What Medievalism Can Offer… Part One.

Greetings, O Blogosphere. Some time ago, Matt Gabrielle opened a Bloggers Forum on the relevance of Medieval Studies to the general public, asking:

How about a blog forum about what medieval studies and/ or medievalism has to offer a wider public? But not pitched to other academics? How would you talk about a topic of your choosing to a group of community members in a public library, for example? How do you talk about “relevance” (or the lack thereof) to undergraduates? etc.

There have been several responses to this call, but I shall link you to Jeff Sypeck’s contribution for two reasons: One, that page links to all the previous responses; and Two, Sypeck’s post is what started Dr Nokes thinking.

Now, I want to talk about two things: the weakness1 of Dr Nokes’ approach to the medieval ‘fan(boy)’, and my own answer to Matt’s question ‘What can Medievalists offer to the general public’. I’m going to address these things in two separate posts: one, as a general answer to Matt’s question, and another coming up in response to Dr Noke’s second post.

Firstly, why is all this important anyway? Why are we fussing over what we can offer and particularly what we can offer to teenagers? Forgive me, but it (not just Dr Nokes, but the entire discussion, regardless of the age of contributors) looks to me like the elderly constituent of the congregation I grew up in, fussing over how to be more ‘relevant’ and more ‘contemporary’ so as to attract more ‘youth’… not out of any inherent concern for the youth of today, but because young bums on seats give the old folks a sense of validation.

It’s a given that we all want more students of medieval studies. I don’t teach, myself, but that hasn’t stopped me ranting and cajoling any potential medievalists I know into taking courses with my favourite teachers. My motivations are multiplicious: I’m a naturally helpful sort of person, the kind of person who likes sharing the things she knows (even if you don’t care), and in this case the thing I knew is how to structure your study so as to take two majors. I’m also very fond of the CMS and I don’t want to see good students lost to the English or History departments. And thirdly, I happen to live with the major recipient of my medieval cajoling, and the more medieval courses she takes, the greater the chances are that when I walk into the dining hall, a purple-and-blonde blur will rush past, muttering as she goes ‘I realised I couldn’t talk about confraternities, so I’m doing heretics instead!’, or similar nerdy comments. It’s good to have someone around who’s more-or-less on the same plane as you.

That third point, I think, is where we can say that academic medievalists really do have something to offer the general public, if by ‘general’ you mean ‘isolated teenage nerds’. What an academic can offer- via blogs or books or public forums or school visits- is firstly a bit of solidarity. Hey, that guy’s an even bigger nerd than I am, and HE’S made a career out of it. Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, is that regardless of whether or not the nerd in question goes on to do any medieval subjects at uni- maybe she discovers her true calling and becomes a stockbroker- is that an intelligent teenager, unless she’s very, very lucky in her schooling, is never being pushed to think as far, as deeply, or as independently as she could. Which is a pity, because knowing stuff is fun, and thinking about it is MORE fun. Whether it’s Dr Nokes’ ‘Big Beowulf Bash’ or Jeff Sypeck’s book ‘Becoming Charlemagne’, a bit of academic medievalism, pitched to her level, might give her a bit of intellectual stimulation she’s not getting from the high school syllabus. I’d say the same thing to scholars of Shogun Japan and to Microbiologists: there are kids out there to whom the opportunity to learn something they’re really passionate about, to whom the encouragement and non-patronising interest of a specialist in that field, to whom simply the chance to use their brain at a higher capacity, would be as precious as gold. No matter what your speciality or it’s immediate usefulness, society can always do with more kids encouraged to think beyond the bounds of the high school classroom.

I always knew I didn’t want to teach your average school student, I wanted to teach people who were smart and engaged. My mother suggested ‘university teaching’ when I was about seven, but from the time I was ten until I was… oooh, fourteen or fifteen, I wanted to be a trained Gifted & Talented upper primary school teacher, just like one Mrs Coffee, who had rescued me from mental stagnation and got me started on reading fantasy fiction, amongst other things. That’s been crossed off my To Do List for Life, but I still care about the education of smart kids. A little broadening of their horizons, a sprinkle of encouragement, the promise that other people out there in the Big World will value their quirky interests and passions, yeah… that’s worth doing.

