Monday, July 02, 2007

Sir Nokes, Knight of the Faculty Lounge

John Gravois at The Chronicle of Higher Education has a print article about popular medievalism among academics, paired with an audio report about just how darn fun the International Medieval Congress at Kalamazoo is. During my telephone interview with Gravois, I sensed that his visit to K'zoo really impressed on him just how lively the academic medieval world is. The word he used to describe medieval studies was "vitality" -- as good a word as any.

Gravois opens "Knights of the Faculty Lounge: From dragons to scholars, one man's journey through medieval studies" with this:

I had a fat chance of finding a Dungeons & Dragons game in Kalamazoo, they told me. It was a harebrained quest. But it was a quest, at least, and that seemed appropriate.

OK, I admit it. I was among the skeptics. I knew that a lot of medievalists had come to the field through RPGs, but I thought it would be their secret shame, one that would remain in the closet during the Congress.

I really should have known better. Just look at his brief (non-comprehensive) list of popular medievalist subcultures:

  • Lord of the Rings fans
  • The Society for Creative Anachronism
  • Renaissance Faires
  • World of Warcraft
  • Everquest
I've participated in all of the above with the exception of SCA -- and I'm attending my first SCA meeting tomorrow night. I should have known that I could be out-geeked by other medievalists.

In the two articles (though there is some overlap, the audio piece is an article in its own right, not just a reading of the print piece), I was struck by how much agreement there is among the scholars he spoke with. Dan Kline, Jeff Sypeck, JJ Cohen, Eileen Joy and I might often be in disagreement about a lot of things (often theoretical), but I found myself in total agreement with what they said here about popular medievalism, love of medievalism, and academic anxieties about that love.

I'm starting to think that the most juvenile part of our love is our denial of it. I'm not a grad student any more -- I can read dead languages, properly handle and transcribe medieval manuscripts, and measure my library by the pound rather than by numbers of books. Who are trying to impress here, anyway?

So, here's my unsurprising confession: I love this stuff. I love the high culture and the low. I love tweed-and-bowtie adorned lectures, and I love playing medievalist games. I love reading academic critiques of medieval lit, and I love reading Terry Pratchett. I love the medieval geek culture of academic conference, and I love the very different species of geek at fantasy conventions. And if you don't like it, you can eat the most famous artifact at the York Archaeological Resource Centre and die.

One clarification: At one point in the article, I refer to "the pseudo-medieval world." The quote is accurate, but I was using someone else's nomenclature. I prefer "popular medievalism" to such terms as "recreational medievalism," "quasi-medievalism," "pseudo-medievalism," and "neo-medievalism" -- but that's just a preference, not a point of angry contention. I do sometimes use the term "recreational medievalism" to refer to a sub-category of popular medievalism, i.e. anything that is for fun but cannot be considered art (such as books, film, etc), e.g. Renaissance Faires, SCA, etc.

Arts & Letters Daily (which I read every single day -- as you should) included the "Knights of the Faculty Lounge" article in their "Articles of Note" section for today. Also, Kate Laity of Wombat's World found a YouTube video from the K'zoo dance.


  1. I think I've mentioned it here, but I came to medieval studies through a long route -- I played D&D (and still do), got interested in the SCA because of that, and became interested in academic medievalism because of them both. My secret shame right now is that I'm actually trying to collect old D&D books for a project a friend of mine talked about -- chronicling the history of role-playing games. I figure even if he never gets it off the ground I'll at least have the resources to do something with it when I'm more established and don't have to hide so much.

  2. I'm still a bit doubtful that most professional medievalists with RPG pasts are entirely comfortable discussing the matter, mostly because the folks who fess up are a self-selecting sample. That said, I'm particularly interested in one phenomenon the reporter didn't have the space to ponder: how online gaming carries almost none of the stigma associated with old-school, dice-and-graph-paper gaming. That's largely due to the triumph of what used to be geek culture, but I suspect there's more to it than that.

