Sunday, May 11, 2014

Going Public - A Medievalist on

I've been at the 49th International Congress on Medieval Studies, held annually at Western Michigan University in Kalamazoo, MI. It's an extraordinary event - over 3000 medievalists come to this small town and lovely campus and, over four days, work on everything from the most micro-specialized topic to giant sweeping questions about the academy and the nature of knowledge. Often followed by merriment and music.

I spoke at a session on writing about the Middle Ages for multiple audiences. Ellen Arnold, Ohio Wesleyan,  spoke about the extraordinarily creative assignments she's given to her students (creating pop-up physical and virtual museums, for example). Matthew Gabriele, Virginia Tech, revealed to us the mysteries of the sub-reddit "Ask Historians." Laura Saetveit Miles, Univ. Bergen, talked about being a feminist and medievalist in future public writing.

I talked about being a medievalist on - how it happened and why it mattered. Below is a version of my remarks with some supporting links and some of the images.



I’m here to talk about my experience writing about the Middle Ages for mass media. I’m not a popular historian – in the sense of writing about my subject field for a general audience. Instead, I write popular essays for places like CNN, the Chronicle and the Atlantic some of which are about the intersections between the Middle Ages and now. I see these intersections everywhere.

I began by writing about the medieval echoes at play in Benedict’s surprise resignation and the intentional medievalism of Pope Francis – I often say to my students that the church is firmly in a 13th-century moment. I’m going to tell you a little bit about how that happened, what I wrote and why, and then shift to current events. But first what I really want to say is this:

As medievalists, as intellectuals, you have authority to weigh into public conversations. To the extent possible, to the extent that you can find a platform, to the extent that you feel safe – I think you should do it.


In February of 2013 Pope Benedict retired abruptly. He announced it in Latin, and an Italian Vatican reporter who happened to know Latin broke the news to the world. Go Latin! In general, it caught the media off-guard, media platforms were looking for content, and the content quickly turned to the medieval. Reporters were asking questions about whether Popes had ever retired before, how does papal retirement work, what comes next, what’s the canon law on the subject, and so forth. For a few weeks, medieval history was hot.

A lot of the commentary focused on Pope Gregory XII, who was indeed the last to retire, but who did so in the context of the fifteenth-century Council of Constance as part of a deal to get two anti-popes deposed, Gregory to retire, and a new legitimate Pope elected to unify the church. Hardly analogous to Benedict. I started looking at the late 13th-century canon law on the subject [all before breakfast], much of which was organized by the man who became Boniface VIII. Boniface became pope after his predecessor, Pope Celestine V retired in order to return to a life of contemplation.

Why does this medieval history matter today? Well, Benedict’s statement announcing his retirement echoed Celestine’s own bull of retirement. Benedict visited Celestine’s shrine twice as Pope. Benedict and Celestine are even featured on the wall of the church in L’Aquila.

Given the clear impact that Celestine’s example had provided for Benedict, I had an easy medieval story to write, and I wrote it for CNN.

Over the next few weeks, I kept writing in the run-up to the conclave, after Francis was elected, and even throughout the first few months of his papacy. I felt that a lot of reporters were mis-reading Francis’ early statements. It turns out that my PhD in medieval history makes me a good interpreter of papal texts; go figure.

I used these writing opportunities, as much as possible, to educate readers about the Middle Ages.

Here’s my favorite example – an essay in which I suggested ways to think about the upcoming papal election, but in which I really wanted to say that voting is medieval. Medieval people, as you all know, loved making groups, writing bylaws, and voting for stuff. They did it all the time. The College of Cardinals, no less than a faculty senate, offers a direct continuation of that tradition of medieval voting.

These are the kinds of stories that I think we can, and again as possible, should all write. We all have these moments that we observe a relationship between our scholarly subjects and modern conversations, whether about politics, religion, the environment, or culture. I’ve become an evangelist for writing local op-eds, national pieces, blogging, talking to school groups, participating in library reading groups, anything that might combat myths about the Middle Ages, get our perspective out of academia and into broader discourse.

Here is where current events take over my talk. I had planned to speak about the institutional challenges facing academics who want to do public engagement – namely; that our professions don’t see it as something that counts.

But then something happened that drove me to write a very different kind of piece about the Middle Ages.

There’s Sarah Palin at the 2014 NRA convention. She made an incredible speech. I’ve watched it many many times in whole and in part, and few demagogues in history could do much better. She knows her audience. She owns them.

The minute I heard these words – waterboarding is how we baptize terrorists – I started thinking about forced baptisms in both Visigothic and late medieval Spain, Saxony under Charlemagne, and in the context of massacres after the First Crusade and during the Black Death. I remembered Palin’s invocation of “Blood libel” after Representative Giffords was shot. So here was an extraordinary thing – a modern demagogue claiming the traditions of both Christian persecutor and victim.

I decided that this situation really did call for a medievalist.

This piece was published last Thursday, on May 1. I want to point out a few features of how I wrote about the Middle Ages.

First, I explicitly claimed my authority as an historian.

I quoted an episode on forced baptism from the Chronicle of Mathias of Neuenberg – a reference I actually chose from a Facebook thread I started on forced baptisms in medieval history. And hey, whatever you think of Sarah Palin, getting 14th century German chronicles time on is pretty cool, right?

I described the ways she evoked both fear and dominance in her audience, making them afraid on the one hand, claiming absolute moral authority on the other, and assuring them that with the proper weapons, they could safe. In followup blog posts, I would describe her language as a form of militant Christianity.

I then looked back on her use of “blood libel,” which I defined as a medieval myth, as evidence of her consistent pattern of wanting to be both the unjustly victimized Chosen people and the Christian triumphalist. That rhetorical move is very familiar to medievalists who study the Crusades, for example.

I ended with a nod to apocalyptic thought, a subtext I see running throughout her work.

In my reading, Sarah Palin’s medievalism is evident throughout this speech and her speeches and writing over the years. Throughout, she echoes some of the worst moments in medieval history.


I’m a little nervous about showing you this, here, at Kalamazoo. More nervous than I was about writing it in some ways, because you are my peers. This is not a political conference and I know many of you won’t agree with my take. Moreover, I’m not just being an educator in this piece. I’m not just revealing the ways in which medieval history informs modern events. I’m not acting as a professor in public. I've left the safe spaces behind.

No, in this piece for CNN I am using my status and knowledge as a medieval historian to make an explicitly political argument that a modern politician is dangerous.

Here’s the thing.

I think she’s dangerous.

Moreover, it is my knowledge of the medieval past that has led me to that conclusion. What is our obligation to society as scholars when we draw such conclusions? What is one to do with such a thought other than to share it?

I’m not here to try to persuade you to adopt my politics, but I am here to say that our historical knowledge gives us a perspective that is valuable and usually missing in public discourse. Our status as academics, for all intellectualism can be derided, gives us entry into local and national conversations.

You have the authority to weigh in.

Please use it responsibly.

Thank you.