Power and the Limitations of Public Medievalism

Richard Utz has a piece in the Chronicle of Higher Education about the ways that medievalist can more intentionally link what they do to popular expressions of ideas about the Middle Ages.

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.

I’m all for this. I don’t believe there is an ivory tower (and there probably never was), but I like what he’s saying here and am glad it’s being so widely shared. I’ve obviously, I hope, tried to model just this kind of engagement in my public writing about history. I also do it in my classroom. I am the choir. If Utz is preaching to me, I am ready to sing. Go read the piece and think about it, please.

Here’s my problem: Implicit in the article is an idea that if (medieval) professors take these steps to more intentionally engage with popular culture, we’ll be in better shape as a profession. 
I think that’s basically not true.
The Middle Ages is popular. Our classes tend to enroll well. It’s vastly easier to fill a “medieval” class than one on the “long 18th century” or even the “early modern” era (though Shakespeare still beats Chaucer, and the Renaissance is doing fine). Medieval conjures images in our students’ minds and we must, and I think we largely are, capitalize on that. In fact, everyone should capitalize on these kinds of things. Do 17th-century historians get pressured to invoke the Three Musketeers?

Disney’s Cinderella Castle

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.

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.

Still not re-watching Braveheart.

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