An Open Access Review Journal Encouraging Critical Engagement with the Continuing Process of Inventing the Middle Ages

May 15, 2015

The Notion of the Middle Ages: Our Middle Ages, Our Selves

The Notion of the Middle Ages: Our Middle Ages, Ourselves
Plenary Lecture, May 2015
50th International Congress on Medieval Studies
Western Michigan University, Kalamazoo, MI, USA
©Richard Utz

Note: A slightly revised version of this plenary was translated into Portuguese by Bárbara Roma and published in Roda da fortuna. Revista Eletrônica sobra Antiguidade e Medievo, 2/2019: 237-48. under the title: “A noção de Idade Média: nossa Idade Média, nós mesmos.” A number of sections from the English plenary have also been revised and published in Medievalism. A Manifesto (Arc Humanities Press, 2017). The slides accompanying the live plenary were not inserted for copyright reasons.

The picture on the left was taken in 1953. As you can see, the couple are dressed in premodern garb, handmade to resemble the clothes worn by nobles and well-to-do citizens in the Bavarian city of Amberg, Germany, on the occasion of the lavish wedding festivities for Margarete, daughter of Duke Ludwig IX of Bavaria, with Philip the Upright, Elector Palatine of the Rhine, in 1474. A historical pageant of the wedding was written in 1934 as part of the celebrations, spearheaded by Josef Filbig, the Nazi mayor of Amberg, of the 900th anniversary of the first recorded mention of the city. The 1953 performance featured an apparently revised version of the original 1934 pageant, and once again Josef Filbig was mayor of Amberg, this time democratically elected with 64% of the vote as candidate for the right-wing party Deutsche Gemeinschaft. The man in the picture, a music teacher, served as the choir director for the performance.  [SLIDE]

One year before the picture was taken, the woman and the man had married in the Baroque Mariahilf Pilgrimage church, built during the Thirty Years War because Christians in the region believed the Virgin Mary had saved their city from the plague. The man and the woman, like most Amberg Catholics, participated in the annual pilgrimage to the miraculous image of the Madonna, which is a copy of painter Lukas Cranach’s 1537 image of the Virgin in Innsbruck Cathedral in Austria. [SLIDE]

When the man in the picture was 17, the woman 11, brownshirts with pick axes entered the city’s synagogue and set fire to the furniture and ritual objects. Authorities would justify the these actions as well as the subsequent deportation of many of the city’s Jews by retelling stories of alleged Jewish ritual murder, host desecration, and usury, all three constitutive elements of medieval Christian identity virulent until and even beyond the Second Vatican Council. [SLIDE]

The woman in the picture would come to teach at two Catholic middle schools run by the School Sisters of Notre Dame, a nineteenth-century order founded to counteract secular modern education. And the man in the picture would, after a career in teaching and school administration, be dubbed a knight of the Equestrian Order of the Holy Sepulchre, a Catholic chivalric order that traces its origins back to Godfrey of Bouillon, the leader of the first crusade, and whose mission is to reinforce the practice of Christian life and to sustain and assist the religious, spiritual, charitable, and social works of the Catholic Church in the Holy Land. [SLIDE]

The couple would have two sons, whom they raised in the Catholic faith tradition and who grew up in a media culture steeped in Anglo-American representations of medieval chivalry or their cultural descendants from King Arthur, Ivanhoe, and Robin Hood through Prince Valiant, and Zorro. One of their sons would later become a medievalist, write his doctoral dissertation on Geoffrey Chaucer under the direction of Karl Heinz Göller who, in 1983, delivered the plenary speech here at the Medieval Congress on “King Arthur as a Medium for Political Action”. The medievalist son later married a Frenchwoman, whose first crush at the age of three was an actor playing the lead role in a 1960s TV series, Thierry la Fronde, which ‘Frenched’ the story of Robin Hood. The medievalist son later moved to the U.S. and wrote a book on the reception of Chaucer in the German-speaking world, including a chapter on a nineteenth-century German predecessor philologist, who moved from Germany to the U.S. [SLIDE]

