Public Medievalism and the Common Life


Bruce Holsinger, Department of English, University of Virginia, Charlottesville, VA, USA

The academic habitus is a devotedly contemplative one. We’re trained up to believe that there’s more virtue in the cloister than the public sphere — and since our era invented the cloister this distinction may be especially salient for medievalists. Academics are ever attuned to the dangers of “vulgar” popularization, as Josiah Ober put it some years ago in regard to classical scholarship and public writing (Ober, 1996, 86), and there’s a strongly ascetic strain in our fields that favors rigor, reflection, and inwardness over outward display and public exposure — though doesn’t necessarily reward each accordingly.

As my own writing has turned more frequently toward public engagement in recent years, I’ve reflected more than once on medieval discussions of the virtues of the active life versus the contemplative life, those two modes of spiritual and worldly engagement that formed the subject of much speculation (and some polemic) throughout the Middle Ages. Bernard of Clairvaux thought deeply about the distinction between these modes, and like many monastics he held that an overly active life could tend toward vanity, ambition, self-regard, lust for worldly fame. Yet Bernard and other medieval religious recognized that there is peril, too, in the excessively contemplative life, the life of the self-satisfied ruminant chewing fondly on his or her good works as if they’re a sufficient end in themselves. If a monk gazes too long on his own navel he will think it the world.

As we consider the role of a “public Middle Ages” in the current shaping of our disciplines, we should remember that public medievalism has a long and complicated history. In France the historians of the Annales School were a regular presence on national television and in other public media for many years, covering topics on everything from medieval cathedrals to the history of the Mediterranean basin. For Georges Duby, it was precisely the non-academic questions he got about his work that were the hardest to answer, and that pushed him toward a clarity and public-facing idiom that made him a better scholar when he returned to the archive (see his discussion “On Television” in Duby, 1994, 108–111). A very different example can be found in the work of John Boswell, whose academic book Christianity, Social Tolerance, and Homosexuality was received, read, and adored as public scholarship.

It’s important to recognize, then, how many different forms and modes public medievalism can take. We might consider in this regard the history of amateur medievalism traced by Carolyn Dinshaw in How Soon Is Now? (Dinshaw, 2012), which reveals a fascinating series of more or less public engagements on the part of amateur scholars pursuing medievalism as an avocation rather than as part of a professional career. I’d like to suggest that public writing can give us academics a space for our own amateurism to thrive anew, in the way it once did before we assumed our straitening professional identities as scholars. Though we all have our academic specialties, when we write as public medievalists we’re often practicing a kind of informed amateurism, one that invites us to set aside our expertise or at least define and deploy our expertise in a very different way than we do in our scholarship.

The useful craft of amateurism is at the heart of my own most extended and devoted mode of public writing about the Middle Ages in the form of historical fiction, including two recent novels set in Ricardian England and the gritty urban milieu of Chaucer’s London: A Burnable Book (2014) and The Invention of Fire (2015). One of the questions I receive most frequently about fiction writing concerns its impact on my scholarship, and whether it’s affected my disposition toward academic practice and writing. While there are lots of answers to this question, one of them has to do with my own sense of the audience and public of academic writing. This is a topic that’s inspired a lot of polemic in recent years, of course, with some writers, such as Joshua Rothman, finding a correlation between the increasing specialization of our work and the ever-shrinking readership and insidery idiom of academic prose (Rothman, 2014). Fiction, like blogging, certain forms of experimental scholarship, and other emergent modes of para-academic expression, provides an immediate and refreshing escape from the traditional genres and forms of academic writing, which can often be frustrating, alienating, and dysfunctional even for its ablest practitioners (see the wonderful observations in Akbari and Gillespie, 2015). This isn’t to say that the writing of historical fiction doesn’t have frustrations and pitfalls all its own. Far from it! But the crafting of popular fiction about the past has taught me, at least, much about the power of literary invention to reshape and revivify the public perception of the era I have long viewed, studied, and taught solely through the prism of my academic discipline (for more on this, see Holsinger, 2014). Historical fiction requires acts of translation and imagination that put the peculiar formation that is peer-reviewed academic writing at a critical distance and help me, at least, see some of its inherent limitations as a privileged discourse of historical understanding.

There are some down sides to the public Middle Ages, of course. Not all or even most subjects we pursue as medievalists merit public translation, nor should they need public justification to ground their claims to importance and worth. The call for more public scholarship sometimes risks sliding into an implicit argument against specialization, particularly micro-specialization of the sort that has given us some of the greatest scholarly achievements in our academic fields. Similarly, the haste of some forms of public writing can lead to error and overstatement of a kind that’s anathema to the avowedly slow and cautious mode of peer-reviewed scholarship (itself a category that needs some serious reexamination, as many have noted). And journalistic discourse also doesn’t have much patience for responsible scholarly citation. That’s not its job, and the idiom can take some getting used to for the thin-skinned, troll-averse, citation-hungry academic.

Here again, though, it might be helpful to think historically about the categories our profession and our institutions like to defend. Certain medieval theologians saw no inherent moral distinction between the active and the contemplative lives, each of which cultivates its own set of virtues and potential vices, and each of which nurtures a different part of our souls, both as writers and as readers. Even the most active life can sponsor moments of what Walter Hilton conceived as a kind of interior detachment, while the contemplative life can enable an engagement with the saeculum even from the depths of the monastic cell. Many premodern writers found great intellectual consolation in the “mixed life” and its allowances; John of Ruusbroec called this mode of living the “common life” (het gemene leven), a life that gave equal weight to individual, private contemplation and the moral imperative of bringing order to our communities and edifying our neighbors through forms of public engagement (see Kikuchi, 2014, 274). The public Middle Ages would not and could not exist without the contemplative scholarly labor that scaffolds it and authorizes its claims about past and present. Likewise, our academic work will only flourish and flourish in new ways if we open ourselves to the risks and rewards of a public Middle Ages, an era perhaps best known and understood through the common life of the written word.



Akbari, S. and A. Gillespie. 2015. How Do We Write? Dysfunctional Academic Writing. In the Middle. May 30.

Dinshaw, C. 2012. How Soon Is Now? Medieval Texts, Amateur Readers, and the Queerness of Time. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Duby, G. 1994. History Continues, trans. A. Goldhammer. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Holsinger, B. 2014. Scholar Stretches Truth. Humanities Magazine 35.6. November/December.

Holsinger, B. 2014a. A Burnable Book. New York: HarperCollins/William Morrow.

Holsinger, B. 2015. The Invention of Fire. New York: HarperCollins/William Morrow.

Kikuchi, S. 2014. From Eckhart to Ruusbroec: A Critical Inheritance of Mystical Themes in the Fourteenth Century. Louvain: Leuven University Press.

Ober, J. 1996. Responsible Popularization: An Introduction. Classical Bulletin 72: 85–91.

Rothman, J. 2014. Why Is Academic Writing so Academic? The New Yorker February 20.

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