Friday, July 08, 2005

Inferior medievalists

New Kid on the Hallway has a post about her (his?) fears that she may be an inferior medievalist because her paleography and language skills are limited.

Pffft. Relax, New Kid. I might be on the literary side of things, but we literary medievalists have the same problems. Every academic field has its own issues, but one that I like to harp on for medievalists is that we are held responsible for knowing all there is to know about a millennium of literature (or, in your case, history) stretched over a continent. I knew a fellow in graduate school who specialized in Beat poetry, and I often thought it alien to focus on, at most, twenty years of poetry in a couple of cities.

For all practical purposes, a medievalist needs to know just enough about general topics, and as much as possible about a few. Take James Marchand's "What Every Medievalist Should Know" list. When I look at that list, I assume that these are areas that every medievalist should be able to master if need be. Is there anyone out there who actually knows off the top of his head everything on the WEMSK list?

His list of topics runs:
Anthropology Archaeology Arithmetic and Numerology Astronomy and Astrology
The Bible Biblical Commentaries Bibliography Byzantine (Medieval Greek) Literature
Celtic Literature Codicology Comparative Religion
Daily Life
Editing Encyclopedias (English) Old English Literature
Feudalism and Knighthood (French) Old French Literature
Geometry Geometry II (German) Medieval German Literature Gothic Literature Grammar
(Latin) Medieval Latin Literature Linguistics Liturgy Logic/Dialectic
Mechanics in the Middle Ages Medieval Science Music
Paleography Philosophy in the Middle Ages
Rhetoric (Russian) Old Russian Literature
Saints Seven Liberal Arts (Slavic) Old Church Slavic Literature (Slavic) Old South Slavic Literature (Slavic) Old West Slavic Literature Sociology (Spanish) Old Spanish Literature Standard Guides and Bibliographies (Wemsk Alpha) Symbolism
Textual Criticism Addendum to Textual Criticism Translation Time and the Calendar
Wemsk Alpha

Lets ignore the subject areas, and just focus on the languages for a moment. Who the heck has a working knowledge of medieval Greek, Celtic, English, French, German, Latin, Norse, Russian, Slavic (in its various varieties) and Spanish? If someone claims to have mastered all of these languages, he either has a very strange definition of "mastered" or has no time to do any actual writing about these languages.

You could improve your paleography skills -- so what? I've got some paleography skills, but I think it is possible to be a perfectly competant medievalist and do no paleography whatsoever (though, admittedly, one's areas of specialty would be limited). I've got a medievalist friend who likes to quote a very prominent medievalist who once told him about Latin, "You know, me and a dictionary, we go a long way."

OK, admittedly, I don't know you, New Kid, so you may be a completely worthless medieval historian ... but I doubt it. All scholars have areas of weakness in their understanding. The difference between a true scholar and a poseur is that true scholars are open about what they don't know and seek help from colleagues who are strong in those areas. Poseurs try to fake it.

Here at Troy University, we've got a medieval historian (Allen Jones) who is a specialist on Gregory of Tours and all those Gaul-types. The amount I know about the Gauls could probably fill a single blog entry. The amount I know about Gregory could probably fill a single sentence, provided it was a sentence fragment. On the other hand, I know stuff about Anglo-Saxon charms that is probably known by maybe a half-dozen other people alive today -- and he doesn't know jack about the Anglo-Saxons or medieval magic. Does that make either of us inferior? I don't think so. Allen's a smart guy, and if he tried to tackle medieval magic for a semester or so he could know enough to write an article on the subject.

So, cheer up, little buckaroo! We all have these insecurities. When you are called upon to be the resident expert on a thousand years' history over all of Europe and parts of Africa and Asia, there are bound to be blind spots.


  1. No medievalist can be considered truly accomplished if she does not fully grasp WEMSK, as well as a thorough knowledge of music, singing, drawing, dancing, and the modern (and ancient) languages. Yet she must also add something more substantial, in the improvement of her mind by extensive reading; and truly, it is essential that she play a mean lyre solo.

    And I am Marie of Romania...(but I do play the lyre!)

  2. Man, you are missing a bet on Gregory of Tours. The greatest yet-unmade movie on the early MA!