    I enjoyed seeing that the article cast me as the Voice of Skepticism. Would that I had such profound authority in real life!

  3. I'm still a bit doubtful that most professional medievalists with RPG pasts are entirely comfortable discussing the matter, mostly because the folks who fess up are a self-selecting sample.

    Okay, confiteor. I played D&D and AD&D (and a host of other RPG's) from age 11 to, say, 17 or 18 (i.e., 1981-1988). And a few times since then. I painted lead figurines, owned a fair number of rule books, and even DM'd. I've played some computer RPG's, and I'd probably play more, but the storylines tend to strike me as puerile (the lone hero who has to save the world!), badly written (especially the amateur ones), and repetitive (the action tends to revolve around either: a) go fetch; b) kill kill kill).

    So there you go. But I don't think this has much to do with why I'm a medievalist (I chose the field because the only prof in my master's program with any national reputation was a medievalist: I knew he could help me get into a good program, and he did).

  4. Oooh, painted figurines, like Warhammer! I hadn't even thought about those. You've out-geeked me there, Karl -- both the cost of the set and my lack of patience/talent with painting have kept me out of that particular popular medievalist subculture. Of course, my son recently expressed interest...

  5. So, medieval geek, recreational medievalism got you hooked on the hard stuff?

    I think that scholars in general look down on popular enthusiasm for their subject because they know they themselves are really geeks and are considered as such by nearly the entire population of the world. Thus they must overcompensate to prove their seriousness.

    Under a certain age, a very large % of people with working brains have played RPGs. (This will vary from region to region.) Me, I'm about 5 years above that age (Canada and US). The scholars of the future (and the non-scholars, too) are playing online games now.

    There is a smaller cohort of scholars now active who have taken part or still take part in SCA activities.

  6. I'm not a medievalist, but...

    I am a person who unapologetically plays roleplaying games. As the good professor has noted, I own the current Beowulf boardgame and plan to buy the next game of the same title (but based on the upcoming movie).

    My gaming group and I were talking about how some people are embarrassed by their gaming "past," while we are all proud of our gaming "present."

    Just so you know, my group includes a chemical engineer, an independent film maker, an attorney, a professor of psychology, a program director for a non-profit (me), and a slacker. Every week, we play D&D or the Star Wars RPG, or a boardgame.

    This past weekend we "re-enacted" the battle of Agincourt as we began learning the intricacies of the Battlelore boardgame.

    Oh, and I do an amateur radio show online at, which airs live every Monday at 7pm pacific and podcasts all other times.

    I love my recreation, what can I say.

  7. An unanalytic post:

    I rarely bought sets; couldn't afford them either. I'd generally buy individual figurines (yes: the diminutive was standard), although I do remember buying a set of dead orcs (killed by Boromir, iirc) when I was 12. In the midst of puberty and its hormonal surges, I actually cried when I thought I couldn't get them. And that, Nokes, should win me the geek contest, at least for now.

    Under a certain age, a very large % of people with working brains have played RPGs. (This will vary from region to region.)

    I should think it varies by gender, too. When I gamed, it was almost always exclusively guys. If I gamed now, when I finally learned that women weren't a separate species, perhaps it'd be different. Now, my wife, who is 20 times the Tolkien fan I'll ever be (but perhaps that's not saying much: I haven't read the books since 1982), never gamed, and the closest she got to a computer rpg is Myst and its sequels. Maybe that says something; maybe not.

    But as for the connection for me between rpgs and being a medievalist: well, I started my medieval studies about 10 years after I stopped gaming in earnest, and my brother, who gamed as much as I did, ended up a cardiologist. We might say this proves only that the disease didn't take with him.

    Christian: Beowulf boardgame? Oh, that does sound fun.

  8. I started playing D&D from the pamphlet version, sometime around 1977...not much else to do on a military base. I ended up with lots of books and pewter, and painted most of them. I even colored my Monster Manual. I blame this period of my life for my love of maps.

