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Of Monks and Medievalists

Originally published at

As several thousand medievalists made their way by car, plane, and train to this year’s 54th International Medieval Congress in Kalamazoo, Michigan, many took notice, at restaurants, hotels, and other public places, of the cover of Southwest Michigan’s magazine Encore, which features Augustine Marie Reisenauer, a member of the Dominican Order.

The feature article explains that Reisenauer was returning to the ICMS because of the diversity of its scholarly presentations and to Kalamazoo because of its local craft beers. At most academic conferences, the presence of clergy might be considered uncomfortable, but the ICMS has always been inclusive of colleagues who both research and practice medieval religious traditions. In fact, the article explains that Western Michigan University, the ICMS host institution, has been home to the Center for Cistercian and Monastic Studies for many years. The Center facilitates scholarship on all aspects of the Cistercian and other religious traditions, sponsors sessions at the Congress, collaborates with the library on manuscript digitization projects, and offers a Graduate Certificate in the History of Monastic Movements.

Encore’s decision to feature a Dominican on its cover is a typical attempt at using the unexpected otherness of a young man wearing a medieval religious habit to attract readers to its pages and ads. Thus, the magazine partakes in one of the known attractions of medievalia in the 21st century, its otherness, in the same way that we casually associate cathedrals, castles, and chivalry with the medieval past. At the same time, Reisenauer’s presence signals that the cover photo is more than a mainstream medievalist meme without any link to a historical reality. In fact, like the existence of the Cistercian and Monastic Studies Center, his picture reminds us of the manifold real cultural continuities between the medieval and our own world.

Only two days before the ICMS, several of those continuities received superficial reference on the front page of the New York Times. In an article on how medievalists have been engaging with issues of white nationalism in their current work as well as the history of their field, NYT culture reporter Jennifer Schuessler used ‘jousting’ and ‘feuding’ to describe the various altercations among medievalists and between medievalists and right wing bloggers. To build some binary tension for her essay, she pitched statements by some politically active medievalists against a statement I made to her during an interview: “People don’t become medievalists because they want to be political. Most are monkish creatures who just want to live in their cells and write their manuscripts.”

Several medievalists took to social media to state that their own practices and lives most certainly bore no resemblance with the derogatory shadings “monkish” invokes, namely (according to the Oxford English Dictionary) “corruption, pedantry, or other disagreeable characteristics, features, or tendencies attributed to medieval monasticism.” Some brought up the likes of Marc Bloch, the hero-historian who, after a distinguished academic career as medievalist, fought and died for the French Résistance against the Nazis, as evidence against claims of monkish tendencies among medievalists. Others stated that for those historically underrepresented in the field political activism wasn’t really a choice, but a way to survive. Again others mentioned that the abuse of medievalist symbols during the 2017 “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Virginia had made it impossible for medievalists not to be activists. Hence, they declared the field free from retrograde monkish tendrils.

As a historian of medieval studies, I can name 99 monkish medievalists for every ‘Mark Bloch’. And a quick look at single author books (Isidore of Seville would point out that “monograph” and “monk” share the same etymology) reviewed in the Medieval Review since January 1, 2019, includes not a single overtly political title. Think: H. Antonsson, Damnation and Salvation in Old Norse Literature; S. Lynch, Medieval Pedagogical Writings: An Epitome; H. Bamford, Cultures of the Fragment: Uses of the Iberian Manuscript, 1100-1600; etc. The same is true for the dozens of books reviewed in issue 1 of volume 94 (2019) of Speculum: The Journal of the Medieval Academy of America. A single volume, V. Blud’s The Unspeakable, Gender and Sexuality in Medieval Literature, is indebted to a gender studies approach, but makes no attempt at relating it to anything beyond medieval culture; typical entries include: L. Cleaver, Education in Twelfth-Century Art and Architecture; J. Hollmann, The Religious Concordance: Nicholas of Cusa and Christian-Muslim Dialogue; and N. Tonelli, Fisiologia della passione: Poesia d’amore e medicina da Cavalcanti a Boccaccio.

