Archive for ‘academic ax-grinding’


“How soft your fields so green can whisper tales of gore…”

Only one man in American history can claim to have been both a baking-powder revolutionary and a passionate medievalist, and nobody else is going to note this anniversary, so let me do the unasked-for honors: This week marks the 200th birthday of Eben Norton Horsford, the chemist and engineer who spent his golden years trying to convince a highly skeptical world that he had discovered hard, undeniable, multidisciplinary evidence of a thriving Viking city—in Massachusetts.

If your instinct is to laugh at the idea, please reconsider. As fond as I am of intellectual and architectural follies for their own sake, Horsford’s Viking fixation left us with a useful monument to the weird ways we work out what is or isn’t true, which are often a more subtle folly of their own.

Horsford helped popularize the notion that the Vikings had rambled higgeldy-piggeldy through New England. Evidence would surface much later that the Vikings had hung around Newfoundland, but no one has found proof of their presence farther south, despite its plausibility. Scholars didn’t buy into Horsford’s theories, but he did have his fans, perhaps because he had credentials any popularizer would envy. After Horsford studied civil engineering and taught mathematics, two years in Germany made him one of the first Americans formally trained in chemistry. He then spent sixteen years at Harvard putting his research to practical, profitable use. In the late 1840s or early 1850s, Horsford found that baking powder no longer needed to come in two separate packets of sodium bicarbonate and cream of tartar, the supply and price of which were erratic. Instead, he proposed replacing cream of tartar with calcium acid phosphate, invented a way to manufacture it, got a patent, figured out to how dry it and sell it safely pre-mixed, and became wildly rich. If you’ve baked anything this week, you can thank a Viking-obsessed Harvard chemist.

And so Eben Horsford—scientist, industrialist, education activist—apparently decided that since he had prospered in mathematics, civil engineering, chemistry, and business, then nothing else human was alien to him. And what were Vikings in America but the next laboratory puzzle to be solved? More than a century after its publication, The Discovery of the Ancient City of Norumbega, Horsford’s book-length 1890 report to the American Geographical Society, is a remarkable read: Horsford is certain that the new scientific techniques of his era have helped him unearth evidence of Vikings in his own back yard. The implications beguile him:

As we all know, there have been before the world many scores of years, in some instances for as many centuries, certain grand geographical problems, challenging the spirit of research, the love of adventure, or the passion for discovery or conquest. They are such as these: Where was Atlantis? Where was the Ultima Thule? What is there at the North Pole? Was there a Northwest Passage? Where were the Seven Cities? Where were the El Dorado of Raleigh, and the landfall of Leif Erikson, of Columbus, of John Cabot, of Verrazano? And where were Vinland and Norumbega?

“Vinland,” of course, is mentioned in the Viking sagas. “Norumbega” has a later, legendary pedigree as a large and impressive city somewhere south of Nova Scotia, based on maps and travelers’ accounts from 16th-century Europe. Horsford is convinced it was a specifically Viking city, and he’s eager to convince you too—but first he reprints a response from Judge Charles P. Daly, president of the American Geographical Society.

“We have hitherto but inadequately appreciated the Northmen as a race—their adventurous spirit, their capacity, and the degree of civilization to which they had attained in an age when Europe was but emerging from the darkness that had enveloped it for many centuries,” Daly writes, invoking recent scholarship suggesting that the “Aryans” came from Scandinavia, “which would make the Northmen the progenitors of the Greeks, the Romans, and with the exception of one or two races, of all the nations of modern Europe; which, if further researches should establish to be fact, would make them the greatest race in the history of mankind.”

These 19th-century racial notions aren’t surprising, but they’re a good reminder to be wary when authoritative scholars in any age argue primarily from trendy thinking. Horsford isn’t content with his wealth, his impressive accomplishments in chemistry, or his legacy in the kitchens of the world. Driven in part by racial pride, he hopes to use his well-trained mind to disentangle the knotted mysteries of human civilization.

Delving into philology, Horsford is convinced that local place-names—among them Nanset, Naumkeag, Namskaket, and Amosheag—are of “Norse derivation.” He claims that a quirk of Algonquin speech accounts for the name “Norumbega”: The Algonquin, he explains, couldn’t pronounce the “b” sound without putting an “m” in front of it, so the ancient name of Norway, “Norbega,” became “Norumbega.” He bolsters his argument by pointing out that the “mb” quirk is common in African languages, and that plenty of cultures can’t properly pronounce the languages of others. By tinkering plausibly with proto-linguistics, Horsford writes Vikings into the history of Massachusetts. “I may say,” he declares, “there is not a square mile of the basin of the Charles that does not contain incontestable memorials of these people, that will presently be as obvious to others as they now are to me.”

Horsford the philologist is also Horsford the close reader of literary sources. He’s fascinated by an obscure object in the Saga of the Greenlanders: a húsa-snotra that Viking explorer Karlsefni refuses to sell for any price. Even now, nobody knows what a húsa-snotra is. At various times scholars have supposed that it was a carved ship’s ornament, a weather vane, or an astrolabe. Horsford thinks it’s the pans for a set of scales. Whatever it was, a húsa-snotra was said to have been made of North American mǫsurr wood, which Horsford believes is a wet tree with burrs or large warts—just like the trees he sees around the Charles.

Horsford the philologist and Horsford the literary scholar then cede the floor to Horsford the geographer and archaeologist. Using travelers’ descriptions, local history, and colonial sources, he deduces that the Vikings built a fort at the mouth of Stony Brook, which now separates the towns of Waltham and Weston: “I drove directly there,” he proclaims, “and found it on my first visit.” An area paved with boulders fascinates him, and his scrutiny of alluvial soil deposits leads him to believe that a colonial stone dam is the ancient handiwork of Vikings.

It’s really rather amazing: Everywhere Horsford looks, he sees the remnants of a Viking economy—specifically, a system of canals used to float blocks of coveted mǫsurr wood out to waiting ships. His belief in the existence of a thriving wood-block trade prompts him to theorize that every tributary of the Charles must have evidence of a Viking dam or pond either along it or near its mouth—and when he goes looking, he sees what he was predisposed to see. Centuries of Native American and European habitation notwithstanding, nothing along the Charles doesn’t make Horsford see Vikings: “The canals, ditches, deltas, boom-dams, ponds, fish-ways, forts, dwellings, walls, terraces of theater and amphitheater, scattered throughout the Charles, are the monuments I had in mind.”

And so Eben Horsford, profoundly invested in this imagined heritage and desiring to make it tangible, built the rest of us a tower.

* * *

Horsford donated so much money to Wellesley College that in 1886, they flattered him with the naming of Norumbega Hall, a rather un-medieval wooden building that hardly evokes a spirit of exploration or adventure. John Greenleaf Whittier wrote a sonnet for the occasion, one that flatters Horsford’s romanticism while backing away from any promise of authenticity:

Not on Penobscot’s wooded bank the spires
Of the sought City rose, nor yet beside
The winding Charles, nor where the daily tide
Of Naumkeag’s haven rises and retires,
The vision tarried; but somewhere we knew
The beautiful gates must open to our quest,
Somewhere that marvellous City of the West
Would lift its towers and palace domes in view,
And, lo! at last its mystery is made known—
Its only dwellers maidens fair and young,
Its Princess such as England’s Laureate sung;
And safe from capture, save by love alone,
It lends its beauty to the lake’s green shore,
And Norumbega is a myth no more.

It’s a curious poem, full of Wellesley girls re-cast as maidens from medieval romance, but not a single Viking.

The most lasting physical remnant of Horsford’s folly, though, is the Norumbega Tower, which he built in 1889 at the mouth of Stony Brook to mark the supposed site of the Viking city and fort. Architectural follies are usually their own justification, but Horsford gave more specific reasons than most people who build such things. In The Discovery of the Ancient City of Norumbega he explains, at first graciously:

It will invite criticism, and so sift out any errors of interpretation into which, sharing the usual fortune of the pioneer, I may have been led.

And then rather less so:

It will help, by reason of its mere presence, and by virtue of the veneration with which the Tower will in time come to be regarded, to bring acquiescence in the fruit of investigation, and so ally the blind skepticism, amounting practically to inverted ambition, that would deprive Massachusetts of the glory of holding the Landfall of Leif Erikson, and at the same time the seat of Europeans in America.

Committed to the falsifiable nature of science, Horsford nonetheless hopes romanticism will encourage future generations to lean his way.

