I got a dose of dejà vu from an article that I’d been having trouble getting round to, William Chester Jordan, “Saving Medieval History; Or, the New Crusade”, in John van Engen (ed.), The Past and Future of Medieval Studies (Notre Dame 1994), pp. 259-272. He spends half the article saying that interdisciplinarity actually helps more than it hinders, that anthropologists and social scientists also find inspiration in the work of medieval historians (he cites Clifford Geertz, which is good enough for most people, but I could think of others) even as we do from them, and that new subjects and new ways of thinking should be embraced as long as they try and make themselves comprehensible, which I would entirely endorse even if it’s a battle that really doesn’t need to be fought seventeen years later.
But the second half of the article’s where the dejà vu hit, because he spends a few pages pointing out that there’s a huge huge market for medieval stuff in the USA’s population at large, revealed by novels, films and cartoons with a medieval setting, and that really people are interested in our subject and we don’t need to worry about that. And at this point of course I bethought me of the recent blog forum post at Modern Medieval led by Jeff Sypeck which said more or less the same thing and challenged us to get out there and talk to it. I mean, this could be a comment in that thread:
… we ordinarily think of our audience as the university—other scholars and ‘motivated’ college students…. But these ‘motivated’ and ‘traditional’ college students (dwindling in number as some think) have not come to their interest in the Middle Ages from reading scholarly books…. Interested students come from a wider ‘popular culture’ eager to drink in something about the Middle Ages. Though routinely ignored by professional medievalists, the public this culture serves needs our attention. And if they get it, that can only translate into stronger enrolments (and all the moral value that some people think comes from studying the Middle Ages). How do I know that the deep well of interest is out there? I checked. (p. 266)
And from there he goes on to inventory ‘medievalising’ films and books he’d picked up in a recent trawl by his children. And as I say, Jeff Sypeck is telling us to get out there and talk to this public. Jordan however has a different attack, which is to ask why this popular interest doesn’t make it through to us as students in self-evidently important numbers such as would stop people asking whether history was really worth teaching. And his answer is that terrible textbooks put them off. Get to the schools, he says:
One vibrant accurate paragraph on castle-building of the chivalric orders in the Middle Ages in one of the books used in the California or Texas system would do more to sharpen children’s interest in the Middle Ages than much of the verbiage in bland, boring, flat social studies books does now. (p. 268)
And he goes on to discuss film-making, classroom videos and so on. There is much in all this—some of us of course are well ahead of this curve—, and I think it merits discussion, especially the books. How do we get those books to exist? Are they even the best way or should we all be imitating JLJ and making web videos? And so on. There are a lot of people out there better qualified to deal with this question, not least because of being in the USA, whereas there are things other than media which bring my students to the period. (Where did I get into a blog conversation about this? I can’t find it now.) But I thought it was worth starting this hare, if anyone wants to chase it.