Having spent a few days in the National Archives, my eyes stinging and sinuses burning after handling 13th century documents, I feel something needs to be said:
TV LIES TO YOU.
The first thing TV tells you is that being a historian gives you media coverage. Not only that, but it suggests that the life of a historian is one of interesting locations and fairly effortless document perusing, and – of course – that white gloves are usually involved.
I think that’s why, when I tell people that I’m doing a PhD in medieval history, there are usually one of three reactions. Sometimes I get all three, in this order:
- “Oooh you could be on TV soon then!”
Well – not really.
Apart from Robert Bartlett’s brilliant mini-series on The Normans, and a great programme on Domesday, there’s not really an awful lot of medieval coverage unless it’s do to with something that’s come out of the ground. There was also a Crusades programme on a couple of years ago, but that was so heavily edited that it caused me to wince in places. Editing can be an issue, especially when you’re trying to make a subtle point.
Not only that, but there’s the popular preconceptions of the period to navigate as well. If Gove has his way and we end up with a disaster of a curriculum where kids get taught history chronologically, the whole Medieval period (a good 400 years of history) will be ONLY taught to seven year olds. That may well end up with entire generations of people thinking of one of the most complex and colourful periods of history in overly simplified black-and-white terms, but also perpetuate the idea that it’s a simple period only children will be interested in. I already have to justify my choice of career to people who don’t see it as a “real job”, so I shudder to think how those conversations would go if they were backed up by government education policy.
That’s just when I say I’m an historian – it’s even worse when I say that I’m a medievalist. While this article in The Independent bewails the plight of modern historians attempting to spin a bestseller out of their thesis and undershooting both popularist and academic goals in one ill-advised attempt, medievalists are not to be found in the same quantities on the shelves. Check out your local Waterstones and see if you can find anything on the thirteenth century specifically, or how many biographies you can find of people who lived 1000-1400.
If it ain’t popular, it won’t sell. If it’s not selling, it ain’t popular. And therefore, it won’t be on TV all that often.
So – sadly – being a medievalist is really not a ticket to the BBC.
The life of the glamorous “tele-don”, the historian with white gloves on location in exotic and interesting places, well groomed, well organised and articulate, is as far removed from my own experience as South Park is from political correctness.
Anyone who knows me well can vouch that I have never in my life been immaculately groomed, and after spending a day in the archives staring at multiple charters and grants [like the one below] I can barely string a coherent sentence together, never mind be articulate. If you get me on an especially full-on day and ask me what I’m working on, be prepared for a glazed stare and a very long “uuuummmmmmmmmmmm……..”
We don’t always get our expenses paid. I usually have no clue which documents will be directly relevant before I’m finished with them, and no way would I be able to point to the important bits and translate flawlessly without spending a few moments counting the number of minims (downward strokes of the pen) to figure out if that’s a -nim, an -uim, an -ium, or what.
I also never wear white gloves – the amount of accumulated grime and dust on the documents would render them filthy in a matter of minutes, and after a few hours would be very counterproductive. I can just take a break to wash my hands again, but I don’t have the resources to keep changing pairs of gloves. Not only that, but transferring all that dirt and so on to other documents is bad for the vellum, which, unlike paper, is sturdy enough to not require gloved protection.
There are many reasons to wear gloves. Handling medieval documents is not one of them.
That said, there’s nothing wrong with a good bit of media exposure for a commonly misunderstood and even stigmatised period. There’s also nothing wrong with a bit of glamour and mystique to make it look attractive and interesting, as long as it pulls that off without making it look elitist and exclusionary, which in practice, it is not.
In conclusion – I’m sorry, but being a historian is really not quite as seen on TV.
I also don’t feel that I need to live up to the media expectation or associated preconceptions to justify being a medievalist – just ’cause it ain’t popular doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be taken seriously. It is such a rich period that I can and do compare a lot of modern day issues with medieval examples, because to me, the comparison is obvious. If you want a better and more comprehensive view of history, teach it thematically and comparatively. I don’t think the narrow box view of Modern vs Ancient vs Medieval vs Early Modern vs Neolithic and so on is especially helpful.
Finally, as a medievalist, I’m pretty normal (whatever that means), underfunded (I’m actually not funded at all… I have three jobs to afford my PhD), unorganised and non-glove wearing. Not only that, but archive material makes me sneeze!
As seen on TV?
… Not in this case!
- Important chronicle of Welsh history goes up for auction (walesonline.co.uk)
- “In the Hands of God’s Servants” – The Power of the Bishop in Medieval Europe 1000-1300 (melissajulianjones.wordpress.com)
- History of the Skull & Crossbones and Poison Symbol (mysafetysign.com)
- Employment: Postdoctoral position Jewish Studies / Medieval Jewish History, Germany (fmrsi.wordpress.com)
- The Shock of The New: Art Historian Alexander Nagel on His New Book, ‘Medieval Modern’ (Column) (popmatters.com)
- Around the Table: Day 4, Kalamazoo (massmedieval.wordpress.com)