I get a kick out of discredited scholarly theories, but Horsford’s isn’t luridly presented, at least not in this book. He leaves us few nutty-sounding reveries and no McKinley-era equivalent of all-caps exhortations. A man of his time, he turned his polymath’s mind toward the credible techniques of “scientific history” as pioneered in European universities, and off he went on the trail of his preferred past. He found it, as he knew he would. Human prejudices are as consistent as chemistry, if not as quantifiable.

As the 400th anniversary of Columbus’s first voyage approached, a vocal minority of Americans, many of them New England autodidacts inspired by a popular 1837 edition of the Vinland sagas, cringed at the prospect of letting an Italian Catholic in the service of Spain get credit for the European discovery of North America. (My favorite manifestation of their protest: a replica of a Viking ship that floated past the 1893 Columbian Exposition in Chicago.) The racial assumptions of the day helped stoke Horsford’s efforts, but even though few scholars bought into his theories about Vikings on the Charles, contemporaries did consider him rather progressive for his support of women’s education. Horsford’s example just goes to show how ephemeral many social standards will prove, and also how wrong we’re all going to be about something, even the cleverest among us, in the fullness of time.

The man who literally gave us our daily bread longed for a more romantic legacy, one that would link him to his presumed ancestors and affirm their superiority. His 200th birthday is a chance for the rest of us to feel a link to the past, not to some silly racial or tribal forefathers but to anyone whose sincere disorientation humanizes him and humbles us. Let’s all then chase our theories, pore over books, and tromp along riverbeds chasing the boot-prints of phantoms. If your confidence in your own worldview is as unshakeable as Eben Horsford’s, than the Norumbega Tower is a warning: pray that posterity is no less kind to you.

“And we’re strangers here, on our way to some other place…”

After Becoming Charlemagne came out in late 2006, I spent nearly two years talking about the early Middle Ages wherever anyone asked me to do so—at libraries, bookstores, museums, senior-citizen programs, even a tea salon in a suburb of New Orleans. I had several templates for speeches, all of them customizable for different venues and occasions, including one really fun presentation about the founding and early decades of Baghdad. But when the branch of the University of Maryland where I was teaching asked me to give the plenary address at a conference for writing instructors, I got a little more nervous than usual.

I’ve never been a writing instructor—I don’t have the necessary patience—so I wondered: What did a part-time medievalist have to say to teachers who do some of the English department’s hardest and least glamorous work?

As is so often the case, once I reframed the question to be less about myself, I found there was plenty to say after all.

Here’s a transcript of the speech, edited to remove introductory banter, a couple of brief tangents, and legions of unflattering “ums” and “ahs.” I wish it hadn’t taken so long to post this somewhere, but hey, if something is worth saying, maybe it’s still worth saying eleven years later.

* * *

“The old wine of ancient learning”:
The medieval classroom and its lessons for modern writing instructors

Plenary address, Fourth Annual UMUC July Writing Conference, Adelphi, Maryland
Friday, July 27, 2007, 9:30 a.m.

Thank you for the invitation to come speak to you all this morning. It’s always an honor to be asked to give a talk, but it’s even more of an honor to be asked to speak with colleagues about writing, and putting some of what we do here at UMUC in its historical context. I’m really humbled by, and grateful for, the invitation.

Now, because I teach medieval literature and write about medieval history and culture, I wanted to do a little digging to find something appropriate and relevant to talk about. As Matt pointed out, I recently wrote a book, two little books, about Charlemagne, the king and emperor who was a patron of education and who, like many of our UMUC students, came to scholarship fairly late in life, but with tremendous passion. Charlemagne and the great teachers of the early Middle Ages revived and perpetuated ancient and time-tested educational methods, which helped keep learning alive for the past 1,200 years, so I thought I’d spent a little time this morning discussing the pedagogical traditions we inherited from them—what Charlemagne’s chief advisor, a man named Alcuin, referred to as “the old wine of ancient learning.” It’s a tradition that all of us in this room are working in to some extent or another, even if we’re not necessarily aware that we’re doing so.

So why look to the early Middle Ages? It’s an era commonly dismissed as the “Dark Ages,” and perhaps understandably so. Europe was a collection of competing kingdoms and tribes, very few people were literate, monasteries were the sole repositories of surviving knowledge, and the first universities were more than 300 years away. In fact, the brightest, most perspicacious people in Europe during the seventh, eighth, and ninth centuries couldn’t have imagined a day when there would be a sufficient number of literate, well educated people to populate such an institution.

But when you look at the manuscripts, the classroom texts, and the teaching methods of the early Middle Ages, you find habits and practices that I think would warm the hearts of pretty much everybody in this room. You find, for example, an obsessive attention to what today we would refer to as “literacy” and “critical thinking skills.” We find a true love of learning—even more admirably, a love of language, the nuts and bolts of language: how language works, how you put words together, how you put sentences together, how you communicate with other educated people. And you find that underlying all of this is an incredible sense of purpose, a real sense of mission. Thanks to the efforts of the monks of this era, within a generation or two, literacy was spreading, old books were being copied and preserved at unprecedented rates, and new books were being written for educational use.

So there are really a few things to discuss here this morning: What was this educational curriculum and where did it come from? And also, what made it so successful in such an uncertain and illiterate era?

The answers to those questions contain real lessons for those of us who teach writing, composition, and literature, and in the end I think they leave us with further interesting questions to ponder as well.

* * *

Now as to that first question: Where did this educational curriculum come from? Medieval people didn’t concoct it out of nothing. Medieval learning was derived from ancient Roman educational methods, so let me talk for a moment about what came before.

At the height of the Roman empire, when Rome was prosperous and powerful and stretched from Scotland to the Middle East, young boys began their education with somebody called a litterator, a tutor or a teacher who taught them the basics—who, as the name implies, “lettered” them, and gave them fundamental reading and writing skills. At the age of 12, they attended classes with the grammaticus, a grammarian, where, since they were ancient Romans, they studied Greek and Latin. They read literature, especially poetry, and emphasized grammar and syntax. On the side, they also studied history, mythology, and basic arithmetic. Around the age of 14 or 15, they moved on to the full study of rhetoric. They read prose writers, they practiced composition, and they attempted elaborate written and spoken exercises. They also studied law, philosophy, and science, but usually philosophy and science got short shrift in favor of law. The children of the wealthy were going to need that legal training if they were going to get a good job with the civil service. Some things really don’t change.

The Romans didn’t have a single name for this curriculum. Cicero had referred to it as the “liberal arts” and “liberal disciplines”—artes liberales and liberales disciplina—but he never really spelled out exactly what he meant by them or exactly how many liberal arts were in this curriculum, at least at first. The Latin adjective liberales here indicated an education worthy of a man who was liber, or “free,” but it also connoted courteousness, generosity, honor—in short, the behavior of a cultivated man, anachronistically someone we might think of as a “proper gentleman.”

This term “liberal arts” continues to pop up even after the heyday of Rome and well into Late Antiquity, even as there were fewer of these “proper Roman gentlemen” roaming the Forum. For a while there’s some disagreement in Late Antiquity about how many liberal arts there even are. Some say nine, but most agreed that there were seven, in two groupings: a primary grouping of grammar, rhetoric, and dialectic; and a secondary grouping of arithmetic, music, geometry, and astronomy. (A few ancient writers tried to squeeze medicine and architecture in there to form nine, but those never really stuck.)

Fast-forward a few centuries, and this was the basic educational philosophy, this curriculum of seven liberal arts, inherited by early medieval people.

They knew from reading the centuries-old works of Saint Augustine—Charlemagne’s favorite writer—that this curriculum was essential. Saint Augustine had said in his youth that the liberal arts “are learnt partly for the conduct of life, [and] partly for the understanding and contemplation of the Universe.” And by the year 800—the high point of the reign of the king and emperor Charlemagne—this curriculum was thriving.

Of course, the world was a very different place by this point. The Roman Empire was a memory; the social institutions of Europe had devolved and were rather unsophisticated, by the standards of a few centuries earlier; and Christianity, not Roman paganism, was the predominant belief system.

Yet this same basic liberal arts curriculum endured, and even gained new life, in the hands of these early medieval monks. The grouping of four secondary subjects—arithmetic, music, geometry, and astronomy—had already been known for centuries as the quadrivium. But the grouping of the three primary subjects got its name around this time. Sometime around the year 800, the curriculum of grammar, rhetoric, and dialectic became known as the trivium. This is literally, in Latin, the place where three roads come together; it’s also where we get our modern word “trivia.” Most people think that “trivium” is an old Roman term, but in the context of education, it’s not—it’s a medieval term.

So that’s where the curriculum came from, and how medieval monks found themselves in possession of it.

But what did these early medieval monks do with the trivium once they devoted themselves to it? And why and how where they so successful?

