Reconsidering Relationships to the Past: Medieval Studies and Public Humanities

In recent years, medieval studies has been at the center of major conversations about accessibility, inclusion, and the broader future of a humanistic education. Sierra Lomuto writes that medieval studies is “undergoing a disciplinary crisis” and is “a battleground: it is either a last priority because its inaccessibility masks its relevance to pressing concerns of the present, or it becomes a priority because it symbolizes tradition for those who want to hold onto Eurocentric narratives about the past”[1]. Medieval studies needs to change if it wishes to continue. The status quo cannot hold. Scholars and institutions have begun taking steps to address major, structural aspects of the field that have long made it exclusionary and impenetrable to people. Not only is this important for the future viability of the field, but it is also crucial for reaching those outside of academia. There is such great potential for scholars to make positive impacts on everyday people and their ideas about – as well as encounters with – the Middle Ages. Crises, though scary, can be major catalysts for change. Indeed, the field and its relationships to those around and outside the academic world are changing. 

As the Medieval Institute’s Public Humanities Postdoctoral Fellow for the 2023-2025 academic years, I am in a unique position to observe these changes and think about how to make meaningful connections between the Middle Ages and the broader public. In other words, these changes excite me because they present so many incredible opportunities to open up medieval studies to people. As a scholar whose research engages with questions of identity, community, and belonging, it is such an honor that I get to consider how medieval studies can enrich our local communities. My work at the Medieval Institute involves planning and implementing programming that reaches a wide audience. I want to change people’s relationships to the Middle Ages for the better. I am committed to answering some major questions: why should people care about the Middle Ages? How do we get people to care about the Middle Ages? 

Getting people to care about the Middle Ages is no easy task. It is important for medievalists to understand how daunting the field can be for those in and outside of academia – medieval studies can be quite an inaccessible field. The Middle Ages encompass an incredibly large swath of time and geographical spaces. Preconceived notions about the Middle Ages being dull still exist. For some people, the field’s long history of Eurocentrism can be a turnoff. Others may have caught wind of the field’s exciting interdisciplinarity but may not know where to start exploring all the material out there. Furthermore, language barriers present challenges. There are so many unfortunate hurdles, and as scholars we should strive to remove as many as we can so that people can appreciate the importance of the field.

The Middle Ages matter because – the way I see it – they belong to everyone. It is a vibrant, rich past that everyone can benefit from exploring. It is a time of encounter and of exchange. Networks of people from all over the world are being constructed and deconstructed throughout the Middle Ages. Knowledge and ideas are spreading through these networks of exchange. Scholars have only begun to scratch the surface of this vast interconnectedness and how their legacies bring to bear on our contemporary, globalized world. Indeed, we can learn so much about the present and future through deep engagement with our past.

The field must change so that scholarly work can be easily shared among researchers, allowing for innovative interdisciplinary avenues to be explored. Peer institutions have taken on major projects to address structural barriers that have unfortunately kept medieval studies separate from other academic disciplines. For example, Arizona State University’s Arizona Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies has their ongoing RaceB4Race conference series and professional networking community, which provides a powerful platform for a variety of scholars scholars interested in race and racializing discourses in premodern contexts to come together and share their work. RaceB4Race is an initiative designed with the goal to bridge disciplinary divides so that innovative, interdisciplinary scholarship can thrive. The hope is that these connections can spark change – academic and social – within premodern studies. Notable participants include Geraldine Heng, whose 2018 monograph The Invention of Race in the European Middle Ages marked a watershed moment for medieval studies and research on race. RaceB4Race offers an incredible model for other institutions to follow: one that embraces critical race studies in premodern contexts by cultivating interdisciplinary dialogue and scholarship.

Image of students looking at books and manuscripts from the ASU RaceB4Race website [https://acmrs.asu.edu/RaceB4Race]

The University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) – my alma mater –  embraces the global turn in medieval studies. Under the direction of Zrinka Stahuljak, there have been major structural changes, allowing for radical reimagining of what medieval and early modern studies can entail. Notably, what was long known as UCLA’s Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies has been renamed as the CMRS Center for Early Global Studies. This reflects a major disciplinary shift as the field wrestles with periodization in a global context. By replacing the terms “medieval” and “Renaissance” with “early,” the Center’s new name asks scholars to be mindful of the field’s Eurocentrism and to move away from it. To quote the Center’s “About Page” on its website: “In order to counteract the varying periodizations across the globe, which do not fit neatly along European lines of division, the best term that accommodates the periods under the Center’s purview is ‘early.’ The term ‘early’ circumvents the problem of always centering time periods in relation to modernity and thus avoids the pitfalls of teleology, of working on the presumption of progress from the past to the present.”[2] What at first glance may seem like a minor name change is part of a larger paradigm shift for other institutions to consider following in order to expand the field in exciting ways.