    I was also the girl who eventually wore a cape to class.

    I have never once since my D&D time NOT pursued some sort of recreational medievalism. Now, in my search for video game and movie entertainment, I eschew the standards of guns and explosions for swords and um...cannons. Ok, so there's still explosions.

    But if going to renaissance fairs, playing games like World of Warcraft, Bard, Gauntlet, Fable and Oblivion, reading Tolkien, playing SCA, fencing, or D&D qualify me as a geek then so be it.

    But, geekier than thou? Nay, Professor. You have letters after your name. That's like a +4 to your INT at least.

  9. I'm going to have to buck the trend and say while I played D&D for a week or so once, I don't do video games, I 'm not a Tolkien fan (I've tried, tried to read LOTR) although I enjoyed the films, and have never been part of anything like SCA. I was an early internet geek (go, go, gopher). What made me a medievalist after years of rolling my eyes at Arthuriana (which I perceived as the total sum of "medieval" in my ignorance) was reading Beowulf and Njal's Saga in a really great class (Steve Mitchell's). After that, there was no escape. But then I still consider myself a writer who happens to teach -- research is just part of the process.

    A pity you couldn't work in mention of the charm collection! Great PR anyway, though.

  10. Using gopher qualifies me as an early internet geek? Wow!

  11. Wow, I guess I'm a early internet geek too.

    And Steve, to answer your question I think recreational medievalism definitely influenced my choice of subject to study. Deciding to be an academic (after floundering for a few years and being a .com dupee for a couple more) was the result of a realization that what I really enjoyed and wanted to make a career out of was talking about ideas with people. At that point, I had already been playing D&D and its equivalents (my current passion is actually GURPS) since I was seven or so, and had been in the SCA for a few years.

    As far as the academic naysaying of recreational medievalism, I think there's some reasons for it. Some of the people I know in the SCA assume that their hobby knowledge is more accurate than that of professional academics and don't have access to the latest sources, so their information is sometimes outdated. That said, there are some people there who are well-versed in the particular time period of their persona and I think quite often they have a better understanding of brewing, construction, etc than an academic who doesn't venture outside of their specialty.

    As far as D&D and other role-playing games go, I think there are two schools. One is the school that wants to accurately depict the world of the game, regardless of the rules, and the other is the people who fetishize the rules. Quite often I will say "well, that doesn't make sense because of x" and the answer will be "this is D&D."

  12. Here's an academic study for any doctoral candidate...

    The Effect of D&D Style Magic on Medieval European Society

    First level wizards spells alone should provide sufficient thesii to justify it's own academic specialty. :)

  13. Bravo on the post, the more people find out that everyone else is, in fact, also a nerd, the sooner we can stop hiding our ridiculously geeky and fun computer/board games and share them.

    I may or may not have seen that Beowulf game for sale in VA and seriously considered purchasing it...

  14. Well, what's a geek? I've never done D&D (well, ok 2 afternoons in grad school that fortunately quickly turned into pizza, beer, and Latin discussions (how influenced was Jerome by the grammar of the LXX?) or SCA etc. I'm an old Internet geek too, in that not only did I do gopher, but I actually pre-date gopher, and was one of the first people to sign on to my university's new bulletin board system back in the day. Ah, memories......

    BUT, when I bought my first PC a dozen years or so ago now I also bought Lords of the Realm and Civilization!

    I became a medievalist in part because of my Linguistics major in college: I loved diachronic linguistics and History of the English Language almost as much as I loved doing Latin and Greek. Over the intervening years between undergrad and grad I found myself reading more and more medieval authors and texts, and I love the period from 700 BCE to about 1800 CE, then start losing interest. Since the Medieval period is more or less in the middle of all that, I became a medievalist so that I could continue to study at least to some extent the literatures of Greece, Rome, and Patristics and say something about early modern literature. A geek's geek, I know. My friends and I get together and we talk about Latin and Old English and occasionally even medieval literary theory.....