* * *

Well, they put their own early medieval twist on the old Roman subjects of the trivium.

At the core of it, of course, was grammar, with “grammar” very broadly defined. We think of it as a narrowly defined subject today, but to them it wasn’t. It was the study of literature, both secular and religious, but it was also “grammar” as we define it now: letters, words, parts of speech, even handwriting—orthography—and vocabulary. They began their study of grammar by memorizing the psalms. The psalter, the Book of Psalms, was their primer. They combined a tremendous amount of memorization with an emphasis on the underlying technical aspects of language. They used all these Late Antique writers and early medieval authors—Donatus, Priscian, and St. Isidore—and they had many newly compiled dictionaries and glossaries to help them understand exactly what it was they were reading.

When they were ready, when they had sufficiently studied grammar, they, like their ancient Roman counterparts, moved on to rhetoric and studied, among other books, the works of Cicero, or new books closely based on Cicero’s writings. (We would consider these books heavily plagiarized from Cicero, but they didn’t have those sorts of intellectual-property issues; they were able to get away with imitation in ways we wouldn’t allow today.) They learned practical skills when they studied rhetoric, and I find the list of these things rather interesting. They learned how to write a letter of condolence; how to describe a king (in a flattering way, of course); how to compose—and I love this one, we should all assign this at some point—a debate between winter and spring, the old classical debate genre, which they took up in the Middle Ages as well. They also wrote letters announcing the election of a bishop or the death of a member of their local community. And they learned how to do this with metaphors, rhymed prose, parallelism, and a host of other rhetorical skills drawn from ancient writing and ancient examples.

The rhetoric manuals from this time are really remarkable. I dug into one in preparation for coming to give this talk today. Medieval authors read Cicero and imitated him very closely, and in these early rhetoric manuals, rhetoric has a grammar all its own, with five parts: invention, arrangement, style, memory, and delivery; and three types of questions: demonstrative, deliberative, and judicial; and four types of disputes and debates—and so on and so forth, with all sorts of classifications and sub-classifications, with clearly defined rhetorical strategies outlined and described and meticulously classified along the way. I can tell you that the precision and thoroughness of medieval thinkers is dazzling when you first encounter it. It doesn’t at all fit the stereotype of medieval people as backwards.

Once a student sufficiently mastered rhetoric, he moved on to dialectic, which as far as medieval people were concerned was essentially logic: how to use language accurately by focusing on precise definitions and logical arguments. Here they did syllogistic exercises, often in question-and-response format. In the classroom and in the textbooks of the time, there are these great medieval dialogues between a thinker and whoever the king or prince happened to be, so conversational yet so precise, clear examples of the Socratic method in action.

Keep in mind that medieval students had the added difficulty of having to do all of this in Latin, which they were studying on top of speaking their own vernacular languages. At every step, they were encouraged to read the best and most difficult Latin texts available; they were encouraged to confront and engage with writings produced by the finest minds, such as Cicero and Virgil and Saint Augustine—and, of course, King David. Ultimately they did so that they could understand and interpret the most important text in their world, which of course was the Bible—but a great deal of rigorous work involving pagan and secular authors was required to get them to that point.

One dialogue in a rhetoric textbook quotes Charlemagne himself as saying this:

I confess…that to me these requirements appear at first glance to be very pleasant and just and moderate. But as I look at them and come to understand them, I see that they postulate constant exercise and daily practice, and that they cannot be perfectly fulfilled except by unremitting thought and close study.

I’d love to give that to every one of our students as they get ready to study writing and literature.

Charlemagne was right: the trivium was not to be breezed through. In fact, developing the ability to read, write, analyze, argue, and understand was a lifetime project. It began, in youth, with memorizing the psalms; it required years of composition practice and a tremendous amount of memorization and imitation; and it ended—if it ever ended—with being able to write original poetry in Latin, which many educated people were never able to do, and which even the best-educated people often got wrong.

But this was “lifelong learning” in the truest sense of the term. No matter what an educated person went on to study, whether he dabbled in music, astronomy, arithmetic, medicine, you name it, he never stopped studying grammar; he never stopped being obsessed with language; and he never stopped improving his own rhetorical skills.

The poets of the ninth century were very certain about this. A witty Goth named Theodulf who was bishop of the city of Orleans wrote a poem in which Grammar is an allegorical figure. She stands at the root of a tree that represents all knowledge.

Theodulf writes:

The entire tree seems to proceed from her, because no art can be brought forth without her. Her left hand holds a whip, and her right hand a sword: the first is to drive the lazy, the second is to weed out vices. And since wisdom is in the first place everywhere, a diadem [a crown] adorns her head.

So Grammar was the queen and the root of all knowledge. (Of course, Theodulf can’t get away without a dig at some of his lazier students. He’s a bit of a wiseguy by ninth-century standards.)

The standards he discusses in this little excerpt from his poem about the seven liberal arts are supported in many of the other classroom texts, poems, and other accounts we have from the early Middle Ages.

Amazingly, we have one manuscript, in the library at St. Gall in what’s now Switzerland, that’s the personal notebook of a well-educated abbot from around the year 850, and it demonstrates how medieval people truly made a lifelong commitment to studying language. The abbot’s name was Walahfrid Strabo—Walahfrid the Squinter. If any of you are gardeners, you may have seen references to Walahfrid. He wrote a famous book about gardening, and he tended a famous garden at Reichenau, and if you visit the National Cathedral and go into to the Bishop’s Garden here in D.C., there’s a little “garden room,” as they call it, devoted to the era of Charlemagne, with little signs with snippets from Walahfrid Strabo. (I like seeing these little snippets of the Middle Ages popping up unexpectedly.)

When he wasn’t writing, Walahfrid was the personal tutor of the Emperor Charles the Bald. And he apparently kept this notebook, this little vademecum, that he took with him wherever he went. It’s amazing we even have this.

It’s 394 pages long. It includes mathematical tables, medical texts, excerpts from chronicles and calendars, even a very clever little drawing of a labyrinth. Walahfrid was clearly, from his notebook, a man with a keen mind and a very broad range of interests.

But 169 of these 394 pages, around 40 percent of the book, are devoted to grammatical texts: examples of usage, excerpts from great writers, and guides to poetic meter, all things he could use later while refining his own writing. Many of them are excerpts from writers from Late Antiquity or the early Middle Ages, writers on grammar and rhetoric.

Can you imagine if 40 percent our students’ personal reference libraries years after they graduated still consisted of grammar and composition manuals and notes from your classes that they still used to improve and refine and perfect their writing? That may sound horrifying at first—you may thing, “gee, I didn’t send them out into the world sufficiently prepared”—but this wasn’t a sign of the weakness of their system; it was a sign of its strength. Prestige and reputation were bound up in your writing abilities. You didn’t want to look silly or ignorant when writing for other educated people.

So if you were a medieval person, no matter what you studied, you were always returning to the roots of your education in grammar. You were always, essentially, to use a phrase that’s been bandied about in the past few years, “writing across the curriculum.” You saw yourself as never really having completed English 101—and that was a good thing.

* * *

Fortunately—for them and for us—this emphasis on the Liberal Arts in general, and the trivium in particular, was a remarkable success. After the year 800, books were produced and copied at an unprecedented rate. Around 1,800 manuscripts or fragments survive from Western Europe before the year 800—but from the ninth century alone, we have more than 7,000 manuscripts or fragments. Quite a few of them were ancient books that we wouldn’t have today if medieval monks hadn’t copied them. For example, we wouldn’t have Cicero’s Philippics, in which the great orator rants about Mark Antony, if monks hadn’t seen fit to copy it in the early Middle Ages. No ancient copy of the book survives—the oldest is a ninth or tenth-century copy.

These were people who cared so deeply about the treasures of the past that in their zeal to preserve books and make them more legible, they developed a new form of handwriting. Today, scholars call it “Carolingian minuscule,” but you know it as the so-called “Roman” font on your word processors. It’s not “Roman” at all—that’s a mistake by typesetters of early modern books. It’s a medieval Northern European handwriting—and 1,200 years later, those lowercase letters are still used in nearly all printed books today.

So, not only did they keep the liberal arts curriculum alive, they kept alive a culture of literacy, a culture of the book—a culture that bore additional fruit 300 years later, during the twelfth century, when those traditional seven liberal arts were enhanced by Aristotelian logic and combined with law, medicine, and theology, as monastery and cathedral schools evolved into the first universities. The university was the medieval institution that set European history, and Western intellectual history, on its way. All of us here today are a part of this centuries-old tradition, and in fact we’re continuing it, 800 years after some teachers came together to form guilds in places like Paris and Bologna.

