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Today’s post in the University of Venus’s monthly series on public scholarship Scholars Strike Back, comes from David M. Perry. An associate professor of history at Dominican University, Perry uses his experience as a medievalist who contributes to popular news outlets to argue that academics can - and should - use their knowledge and expertise to weigh in on contemporary debates.
I write popular essays for places like CNN and the Atlantic about the intersections between the Middle Ages and now. I see these intersections everywhere.
I began this public phase of my career by writing about the medieval echoes at play in Benedict’s surprise resignation and the intentional medievalism of Pope Francis, but lately have become a bit more political, using my academic expertise in the Middle Ages as the basis for arguing that a contemporary politician is dangerous.
Before getting into those details, though, here’s the one message I want to convey. As intellectuals, even those of us who work in seemingly esoteric fields, we have the authority to weigh into public conversations. To the extent possible, to the extent that one can find a platform, to the extent that one feels safe –we should do it.
In February of 2013 Pope Benedict retired abruptly and for a few weeks, medieval history was hot.
A lot of the commentary in the first few hours focused on Pope Gregory XII, who was indeed the last to retire, but who did so in the context of the fifteenth-century Council of Constance as part of a complex deal meant to re-unite the church. The situation didn’t seem at all analogous to Benedict’s. Instead, I focused the retirement of Pope Celestine V, an older man who wanted to return to a life of contemplation.
Why does this medieval history matter today? Benedict’s statement announcing his retirement echoed Celestine’s own bull of retirement. Moreover, Benedict visited Celestine’s shrine twice as Pope. Benedict and Celestine are even featured on the wall of the church in L’Aquila.
Given the clear impact that Celestine’s example had provided for Benedict, I had an easy medieval story to write, and I wrote it for CNN.
Over the next few weeks, I kept writing in the run-up to the conclave, after Francis was elected, and even throughout the first few months of his papacy. I felt that a lot of reporters were mis-reading Francis’ early statements. It turns out that my PhD in medieval history makes me a good interpreter of papal texts; go figure.
I used these writing opportunities, as much as possible, to educate readers about the Middle Ages.
Here’s my favorite example – an essay in which I suggested ways to think about the upcoming papal election, but in which I really wanted to say that voting is medieval. Medieval people, as you all know, loved making groups, writing bylaws, and voting for stuff. They did it all the time. The College of Cardinals, no less than a faculty senate, offers a direct continuation of that tradition of medieval voting.
These are the kinds of stories that I think we can all write. We all have these moments that we observe a relationship between our scholarly subjects and modern conversations, whether about politics, religion, the environment, or culture. I’ve become an evangelist for writing local op-eds, national pieces, blogging, talking to school groups, participating in library reading groups, or doing anything that might combat myths about the Middle Ages, get our perspective out of academia and into broader discourse.
None of this seems too controversial, though there are institutional challenges facing academics who want to do public engagement – namely; that our professions tend not to see it as something that counts.
This spring, however, I wrote a very different kind of piece about the Middle Ages.
At the NRA convention in 2014, Sarah Palin delivered a powerful speech that contained the phrase, “waterboarding is how we baptize terrorists.”
Political commentators from both the right and the left reacted strongly, condemning Palin’s words as blasphemous for the unthinkable linking of torture and baptism. To me, however, these words invoked just such a linking. I thought about the history of forced baptisms in both Visigothic and late medieval Spain, Saxony under Charlemagne, during the massacres of the First Crusade and later during the Black Death. I remembered Palin’s invocation of “Blood libel” after Representative Gabrielle Giffords was shot. Here was an extraordinary thing – a modern demagogue claiming the traditions of both Christian persecutor and victim.
I decided that this situation called for a medievalist, and when writing about it for CNN, I explicitly claimed my authority as an historian. I even quoted an episode on forced baptism from the Chronicle of Mathias of Neuenberg, and - whatever you think of Sarah Palin - getting 14th century German chronicles time on CNN.com is pretty cool, right?
I analyzed her text, describing the ways she evoked both fear and dominance in her audience, making them afraid on the one hand, claiming absolute moral authority on the other, and assuring them that with the proper weapons, they could be safe. I suggested that her use of “blood libel,” which I defined as a medieval myth, provided evidence of her consistent pattern of wanting to be both the unjustly victimized Chosen people and the Christian triumphalist. That rhetorical move is very familiar to medievalists who study the Crusades, for example.
In my reading, Sarah Palin’s medievalism is evident throughout this speech and her speeches and writing over the years. Throughout, she echoes some of the worst moments in medieval history.
In some ways, I am more nervous discussing my piece on Palin than I was writing it, and that speaks to the fraught nature of public engagement in the academy. Few could argue with the educative function of my pieces on the papacy, but here I am doing something that does not clearly fall within my mandate as a professor and educator.
By criticizing Palin for CNN.com, I am using my status and knowledge as a medieval historian to make an explicitly political argument that a modern politician is dangerous.
Here’s the thing.
I think she’s dangerous. Moreover, it is my knowledge of the medieval past that has led me to that conclusion.
In this series “Scholars Strike Back,” we are writing about the ways we engage with the public. So if an academic writing on politics makes you nervous, as it does me, let me ask this question. What is our obligation to society as scholars when we draw such conclusions? What is one to do with such a realization of danger other than to share it?
This isn’t the forum to try to persuade readers to accept my politics, but rather to emphasize that our academic knowledge gives us a perspective that is valuable and too often missing in public discourse. Our status as academics, for all intellectualism can be derided, gives us entry into local and national conversations.
You have the authority to weigh in.
Please use it responsibly.
David M. Perry is associate professor of history at Dominican University and contributor to publications such as CNN, The Atlantic, and the Chronicle of Higher Education. Read his blog at How Did We Get Into This Mess? Follow him on Twitter.
A version of these remarks was delivered at the 49th International Congress on Medieval Studies, Western Michigan University, May 2014 and published at How Did We Get Into This Mess?
If you are interested in participating in our Scholars Strike series, please contact assistant editor, Gwendolyn Beetham.