To underscore this shift, the Center has made great strides in highlighting work that considers the Americas, Asia, and Africa which have been overlooked given previous Eurocentric approaches to the Middle Ages. In fact, the Center, in collaboration with UCLA’s American Indian Studies Center, recently received a $1 million grant from the Mellon Foundation to support a project called “Race in the Global Past through Native Lenses.” This grant validates the Center’s inclusive, global approach that decenters Europe and allows for two fields that rarely intersect – indigenous studies and premodern studies – to come together in a way that breaks down typical academic and disciplinary divides. This is just one example of the innovative work that can come from bridging gaps across areas in the name of better understanding of global contexts. 

This work connecting the Middle Ages to broader contexts and disciplinary approaches is not limited to academic spaces. Medievalists understand that this research has a great deal of potential, and exciting public-facing projects have been launched. For instance, the Newberry Library in Chicago currently has a thoughtfully curated exhibition called “Seeing Race Before Race” on view. The exhibit is about race from the Middle Ages to 1800 and draws primarily upon European sources and objects to trace the roots of racializing discourses. As part of Professor CJ Jones’s course “German Before Germany,” we will be taking undergraduate students from the University of Notre Dame to see the exhibit in early December before it ends. It is one thing to talk about race and the premodern context in a classroom setting or among other scholars. Experiential learning, which the Newberry Library exhibit offers, allows for students to interact with cultural productions and connect what they witness with the context they have gained from class. Yet, visitors to the Newberry Library’s exhibit should not feel like they need to have taken a college-level course to understand it. Exhibits are designed to be approachable. They are a powerful way to open up cutting-edge scholarship to those in and outside of academic spaces. Indeed, the “Seeing Race Before Race” exhibit welcomes and allows for wide audiences – not just students, researchers, and scholars – to process this information for themselves with the help of carefully written didactic materials as guides.

“Seeing Race Before Race” promotional image from Newberry Library’s website

The Medieval Institute at the University of Notre Dame takes public engagement and outreach a step further by tapping into the local community, thereby decentering academia as a space for encountering medieval studies. My position at the Medieval Institute allows me to be involved in events like our football tailgates, which has us interacting with hundreds of people. These crowds arrive on campus eager to cheer on the Fighting Irish and are pleasantly surprised to learn that the Medieval Institute exists. Over some food, drink, and medieval-themed entertainment, my colleagues and I have had the pleasure of talking to people from all over about the work we do at the Medieval Institute. Some people are regulars who say they look forward to our tailgates year after year since we started them in 2018. Others are first-timers, and their encounter with us at the tailgate is when they learn that we exist. I enjoy the awe in people’s voices and eyes as their curiosity about why we would host these tailgates gives way to genuine interest about our programming and work. A fond memory I have involves a brief interaction with a guest. He asked me about the geographic scope of the Middle Ages. I responded that many scholars work beyond the confines of modern-day Europe and conduct research on Asia, Africa, and the Americas. The visitor was so impressed by the field’s reach and wanted to learn more. This brief experience affirmed that our presence at these tailgates is a powerful work of outreach. By being approachable, warm, and inviting, we invite people from all walks of life to pursue learning more about the Middle Ages. We show people that the Middle Ages can be accessible and fun!

Image of Medieval Institute at Notre Dame’s Tailgating Community Outreach

A major innovation that the Medieval Institute has implemented is a course at John Adams High School called “Why the Middle Ages Matter.” This elective course is the exciting result of collaborating with John Adams High School and the South Bend Community School Corporation, allowing enrolled students to get a taste of what it is like to learn from the array of experts who work at the University of Notre Dame. This upcoming spring will mark the course’s third iteration and the first time that I will be leading the course. My inimitable predecessor as the Public Humanities Postdoctoral Fellow, Annie Killian, led the course for its first two years, thereby paving the way for me and future Fellows to introduce curious, excited students to the Middle Ages and the wealth of resources that Notre Dame has to offer. 

