but our power is limited. Change has to come from deep structural work, not individual bootstrapping.

HAVE WE WASTED OUR POWER (in the TOWER)? I agree with Perry about the complex cultural restructuring of (higher) education, but I also think that the dichotomy he diagnoses places too much responsibility for what is happening on the shoulders of the proponents of “skills education.” I believe that the liberal arts are not victims here, but have been complicit in alienating those who expect to learn from us about critical humanistic perspectives in an increasingly corporatized and technological world. So many of our efforts have been about reproducing ourselves, simply making our students become
younger versions of ourselves, and all within the habitat for the humanities called ‘University’. So much of our work in the past has included petty or nonsensical demarcation practices like preferring MLA over MHRA citations styles, or enforcing certain practices for manuscript editing. How many scholars have made an entire career out of dealing with one text, author, or question, without ever asking about the relevance of that text, author, or question for a single person outside the academy? In fact, it used to be a badge of courage to write only for a chosen few. When Norman Cantor passed away, the NYT obituary specified that he had written “readable” books, something apparently exceptional for an academic. And he was derogated by his colleagues for addressing the general public about the history of medieval studies, had to write Inventing Norman Cantor after being ‘othered’ because he dared write Inventing the Middle Ages for a ‘mixed’ readership.

CHANGE: Change in academe has never come, and will never come, via “deep structural work,” as much as I would wish the opposite were true. The history of the success of English studies is linked not to structural work, but to colonial, economic, and nationalistic causes. The energy for developing graduate studies was more a move to make Imperial Germany the most highly educated country in the world than the recognition that education needed another, higher, level of specialization. And the major changes in the British and U.S. academies in the 20th century are related to wars and general social and ideological change (Newbolt Report; G.I. Bill; Thatcherism). In general, we forget that most of the so-called foundational principles governing the current educational system are not even 100 years old. And yet we hold on to them as if they were sempiternal. If we understand that change to higher education is most often externally driven, it is on the external connections of our fields our imaginary forces should work. And medievalists have support outside the academy and, as Perry mentions, much more than those teaching and researching other centuries. That’s a chance, and a responsibility.

BEST PRACTICES: The Guédelon Project is a good example how a comité scientifique and educators can collaborate with practitioners and builders and even dreamers, where we don’t need time travel à la Michael Crichton’s Timeline to fulfill the old scholarly dream of becoming part and engage directly with past practices: As Anne Baud, one of the scholars involved in the project stated: “Mon travail habituel consiste à faire des recherches sur des murs (...) En fait on déconstruit mentalement le mur que l'on étudie. Cela va loin, mais cela reste cérébral. Aujourd'hui, le chantier de Guédelon nous aide à concrétiser des idées, des recherches.” And Philippe Durand, another educator, thinks of the Guédelon project as

[u]n miracle, car il concrétise le plus vieux rêve de tout un chacun : voyager dans le temps. Un miracle, car oser entreprendre un tel projet semblait une utopie et tout est démenti par la réalité. Un miracle, car travailler "comme au XIIIe siècle" implique un choix et une foi sans faille de la part des acteurs du chantier. Un miracle, car les spécialistes peuvent y aborder des réalités insoupçonnées, des éléments que ni les textes, ni l'archéologie ne peuvent saisir, notamment le côté très empirique de la construction. Un miracle, car dans une société de plus en plus déconnectée de son passé, Guédelon répond à un besoin. L'extraordinaire engouement du public pour les visites (300 000 visiteurs par saison) illustre cette nécessité de se plonger dans le passé et dans les racines culturelles. Et le rêve devenu réalité doit durer 25 ans".

Not everyone lives within the geographical reach of a similar project (especially since the Ozark Medieval Fortress project near Lead Hill, AR, must now be considered a failure), but Guédelon is inspiring and offers some best practices.

UN/LIMITED POWER David Perry also responded to my Chronicle question, “What can we do?” His answer:

What we can do is this: Have fun, write for bigger audiences, make new connections with our students, sometimes get paid, and perhaps use those connections to guide our students from their entry point - King Arthur, Game of Thrones, Harry Potter, Renn Faires, the SCA, whatever - to our actual goals in a given class or curriculum. – And that's enough for me.

That’s already quite an admirable and fulfilling program, I agree. If followed by more of us, it would definitely make a difference over time. If more of us were connected to a public that sees and appreciates our work in magazines, communities, and on television; if more of us were engaged in explaining how medieval culture has lived on in our cities’ architecture and numerous other signifying practices; and if more of us were willing to give back to the public that (at least for those of us at public institutions) sustains the work we do, I am convinced we would have considerably more public support for the cultural work we do. I hope others will continue this discussion. We have only just begun.