* * *

At the same time, you may be interested to know that there’s a modern movement to bring back the trivium in secondary schools. I recently discovered this after assuming that I’d be speaking this morning only about the hypothetical lessons and uses of the trivium. As it turns out, the Trivium Based Educational Movement is extremely popular among Christian educators and especially Christian homeschoolers.

But even though Christian monks and teachers used this curriculum successfully for centuries, there’s nothing necessarily or inherently Christian about the trivium, with its emphasis on grammar, rhetoric, and logic. In fact, if you search around the Web, you can find dozens of charter schools around the country—public schools with no religious agenda—that are basing their curriculum around the methodology of the trivium.

This is even true locally. If you go to the Web site of the Washington Latin Academy, a new public charter school down the road here in D.C., you’ll see them say this:

Every subject has its grammar, and its developmentally appropriate pedagogy begins with it. In the Lower School…direct instruction, drill, memorization of facts and recitation are essential strategies for teaching and learning. In the Upper School…students are led beyond the grammar to the logic and rhetoric of each subject.

Then the website adds that in these later stages, they employ the Socratic method—just like the teachers and the classroom texts of the early Middle Ages, just like many of you, in your classrooms, in 2007.

* * *

So what can we as writing and literature teachers, or even instructors in other disciplines, learn from the medieval monks who mastered the trivium? What can we learn from their incredible long-term success?

First of all, I think we can derive satisfaction from their very existence. We can take heart in their ability to keep grammar, rhetoric, and dialectic at the core of the curriculum. But their example also reminds us that just by being teachers of writing and composition and literature you—all of you—are working in a venerable and vital field, one that really does prepare students for everything else they will ever do.

And I think we ought to remember that what we teach, and how we teach, and what we discuss here at this conference in the next two days, could very possibly have an impact for centuries.

But I think we can also learn from acknowledging why they did what they did, and attempt to motivate ourselves accordingly.

If you would have asked one of Charlemagne’s monks to justify literacy education and to explain its purpose and importance—or even if you asked Charlemagne himself—he would have been bemused by the question. For these early medieval monks, there was only one answer to the question, and it was extremely obvious to them: the ultimate purpose of an education was to unlock and understand the layers of meaning in the Bible, and thus to save souls. Kings, abbots, and teachers believed that they would have to answer to God Himself if they didn’t educate their subjects and their students to the best of their ability.

This was why the most forward-looking medieval kings and emperors like Charlemagne supported more widespread literacy; why he issued edicts calling for more schools and better education; why he scolded his monks when they sent him incompetent letters; why he tried (unsuccessfully) to learn how to write himself; and why he summoned Europe’s most brilliant teachers to his court.

You see their motives spelled out most memorably, in my opinion, in a charming letter written by Alcuin, who was, as I’ve mentioned, Charlemagne’s chief advisor and one of the best educated men in Europe at the time.

Around 796, Alcuin sends a new graduate of his school back to England, and he sends with him a very tender and revealing letter of reference. It reads in part:

I have sent back to you this dear pupil of mine as you asked. Please look after him well until, if God so wills, I come to you myself. Do not let him wander around unoccupied or take to drink. Give him pupils, and give strict instructions that he is to teach properly. I know he has learned well. I hope he will do well, for the success of my pupils is my reward with God.

We can all relate to this very human nervousness about sending a student out into the wider world, but in Alcuin’s case the motive behind it was quite different, and quite un-modern. For early medieval people, the final goal of literacy was a religious one.

* * *

By contrast, if all of us in this room were to explain why we think literacy is important, we’d hear quite a few different answers.

We’d hear that a literate citizenry is vital to a functioning republic; that literacy offers better job prospects; that literacy leads to personal enlightenment, which is its own reward; and perhaps other reasons as well.

Now, I happen to think that all of these very un-medieval answers would be good answers—but if we were to start this discussion, we’d be here for hours, because the responses would be highly personal; all of us would list these motives in different proportions. Some of us would have other motivations still; and hopefully no more than a few of you would have to dig deep to remember why you still do this at all. (We all have those days.)

And even if we all miraculously agreed on the “why” of things, I’m sure we would never agree on the “how”—our methods, our theories, and our classroom techniques.

So even if we don’t have the same reasons for teaching as our predecessors, even if our reasons are far more diverse, I believe we can still admire, maybe even emulate, their consistency and their confidence.

They knew exactly why they did what they did.

And they all worked together toward the advancement of this great continent-wide, communal educational project.

And they weren’t shy about holding their students and themselves to high standards.

And they didn’t let their students wander aimlessly—they made sure they were well versed in the traditions they were joining. They encouraged them to read brilliant and challenging books, and they encouraged a culture that instilled pride in being educated rather than in being ignorant—a culture that made kings and emperors want to be literate, too, and made them want to be great patrons of education.

And they weren’t afraid to acknowledge that their work as educators could not be compartmentalized—that reading and writing and rhetoric were not temporary diversions that were quickly or easily learned, but that they took a lifetime, and that this knowledge, these skills were vital to the survival and progress of their culture.

* * *

That’s why I think a conference like this one can be extremely productive. During the next two days, all of us can move a little bit closer to having, once again, that same shared consistency of purpose and confidence as a profession, while enjoying more of the same shared techniques and methods as well.

We’re sure to disagree about many things, but I hope this conference renews and invigorates us as we get ready to spend days and weeks and months and years convincing students to make rigorous, thoughtful, critical reading and writing as central to their lives as the trivium was to educated people twelve centuries ago.

We can do that by keeping in mind what those medieval monks did with “the old wine of ancient learning”—these distant monks, who, in the words of medieval historian Rosamond McKitterick, “imparted to future generations…the conviction that the past not only mattered but was a priceless hoard of treasure to be guarded, conserved, augmented, enriched and passed on.”

“Carving deep blue ripples in the tissues of your mind…”

I’m glad I went to college when I did; I get the sense that campuses have become less hospitable to eccentrics who seldom publish but thrive in the classroom. Perhaps the glut of job-seekers is to blame, or the dependence on adjuncts, or management priorities right out of the home office of Walmart. But I once knew a professor who hoped we would see that education could be bigger than all of that, and I was saddened to learn that he has, as Thomas Malory wrote of King Arthur, chaunged his lyf.

The right kind of student loved his classes. He urged us to rip our massive anthologies in half to make the world’s great literature that much more portable. He had us draw maps of mythical places, and he bombarded us with comic strips, song lyrics, modern poems, anything to convince us that knowing this stuff—and he did call it “this stuff”—let us form profound connections with our fellow humans, living and dead. When we read the Aeneid, he pumped us up by blasting Cream’s “Tales of Brave Ulysses” from a boombox and banging his head in psychedelic bliss—but then the frivolity ended as he passed around a tiny vellum manuscript in Greek and quietly asked us to consider both its fragility and its durability.

The last of the fanatic generalists, he taught ancient and medieval lit, the Bible, the Romantic poets, Shakespeare, and the Arthurian legend, but he had a special fondness for the Beats. He also loved Samuel Johnson, and I’m sure that when he went to London every few years, he roamed the alleys and streets with an 18th-century mental map. I don’t know if students see his like anymore: an outspoken liberal who defended the worth of the Western canon. He did so devoutly but without chauvinism: he also studied Japanese and joined his wife in an Indonesian gamelan ensemble.

In 1992 I was mulling over two improbable careers: cartoonist and medievalist. When I popped by his office to talk about graduate school, my prospects hung in the air for ages.

“If that’s really what you want to do, then of course I’ll write you a letter,” he said at last, “but I would be just as pleased to know that I helped to create a very literate cartoonist rather than another academic scrounging around wondering where the next pittance of grant money is going to come from.”

I was stunned to hear a professor suggest that campus life was anything other than a bower of bliss. I don’t know if he accurately perceived my eccentricities or was giving voice to his own disenchantment, but he was right to make me suspicious of the whole business. Decades later, I still make up my career as I go along. With no clear path to follow, life has been harder, and maybe I worry more, but I’ve also traveled more, written more, known more kinds of people, and stumbled more often onto unforeseen luck. More wide-eyed students should hear what I heard; it takes years to sink in.

That same year, I answered his call for a research assistant, an offer he rebuked. “It’s mindless work,” he grumbled, instead sending me home for the summer with an Arthurian tote bag: Malory in Middle English, Layamon’s Brut, and hundreds of pages of secondary sources ranging from credible archaeological studies to wackadoodle theories about the “real” King Arthur. Lacking any guidance or goal, I worked out my own mental outline of medieval Britain. I later built a ten-year teaching job on that.