As I finalize the syllabus for the course, I cannot help but wonder about my future students. What assumptions about the Middle Ages will they bring with them to the course? What have their previous encounters with the topic been like? With this being the third time the course happens, what have students shared with their peers about it? I find myself sensitive to the powerful potential of this course. Students will learn about a more global, interconnected Middle Ages, thereby benefiting from the generative global turn in medieval studies. They get to do this with an incredible amount of support. There is the mighty institutional support that comes from the University of Notre Dame. Students will be led on special tours of the university’s Rare Books & Special Collections as well as the soon-to-be-open Raclin Murphy Museum. Guest lectures led by world-renowned scholars will whet their appetite for learning and introduce them to what humanistic research looks like. I am in awe of this course, which breaks down academic and structural barriers so that public school students can access and benefit from a world class institution that lies in their backyard. We are doing so much to empower the students at John Adams High School not only to embrace learning about the past but also to see themselves as welcome to academic spaces. This is a powerful way for us to demonstrate a commitment to making humanistic inquiry accessible to a diverse audience.

It is no surprise that someone whose current position as a public humanist would embrace these efforts that the field and various institutions are undertaking to make major changes to medieval studies. I am so buoyed by what is happening in the field. The crisis that Sierra Lomuto identified cannot hold – indeed, something has to give. What is emerging from this reckoning is an opening up of medieval studies to generative research directions as well as to broader audiences. This work reminds me of the reality of the humanities: it is of the people and for the people. As medievalists, the future of our field depends on us embracing change as well as remembering that our work does not exist in a vacuum. Rather, our work has major consequences for how people can come to understand the world: past, present, and future.

Anne Le, Ph.D.
Public Humanities Postdoctoral Fellow
Medieval Institute
University of Notre Dame

Footnotes:

[1] Lomuto, “Belle da Costa Greene,” 1-2.

[2] “About,” UCLA CMRS Center for Early Global Studies, https://cmrs.ucla.edu/about/.

Works Cited:

Lomuto, Sierra. “Belle da Costa Greene and the Undoing of ‘Medieval’ Studies.” boundary 2 50, no. 3 (August 2023): 1-30.

UCLA CMRS Center for Early Global Studies. “About.” https://cmrs.ucla.edu/about/.

Further Reading and More Information:

Medieval Institute at the University of Notre Dame. “Community Engagement.” https://medieval.nd.edu/community-engagement/.

Smulyan, Susan. “Why Public Humanities?” Daedalus, the Journal of the American Academy of Arts & Sciences 151, no. 3 (Summer 2022): 124-137.

 Stanford Humanities Center. “Interview with Zrinka Stahuljak.” https://shc.stanford.edu/arcade/interventions/interview-zrinka-stahuljak.

On the Process of Writing a Pop History Book


Reviewer #1: This is an important article. Although the topic is quite specialized, the application of a methodology normally applied to the Middle Ages to a neglected early modern topic is a useful tool for further investigation of less documented subjects.

Reviewer #2: The author’s argument is unoriginal and uninteresting. There is room for a retelling of the story, but this piece of writing is not it.

As medievalists, our scholarship and self-esteem are to a large extent governed by Reviewer #2. Or rather, they are shaped by an entrenched system of abstracts, standardized book proposals, peer review, impostor syndrome, and desperate self-scrutiny in hopes of avoiding that Reviewer #2. In the course of writing a medieval history book aimed at a popular market, however, I (and my self-esteem) fell headlong into a rather different process. After my earlier post concerning my book, How to Slay a Dragon: A Fantasy Hero’s Guide to the Real Middle Ages (Tiller Press, 2021), some readers expressed interest in hearing more about the process of producing a pop history book.

A small disclaimer: I cannot adequately compare the scholarly and popular processes, unfortunately, because I am currently working on my first academic book proposal, also unfortunately. Nevertheless, I hope that my experience can prove helpful and even hopeful—if I can make it through this process, so can you.

