Preaching to the Choir

This had better be good.

As many of you know, I have spent the past three days at the Annual Meeting of the Medieval Academy of America here in Chicago (where, as of this morning, we are now under, yes, snow!). Indeed, some of you may even be reading this now only because at some point in the course of the meeting I managed to press one of my blog cards on you. What on earth was I thinking?! [Gasp] Our outgoing president Pat Geary encouraged us as scholars and medievalists not to cloister ourselves behind inaccessible speech, Latinize ourselves into irrelevance, as it were, as did (at least, in Geary's view) the late medieval scholastics. I have not yet written for TV (shades of Michael Wood and Terry Jones), but, well, here I am on the blog trying to write for a larger audience. So. Um.

I'm feeling a bit shy about this. What do I have to say (here, on my blog, or in my scholarship) that will excite even my colleagues, never mind readers who are not already caught up in the intricacies of medievalist scholarship? Something? Anything? I actually thought a lot about this as I listened to my colleagues give their papers this weekend. So many things that I learned, it makes me weary even to think of listing them. But, then, many of you were there; you heard the same talks that I did. And for those who weren't, could mere paraphrase here actually do justice to any of them, or would it only seem like so much name-dropping, cues to the insiders but barriers to keeping anybody else out?

For example: Didn't our first plenary speaker (Prof. Folda) do a great job of showing us what we can learn from the use of chrysography? Did you agree with what Cannon and Dinshaw said about the aporia of Boethius's consolation or was Magee right in his criticism of their dialogue? Are we not worrying too much about becoming too technical? Is there any point in writing history if it has no teleology, i.e. no purpose or point? And so forth. I could do a summary here of the talks that I found most impressive or useful, but a) I'm too tired at the moment to think coherently about much of anything; and b) why? Who other than ourselves really wants to know about what was said?

I just took one of those Facebook tests to find out "which sad medievalist stereotype [I] embody," and the answer came up--twice--"Ren Faire Dork". (I think it was that question about what I thought castles were, and I couldn't truthfully answer anything but "fun places to explore" even though I know they are also "sad reminders of man's inhumanity to man" and "remnants of a defunct military and political system".) Fine. I prefer dressing up and living in a fantasy world of my own creation to advancing my political agenda ("Theory Whore"), but I do still sometimes feel insecure around those who can wield the vocabulary of deconstruction and queer theory. But here's the thing. Which of us has the better reason for wanting to study the Middle Ages? More to the point, is there such a thing as a better reason?

Have you noticed how nearly every paragraph in this post ends with a question? The bottom line is, I'm angry, and I'm not entirely sure why. This often happens after conferences, particularly the big ones like MAA and K'zoo that last three or four days. The first few days are exciting: great to see old friends, great to find someone who actually wants to talk about William of Newburgh's sermons, great not to have to apologize for getting too technical in talking about one's current research. And then the surfeit sets in. Yet another paper telling us about how all of our predecessors (venerable though they may be) have gotten it wrong; yet another lament about how we haven't been training our graduate students well enough; yet another argument for how everything would be set to rights if only one did it this way, i.e. the speaker's way. Yes, of course, it's the stuff of scholarly argument. But, I mean, really.

It's infectious (see, I'm doing it here). Prof. Geary was very eloquent about how the clerics of medieval Europe managed to argue themselves out of a job by developing a more and more abstruse, technical language for exploring problems of theology and law and in warning us, as ourselves academicians, not to fall into the same trap, and I heard many of my colleagues afterward talking about what a good point he had made. But I was seething. One, I don't think he told the whole story about how Latin was or was not used in the later Middle Ages (e.g. in prayer); but, more important, two, I don't buy his criticsm of the way in which we, as professionals, work.

To be sure, it is sad that we do not have learned amateurs like Ralph Adams Cram or John Nicholas Brown in our midst any more, but is this really a result of our having become too technical? The above-mentioned laments about how we or our graduates have not been properly trained suggests a falling away from a more technical standard, not an intensification thereof. Somehow we have become simulatenously more professionalized and less good at what we do, a sad commentary indeed. And yet, to judge from the encomia with which the new Fellows were welcomed into the Academy, our scholarship has never had it so good. We are surrounded by giants. Who, apparently, speak to no one but ourselves.

