The Future of Medieval History: An Interview with Dr. Alfred J. Andrea

“Retired” scholar Alfred J. Andrea is easily one of the most active and dynamic historians I know. As an accomplished author, editor, and Professor Emeritus of Medieval History at the University of Vermont, you might think he would take it easy in his retirement. Yet those who know Al know better. The 73-year-old former U.S. Marine still looks the part, as he regularly goes to the gym, hikes, and continues to travel the world. I doubt that there are too many thirty-year-olds who can keep up with him. As Juanita, his wife of fifty years, is often known to say during their travels, “Yet another Death March?”

Indeed, on many occasions, I have reached out to Al by email over the last seven years only to get responses from him while traveling in China, Turkey, Uzbekistan, Ethiopia, and various other countries around the globe, often in connection with either his world history research or on building projects with Habitat for Humanity. Yes, even during those travels, he always remained engaged in an extraordinary number of scholarly and pedagogical projects. Most recently, for example, he has served as President of the World History Association (2010-2012), an organization that grew significantly during his tenure, as well having edited the monumental twenty-one volume World History Encyclopedia for ABC-Clio (2010).

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With a new friend while on the track of ancient Buddhist sites in Inner Mongolia, 2009

Al’s scholarly and pedagogical career began when he graduated from Cornell with his doctorate in 1969, but he often states that many of his most important lessons were learned from his Jesuit and lay instructors at Boston College High School (class of ’59) and Boston College (class of ’63), to whom he owes an incalculable debt, and his Marine Corps drill instructors at Quantico officer candidate schools in 1960 and ‘62. He notes often that “after eight years with the Jesuits, the Marine Corps was easy.”

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Al, pictured here at the ruins of a Buddhist monastery in the Gobi in 2008, claims he is not responsible for this mess. He asks if you can you find the Buddha’s leg in this photo?

Regardless of when Al’s career began, it has been an exceptional one. He taught at the University of Vermont from 1967 until his retirement in 2001, with a year spent as Eli Lilly Visiting Professor at the University of Puget Sound in Tacoma, Washington, 1978-1979, where he learned that UPS is not just a delivery service. He then became Distinguished Scholar-in-Residence at the University of Louisville in 2002 and has taught a number of graduate seminars at Istanbul Şehir University in Istanbul and Capital Normal University in Beijing, 2004- 2013, among other foreign universities. During this time he published no less than eight academic books, scholarly translations, popular textbooks, or encyclopedias, including Volume I of The Human Record: Sources of Global History, 2 vols., which is widely used in college history and humanities courses and is currently in its eighth edition. This is all in addition to a large number of academic journal articles, invited talks, and keynote addresses.

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Yet for all of Al’s achievements, I have always been surprised by not only his extraordinary energy and scholarly output, but also his good humor and charitable spirit when working with junior scholars (like myself). He is a credit to his profession in that he commits himself to pushing the discipline of history forward. I am not alone in my praise on this point. Al’s former student at the University of Vermont, Dr. Brett Whelan, now Associate Professor of History at UNC-Chapel Hill and Director of its program in Medieval & Early Modern Studies, who is quickly gaining his own reputation as a leading U.S. medievalist, has noted:

“Twenty-five years later, I still remember taking my first global history class taught by Alfred Andrea. In the course, he introduced his students to the historian’s craft, teaching us how to interpret primary sources, while delivering masterful and compelling lectures. My decision to become a scholar owes a great deal to that experience. Little did I know then, Andrea would become an invaluable mentor and friend, helping me–like he has done for so many other young scholars–navigate the intellectual and professional demands of the historical profession.”

Similarly, medieval and military historian Dr. Daniel Franke has commented:

“In addition to being an outstanding scholar, Al Andrea is also an extraordinary mentor to younger scholars and a leading ambassador of the historical discipline. As someone who has benefited from his scholarly generosity, I have seen how he takes the time to advance the careers of junior historians. He is also tireless in making quality historical analysis accessible to popular audiences, as his work in world history and publication record demonstrates.”

I have also had the opportunity to work with Al over the past several years, initially as a contributor to his World History Encyclopedia (2010), then in the development and production of our co-edited book, Seven Myths of the Crusades, by Hackett Publishing (2015), and now I have the opportunity to serve alongside Al in the development of Hackett’s new Myths of History Series as a co-series editor.

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As a result of our working relationship, and perhaps as well from fact that we are both former Marines, I have benefitted quite a bit from Al’s friendship and advice. I asked him if he would be willing to share his perspective on the current state of historical studies (medieval history in particular), as well as his thoughts on our recent book, Seven Myths of the Crusades. He kindly agreed.