The Ambush(es)

Relieved that academic conferences might be dwindling in the Zoom era? I was actually approached by a representative from Tiller Press (a Simon & Schuster imprint) after an in-person conference panel on Internet public history. It was not an open-ended conversation, however: she had a specific book for me to write, a coffee-table volume on people of color in medieval Europe. Since everyone wants to write that book right now, I was eager to set up a later meeting to discuss the possibility.

I decided in the meantime that such a book really needed to be written by a junior scholar of color, and I am white, so I thought the meeting was going to be short. Instead, now was the time the editors on the other end of the call asked me what I would like to write. Sure, I have plenty of ideas—but I did not have a practiced elevator pitch for any of them. I stammered out several, and miraculously, they jumped on A Fantasy Hero’s Guide to the Real Middle Ages.

Well, “jumped on” meaning I would have to prove the viability with a book proposal.

Image of Christine de Pizan (Cristina da Pizzano) lecturing from her works in British Library, Harley 4431, f.259v (1413).

The Book Proposal

Fortunately for us, this bears some similarity to the academic version, except with a far stronger focus on potential sales. The publisher wanted:

1. A short abstract: a 1-2 sentence publicity blurb to entice readers quickly.

2. A long abstract: 250ish words in which to:
(a) describe the premise in more depth
(b) explain that the book would be based on proper primary and secondary sources
(c) present the desirable “P crossed with Q crossed with R” description of the contents (in my case, “Rejected Princesses meets Lords of the Rings meets TV Tropes”)
(d) set out the probable audience
(e) justify its current relevance (its gender- and race-inclusiveness, in light of Internet discussions)
(f) finish with an “awesomeness” factor (“How to Slay a Dragon reveals a Middle Ages far more outrageous than any fantasy fiction could hope to be.”)

3. An author profile

4. A projected outline

5. Multiple sample chapters

Fun fact: only one of my three sample chapters made it into the book.

Don’t Panic

This was—and remains—the hardest part for me. If you think you struggle with impostor syndrome when submitting an article, imagine how it feels when your contract mentions royalty shares from the potential sale of audiobook rights and other people being hired to write a sequel. I know to say that may sound like I’m bragging, but trust me, all I feel inside are knots around my heart and maybe a little nausea. So please be aware before you start the process of writing and publishing a pop history book: it’s not a matter of “pick a manuscript illumination to plop on the cover, contact the archive, and get the rights.” Your editor is going to mention “cover art” and “hiring an illustrator,” and your job is to not panic.

I was not good at this.

Writing and Editing

Rather than deliver a full book and then revise it wholesale, my editor (the wonderful Ronnie Alvaredo) required me to work in pieces. The nature of my premise means my book has around forty short chapters, and she set up a schedule for me to submit three new ones or three revised ones at a time. She also asked me to start with a few chapters that I thought might make good advance chapters to show the sales team and potential corporate buyers. No pressure! So I was always revising other chapters as I was writing new ones.

Another important factor for medievalists to keep in mind is that we are the experts, not the editorial team—not just in terms of information, but in terms of how medieval as a field works. I lost count of how many times I had to explain, “We simply don’t know exact dates or a location and also the author’s name is probably a pseudonym.”

The Best Part

There is no Reviewer #2.

The Worst Part

That means you have to be your own.


Cait Stevenson
PhD in Medieval Studies
University of Notre Dame

How to Slay a Dragon (and Reach a Public Audience)

If you ever fall asleep and wake up in a strange fantasy world, there is no reason to panic. Even if you have never rolled a d20 or published an article on Tolkien, you probably know you will be meeting your traveling party at an inn, dealing with a dragon or two, and feasting like it’s 1480 and you plan to commission a 124-folio illuminated manuscript account of your wedding that will also be printed for distribution to a wide public readership. [1] You know these things because a facsimile of the Middle Ages has been host to wizards, jinn, and paladins since Lord of Rings, since Gothic fiction, since 1000 Nights became 1001. And now you can know that medieval history holds all the answers you need to survive and triumph in a five-volume fantasy trilogy.

At least, this is the premise of my new book, How to Slay a Dragon: A Fantasy Hero’s Guide to the Real Middle Ages (Tiller Press, 2001). It is a handbook for heroes that uses fantasy tropes as allegory to teach medieval history–and a little bit about critical interpretation of sources along the way. Throughout the book, you take on the role of an illiterate peasant (a Chosen One?) called to a quest (slaying a dragon, saving the princess, figuring out what to do while the princess saves herself), and every chapter presents a common trope–the more magical, the better–as a problem to solve.

