When I recently read B*'s post about her academic fears, I started thinking about my own, and I've come to the conclusion that I'm chickenshit.
There are two big things that scare me when I sit down to work. The first: that I'm a pathetic medievalist. The second: that I have nothing to say, at all, because I don't know anything. (Okay, they sound pretty similar, but there are some differences - bear with me.)
Medievalists are distinguished from many other kinds of historians by the additional skills they need to access their material - primarily languages and paleography, though you could include things like codicology and diplomatics, too. As the (non-medievalist) professor of a friend of mine reportedly put it, "Medievalists are historians who have actual skills." (And yes, I realize that non-medievalists need these skills too, but that's what this professor said.) I've had a number of conversations with students who express interest in studying medieval history at the graduate level that go like this:
"I want to go to grad school in medieval history!"
"That's great. Do you know Latin?"
"You have to know Latin??"
I should probably add that I never considered that becoming a medievalist demonstrated any kind of uber-skilled bravura on my part; I just liked medieval history best. But I have since encountered some Americanists who look on the kinds of things that medievalists have to learn to complete their doctorates with some degree of awe.
(You want to be in awe of anyone, go pick Asianists. Especially early Asianists. You want to learn Chinese, Turkish, and Persian? Now that's balls. But I digress.)
Whenever I run into anyone who seems impressed by the fact that I became a medievalist, I can't help but cringe. Because this is one of the central pillars of my own personal imposter syndrome: I'm not a real medievalist. Because my language and paleography skills are piss-poor.
Okay, I know they're not really piss-poor. I'm actually potentially very good at languages; I was thrilled on my recent trip to boot country to have my language skills praised by one of the eminent linguists on the trip (who speaks Arabic and doubtless reads Latin and Greek as well as a variety of other European languages. I think he must have been smoking crack to say this about me, but I was nonetheless thrilled). Whenever I spend time actually studying foreign languages, I do extremely well. But given that I've never spent more than two years on any given language, I'm pretty much limited to communicating in English.
Besides that, I cheat. A lot of the stuff I look at for my research is in the vernacular, and what isn't, is written in such incredibly formulaic language that it's just a question of working out the formulae. Plus it's late, bad, medieval Latin - they didn't know the language any better than I do. (Give me a Renaissance Latin treatise and I'm sunk.)
As for the paleography - yes, I've read and transcribed a whole bunch of medieval documents. But most of them were in the vernacular (see that whole vernacular thing above). Okay, some of them weren't. But I'd learned the hand from reading the vernacular. So that wasn't really hard. Plus, it was a nice neat tidy official hand. (Okay, some were less tidy than others. But still.) And yes, the paleography got easier and easier the more documents I worked through.
But I still don't really know paleography. If I really knew paleography, I'd be able to pick up any medieval document and read it, right? And translate it at sight? Right?
So I'm being a little unrealistic. Nonetheless, in my heart of hearts I'm convinced that this is what "real" medievalists can do - read any medieval hand in any language at a moment's notice. Because after all, that's what other kinds of historians respect us for, isn't it?
The reason I bring this all up is that right now one of my research tasks is to go through some rolls of microfilmed medieval documents. And I'm chickenshit - I can't bring myself to thread the rolls into the machine, let alone sit down to try to read the things. I've looked at them before - when I was doing dissertation research; I borrowed my advisor's copy of these films. And couldn't make heads or tails of them. Yeah, that was years ago (more than I'm willing to admit), and I'd read much less medieval handwriting and far fewer medieval documents then than I have now.
I'm just plain terrified that I won't be able to read them.
So that's my fear of being an inferior medievalist.
Now, I realize that there's nothing to do but forge ahead anyway. I will certainly be an inferior medievalist if I never go on to read another medieval document. And I know that even if I can't make much sense of the documents to begin with, I can learn how to deal with them, gradually. (A friend of mine's advisor taught scrupulous paleography seminars because on her first day at the archive, when they brought the document she'd ordered to her table, she literally couldn't tell which way was up. She's since written numerous award-winning books.) Just because my need for instant gratification causes me to panic if I don't conquer something RIGHT AWAY, doesn't mean that I will never figure it out. And my hope is that by blogging this, by articulating it, I will be able to get past it.
The fear that I don't know enough and that I don't have anything to say is another slightly complicated story, so I'll leave it for another post.