Don’t do it if you don’t like kids. Don’t do it if you’re going to patronise or talk down. But if you have the time and the resources, do. If not public appearances, then books. There are never enough books out there on which an intelligent youngster can sharpen his brain-teeth. Websites aren’t a bad idea either, but I don’t know that any website, no matter how engaging, could beat a beautifully illustrated book like Kevin Crossley-Holland’s ‘The King Who Was And Will Be’, a wonderful introduction to high medieval culture in bite-sized snippets. It’s thanks to Kevin C-H that I discovered Marie De France, Dr Nokes. Kevin C-H sticks in my mind as the only pop history book I could find that said right out that there probably was no King Arthur, but that didn’t matter. Camelot, he says ‘is in our minds and our hearts’. If you have a nerdy child in your friend or family network, one who appreciates beautifully decorated books and interesting windows into a past society… find a copy of that book and give it to them. From memory, it should be comprehensible to your average ten year old, but I was still enjoying it at fourteen.

Comin’ up: Teenage girls are smart and they read history books! Special Investigation This Evening!


1. That’s polite academic-speak for ‘inherant sexism’…


8 Responses to “What Medievalism Can Offer… Part One.”

  1. Richard Scott Nokes Says:

    In my 30s, and already elderly! Why, you kids these days, you’ve got no respect for your elders, what with your poodle skirts and your rock & roll and your Marie d’France!

    I’m going to write a letter to the editor about all this, just after “Matlock.” In the meantime, you kids get off my lawn!

    *shakes his fist as he shuffles off, muttering*

  2. highlyeccentric Says:

    There’s no such thing as respect on the Internet, Dr Nokes 😉 But at least I can spell your name these days 😀

  3. Chris Says:

    It’s a given that we all want more students of medieval studies.

    Do we? I mean, I don’t have an opinion just yet. And obviously there are some advantages to having more and more students interested in a subject — you get a growth industry, money springs up, etc. But that also changes the nature of the study, the types of students and academics who show up, the levels of specialization and competition…

    But as far as what we can offer the public: Up until a few days ago I lived in Portland, Oregon. Just outside of Portland, in every direction, is some sort of natural marvel or other — the Pacific ocean, Mt Hood, Mt St Helens, various forests, etc. So much nature! But I am a city boy, and while you can stick me in front of nature and I can ooh and aah appropriately, I am not going to ever feel the need to seek it out on my own.

    And yet, I was glad it was there, and I was glad people were there to appreciate it. It made my world feel richer, even though I never went to that part of the world. But I knew people who did, and they could report back. And when that world was threatened for dumb reasons, I’d find out about it and give a few dollars to protecting it. And so forth.

    So I think perhaps medieval studies might be somewhat similar: We think about it so you don’t have to. But you can rest assured that someone is thinking about it, and will share the good bits with you, and help you visit it if you ever get the desire. And so by helping us study our arcane (and perhaps by helping keep it arcane), you help make your world much more interesting and fuller, even if you don’t directly experience that part of the world much, or at all.

  4. Matt Gabriele Says:


    But don’t you want people to walk through that nature every once in a while, or have everyone walk through it at least once — to see it, smell it, touch it? Not everyone’s going to go camping after that but perhaps they’ll understand what’s out there, why’s it there, and perhaps also why it matters that it’s there.

    That’s how I took Highly Eccentric’s comments here: not to make campers but to instill a love of nature in everyone.

  5. Why Teenage Girls Become Medieval Nerds: A Very Long Exposition « The Naked Philologist Says:

    […] Comments Chris on What Medievalism Can Offer… Part One.highlyeccentric on What Medievalism Can Offer… Part One.Richard Scott Nokes on What […]

  6. highlyeccentric Says:

    So I think perhaps medieval studies might be somewhat similar: We think about it so you don’t have to. But you can rest assured that someone is thinking about it, and will share the good bits with you, and help you visit it if you ever get the desire. And so by helping us study our arcane (and perhaps by helping keep it arcane), you help make your world much more interesting and fuller, even if you don’t directly experience that part of the world much, or at all.

    Y’know, that’s a pretty fantastic way of putting it, Chris :D. It’s not that I want everyone to be a medieval academic (I can do without the future job competition, thanks), but if more people thought it was cooler, and enough people took a class here and there that the CMS keeps floating… then I would be a happy blogger.

  7. highlyeccentric Says:

    Matt- yes, what you said 😀

  8. Chris Says:

    I guess I don’t care if they walk through it or not. (Or, why walk through the medieval forest, rather than the Hittite forest? I have my reasons, but I don’t expect many others to share them.)

    As long as they don’t worry that no one is walking through it, it’s all good.

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