Question 1: What are your thoughts on the future of medieval history? Do you think doctoral programs devoted to medieval history are as rigorous as they were when you completed your doctorate at Cornell in 1969? What is your advice to junior scholars who hope to have a career like yours? What are the tools they most need to develop to become successful historians?

Well, in many respects I am not the person to ask because at UVM (Universitas Viridis Montis, the University of the Green Mountain, namely Vermont), we offer only the BA and MA degrees in history. But I can say from what I have observed of younger colleagues across the world that they are well trained and rigorous in their study of our medieval past, which speaks volumes for the excellence of their training. I also know, having been on many a hiring and promotion committee while at UVM, that so much more is required of them in terms of refereed and published scholarship than was of my generation that entered the profession in the 60s. Young scholars are generally expected to have several articles in hand and several significant conference papers delivered even before exiting graduate school and entering the job market, and the criteria for gaining tenure today, after serving five or six years as an assistant professor, seem to me to be equally more demanding than it was for me. I wonder if I could have met these expectations when I was young and foolish. Now I am only foolish.

Advice? Does any young medievalist really want the advice of an old hand? The field has changed so much in the past twenty years, given the availability of technology that was not even dreamed of when I was a junior scholar, that my advice might seem, and probably is in large part, irrelevant.

That aside, maybe I can offer a bit of common-sense advice that is, I think, as relevant today as it was when Leopold von Ranke was presiding over seminars at the University of Berlin. Put simply, it is: know your languages and know your sources.

No technology in the world, including translation applications, can replace a historian’s mastery of the languages that she/he needs for research because no translation can replace the scholar’s ability to perceive the subtle nuances in primary source texts that are so often lost in translation. So, minimally, this means be a competent Latinist. And, do not forget your German, and French. Otherwise, about one-half of the scholarly literature in the field is lost to you. Of course, I would also like to see all medievalists learn Greek and Italian, as well.

And then your sources. The ability to study critically our sources–both documentary and artifactual–is an absolute skill that every historian, medievalist and non-medievalist alike, must acquire and continue to refine throughout his/her career. Indeed, I argue that it is a skill that we must help all of our students acquire, the vast majority of whom will thankfully enter careers far removed from that of academic history. No teacher of any secondary-school or collegiate course in history, no matter how basic the course, should ignore the fact that critical source analysis must be the focal point of her/his teaching.

Question 2: In what ways can historians inform public opinion or even public policy? Do they still have a role? Or has that role been taken over by political scientists, sociologists, and other disciplines?

Well, I am no public pundit, preferring to stick to what I love–scholarship and classroom teaching at a university level. Put another way, I choose not to seek a public platform beyond the limited academic media in which I feel most comfortable–the classroom and the academic printed page. But , that noted, allow me to address this question as a teacher of history who also practices the craft that he teaches. In doing so, I will expand upon a point I made in response to your first set of questions.

As a teacher of history, I consider it my duty not to impart information and so-called facts to my students but to work with them in sharpening their critical skills and learning how to express their discoveries in clear and coherent ways. As students of history, they do this by sifting through often ambiguous and always incomplete evidence, which we call primary sources, and eliciting from that investigation meaningful inferences about some significant aspect of the past. This is a humbling experience because their conclusions must always be provisional. That is, they arrive at positions that are reasonable but which are always subject to revision should further evidence or deeper reflection force a shift in understanding. But it is not sufficient to just investigate a historical problem and to arrive at a point at which one can say, “I am pretty sure that my understanding of it has validity.” One must also share one’s findings, and as historians we do this in essays and narratives. As Brian Tierney, my mentor at Cornell, said so often, “History is not history unless it is well written.” That is, practitioners of history must be able to communicate clearly, correctly, and in the language of common sense. We must be able to communicate not just with other historians but with a general audience. Otherwise our work is meaningless and without value.

And here I will take a swipe at the so-called social sciences (history being, in my view, a branch of the humanities and not a social science). We historians and our students learn to work and write in a jargon-free environment. What is more, unlike most sociologists, political scientists, and the like, historians do not begin with theories and models (well, most of us do not) and do not claim to arrive at laws and principles. We are lunch-bucket laborers in the quarries of evidence, and we arrive at our insights through careful sifting and evaluation of the evidence. Both of these factors should enable the student of history (after much practice and often gnashing of teeth as essays are written and rewritten) to communicate effectively with that general audience I mentioned above.

In brief, these skills, namely a proficiency in evaluating evidence critically while simultaneously gaining a level of comfort with ambiguity and uncertainty and an ability to communicate one’s position cogently are the hallmarks of a mature individual and a competent citizen. They are skills that will serve a person whatever his or her life choice might be. One final thought: Understanding our human past in a nuanced and sophisticated manner, which is devoid of yes-and-no, black-and-white simplicities, brings with it not an ability to predict the future but, rather, a deeper capacity for understanding our present. This wisdom, and I think it is a form of wisdom, also makes for better citizens.

