Saturday, October 18, 2008

Can We Redeem Medieval Studies?

The following was a post I began at the beginning of September, forgot about, and have now returned to and posted. So its a little dated.....

The good folks over at In The Middle have been discussing how and why to defend Medieval Studies, prompted by a note received by J. J. Cohen from Ken Tomkins. Our good friend and better blogger Scott Nokes of Unlocked Wordhoard has told us about another post on the topic by Nic D'Alessio at Indirections and suggested that he may unlock his wordhoard on the topic.

Considering the emphasis we here at Modern Medieval have placed on outreach and promoting our field, and even hosting a roundtable with great entries that touched on these things, the topic is up our alley.

But rather than repeat some of the really very great suggestions made by others at the blogs linked above (and I encourage everyone to go and read or reread them), I want to ask a question that is related to all this.

Between "town and gown" if I may adapt those terms, or between popular culture and academic culture, we have a rather significant disconnect and a disconnect that results in the situation where we have to apologize (in all senses of the word) for doing medieval studies. Medieval schtuff, that we often call "medievalism(s)," is popular in pop culture! Movies, retellings, books, new translations, newspapers, music, reenactment groups.....almost everywhere one looks one finds a medievalism thriving. Nor have I mentioned the obvious, at least to us, impact of the medieval on current events. Yet in academia, medieval studies is often beleaguered and almost every year since I've decided to become a medievalist a colleague asks for assistance in composing a defense for doing what she or he does as a medievalist in the face of possibly being, well, deleted from the rolls. Quite apart from how we should defend ourselves from such action, I want to try and explore why there is this disconnection between the apparently very avid interest in our culture at large, and the disinterest on the part of the academy at large.

I'm not sure I have any answers. I do have some impressions. The discipline of Medieval studies is challenging. And it takes discipline. We have to study earlier forms of languages, or foreign languages all together: Old Irish, Old Norse, Old English, Old Welsh, Old French, much less Medieval Latin or Byzantine Greek....and we have to play with old manuscripts and travel to these archives and such....Its hard! And we do tend to show up our colleagues....I'll never forget explaining references in Ulysses to a Joyce scholar not long ago.

So that's really two reasons why the academy would rather pass us by: its hard, and not always sexy, to muck about with manuscripts and try to reconstruct a text in Old English with Latin glosses when a great deal of the pages have been eaten by mice! In fact, it isn't sexy at all! Its downright aggravating! And it is also a very great thrill and exciting.....but that's a different post. But a number of our colleagues haven't had the experience of holding in their hands a 1000 year old book and connecting with the scribe. From the outside, it seems very challenging, perhaps too daunting, and if our field is daunting to fellow academics, those fellow academics reason that it must also seem so to students.

Beyond the lack of "sexiness" as perceived by some, accompanied with the difficulty, there's the simple fact that because of what we are forced to know, we actually have the advantage of others. We can work in any field in history or literature without too much adjustment: read a work in Victorian England and there a medievalist will find much that feels very familiar (see Sketches by Boz and compare that to Chaucer's Canterbury Tales, esp. the prologue....some great differences, but some great similarities too!). But the opposite is not the case for the Victorianist by and large who find Beowulf or Marie de France to be too far outside their world. Of course, we all know people in later fields who enjoy Medieval literature and who could even teach me a thing or two or three about Medieval literature. These are just broad brush strokes based on observation in departments of which I've been apart and conferences like MLA that I have attended. C. S. Lewis in his first address at Cambridge remarked that pre-Industrial age literature, all of it, shared a worldview forever changed after the Industrial Revolution. I think he happens to be right on that score: there is a large degree of continuity from say Homer through the Roman period through Late Antiquity to the Medieval period to the Early Modern etc....worldview, views of how a king should act, etc. That continuity enables us to move between periods more easily than others in my view.

Another issue is the interdisciplinary problem. Related to the issue of what we do being hard, being a medievalist encourages, nay, all but absolutely requires, one to cross disciplinary boundaries: the historian shouldn't simply read documentary texts and the literary specialist simply "literature" etc. Those who float to the top of the heap generally are comfortable crossing those boundaries. Academia however is housed in institutions, institutions that as a whole like to demarcate and pigeon hole: they are bureaucratic institutions after all. Generally crossing those lines separating disciplines is going outside the pigeon hole, and that creates bureaucratic problems. Ok, yes, I'm more than well aware that there are places where such interdisciplinary scholarship is accepted, even encouraged, and in some few Medieval Institutes even institutionalized. And yes, of course one often finds cross appointments where a scholar works in 2 or more departments. But for everyone one of those there are other institutions that discourage those practices.

Ok, well, Swain, anything else you think you might see? Well, now that I ask myself, yes. There is more. There is a certain elitism. While some in academia are rather fascinated by popular culture, most others find the interests of the great mass uninteresting in comparison to the interests of the tower. This view of course encourages, relishes, and needs a distance from popular culture so that popular interest in things medieval indicates an accompanying disinterest in the field in academia.

Finally, another kind of elitism is that Medieval Studies, like Classics, and Biblical Studies, is "old-fashioned." To some degree, it's a traditional field. Ok, granted, traditionally one hopped from "silver age" Latin literature and Constantine in history to the 12th century and ignored half of the medieval period. Still, though, these traditional fields once held sway and were the foci of higher education. But there was this cultural upheaval somewhere about 40 years ago that changed all that and those who came up then and in the years afterward, who 20 years ago fought in the Culture Wars, eschewed traditional fields and traditional ways of doing history, literature, and the Humanities. Thus the ascendancy of post-modern theory in literary studies that has caused a great deal of discussion among medieval bloggers the last few months. As a result though, some "traditional" fields have been pushed to the side and too often in too many places must face the dreaded "defend your existence" trial.

There must be more. I think these forces work together: other "traditional" fields such as Classics and Biblical Studies (aka Divinity) have also suffered a similar fate: at one and the same time, the greater the level of popular interest, the less interest in academic circles outside those fields and of course all of them require linguistic knowledge and the ability to work across disciplinary lines. And they're traditional.

So that's my take. Mileage may vary according to field and according to location. My impression is that Medieval Studies is safer in Europe and Down Under, though on one forum I read a student in New Zealand reported that Old English was being cut at this institution and not long ago there was a petition to save a program at a German university much less the move at the Univ of Toledo to do away with most Humanities. So the problems are everywhere. Our colleagues have given some great solutions, but to a degree these practical solutions do not address the cultural forces that have led to this point. Some have addressed those forces by applying theory to medieval studies, and many a medievalist gleefully (such a great Old English word too!) engage in various kinds of medievalism study as a side-light to their main research. Others have very popular blogs and engage new technologies which certainly makes medieval studies a whole lot more sexier in the early 21st century than a dozen years ago when this was in its infancy. Still we need another cultural revolution before medieval studies will be popular among administrators again? Or will we simply have to fight to survive long enough for attrition to work on the Counter Culture generation and then those coming up now may change the way the world works, at least in their little corner. Frankly, I suspect the latter.

So there it is. Corrections welcome. Thoughts and responses encouraged!

1 comment:

Steve Muhlberger said...

When defending a discipline that depends on thousand year old mss., appeal to Buffy the Fearless Vampire Slayer!

Also works for studies of the Boxer Rebellion!