The following stories are all true. I am used to such claims, as my focus is on the study of saints, their lives, their liturgical veneration, and the purposes underlying their contents, be they textual, musical, iconographical, gendered or political. So then, onto the narratives, which are about our institution – that is the scholarly discipline of Medieval Studies – and inscribed to offer encouragement as well as warning. I myself have seen and heard these things.
A junior medievalist and I sat over dinner. After discussing forays into the wondrous world of medieval liturgiology, I asked, “So why aren’t you more involved with the Medieval Academy?” Reasons came as swift as swords: 1) the three-year rule, and you got rid of that; it was keeping lots of people away from the Annual Meeting; 2) it seems the professional meetings of my discipline are mandatory, and I don’t have time and money for the MAA too; 3) there is no opportunity to participate in governance as you have to be a Fellow to run things or serve on committees; 4) and lastly, then, the MAA is elitist and stodgy.
Exegesis: Yes, there is no longer a wait before a scholar can speak or participate in the Annual Meeting: gone, done. Yes, the professional meetings of the disciplines in these hard financial times are upstaging the MAA, hurting membership and attendance at our annual meeting. We are tackling this problem now, and ideas are welcome. But as to 3 and 4, no and no. Election to fellowship in the MAA is honorary, and Fellows have no direct responsibilities for governance of the MAA. Fellows pay for their own ways to the meeting, for their housing, and pay for their own dinner. Your dues do not subsidize them. They are senior scholars who want to help the field they have spent their lives serving. As to no. 4, the MAA works tirelessly to engage all those who study the Middle Ages: seniors; juniors; independent scholars; unaffiliated scholars; students; Europeanists; global medievalists. We give out $100,000 in scholarships and awards every year. We are passionate about post-docs, having recently funded a new one. So run for something! Ask to be on a committee! We solicit volunteers by interests from the members every year. But do keep up your membership, for when we try to tap you, if your name isn’t there, we can’t. So I asked my friend, “Do you keep up your membership?” “Yes.” “Then go for it. It’s a great way to build the field, and your CV!”
Two other tales. At another dinner last week, this with a visiting PhD student to discuss the upcoming dissertation research, questions were asked of me and a colleague. Answers were given of the kind that save time and energy for someone starting out. All were involved in the sheer delight of sharing information, discussing the best ways to find things out: “who is out there writing about these topics now, and where are the best writings, editions?” “Oh, I know that person, and that one, and that one too. Would you like an email-introduction?” Another meeting with an undergrad from a nearby college concerning research on a saint’s office, working with a wonderful MS, and he been studying for a year (now we’re talking!). “Have you seen these tools, these, these?” “What should I do now?, he asked.” “Here’s a possible plan for you, one that might work and not overwhelm you, and lead to something concrete. Here’s where you could publish this eventually. I know the editor, would you like an introduction? Come by the conference in September and we’ll have coffee. Email me, let me know how it’s going.”
Exegesis: There is nothing like a fruitful exchange between an undergrad or grad student and a senior scholar with no skin the game (not an advisor or a professor in the school or university; neither a grade giver or ref writer). Say anything you want; ask any question, especially the one that is really bugging you and that you didn’t dare raise in class. “How do you figure out X, I mean how can you?” And the answers are there, just as they would be if you wanted to build a dinghy and have it cross the lake, without taking on any water; and then, later, a ship to sail the seas. Senior medievalists are craftspeople of thought; we know how to build in our field; our ships sail. What do we seniors get out of such exchanges: EVERYTHING. We are the lucky ones, actually, to meet young people starting out who can use the craftsmanship that we have spent our lives refining. And we are learning too, for the fresh and new questions make us think in ways we hadn’t before. New innovations! How can we build these exchanges in to the MAA, for the MAA can do this most successfully. The Zoo is wonderful, swirling, whirling, but just too big for this kind of deliberate intimate exchange. We are going to try something, this year even, continuing to build on mentorship ideas from the past. Anyone want to help? Email me!
The third set of tales, these very personal. The first I put in my textbook Music in the Medieval World because it was so astounding, and, in my mead hall, it will always be front and center. I was on a plane coming back from the MAA, and I happened to sit with a historian who was coming from his professional meeting, too. “So what do you work on?: he asked. “Oh, I start in the 400’s, with a long-time interest in Augustine, and a lot in-between, and I stop in the late Middle Ages, around 1400.” “Wow, so narrow!” “So how about you? What do you work on?” “1945.” (Stunned silence before I spoke.) “Well, it was a good year.” Another short narrative: I was at a wedding reception, and met a grad student in the field of musicology, and I knew she was working in the twentieth century. So I told her about a job I had just read about and she: “no, that’s for someone who works in the early twentieth century, and I work in the middle twentieth century. You need three, one for each part of the century.” And not unrelated: “Mom, you know all the stuff you and Dad know (my husband is a medievalist).” “Yes.” “Well, you have to teach it to our generation, because we don’t know anything.” I laughed uproariously. “Mom, it’s not funny.” This is a young man who loved The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings; his juniors in high school now are hooked on the “Game of Thrones” and Rowling. They love the Middle Ages, but they don’t know it. And all this in a time when our field is hemorrhaging positions, supposedly, it’s said, because students just aren’t interested.
Exegesis: We live in a presentist world, the quick buzz, and the decade seems too long a unit of time. People say, “you can’t study ‘the nineties,’ gotta be ‘the early nineties.'” Time gets shorter and shorter spiraling inward, until we are only looking at ourselves, blogging the moment without past or future. Augustine’s view of memory has imploded, and we have uncovered an eternal present, but one that does not move because it has no future and no past. It is indeed hard to know anything, to acquire wisdom in the short time frames now imposed on education, and complexity has been lost, or at least minimized.
It used to be that scholars were accused of knowing more and more about less and less. But now, there is so much information in every field, that we seemingly know less and less about more and more. I was recently wondering again about all the handbooks that Brill, Brepols, Oxford, and Cambridge are publishing. I’ve been asked to write for at least 20 and said yes to 6 or 7. Why? It is because there is so much misinformation out there, especially on the Internet, that you need to find responsible scholars to offer guides. It is time for medievalists, alone or in groups, to reach out with their knowledge and their materials to the young people in our communities. Two things are most heartening to me: our new standing committee on the digital humanities and multimedia studies; and our new standing committee on K-12 education. The sessions and the plenary we had in Toronto on these subjects were enlightening, as was the CARA meeting. There is so much joy, so much hope! But if we don’t do the hard work of organizing and of reaching out, it won’t happen, and the MAA is here to facilitate just that. We need small grants for innovative medievalists, especially for lone medievalists, showing eager young eyes a manuscript facsimile; putting on a play; singing a troubadour tale. Now it’s time for something completely different, and something different could change a life by inspiring the new ways of thinking so needed in today’s world.
Margot E. Fassler, University of Notre Dame
President, Medieval Academy of America