A Public medievalist. Dr. Sturtevant is a public historian and a medievalist—in short, a public medievalist. His chief contribution to the field is in bringing to bear evidence-based social sciences research methods on questions of the public’s understanding of the past. In short, Dr. Sturtevant explores people’s ideas of the past not just by theorizing about them, but by asking them through surveys and long-form interviews. His work centers around the idea that the best way to truly understand the complexity and nuance in people’s experiences with the past is by asking them.
Historical Consciousness. We all have ideas about the past. Over the course of our lives, we have picked up those ideas from a variety of places, whether “formal” learning sources like our schooling, or “informal” learning sources like museums, TV programs, films, conversations with friends and family members, or in a myriad of other ways. And while many discussions of how the public understands the past focus on formal learning, people learn much more from their time outside the classroom than their time inside. Dr. Sturtevant explores, in his research, what people know about the medieval past, and the influence that informal learning– especially in popular culture– has on people’s ideas about the past.
This has made him an expert on the popular understandings, and misunderstandings, of the Middle Ages. But it is critical to recognize that just identifying where people go wrong in their thinking isn’t the end goal here. Instead, you have to take the next step and see the implications of those ideas– how they influence worldviews, establish or break down prejudices, or give life meaning. It doesn’t really matter that a significant portion of people think that King Arthur was a real person (spoiler alert: he wasn’t). But it does matter when people think of Arthur as, for example, a champion of white nationalist views, or as a symbol of a return to Empire, or as a cause of English exceptionalism. Paul’s research works to get to the bottom of these notions, and look for ways to shift our cultural misunderstandings.