When he organized a major conference on medievalism, he told me to check it out. The invitation itself was a compliment, but I was too callow to realize that such an event on my own campus was something I ought to attend. A few years later, he sent me the published proceedings, which started me thinking. I wander, I stall, but I do tend to get where I’m going. Did he know?

He could be frustrating. The forms I needed signed and the letters I needed written couldn’t compare to the brilliant conversations with Cavafy and Boswell that seemed always alive in his mind. More than once, he got into deep trouble with fussy little bureaucrats. I like to think he angered them by taking seriously the proposition that a university was a place to explore, to experiment, to gain perspective that makes you free in ways that the world can’t suppress.

We didn’t know each other well, but we shared stories about growing up in tight neighborhoods with large extended families. I hadn’t seen him in 24 years, but now and then a package would surprise me: boxes of books, a cache of poems, letters that rang with good cheer even in the face of failing health.

Good teachers leave you gifts long before you understand their value. Shortly before I graduated, he read my paper on an ephemeral modern author and congratulated me on work that was well-written and cohesive. Then he looked me in the eye and said, by way of farewell: “Study something lasting.” And so I have.


(Polaroid Land Camera photo of a grotesque near the University of Delaware campus)

“I’m so cool and calculated, alone in the modern world…”

It’s becoming a genre unto itself: the call by scholars of the Middle Ages to invigorate their fields by reaching out to new audiences. In the latest example at The Chronicle of Higher Education, medievalist and English professor Christine Schott asks an evergreen question—”[h]ow can literary scholarship make a claim for its value when its product reaches only the other members of its own narrow field?”—and writes with candor about her work:

Of course I have an interpretive argument about the marginalia I study, and I do not wish to abandon that side of the field either. I am reasonably capable of dressing up my theories about material culture, genre, and self-writing in fancy vocabulary, but I maintain that they are no smarter for being decked out in academic regalia. And when it comes down to it, I don’t want to write scholarship that my friends and nonacademic peers cannot understand.

Schott plucks a painfully abstruse passage from a 1993 book about literary theory and boils it down to a lovely, clear, informative sentence—a rare skill. I’ve considered the rebuttals by humanities scholars who claim that specialized fields need their own patois, and since my career isn’t at stake, I can say that I find those defenses bunk; you can dazzle your colleagues with rarefied terms without writing in a style that makes the rest of us laugh out loud. Schott is wise to be sensitive to outside perceptions:

When I talk to fellow scholars, I might frame my work as “the study of paratextual material in late medieval vernacular scribal culture.” Even I hate the sound of that sentence. Let me offer, instead, the version I gave my Aunt Bea, who once ventured to ask me what I work on. I told her, “I study the things that people wrote in the margins of books in medieval Iceland.” When I said that, Aunt Bea wasn’t exactly impressed, but she did understand exactly what I meant.

Actually, what she said was, “They give Ph.D.s for that sort of thing, huh?” A familiar response from anyone who, like my aunt, works in a nice, practical field like nursing. And yet I get excited by a reaction like hers, because that is a teaching moment.

Schott’s solution is “to write even our scholarly work for a popular audience.” That’s a great idea—but why be so conservative? After all, professionalism hasn’t smothered her joy:

I always launch into a litany of the wonderful things one finds in the margins of Icelandic manuscripts: poetry, proverbs, complaints (my pen is dull, I didn’t get enough fish to eat, my wife is mad at me and it’s not my fault — all real examples). Part of the value of my work as I see it, then, is simple translation: “nu kolnar mér á fingrunum” means nothing to most people. But “my fingers are getting cold” is both transparent and so delightfully human that people often comment on how un-foreign these complaints sound. I don’t think you should have to get an advanced degree to enjoy these little glimpses into long-forgotten lives.

Look at that: the enthusiasm that makes non-scholars light up, the humanism they crave but can rarely describe, and the simple eloquence of someone who is uniquely suited to give them both.

“When I suggest changing our target audience,” Schott writes, “what I’m really talking about is marketing, and we are rightly suspicious of treating intellectual pursuit as a commodity.” Those of us who’ve migrated from academia to writing and the arts understand those concerns. I get tired of hearing that we can’t be only writers anymore, that we need to become experts at marketing and branding. Call it advocacy, then; no one else is standing by to champion us, and clearly there are ways to do it that don’t cheapen your work. Heck, more than two million American teenagers have had a blast with poetry because a former Kool-Aid marketing executive knew when to stop taking and how to start doing.

And so my humble advice to medievalists is this: stop talking about hypothetical outreach and do something. Write a book for a trade press. Spin your scholarly insights into poems. Produce a podcast. Start a blog. Make YouTube videos or Vines or a novelty Twitter account. Stage a play. Lecture at your local Osher center. Pitch articles to trendy media outlets like NPR or The Atlantic. Translate texts for non-scholars. Give the good work of strangers the attention you wish your own were receiving. You decide where to draw your own line. After you stare down a few frowning peers, the way is less fraught than you think: You won’t make enough money to fret about your soul, and you’ll compromise your scholarship only if you pander to your audience or fail to beguile them with the promise of much larger worlds.

I’ve written before that if the circles of scholars, writers, and artists overlapped more than they do, we’d all benefit. Professor Schott sees that we’re in danger of entombment in our own narrow niches:

What is literary scholarship for if not to aid readers in appreciating, understanding, interpreting, and questioning the literature that they encounter? In writing for a tiny coterie of specialists, we may achieve great heights of intellectual pursuit, but we are generally preaching to the choir. If we are not content with our society turning into a post-literary world, then we have some proselytizing to do, to people like my Aunt Bea. That is not marketing, that is teaching.

Indeed it is, and I hope Schott will share her enthusiasm wherever she can. The right blend of scholarship and passion can hearten the rest of us with all the thrilling alchemy of art.

“Ah, you are in your prime, you’ve come of age…”

“Outreach” is the kale of academia: everyone agrees it’s healthy, but they’re not always eager to make it a part of their lives. My hat is off, then, to Richard Utz, a scholar of medievalism at Georgia Tech, for his willingness to ride out to the market square and kick around big questions about the state of his field. A few weeks ago, the Chronicle of Higher Education published part of the plenary speech Utz delivered in May at the International Congress on Medieval Studies. I’ve been moving truckloads of books to a new home in the country, so this is my first chance to dig into the piece. Despite the stupid title the editors gave it—“Don’t Be Snobs, Medievalists”—it’s a worthy start, even if I found myself cuisse-deep in the questions it raises.

Utz writes:

It is clearly time to lower the drawbridge from the ivory tower and reconnect with the public.

One way to do this is to intervene aggressively in the media when the French National Front appropriates Jeanne d’Arc, New Hampshire legislators feel textually beholden to the Magna Carta, British politicians combat contemporary jihadism with a late medieval treason law, or Prince Philip is appointed to a knighthood of the Order of Australia, a title the illustrious heritage of which dates back to ye olde 1975.

What does it mean to “intervene aggressively”: stand on the drawbridge and denounce sinful readings of history? By what criteria? It’s not a question of accuracy: Utz links to stories about European nationalists, British Conservatives, American Republicans, and cranky Prince Philip (as if they’re all the same) but later he praises the Society for Creative Anachronism. The SCA and its members have done tremendous work in material culture, folklore, and martial arts, but as an organization whose mission is often informally characterized as creating “the Middle Ages as it should have been,” it also has a fantasy wish-fulfillment faction, and it redacts a vital force in medieval culture: religion. Is that not at least potentially a problem for academia? Does the group get a pass from the Medievalist Police because they’re nicer or generally more liberal? I don’t want (or trust the proponents of) a medievalism that seeks to justify every facet of liberalism any more than one that serves as a conservative catechism or nationalist blueprint.

Even so, Utz sees promise in meeting at least certain elements of the public on their own turf:

Add these efforts together, and we medievalists might extricate ourselves from the isolationist confines of 19th- and 20th-century medieval studies and embrace a broader and more egalitarian mélange of academic and popular medievalisms. If we join ranks with the so-called amateurs, we will ensure a continued critical as well as affective engagement with medieval culture. In the process, we might revivify our discipline and contribute to the health of the humanities.

I respect Utz’s aims, but I’m skeptical of his plan. In the past eight years, I’ve written more than 160 blog posts about medievalism, a few of which have gone, if not viral, at least naggingly bacterial, including one about a Charlemagne quote from an Indiana Jones movie that’s drawn tens of thousands of readers. I’ve written both a middle-school textbook and a moderately successful midlist pop-history book about Charlemagne. I’ve given talks about Charlemagne at libraries, museums, and book festivals. I’ve promoted a book of medievalist poetry inspired by a Gothic cathedral. I’ve translated a Middle Scots romance and published shorter translations here on the blog and in scholarly and literary journals. I’ve even dabbled in applied paleobromatology and shared my clunky efforts at retro, medieval-themed instant photography. I did these things not to advance an academic career but because the Middle Ages provided a rich matière for the creative work that occupies my spare time—but if I had done these things as a scholar engaged in public outreach, or if academia had paid more attention to me, would it matter?

