Redheaded Neanderlady

Redheaded Neanderlady
This is a photoshopped version of something I found in National Geographic about the time I started researching

Sunday, May 18, 2008

The future of medieval history?

I haven't been doing much blogging lately. I have had ideas, but I haven't really had time. But today, I came across a couple of things that made me start thinking. The first had more to do with writing than anything else. A listserv I'm on, that supports writers(and would-be writers), had a woman who complained that she'd been "trashed" in a critique group, about her historical novel. It wasn't "accurate" enough, according to the person who "trashed" it. Apparently, anybody who is writing about historical England, who is not from there, tends to get a working over. It is true that the lady in question apologized for her bad behavior later, but still. . . .writers have tender feelings. It's hard to take rejection; we get enough of it. Now the writer wasn't writing anything medieval; she was writing about Scotland in a later period. But that set me to thinking.

The next thing that set me to thinking was the complaints of someone who often posts on a listserv called Mediev-l. This is a listserv for (mostly) academic medievalists. And what they all complain about is budget cuts at their colleges, that tend to shrink history departments, and shrink the professional medievalist pool even more. The "powers that be" just don't consider medieval history in any form, very exciting. Which is, of course, hard on the professional medievalists. And I don't blame them.

But what got me thinking was this: I am also a member of several forums(not listservs, though there are some I'm on, that are interested in historical periods in general. And a fair number of the people on these forums are really, really, knowledgeable in their chosen subjects. On two of them, concerned with Anglo-Saxon England, there are people who are making an effort to learn Old English. I would call that a labor of love! It is not something I would do myself, but then, most people wouldn't end up writing a Great Medieval Science Fiction Epic Trilogy With Neandertals, either.

And that brings me to the heart of things here: I think the future of medieval studies is not going to be in "academia", at least not for the immediate future. Too many people(I"ve heard of cases from knowledgeable people on Mediev-l) have simply not been able to find jobs. But they are passionate about whatever they're interested in, just like the people on these other forums who are trying to learn Old English(among other things). The only difference between the two is, the complaining medievalists have college degrees in their chosen fields. And the others may have college degrees, but not necessarily in some medieval-related subject, yet they have taken the time to learn something that is important to them. Very few people, in my experience, actually take the time to do this, in any field.

I don't have a medieval-related degree. If I did, I'd probably be in much the same position as the complaining medievalists. I have a degree in anthropology, which isn't much better --- except that it proved fairly handy when I started, essentially from Ground Zero, trying to learn as much as I could about Neandertals for my background research. I still try to read academic papers as they come out; the learning never stops as far as I'm concerned, and besides, I might pick up something that I could add to my books. Not necessarily the medieval ones, but somewhere. And when I started my "medieval England" research, I started out from Ground Zero there, too. And I don't think there's anything wrong with that. I wanted to do this, though, being unfamiliar with the territory, so to speak, it took me a while to find the kind of material I wanted. But people are interested in a subject, and read a lot, will probably learn something, even if it isn't what the "academics" think may be important. These folk have a somewhat different perspective from the ordinary person.

Not, I think, that professional medievalists, as a group, will die out completely. But I think much of the ground they're covering may end up being covered by those who are very much motivated to study things on their own. The latter might even take courses from time to time. And you have to remember that there was a time when people did a lot of study on their own --- if they had the leisure and talent and economic means. Of course, back then(perhaps 150 years ago), before these specialties became fully professionalized, such leasure and economic comfort was available to only a few. Professionalization actually helped "democratize" academia in certain respects; anybody with the proper degree could research, write, and teach.

The Internet has changed a lot of this, because while one eventually might have to tap into some pretty "esoteric" sources, it's quite possible for anybody with a computer and Internet connections, to start doing research on their favorite fields. It's also true that the quality of what's on the Internet varies wildly; some of the material(both medieval-related and paleoanthropology-related) is quite respectable. Other material just seems to push agendas, or isn't very well thought out. I've seen some of that, too. And unfortunately, a lot of "ordinary people" haven't learned how to distinguish between the two types, and may think, for example, that some truly wacky theory is "onto something". I've seen the results of that, as well. But for those who have learned at least some critical thinking skills, the reward my be very great.

Of course, I should add that all of this goes for writers, too. Follow your passion! But I'll leave that for another blog.
Anne G


stevent said...

It does seem there is less interest in medieval history by historians, compared to other periods in history. If you watch the History Channel, they have programs a good bit about the Roman Empire and Egypt -- those periods of ancient history -- and then of course for modern history they show stuff on World War II constantly. I'm not sure why that's the case, why there is less of interest, but I do have a difficult time, outside of Internet forums and blogs, finding others who share the same interest in medieval history as myself. Though it does seem when movies come out that have a medieval flare to them, they always seem to do pretty well.

Anne Gilbert said...


The people who watch the History Channel are the kind who tend to have an avid interest in certain kinds of history, but not in periods that don't fit their idea of what is historically important or interesting. These tend to be (a) history "buffs" or people who are interested in "paranormanl" or "alternate" kinds of historical information. Thus, you get lots of WWII or ancient Egypt, Greece, or Rome(for the "space aliens built the pyramids" crowd) or WW II and the Civil War for the history "buffs". "History" is still, in some quarters, also deemed a "man's field" and I think the History Channel is kind of aware of this, and acts accordingly.

It is assumed that, when women are interested in "history", it's the "romantic" stuff. Well, of course they are, but this isn't considered real "history". And for many people, "medieval" falls into the "romantic" category, or else they don't know anything about it at all. Or think everybody went around filthy and unenlightened and tortured each other a lot. Which, of course, they didn't. But because of this, you are probably not going to find many people, outside the Itnernet, who are really and truly interested in anything considered "medieval" At least, that's my "take" on this. There are other reasons as well, but I think these are the prinicipal ones. And as far as I'm concerned, it's too bad, because there is lots of interesting "stuff" out there, when it comes to the Middle Ages.
Anne G

Akshay said...

So what would you say was an approximate size of the medieval history enthusiasts in the US or around the world?

Anne Gilbert said...


That's kind of hard to say. But I think it's larger than some people think it is. Think of all the reenactment societies, for example, and the SCA people in the US and abroad, and so on. If you factor in other groups like Viking reenactment, the worldwide enthusiasm for medieval history in its various forms is probably quite large.
Anne G