There is No Public History, No Public Middle Ages
We need more lumping, less splitting
I’m increasingly convinced that there is no such a thing as a "Public Middle Ages" specifically, or a "Public History" more generally.It’s dangerous to wade into the history discourse like this, particularly when senior historians are attacking the vigorous, exciting ways that the study of the past is changing. So, when I say that there is no Public Middle Ages or Public History, it’s not at all that I agree with them. Instead, I think that these senior historians don’t actually understand what that adjectival modifier (“public”) means. Our work on the medieval world, on the varieties of human experience in the past, has always engaged “the public.”
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It's a truism (or should be) to say that the history was, is, and always will be a construction of the present. We know that the world we experience as individuals, but also as a community, shapes how we think about the past. Cord Whitaker and I edited a special edition of the journal postmedieval about how the concerns of scholars (and their nation-states) in the 19th century shaped the study of medieval Europe and still haunt the ways we talk about this period and its peoples. Just as one example, the supposed “apocalyptic expectation” around the Year 1000 CE — an idea that medieval people reacted to the turning of the millennium with superstitious dread — was a construction of adherents of the new nation-states wrestling with their own modernity and had very little do with the actual sources of the 11th century.
My position is that as academics, as specialists, we perhaps ought consider that the fundamental nature of our job is to be ghost-hunters. We drag out restless, oftentimes invisible spirits and make them visible. The focus, rightly, should be on the ghosts themselves – who they were in their lifetimes but also how they've passed through time and reemerged into ours – rather than where those ghosts manifest themselves.
That where of those ghosts’ manifestation - in what venue, academic or otherwise, they appear - matters but only secondarily. In other words, the nature of that activity isn't changed by where we do it. Every time we do anything as academics, as specialists, we engage a public. So, the way forward is simply to worry less about the adjective (public) and more about the noun (history). Acknowledging that truth, don't necessarily seek out different publics, but engage the ones we already belong to.
This means that whenever and however we engage the themes and ideas of the European Middle Ages we are doing public medieval history. And if it’s everywhere, then the adjective becomes meaningless. We engage the public when we tweet and when we blog. We engage the public when we teach. We also engage the public when we teach and when we write specialized journal articles.
And we need to own that. Our senior colleagues should stop being afraid of their own shadows, because doing history has always meant, and will always mean engaging the public.
I wrote this first in 2015, for a blog that no longer exists. I’ve updated it a bit and am reposting this here, in part because of the ongoing discourse about the “role” of the historian and concerns about “rigor” in public-facing work.
Hear, hear!!! And whatever the appropriate European Medieval cheer is!
I can also imagine that senior academics are more tempted to withdraw to a 'tour d'ivoire' (Sainte-Beuve, 1837) as history is attacked by nihilists who deny objective truth. None of us who love history can do that - we must continue to speak out and take the battle to them.