Lest you are appalled at this thinly veiled academic “selfie,” I will stop my narrative and admit that the woman and the man in the picture are my parents, Hildegard and Clement Utz, visible here with yours truly as Prince Valiant and my brother as some kind of sea captian. What the collation of some seminal stations in my biography with several of my published academic titles is supposed to suggest is that my (and many others’) admission ticket to studying and teaching medieval culture has been deeply affective and personal; and that the more open negotiation of these affective and personal motivations to learning about medievalia is perhaps the most important difference between the prevailing notion of the Middle Ages roughly 50 years ago, when the first International Medieval Congresses were held, and today’s notion. Thus, I will claim that, while as medievalists we have become more geographically (the Mediterranean), culturally (Muslim medievalisms), methodologically (digital media), and linguistically (minority languages) inclusive, have more access to more edited medieval texts as well as manuscripts, and have generally amassed more detailed knowledge about more aspects of medieval culture than ever before, our most decisive step forward, I feel, has not been quantitative, but qualitative. Let me explain: [SLIDE]

In the spring of 2003, Jacques Le Goff, one of the international figureheads of medieval studies in the second half of the twentieth century, published A la recherche du Moyen Age, a biographical account of how he became a medievalist and at the same time a manifesto for the kind of history practiced by the Ecole des Annales. Based on a series of interviews, Le Goff’s memoir was written for an audience consisting of medieval scholars as well as an educated general reading public as it still exists in contemporary France, that section of “Old Europe,” mind you, where intellectuals, even medievalists, unabashedly play a role in public life.

While Le Goff cannot for the world remember why, at the age of ten, he decided he would want to study history, he does recall that it was Walter Scott’s historical novel, Ivanhoe (1819), that excited him about the middle ages. Scott’s narrative used, according to Le Goff, certain material traits of the middle ages, the forest between Sheffield and Doncaster, the siege of Torquilstone castle, the tournament at Ashby with its audience of peasants, merchants, courtly ladies, knights, monks, and priests to create an impression of verisimilitude which captured his imagination and set him on the track toward becoming a medievalist.

Le Goff adds the disclaimer that he did not really decide at this tender age that he would center his later efforts on the material aspects of medieval culture. However, long is the list of realistic attractions in Ivanhoe to which he would later dedicate scholarly articles and books. In fact, if we may place any trust in Le Goff’s recollections, his youthful reading experience would well up at ever so many decisive junctures of his biography: Sometimes the connections with his first medievalist novel were little more than vague analogues, as when the audiences at soccer and rugby matches remind him of the audiences at Ashby (18). Sometimes, however, such remembrances of things past were quite specific, as when the tribulations and trials of the beautiful Rebecca of York, who is accused of witchcraft, sway the adolescent Le Goff to enlist in a political organization, the Front Populaire, which opposed the growing anti-Semitism and racism in pre-occupation France (12).

Further analysis of Le Goff’s book exhibits a remarkable dichotomy. While he attempts to establish an affective basis for his choice of becoming a medievalist by tracing medieval memories back to his first encounters with Walter Scott, connect his interest in twentieth-century politics with his reactions to episodes in Ivanhoe, and stress the advent of cinematic representations of the past (including Richard Thorpe’s 1952 film version; 12, 19), he quickly diminishes such memories as nostalgic and draws clear boundaries between scientific and serious research in medieval culture on the one hand and indistinct images or ideas about the middle ages as represented in popular culture or the historical novel on the other. In a section during which he explains how, as an adolescent, he found the same degrees of fascinating alterity in twentieth-century Roman Catholic liturgical ritual and, once again, that omnipresent tournament at Ashby, he cautions his readers by intimating that “[m]es souvenirs sont peut-être reconstruits” (20). He feels he cannot trust his own recollections, assuming perhaps that the truth value of any memoir will necessarily suffer from a personal post-hoc perspective, an attitude that would fabricate a linear teleology for a scholar who moved in one grand recit from reading Ivanhoe to teaching at the Sorbonne.

