streettalk (2007-46)

Jay RubensteinUT professor and MacArthur â"genius grantâ" winner

Street Talk

What was it like finding out you won the MacArthur Foundationâ’s grant to continue your work in the field of medieval history?

X-Files meets The Millionaire. A friend had arranged to give me a call to set up a Tuesday night dinner. As it turned out, the MacArthur Foundation had recruited her both to find my Parisian phone number and to make sure Iâ’d be at home for their call. It was a little bit eerie, realizing that people had been working behind the scenes like this, looking into my life without me having the slightest idea. But it was tremendously moving, too, finding out that so many of my colleagues had been working so hard on my behalf, reading my stuff and writing letters on my behalf, especially because, with the process being so secretive, they couldnâ’t even mention publicly what they were doing.

Half-a-million dollars is a lot of money. What are you going to spend it on?

The checks donâ’t start until January. The one thingâ"or three thingsâ"that Iâ’ve always wanted that has always been just out of my budget is a nice electric guitar and an amp and effects board to match. Iâ’ll take care of that as soon as I get back to America. Otherwise, if I play my financial cards right, I should be able to turn this grant into research trips of varying length for the next 10 years, looking into some of the offbeat historical topics that have always interested me but that might be difficult to obtain support for through more conventional funding channels.

You are currently working in Paris. What are your goals while spending the year in Europe?

Right now, I am in the latter stages of a research project. By the end of this year I hope to have completed, or nearly completed, a book about how Europeans interpreted the First Crusade (1095-1099) during the 12th century. It will involve travel in order to look at manuscripts and to visit historical sites. Thatâ’s one of the perks about being a medieval historianâ"sometimes the line between work and vacation can be a fine one.

Do you feel the medieval time period is misunderstood, or does popular culture do a good job portraying that era of history, despite the occasional dragon?

Pop culture does a bad job of portraying history generally. It amazes me how much work Hollywood in particular puts into getting physical detail rightâ"laboriously reconstructing the street plan of Rome, for exampleâ"and then just sort of throws up its hands at people, motivation, dialogue or the general spirit of an age.

What impact do events like the First Crusade have on modern society?

Direct influences would be pretty hard to demonstrate. The main impact of events like the First Crusade on todayâ’s world lies in the retelling, and it is a story that should be retold and rethought as often as possible. A Western culture with incredibly effective military technologies interjects itself into a complex foreign civilizationâ"or in its own view, arrives to liberate Jerusalemâ"leading to a long, expensive and increasingly venomous occupation. The past never repeats itself exactly, but it does give us a lot to chew on. â" Greg Wilkerson


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