Utz writes as if the scholarly world is not just doomed, but scarcely deserving of survival:

The Society for Creative Anachronism has added more to our knowledge of medieval culture by practicing blacksmithing, re-enacting the Battle of Hastings, and performing historical dance than D.W. Robertson’s decision, albeit substantiated by learned footnotes, that all medieval art was created and needs to be read according to the principles of patristic exegesis. Similarly, Michel Guyot’s megaproject of rebuilding a medieval castle, Guédelon, from scratch over a 30-year period, based on 13th-century building plans and without modern technology, yields infinitely more information than another 50 essays obsessing about the authorship of the anonymous Nibelungenlied or Cantar de Mio Cid. Moreover, sites like medievalists.net and publicmedievalist.com communicate valuable information more effectively to academic and nonacademic audiences than dozens of academic journals accessible at subscribers-only sources like JSTOR or Project Muse.

Scholars have indeed failed to bushwhack through old-growth clichés to reach the public; the late Norman Cantor identified the problem more than 20 years ago. But Utz points out an important and underappreciated supply-and-demand clash:

[T]here is now a manifest discrepancy between the large number of students who request that we address their love of Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings, Game of Thrones, and medieval-themed video and computer games on the one hand, and the decreasing number of medievalists hired to replace retiring colleagues on the other.

When I was an adjunct, the director of the English department started me off with one medieval lit course and laughed at my hope that there’d ever be more. In the decade that followed, student demand let me revive the other three medieval courses in the catalog. Now that I’m outside Utz’s drawbridge, I wonder if there shouldn’t be less talk about impressing the public and more effort to win over university bureaucrats, especially lapsed humanities scholars who act like they’re managing a Walmart distribution hub.

I also wish Utz had clarified what he means when he says that students “request that we address their love” of the popular media of the moment. Do they want professors to pontificate about their favorite TV shows? That strikes me as a disheartening waste of brainpower and money—but my hope is that they want something more. Speaking as a kid whose medieval interests were partly rooted in childhood enthusiasm for fantasy games, I’d urge Utz and his colleagues to promise wonderful new realms to their students: history that illuminates human nature, the keys to unlocking eldritch languages, artistic and theological glimpses into the medieval mind—uncool things that endure deep within us long after entertainment companies neglect their latest love-child.

Utz alludes only briefly to “the health of the humanities.” I wish these discussions weren’t always so polar, with academia on one end and TV and video games on the other. What about other eclectic, unaffiliated souls? I’ve met or discovered the work of several such people: Lex Fajardo, author of Kid Beowulf, a series of all-ages graphic novels inspired by his love of world epics; Nancy Marie Brown, the admirably prolific author of mass-market books about the Lewis Chessmen, the Vikings, the Eddas, and Pope Sylvester II; remarkable medieval-inspired poets like Maryann Corbett and Becky Gould Gibson; or novelists like Tod Wodicka. I wonder: What would they do if they came to a scholarly conference? Would it still be a scholarly conference? Would scholars support them right back? Just as those retiring medievalists aren’t being replaced, writers and artists are watching their audiences fragment and shrink. The larger culture doesn’t care, but those of us who have never felt entirely at home on either side of the drawbridge would welcome new allies in seeking the true and the real. Sometimes it’s nice not to lurk in the moat.

“But Lorca’s corpse, as he had prophesied, just walked away…”

How did art become irrelevant? Michael J. Lewis’s answer to that question in Commentary magazine made the rounds of social media last week. It’s an exhaustive overview, and a political one, edged with fine anger, a reminder that the arts used to be merely elitist, not ruthlessly hermetic.

So I was startled to open the latest issue of the literary magazine The Dark Horse and find “Poetry as Enchantment,” an essay by former NEA chairman Dana Gioia that makes many of the same points Lewis makes, but solely about poetry, and with a far more subdued tone. Defending poetry as a universal human art with roots in music, charms, and incantations, Gioia recalls that not long ago, it was ubiquitous and widely enjoyed. I remember that too: my grandfather was a machinist with a grade-school education, but he could rattle off snippets of verse that I now know were the work of Longfellow, Joyce Kilmer, and the (utterly forgotten) Sam Walter Foss.

What happened? Gioia argues that poetry was too well taught. The New Critics imposed reason, objectivity, and coherence on it. “Learning” poetry was reduced to dissection and analysis, then demonstrating your fluency in each new school of critical theory:

For most students, writing a critical paper does not inspire the same lifelong affection for poetry that memorization and recitation foster. When analytical instruction replaces the physicality, subjectivity, and emotionality of performance, most students fail to make a meaningful connection with poetry. So abstracted and intellectualized, poetry becomes disembodied into poetics—a noble subject but never a popular one. As the audience for poetry continues to contract, there will come a tipping point—perhaps it has already arrived—when the majority of adult readers are academic professionals or graduate students training for those professions. What is the future of an art when the majority of its audience must be paid to participate?

No one intended the decimation of poetry’s audience or the alienation of the common reader. Like most environmental messes, those things happened as accidental by-products of an otherwise positive project.

Gioia literally marketed Kool-Aid as an executive at General Foods—who can ever forget his award-winning “fear in a handful of dust” campaign?—so when he became NEA chairman in 2003, he wanted measurable results:

We decided to start with a program that could be executed quickly on a large scale without a huge investment. What we conceived was a national poetry recitation contest for high school students that would begin at class level, and then move on to school, local, state, and national competitions. We successfully tested the idea in Chicago and Washington, D.C., but when the agency tried to expand it, the arts education officials in the 50 states initially refused to adopt it.

The state arts education experts had four major objections to the program. First, they believed that students hated poetry. (Am I wrong to suspect that this assumption suggests that the experts themselves disliked poetry?) Second, they maintained that memorization was repressive and stifled creativity. Some of them added that memorization victimized minority students since standard English was not spoken in their homes. Third, they unanimously felt that competition had no place in the arts. There should be no winners or losers. In arts education, everyone should win. Finally, there was a general feeling among the educators that poetry was too intellectual for the average student. It was not an accessible art.

Just how wrong were those “state arts education experts”? Gioia found that kids raised with hip-hop took to poetry when it became about hearing and reciting rather than reading and analyzing; they loved competing; “problem kids” turned out to be great at it; and immigrant kids have turned out to be around half of all winners each year.

Gioia is too gracious to gloat. About his detractors, he says only this: “The administrators and arts consultants were openly astonished by the program’s popularity.” I wonder why they doubted him: His longtime championing of old-fashioned formalism? His corporate background? His presumed political affiliation? It’s a dreary state of affairs when ignorance is the most charitable explanation.

Someone recently quipped on Facebook that it’s actually a great time to be a poet, because when an art has zero social cachet, the people who do it out of sheer love don’t have to wonder if others are into it for the wrong reasons. That may not be forever true: Gioia’s Poetry Out Loud program has already engaged 2.5 million high-school kids, and books like the Disney Channel poetry anthology are bracing their younger siblings. What if channeling rap fandom into national recitation contests actually entices the corpse of poetry to sprout and bloom some year? Relevance would uproot academia; it wouldn’t be kind; it would set poets slogging through swamps of conflict and commerce, not noticing how many more people had finally learned that they’re meant to talk about what Gioia calls “mysteries that lie beyond paraphrase,” their inheritance as human beings.

“Yeah, proof is the bottom line for everyone…”

In 1994, Norman Cantor was gearing up for his fourth year of besiegement after the release of Inventing the Middle Ages, a mass-market book in which he sought to show how the formative experiences of certain twentieth-century medievalists explained the ways they interpreted history. Fellow historians didn’t like his blunt biographical approach—and so in “Medievalism and the Middle Ages,” a lively but little-read article in The Year’s Work in Medievalism, Cantor hammered back at “establishment dust-grinders” by holding up the movie Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves as “a highly significant core defeat” the academy hadn’t even known it had suffered:

It shows how little the academic medievalists have made an impact on popular culture and its view of the medieval world. Costner’s Robin Hood signifies social failure for the Ivy League, Oxbridge, and the Medieval Academy of America. But I expect the august personalities in those exalted precincts never gave a moment’s thought to this connection.