Le Goff’s demarcation between subjective memoir and scholarly investigation is, in fact, a topos among medievalists whose dominant discursive standards demand that the investigating subject’s affective connection be kept from coloring the subjects of investigation. Nothing better exemplifies this topos than the introductory section in Horst Fuhrmann’s 1997 Einladung ins Mittelalter, in which he wishes that his book, intended as an invitation to medieval culture for a general audience, would close shut automatically if any professional historian tried to open and read it. Fuhrmann then confesses: “Ich hoffe,” he says: “I hope it will be neither to the disadvantage of the subject matter nor the author if he admits that he had fun to explain himself to a readership of non-specialists: to sketch his own Middle Ages” (10). Revealingly, by moving from the first person to the third person in the same sentence, Fuhrmann performs grammatically most twentieth-century academic medievalists’ agonistic subject position toward pre- and extra-academic interest in medieval culture. [SLIDE]

Kathleen Biddick has identified the historical period, methods, and motivations that led to the demarcation between academic and extra-academic interest in the Middle Ages. In her 1998 book, the Shock of Medievalism, she writes:

In order to separate and elevate themselves from popular studies of medieval culture, the new academic medievalists of the nineteenth century designated their practices, influenced by positivism, as scientific and eschewed what they regarded as less-positivist, “nonscientific” practices, labeling them medievalism. […]
Gaston Paris’s insistence on documentary readings of medieval poetry in his new philology severed the study of medieval literature from poetics. Viollet-le-Duc produced a scientific medieval art history by splitting off images from their material milieu. [Bishop] Stubbs refused to teach any constitutional history beyond the seventeenth century on the grounds that it was too presentist. Through these different kinds of exclusions, justified as avoiding sentimental medievalisms, these scholars were able to imagine a coherent inside to the discipline of medieval studies. Medievalism, a fabricated effect of this newly forming medieval studies, thus became visible as its despised “other,” its exteriority. (2)

Biddick goes on to illustrate how recent critical histories of this moment of rupture, while rejecting the “fathers” of medieval studies and exposing their often nationalist and imperialist objectives, never sufficiently challenged the scientific and science-like techniques and conventional pastist chronology of medieval studies. Rather, while exponentially increasing our knowledge about the lively history of the discipline, they stopped short of the kind of engagement with the medieval past that would imagine, in Biddick’s words, “temporality as something other than hard-edged alterity” (10). [SLIDE]

Kathleen Biddick, Aranye Fradenburg, and Carolyn Dinshaw, to name only a few, have championed such atemporal approaches, and I view Dinshaw’s 2012 book, How Soon is Now: Medieval Texts, Amateur Readers, and the Queerness of Time, as a catalyst for what a creative merging of so-called amateurish and academic approaches to the Middle Ages might yield. Those of us convinced that the future of medieval studies can only be ensured by forming the tortoise and communicating only amongst each other will find How Soon Is Now a difficult read since Dinshaw idealizes the figure of the amateur, whom university-educated full-time professors have scapegoated as their eternal “other” since the late nineteenth century. Dinshaw weaves into her narrative of how to arrive at her own ideal moment of “Now,” this “moment that is not detached and not disenchanted” in “a more just and more attached nonmodernity” (39) various moments, from undergraduate student through accomplished scholar, when she herself was and felt like an amateur, when she negotiated what Jesse Swan aptly called “the one quality forbidden the late modern professor”: Love. Dinshaw celebrates what she calls her own “queer kinship” with the “amateur’s” kind of “love,” that most basic “delight” felt by those whom we brand as “dilettantes,” that presentist or everyday-ist pleasure felt by the unhistorical “journalist,” the desire felt by the mere “enthusiast” Plato warned us about, who is possessed by and obsessed with answering questions about the past in one’s own present as well as in ever so many moments of receptions of medieval culture throughout and across the longe durée that is the postmedieval.