Although this is little more than a slice of medievalist productivity, these observations would indicate that most medievalists continue to write studies that seem to be based, even from the perspectives of other colleagues in the humanities, on “monkish techniques of preservation of knowledge” (Louise Fradenburg), bookish philological “slog” performed by “dull stodges” (Tom Shippey), and an “intractable penchant for pedantry” and a “fascination with the difficult, the obscure, and the esoteric” (Lee Patterson). Said differently, it may well be the specific kind of training (for example in: codicology, paleography, diplomatics, historical linguistics, editing) that makes medieval studies more forbidding, separate, and removed from quotidian matters than contemporary fields. A cool blog called “sexy codicology” hints at just how hard some of us try to extricate ourselves from being deemed pedants, stodges, and monks. Ditto for courses trying to ‘make’ new medievalists via a class on Game of Thrones.

Of course, there are entire book series that focus on presentist perspectives on or the reception history of medieval culture, for example Karl Fugelso and Chris Jones’ “Medievalism”. And titles like Norman Cantor’s classic Inventing the Middle Ages or Cord J. Whitaker’s forthcoming Black Metaphors: How Modern Racism Emerged from Medieval Race-Thinking exemplify how some medievalists consciously reveal the continuities and discontinuities between medieval and contemporary culture and the role scholarship plays for creating the public medievalist imaginary. However, the vast majority of monographs in the field still offers a pastist perspective, adheres to the position that any contemporary perspective on medieval culture may present a form of anachronism, may falsify the ‘real’ Middle Ages.

On the one hand, it looks as if the image of the “monkish” medievalist may be more representative of the actual state of the field than the Twitterverse has claimed. After all, the roots of the modern university lie undeniably in the medieval cathedral schools and monasteries. Out of them grew the first medieval universities whose practices, tied as they were to the hierarchies of the Christian church and its structures, rituals, interpretive approaches, and textual canons, have proven surprisingly longevous. On the other hand, likening today’s humanist scholars in their faculty offices to scholastic monks in their cells may be too simplistic an exercise. As Jane Toswell reminds us in her 2017 study on Today’s Medieval University, some of the medieval-looking elements of the modern university – doctoral gowns, investiture banquets, and Latin institutional mottos – are really simulacra of the medieval, copies of ‘original’ medieval practices or structures that actually never existed. In fact, so Toswell, these invented medieval-like traditions often occlude the genuine medieval and ecclesiastical structural elements of the modern university. Its hermetically sealed internal divisions (faculties, schools, departments) clearly still reflect “the self-motivated and internally consistent world of the monastery.”

Medievalists acknowledge their disciplinary and institutional loneliness at times, and they themselves seek ways to overcome their various forms of isolation and alienation. Just read the contributions to the 2018 volume, The Ballad of the Lone Medievalist, edited by Kisha G. Tracy and John P. Sexton. (Isidore of Seville would agree that “lone,” formed by the loss of the unaccented “a” in “a-lone,” which in turn derives from medieval English “all one,” is a conceptual equivalent of “monkish”.) Sexton and Tracy entitle their introduction to the volume “Who Was That Masked Monk?” Another essay is called “From the Monk’s Cell to the Professor’s Office;” a third displays deep personal empathy with “pre-millenial Irish monks sailing out bravely into the North Atlantic, pretending the professional solitude is precisely what we seek, even if it isn’t.”

The contributors to this collection engage playfully and responsibly with the proverbial disciplinary loneliness of the medievalist. They link it to the general statistical observation that being a university faculty involves spending only one fifth of one’s time together with colleagues or students, and the rest alone; they ask how more scholarship of teaching and learning, and how a more public (unacademic?) engagement by medievalists, via blogs and in magazines and newspapers, may still endanger our chances for being hired, retained, tenured, and promoted (after all, it is the monkish pursuit of the monograph or the lone-author essay in the lead research journal that is still the gold standard in the humanities); and they recommend we learn from our medieval academic ancestors to be both, “public intellectuals as well as cloistered scholars,” and to shape our professional responsibilities actively and consciously. Thus, while most of the contributors speak of themselves as on the “margins,” producing “soliloquies,” or being “unicorns,” the common mood of the volume is one of collegial openness, hopefulness, and generosity, qualities instrumental for sharing the tools of our trade with each other, our students, and the broader public. All those are political actions, just not as attention grabbing as the more militant ones often dominating social media discussions of the field. The colleagues in this volume seem to agree that “This Eremitic Life” (title of the book’s final section) is well worth living, even if it needs perfecting.

And where was the idea for The Ballad of the Lone Medievalist born and developed? It was during an ongoing series of roundtables (since 2015) at the annual mash-up of communal medieval monkishness, the International Congress on Medieval Studies. We have come full circle.

Richard Utz is Chair and Professor in the School of Literature, Media, and Communication at Georgia Tech.   



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