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The insularity of medieval studies: literally and figuratively oceans apart

10 July, 2017

(Note: this is in part a response to recent conversations on Twitter and elsewhere concerning the Leeds IMC in general, and session 1414 in particular. I said on Twitter that I would say more elsewhere, because I find Twitter to be a difficult format. It is not so much the character limit as it is the immediacy, and the ways people begin to reply and argue before reading a thread all the way through, and the fact that it can be hard to follow an entire Twitter conversation and respond to the right tweets effectively. The immediacy, especially if one has notifications set in a particular way, can be stressful for people who need time to process thoughts (perhaps even more so for those of us who are not neuro-typical) before responding, I am trying to avoid engaging in any specific refutations or repetitions of arguments or comments made elsewhere, primarily because the conversation thus far hasn’t been entirely productive, but also because I am trying to avoid the breakdown into a “good guys / bad guys, who’s silencing whom” conversation that has already begun on some fronts. This has become more difficult since I started writing this, so who knows if I will be successful?)

I. Ethnicity, Nationality, and the History/Historians of the Early Middle Ages as I have encountered them over the past three decades

When I was writing the prospectus for my Ph.D. thesis, one of the things that struck me was how alien the scholarship I studied was. Most of the scholarship I was reading was very unfamiliar to me: my education as a medievalist had been pretty normal for someone from the US, focussed mainly on the early and high Middle Ages west of the Rhein, and this was different. The periodization was different; there was no discussion of feudalism, of the central or late Middle Ages, nor any number of other things I thought were pretty much settled. Granted, there were some things that were familiar, too — the constant references to a German tradition and ethnicity that was set in opposition to the Romans, for example. But I was used to seeing the Germans as barbarians to a Roman norm, and this was … new. Yes, we’d discussed barbarian law codes, German law codes, the codes of the Lombards, the Franks, the Burgundians, and I’d been working with the MGH for years, but hadn’t really thought of its connection to a core Germanness. I mean, yes, I knew Franks were one of the peoples normally called Germanic, or barbarian, but that meant that they were neither French nor German, in a modern sense. They were German in the sense of Tacitus, sort of, which is to say that they were German because they were people who lived in and came from the Roman Germania, which was so named because at one point, the Romans had encountered some people who called themselves Germans and hailed from that general area. But it struck me that, to the people responsible for the MGH, Charlemagne was a German. Not French, which made sense, because there was no France at that point. But German. 

As I worked deeper into the historiography, into Landesgeschichte, Verfassungsgeschichte, Prosopographie, Verwaltungsgeschichte, Rechtsgeschichte, Personen- und Ortsnamengeschichte, and tried to get my head around Grundherrschaft, Adelsherrshaft, Grundgesellschaft, and a number of other sorts of study (strangely, not Diplomatik, although I work with charters), it hit me over and over again, that there was a similar thread running through it all: when all was said and done, one of the explanations for why things were the way they were in the Early Middle Ages, at least in “Germany”, was that that’s how Germans had always done things, and you could tell a German because they did things that way. That’s an oversimplification, but for the scholarship from the 19th century, all the way through the 1970s, at least, that seemed to be pretty consistent, despite the efforts to purge at least some of the universities of faculty tied to the Nazi era after the Second World War. When I moved to Germany, I noticed some of the same issues, which I think still exist in the historiographies of many different European nations. I was, and am, hardly alone in this, and challenging these assumptions about ethnicity and nation, whether implicitly or explicitly, has become fairly well embedded in the work of Early Medieval historians working on subjects in the areas that would become Germany. I don’t think this is as much of an issue for colleagues working on the areas that became France and England, although I gather there are similar challenges for those who focus on Wales, Ireland, and Scotland. But, for example, as scholars move (gradually) to seeing charters and formulae as descriptive texts that probably reveal more about society than prescriptive leges, they are questioning the once sacrosanct pronouncements of long-dead legal scholars who believed in something called “Germanic law.” More importantly, and explicitly, scholars of Late Antiquity and the Early Middle Ages have spent much of the last forty or so years exploring questions of identity and ethnicity, rejecting the notions that there is anything inherent in those concepts in favor of seeing them as social constructs. This may not seem important to some readers — in fact, it might seem like I’m stating the obvious — but it’s important to remember that there was a time that these things were not obvious at all. It’s also important to consider the sorts of source material we have at our disposal.