Foregrounding and conjoining each of her book chapters with what she terms her own “uncertain progress and uneven development as a medievalist and queer” (32-33), Dinshaw tells us about a whole host of predecessor colleagues whose degree of intimacy with their subject matter and materials queered their relation with linear temporality. There is enthusiast-editor-polymath Frederick James Furnivall, who teamed up with philologists only to make sure that large English audiences would enjoy and learn from medieval texts; poet-scholar Henry Wadsworth Longfellow who was fascinated with the Golden Legend; fairy tale collector-editor Andrew Lang, who wrote a comic letter to Sir John Mandeville; Eton provost and author of a Mandeville parody, M. R. James; author Washington Irving and his fictional alter ego, “Geoffrey Crayon”, who admired King James’ Kingis Quair; editor-amateur Hope Emily Allen, who rendered The Book of Margery Kempe accessible to twentieth-century readers; and film character Thomas Colpeper from the little known 1944 movie A Canterbury Tale, a patriotic amateur historian, magistrate, and criminal who strains to connect an indifferent audience of soldiers and local women with Chaucer’s poetry.

Dinshaw’s book, with its effective rhetorical, structural, and methodological integration of the personal and the professional, the confessional and the critical, and the self-reflexive and the ‘seriously’ academic, demonstrates that scholarship is always deeply autobiographical. When Leslie J. Workman, the founder of Anglo-American medievalism studies, tried to build a space for studying the reception of the Middle Ages after the Middle Ages in the 1980s and 1990s based on his own personal exposure to the unique continuity that characterizes the Anglo-American tradition, he ran into everything from indifference to downright disdain from among medievalists and publishers, most of whom dismissed him as an amateur because he did not have a doctoral degree and had lost his academic appointment when his college closed. However, even an eminent tenured medievalist like Norman Cantor would find himself at the receiving end of his academic colleagues’ scorn because, as the New York Times obituary stated, he had a “graceful prose style and […] narrative drive that made his books unusually readable.” When, like Workman, he confirmed that all scholarship was autobiography and that the multitude of scholarly endeavors to recuperate the Middle Ages had only resulted in ever so many (subjective) reinventions of that time period, many reviewers treated him as if he had fouled the field and its founding fathers, from Bloch, Curtius, Gilson, Haskins, Huizinga, Kantorowicz, Knowles, Lewis, Panofsky, Schramm, Strayer, and Tolkien, with his 1991 book, Inventing the Middle Ages. Cantor had to write an extra book, the fully-fledged autobiography Inventing Norman Cantor (2002), in which he reaffirmed that the “ultimate task and obligation of a historian” was to make history “communicable to and accessible by the educated public at large” (223) and that it is “the happiness and sadness of our own lives” (228) that shapes our academic research and scholarship.

What differentiates Dinshaw’s book from the efforts by most colleagues who practice what we call, with varying success, “Medievalism,” is that her cutting the cord of linear temporality and integrating her affective relationship to the Middle Ages protect her from having to swear allegiance to medieval studies or medievalism. [SLIDE]

In a 2010 essay, “Chaucer’s American Accent,” David Matthews situated the semantic and methodological quagmire surrounding both terms and practices:

There is a strong suggestion […] that what tends to happen over time is that medieval studies passes into medievalism; as it ceaselessly updates itself, medieval studies expels what it no longer wishes to recognize as part of itself. Among late-twentieth-century works, we could consider the example of D. W. Robertson’s A Preface to Chaucer (1962) and ask whether it is going the same way. In contemporary Chaucer criticism, Robertson’s work is chiefly cited to point out where it went wrong, to highlight the follies of exegetical criticism. In other words, its function has become one of differentiation—modern scholarship marks itself out by comparison with it, just as literary and political histories previously marked themselves out against [Thomas] Warton and [Bishop] Stubbs. Such works are expelled from medieval studies and become medievalism. […] This is a process which continues so that medievalism studies risks being no more than a sifting through the disjecta membra of medieval studies.

