Thursday, June 5, 2014

More about Short-form Medievalist Scholarship

What follows is likely more along the lines of "commentary" than of "scholarship" proper, but as it discusses scholarship, I offer it with the label.

In a post yesterday, "About Short-Form Medievalist Scholarship," I discuss some basic scholarly justification for short-form medievalist scholarship as an activity of the Society presented on this blog. The discussion is incomplete, of course; there is much more scholarship that engages with and makes room for blogging as scholarly endeavor available than what I report. (To be fair, there is also scholarly argument against the activity. I happen to think such arguments erroneous. Obviously.) And there is the question of what "short-form medievalist scholarship" means in the context of this blog, which is not necessarily easy to ascertain.

One means to approach what the term means here is to discuss the component parts of the term and how they interact. Doing so results in three sub-terms that need clarification: "short-form," "medievalist," and "scholarship." The first, short-form, is necessarily relative. For those scholars who routinely produce book-length treatments of topics, a twenty- to thirty-page journal article is "short," while for those who are not necessarily professional academics, such a piece is interminably long, and a stock five-paragraph, five-hundred-word essay is "short." Because this blog is supposed to reflect the Society, and the Society is meant to be one of general membership, a middle way is desirable; twenty or thirty pages will likely be too much for the blog to handle at a time and five paragraphs will likely not go into enough detail to be useful (unless they are excellent paragraphs, which the typical five-paragraph form usually does not generate). A perhaps-useful guideline comes from the journal The Explicator, which notes in its "Instructions for Authors" that "Essays should be about 1,200 words." For those used to the US college system, this comes out to something like three to five pages of text, which is enough to get an idea going and to get into it in some detail, sparking discussion as the blog hopes to do. And since writing well is as much art as science, exact numbers are not useful as absolute standards; a range is better, and 1,000 to 1,500 words centers on the 1,200 already noted, offers a fairly decent range, and gives easy-to-work-with round numbers.

The second term, medievalist, appears to be less uncertain. The International Society for the Study of Medievalism (a good group of folks) defines the term on its homepage as "the study of responses to the Middle Ages at all periods since a sense of the mediaeval began to develop," which is sensible enough. It presupposes, however, a stable definition of what the Middle Ages are, and there may well not be one. Kathleen Davis and Nadia Altschul comment throughout their introduction to Medievalism in the Postcolonial World that the terms "medieval" and "Middle Ages" may or may not actually apply to areas outside Europe, in which they have not seldom been used as descriptors of indigenous peoples applied to justify colonialist oppression. The geographic exclusivity and the problematic applications of the terms, then, destabilize them somewhat. Even within Europe, however, the period covered by the blanket term "medieval" is uncertain; it changes depending on where in Europe is being discussed. My own more traditional research tends to focus on late medieval England, and the end of the medieval period in England is variously reported as 1476 (the introduction by Caxton of the printing press to England) and 1485 (the ascent of the Tudor dynasty to the English throne). The case could be made, as well, that the Middle Ages in England only end with the 1534 Act of Supremacy, if "medieval" is taken as "time in which the Catholic Church serves as the primary legitimizing body" or the early modern whose advent ends the medieval is taken to begin with the serious questioning of papal hegemony. And that date and others depend on physical location, so that in studying the medieval, the medievalist is looking at uncertainty; it is itself uncertain therefore. A useful rubric may be to go by what is considered medieval or its reasonable cultural equivalent in each region; a useful series of discussions might treat what counts as "medieval" and where.

The third term, scholarship, can be easily taken to mean the generation of new knowledge and understanding observation of the world and from analysis of already-existing knowledge and understanding--primary and secondary, as often described. The emphasis in either event is on making new knowledge, something that escapes many people. It is not enough to say "This thing is there," as that knowledge is not new. It is not enough to say that "So-and-so says this thing," as that thing is knowledge already out in the world. Scholarship begins with such things, but does not end there, even in so informal a setting as this blog is likely to be. Something new, some new perspective or understanding, something that has not been said even if it has perhaps been noticed and passed over as "obvious" (and not all things that seem obvious actually are; the differences among people's perspectives and perceptive abilities will highlight different things to them) needs to be given voice, even here. That does not mean it must be an earth-shattering revelation to be of worth; most of the best research works diligently on a small point, offering a position from which to look at other small things, until the small things can be examined as parts of bigger things, and on to the totality. The small focus allows for deeper investigation on larger projects, and it allows for meaningful investigation in smaller projects such as might be found in blog posts. Even something like the clarification of a term can count as a reasonable bit of scholarship, particularly scholarship that seeks to be of limited, easily accessed scope.

For this blog, then, tentatively and certainly open to discussion, short-form medievalist scholarship ought to be essays of 1,000 to 1,500 words that seek to propagate new knowledge and understandings of the ways in which post-medieval works, particularly those of popular culture of the late twentieth century and after (given the focus of the Society), define and appropriate cross-cultural ideas of the medieval. The definition should allow for plenty of room in which to work; I look forward to seeing the results.

Works Cited*
  • Davis, Kathleen, and Nadia Altschul. Introduction. Medievalism in the Postcolonial World. Eds. Kathleen Davis and Nadia Altschul. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 2009. Print. 1-25.
  • Elliott, Geoffrey B. "About Short-Form Medievalist Scholarship." Tales after Tolkien: Travels in Genre and Medievalism. Tales after Tolkien Society, 4 June 2014. Web. 5 June 2014.
  • "The Explicator: Instructions for Authors." Taylor & Francis Online. Informa UK Limited, n.d. Web. 5 June 2014.
  • "The International Society for the Study of Medievalism." The International Society for the Study of Medievalism. International Society for the Study of Medievalism, 17 March 2014. Web. 5 June 2014.
*While I do tend to follow MLA guidelines, as noted, I am aware of the demands of the online environment, and so I offer links where practicable.

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