Storytelling for Medievalists: A Proposal

Several months ago the Scholarly Communication Institute (SCI) put out a request for proposals for participation in the 2017 theme “Scholarly Storytelling: Compelling Research for an Engaged Public.” I jumped at the chance to bring together medievalists and organized a team who helped me to write a proposal. Our team recently received word that our proposal was accepted, and the following folks will be joining me at the SCI in the fall: Brantley Bryant, Kathleen Kennedy (blog), Dan KlineKate Wiles (blog), and Stephen Yeager. We’re also indebted to David Perry for his contributions to the proposal and ongoing conversations.

The premise of our proposal is that medievalists should actively engage the public through our own means of storytelling. A number of news-worthy examples have surfaced just in the past few weeks. Among them are medievalists addressing white supremacists appropriating Viking culture; Islamaphobes who want to recreate the Crusades; and James Comey evoking a comment about a “meddlesome priest” associated with King Henry II and the murder of Archbishop Thomas Becket.

We hope that, by sharing our ideas, we’ll get others excited and start more discussion about how medievalists can reach the public through our storytelling.

We’re looking for others to share in our long-term endeavors: allies, supporters, collaborators, those who want to tell stories with us. As we hope is clear from our proposal, our goals go well beyond our team meeting at the SCI. We hope that our collaborators will be much more wide-ranging, too.

If you want to be part of our network for medieval storytelling, please let us know.
[Edit: For anyone interested, we now have a form to collect info to keep in touch with allies as we develop this project!]

Here’s the main part of our proposal to explain what we want to get up to at the Institute and beyond.

If storytelling matters in our own contemporary context, then so too do stories from the past. Unfortunately, premodern tales often remain obscured or misrepresented.

For example, in the twelfth century, the English monk Thomas of Monmouth (fl.1149-1172) fabricated a story about Jews kidnapping and murdering a boy named William. This fiction, now known as the “Blood Libel,” continued to be told in various forms throughout the Middle Ages (see “The Prioress’s Tale” in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales); and it survives as a “zombie lie” even up to our own time, where it is still retold, often as history. As propaganda fodder for the far-right, however, the (mis)understanding of the Middle Ages evoked by contemporary retellings of the Blood Libel is racist, bleak—and completely misses much of what the medieval period has to offer to contemporary culture.

Our working group is comprised of a team of medievalists (academics, public scholars, journalists, activists) who want to engage the public with stories from the Middle Ages. Collectively, we want medievalists to be seen as public scholars by other public scholars.

During the Institute, we want to create a new roadmap toward public writing where we can deploy our academic skills for the widest possible audiences. We want to be recognized as storytellers who tell old stories that matter, and tell them to the twenty-first century. We want medievalists to plot to carve more space out of the mainstream media. We want to imagine the next type of The Toast, and to lay the groundwork to make it happen.

Our working group includes a cross-section of people who identify as medievalists, at various stages in their careers, working with different storytelling media to engage the public by telling medieval stories. Some of us are teachers and researchers in higher education, but some of us also have experience as journalists, public scholars, social media mavens, and consultants for film, television, and radio. Notably, all of the participants on this team are actively engaged in social media, especially through blogging and tweeting. One of our goals is to bring our interdisciplinary and inter-experiential voices together to learn from each other and to find new modes of storytelling in our own work and with others interested in similar pursuits.

We hope that participating in the Institute can develop a network and team among ourselves and reaching out more broadly, so that we can collaborate and speak more loudly together as medievalists even as we tell more diverse stories.

We are also curious what we might learn about so-called “futurists”—scholars apparently hired by think tanks, companies, and governments to write white papers that imagine future conditions, technologies, and their impacts on society and government. Modernists are usually offered such work, but we feel strongly that medievalists, those of us who study the origins of the very nation-states and technologies in question, are uniquely suited to such scholarly communication.

In all of this, we want to get better at teaching the narratives of the Middle Ages as contested ground both in medieval and modern contexts. From telling our stories, we want to forge connections between the premodern and contemporary, encompassing the longue durée, about violence across religious identities and histories of race; the unravelling of the myth of the “white” Middle Ages and “white” Western Civilization; untold histories of technologies leading to the so-called “digital age”; questions about gender and sexuality—none of which are by any means new in our contemporary era.

Some of our goals raise obvious questions and challenges:

  • What do we mean when we talk about telling medieval stories to the public?
  • What does it mean to be academics using more popular storytelling media?
  • How (and why) do we enact scholarly communication as medievalists, for the public, and through diverse storytelling media?
  • How do we break in?
  • How do we do it accessibly?
  • What new models of publication need to be established to achieve our goals?
  • What can we bring to the public to show them medieval subjects matter?

There are some obvious answers to these questions, but also some less obvious answers that we want to work through in a network with others who are asking similar questions.

Medievalists, like medieval people, are all about networks. The Tale of Audun from the Westfjords poses one example, about a poor, resourceful, Icelandic merchant driven by luck to sail to Greenland, spend all of his money buying a captured polar bear cub, sail around Europe with the bear hustling kings, create a network of contacts from his experiences, and ultimately gain widespread reputation and enough wealth to settle into early retirement back in Iceland.

While fictional, the example is representative of the types of networks that pervaded the medieval world. Without networks, people went nowhere.

Our group at the Institute will capitalize on expanding our network: this is one of the substantive takeaways for us. We want to use our time at the Institute to create a plan for not only reaching the public through scholarly communication but also reaching others with the same goals. We will identify who else will take part in our plans; who will invite us to write in their networks; who will collaborate with us to shape the narrative of medieval studies going forward—not just our own group’s narrative. Our connection, our mesnie, our group of well-willers will expand, and our opportunities will grow, as will the patronage we can extend in turn. This profound reciprocity of networking is precisely what is missing from contemporary far-right understandings of the Middle Ages.

We suggest that scholarly communication needs to get a little more medieval.

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7 comments

  1. Becky Pratt-Sturges · · Reply

    This looks like an amazing endeavor! will you keep posting about the team’s efforts here? I am working on becoming a more public medievalist so I am very interested.

  2. Susan J Hawk · · Reply

    Awesome endeavor! Wondering if a person needs to be a medievalist (in an academic form) to participate?

  3. Fascinating stuff! One of the goals of my site, femmeliterate.net, is to advance medieval feminism – that is, to remind people that medieval women existed and had roles and influence beyond just what they were assumed to contribute by way of household chores and and having babies. I am definitely interested in this conversation.

  4. Ruth Olmsted · · Reply

    This is intriguing! I’d like to see it happen

  5. jennamead · · Reply

    This is a terrific project, Brandon. Very much looking forward to following progress on your blog and other channels. Good luck!

  6. […] Several months ago the Scholarly Communication Institute (SCI) put out a request for proposals for participation in the 2017 theme “Scholarly Storytelling: Compelling Research for an Engaged … – Read full story at Hacker News […]

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