Although archaeology plays an increasing role, the majority of sources are textual. Some are narrative, e.g., annals, hagiographies, the occasional history, as well as sermons, commentaries and exegesis, and letters, primarily written by clergy. Others, like charters, are non-narrative (mostly). In general (and I am intentionally generalizing, because one of the issues we deal with is that, the more research is done, the clearer it is that we can only make broad generalizations), we can say that our sources, especially the narrative ones, indicate that the people we study did identify themselves in many ways, and they identified themselves against others. Innate physical characteristics are not usually markers of identity; more often, the markers were particular forms of clothing and jewelry, hairstyles, cranial deformation, names and naming conventions — in other words, they were things that were adoptable and mutable. What we don’t have evidence for is a concept of race, at least not in the modern sense. There are also (and again, remember I am talking primarily about the eastern part of what would become the Carolingian Empire) relatively few references to non-Europeans (depending on how one sees the Byzantine Empire). If there is one thing that eventually defines the Franks against a non-European other, it is Christianity. Not surprising then, that in the Byzantine Empire and the Dar al-Islam, “Franks” eventually became a synonym for Western European Christians. That might as well be a description of the people who study them as well.

Most of the people studying the European Early Middle Ages, either insular or continental, are white. Not surprising, given that most of the historians of the European Middle Ages are white, although that seems to be changing very slowly. Even more, though, the people who work on things related to my research, the people I am talking about when I refer to my subfield, are people who work comfortably in German. Why is this important? Because most Americans of my generation, when preparing to go off to grad school and become medieval historians, prepped by honing their French and Latin, and only learnt enough German to pass a reading exam, and Old English if they wanted to be Anglo-Saxonists. There weren’t that many faculty in the US teaching “the German stuff” at that point, and they were few and far between — and not necessarily well plugged-into the established Medievalist network at that time. To give you an idea, Geary and Noble had only been teaching for just over a decade when I graduated with my BA. Similarly, it was about the same time, the mid-1970s, that a critical mass of UK scholars started to focus on Eastern Francia and the areas that would become Germany. I don’t know why the shift in the US occurred, but in the UK, it seems at least partially connected to German academics who taught in Oxbridge. In any case, there are still relatively few of us in the US, even including the people who work on the Ottonians. We are also not particularly visible, even to each other, in part because of the nature of academic jobs in the US, and the distances that make regular research seminars, etc., prohibitive. By nature of jobs, I mean that most US academics are not employed at top research universities, and in fact, are probably not employed in PhD granting universities, full stop. There are a lot of medieval historians working as generalists, and it can be difficult to break out of that isolation (but that’s any number of other posts). One of the few benefits of this set-up is that academics in the US, and I think medievalists more than most, have a lot of leeway when it comes to their research, as long as it relates somehow to their position. The US is also big, and although there is certainly gatekeeping, the old system of patronage governing who got which job by way of a phone call is gone.

This is not the case everywhere. I cannot speak to the rest of Europe, but in the UK, Germany, and Austria, at least, old hierarchies and patronage networks remain strong. Funding is different, too, as is the very nature of university education at both undergraduate and postgraduate levels. It is much narrower, and people do not tend to work far beyond that narrow training. I could not say if it is actively discouraged for those in permanent positions (and indeed, I know people who have remade themselves over a number of years, but they have not kept the same positions, and have generally had to change universities), but they are seldom medievalists, let alone people who do the sort of stuff I do. It’s a pretty conservative world, and very high-pressure. This is not to say that things have not changed — in fact, they have changed tremendously even in the last twenty years, but some of those changes are ones that came to other areas of Medieval Studies at least a decade before.

