Friday, August 28, 2015

Saving Medieval Studies?

I was somewhat perplexed to find a link to Richard Utz's recent Chronicle of Higher Education essay, "Don't Be Snobs, Medievalists," a revised or abbreviated version of a plenary lecture he gave at the big Medieval Congress in Kalamazoo this past May. I don't know Utz, and I was unable to attend the plenary, but I have plenty to say on the topic, and I guess I will go ahead and do so here.

Utz's solution to the increasing problem of medievalists' shrinking presence on university faculties is to ask them to connect or reconnect with an interested public. The underlying claim, it appears, is that medievalists have been too "snobbish" by writing primarily for an audience of specialists and by failing to respond in quite the right way to non-academic medievalism. The first claim, about writing for specialists, I'd point out, pretty much applies across the board to humanities scholars, and is really only half a complaint, anyway. While I do think humanities scholars might reasonably write more for public outlets, writing for specialists is (and should remain) a central mode of all work at the boundaries of knowledge. It is the essence of the scientific method, and in that sense, writing for an audience of specialists is perhaps where what humanities scholars do is most like what happens in pure science: we seek to understand something, more fully or in more detail.

In making his argument, Utz appears to rely on what feels to me very much like the humanities-bashing one might find almost anywhere:
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, Gu├ędelon, 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.
I frankly do not understand how one quantifies knowledge (or even "information") in this way. Nor do I think quantifying knowledge is necessarily the most effective way of evaluating scholarship. In the end, this kind of claim boils down to a familiar claim that humanities scholarship is pointless, arcane, self-referential, and isolative.

As the set-up of these comments indicate, however, Utz encourages medievalists to develop or harness connections to re-enactors, as well as encouraging more scholarship of medievalism: the study of how ideas about the middle ages reflect, shape, and are reflected in later periods, including the present. Doing so will enable medievalists to make a powerful claim for contemporary relevance.

Of course, many people, including many medievalists, are fascinated by A Game of Thrones or The Lord of the Rings. And I guess there's some value to seeing these creative works as having some connection to the Middle Ages: but studying these works and writing about them will not save medieval studies for the future, since the study of medievalism is only a topic (and a minor one at that) in the larger study of contemporary culture. Medieval scholars do have specialist knowledge that can help in that minor study, but other scholars of modern culture will probably continue to find the contributions of medievalists marginal. Yes, studies of A Game of Thrones may feel more relevant to people living in the twenty-first century than studies of Layamon's Brut, but all we're talking about here is choosing which marginalized space we medievalists wish to inhabit.

The problem with using medievalism to make the work of medievalists relevant is that it echoes or embodies the humanities' current focus on the modern. Medievalists hold a precarious position on the margins of the modern, and early medievalists have found themselves quite solidly placed upon the side of the pre-modern. But to simply try to make medieval studies more relevant to modernists gives the game up, it appears, by throwing the pre-modern period under the bus.

What medieval studies needs to do, I think, is to argue for our importance on the basis of multi-culturalism and diversity. Pre-modern cultures were different from modern ones, and they have much to offer us for understanding culture difference, cultural contact and conflict, and cultural change. These problems are vital ones in our time, and whether it STEM thinking or humanities thinking that urges us to see the pre-modern responses to these problems as too distant to be of value, it is short-sighted thinking. Medievalists--and others, working on even earlier periods--take the long view, and that is precisely what we have to offer to the world at large. We need to find ways to communicate the value and relevance of the long view, rather than shifting our focus onto more recent cultural formations.

But that long view is important because the middle ages are different from the present, not because they are similar. That is what the focus on relevance risks missing.

2 comments:

  1. "The problem with using medievalism to make the work of medievalists relevant is that it echoes or embodies the humanities' current focus on the modern. Medievalists hold a precarious position on the margins of the modern, and early medievalists have found themselves quite solidly placed upon the side of the pre-modern. But to simply try to make medieval studies more relevant to modernists gives the game up, it appears, by throwing the pre-modern period under the bus."

    Brilliantly put. I am going to have to quote this...

    A thoughtful piece, Tom, and I think spot-on.

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    1. Thanks for visiting and reading, IDFJ (hmm, that sounds like a Meyers-Briggs category).

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