Befriending the Enchanted Forest might not be possible because enchanted forests do not exist, but Muslim and Christian rulers alike showed off their power and riches with silver forests filled with golden chirping automatons. Medieval patterns of evangelization and conversion demonstrate the exact opposite of Bringing the Old Gods Back, but the Sphinx guarded the desert outside the Fatimid capital, and Abu Ja’far al-Idrisi (d. 1251) wanted to know why. (Caliphs were more interested in staging races up the Great Pyramid and throwing torchlit parties at Giza.) If you have ever needed to survive some shrieking eels or use linguistic evidence to reconstruct Early English beacon warning systems, How to Slay a Dragon is the book for you.

From the standpoint of writing the book, on the other hand, one of the big advantages of working with an editor and sales team at a major publishing house was to see what did and did not appeal to them along the way. The ideas seem basic, especially from a classroom point of view, but the publishers’ explicit acknowledgment of them suggests both their necessity and a feeling that they are lacking in the overall public discourse on the Middle Ages.

The “medieval world”

It was vital to me to write about a “medieval world,” not just the western Europe that underlies traditional fantasy (or as I like to put it, A Fantasy Hero’s Guide to Fifteenth-Century Germany and Tenth-Century Cairo). What “medieval world” does and should mean in scholarship is constantly in flux, but I ultimately settled on a spiderweb approach: the economic and cultural networks that criss-crossed the world around the Mediterranean, with branches stretching out to the Sámi, Mali, Sumatra. My editor was thrilled that this approach acted as a counterpoint to narratives of the mythic white Middle Ages, and suggested that the push to diversify the fantasy genre has made average readers hungrier for a historical accuracy hunt in the medieval Islamic world as well.

Analyzing primary sources

Although most of the 1000-1500 word chapters bring together information from three to eight secondary sources and the occasional primary, several chapters zoom in on one or two primary sources, for example, John of Morigny’s Liber florum (“How to train a wizard”) and Bertrandon de la Brocquière’s Le Voyage de Outre-Mer (“How to cross the barren wastes”). [2] My editor thought readers would respond really well to my method of talking the reader through the source bit by bit, gradually revealing its own genre elements and how we should not take primary sources at face value.

Being specific about time, place, and origin

Because How to Slay a Dragon is essentially Medieval Studies 101 using a fantasy epic instead of a timeline as its narrative, I tried to be very specific about the time and place of every anecdote, event, or text. I was surprised at how strongly my editor stressed this point as well. But even more, she insisted that I include background information about primary sources. Once again, I think it’s a good lesson that people are hungry for firsthand access to actual medieval writing and material objects, but also to know how to understand them.

You, the hero

Throughout the process, the strength of the book’s quest through-narrative was the biggest point of contention between my editor and me. My original vision was to use the tropes as an excuse to talk about the “cool parts” of medieval history (need to cross a cursed swamp? Let me tell you about bathhouse ghosts and London’s public toilets). But the marketing team in particular pointed to the self-insert, immersive aspect of fantasy gaming (computer and tabletop) and even fanfiction, not just reading, in terms of how people engage medievalist fantasy. After all, as Tolkien himself pointed out in “On Fairy-Stories,” part of the eternal appeal of fantasy is the escape into another world–your escape.

Although the first three points are foundational to how I, a medieval historian, approach the Middle Ages, I find it significant that my editor and marketing team believe so strongly in their place in books aimed at a popular audience. And if you are interested, of course, I invite you to see an example of how they can play out in How to Slay a Dragon: A Fantasy Hero’s Guide to the Real Middle Ages.

Cait Stevenson
PhD in History
University of Notre Dame

[1] The text and its illuminations are translated in Jane Bridgeman, The Celebrations at Pesaro for the Marriage of Costanzo Sforza & Camilla Marzano d’Aragona (26 – 30 May 1475) (Brepols, 2013).

[2] Claire Fanger and Nicholas Watson (eds.), John of Morigny: Liber florum celestis doctrine / The Flowers of Heavenly Teaching: An Edition and Commentary (Brepols, 2016); C. H. Schefer (ed.), Le Voyage d’outremer de Bertrandon de la Broquière (Ernest Leroux, 1892).