Question 3: Why did you agree to become a co-editor of the Seven Myths of the Crusades project? Do you anticipate that it will cause controversy in some quarters? What did you hope to achieve by the publication of the book? Who do you think most needs to read it?

I think that my lengthy response to Question 2, especially the last paragraph, imply why I am passionate about this series.

A search for our past is a common human drive. We cannot understand who we are unless we first investigate where we have been as a people and as members of the human family. (Do not forget, I am also a practicing world historian.) The past, as it has been passed down to us, however, is overlain with myths, misconceptions, and downright lies. (For example, maintaining slavery was not the core issue that drove the Southern states to secede from the Union.) As a historian, I feel it is my duty to correct those misconceptions, to explode those myths, and to put the lie to those lies insofar as I have the knowledge and skills to do so. I am reasonably comfortable editing a book on the myths that surround the crusades given that I have devoted more than a half century to issues related to these holy wars.

I fully understand that neither I nor any other historian has the final word on the matter and meaning of the past, but there is good history and bad history, and bad history is mythic history that lacks a solid basis in the evidence and/or fails to understand the complexities of the human condition. Now, many of these myths, misconceptions, and errors are harmless in and of themselves. For example, no one is injured by believing that the American colonists won their War for Independence because they fought more intelligently by firing at the hidebound British from behind trees and stone walls. Yet learning the actual, multi-layered history of this war does help one to gain a more sophisticated understanding of the dynamics of human conflict. Such knowledge, I argued above, is a form of wisdom. But then there are myths that are pernicious and dangerous. The one that comes immediately to mind is the Nazi myth that World War I was lost through a “stab in the back” at home. Need I have to explain why myths such as this need refutation at every turn?

But back to Seven Myths of the Crusades. Will some (maybe many) persons whose cherished myths are assailed by our book be offended? Probably? Will this book excite controversy? I hope so. Will it stimulate debate? Well, if it fails to do so, we have failed.

As for its intended audience, well I am naïve enough to believe that every Anglophone woman, man, and adolescent should use it.

Question 4: How is technology changing the historical profession? File sharing and communication between scholars is certainly easier than it was in 1969, but do you see any negatives? What is your view of online courses? Do you see social media as an effective means of communication between scholars and the public?

As you know, I use no social medium on the internet even though I own and use an iPhone, an iPad, and two PCs. Just call me a social-media dissenter and virtual hermit.

That said, modern electronic technology has been a boon to me. Though the agency of JSTOR and similar media, I can gain almost instant access to many journal articles and some books from around the world. Through the medium of e-mail, I communicate instantaneously (and often all too often) with colleagues around the world. With advanced word processing software (but I mourn the passing of WordPerfect), my ability to compose, edit, and revise has been multiplied many times over.

Yet, in the final analysis, nothing can replace going to the archives to study documents close up. Nothing can replace visiting the sites and walking the streets and roads of the places that are important to our studies. And, above all else, nothing replaces the academic colloquium, symposium, and conference (no, not Skype or any other electronic medium), where I can visit with colleagues, and where we can share insights and information in a relaxed atmosphere. I go not so much for the formal sessions, although I attend them and often benefit greatly from them, but for those informal moments over a meal or a drink with colleagues whom I see all too infrequently. The discipline of history is founded on the premise that we are a community of searchers united in our pursuit of the truth (however elusive the truth might be), and human contact, not virtual contact, is necessary to keep that community alive and flourishing.

All of this leads me to your last two questions. I favor the public lecture over the blog because I want human contact (after all, as I noted, history is a branch of the humanities). I love talking with students and other members of the audience before and after one of my talks, and I always insist on sharing a meal with students when I visit any institution of learning. But both the blog and the public lecture have their place, and I agree that the electronic medium is more efficient, less costly, and can instantaneously reach a global audience, whereas the lecture touches only a few and often at some substantial cost. Yet, it also has the virtue of immediacy and, if done right, give-and-take.

And, finally, online courses. Well, they have their place and value. For persons who cannot afford the tuition or time to attend a college, they offer an attractive alternative. As an aside, there is something basically wrong with the richest society on the face of the earth that makes a university education something beyond the economic reach of so many, but I digress. Back to online courses. I think they work best for courses that are focused on imparting a set body of information or “facts.” They do not work as well, I think, for courses focused on creative thinking, critical analysis, and intellectual exchange. In other words, I do not think they would work as well for my vision of what a history course should be. Also, I like talking with students informally over coffee or in my office. Without that human contact we and our students lose so much.

New Orleans.

From left to right: At a Jazz brunch during the AHA Meeting in New Orleans with Joe Eaton, Al, Juanita, Brett Whalen, and Andrew Holt

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