Last week, I was at the International Medieval Congress in Leeds. It’s one of the foremost conferences on all things medieval, with thousands of scholars in attendance. One of the best things about such big area-specific shindigs is the variety of panels on offer: not just research-focussed stuff, but also organised discussions about the business of academia, how to be a medievalist going forward. On the first day of the conference , I went to a round table (session #406) on the role of public engagement – or “public intellectualism” – for medievalists. It’s a topic I’m obviously interested in – after all, you’re reading this on my medieval-monikered blog, and I tweet fairly regularly these days. The panel gave me a lot of food for thought, and I’ve been pecking out some thoughts over the past few days.
Firstly, let me say that the speakers - Matthew Gabriele, Andrew James Johnston, and Erik Kwakkel – had a lot of useful, practical counsel to offer. I live-tweeted what I consider to be their key soundbites, so check out my feed from if you’re interested in my perspective, or check out the Storify of tweets about the panel curated by Peter Konieczny, editor of Medievalists.net. All three speakers are “public intellectuals” in various ways (and in different geographical contexts), and outlined their own approaches to entering into dialogue with non-specialist audiences, whether in print, online, or radio. What I want to blog about today is a brief run-down of the speakers’ insights, alongside some fairly problematic issues brought to light in our discussions about the troublesome us/them nature of public engagement, and by the make-up of the panel itself (three well-established white male academics).
Gabriele urged us to consider the existing publics that we all have, including colleagues and readers of articles. All research, when published, is “public” – thus we are all, already, “public intellectuals”. Instead of trying to link contemporary news to anything and everything medieval, Gabriele advocated that we stick to talking about what we are really passionate about in the medieval universe, and then connect that to relevant modern events. His research centres on unpacking the relationship between religion and violence in the Middle Ages, and the cultural role of nostalgia and memory – themes clearly resonant with recent debates in the US about the deeply problematic Confederate flag. I also appreciated his explanation of his rationale to become more public-focussed. Gabriele is based at Virginia Tech, and after the heinous massacre there in 2007, he felt compelled to step up and refute any claims of “medieval” culture supporting contemporary violent, racist ideologies. As experts in our field, we have an ethical responsibility to push back against those trying to manipulate a spurious fantasy of the “Middle Ages” to bolster their own destructive urges. Indeed, Dorothy Kim raised this point well in the Q&A session after the talks proper.