Several medievalists took to social media to state that their own practices and lives most certainly bore no resemblance with the derogatory shadings “monkish” invokes, namely (according to the Oxford English Dictionary) “corruption, pedantry, or other disagreeable characteristics, features, or tendencies attributed to medieval monasticism.” Some brought up the likes of Marc Bloch, the hero-historian who, after a distinguished academic career as medievalist, fought and died for the French Résistance against the Nazis, as evidence against claims of monkish tendencies among medievalists. Others stated that for those historically underrepresented in the field political activism wasn’t really a choice, but a way to survive. Again others mentioned that the abuse of medievalist symbols during the 2017 “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Virginia had made it impossible for medievalists not to be activists. Hence, they declared the field free from retrograde monkish tendrils.
As a historian of medieval studies, I can name 99 monkish medievalists for every ‘Mark Bloch’. And a quick look at single author books (Isidore of Seville would point out that “monograph” and “monk” share the same etymology) reviewed in the Medieval Review since January 1, 2019, includes not a single overtly political title. Think: H. Antonsson, Damnation and Salvation in Old Norse Literature; S. Lynch, Medieval Pedagogical Writings: An Epitome; H. Bamford, Cultures of the Fragment: Uses of the Iberian Manuscript, 1100-1600; etc. The same is true for the dozens of books reviewed in issue 1 of volume 94 (2019) of Speculum: The Journal of the Medieval Academy of America. A single volume, V. Blud’s The Unspeakable, Gender and Sexuality in Medieval Literature, is indebted to a gender studies approach, but makes no attempt at relating it to anything beyond medieval culture; typical entries include: L. Cleaver, Education in Twelfth-Century Art and Architecture; J. Hollmann, The Religious Concordance: Nicholas of Cusa and Christian-Muslim Dialogue; and N. Tonelli, Fisiologia della passione: Poesia d’amore e medicina da Cavalcanti a Boccaccio.
Although this is little more than a slice of medievalist productivity, these observations would indicate that most medievalists continue to write studies that seem to be based, even from the perspectives of other colleagues in the humanities, on “monkish techniques of preservation of knowledge” (Louise Fradenburg), bookish philological “slog” performed by “dull stodges” (Tom Shippey), and an “intractable penchant for pedantry” and a “fascination with the difficult, the obscure, and the esoteric” (Lee Patterson). Said differently, it may well be the specific kind of training (for example in: codicology, paleography, diplomatics, historical linguistics, editing) that makes medieval studies more forbidding, separate, and removed from quotidian matters than contemporary fields. A cool blog called “sexy codicology” hints at just how hard some of us try to extricate ourselves from being deemed pedants, stodges, and monks. Ditto for courses trying to ‘make’ new medievalists via a class on Game of Thrones.
More at the link.