What is a Public Medievalist?

“Public Medievalist” is a term that I use to describe who I am, what I do and what I’m interested in as a scholar.

The term combines two ideas: “Public History”, and “Medieval Studies”.

Simply put, “Public History” is a term used– most often in America– to describe any way in which the public encounters and learns more about the past outside traditional academic circles like university courses or scholarly books. In the past, this meant proud institutions like museums, heritage sites and archives primarily. But more recently, public historians have taken a more expansive view, and many now incorporate popular culture, primary and secondary education, and “memory studies” – a term which refers to the myriad ways in which sociologically we understand and make use of the past in our lives. I like this particularly since this now incorporates the ways in which I—as an American—first fell in love with the medieval world as a child.

“Medieval Studies” is a term which has been around for about 40 years now, and was one of the first attempts by academics to rethink traditional disciplinary boundaries. So, instead of splitting up the humanities into boundaries based upon the type of evidence—history for documents, archaeology for material remains, literature for fiction, and art history for (you guessed it) art— someone interested in medieval studies divides it differently. Instead, we look at one particular slice of history—in our case the Middle Ages—and try to work with whatever evidence we’re presented. It’s a good way to work. My training this way meant that, for example, for one article I wrote (on Viking religion) I was able to use philological evidence, as well as poetry, chronicles and archaeological finds to support my conclusions.

I am part of a new wave of scholars stretching the interdisciplinary boundaries of medieval studies even further by looking at it through the lens of a public historian. Or perhaps I am stretching the boundaries of public history by looking at the medieval world, and primarily through sociology and popular culture.

Either way, it’s simply a new way of looking a very, very old topic.

I’m always looking for people to explore this new field with; if you’re interested in medieval public history, or if you are a public medievalist—contact me!