II. More Specific Thoughts on My Current Life as a Medievalist

As many of you might be aware, I recently attended the Leeds IMC. It is normally the high point of my academic year. It is a time for me to connect with others in my field, with people I might never see otherwise. Kalamazoo is the conference I attend to catch up with friends, go to panels on the profession and on subjects outside my specialty. It’s easy to do that at Kalamazoo, because despite a gradual expansion of offerings over the last decade or so, it is still a conference that is literature-heavy and late-leaning,. Until very recently, “early” at Kalamazoo meant Late Antique (which generally focused on either Roman-Barbarian relations or Early Christian themes) or Anglo-Saxon stuff (mostly monastic, when history). Panels on Carolingian Europe have been few and far between, and as at most conferences, often conflicted with each other or with other early panels. Not so at Leeds, where panels on the Early Middle Ages are central to the program. Another thing central to the program are strands organized by formal working groups, often housed in German and Austrian universities. These groups have produced years-long strands on subjects like “Texts and Identities” and “The Transformation of the Carolingian Age.” The scholars who present in these strands are more likely to publish in journals like Early Medieval Europe, Viator, and Francia — when they publish in English — than in Speculum or the Journal of Medieval History. Not that I manage to keep up with even a quarter of what I would like to: like many other medieval historians in the US (I can’t speak for the Lit people, but this does seem to be true for Art Historians, too), I teach a broad range of courses that might not include courses in my research field more than once every couple of years. So Leeds is vital to helping me focus my time and energies on the major trends in my field. 

This seems to be true for a lot of fields. I can go to Leeds and never run into colleagues who specialize in other areas of history, let alone in other disciplines. There are other panels I’d like to go to, especially when they pique my interest for teaching, or for new approaches. But honestly, my hierarchy of panels is usually this: Carolingians, Merovingians, charters, Anglo-Normans, Anglo-Saxons, Late Antique stuff, especially patristics and monasticism. Somewhere in there, I try to work in prosopography and teaching, not to mention panels where friends or their postgraduates are presenting.  It doesn’t help that I seldom get around to reading a program until just before the conference, and then try to get through the corrigenda before heading off to a panel. But honestly, I read through, and generally look for the key words of my interests, and then thumb through the index to make sure I haven’t missed anybody whose work I really want to see. Inevitably, I will have to decide between two or three interesting panels. And sometimes, my decisions are finalized for reasons of location, proximity to the next panel, and what friend I ran into at the coffee break. I don’t think that makes me too different from others — otherwise, I’d run into more people who aren’t in my own field. Although I wish we medievalists were more aware of what the trends are outside our specialties, it doesn’t surprise me that we — and I mean that about all of us — aren’t. There’s an awful lot to keep up with in our own areas and those most closely connected to them, and the demands of the job often make it hard to move beyond our own little bubbles.

From within that bubble, and having an idea of the bubble that many of the theme organizers of this year’s IMC occupied, I have to admit that the concept of Otherness as outlined in the Call For Papers seemed perfectly normal for a Leeds CFP. It was very general, written in a way that encouraged people to think about all sorts of ways of defining the other. In other words, I read it as an invitation for people in fields that might not normally think of differentiations between Self and Other to explore what those things look like in their fields. I felt the same way when I read the description of session 1414: the organizer had chosen to start with a discussion that was rooted in the discussions of ethnicity and identity that have been so important in his own area of specialization, with the intention of opening up discussion to the audience for comparison and contrast — in fact, to give people the opportunity to move beyond their bubbles. I am not saying this was the intent of either, but it is how I read both. What I did not read was a specific call to discuss theories of Otherness, nor would it have occurred to me to do so, since, for example, my source materials do not seem to support analysis through Critical Race- or Post-Colonial Theory: as I’ve indicated above, the sources tend to show that identity was fluid, adaptable, mutable, and to 21st century eyes, it’s about white people dividing themselves from other white people. Occasionally, there are glimpses — I am intrigued by a smattering of Old Testament names in a handful of 9th C charters, but there is not enough to tell us whether those are adopted names in the style of Alcuin’s circle, names of recent converts or perhaps names adopted upon entering a monastery, or names of actual Jewish people who, from the very scant evidence of a cartulary entry, seem to have had the same ability to alienate property as their neighbors. But in general, I don’t believe that people saw it that way (white people defining themselves against other white people) in the 7th or 8th or 9th century, and I don’t think modern ideas of race are valid or helpful in terms of my subjects and source material.

