There’s a difference? Well, yes. Several years ago, at the Southeastern Medieval Association (SEMA) conference, I found myself in a hotel elevator with some non-conference guests and couldn’t help overhearing their conversation.
“I hear there are medievalists in the hotel,” said one.
“Maybe we’ll see people wearing costumes!” said the other.
Meanwhile, I and a medievalist friend from grad school were standing next to them, wearing our ordinary 20th-century clothes, because we were medievalists, not members of the Society for Creative Anachronism. But sometimes the line is pretty thin, as described in this report from the International Congress on Medieval Studies in Kalamazoo, Michigan. And maybe getting thinner:
[F]ar away from the movies and festivals and virtual worlds, medieval scholars do the arduous detective work of unearthing, interpreting, and contextualizing the evidence that has survived from the actual Middle Ages — a period when real people lived, labored, imagined, and died. Yet it was also a period when knights and monsters were pressing literary concerns.
“There’s so much about the medieval that’s associated with the juvenile, the popular, the low,” says Jeffrey Jerome Cohen, a professor of medieval English literature at George Washington University. As specialists in Arthuriana and other literature heavy on adventure and light on introspection, he says, medievalists already dread being regarded as scholars of so much juvenilia.
And so sometimes their responses to the truly puerile strains of pop medievalism are downright grouchy and exasperated — as when medievalists point out for the umpteenth time that turkey legs, consumed with such gluttonous abandon at Medieval Times restaurants, did not exist in medieval Europe.
But another factor that heightens the tension between medievalists and their dress-up counterparts is this: Alongside the painstaking manuscript work, medievalists have a lot of fun.
Yes, we are serious. And many of us got into medieval studies because we read J.R.R. Tolkien or some version of Malory at an impressionable age. But now we want to do this thing right. And dance, too. Next year in Kalamazoo!