Matthews’ reminder of the shifting fate of D. W. Robertson’s paradigm of patristic exegesis is particularly appropriate because it was one of the constitutive practices comprising the notion of the Middle Ages in the first decade of this International Congress on Medieval Studies. Even more remarkable is how the language in his passage exudes manifestations of time, movement, and process, three areas that conceptual historians have established as one of the central tenets of modern thought. In Futures Past: On the Semantics of Historical Time (2004), Reinhart Kosellek, for example, finds that between 1770 and 1830, Jacob Grimm’s Deutsches Wörterbuch registers more than 100 neologisms (for example: event, formation, duration, development, Zeitgeist) which qualify Zeit/time in a positive historical fashion (247). Similarly, the Oxford English Dictionary records the first use of “movement” for 1789; “formation” is increasingly employed after 1830; “duration” takes off in the early eighteenth century; ‘development,’ is unknown before 1750; and “epoch” is recorded as a seventeenth-century invention. Kosellek also links the rapid creation of “–ism” terms with “time” per se becoming a dynamic and historical force: Immanuel Kant coins “republicanism,” which Friedrich Schlegel replaces with “democratism,” and “communism,” “socialism,” “liberalism,” and “feminism” would soon thereafter invade the British Isles from the continent, only to be resisted by English terms using “–ism” to combat this new obsession with temporality, movement, and change, most prominently “conservatism” and, you guessed it, “medievalism.” Thus, the English word “medievalism” in many ways represents a conservative insular reaction against the continental tendency of condemning and abandoning everything premodern. If France, Italy, and many German-speaking regions identified medieval culture as a usable past against which a different future could be constructed, Britain and the United States (except for a short period following the “American Revolution”) imagined their countries and communities as linked to the medieval past by a unique kind of continuity. In noted contrast to the violent French Revolution, English politicians, historians, and artists enshrined the only major postmedieval revolutionary event in British history (1688) as a “Glorious,” “Sensible,” and “Bloodless” event, and celebrated any political and legal traditions deriving from the Middle Ages as signs of an organically and peacefully progressing commonwealth, the kind of ideological construction based on which Leslie Workman called nineteenth- and early twentieth-century medievalism a predominantly English phenomenon.

Carolyn Dinshaw’s decision to abandon modernity’s obsession with temporality provides her with an epistemological advantage over generations of medievalists who strained to historicize every aspect of their scholarship and suppressed subjective elements in that scholarship. In fact, Dinshaw’s position may be closest to that of the Boethian God who exists in an “eternal Now”. Her engagement with medieval and postmedieval subject positions and texts is simultaneous with the medieval ‘originals’ as well as with the various moments in the reception of these ‘originals’. History only irrupts into her narrative via the different ages during which she experiences a text or subject, but her book is very close to a divine eternal present, does more than resolve what Paul Zumthor critiqued as early as 1980 as “the delusion which might lead one to speak of the past otherwise than on the basis of now” (Speaking of the Middle Ages, 32-33). [SLIDE]

While many medievalists will agree that How Soon Is Now offers truly innovative ways of rereading medieval and postmedieval cultures, only a small number will be able to perform, intellectually, epistemologically, and linguistically, the comprehensive queering of temporality Carolyn Dinshaw achieves. Some medievalists may not adopt her posthistorical approach because they believe that historicism still continues to be an essential and effective weapon in the arsenal against those who would enlist the Middle Ages in nationalist, colonialist, and racist causes. Dina Khapaeva’s 2012 Portrait critique de la Russie, for example, beautifully documents how Putin’s Russia has embarked on a path toward a new feudalism, clan economy, Gothic morality, and even Gothic aesthetics. Other medievalists may find it hard to stop operating as alpha males within a masculinist Germanic (old and new) historicism which Liz Scala has diagnosed as an integral “part of the structure of fealty that holds together the field of medieval studies today” (“The Structure of Historicism,” 2009), and which sees any tendency to feminize, and hence destabilize, as a threat to the existing power structures in the field. Again other medievalists may dread that a move toward the inclusion of such quotidian matters as love, enthusiasm, and passion as acceptable elements of scholarly work may further weaken the already precarious situation of the humanities disciplines at the late modern university. Recent politically motivated attacks that branded the Australian Research Council Center of Excellence for the History of Emotions as wasteful would support such concerns.

Where do these observations leave me? As an almost tri-lingual, moderately tall, blond-greyish, heterosexual, and bespectacled German expat who was educated in the philological tradition and who now teaches and writes about medievalisms while employed at a major North American technological research university, am I “queer” enough to make a meaningful contribution to the post-historical discourse Carolyn Dinshaw and others propose? As former chair of an English department, now chair of a School of Literature, Media, and Communication; as president of the International Society of Medievalism and journal editor, am I one of the old or new historicist alpha males who cement the status quo?  And, were I to open my own academic career further to include myself and my and other amateurs’ insufficiently ‘serious’ love for learning about medieval culture and its reception more consciously in my academic practices, would I somehow accelerate the decline and fall of our field?

