The Disorientation of Writing as a Public Medievalist

 

David Perry, Department of History, Dominican University, River Forest, IL, USA

One day in February 2013, Pope Benedict retired, drawing on the thirteenth-century St. Pope Celestine for his model. Not long after, the new pope named himself after St. Francis, the thirteenth-century saint. For about a month, expertise in the thirteenth-century papacy was hot. I wrote about it for CNN and The Atlantic, and unwittingly launched myself into a career as a public author.

I now live a kind of dual life as a writer. I produce medieval scholarship (my book) while writing mainstream opinion and reported pieces on disability, parenting, police violence, and other related topics. Every so often, though, something medieval will pierce through to my mass media world, and I’ll experience a period of integration.

I’ve been surprised by how often medieval stories have been relevant to mass media over the last few years. International interest in Pope Francis has fueled one branch of stories, as have popular “medievalist” shows such as Game of Thrones. Modern anti-Semites apply the blood libel myth. Modern journalists too often use “medieval” to mean “bad.” ISIS, the terrorist proto-state organization, often receives the appellation medieval (Terry, 2015). So too does the Russian driver’s license system (Petri, 2015) and the Ferguson police department.

The good news is that I’ve found mass media editors surprisingly receptive to unpacking the ways that the Middle Ages inform contemporary culture, and while lay readers often say mean things to me, it’s never that the Middle Ages are boring. The problem, though, is that when a news cycle brings my medieval expertise into sudden relevance, I find the integration between my self-as-scholar and my self-as-journalist to be disorienting.

When I write about disability and police violence, for example, I am informed by academics in criminology and disability studies (and other fields), but I know I am not a part of either field. I am a journalist, writing to as big an audience as I can muster. I just hope that academics in those fields will deem me a competent interlocutor. When I discuss the Middle Ages in relation to current news, on the other hand, I have to operate in the context of my field. I am deeply aware of the rich citation history I am circumventing with a few choice sentences or links.

Take, for example, the recent flare-up over the National Prayer Breakfast, in which some conservative pundits and academics took issue with President Obama’s mention of the Crusades. I pitched this piece to The Guardian, successfully, as medieval history once again entered a hot news cycle. Then I had to write in such a way as to serve the public audience, conform to strict word limits, and not say anything that would irritate other medievalists. Suffice it to say, I failed.

In the following four sentences, I tried to acknowledge the existence of long-standing historical debates about specific aspects of the Crusades, but also reflect a general consensus that they did consist of religiously-motivated violence. My initial draft was too long, my editor and I went back and forth on language, and we finally settled on this:

The Crusades were pretty bad. Historians debate the precise extent and savagery of the violence, but we generally agree that the intensity of the religiously-motivated brutality was staggering. We argue, for example, whether there really was cannibalism during the First Crusade (probably), and whether blood really flowed up to the combatants’ ankles in the Temple of David in 1099 (probably not). But there’s no question that crusaders were sometimes driven to slaughter non-Christian civilian populations both in Europe and in southwest Asia, all in the name of religion.

 That second sentence got me in the most trouble. Daniel Franke, a military historian (and a friend), responded with a nearly 6000-word blog post on the Crusades, the media, and the prayer breakfast. He wrote:

Perry’s paragraph in The Guardian, while carefully worded, conveys entirely the wrong impression: “we generally agree that the intensity of the religiously-motivated brutality was staggering.” Not quantity, but intensity — though that really can’t be measured. The impression is that the ridiculous casualty figures given by other columnists can be taken at face value, and that historians are agreed on the context of brutality. Neither [Perry nor Madden] is accurate, and both sides again give the impression of an uninterrupted block of events about which we can make sweeping claims. (Franke, 2015)

Franke isn’t wrong about the problems with my sentence. I responded by thanking him, sharing his post everywhere, and engaging in discussion. It turns out that we mostly agree.

My goal here is to be frank about the challenge of writing publicly about the Middle Ages, and to ask not for your patience or forgiveness for when I make mistakes, but for more voices. First, from time to time medieval expertise becomes a hot media commodity, and even when it’s not, a well-crafted essay can find a good home. Second, while academic writing aspires to seminal, final, or complete mastery of a field, the best public writing does not. It should inspire conversation, dialogues, and an iterative process in which the next batch of essays does better. Thanks to Franke, I’m going to do better next time. And then I expect to be held accountable for where I miss the mark.

Here’s the lesson for me: The challenges of public writing are real. The answer, though, is for more people to do more writing, rather than to let these challenges silence. To the extent one can engage safely, and to the extent one wants to do so, I would encourage all medievalists to look for ways to speak to wider audiences. Not only does it serve a public good, but it also forces you to reformulate your own understanding. It’s hard to encapsulate complex academic discourses in brief, publicly-accessible statements. It’s also necessary and ultimately can lead to new questions, new arguments, better scholarship.

On the other hand, public writing takes time away from the traditional scholarly activities that our profession rewards, so writing publicly before tenure can be dangerous professionally — not because you’ll be shamed for taking public positions, but because people will wonder why you aren’t spending more time on applying for grants, writing a book, revising a traditional article. In response, I’ve regularly written in higher education media in favor of counting “sustained public engagement” in tenure, promotion, hiring, and grant decision-making. In fact, many administrators stand ready to do just that, once experts in their fields provide them with rubrics or metrics for doing so. That, I think, is one of the next tasks for scholarly organizations, conferences, and readers of journals like postmedieval.

 

References


Franke, D. 2015. The Crusades: Principles and Perspectives. The Winds of War, 9 February. http://www.milesstrenuus.com/2015/02/09/the-crusades-principles-and-perspectives/.


Petri, A. 2015. Russia’s Moronic Medieval Drivers License Restrictions. Washington Post, 8 January. http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/compost/wp/2015/01/08/russias-moronic-medieval-drivers-license-restrictions/.


Terry, J. 2015. Why ISIS isn’t Medieval. Slate, 2 February. http://www.slate.com/articles/news_and_politics/history/2015/02/isis_isn_t_medieval_its_revisionist_history_only_claims_to_be_rooted_in.html.

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