[dropcap type=”default”]I[/dropcap]’d like to talk a bit about the dedication for my new book The Middle Ages in Popular Imagination: Memory, Film, and Medievalism. For most people who write books, the dedication page is often a personal, private thing. Right now, I feel as though that’s a luxury I can’t quite afford. I want people to know what it means.
I dedicated this book:
“For Betty, who has seen this through from its very beginning.”
Betty is my mother—Elizabeth G. Sturtevant. I launched my book on the 29th of April 2018, exactly one month after she died after a long battle with two degenerative diseases. Launching a book in the aftermath of a parent’s death isn’t exactly ideal. But then again, nothing is at that time.
When I dedicated the book to her, I intended for it to be a little private joke between the two of us; she was there at both the beginning of the book, the beginning of the research, and my own beginning. Thankfully, the day she went into the hospital for the last time I was able to share the dedication with her—and despite all the painkillers and sedatives she was on, I hope she understood. But now in the wake of her death, I don’t want it to be private anymore. I want her contribution to this book to be known, and stand as a testament to her impact on my life.
An Interdisciplinarity of Supervisors
The Middle Ages in Popular Imagination: Memory, Film and Medievalism began its life as the research I did for my PhD at the University of Leeds. And for anyone here who’s attempted a PhD, you know how difficult it can be trying to unearth and polish a new piece of human knowledge.
Since the work is vastly interdisciplinary, ranging across the disciplines of Medieval Studies, Film Studies, and Audience Reception, I had quite a few supervisors (none of whom knew exactly what to do with me!). Richard K. Morris headed up the team in Medieval Studies, but I also had supervision from Lucia Nagib from the Center for World Cinemas, Andrew Wawn (who literally wrote the book on the 19th century popular perceptions of the Vikings), and with methodological training in audience research from David E. Morrison.
I was amply supervised. But my mom was my secret weapon. She was, herself, an incredibly accomplished scholar. Over her life she taught at George Mason University as a Professor of Literacy and Reading in the College of Education and Human Development for nearly twenty five years. She taught people how to teach reading. She did extensive work abroad, sharing her knowledge and helping to build educational infrastructure in Eastern Europe, Africa, and the Middle East. She has some sixty citations against her name in Google Scholar (and as anyone knows, that is a low-ball number). In her years at GMU, I heard that that time she officially supervised somewhere in the region of 115 graduate students.
And unofficially, she helped to supervise me. We had several long conversations—typically revolving around car trips—in which she was always throwing new ideas at me, and sometimes new books and articles too. And she read and commented on every word.
There are sections of the book that I know stand as the product of that process. Considering that she was a scholar of Education, several of the sections that include educational theories began by her lobbing an idea at me. Page 77–80 revolves around Schema Theory, one of the core ways in which we understand how people learn. That section also introduces the ideas of Jean Piaget, and his key ideas of accommodation, assimilation, and adaptation. Piaget is a foundational figure in Education Theory, and I remember discussing Piaget with her several times.
She read and commented on every draft, and it was through working to explain concepts from media and medieval studies to her that I cut my teeth at explaining difficult concepts across disciplinary lines.
In short, she didn’t make the book. But she made it better.
A Delayed Beginning
But there were two other ways in which she was there “from its very beginning.”
Rewind to New Year’s Day, 2010. I was visiting my parents’ home for the holidays. My PhD was due, with a hard deadline, in September—I had exactly nine months to finish.
And I hadn’t started.
If you’re a PhD student, I don’t recommend this, by the way. And let me clarify—I’d done four years of research, I’d collected twenty hours of interview tape, and I’d produced about 250,000 words of transcripts. I’d taken copious notes on books and articles, and even written a few articles myself.
But I had yet to sit down, open a Word file, and put the words “Chapter 1” at the top. I hadn’t done this because I was crippled with fear. “What if it’s bad?”, “What if I can’t do it?”, “What if it fails?”.
