In September of 2009, I made a birthday vow to myself that I would escape from reality, if only for a few weeks, to find the real art and medieval history that I’ve been scrounging for in my ever-expanding pile of library books and graduate school assignments. The result was a partially-solo trek around the Mediterranean last summer, documented in my 32 Adventures blog, which is still archived here.
That September I settled back into the familiar, albeit with tiny souvenirs punctuating the drudgery of coursework and part-time jobs—a pen from the Aqua store in Dubrovnik one day, earrings from Florence’s San Lorenzo market on another. I’ve been making an effort to view my chosen field from the outside, from the perspective of people who don’t live among the masterpieces or study them for a living.
Sure, academics love to believe that our chosen fields are important, that a humanistic love of learning makes the world a better place. But is that all? Is it fair to expect anyone outside the field to find the middle ages and Byzantium relevant or are we just beating a dead empire, so to speak? Armed with a fading tan, good stories, a shoebox full of lomographic photos, and pebbles from the Adriatic, the Mediterranean, and Mount Etna, I’m feeling more grounded and wondering how to comprehend ‘real’ medieval art and history in a way that is relevant to everyday life.
Over the summer, and on many occasions since, I have found myself discussing the middle ages or Byzantium to people outside the field. From sci-fi novels to Roman aqueducts, evidence of a medieval legacy is in the ether. Clearly, the allure of this time period is more than a bleep on our cultural radar, but it is often far outside the comfort zone of the general public. How and when are the middle ages relevant to us now? How should they be approached, taught, pondered? Is there anything for the general public to gain from this knowledge as we trudge through the rat race? The next year’s incarnation of musings and meanderings was christened 33 Conversations, a collection of dialogues and diatribes about the middle ages and its art. This year, I’ve once again tweaked the blog’s moniker in order to embrace my belief that art and the middle ages must be encountered with all the senses. (See my post entitled “A Manifesto of Sorts” for my philosophy on that). Welcome to 34 Encounters.