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Medievalists should care about this

19 July, 2017

I take my title here from this tweet by Joshua R Eyler, posted earlier this morning. The tweet is part of a longer conversation that has been going on since this year’s International Medieval Congress at Leeds, UK. This morning, @Punctum_Books posted a thread on Twitter that encouraged meaningful conversation, and also noted that many voices were missing, including those of people involved in organizing Leeds, and other medievalists normally on Twitter. Part of the post calls for more “good, intellectual histories of the discipline.” In partial response, I posted my own thread of comments, which has so far drawn a couple of thoughtful comments, and, ultimately, Josh’s comment. That comment raises a question for me, and not just because I have a really hard time following twitter threads, especially when many people are being @-ed, and lots of people begin their comments with, “You are/You said/Are you…” Which “you”? But back to my question.

Among all the points raised in the post-Leeds Twitter storms, which is the “this” that “medievalists” should care about? Some? all?

I take it to mean something along the lines of, “There are real problems in Medieval Studies. The scholars are overwhelmingly of solely European descent (in other words, “white”, but that’s something I will unpack later, in this post or a subsequent one — there will be a lot of unpacking), cis-het, and at least outwardly able (again, this needs unpacking, and the hierarchy of disabilities, especially including invisible, non-neurotypical disabilities, is its own post(s)). At the same time, the scholarship is predominantly Eurocentric, and most of the scholarly traditions have erased and/or ignored the existence of non-white people in the sources, reinforcing an image of a white Middle Ages. Moreover, the effects of that image, and the scholarly traditions that created it, reach far beyond scholarship: they have been perpetuated in popular and political culture in ways that they have been actively coopted by racist ultra-nationalist, Alt-Right groups, and passively incorporated into the structural racism that exists in the Modern West*.”

If that’s what “this” is, then it’s a no-brainer, in my opinion. The most important parts of that statement are simple to demonstrate, because the evidence is right in front of us. It’s a statement that focuses on the structure of the field: whatever sort of medieval stuff we do, the statement applies. More importantly, I think it is recognized far more widely than the post-Leeds conversation on Twitter would suggest. But, as @Punctum_Books said, many voices are not engaging on Twitter and as someone else pointed out in an earlier series of tweets, those conversations are also not happening in other venues where they might be seen. Nevertheless, they happen, and in some cases, it’s probably a good thing that they aren’t happening on Twitter, because sometimes they include explanations of how racism is so structurally embedded that it’s not just a matter of, “well, if a POC wants to be a medievalist, then they should study it — there’s nothing to stop them.” Leeds is an international conference. If a person is from a country that has very little ethnic diversity in the first place, they are less likely to notice a lack of diversity amongst their colleagues. That’s not a defense — I’m just saying that we need to realize the fact that, even for such an important issue, we aren’t all starting at the same point.

We are also not starting from the same place. On Twitter, I sketched a differentiation between “Medieval Studies” and “medieval studies.” I admit that it has problems, but until I come up with something better (or someone else suggests it), that’s what I am going to use. As I see it, based on my own experiences as well as conversations with a wide range of medievalists from many countries, one of the biggest barriers to working effectively on the “this” that we should care about is that we don’t all mean the same thing by “Medieval Studies/medieval studies.” For example, there are people who study medieval history, medieval art history, medieval art history, etc., who borrow from and whose work is informed by work in other disciplines, but they think of themselves primarily as specialists in medieval discipline X. And then, for example, historians might divide themselves into Carolingian, Anglo-Norman, Early, Late, whatever — and still see themselves as primarily medieval historians. For them, “medieval studies” is a catch-all term that is used for anybody who does something medieval: it’s a way of grouping very unlike things that have a couple basic things in common — mostly similar geography and timelines. So “medieval studies” is not a field — it’s a nod to the fact that medievalists do different things, but are still medievalists. One of those different things is “Medieval Studies.” Another is “Medievalism,”

In this sense, “Medieval Studies” is something that you can get a degree in. There is an implication that it is interdisciplinary, although in my experience, that varies widely, depending on how one defines the disciplines involved. Also in my experience, and I gather from historian and archaeologist colleagues that I am in no means alone, “Medieval Studies” people at the Ph.D. level are most often rooted in literature training. They also seem to be more often from the USA and then other Anglophone countries, rather than from Continental Europe. One of the crucial differences here is that, for the people who lean towards “medieval studies”, it isn’t necessary to think about what we mean by “medieval” or “the Middle Ages”: they are implicitly European.

<cue hair-pulling and screams of, “BUT THAT’S THE PROBLEM!!!>

I get that. But bear with me, because communication doesn’t happen without trying to see other viewpoints, and communication is not happening. For the “medieval studies”, “I am a medievalist” scholar, the definition is akin to “Americanist”, “Early Modernist,” etc. [And yes, those terms are also extremely problematic, but that’s also another bunch of posts.] Hell, for many medievalists, the term also conveys things like, “no, actually, I had to learn all sorts of languages and specialized skills to do my work, and it’s not especially esoteric — tell me again how you specialize in a period of less than a hundred years in just one country?”  I understand this mind-set. I especially understand it in terms of how many academic departments have historically seen and judged the work of scholars who choose to go beyond the scope of their set academic duties by, for example, discussing the use and abuse of the Middle Ages in film or contemporary fiction, or by engaging in “political” speech.  That seems to be changing, but those changes are not happening at the same pace everywhere, or in every discipline where we might find medievalists. Readings that might be essential for “Medieval Studies” (and especially for people working in Medievalism) cannot be assumed to be basic readings for medievalists, because not everybody who is a medievalist considers their field to be “Medieval Studies.” Doing so pits colleagues against each other in a way that can only read as “why is this person in another field, who doesn’t have expertise in what I have been studying for decades, telling me that I have been doing it wrong for decades?” This is especially true, I think, for those who have been challenging misappropriations and misrepresentations of the Middle Ages for years. It is hard to do so without running headlong into a big wall of 18th and 19th Century invention that is not borne out by recent scholarship. Even the most hidebound traditionalist will have to deal with a lot of cognitive dissonance to ignore that. If we are good at our jobs, and I think most of us are, then maybe holes in our reading lists (which might not actually be “our” reading lists — yet!), or being able to discuss the same concepts in ways that aren’t immediately clear because they don’t reflect the language of our colleagues (perhaps in “Medieval Studies”?) specialties are not the best measure of whether a colleague is engaged in the “this” that medievalists should care about.


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