The Social Value of Medieval Studies

The opening session of the recent online Expo of the New Chaucer Society was entitled “Medieval Scholarship in Precarious Times.”  Given the context of the Covid pandemic, one could not find a more appropriate topic to begin this convocation. The presenters were made up primarily of new medieval literature professors who had suffered significant instability as they attempted to launch their careers.  Beyond Covid, the major cause of their precariousness arose from the alarming state of the academic job market for medievalists.  Most had stories of having to live for years moving from one temporary position to another without being able to find a decent tenure-track job. It is difficult to quantify the extent of the problem because statistics seem not to be available on how many new English literature Ph.Ds. with a specialty in medieval literature graduate annually.  However, the most recent study of the academic job market by the Medieval Academy of America reveals that there were only four tenure-track job ads in the U.S. for English literature medievalists during the academic year 2020-2021, a figure that surely reflects the impact of Covid.  However, the report also suggests that, even if the job market rebounds after Covid, we can expect at most only about 20 new tenure-track jobs annually.  If the job market does not fully rebound, we can expect on average only 10 new English literature medievalist positions annually, a shockingly low number for the whole of academia in the U.S.[i]

Medievalists, of course, share this particular situation with many of their colleagues who specialize in the humanities.  Still, since the expertise acquired by these young scholars is not only a private but also a public good, this lack of professional opportunity represents a wasteful loss of valuable social resources.

Not everyone, however, understands the social value of medieval scholarship.  The panel members addressed, to use Ernst Boyer’s terms, both the scholarship of teaching and the scholarship of discovery.  For professors of medieval literature, whose teaching responsibilities normally reach beyond the narrow confines of medieval studies, it is often easier to demonstrate the public value of their teaching.  One can relatively easily articulate the value added when teaching not only content but also transferrable skills in undergraduate literature, language, or composition classes.  Particularly at universities enrolling primarily disadvantaged or working-class students, faculty can point with pride to the increased social mobility and higher earning potential of their graduates, as well as their sharpened skills at reading and interpreting texts critically, skills important not only to their careers but also to their functioning as citizens.

When the presenters spoke of their scholarship of discovery, however, they focused on the value of their research with respect to their own personal well-being rather than on its social value.  This is understandable, given that they were speaking to an audience that shared their belief that such research is valuable. While there is merit to the argument that the humanities, without reference to social utility, are valuable in and of themselves, this argument is unlikely to compel those who fund academic faculty positions.  Thus, to open up more medievalist positions, we need to articulate clearly the value our scholarship contributes to society.

What, then, is the basis of the social value of medieval studies?  I would start in an obvious place by noting the enduring fascination with and importance of various aspects of medieval culture.  David Lowry’s 2021 film The Green Knight, based on the anonymous 14th-century poem Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, is just the most recent example of how medieval literature translated into film has the potential to captivate large popular audiences.  In addition, the medievalesque informs much of the most popular modern fantasy literature, including Oxford medievalist J.R.R. Tolkien’s impactful works of fiction The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings (although the recent critical reception of Tolkien’s works has not been without controversy).[ii]  Medieval art and architecture continue to have the power to awe and inspire us.  The world-wide distress over the 2019 burning of Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris demonstrated an almost universal love of one of the greatest medieval architectural achievements.  Moreover, some world religions have medieval roots.  Muhammad, founder of Islam, lived in the late 6th and early 7th centuries, and many of the most characteristic Roman Catholic beliefs, practices, and organizational structures also arose in the Middle Ages.  Finally, universities themselves are an invention of the Middle Ages, first created in such medieval cities as Paris, Bologna, and Oxford.  Medieval culture, then, is still worth preserving and studying because many of its most important aspects are still very much alive in the 21st-century.

