Sunday, February 19, 2006

Blogging and Medievalists

Ancrene Wiseass recently addressed the issue of why medievalists are such prolific bloggers (and a bunch of other stuff I'm not commenting about in this post), and she takes hold of two suggestions from Scott of Acephalous:
Scott's wondering (at least, this is what he's wondering insofar as I understand
it) whether medievalists aren't such prolific bloggers because (1) we tend to be
rather isolated at their home universities and therefore to desire the kind of
community with other medievalists that blogs provide and (2) Kalamazoo offers a sort of
"bonding spark" which gets us interested in keeping up with each other in such a

Since I've got to be on this panel about blogging medievalists in a couple of months, I thought I'd take a stab at examining this, as much as a way of giving form to my ideas as sharing them with y'all.

First off, I think these two points are really cause & effect. There's no reason that the International Medieval Congress at Kalamazoo has to be a "bonding spark." Other fields have their big field-wide conferences (such as the "Four Cs" for comp people), or more broadly the MLA for all English & lit types, but these tend by all accounts to be bitter and cruel events in which grad students all try to play David to the Goliath of established scholars, and established scholars do their best Marie Antoinette impressions regarding the un-hired and un-tenured. These are spaces for the cult of academic celebrity, not for great intellectual work, nor for making friends.

Medievalists tend to be isolated on their campuses. Every department seems to think that it needs one, and ONLY one, medievalist (at each university, two -- one in English and one in history). We end up with an absurdly-broad field of expertise, so that the fellow in the office next to us is a specialist in 20th-century American poetry (one genre from one country during one century), while medievalists are supposed to speak with authority on all literature (and culture) spanning more than a millennium on more than one continent. This isolation has two effects: 1) When we get to K'zoo, we are just so darned happy to have other specialists around who understand what we're talking about when we let loose and really geek-out about our research; and 2) When we get to K'zoo, we have a chance to find out about all that other literary/historical/cultural stuff we're supposed to know about but can't possibly because the field is so broad (e.g. -- "One of my colleagues keeps asking me about some Viking saga I've only once read ... hey, look, a whole session on it!").

I think, too, this explains why medievalists seem to be so much friendlier than many other fields -- we're really genuinely happy to see one another, and tend to see ourselves as an international community of potential resources, rather than an international community of potential rivals. Is there any other field that has so many vibrant e-mail listservs as medieval studies? Heck, I couldn't live without AnSaxNet and MedText-L.

I think there are at least two other reasons for the number of medievalist bloggers: First, ironically, medievalists tend to be technophiles. In literature, the only field that even offers competition with medievalists for techno-geekiness is composition and rhetoric (especially the compu-comp folks). I'm not really sure why this is (though I have some unflattering suspicions), but the love of new technologies certainly helps the medievalist bloggers along.

The other reason, though, is the one that I'm finding most interesting as I think about it: Medievalists tend to be more postmodern than others, and so gravitate toward postmodern genres like the miscellany (i.e., blog) quicker than others. I think the medievalist impulse is not really so much post-Modern as non-Modern. Medievalists have to work all the time in pre-Modern culture, yet at the same time have to live in the Modern academic culture. When our Modernist colleagues (and in most departments that means nearly everyone else) look at postmodern developments, those new things must seem strange and alien to them. Medievalists, though, are already by necessity somewhat alienated from the Modern world, so we find the Postmodern world no more alien to us. Where Modernists are often frightened and threatened by new developments (dollars to donuts says Ivan Tribble ain't no medievalist), medievalists go, "hey, neat!"

To boil all this down to three main points (for those of you who can't survive without a bullet-pointed presentation), the three main reasons for the ubiquity of medieval blogs are:
  • Medievalists are isolated and appreciated the chance to communicate with our own.
  • Medievalists are draw to new technologies.
  • Medievalists have a non-Modern sensibility that is compatible with Postmodern sensibilities.
I wonder if Classicists are the same way?


  1. It might be worth it to attend the MLA just to see the wigs of the Marie Antoinettes! "Let them eat brioche!" (which is something like what Maria Therese, Louis XIV's wife, said; Marie Antoinette got the rap for it, though).

  2. And here I thought I was the only one who had the weird Pre-Modern, Post-Modern thing going on. [Other - "What kind of literature do you like?" Me - "Me? Oh, Anglo-Saxon and Theater of the Absurd." Other - (!?)]

  3. Well, so much for my thunder. I've a little more to add about the unusual strength of the connections made--in particular, how all the top medieval scholars remember students names and projects and send them emails when they bump into something they think might be of use--but you've nailed much of what I wanted to say, in terms of 'Zoo and campus isolation.

  4. Would you agree that there's something about this generation that makes young medievalists more likely to embrace new technology than their mentors and advisors were? I ask because it's not very difficult to find medievalists in their 60s who aren't merely hidebound but are in fact proud to be Luddites. Perhaps it's not useful to compare older scholars nearing retirement with younger scholars just starting their careers, but I wonder if there isn't something specific about how some younger generation of medievalists developed their academic interests--through genre fiction, for example, or role-playing games--that makes them more eager than their predecessors to conduct interdisciplinary research, experiment with new technologies, and share their thoughts with outsiders through blogging.

  5. I agree that medieval studies tend to encourage us to seek out digital communuties (before blogging, it was on UseNet and listserves), and, given the nature of the texts we deal with, be more comfortable with postmodern attitudes and the flexible nature of digital text. I've speculated about it here.

  6. Now I'm even more excited about finally going to Kalamazoo.

    And I do agree wholeheartedly with what you've said about medievalists being comfortable with post-modernity and indeterminancy in a way that other scholars sometimes aren't. And that's something which seems to constantly surprise people: I think most folks expect us to be narrow because they mistakenly think our field of study is narrow.

  7. I'm coming late to the party here -- and I don't think I've commented here before, so hi! -- but I wanted to add that Michael Berube and I had the "the medieval and the postmodern have so much in common" conversation once and he seems to have been as attracted to medieval lit (or at least was in grad school) as I am to the po-mo. Heck, you can tell that from his blog -- he has cited and written beautifully about Gawain and the Green Knight and can make geeky jokes in Latin and/or about Monty Python and the Holy Grail! So maybe there's a general correlation between brainy pop-culture geeks who can quote Monty Python or joke in Latin (which would mean a large number of medievalists) and those who blog. :)