On Utz’s Medievalism Manifesto

utzNB This is not a review. Just in case anyone might mistake it for one. There is a proper review here.

What shall we do with Richard Utz’s new book, Medievalism: A Manifesto? It is a great little book – deliberately accessible, off-beat, and provocative. His subject, medievalism, is broadly the study of the use of medieval history in post-medieval politics and culture. What kind of manifesto might such a subject need and how might all medievalists benefit from it?

Importantly, it really is a book with messages for all medievalists, not just those already consciously engaged more narrowly with the reception of medieval history and culture. Utz suggests that the kind of medieval studies that concentrates on the authentic scholarly reconstruction of the past is basically a subset of medievalism rather than vice versa. All historical writing has a context and many audiences. Why only think about the most academic one?

To establish his own context, Utz fills his book with vignettes from his family and personal experiences. These were things that had deep effects on the way he approaches his scholarship more generally. This is more than a matter of self-reflexivity for its own sake: it establishes an important basis for recognising where a medievalist should feel an ethical obligation to intervene in discussions about or representations of the past.

Throughout, Utz joins the long chorus-line of scholars who have come to lament the stark separation of academic and public history. Perhaps writing big expensive books in impenetrable jargon is part of the problem for academic medieval studies, he suggests. Academia becomes alienated from its public. Public discourse is not valued for career progression and intellectual respectability. Many refuse to sell out. Maybe, just maybe, this is not helping when it comes to public perceptions of academia.

So part of Utz’s manifesto is to think about breaking down barriers between academic and public history. This can take many forms, from pushing open access publishing, to being more creative and varied about outputs. Bruce Holsinger’s ability to produce both engaging historical novels and scholarly books is highlighted. Utz’s book itself is short, engaging, and unusually cheap, so people might actually read it.

In the UK and elsewhere, the ‘impact agenda’ makes this kind of thinking more important for medievalists. How can they best communicate the social and economic benefits of their work or even just make people care a little? Much of their research is political, if you look at it in the right light. Most of my own work has been driven by contemporary issues about European culture, religious conflict and multiculturalism, the politics of knowledge, and climate change, even if I haven’t always declared all that explicitly. Maybe I need to be less subtle in future. I certainly need to be more engaging and imaginative about how I do that. Utz’s book helped me to think more about such issues. (Full disclosure: one of the reasons I was reading Utz’s book is that I have been commissioned to write a volume in the same series and I wanted to know how he had met the series brief of writing something both edgy and engaging).

Medievalism: A Manifesto, despite the use of the singular in its title, finishes with six mini-manifestos. They are worth reading. Many medievalists are good at some or all of the kinds of thing Utz promotes: they make their work accessible, they communicate with people who love the Middle Ages, they blog, they write newspaper columns, they rail against sloppy and racist misuses of the Middle Ages as part of their own politics as well out of an ethical duty to be accurate about the past. Thinking about medievalism helps medievalists to address such issues more effectively. It doesn’t mean they have to do such things all the time. But non-engagement is not an option.

Auden once said that he preferred to tell people he was a medieval historian rather than a poet because it froze the conversation. What we want, thinking about Utz’s manifesto, is to consider how actual medievalists might become better conversationalists…

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