Introduction: The Public Middle Ages


Holly A. Crocker, Department of English, University of South Carolina, Columbia, SC, USA

“Never let a good crisis go to waste.”
–Winston Churchill

Churchill’s words make me shudder. This is because they are usually echoed to justify the aggressive, usually craven conduct of some neoliberal administrative body. In the context of the modern university, with its increasingly corporatized standards of research outputs, the recent crisis in the humanities has facilitated the elimination or reduction of programs deemed less “useful” for the modern marketplace. In response, proponents of the humanities have mounted vigorous arguments to defend robust scholarship in philosophy, history, literature, and the arts. Even so, funding for fields that receive awards, not patents, grows ever more precarious.

Yet, in the midst of so much dismal news, something hopeful has happened in the humanities. Since the financial collapse of 2008, there has been a burgeoning of what we might call the public Middle Ages. I hesitate to apply such a label, since, as contributors to this FORUM will show, much of this activity is simply doing what humanities scholars do every day — they just do it in public. But I do want to lay stress on the public aspect of medieval studies as it is currently emerging: through social media, print and online journalism, open-source publishing, blogging, and creative writing, contributors to this FORUM have opened a public vista on the Middle Ages. They have done so to refute misconceptions about medieval history, literature, and religion circulating in popular culture, but this is no field-patrolling exercise.

In fact, I asked the contributors included here to participate in this FORUM because the diversity and liveliness of their public engagements with the Middle Ages affirms a hearty confidence in audiences who are not trained as specialists. As medievalists, these scholars suggest the importance of reaching readers whose interest in the Middle Ages might derive from enthusiasm for hacker culture, historical fiction, nonfiction biography, or online humor. These are audiences with a desire for the Middle Ages, a desire that is not disciplined by field-making boundaries, conventions, or norms. These audiences consist of future, current, and former students, sure — but they are mostly readers whose encounters with the Middle Ages are shaped outside of learned culture. Video games, movies, and TV: the public fashioning of the Middle Ages has very little to do with traditional humanities scholarship.

So why, we might ask, are such learned scholars going public with their renderings of the medieval past? In what might be considered my own provocation to further conversation about the pieces that follow, I suggest the public Middle Ages is emerging for two reasons: the first is what Marion Turner frames as a question of “relevance”: medievalists know that study of our period can contribute to greater understanding — of Middle East politics (Leila K. Norako and David Perry have written on the Crusades in contemporary political life), for instance, or of digital cultures (Kathleen Kennedy, Marion Turner, and Bruce Holsinger have thought long and hard about connections between pre- and post-modern intellectual life). But as Brantley Bryant and Matthew Gabriele emphasize, writing in public, for publics, is a deeply pedagogical enterprise. So, then, the drive to engage non-specialist audiences is an effort to make ourselves better — can we articulate what we do in ways that non-scholars understand? — but for the purpose of enriching a common intellectual life that is no longer nourished within the boundaries of the traditional university.

It seems no accident that the public Middle Ages is emerging at the exact moment when university administrators are questioning the value of what we do as scholars. If we’ve lost our institutional public, mightn’t we find or forge new ones? And this desire to make or locate new publics leads directly to the second reason why I believe the public Middle Ages is happening now: medievalists are no longer willing to separate their intellectual work from their creative lives. As contributors including Bruce Holsinger and Brantley Bryant demonstrate, we make medieval culture through our scholarly endeavors. And, as the work of these scholars affirms, the Middle Ages can be made well even while it sustains our imaginative desires. We can be faithful to the period, in other words, even while we play with the ways in which we make its historical contours public. With the institutional erosion of the university as a vitalizing resource, it seems a less fixed, more peripatetic medieval studies is here to stay.

This emergence is double-edged: the overwhelming benefit of a less institutionally-oriented Middle Ages is that it provides an opportunity for scholars to find new ways of looking at the past. As Kathleen Kennedy and Marion Turner affirm, traditional modes of writing can take on new intellectual life. But it can also be defeatist: don’t we facilitate the erosion of the humanities if we give up on the university as an intellectual home that provides institutional backing for our study of the Middle Ages? Some university administrators would doubtless be glad to see the Middle Ages go. But it is here where I think Matthew Gabriele’s dismissal of “public history” gains most traction, at least for me: in refusing the dichotomy between the public and scholarly Middle Ages, Gabriele urges us to recognize that we are already in publics, writing for them, addressing them, cultivating them, no matter where we do our scholarly work. So, when Leila K. Norako and David Perry caution us about an o’er-hasty connection between the Middle Ages and contemporary debates — over American Sniper, say, or over the Ferguson Police — they do so to deepen our understanding of connections between now and then.

Yet this recognition, too, brings a difficulty that this FORUM invites its readers to confront: that is, the pressure to be in public in all our academic endeavors: should I blog, tweet, or post? Do I need to write articles, stories, or books that reach a popular audience? Do I become an intellectual or political interventionist? If the answer to any of this is “yes,” is the answer to all of it “yes”? I get questions about social media from graduate students, but many of us might wonder if we need to cultivate a public scholarly presence. And, if we decide to go public, how do we manage all the different publics that are becoming possible? Should I blog, tweet, and post? Do I write popular books, opinion articles, and creative entries? Do I start a journal and run for public office? The dazzling output of the scholars gathered here might make the public Middle Ages seem like just another way to professionalize. To resist this reduction, my feeling is that it remains important to disaggregate our lives as medievalists from some of our possible publics: be a dork on Facebook; keep a personal blog; publish poetry that you do not put on your academic c.v. Don’t feel the need to keep up with all social media — even if the profession offers you more and more public outlets for scholarly achievement. Whatever we make of the public Middle Ages, I suggest we keep some of its private pleasures for ourselves.

Warm thanks to Brantley Bryant for his helpful feedback on an earlier draft of this essay.

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