I haven't done the actual research to prove it, but I really don't think the giants of the old days (e.g. Bischoff or Tolkien or Kuttner) felt the need to apologize for having trained their students in the use of a specialized, technical vocabulary; quite the reverse. Their students revelled in the initiation into the arcana of scribal hands, vowel shifts and canonical distinctiones. Which is not to say that they did not feel called upon to demonstrate how these minutiae contributed to our understanding of the sweep and scope of the European tradition, but they did not (at least, I don't think so) blame the minutiae for their inability to make such arguments. "If only we weren't so caught up in our technical vocabulary, everybody would listen to us." Ha. And double ha.

"Everybody" loves technical minutiae: how artists burnished the gold in their paintings; how smelly it is to prepare an animal's skin for parchment; how, exactly, Catherine of Siena received her stigmata; what kinds of swords were used in the Hundred Years' War. This is the sort of thing the Man on the Street wants to know about medieval history. Which we, professional academicians, either revel in or poo-poo, depending on our audience. Call me a Ren Faire Dork, but I'm sick of it. The reason we don't have amateurs like Cram hanging out with us at our profesional meetings anymore is that we are ashamed to admit that we study the Middle Ages because we actually like them. Heaven forbid lest we be labelled as geeks. Which we are. Cram went around designing churches in Gothic style; we worry about whether anyone will take us seriously if we don't cloak ourselves in serious, academic prose.

Okay, okay, so I heard some really good jokes these past few days (ask anybody who was in the session celebrating Clemens and Graham's Introduction to Manuscript Studies about Worcester). It really isn't as if we're all deadly serious, so many Dr. Dryasdusts laboring away at problems nobody else could care two figs about. But even as we yearn for our colleagues to read our work with excitement, we pretend to ourselves that what drives us is not quite simply our interest, but always necessarily something larger than ourselves, quote The Needs of the Field unquote or the like.

Who are we kidding? I am not writing about the Hours of the Virgin because I think The Field* needs my book (although I am convinced it does) but because I, Rachel, need this book. I have not spent the past eight months trying to learn the particulars of Use and manuscript context for the Office because The Field needs me to do this (although, again, I am convinced it does), but because something inside of me (reason? imagination?) tells me I do in order to answer the questions that I have about the experience and understanding of prayer. And that's it. Sure, it can be highly technical (antiphons, responsories; exegesis, typology; incarnational, trinitarian), but only--and this is very important--because it is so interesting.

Which, of course, is why it hurts so much when no one else seems to care. Don't you want to know the names and genealogical relationships of all of the counts of Auxerre? Or the details of the arguments that the Dominicans made in support of Catherine of Siena's miraculous reception of Christ's wounds? Or whether we have understood Boethius correctly if we neglect his interest in Euclidean geometry? If only everyone else were as interested in such minutiae as we. And don't you hate having to answer the question: how did you get interested in the Middle Ages, when what you want to say is, "I just am"?

Again, I can hear you; many of you have much more high-minded reasons for ending up in our field, but, really, is there any justification whatsoever for wanting to know about the past other than that we do? Knowing about it is not going to save us (unless, that is, we believe it has a point and that our salvation depends upon our knowing this); to save ourselves, we have to be able to see into the future and the one thing that history has taught us is that nobody has ever been very good at predicting the consequences of our own actions. The poor and the oppressed are with us now; writing about the past as if it is subaltern will not change their condition nor will convincing ourselves that we have somehow rescued the past from our own inability to appreciate its "performativity" do anyone substantively any good. Unless, that is, it somehow helps us practice attributing intentionality to the billions of other human beings with whom we now share our planet. But we hardly need the past to teach us how necessary this is.

Here's what I think. We have betrayed ourselves as scholars with our anxieties over whether anybody is listening to us, rather than simply pursuing our need to understand. Cram and Brown came to the early Academy meetings because they were interested in the Middle Ages and wanted to foster the work of those who, like them, shared this interest. We are too often embarrassed when those other than ourselves express the same.

No wonder nobody wants to come play with us.

I'm buying a cloak.

*Of Medieval Studies. Not the Museum.


  1. oooo, yes, buy the cloak. And where it proudly at meetings. And remember, curiosity is sufficient justification in and of itself for any exploration. It is how we map, and expand, our boundaries as individuals and as a species.

  2. The cloak is going to have to wait for the (bigger oooo!) jewelry. You will be impressed, I promise!


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