But, that is not true for the historiographic tradition. It makes a lot of sense to discuss the effects of that tradition on modern ideas of race and identity. After all, 18th and 19th century ideas of Romantic Nationalism are at the root of the search for “Germanness” (or Englishness, Frenchness, but I am most familiar with the German stuff, so…) I mentioned above. Some of our translations still in use go back to that period, as do many, perhaps a preponderance, of our editions and their commentaries. Thus, much of our scholarship is influenced by the very institutions that Critical Race Theory and Post-Colonial Theory militate against. But in a field where so much of our work is focused on picking apart primary sources (often less than a paragraph, sometimes only comparison of the use of a few words by one or more authors, etc.), and where deeper discussions of historiography tend to take place in the footnotes (except, for example, in papers on MS transmission, where there can be an awful lot of who argued for X date of Y recension), I am not sure where those theories should be applied. This is very different from many other areas of Medieval Studies, especially those focusing on Literature and later periods — and I gather that Lit people have their own periodizations? At any rate, where I find those approaches useful is in how they have affected the ways views of the Middle Ages have been perpetuated, and it is there where I see the most relevance to today, to my teaching, and to living in the world.

III. Medieval Scholarship in My Teaching and Daily Life

In some ways, I’m luckier than most: I live in the US, I have a fairly secure job, in that I am no longer worried about promotions, and the expectations that I teach a very broad range of courses, including modern topics that are informed by a variety of theoretical approaches, but are not taught as Theory per se, because 1) that’s not my specialty, and 2) those courses tend to be part of the General Education curriculum, and/or requirements for elementary education. I also teach in a slightly weird environment: I am a pretty red area of a swing state; my students tend to see their education as either professional training or as the equivalent of a license to a well-paying job; the students themselves range from Lost Causers to very woke performing arts people. Primarily, though, they are white and not particularly liberal. One thing they all have in common is that they are generally pretty ignorant of history and geography. Most of them find the history of anywhere other than the US pretty inaccessible, and conversations that focus on gender, race, and religion challenging at best. When I teach these students, especially when dealing with pre-modern history and beyond, I use approaches informed by a number of theories, but my goal is to use them as tools for getting through to them that race, gender, and religion are real issues, and that we can see them in the scholarship, often more than we see in sources themselves (or not — it very much depends on the sources). I want them to understand that those things connect to how they see the world now, sometimes implicitly, sometimes explicitly, again depending on topic and sources. I am lucky in that my Gen Ed area focuses on trying to gain global perspectives AND understanding cultural difference, because it helps to shield me from complaints about promoting a left-wing agenda. Those complaints exist, and in a tuition-driven, red state environment, those things do matter. (Having said that, the most recent elections in the US and abroad have been almost helpful, because basic critical thinking can be accused of being left-wing). 

Nevertheless, even in my survey classes focusing on earlier periods, I bring out what I can, and what seems appropriate to the topics, e.g., introducing the concept of Orientalism when discussing Herodotus, or how the Roman concept of virtus is related to the default to a particular sort of masculine norms. But even concepts that have been in common parlance in the discourse of gender and gender relations for close to a century, e.g. Patriarchy (which of course has existed as a term much longer, but I am thinking here of it in the super-simplified “underlying structure  against which feminism militates,” way), are things I have to break down in ways I never expected. Terms like patriarchy and privilege are almost immediately threatening to the majority of my students, and it’s a challenge to get them to engage with the concepts, especially when their previous education has emphasized gaming a series of standardized tests. So, for example, when I use the phrase ‘patriarchal society,’ many students seem to translate it as, “Ok, Prof. Medievalist is a FEMINIST, so I need to point out all the ways that the source we’re reading shows that women were oppressed.” One of the ironies of teaching World History is that students tend to want to take away the idea that historically, everybody was as awful as everyone else. For example a selection of texts showing that for millennia, “nice” women (that’s a whole lesson itself) in many parts of the world, most importantly the ones where Abrahamic religions took hold, were expected to cover their heads, and it is only in the fairly recent past that this expectation has pretty much died out in Europe and the Americas, can just as easily bolster confirmation bias about modern Western values as show that even things students associate with Islam, or with a “backward” culture are not what they thought.