I am not sure I have the answers to the first two of these questions, but I will try to address the third: [SLIDE]

We have reliable indicators all around the world that the traditional academic study of the Middle Ages, after more than a century of growing and plateauing, is now on the decline. This is only in part due to nefarious political pressures and the oft-lamented corporatization of higher education, but for the most part a natural social phenomenon that happens when new fields, ideas, and methodologies reshape what and how we teach and learn. While at this year’s and the next dozen congresses we will still be basking in the reassuring proximity of three thousand others who are involved in what we do ourselves, there is a manifest discrepancy between the large number of students who request that we address their love of Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings, Game of Thrones, and medieval-themed video and computer games, and the decreasing number of actual medievalists hired to replace retiring colleagues. In addition, it now appears that there will be fewer tenure line medievalists, and more contingent, part-time, and online medievalists in the academy, a development that will further blur the hierarchies to which we have become naturalized. Knowing what we know now about our own academic and other non-academic selves’ enthusiasm for the medieval past, I think we should pursue more lasting partnerships with postmedievalists inside the academy as well as with these so-called amateurs and enthusiasts for the sake of a sustainable future engagement with medieval culture. “These amateurs,” as Michael Cramer has stated about the members of the Society for Creative Anachronism, have often been studying their period for years, sometimes decades, sometimes for a whole life. They perform incredibly well-designed experiments in experimental archaeology or performance reconstruction. They are often more invested in the field, in terms of time and money, than are some tenured professors. (“Reenactment,” 2014, 207).

And so I ask you: Is what the Society for Creative Anachronism added to our knowledge of medieval culture by practicing blacksmithing, reenacting the Battle of Hastings, or performing historical dance and theater really that less reliable or of lesser value than D. W. Robertson’s decision, albeit substantiated by learned footnotes, that all medieval literature and art was composed, and thus needs to be read, according to the principles of patristic exegesis? And I ask: Does enthusiast Michel Guyot’s megaproject of building a medieval castle from scratch in Northern Burgundy, over a thirty year period, based on thirteenth-century building plans and without modern technology, really add less value to our understanding of medieval culture than 50 more essays obsessing about who might be the ‘real’ author of the anonymous Saint Erkenwald, Nibelungenlied, or Cantar de Mio Cid.  And I further ask: How splendid has our isolation from the general public really been when two hundred years of academic scholarship, mostly disseminated amongst ourselves, providing detailed evidence that the ius primae noctis or Right of the Lord’s First Night was never actually practiced but a fictional and legal device invented by the medieval and early modern nobility can be obliterated by one single 177-minute Braveheart-rending movie blockbuster featuring Mad Max Mel Gibson? [SLIDE]

If the academic study of the Middle Ages has been only partially successful at shaping public knowledge of medieval culture and its longue durée (or simultaneity) in our own daily lives, perhaps this is the moment at which we can seriously consider additional, alternative ways of engaging with our subject. One example of how this might be achieved is the BABEL Working Group, whose credo is to be a 

non-hierarchical scholarly collective and post-institutional desiring-assemblage with no leaders or followers, no top and no bottom, and only a middle. Membership in the BWG carries with it no fees, no obligations, and no hassles, and accrues to its members all the symbolic capital they need for whatever meanings they require. BABEL’s chief commitment is the cultivation of a more mindful being-together with others who work alongside us in the ruined towers of the post-historical university. BABEL roams and stalks these ruins as a multiplicity, a pack, not of subjects but of singularities without identity or unity, looking for other roaming packs and multiplicities with which to cohabit and build glittering misfit heterotopias.

