Sunday, May 04, 2008

Dr. Dress-Up

Stephanie Trigg over at Humanities Researcher has an interesting post on medieval frocks in the modern world:
I'm developing a sub-theme in my lectures on medievalism this semester: viz. "it's all about the frocks". And it's true: medievalism is often associated with dressing up. It's one of the first questions I'm often asked, when I reveal my profession as medieval scholar: do my students and I dress up in medieval garb? I guess it would be the most obvious way of invoking a pre-modern subjecthood; and the distinction between studying medieval culture, studying medievalism and performing medievalism is easy to blur. But I'm not, myself, a re-enacting kind of medievalist [....]

But it did occur to me the other day, mid-lecture, that the distinction between those who re-create the medieval and those who study those acts of re-creation might not be watertight. Do I fall prey to a false distinction when I carefully distinguish myself from the medievalism that is about re-creating the medieval? Most academics will naturally deny they are driven by wish-fulfilment fantasies in their work, but can we ever accurately diagnose our own interests?

This is a problem I've been wrestling with myself lately. Over the last couple I've really turned my research toward the study of popular medievalism.* Starting with Dragon*Con last year, I realized it was hard for me to blend in; when everyone else is dressed like a hobbit, slacks and a t-shirt stick out as odd. Fortunately, I had some Goliard Society t-shirts from Kalamazoo, so I was able to blend in a little through the use of Old English text.

After that, it was an SCA event, for which I had nothing, but my local shire provided me with loaner clothes, but that was obviously a short-term solution. The next time I went to a Ren Faire, I bought a cheapo all-around shirt that I could wear along with sweatpants and sandals to have a close approximation of what people would imagine medieval peasants would wear. I wore that get-up at our Sword & Shield Saturday event, and I wore it for fun when we went to the Ren Faire this year.

Trigg is right, though, about the way we academics carefully distinguish ourselves from the re-enacting type of popular medievalism. We're afraid to be seen as fanboys, low and unserious. We're scholars, darn it, keepers of arcane knowledge! This ain't make-believe!

That's my stupid pride talking. If we intend (as I do) to promote medieval studies, we need to be willing to meet popular medievalists on their own terms, not just on ours. My cheapo shirt-and-sweats garb was still an attempt to set myself off. Here, I was indicating, I'll gain entrance into your company by meeting the standards of dress ... but I'll meet them in as minimal a way as possible. Do not think for one moment that I'm really one of you. I am a real scholar! Foolish and arrogant.

So I've decided to invest in a nice workable Anglo-Saxon set of clothing. For me, this isn't just a novelty, it's a commitment to myself to be more commited to advancing medieval studies outside my "comfort zone."** In medieval lit courses in the fall, I like to have a class party on October 23rd to celebrate the anniversary of the Cotton Library fire of 1731.*** This year, I hope to have saved up my pennies and bought a nice set of medieval clothing to wear to that party.

No, I'm not suggesting abandoning traditional scholarship. Medieval America is, in its emergent nascent form, more aimed at scholars than a popular audience. I'm still working on getting Curing Elf-shot and Other Mysterious Maladies: New Scholarship on Old English Charms into print (though the unprofessional behavior of certain un-named publishers seems to be interminably delaying that). I've got ideas for articles on all sorts of dense, scholarly subjects that I might work on if the right venue comes along. Most days in class, I'll be in my tweed jacket, as usual, talking about grammar paradigms or the elements of medieval romance or whatever. I'll not take any pre-modern garb to K'zoo.

What I'm changing isn't really my clothes -- it's my attitude. Even with all my interaction with popular medievalists, I'm still guilty of keeping them at arms-length. No more. If my CV and degrees aren't enough to establish my bono fides as a scholar, no change of clothing is going to do it for me.

*Indeed, the book I'm working on now, tentatively-entitled Medieval America, is on this subject. Perhaps I should use scorn quotes for "working on," though, since my tenure & promotion package is due in the fall, and I'm reliably informed by others who've gone through the process that all my research time this summer will be taken up preparing that package. /sigh.
**I hate that term. It pains me to use it.
***Er, to celebrate the saving of books from the fire, not the burning of books.


  1. There's a company in England that comes out for the Estrella war each year that does high-quality anglo-saxon and norse clothing. I'll see if I can't dig up the info.

  2. Why not go as a medieval monk, a teaching monk.... the medieval version of a professor. :-)

    Ironically I have some of the same feelings about my interests in medievalia at all.

  3. IIRC, academic garb--cap and gown--is, if not medieval, at least Renaissance in origin. So you already have a "costume", or at least need search no farther than your alma mater's book store.

    If you do feel that's a cop-out, then I would second the idea of going as a monk--Benedictine, Dominican, or Franciscan at your choice (although finding authenticly styled sandals may be a problem)

  4. A monk could be an interesting combination with your interests in early medieval charms! I suppose if you don't like the idea of being a monk, an alchemist might be another option.

    Btw, a little dry ice in any liquid will give you a nice, safe steaming brew that bubbles on its own without a fire. ;-)

  5. Totally off-topic of the garb discussion but I'd love to know how dragon.con was. I've considered going a few times (for the horror aspect that is there) but I've always put it off. Is it worth the trip?

  6. No, I'm not really interested in dressing like a monk. It seems vaguely disrespectful of the modern monks who dress that way as part of their vocation.

    It strikes me as akin to wearing regalia. I am comfortable wearing regalia because I've earned that right ... a right I've not earned if I'm dressing as part of a religious order. I suppose it would be just as unseemly for a monk to walk around in my regalia.

    As for Anglo-Saxon clothing, they're all dead, so it seems more like an homage than mockery, and no one is likely to see me and come away with the mistaken impression that I'm a time traveler.

  7. You mentioned in an earlier post (I can't remember when) that 'academic' medievalists might do well to look amongst those who've bothered learning Elvish or Klingon (or whatever) for recruits. It seems like a very sensible suggestion - and not something I had thought about before at all! My own amateur enthusiasms have little to with medievalism (in any form), but in light of what you've said previously and said in this post, I can see how there might be a link between my hobbies and my 'academic' medieval studies. I won't be dressing up any time soon (and I don't know that it is as popular on this side of the Atlantic), but it sounds like a fun idea.

  8. Anonymous11:42 PM

    I am both a real bona fide medieval scholar, with a real PhD from a real and reputable university and real publications, and a long time member of the SCA. I know many such.

    In my case, my field of research overlaps with my medieval recreation - productively in both directions. People in the SCA know about and mostly greatly respect my real world scholarship, but there is such negativity about the SCA and other recreation/re-enactment groups in academia that I dare not 'out' myself in an academic forum, especially while I'm looking for a job.

    Such prejudice has a reasonable, if rather dated foundation - there are indeed people in the SCA who are interested in playing out a broadly medievalist fantasy and who have limited knowledge of or interest in the Middle Ages. But there are others who are fascinated by the way people lived and thought, and by the material culture of the period, who have much to offer traditional academic scholarship.

    I look forward to the day when I have sufficient security in the academic world (or have gone beyond caring) that I can acknowledge both the practical and theoretical approaches to my inquiries into medieval life. I really appreciate that you're willing to take steps to break down this barrier, and I hope you find it a productive exercise.

    (BTW, Gale Owen-Crocker's Dress in Anglo-Saxon England is an excellent, highly scholarly investigation of the subject.)

  9. I know lots of Ph.D medievalists who are exceedingly active in SCA.

    And yes, a number will be at Kalamazoo.