If storytelling matters in our own contemporary context, then so too do stories from the past. Unfortunately, premodern tales often remain obscured or misrepresented.
For example, in the twelfth century, the English monk Thomas of Monmouth (fl.1149-1172) fabricated a story about Jews kidnapping and murdering a boy named William. This fiction, now known as the “Blood Libel,” continued to be told in various forms throughout the Middle Ages (see “The Prioress’s Tale” in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales); and it survives as a “zombie lie” even up to our own time, where it is still retold, often as history. As propaganda fodder for the far-right, however, the (mis)understanding of the Middle Ages evoked by contemporary retellings of the Blood Libel is racist, bleak—and completely misses much of what the medieval period has to offer to contemporary culture.
Our working group is comprised of a team of medievalists (academics, public scholars, journalists, activists) who want to engage the public with stories from the Middle Ages. Collectively, we want medievalists to be seen as public scholars by other public scholars.
During the Institute, we want to create a new roadmap toward public writing where we can deploy our academic skills for the widest possible audiences. We want to be recognized as storytellers who tell old stories that matter, and tell them to the twenty-first century. We want medievalists to plot to carve more space out of the mainstream media. We want to imagine the next type of The Toast, and to lay the groundwork to make it happen.
Our working group includes a cross-section of people who identify as medievalists, at various stages in their careers, working with different storytelling media to engage the public by telling medieval stories. Some of us are teachers and researchers in higher education, but some of us also have experience as journalists, public scholars, social media mavens, and consultants for film, television, and radio. Notably, all of the participants on this team are actively engaged in social media, especially through blogging and tweeting. One of our goals is to bring our interdisciplinary and inter-experiential voices together to learn from each other and to find new modes of storytelling in our own work and with others interested in similar pursuits.
We hope that participating in the Institute can develop a network and team among ourselves and reaching out more broadly, so that we can collaborate and speak more loudly together as medievalists even as we tell more diverse stories.
We are also curious what we might learn about so-called “futurists”—scholars apparently hired by think tanks, companies, and governments to write white papers that imagine future conditions, technologies, and their impacts on society and government. Modernists are usually offered such work, but we feel strongly that medievalists, those of us who study the origins of the very nation-states and technologies in question, are uniquely suited to such scholarly communication.
In all of this, we want to get better at teaching the narratives of the Middle Ages as contested ground both in medieval and modern contexts. From telling our stories, we want to forge connections between the premodern and contemporary, encompassing the longue durée, about violence across religious identities and histories of race; the unravelling of the myth of the “white” Middle Ages and “white” Western Civilization; untold histories of technologies leading to the so-called “digital age”; questions about gender and sexuality—none of which are by any means new in our contemporary era.
Some of our goals raise obvious questions and challenges:
- What do we mean when we talk about telling medieval stories to the public?
- What does it mean to be academics using more popular storytelling media?
- How (and why) do we enact scholarly communication as medievalists, for the public, and through diverse storytelling media?
- How do we break in?
- How do we do it accessibly?
- What new models of publication need to be established to achieve our goals?
- What can we bring to the public to show them medieval subjects matter?
There are some obvious answers to these questions, but also some less obvious answers that we want to work through in a network with others who are asking similar questions.
Medievalists, like medieval people, are all about networks. The Tale of Audun from the Westfjords poses one example, about a poor, resourceful, Icelandic merchant driven by luck to sail to Greenland, spend all of his money buying a captured polar bear cub, sail around Europe with the bear hustling kings, create a network of contacts from his experiences, and ultimately gain widespread reputation and enough wealth to settle into early retirement back in Iceland.
While fictional, the example is representative of the types of networks that pervaded the medieval world. Without networks, people went nowhere.
Our group at the Institute will capitalize on expanding our network: this is one of the substantive takeaways for us. We want to use our time at the Institute to create a plan for not only reaching the public through scholarly communication but also reaching others with the same goals. We will identify who else will take part in our plans; who will invite us to write in their networks; who will collaborate with us to shape the narrative of medieval studies going forward—not just our own group’s narrative. Our connection, our mesnie, our group of well-willers will expand, and our opportunities will grow, as will the patronage we can extend in turn. This profound reciprocity of networking is precisely what is missing from contemporary far-right understandings of the Middle Ages.