BABEL’s’ “roaming packs” include academics and former academics who, hoping to build a “more present-minded medieval studies, a more historically-minded cultural studies, and a new misfit multiversity,” have employed crowd funding, extra-academic publishing venues, and other alternative and cross-disciplinary practices and alliances.  However, their intellectual hinterland is mostly Anglo-American and their demiurgic polysyllabicity, which I find exhilarating, may present an insurmountable barrier for those amateurs who have never called the “ruined towers of the post-historical university” their home. This barrier may also exist for most essays and reviews published in journals like Studies in Medievalism, Medievally Speaking, postmedieval, and book series like Bonnie Wheeler’s The New Middle Ages, and the dozens of monographs and essay collections published every year that sign on to the term “medievalism”, negotiate its semantic space, and profit from and increase its rising currency. [SLIDE]

One additional way in which we can and should “reach out” is by following the example of scholar Umberto Eco, who not only wrote about the afterlife of the Middle Ages in major newspapers, but touched a larger public with The Name of the Rose (1986). Bruce Holsinger, author of learned books about medievalism, but also of two widely received historical thrillers, which center around a friend and ‘relatively unknown’ contemporary of Geoffrey Chaucer’s by the name of John Gower. Jane Chance, Pam Clements, and six other poets recently published a volume of poetry, New Crops From Old Fields, which addresses medievalist topics in poetic form.  Another way to promulgate an academy-informed but broadly accessible interest in medievalia is an aggressive intervention into the wide use of imagined medieval heritages in the media, be it when the French Front National appropriates Jeanne D’Arc, when New Hampshire legislators, Ridley Scott, or the British Museum find themselves inspired by (“our”) Magna Carta, when British politicians seriously consider containing contemporary jihadism with a late medieval treason law, or when Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott appoints Prince Philip to a knighthood of the Order of Australia. Other outreach projects might imitate the Medieval Baltimore digital media history project at Towson University, Michael Kudzynski’s Medieval New Orleans class at Tulane University or my own “Medieval Atlanta“ class at Georgia Tech, all meant to help students read traces of medieval culture in the architecture, cultural rituals, entertainment, language, objects, and politics of their own backyard.

This broader mélange of academic and popular medievalisms can only happen if those of us currently in academic positions allow for public scholarship, innovative teaching, ‘Robin Hood access’ to our journals and blogs, and community outreach to count when it comes to being hired, recommended, tenured, and promoted. If we do not learn how to recognize such activities, we may still resemble those exclusionist colleagues who, around 1930, almost ended the career of Ernst Kantorowicz. Many of them did not critique Kantorowicz’s rather conservative ideology in his 1927 biography of Frederick Barbarossa (Kaiser Friedrich der Zweite, 1927), but because he had dared write history in an alternative, aesthetically-minded discourse that was receivable by a non-academic audience. If, like I, you have found in recent years that some of your most valuable and exciting communications about medievalia come from blogs or web sites like In the Middle, Geoffrey Chaucer Hath a Blog,, The Public Medievalist, Modern Medieval, or Modernités Médiévales, help me make sure these spaces are recognized even if they do not conform to the traditional features of academic merit, titles, and institutions.

Let us adjust our ritualized systems of recognition to include all those approaches that add value to our deeper understanding of the Middle Ages and its ongoing presence. Such a deeper understanding will include increasing and varying degrees of conscious and joyous involvement by the investigating scholar, sometimes as comprehensively and wholeheartedly as in Carolyn Dinshaw’s case, sometimes as fragmentarily, and perhaps failingly, as in this plenary. [SLIDE]

This International Medieval Congress has always offered an arena in which new ideas could be explored or, in the words of John Sommerfeldt, the Medieval Institute’s founding director, “where a bright young scholar could be heard.” Sommerfeldt’s egalitarian approach, radical at the time, has been central to the event’s ongoing success. In my view, continuing this egalitarian tradition means that our notion of the Middle Ages should and will increasingly be one that binds together again what the modern academy’s science-like fashion has kept apart for most of the twentieth century. Dwelling under the gentle wing of medievalism, begun at this congress by Leslie Workman and Kathleen Verduin in the 1980s and now spreading far and wide, formerly unbending temporalities and dated distinctions between enthusiasts and scholars, have a chance, often in the first rather than the third person, to unite all who love, all amateurs of, the Middle Ages. 

© Richard Utz