Although medieval literature still carries an impact, it is impossible for most contemporary audiences to access these works without specialized mediators.  The works, for example, are often written in languages other than English.  Even for those written in medieval forms of English, like Chaucer’s, the language itself is so different from modern English that it is difficult for modern readers to understand and appreciate them without expert guidance.   They are also written in different literary genres and with different cultural perspectives, which may perplex 21st-century readers.  Medieval literary scholars are, therefore, still necessary to unearth lost texts, to produce authoritative editions, to translate, when necessary, the texts into modern English, and to explain historical aspects that might inhibit a full understanding and appreciation of medieval literature.  With academic mediation, I have seen that the best of medieval literature can indeed impact student readers no less forcefully than literature written in more recent periods.  In sum, as Jonathan Bate has written: “One of the most important answers to the question of what kind of public service is provided by humanities research is that it feeds into teaching.”[iii]

In fact, I see a large part of medieval literary criticism as a kind of curatorship, parallel to what museum curators do with various artworks or cultural artifacts from distant ages of the past.  First, they display them for the public, sometimes introducing these objects for the first time.  Next, they set the objects within their cultural contexts, explaining how the objects relate to each other, what they reveal about the culture of the distant society that produced them, and how some of them broke through contemporary cultural and artistic traditions to invent new categories of human expression.  Moreover, these operations have to be constantly repeated, as new discoveries are made and new generations, replacing their older predecessors, arise.  Hence, the need arises for universities to continue to fund positions in medieval literary studies.

But there may be an even more profound value to medieval scholarship.  In his book Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow, Yuval Noah Harari, an Oxford-educated medieval historian, noted that modernity is essentially a “deal,” which consists of a trade of (God-given) meaning for power.[iv]  The shifting of academic resources to subjects that promise power, such as science, engineering, and medicine, then, can be seen as falling within a larger historical movement.  But Harari qualified his general statement by saying that moderns snuck meaning back into their lives by embracing humanism, in which humankind became the measure of all things.  Although Harari describes significant contemporary challenges to humanism, medievalists must make the case that the humanities, including medieval studies, become more, not less, important, as the pace of significant change increases in the 21st century.

New challenges and opportunities, often the products of the power obtained through science, technology, and medicine, have the potential to significantly alter, for better or worse, fundamentals of human nature and human societies.  As outlined by Harari, advances in agriculture have the potential to eliminate famine, medical breakthroughs may eventually end disease, climate change will continue to menace human happiness and social stability, biotechnology has the potential of fundamentally altering the human genome, and artificial intelligence may one day outstrip the powers of human reason, even gaining consciousness and rendering the reasoning powers and talents of humans marginal. But none of these developments, good or bad, is predetermined.  As Harari underscores in 21 Lessons for the 21st Century, choices made today are more critical than ever, and they must be made with a clear and informed vision.[v]

In such a fraught context, the ancient Greek aphorism, “Know Thyself,” applies as much to humankind as it does to individual humans.  It will be more important than ever for leaders and citizens to make decisions based upon a firm understanding and appreciation of the essentials of what it means to be human.  This, in turn, must be anchored in the study of “the meaning-making practices of culture,” to use Helen Small’s formulation.[vi] That foundation can be powerfully articulated by those, like scholars specializing in medieval literature, who dedicate their lives to the preserving, disseminating, and interpreting the fullness of humankind’s past.  Moreover, this research is made even more valuable when scholars like Harari use their historical insights to build lessons for humankind’s future.  In these weighty efforts, then, the scholarship of discovery in the field of medieval literature and culture finds a critical mission and establishes not only the foundation of its own enduring value but also the basis for funding more medievalist positions–especially in precarious times.

[i] Medieval Job Data Summary.  The Medieval Academy of America. 6 October 2021. Accessed 6 February 2022.

[ii] See, for example, Dimitra Fimi’s “Was Tolkien Really a Racist?” The Conversation Accessed 6 February 2022.

[iii] Bate, Jonathan. “Introduction.” The Public Value of the Humanities. Ed. Jonathan Bate. London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2011.  1-14.

[iv] Harari, Yuval Noah.  Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow. New York: HarperCollins, 2017. 200.

[v] Harari, Yuval Noah.  21 Lessons for the 21st Century.  New York: Spiegel & Grau, 2019.

[vi] Small, Helen.  The Value of the Humanities.  Oxford: Oxford UP, 2013.  4.