Q&A with Richard Utz on Medievalism: A Manifesto

Richard Utz is Chair and Professor in the School of Literature, Media, and Communication at the Georgia Institute of Technology and President of the International Society for the Study of Medievalism. He is the author of Literarischer Nominalismus im Spätmittelalter (1990) and Chaucer and the Discourse of German Philology (2002), and coeditor of Medievalism in the Modern World (with Tom Shippey, 1998) and of Medievalism: Key Critical Terms (with Elizabeth Emery, 2014). He is also the founding editor of Medievally Speaking, an open access review journal encouraging critical engagement with all manifestations of medieval culture in postmedieval times.

There are many recent books about medievalism. What’s different about yours?
The study of how the Middle Ages has been reinvented, repurposed, and reenacted in postmedieval times has become an established academic subject over the last 25 years. However, most book-length studies investigate one kind or genre of medievalism or the biography of a specific scholar: Louise D’Arcens’ Comic Medievalism (2014), for example, examines the role of humour in the reception of medieval culture across several centuries; Tison Pugh’s Queer Chivalry (2013) explores the history of white masculinity in Southern U.S. Literature; and Michelle Warren’s Creole Medievalism (2013) reveals editor and warrior scholar Joseph Bédier’s pro-colonial medievalist work. My own book wants to present a meta-perspective on the field of medievalism studies. Specifically, I would like to encourage colleagues to acknowledge, perhaps even embrace, the subjective and affective origins of our interest in the medieval past. Therefore, I took the unusual step of having my own parents featured on the book’s cover. Their and my own direct involvement in medievalist reenactment, games, and education are among the affective forces that have shaped many of my interests as a scholar.

Aren’t you worried about being accused of being a mere amateur or dilettante by embracing the personal, affective, and subjective?
No, quite the opposite! I think it’s an epistemological fallacy to believe that a scholar, the investigating subject, needs to be kept strictly separate from the scholar’s research, the subject under investigation. I believe with Norman Cantor (Inventing the Middle Ages, 1993) that all scholarship is, in the end, a form of autobiography and that the multitude of scholarly endeavors to recuperate the Middle Ages has only resulted in ever so many (subjective) reinventions of that time period. In the end, an amateur (from Latin amare, to love) or a dilettante (from Italian dilettare, to delight) is not so different from a scholar of the Middle Ages, who has simply sublimated his or her love for the medieval past into formal academic practices like editing, translation, or criticism. In my book I want to exemplify how a scholar’s open and conscious inclusion of personal connections will enhance, not hinder, our understanding of the medieval past.

How do you manage to infuse your research with your personal history?
In his Parler du Moyen Age (1980), Paul Zumthor said that it is a “delusion […] to speak of the past otherwise than on the basis of now.” Like Carolyn Dinshaw in How Soon Is Now (2013), I am putting Zumthor’s postulate into practice: After discussing some of the theoretical and historical aspects of medievalism, I present three concise cases studies that show how academic medievalists can produce research that includes their own personal history, reaches out, and gives back to the society that supports them. One of the cases studies exposes the dark side of medievalism in my native town of Amberg, Germany, where post-WW II open air festivals continued medievalist traditions originally created during the Weimar Republic and the Nazi regime. My second case study demonstrates how an early twentieth-century residence in my current hometown, Atlanta, GA, celebrates medieval chivalry and slavery as predecessors of Confederate values via medievalist architecture and craft. And my third case study encourages scholars to investigate numerous Christian traditions, rituals, and tenets as steady bridges between the medieval past and the present. All three of these examples illuminate the advantages of including our own current as well as previous reinventions of medieval culture when trying to understand the Middle Ages.

Why did you decide to write about these issues as a ‘manifesto’ and in the new Past Imperfect book series?
Well, I am trying to convince as many of my colleagues as possible to change their ways, and that’s why I chose this specific format and series. Since the late 19th century, medievalists (and many other humanities scholars) have been trying to put as much distance as possible between themselves and the general public, writing essays and books exclusively for each other. My modest proposal is to abandon this attitude and embrace the public humanities movement that wants to lower the drawbridge for the many lovers of medieval culture outside the academy to and to enter into a lively and mutually beneficial exchange. What I am proposing is rather revolutionary (hence: ‘manifesto’) , because I suggest we should not only interpret texts and artifacts for other specialists, but see it as our most noble task to render those texts and artifacts relevant to contemporary extra-academic audiences. Most academic publishers and book series editors would still prefer not to take on a project that might rub a good number of traditional medievalists the wrong way. Thus, I am glad Past Imperfect provides a platform for something like my long essai that is openly political in its intent and somewhat more ‘edgy’ in its tone. Just like the annual International Congress on Medieval Studies has done for more than 50 years, this new MIP book series promises a more open, democratic, and entrepreneurial engagement with the medieval past.

So are you proposing that all academic medievalists become medievalism-ists?
No. I realize that many colleagues will continue to investigate and write on what they consider the “real” Middle Ages. Many will defend an exclusively academic medieval studies within which making one’s work inaccessible (linguistically, economically, hermeneutically) to larger audiences is almost a precondition to professional success. And they will do this at the danger of uncritically recording or repeating medieval culture’s self-understandings. I am convinced that all lovers of the Middle Ages are capable of relating to the basic humanity of medieval human beings, to their motivations and emotions. I also believe that we produce less comprehensive understandings of medieval culture if we exclude our own subjective admission tickets to the Middle Ages and the reception histories of medieval events and practices. What my manifesto should help establish is that medieval studies, the academic study of medieval culture, is only one facet of medievalism, the overarching cultural phenomenon of any and all engagements with the medieval past. We scholars are participants in, not distant critics of this cultural phenomenon.

You can pre-order Medievalism: A Manifesto here

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