This quick post is inspired by a blog by Margot Finn, and conversation on twitter that resulted from it. Her post is written specifically in the context of Birmingham’s Modern British Studies and is a response to a working paper. However, for this medievalist there was a section that jumped out straight away.

Conventionally, ‘Studies’ movements within the Humanities and Social Sciences are marked by their interdisciplinary formation and remit.  Thus Area Studies, Cultural Studies, Eighteenth-Century Studies, Romantic Studies and Victorian Studies are all nominally (if often, in practice, unequally) conceived as operating across, between or among one or more disciplinary specialisms. …

My point here is not about semantic distinctions, but rather about substantive methodological, analytical and historiographical choices.  Choosing to focus on History as a bounded discipline opens up selected lines of interpretation, and closes down others.  …

What is needed here is not necessarily a commitment to interdisciplinary inquiry, but rather clarity as to which disciplinary, interdisciplinary or cross-disciplinary decisions have been made, and why. … Which analytical toolkits will be deployed, and which rejected, to what benefit and what cost?

Like many medievalists, I have an MA in Medieval Studies. Like slightly fewer medievalists, my PhD is also in Medieval Studies, rather than, say, English Literature or History. So I have always been interested in this question about the functions, parameters and products of working within Studies rather than a named discipline. It is also something I think about now that I’m employed by a history faculty, but am working on a project that once again is very deliberately conceived as working across disciplinary boundaries. In the first couple of years after my PhD finished I applied equally to both English literature and history departments (obviously with modified application materials for both). It’s one of the strange quirks of my career thus far that despite the heavy literary focus of much of my research, every single interview I have been offered has been within a department of history, not English. It now seems likely that my career will stay within history, since there’s still a good deal of resistance to jumping departmental ships. That suits me well enough; I’m more like to identify myself as a medievalist than as a historian or as a literary scholar (sidenote: why do we still not have a single word term for that?). I have noticed, however, that in the years I have been employed by the Faculty of History at the University of Oxford (three and counting), there’s been a gradual creep forward in my identification with historians, even if not entirely as one of them, and a gradual drift away from seeing myself as belonging to an English faculty. That’s the result of daily working practices, particularly teaching, I think. Repetition makes for identification.

This blog post, too, is drifting, so let’s sail back to the shore of Finn’s blog post. What does it mean to work within an area of “___ Studies”? What kind of work is being done? Do people working within Eighteenth Century Studies have similar research practices to those in Medieval Studies? Are these fields truly interdisciplinary, or are they (for example) history with a pinch of literary theory, a dash of sociology?

I do think that medievalists have a particular advantage in the “Studies” arena. While there are plenty of medievalists who keep very firmly within the parameters of their disciplines, the peculiarities of our source material mean that it is often far more fruitful to cross disciplines to find answers to our research questions. Of course, drawing on material that falls under another discipline’s banner is quite different from working in multiple disciplines, as I’m sure any would be confirmed by art historian who has suffered through medieval historians sticking up images on their Powerpoints as illustrations without analysis! But the possibility of interdisciplinarity seems facilitated by the way the study of the middle ages has developed across time. Nonetheless, there are still limitations on the kind of interdisciplinary work one finds medievalists doing. For instance, the average Centre for Medieval Studies incorporates literature, history, art history and sometimes archaeology. History and literature? Ideal bedfellows. History and archaeology? Those sound like subjects that can take a scientific approach to research! But: archaeology and literature seems to get a pass mostly only for our early medieval brethren, presumably because they’ve got even less material to work with than those of us researching the later period. And of course we could start subdividing disciplines and see that the expectations of what areas of research “go together” are even more circumscribed. Cultural history is seen as a more natural partner to literature than economic history, for example: which is a little to do with methodologies and a hell of a lot to do with the disciplinary expectations of those fields, it seems to me. Working within Medieval Studies may open up a range of new pathways, but it is still surprisingly difficult to walk away from those four core disciplines, or indeed to combine those disciplines in unusual ways.

In general, “Medieval Studies” does not seem to me to be identified by how it is done; rather it is an umbrella under which various disciplines may shelter. My alma mater, the Centre for Medieval Studies at York, emphasises on its website the collaborative opportunities of working there, but it does not have a particular theoretical framework for those collaborations; and while researchers have established key areas of mutual enquiry based on their particular interests, as far as I’m aware these aren’t outlined as the purpose of Medieval Studies at the Centre. So I was struck by Birmingham’s Modern British Studies, which has identified an “interpretative framework of cultures of democracy” as both a focus for its research efforts and as a way of articulating its agenda. “Studies” becomes a way of expressing the matrix encompassing specific research methodologies and priorities identified by (presumably!) the membership of the MBS group.

The specific goals of one group within one institution clearly can’t inform the working practices of people working in Medieval Studies – especially since our sources are separated by centuries! However, I think we should all take note of Finn’s questions for the MBS: What is needed here is not necessarily a commitment to interdisciplinary inquiry, but rather clarity as to which disciplinary, interdisciplinary or cross-disciplinary decisions have been made, and why. It’s easier for medievalists than for colleagues working on later periods to cherry-pick our way across disciplines: a poem here, a misericord there. We regularly breach the borders of our disciplines, but I think for all we may pretend we are riotously exploring the limits of medieval studies, like medieval marginalia we are still conforming to particular expectations. “Groundbreaking” still means tilling the earth in our own particular furrows, as a rule – but just that we’ve got a bit further with it than our predecessors. Maybe if we think more carefully about what it actually means to work across disciplines, we might really break some virgin earth.