And was the holy Lamb of God,
On Englands pleasant pastures seen!
- And did those feet, William Blake

fredag 25. desember 2015

Ruminations on the ivory tower

As a historian by education I have spent most of my adult life in academia. This means that I have become exposed to the prejudices that come from both sides, both from academics who think that people outside academia are hopelessly ignorant, and from non-academics who think academics to be out of touch with the real world. I'm quite sure most of my fellow scholars have been in touch with these ideas one way or the other. Personally I consider both these sides to be indulging in caricatures and I have little patience for either, but naturally there are some people from both within and without academia who come dangerously close to their respective caricatures.

In my current job as a PhD candidate at the Centre for Medieval Literature in Odense, Denmark, part of the many aspects of my work deals with impact and outreach, i.e. how to ensure how my research can be made available and accessible beyond the Centre itself. This has been a long-standing preoccupation for me as well, and this is part of why this blog has developed from its original travelogue form towards its current form as a channel for disseminating information about my research and reading. To my mind, academic research must have as one of its purposes to be made accessible to non-specialists so that the research can actually be of use to the public discourse. This is perhaps particularly pertinent to medievalists whose subject matter is perennially a topic in non-specialist discourse, yet often without regard for the latest research on the matter itself - which is why so many myths about the Middle Ages persist so very strongly even in our time.

I was reminded of all this today when I was having a chat with my mother, and she wanted me to tell about what I had been up to lately at work. Not knowing where to start, I began talking about some of things that had taken most of my time in the week before leaving for home. This spiralled into a sprawling and eclectic conversation jumping from one topic to the next, only briefly touching directly on my own research. We were joined later by my father as I was explaining the origins of the cult of saints, and the conversation kept going on to medieval manuscripts, Reformation history and church history.

This latter topic is of some particular interest to my family since we live just a few hundred meters from where the medieval church of our village, Hyen, once stood. This is a church we know very little about, and I have only seen it mentioned twice in the ecclesiastical diplomas from the fourteenth century. Nothing remains from the structure itself, and it is likely that it was a wooden church, or that perhaps its stonework became embedded in the cellar walls of the nearby farms. No excavation has been undertaken, and today it is only marked by a menhir which was raised in its commemoration in the 1950s.

This church is the only proper connection my home village has to the Middle Ages, and it is apt to provoke some speculation. My father became triggered by our talk of manuscripts and started thinking of the sources that he thought must once have been there, such as books containing details about baptisms and weddings, arguing that these details must have been kept to provide data for the tax collectors and eventual disputes. It struck me how natural such expectations are to a modern mind, accustomed as we are to a wealth of paper and information. For my father, these convictions were perhaps all the more easily entertained because he is a sexton at the modern village church and a part of his job is to write down these details in the registers. I then took the opportunity to explain just how precious vellum was, and that our church was likely to have been a somewhat poor church, and that it might not even have had an entire bible among its possessions.

My father's expectations and his modern vantage point opened up for me a series of speculations about what our local priests might have had in terms of books, and that forced me to put together facts with conjecture, mingling what I knew from my academic work and what little information we have available about the church which once stood near our farm.

Later that evening I went with my father to help him with a few things in church, and as we were finishing he showed me the church registers which are kept there, looking up the details for the day of my baptism back in 1987 and the day of my confirmation in 2002. It was quite amazing to see these documents both from a personal and from a historian's point of view, and it became all the more clear to me what expectations a modern mind might have regarding medieval source materials.

All in all, my talk with my parents reminded me once again why it is so crucial that academics not only stick to their own when discussing and disseminating their work. When I'm talking with my colleagues at lunch, for instance, or at a conference, we have a common frame of reference which is radically different from the frames of reference that non-specialists can be expected to have. This is why it is sometimes quite easy to talk about work to fellow medievalists, even though we have our own specializations to bridge. But precisely because my parents are not schooled in medieval history, I need to engage more with basic matters, matters which I most often take for granted and therefore might not problematize sufficiently well. Furthermore, when I have to explain what I otherwise would find superfluous to explain, I am taken down those routes which might lead me to apply knowledge more conjecturally than is the norm in academic work. I'm therefore quite happy that my parents open up these paths to me in this way.

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