It gets more complicated, but in some ways, easier, to teach texts and show how they’ve been appropriated, especially in terms of modern national identity. And, of course to show how those appropriated and re-fitted concepts, like the cultural inferiority of barbarians/savages has been used to create a world of systemetized racism, new sorts of power dynamics, and world views that privilege a “Modern/Western” values. Where it gets stickiest is trying to explain how people that all read as equally “white”, in a US context, can see themselves as entirely different peoples in comparison to each other (so, for example, the English and the Irish, or the various groups that made up the former-Yugoslavia), or the xenophobia of Brexiters towards Eastern Europeans, and simultaneously see themselves as more like each other than like the people forced to acculturate under their colonial empires. Except, of course, when they don’t.

Do my European and UK colleagues (whether other Early Medieval Historians or some other form of Medievalist) have the same goals or challenges? I don’t know. My guess is that, at least the Medieval historians generally don’t, because by the time students reach university, they have already started to narrow their fields far more than we do in the States as postgraduates. There are no Gen Eds, and Western- or World Civ surveys are almost non-existent. To a large extent, the students are white, taught by a primarily white faculty (although I think there are still variants of how one would define white — census forms are different in different countries). I have been party to any number of conversations where medieval historians on both sides of the Atlantic talk about the need to get more students of color into the pipeline, but one thing missing from that discussion is that the pipeline isn’t an equal access one. For example, how many children of immigrants in Germany are tracked into Hochschule rather than Gymnasien at age ten or eleven? I can tell you that when I lived in Bavaria, almost all of the kids in my daughters class, and grade, were first or second generation immigrants. Many of their parents did not know that that simple choice would make it very hard for them to ever enter a university. In the US and UK, wealthy (and proportionately white) people send their children to private schools and/or pay for extra tuition that will improve their chances. Students from poor backgrounds, especially first generation students, the majority of whom are people of color, don’t generally go into the Humanities: their families want a better chance at a return on investment. I’ve heard colleagues attribute this attitude to cultural background, but I think that ignores the history of accessibility to university education. At least anecdotally, I don’t see a lot of difference between first gen. white students and students of color when choosing a major. And beyond that, there is abundant evidence that our school systems privilege white students, whether through funding, districting, admissions requirements, or some other criteria.

IV.Where is this all going?

To be honest, I haven’t a fucking clue. This is longer than I wanted, and needs editing in a bad way. But for a variety of reasons, I wanted to get this out sooner rather than later. I know it won’t please everyone. It may not please anyone. I’m sure I’ve managed to fall into at least a couple of rhetorical pitfalls, even as I’ve tried to avoid going into a lot of them. I know that some people will be annoyed that I haven’t directly addressed things said on Twitter, and if you are, I apologize. This is the best way I know how, at this point in time, to say that I see a direct connection between what we do and study and the racism (especially), and also the homophobia, transphobia, ableism, and misogyny that permeates not just our society, but also the corner of it that is academia. I hope that others do, too, and I will keep trying, in my own way, to help those who don’t, see.

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. 13 July, 2017 4:33 pm

    Lots to think about here. I’ve been thinking a lot recently for, obvious reasons, about the nature of English vs British identity and how it’s playing out in the UK. What I find curious is that there is almost a taboo about engaging with the question at all. Now I’ve spent more than half my life in Canada where the nature of “Canadianness” and “$$$-Canadianness” is almost a national obsession. Two founding peoples? Many founding peoples and a bunch of settlers? Two nations or ten provinces and territories? Can one be both “Canadian” and “$$$-Canadian”? And so on. If one asked equivalent questions about the UK people would think you were either nuts or some sort of treasonable intriguer who might do something as unseemly as supporting the Indian cricket team. How much of either attitude is rooted in how history is taught I don’t know but, as you point out, few students in the UK do any history at all post GCSE and it’s most unlikely that they will have covered the early/high middle ages at all. Even the 1066 and All That school of history teaching had more about that period than the modern era’s obsession with Europe in the first half of the 20th century. Canadian history teaching at pre-university level seems to be largely focussed on heavily sanitized nation building narratives. I’d be curious to know what those kids who are streamed into Hochschle learn about German history too.

    • 18 July, 2017 11:35 am

      I think very little, and generally the sort of history that supports proper citizenship, IIRC. I don’t remember seeing anything that wasn’t incorporated into a dictation assignment. And there was a LOT of that. Did students write everything exactly as read, with proper punctuation and spelling?

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