Public Medievalism in the trenches

Reading time: 5 mins

For some of us this years IMC has been dominated by the #publicmedievalism. We live in dangerous times indeed. Middle Ages were never innocent and have always been highly contested, but in the last years they have become a battleground characterised by particular ferocity of fighting.

James Harland and Sihong Lin organised an impromptu session on Monday that was meant to address that problem. As this topic has been of huge interest to both tweeting and non-tweeting medievalists, the room was full and the discussion very fruitful.

Medieval twitter is already ablaze with #publicmedievalism (and of course #imc2017) but I would like to offer some short thoughts on that matter. Therefore I’m taking a break at a Brotherton Library from a busy day of sessions to write them down. Please excuse the somewhat hasty composition and possible typos on the grounds of the importance and the immediacy of the subject! Warning: the text contains an unhealthy amount of parentheses!

One has to agree that the Middle Ages “serious scholarship” has a bit of a PR problem. On the one hand the interest in the epoch is huge. On the other, there is a large media presence of “products derived from the Middle Ages” that sadly very often have absolutely nothing to do with the epoch and do more harm than good (I’m looking at you, King Arthur; Game of Thrones, go sit in the corner). We, as medievalists, seem to have come to the digital/media party quite late. Some of us have been here for ages and tried to perform a medievalist equivalent of the cry in the wilderness, but were not heeded (to them I tip my hat and am eternally grateful, as they have fought the uneven fight in the trenches vastly outnumbered). Now, when more and more of us engage both in the digital and paper media, we discover to our horror, that the space is occupied; by quacks or “alt-righters” (the term should never be use without scare quotes) by politicians who want to (ab)use the epoch; our own field is being, so to speak, colonised. Rightly so (or, should I say, in the terrible pun of the day, leftly so) we try to fight back.

Any organised and strategic approach has to be welcomed. Much has been said already at the special session, on the Net and in the corridors of the IMC; some of those points are crucial and for brevity I will not be repeating them here; but I would like to stress three points that are especially important to me.

  1. Encouragement If you look at the crowds on campus in Leeds this week you might think: gosh, we have the manpower to overcome any appropriation of the Middle Ages; but then you realise that most of us are scarcely engaged outside our field. Some of us not at all. There is of course a variety of reasons behind that (and some of them very complicated and I do not wish to simplify that problem), but one thing we can do is to convince our colleagues and friends to go out there; maybe by offering them some of our own little digital space - for example asking them to write guest posts; maybe by even convincing them to start a digital presence of their own. As PhD students we can also ask our supervisors to support our online fight. Many of them are of course present there already (read this for example, if you know German), but many are not.

  2. Support Nevertheless apart from encouragement we also need support. It is a wild world out there. It can be scary and very, very discouraging (I’m speaking from personal experience here - for example I am still not on Twitter!) If somebody is to devote their time, which for a researcher is a very limited resource, they must know that they will not be left alone there. That is not to say that we should not offer critique or ignore the errors; but we need to create a true network of support, we need to be able to rally around those who are being marginalised, attacked or even just feel unsafe in the digital space. That also means that we need to be able to accommodate a wide plurality of voices.

  3. Go Analog The last point might seem a bit surprising, but I think it is crucial. As any doctor will tell you prevention is easier and more cost and time effective than cure. Go to your local library, ask them if they need help with public engagement programs. Go to your local school or your local school district administration office, ask them if you can help. Believe me, they will not say no. One talk to a classroom or at the conference room in the library might be worth a thousand blogposts. Because that way you will manage to do what is so difficult on the Internet: you will break the bubble. You will reach people that you would have never reached otherwise; and, maybe most importantly, you will help your local community. You can intercept the audience before the vultures of the Internet will even have a chance to do so; and with a bit of luck you will gain powerful allies online that you will help to arm with knowledge, methods and enthusiasm.

The discussion will go on and I’m sure there will be many interesting contributions to it. Medievalism is a very current topic now, maybe even more than we realise. It is truly great that we are having this conversation!

Written on July 5, 2017