“Outreach” is the kale of academia: everyone agrees it’s healthy, but they’re not always eager to make it a part of their lives. My hat is off, then, to Richard Utz, a scholar of medievalism at Georgia Tech, for his willingness to ride out to the market square and kick around big questions about the state of his field. A few weeks ago, the Chronicle of Higher Education published part of the plenary speech Utz delivered in May at the International Congress on Medieval Studies. I’ve been moving truckloads of books to a new home in the country, so this is my first chance to dig into the piece. Despite the stupid title the editors gave it—“Don’t Be Snobs, Medievalists”—it’s a worthy start, even if I found myself cuisse-deep in the questions it raises.
It is clearly time to lower the drawbridge from the ivory tower and reconnect with the public.
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.
What does it mean to “intervene aggressively”: stand on the drawbridge and denounce sinful readings of history? By what criteria? It’s not a question of accuracy: Utz links to stories about European nationalists, British Conservatives, American Republicans, and cranky Prince Philip (as if they’re all the same) but later he praises the Society for Creative Anachronism. The SCA and its members have done tremendous work in material culture, folklore, and martial arts, but as an organization whose mission is often informally characterized as creating “the Middle Ages as it should have been,” it also has a fantasy wish-fulfillment faction, and it redacts a vital force in medieval culture: religion. Is that not at least potentially a problem for academia? Does the group get a pass from the Medievalist Police because they’re nicer or generally more liberal? I don’t want (or trust the proponents of) a medievalism that seeks to justify every facet of liberalism any more than one that serves as a conservative catechism or nationalist blueprint.
Even so, Utz sees promise in meeting at least certain elements of the public on their own turf:
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.
I respect Utz’s aims, but I’m skeptical of his plan. In the past eight years, I’ve written more than 160 blog posts about medievalism, a few of which have gone, if not viral, at least naggingly bacterial, including one about a Charlemagne quote from an Indiana Jones movie that’s drawn tens of thousands of readers. I’ve written both a middle-school textbook and a moderately successful midlist pop-history book about Charlemagne. I’ve given talks about Charlemagne at libraries, museums, and book festivals. I’ve promoted a book of medievalist poetry inspired by a Gothic cathedral. I’ve translated a Middle Scots romance and published shorter translations here on the blog and in scholarly and literary journals. I’ve even dabbled in applied paleobromatology and shared my clunky efforts at retro, medieval-themed instant photography. I did these things not to advance an academic career but because the Middle Ages provided a rich matière for the creative work that occupies my spare time—but if I had done these things as a scholar engaged in public outreach, or if academia had paid more attention to me, would it matter?
Utz writes as if the scholarly world is not just doomed, but scarcely deserving of survival:
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.
Scholars have indeed failed to bushwhack through old-growth clichés to reach the public; the late Norman Cantor identified the problem more than 20 years ago. But Utz points out an important and underappreciated supply-and-demand clash:
[T]here 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.
When I was an adjunct, the director of the English department started me off with one medieval lit course and laughed at my hope that there’d ever be more. In the decade that followed, student demand let me revive the other three medieval courses in the catalog. Now that I’m outside Utz’s drawbridge, I wonder if there shouldn’t be less talk about impressing the public and more effort to win over university bureaucrats, especially lapsed humanities scholars who act like they’re managing a Walmart distribution hub.
I also wish Utz had clarified what he means when he says that students “request that we address their love” of the popular media of the moment. Do they want professors to pontificate about their favorite TV shows? That strikes me as a disheartening waste of brainpower and money—but my hope is that they want something more. Speaking as a kid whose medieval interests were partly rooted in childhood enthusiasm for fantasy games, I’d urge Utz and his colleagues to promise wonderful new realms to their students: history that illuminates human nature, the keys to unlocking eldritch languages, artistic and theological glimpses into the medieval mind—uncool things that endure deep within us long after entertainment companies neglect their latest love-child.
Utz alludes only briefly to “the health of the humanities.” I wish these discussions weren’t always so polar, with academia on one end and TV and video games on the other. What about other eclectic, unaffiliated souls? I’ve met or discovered the work of several such people: Lex Fajardo, author of Kid Beowulf, a series of all-ages graphic novels inspired by his love of world epics; Nancy Marie Brown, the admirably prolific author of mass-market books about the Lewis Chessmen, the Vikings, the Eddas, and Pope Sylvester II; remarkable medieval-inspired poets like Maryann Corbett and Becky Gould Gibson; or novelists like Tod Wodicka. I wonder: What would they do if they came to a scholarly conference? Would it still be a scholarly conference? Would scholars support them right back? Just as those retiring medievalists aren’t being replaced, writers and artists are watching their audiences fragment and shrink. The larger culture doesn’t care, but those of us who have never felt entirely at home on either side of the drawbridge would welcome new allies in seeking the true and the real. Sometimes it’s nice not to lurk in the moat.