My mom could see me spinning my wheels hard. So she said, “Paul, I’m going to go upstairs to my office, and I’m going to clear off a space for you. And you’re going to go up there, and you’re not coming down until you’ve written something.”
She continued—“I don’t care if it’s good. I don’t care where you start. But you’re not coming down until you’ve done something.”
So I trudged up the stairs, and I sat in her chair, and I stared at her view out the window. And I put Chapter 1 on the screen.
Six hours later, I had written fifteen pages. So I was allowed to come downstairs.
Sometimes all you need is a kick in the pants. But importantly, that kick wasn’t scornful or judgmental; she didn’t shout or guilt or cajole. She just made a space, told me that it’s okay to fail, but that I had to at least begin.
Another story. Let’s rewind about two years—I don’t know, when, maybe 2008. This was before I’d done my interviews, before I’d taken the notes, before I got so dammed up with fear and anxiety.
I remember being in the car with my mom driving. I remember explaining to her—with all the unfocused, flailing passion of a PhD student just starting out—the subject that I wanted to study. The mark that I wanted to make.
I remember that my mom had a superpower. She had several, actually, but the important one here was her ability to ask the short, simple question that needed to be asked. If you’re a medievalist, she’d have made a good Perceval. She could summon the necessary thought that could cut through all the bullshit.
So, she waited for me to get done flapping my arms. And she said:
“Sounds great. So what?”
I didn’t understand. So, I remember launching, again, into an explanation of everything I wanted to do, all the things I wanted to find out, everything I needed to… She stopped me:
“No, I understand. But who cares? Why does it matter?”
That question can stop any scholar worth their salt in their tracks. Why does all of this effort, all of this study, all of this time and ink matter? And why does it matter to those outside the dozen-or-so people who have read all the same books as you and speak the same language and believe the same core ideas? Why would it matter to the greater world?
She stumped me that day. But answering that question—both for my own research, as well as for, and with, other medievalists has become my raison d’être.
Why The Middle Ages in the Popular Imagination Matters.
My best elevator-pitch length summary of the book is this: The Middle Ages in Popular Imagination is about how non-academics understand the Middle Ages—how they learn about it, especially from popular culture, and how their ideas affect their understanding of themselves, others around them, the past, present, and future.
It’s about how we understand ourselves, and how what we’re taught and shown creates the world or our experience.
If you’re a person who is interested in, but never studied the Middle Ages in college, this book is for you—it’s about you.
Medievalists have discussed the popular perceptions of the Middle Ages before. But, with only one exception (as far as I am aware), they’ve done so only by studying the products of current and historical cultures (like movies, or operas, or novels), and what past people wrote or said.
One of the first lessons that I learned when doing the research for my PhD and ultimately this book is that if you’re doing research on popular perceptions of the past by present-day people (how’s that for alliteration?), you have an incredible gift at your fingertips. You can actually ask those people yourself.
The best way (probably the only good way) to really find out what people think, and how they think, is by asking them.
So I did.
The interviews in the book were fascinating and wide-ranging, delving into perceptions of when and where the medieval world was, who medieval people were, how they lived, and why the world was as it was. It looked at the Middle Ages from physical, sensory, and moral dimensions. And it showed how people can go wrong—not just by misremembering the “facts” they learned in school, but by applying their understanding of present-day cultures onto historical ones uncritically. It exposes one of the ways that prejudice infects our lives: by allowing us to label other cultures—whether separated by time or geography—as irredeemably different and strange.
Popular perceptions of the past do matter. They even matter when addressing a past that may seem as inconsequential and frivolous as the medieval. That is because it shapes how we understand the world. It fundamentally defines the limitations of what we believe was possible, and therefore what is possible. History—even medieval history—is one of the ways in which we understand what is possible, and what is real. Understanding our own perceptions of it makes us better equipped to live in a world where people are continually trying to argue that truth is conditional, and that fantasy is as good as facts.
So, I hope you’ll get the book. And mom, I hope I answered your question.
Thanks for asking it.