What Makes A Medievalist?

I identify myself as a medievalist, but I don’t work as a professor of medieval literature or a medieval historian.  I’m not a student working on a degree in medieval studies.  I’m not employed in a library that allows me to work with medieval materials.  Am I really a medievalist?  What will I be in the future?  A medievalist AND a librarian?  A medievalist OR a librarian?  A medievalist THEN a librarian?

If there’s one thing I’ve learned from my yearly pilgrimages to the “Greete Feste” of Kalamazoo, it is that the definition of the term “medievalist” is fluid and inclusive and can range from serious to comical — as Rick Godden says, a medievalist is “n. one who medievals.” At the other end of the spectrum, the good people at Medievalists.net say that their site is for “people interested in the Middle Ages.  This includes scholars, writers, historians, readers and anyone who enjoys medieval history or culture.  For me, the broadest possible definition is the best: you’re a medievalist if you love anything about the Middle Ages.  Are you a well-known scholar and veteran of Valley III’s wine hours?  You’re a medievalist.  Are you a writer of historical fiction set in the Middle Ages?  You’re a medievalist.  Do you enjoy participating in living history/SCA/Renaissance Faires?  Congratulations!  You’re a medievalist!

But even when you start using terms like “I love medieval [history/literature/culture/food/books/whatever]” you start running into problems — as my friend Jess of Ask An Islamacist pointed out on Google+, “For me, the term always implies someone who works on Western European history from the end of the Late Roman period to the Reformation (so circa 600s to 1500s). I’m not sure why I think of Medievalists as Western-focused, maybe just because all the ones I know are… Certainly for the Late Antique and Islamic world, the further divisions into the early/high/late Middle Ages are really unhelpful, and we seem to spend a lot of time trying to stop people from using them.”

This idea that medievalists are primarily focused on European cultures is something that makes a lot of sense to me.  My focus is almost exclusively on England and France and I know only the barest bones of Swedish history after the Vikings, for example, and I know nothing of medieval Asian cultures.  I think The Tale of Genji is about 800 years old because I read part of it once, but outside of that book I can’t tell you anything about Japan in the twelfth century.  To return to Google+ and my shameless abuse of the discussion features there, I will agree with Brandon Hawk: “So, with a fairly flexible and wide-ranging definition, I view a medievalist as one who studies aspects of the temporal period between the Decline of Rome and the Reformation, with a special focus on the cultures of the West and its surrounding influences.”

In the end, I think being a “medievalist” has a lot to do with self-identification.  I self-identify as a medievalist because my passion is late fourteenth century and fifteenth century manuscripts and incunables.


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