I recalled Cantor’s smart, spirited (and, in retrospect, debatable) rant when I read last week’s Chronicle of Higher Education piece by Paul Dicken, a philosopher of science who’s keen to write for popular audiences despite the sneering of colleagues and peers:

Yet as I struggle on with my apparently misguided endeavors, I sometimes think that maybe the search committee had a point. It is difficult pitching academic material in a way that is suitable for a popular audience. I don’t pretend to be an unparalleled communicator of ideas, nor do I kid myself about my ability to produce pithy and engaging prose. After many years of writing for peer review, I have developed a nasty habit of overusing the passive voice — not to mention the usual reliance upon jargon, excessive footnotes, and the death by a thousand qualifications that undermines any attempt to state a clear, precise thesis. It is definitely a learning process. But no matter how dull the final product, I was at least confident that I could express my ideas clearly. That’s what we’re trained for, right?

I’ve known plenty of scholars who write lucid books and blogs; I doubt the academy nurtured the requisite skills.

When I decided to start writing in earnest, I drove wildly around England and Wales collecting material for travel stories. The Washington Post published two of them, but only after an editor nudged me with notes like this one from 1999:

I don’t think this lede works; it’s too slow and diffuse for our reader—imagine a bagel-eating Sunday morning householder, an occasional traveler seeking a weekly fix of travel infotainment—but surrounded by a pile of other sections tugging at his time, and household things about to start tugging too…this is different from someone who settles in for a long night with a New Yorker and a hot toddy.

A good editor knows how to improve and refine our writing without shearing off all of the frills and frippery we vainly adore. Thanks to that guy and a couple others like him, I sloughed off three-and-a-half years of bad grad-school style and (eventually, arguably) learned how to write. Paul Dicken, stick to your plan: keeping readers engrossed in weighty matters without overusing the passive voice or condemning them to “death by a thousand qualifications” doesn’t require “an unparalleled communicator of ideas.” Just know your audience, then decide what you’re doing is, among other things, art.

* * *

We’re overdue for great shifts in our obsolete cultural coalitions; the creaking we hear as they seize up and fail is also the venting of truths. In another Chronicle of Higher Education piece last week, philosopher and science historian Lee McIntyre decries the recent “attack on truth” that he believes has us ambling into “an age of willful ignorance”:

It is sad that the modern attack on truth started in the academy — in the humanities, where the stakes may have initially seemed low in holding that there are multiple ways to read a text or that one cannot understand a book without taking account of the political beliefs of its author.

That disrespect, however, has metastasized into outrageous claims about the natural sciences.

Anyone who has been paying attention to the fault lines of academic debate for the past 20 years already knows that the “science wars” were fought by natural scientists (and their defenders in the philosophy of science) on the one side and literary critics and cultural-studies folks on the other. The latter argued that even in the natural realm, truth is relative, and there is no such thing as objectivity. The skirmishes blew up in the well-known “Sokal affair” in 1996, in which a prominent physicist created a scientifically absurd postmodernist paper and was able to get it published in a leading cultural-studies journal. The ridicule that followed may have seemed to settle the matter once and for all.

But then a funny thing happened: While many natural scientists declared the battle won and headed back to their labs, some left-wing postmodernist criticisms of truth began to be picked up by right-wing ideologues who were looking for respectable cover for their denial of climate change, evolution, and other scientifically accepted conclusions. Alan Sokal said he had hoped to shake up academic progressives, but suddenly one found hard-right conservatives sounding like Continental intellectuals. And that caused discombobulation on the left.

“Was I wrong to participate in the invention of this field known as science studies?,” Bruno Latour, one of the founders of the field that contextualizes science, famously asked. “Is it enough to say that we did not really mean what we said? Why does it burn my tongue to say that global warming is a fact whether you like it or not? Why can’t I simply say that the argument is closed for good?”

“But now the climate-change deniers and the young-Earth creationists are coming after the natural scientists,” the literary critic Michael Bérubé noted, “… and they’re using some of the very arguments developed by an academic left that thought it was speaking only to people of like mind.”

Having noticed, as Norman Cantor did, how rare it is for new discoveries about the Middle Ages to prosper off-campus unless they’re being exploited for linkbait, I was startled by this whole line of thought. I’ll have to read McIntyre’s book to see if it’s true that postmodernist humanities scholars influenced “hard-right conservatives” or “climate-change deniers and the young-Earth creationists.” I doubt it, although I suspect that the latter have at least heckled the former to live up to the credos implied by their critical approaches, but what a remarkable admission: that a fair amount of recent work in the humanities is baloney that was never meant to be consumed, sold, or even sniffed by outsiders.

Humanities theorists have insisted for years that when we set our work loose, it’s no longer our own. They’ll find in the end that intentions still matter: there’s more pleasure and solace in writing and art when you believe what you’re doing is true.

“Unsheathe the blade within the voice…”

Is polysemy now unseemly? Two weeks ago, when historian Steve Muhlberger traveled to that great North American ent-moot, the International Congress on Medieval Studies, he found himself in the midst of “a lot of griping and grouching about the misuse and ambiguity of the word medieval.” In a lucid and laudably concise blog post, he calls out the problem behind the problem:

You would think that a bunch of scholars who by their very nature of their discipline are experts in the evolution of the meaning of words would by now have gotten over the fact that though it doesn’t make a lot of sense to call “the Middle Ages” by that term, and that coming up with a really good, chronological definition of those ages is impossible, we are stuck with the words medieval and Middle Ages anyway. But no . . .

Steve is a scholar of chivalric tournaments and an experienced combat reenactor, so he knows how to land a disarming blow:

This can be intensely irritating for people who know that certain phrases and analyses lost their cogency back in 1927 and want to talk about what their friends are doing in the field now. Nevertheless people whose business is words should really accept the fact that words like “medieval” have a number of popular meanings, and when one of them shows up in current discussion (when, for instance, a Game of Thrones shows up and is widely labelled as medieval, even though the world of Game of Thrones is not our earth at all), the fact can be dealt with a good-humored way. It certainly would reflect credit on any field where a good-humored approach was the norm.

It would indeed. Off campus, the world blissfully resists more than a century of scholarship—pop culture still depicts Vikings in huge horned helmets, for heaven’s sake—and I respectfully suggest that more scholars contemplate why this is so.

As the rare soul who’s read every volume of Studies in Medievalism, I’ve marveled at the field’s mania for nomenclature. Since at least 2009, contributors to the journal—and its sister publication The Year’s Work in Medievalism, and its annual conference, and a pricey new handbook of critical terms—have kicked around the meaning of “medievalism” and “neo-medievalism” until every syllable simpers for mercy. Because I write about medievalism not as a professional scholar but as a footloose amateur, I miss the many years of meaty articles explaining, say, how boys’ chivalric clubs helped inspire the American scouting movement or why we’re perpetually tempted to make Dante a mouthpiece for generational angst. Forged from an accidental alloy of romanticism, nostalgia, politics, religion, and wishful thinking, medievalism can’t help but have jagged edges. It’s tiring to hone terms of art so finely that they cease to exist in three dimensions; we may as well flaunt the imperfection.

When it comes to the matter of the merely medieval, here’s Steve Muhlberger again:

David Parry made the most sensible remark of the entire week when he pointed out that an imprecise word like medieval has a lot of cultural value for people who make their living interpreting that era. Indeed there is a financial payoff being associated with it.

What’s the worth of a timeworn coinage? Steve’s full blog post answers that question, with the suggestion that settling on terms can pay other, less measurable dividends too.

“The story is old, I know, but it goes on…”

With its mix of sunshine and harmless bluster, September brings back-to-school nostalgia—ivy-covered professors, that first fall riot, scoldings for being insufficiently euphoric over sports—and perhaps that’s why the past two weeks have swirled with stories about the woes of humanities types in academia. I’ve watched would-be scholars expire en route to the ferne hawle of full professorhood for 20 years, so I’m guessing that many grad students and adjuncts have newly discerned, with the sort of creeping, pitiless dread otherwise confined to Robert E. Howard stories, that they won’t find long-term employment.

First, at the Atlantic, Jordan Weissmann asked why the number of grad students in the humanities is growing. Then, Slate ran a piece about the awkwardness that still hangs about people with doctorates in the humanities who land “alt-ac” careers—that is, jobs where they don’t teach college. Apparently, though, there aren’t enough such lucky people, because a few days later, Salon covered adjunct professors on food stamps.

With all the attention this subject now gets in the press, I can only hope that fewer souls will fling themselves into the hellmouth—but maybe academia shouldn’t have undone quite so many in the first place. While reading about medievalism in recent days, I found two historians who sensed where things were headed long ago.

