History has a large following. British TV currently has at least five TV series on archaeology or history-related themes. BBC Radio 4 broadcasts two regular series and many individual programmes with historical content. Several popular magazines are devoted to history and archaeology, whilst a number of newspapers employ journalists who cover heritage issues. In theory, then, the public should be well-versed in research into medieval themes. But is this so?
This session will examine, on the one hand, the role of the UK media in helping to shape ideas, and on the other, the extent of medievalists’ success in putting their work before history’s laity. It asks: Are there public preconceptions about the Middle Ages? If so, can there be useful generalisation about where they come from, or how have they been shaped? In an age when medieval history has almost vanished from the school curriculum, how do members of the public find out about the past, or the means by which it is studied? What assumptions do editors or programme buyers make about audiences’ expectations or knowledge? Does the repetition of clichés reflect laziness, or timidity when faced with the challenge of providing sufficient context to make the unfamiliar accessible? Is there a corollary in the apparent fondness for revisionism based on single-issue theories (plague, climatic calamity, DNA evidence for population replacement . . .)?
For the historians’ part, how much weight is given to public explanation? What makes a good story, and what skills are needed to put it across? Should outreach be an RAE-returnable endeavour? To what extent are concepts of ‘access’ or ‘exclusion’ being determined by self-conscious minorities, as distinct from the enthusiasms or fashions of historians themselves? Do some aspects of medieval history serve a mythical or social function, regardless of what academics may do or say?
Panellists with experience of different branches of the media will be invited to reflect on such questions, followed by contributions from and debate with members of the audience. Participants will include Bill Bryson (author and journalist), Torrin Douglas (Media Correspondent, BBC), Steve Farrar (Deputy Foreign Editor, Times Higher Education Supplement), Peter Furtado (Editor, History Today), Bettany Hughes (TV historian), and Maev Kennedy (Arts and Heritage Correspondent, The Guardian).