Public Engagement – The Novelists

I write a mostly monthly column for the Chronicle of Higher Education. I’m interested in the way that both individual academics and institutions engage with issues and spread their expertise in the public sphere. My columns look at what people do and how it works within an academic career.

Recent columns are:

Today’s column takes a different approach. I am writing about two novels, both set in the Middle Ages, both written by active medieval scholars. You should read both books!
Holsinger – A Burnable Book
Lucy Pick – Pigrimage
Here’s my key review part of the essay, as opposed to the broader discussion of being an academic and a novelist:

Each of the two novels offers a distinct vision of medieval life. Both authors carefully deploy both invention and fact to erode myths about medieval people and society.

Pick describes the Middle Ages as “modernity’s closet,” an imagined past from which we distance ourselves. For her, too many depictions of the period rely on horror and savagery or else depict a simplistic golden age of pure faith and chivalry. In Pilgrimage, she presents a textured view of medieval religion, explores the opportunities and limitations for women in that era, and filters it all through the experience of a character who is blind. Gebirga, the main character, leads the reader through the sounds, smells, tastes, and sensations of the medieval world. Pick’s novel dabbles in magical realism, letting the miraculous and sacred pierce through to the mundane and political. It isn’t fantasy, but an attempt to describe the whole of the medieval world, especially for pilgrims, as they would have believed it to be.

In contrast, Holsinger believes in grit. His London is a city of blood, semen, and savage realpolitik, with crowded bureaucracies and an angry church. In the halls of power, those who aren’t corrupt are compromised. It all seems terribly modern, and that is Holsinger’s point. We believe that complex political infighting, lawyers, and bureaucracy are aspects of the modern—or at least Renaissance—world. That’s a perception based on myth rather than historical truth. He gives us killers, lawyers, and manipulative bastards all shaped by their historical period, but who are also fully complex humans. He wants to break down the centuries of mythmaking about the Dark Ages. If those ages were dark, the novel suggests, so is today, and so is every era in which humans murder and betray for profit and power.

So read, review, share, and otherwise enjoy! Writing this piece was one of the most enjoyable tasks I’ve had as a journalist, as I got to read two wonderful novels and talk to their smart authors.

One Reply to “Public Engagement – The Novelists”

Leave a Reply