The first was Karl F. Morrison, who wrote “Fragmentation and Unity in ‘American Medievalism,'” a chapter in The Past Before Us, a 1980 report commissioned by the American Historical Association to explain the work of American historians to their colleagues in other countries. Morrison writes candidly about his field, but he also makes an especially prescient extrapolation, which I’ve bolded:

There was also an expectation in the “guild” that investment in professional training would, in due course, fetch a return in professional opportunity.

By 1970, these benefits could no longer be taken for granted. By 1974, even the president of Harvard University was constrained to deliver a budget of marked austerity, reducing “the number of Assistant Professors substantially while cutting the size of the graduate student body below the minimum desirable levels.” The aggregate result of many such budgets across the country was a sharp reduction in the number of professional openings for medievalists, and an impairment of library acquisitions and other facilities in aid of research. Awareness of this changed climate impelled a large number of advanced students to complete their doctoral dissertations quickly, producing a bulge that is noticeable around 1972-1974 in our tables. For many reasons, including the deliberate reduction or suspension of programs in some universities, it also resulted in a decline in the number of graduate students proceeding to the doctorate.

In effect, the historians who became qualified during this period without being able to secure professional employment constitute a generation of scholars that may be in the process of being lost, casualties of abrupt transition. There is no reason to expect that the demographic and economic trends that so sharply reversed their professional expectations will alter before the end of the century, and this projection raises certain quite obvious possibilities regarding the diversity and renewal of the profession.

Fast forward to 1994. Norman Cantor was gearing up for his fourth year of professional besiegement after the release of Inventing the Middle Ages, a book for non-academic readers in which he sought to show how the formative experiences of certain 20th-century medievalists explained the ways they interpreted history. Fellow historians didn’t like his blunt biographical approach—and so in “Medievalism and the Middle Ages,” a little-read article in The Year’s Work in Medievalism, Cantor hammered back at “establishment dust-grinders” and noted, in passing, the crummy academic job market and the prevalence of certain “alt-ac” career paths even then:

Within academia a fearful conservative conformity prevails. The marginal employment situation has a twofold negative impact. First, it discourages innovative minds and rebellious personalities from entering doctoral programs in the humanities. People in their late twenties and thirties today with the highest potential to be great medievalists and bridge academic medieval studies and popular medievalism are a phantom army, a lost generation. Instead, for the most part, of climbing the ladder at leading universities they are pursuing careers (often regretfully and unhappily if well-paid) in major law firms.

Second, even if imaginative people take Ph.D.’s in medieval disciplines, they face the job market and particularly once they get a prized tenure track post they encounter a chilling intellectual conservatism that frustrates expressions of their best thoughts and deepest feelings.

I like Cantor’s claim that academia is literally conservative. After all, people are still fretting over problems that he and Morrison noticed decades ago. It’s September 2014, yet Rebecca Schuman at Slate can still write: “The academic job market works on a fixed cycle, and according to a set of conventions so rigid that you’d think these people were applying for top-secret security clearances, not to teach Physics 101 to some pimply bros in Sheboygan.”

The early blogosphere was rife with humanities grad students and adjuncts wavering between disgruntlement and despair; the much-praised Invisible Adjunct rose up to unite them in discussions so civil that I can scarcely believe I saw them on the Internet.

As someone who writes about people who use the imagined past to carve out identities, argue from authority, resist mainstream culture, or seek respite from the real world, I think I understand why the number of new students in arts and humanities doctoral programs grew by 7.7 percent in 2012, but I can’t claim a moment’s nostalgia for the geeky excitement they surely must feel. Morrison and Cantor both imagined a lost generation, but their jobless contemporaries were merely wandering. For this next generation, that luxury is long gone—as is the prospect of claiming that nobody warned them.

“Empty-handed on the cold wind to Valhalla…”

For all the violence the Vikings unleashed, their enemies and victims might find cold comfort in the torments Americans now inflict on them. We’ve twisted them into beloved ancestors, corny mascots, symbolic immigrants, religious touchstones, comic relief—and, this week, proponents of gender equity on the battlefield. The medieval past is grotesque, uninviting, and indifferent to our hopes. We wish so badly that it weren’t.

“Shieldmaidens are not a myth!” trumpeted a Tor.com blog post on Tuesday, sharing tidings of endless Éowyns in the EZ-Pass lane to the Bifröst:

“By studying osteological signs of gender within the bones themselves, researchers discovered that approximately half of the remains were actually female warriors, given a proper burial with their weapons . . . It’s been so difficult for people to envision women’s historical contributions as solely getting married and dying in childbirth, but you can’t argue with numbers—and fifty/fifty is pretty damn good.

Great Odin’s ophthalmologist! Holy hopping Hávamál! Half of all Viking warriors were women?

Alas, no. “Researchers discovered” nothing of the sort—but that didn’t stop wishful linkers from sharing the “news” hundreds of times via Twitter and countless times on Facebook.

So what’s going on here? Besides conflating “Viking” with “Norse,” the pseudonymous author of the Tor.com blog post misread a two-year-old USA Today summary of a 2011 article by scholar Shane McLeod, who most definitely has not delivered forsaken warrior maidens from their long-neglected graves. No, McLeod simply did the un-newsworthy work of reassessing burial evidence for the settlement of Norse women in eastern England in the late 800s, with nary a Brunhilde or Éowyn in sight.

You can find “Warriors and women: Norse migrants to eastern England up to 900 AD” in the August 2011 issue of the journal Early Medieval Europe. If you don’t have institutional access to scholarly databases, the article is imprisoned behind a $35 paywall, which is a shame, because although McLeod’s piece requires a slow, patient read, you don’t need expertise in ninth-century English history or modern osteology to understand it—just the ability to follow an argument about a couple dozen skeletons in a tiny corner of England at a very specific time in history, plus an openness to the possibility that McLeod hasn’t brought your “Game of Thrones” fantasies to life.

Here’s the gist of McLeod’s article, as concisely as I can retell it:

Focusing only on the area of eastern England occupied by the Norse in the 800s, he looks at one sample of six or seven burials from five locations dating from 865 to 878 A.D. where scholars had made assumptions about the sex of the dead based on the stuff buried with them. He compares them to a second sample: 14 burials from five sites (dating from 873 to the early 10th century) where osteologists determined the sex of the dead by examining their bones.

In the first group, only one person was tagged as female. In the second group, between four and six of the dead, perhaps half of the sample, were found to be female, even though based on grave goods, at least one of them might previously have been assumed to be male, because one of those women was buried with a sword. (Ah, but that woman was also interred with a child of indeterminate sex. What if the sword belonged to her young son? And look: someone in the first group who might have been a woman was buried with a sword, too…)

McLeod’s assessment is this: If we scientifically determine the sex of the dead based on their bones rather that assume their sex based on grave goods, we find more evidence (to pile atop existing evidence from jewelry finds) that Norse women came to England with Norse armies, earlier and in greater numbers than previously thought, rather than in a later wave of migration and settlement. Perhaps the men weren’t “a demobbed Norse army seeking Anglo-Saxon wives,” but intermarried with local women in smaller numbers than historians previously believed.

For the lay reader, that’s a disheartening hoard of unsexy conclusions—and a far cry from the Tor.com blogger’s claim, mindlessly brayed across social media, that “Half of the Warriors were Female.” It’s fantasy, not scholarship, and certainly not science, to interpret one woman buried with a sword, maybe two, as evidence for Norse women in combat.

Shane McLeod deserves better. Working with limited data pried out of ninth-century crevices, he recognizes that his sample size is tiny, that it’s tough to identify burials as “Norse” for sure, and that his findings are only “highly suggestive.” He’s precise, tentative, and conscious of counter-arguments, and he seems willing to go wherever the evidence takes him. His biggest accomplishment, however, is highlighting a major scholarly error. Experts who made assumptions about male versus female grave goods failed to reassess the biases they project backwards onto the Middle Ages—even though doing so is one of the traits even the most pop-minded academic medievalists will often claim distinguishes them from the duct-tape-sword-wielding masses.

Likewise, science-fiction fans are forever congratulating themselves for holding the right opinions on such subjects as evolution, but this time they lazily succumbed to fannish fantasies, failing to question a claim that deserved to be pummeled by doubt. I’ve done tons of social-media copywriting, so I get why that blogger just wanted to throw something out there after a holiday to beguile weekend-weary eyeballs—but come on.

Science doesn’t always tell us what we want to hear. Truth demands nuanced consideration of evidence, and reason demands skepticism, neither of which flourish on social media—so if you shared or re-tweeted the Tor article, congratulations! This week, in the name of medievalism, you made the world stupider.