We suggest that scholarly communication needs to get a little more medieval.
Brantley L. Bryant is Associate Professor and Department Chair of English at Sonoma State University in Rohnert Park, California. His research and publication has examined medieval literature and history, medieval afterlives in popular culture, and engagement with scholarship on social media. Bryant’s most recent project is the Open Access Canterbury Tales, which aims to bring professional scholarship on Chaucer’s work to a broad new audience through open access formats. He is also creator of popular social media projects Geoffrey Chaucer Hath a Blog and Chaucer Doth Tweet (with over 68,000 followers), parody-tribute accounts in which a Chaucer persona writes about present day events in a version of Middle English. Bryant’s work engages with the crucial issue of telling the story of scholarly research to a broad public.
Brandon W. Hawk is Assistant Professor of English at Rhode Island College. As an early career apasionado, he wants to share his own obscure interests with anyone who will pay attention. Hawk has contributed to academic collaborative blogs like Modern Medieval and the History of Christianity Blog, and he continues to post regularly on his own site, brandonwhawk.net. Recently, he is especially interested in translating and presenting underappreciated medieval subjects for all types of readers; some examples may be seen in his translations of Old English literature, his project about Judith, and his work on the Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew.
Kathleen E. Kennedy is Associate Professor at Pennsylvania State University- Brandywine where she teaches English and History classes. She is a first-generation college student from a rural area who earned advanced degrees in two fields and eventually tenure in Medieval Studies. Storytelling is her lifeline, since as a perpetual outsider it falls to her to explain why she isn’t like the people she lives and teaches among. She is always asked to explain her difference and she always answers with a story (or two). She has written about the mainstream media’s need for storytelling by rural people for the LARB. She tells medieval stories to the mainstream media too, reminding Game of Thrones fans over and over that medieval history was frequently more humane (and more diverse) than our modern fantasies of it. (In)famously, Kennedy tells the story of the discovery of calculus to humanities audiences, and they love it every time.
Dan Kline is Professor and Chair of English at University of Alaska Anchorage. He specializes in Middle English literature and culture, literary and cultural theory, and digital medievalism, and his research concerns children, violence, and ethics in late-medieval England and neomedievalism and digital gaming. He has published chapters in (among others) the collections Mass Market Medievalism (MacFarland, 2007) and Cultural Studies of the Modern Middle Ages (Palgrave, 2007). He edited Medieval Children’s Literature (Routledge, 2003), the Continuum Handbook of Medieval British Literature (Continuum, 2009), and Digital Gaming Re-Imagines the Middle Ages (Routledge, 2014), and co-edited, with Gail Ashton, Medieval Afterlives in Popular Culture (Palgrave-Macmillan, 2012). He is the author/webmaster of The Electronic Canterbury Tales.
Kate Wiles is Senior Editor at History Today. She is also a Visiting Scholar at King’s College, London and the ancient languages consultant on the MGM/History Channel show, Vikings. Her academic research, as part of the Languages of Early Medieval Charters project, focuses on scribal behaviour and language in the charters of Anglo-Saxon England. Her research into the Anglo-Saxon landscape accidentally led to her achieving internet fame as an expert in the history of swearing and having to gain special permission to use bad words on the BBC. Since then she has written for the Guardian, The Toast, Buzzfeed, Times Higher Education, the New Statesman and BBC History Magazine, among others. She sometimes does sets on comedy shows and appearances on podcasts where she manages to make jokes about scribes.
Stephen Yeager is Associate Professor of English literature at Concordia University in Montreal. His current research explores the role of scholarly medieval studies and popular medievalism in the joint evolution of programming languages, internet protocols, videogames, and digital humanities methodologies. Before beginning his academic career he was online editor for Philadelphia and Boston Magazines, and he has been interviewed on the subjects of online education and Tolkien’s medievalism for MacLean’s magazine and CTV News respectively.