Tuesday, August 19, 2014

About Paul B. Sturtevant's Website

Online discussions of the Society pointed out Paul B. Sturtevant's website The Public Medievalist some weeks ago. Sturtevant describes himself as "a Public Historian--a Public Medievalist....most interested in how people learn about and use history in their lives" and notes "This has traditionally only encompassed historical institutions for public education--archives, historical-heritage sites, museums or universities. I conceive of it as being broader than that: anywhere that people engage with and learn about the past is a part of public history." Despite some few issues of concern, the site does well to support his stated mission; although missing some points, it presents helpful insights into how contemporary popular culture engages with medieval history

His 18 July 2014 article, "If 'Chivalry' Isn't Dead, Let's Kill It," illustrates the point nicely. In the piece, Sturtevant rails against the cries voiced by The Daily Telegraph and others that "chivalry is dead" and that it was killed by feminists, among others. He does so in large part by pointing out that the definition of chivalry commonly used is not the same kind of chivalry attested in medieval writings; instead, it evolves from Victorian medievalist understandings of the term. In that sense, he asserts, it perhaps ought to be allowed to pass unmourned, given the oppressive heteronormativity of the construction. In the prevailing medieval sense, he also remarks, it is not particularly unique, so that distinguishing "chivalry" is perhaps according too much distinction to the medieval European feudal warriors.

There are some problems in the way he makes his argument. One that stands out to my eye is an omission. In explicating the Victorian medievalist origins of chivalry as a normative set of heterosexual politeness practices, he lists such sources as Malory, the Gawain poet, Chrétien de Troyes, and Sir Walter Scott. Lacking is Alfred, Lord Tennyson, whose Idylls of the King enjoyed more currency among Victorian readers than any of the medieval Arthurian sources and, quite likely, Scott.* Tennyson is hardly an unknown author; not mentioning him is an oddity.

Even so, the article does much well. It is framed nicely as a response to a series of articles in a major newspaper and a study published by a major academic group, grounding the discussion firmly in popular culture; the invocation of relatively popular films also does so. The systematic dismantling of popular arguments about the killing of chivalry is good to see, as is the corollary argument that chivalry is not a static category taken from a monolithic Middle Ages. Sturtevant is correct in framing it as a still-dynamic descriptor, the use of which has changed substantially and which at its best can still offer people something worth having. And if his "If 'Chivalry' Isn't Dead, Let's Kill It" is representative of his public medievalist work, then his ongoing efforts in The Public Medievalist will be well worth continued attention.

*See my dissertation, pgs. 182-86.

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