- Medievalism: A Manifesto by Richard Utz
Richard Utz's latest book, Medievalism: A Manifesto, aims to do nothing less than to reform the ways in which we think about academic engagement with the Middle Ages, and with medievalism as a whole. Pulling very few punches, Utz argues from the outset that Medieval Studies has in some cases become a rarefied and elite discipline that has lost touch with its public roots, and that risks becoming 'an exclusive clan of specialists communicating mostly with each other' (xi). The book has been purposefully designed to be 'edgy' (xii), using a forum that permitted him to 'speak to [his] colleagues, but to many more of them' (xii) than traditional library-bound scholarship would have permitted.
Chapter One, adapted from a 2015 keynote address delivered to a packed room in Kalamazoo, begins with a 'thinly-veiled academic "selfie"' (3), an expression that also shows how Utz prioritizes readability and an immediacy of style designed to include non-specialists. However, his 'selfie' is not gratuitous or self-indulgent; rather, it is a means for him to acknowledge that, for many of us in the field, our 'admission ticket to studying and teaching medieval culture has been deeply affective and personal' (3). As scholars, we must also acknowledge our own roles as translators and negotiators [End Page 83] of that past, and, crucially, we must also occupy and interact in those same public spaces. Thus, the study of medievalism should be manifested as 'interventions' and engagements with the outside world. Shrewdly, Utz offers the example of Jacques le Goff as a means to show how one of the most influential and respected medievalists was, like all of us, not operating at an aesthetic distance from the object of study, but was first a passionate amateur whose study of the period was inevitably bound up in affective and personal engagements (pp. 4–6). Such an approach leads logically to the recognition of the 'amateur' medievalist as one not standing outside the academy, but as one who shares the academic's affective love of the past which she or he studies (8). The wealth of excellent scholarship here indeed becomes a strong fortress from which to lower the drawbridge.
Chapter Two questions 'who controls the research, scholarship and teaching of the medieval past' (p. 17). It is a question of direct significance to the modern era, as a recent series of essays published on The Public Medievalist has demonstrated. (By way of full disclosure, I should note that the Public Medievalist series features contributions by Utz and myself, among others.) But Utz's point here is neither rhetorical flourish nor mere scholarly posturing. Rather, his arguments slowly gather momentum to show not only that scholarship can be immensely valuable when communicated to the public, but also that the public's involvement in that research inherently increases its value rather than detracts from it. And Utz does not hesitate to argue further that 'as intellectuals we have an ethical obligation to intervene publicly to expose ideologies that would otherwise continue unnoticed and unopposed under the guise of seductively vague invocations of the medieval past' (p. 50).
However, the Manifesto is about much more than public engagement. By including public discourses and their often-contentious use of terms like 'medieval times' into our own scholarship, Utz recognizes an important truth: it may even be the case that the public use of such loaded terms offers a vantage point, a 'bird's-eye perspective [that] actually diagnoses continuities that many of us with appointments in "Renaissance"' or "medieval" specialty areas do not want to recognize' (p. 26).
The remaining chapters are, with great humility, presented not as scholarly thesis statements but as 'interventions.' The choice of the term 'intervention' here embodies precisely what the Manifesto aims to achieve. They are public statements of uncertainty, presented 'as an example of the kind of intervention I imagine other colleagues might also consider undertaking, interventions that would in my view reconnect the academic and non-academic engagement with...