There is No Public Middle Ages, There is No Public History


Matthew Gabriele, Department of Religion and Culture, Virginia Tech, Blacksburg, VA, USA

As I posted on Twitter (@prof_gabriele) recently, both in response to thinking about this essay and participating in several upcoming roundtables on the same topic, I find that I’m increasingly being asked to talk about being a “public medievalist.” These requests are coupled with an increasing sensitivity on my part that I really don’t have much to say. What I mean is that I’m not really sure that I am such a thing, nor that there is such a thing as a “Public Middle Ages” specifically, or a “Public History” more generally.

I am, I guess, active in the public sphere quite a bit. As noted, I’m relatively active on Twitter, I used to actively blog at Modern Medieval but have now moved to more intermittent posting on Medium, I read and comment on stories around the web, and then away from social media, I’ve written a few op-eds for the local paper, organized a number of lecture series for the public here on campus, and I’m even a locally-elected politician. What’s interesting to me, at least in the context of this essay, is how little all that activity has to do with the Middle Ages. At the time I’m writing this, of my last twenty tweets, only three had anything to do with the Middle Ages, and only eight of those twenty had to do with anything even related to the past more generally. The rest are about sports, diversity issues (some on campus, some not), and local and national politics. There’s an eclecticism in my tweets but I don’t use that platform, or any other, uncritically. I always think before I post anything. Certainly, part of that calculation involves my current status as a politician, part of it comes from Steve Salaita being an acquaintance and former colleague, but part of it pre-dates any of that, from a simple awareness that I’m an adult and I have to own my words. But what does any of this have to do with a (lack of a) “public Middle Ages” or “public History?” Everything. I’d suggest that my status as a public medievalist, or at least my public engagement with the past — medieval or otherwise — has simply to do with my status as a citizen and my status as a ghost-hunter.

There is no Public Middle Ages, there is no Public History, because they’re both everywhere. It’s a truism (or should be) to say that the past was, is, and always will be a construction of the present. As academics, as specialists, we perhaps ought consider that the fundamental nature of our job is to be ghost-hunters. We drag out restless, oftentimes invisible spirits and make them visible. The focus, rightly, should be on the ghosts themselves — who they were in their lifetimes but also how they’ve passed through time and reemerged into ours — rather than where those ghosts manifest themselves. That matters but only secondarily. In other words, the nature of that activity isn’t changed by where we do it. The way forward is simply to worry less about the adjective and more about the noun. Every time we do anything as academics, as specialists, we engage a public. Acknowledge that, don’t necessarily seek out different publics, but engage the ones we already belong to. This means that we can, and should, engage the themes and ideas of the Middle Ages as often as possible, whether they appear on Twitter, on Facebook, in the news, in an academic journal, or in the classroom.

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