Pitching to a future market

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.

Gratuitous Robin of Sherwood fan-service illustration

Gratuitous Robin of Sherwood fan-service illustration

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.

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9 responses to “Pitching to a future market

  1. The school textbook issue is a problem. In U.S. schools, history of any sort is very often taught quite badly–frequently by a teacher with surprisingly little experience of college history courses–and with, indeed, very bland textbooks. Part of the textbook problem is that there are a few very large states (Texas comes to mind) which adopt books for all their public schools. This is obviously quite a large market, so publishers tend to pitch and revise their textbooks so as not to offend or annoy the state commission that will be selecting the books.

  2. (From a different Michelle)

    Before we say too much about US versions of the Middle Ages, have you seen the series Robin Hood from the BBC? I actually like it fine as silly Saturday evening entertainment but its history is horrible. Girl power has come to Sherwood. In a recent episode, Elanor of Aquitaine goosed Little John and in the last episode where it looked like they were all surely doomed (again) they sat around getting in touch with their feelings.

    Its fantasy, not education. Its how people, especially young people, fantasize about the Middle Ages today.

  3. I believe heavenfield has a point. what kids here in the U.S. seem to be in love with is an ideal of the middle ages. Personally, when I speak to people, I hear a lot about knights, armor, fighting, and ren fests. I know a few people who are, generally speaking, knowledgable about some of these topics, but they are not really interested in going deeper. I remember a class I took as an undergrad on Scottish history called, “Scotland: More than Braveheart, Kilts, and Whiskey.” The first day of class we analyzed the inaccuracies in the first few minutes of “Braveheart.” Finally, one student stood up and said that he didn’t care if it was true or not, it just looked cool. During the semester, as we delved into the meat and potatoes of historical work, he and a few others lost interest and just stopped coming. I would love to take part in some “community outreach” program for our craft, but I wonder what, exactly, people enjoy- the ideal or the reality.

  4. I do see this point, and it is always tempting to dash down the fantasy with a dose of cold revisionism, but at the same time, I can’t entirely wonder at students being annoyed with such a negative beginning. There is enough that was cool in the Middle Ages that we should be able to re-excite people like that with things that were true, or at least were in medieval sources, no? Even if we can’t turn them into critical scholars straight away, when reaching outside the academia maybe our first priority should be to make their ideals more accurate.

  5. Ann Thropologist

    I and many of my colleagues find ourselves asking similar questions about pop social anthropology, especially the TV versions like ‘Tribe’ or, worse, guff like ‘Tribal Wives’. I think for me it came to a head after hearing a radio 4 program featuring some trustrafarian fuckwit who had gone to stay with (yawn) shamans in the (yawn) Amazon taking (double yawn) ayahuasca. Now, vision quests and ayahuasca and Amazonian sociality are all perfectly fascinating, it’s just their representation by ‘adventurous’ Europeans in search of a pristine Other that is tedious and annoying. The radio program had called her in to talk about the direct threats Amazonian peoples face and the considerable and astonishing differences between their view of the world and ‘ours’ (allowing for the fact that neither the ‘Amazonian’ worldview nor our own is stable or homogenous). Anyway, I got a bit heated up listening to this woman not because she herself was a self-satisfied, intellectually lazy, exoticist twit but more with the serious journalist who was giving her airtime in lieu of talking to somebody qualified. The basic question, though, is how much benefit is brought generally by having that person speak on air about her Amazonian friends. This argument was resuscitated a few weeks at a family dinner, when my co-diners couldn’t see anything wrong with the TV program ‘Tribal Wives’, wherein a British woman goes and lives in a “tribal” society in order to Learn What It’s All About, Maaaan. I objected to it on a number of grounds, but my family were convinced that it was preferable for tribal peoples to receive (exoticised, TVified, typecast) media exposure than none at all.

    The debates around representation are rather more loaded in anthropology than in history, but I think some of the central questions are similar; bad/inaccurate representation, which will grab people’s interest, or good/subtle/accurate representation which doesn’t make as big a splash?

    It’s a shame, because as you and others have said, there’s plenty of mind-bogglingly freaky things to capture people’s interest in both mediaeval history and social anthropology without recourse to tired old tropes. In my first Mediaeval History lecture at St Andrews, we were regaled with the story of Abelard and Heloise, particularly the detail of the guards using Abelard’s dindirindongos to play football with. In my first social anthropology lecture, we were told about those Melaniesian funerary practices where the heir eats the deceased’s brain, and how this led to the spread of proto-CJD. Who needs exaggeration?

  6. Well, Jonathan, you will find no arguement from me there and I believe that my prof was, in his own way, trying to show how much more interesting the reality was. Also, different people react to different stimuli. I have another friend who is very active in the SCA here. When he began dating his present wife, she knew nothing of that world. Still, she became involved so she could be with him and became fascinated with medieval clothing. What it looked like and how to make it “the old fashioned way.” Now, they come to the ‘zoo as a couple and she- even though she is no academic- attends all of the relevant sessions and plops down quite a few dollars in the book stalls for her habit. Her biggest complaint with M. Gibson is the fact that he wore a kilt. The problem is more complex than a broad effort at “education” might seem to allow. For now, I take opportunities for discussion when I can find them. Sometimes I get an interested reaction, sometimes I get glassy eyes and ” I don’t care if it’s not true, it looks cool.” c’est la vie.

  7. And of course catching some is better than none, but while we feel that the field is under pressure, as apparently we do, we still need to wonder about catching more.

    Ann, it’s not because your story isn’t interesting that I have little to say back, I just don’t know the debates in your field. Of course we have our exoticism too—the old friend of mine who works on magic and impotence in high medieval England would spring to mind were she not so down-to-earth herself, and there are of course the Templars and the Holy Grail to keep the amateur fringe busy—but all the same the fact that your field’s exotic side demonstrably exists makes it perhaps more compelling and harder to refuse to consider than our Dan Brown-fuelled speculators…

  8. Thanks for the links! I need to make more silly videos now that thesis is largely behind me.

  9. Hola en Mexico soy una gran fan de esta serie

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