More on the Matter

Mark Bauerlein weighs in:

One reason, perhaps, why identity politics seems to be having difficulties in Medieval Studies that it hasn’t had in other fields has to do with the nature of the field. My area, American Literature, easily absorbed multiculturalism decades ago. But Medieval Europe is so mono-religious and mono-racial that efforts to “de-Eurocentrize” and de-Christianize the study of it have been frustrated. The field also puts a heavy burden of linguistic and historical knowledge on its practitioners. (You can’t do Middle English if all you know is American English.) Those elements exasperate the multiculturalist impulse, making Medieval Studies a challenge to all those younger academics who’ve been trained to undo white privilege.

More at the link.

More on Medievalism

Some followup to an issue referenced in Milo’s article.

1. Rachel Fulton Brown summarizes Eileen Joy’s problems with the International Medieval Congress at Western Michigan University, and the subsequent resignation of Larry Swain, administrator of a Facebook group devoted to the Congress, over the appearance of the expression “growed like Topsy” in the description of this group.

2. Richard Utz of Georgia Tech refuses to sign a letter of support of Joy’s BABEL working group.

The organizers of the world’s largest annual meeting of medievalists, the International Congress on Medieval Studies, or ICMS, at Western Michigan University, stand accused of “a bias against” or “lack of interest in” sessions dealing with “decoloniality, globalization and anti-racism”– allegations that made their way into Inside Higher Ed, the Chronicle of Higher EducationForbes and CampusReform and were summarized in a “letter of concern” medievalists were asked to support. Members of the steering committee of the BABEL Working Group, an innovative scholarly (para-institutional) collective of colleagues in premodern studies, are the authors of the letter. This letter was preceded by a Facebook post too undignified to be quoted here.

Normally, I would sign such a letter without hesitation. It promotes goals such as diversity, inclusion and metacritical scholarship for which I have advocated throughout my academic career, as an individual and together with the adherents of the International Society for the Study of Medievalism. But I did not sign because I know more than most observers about this specific congress: I attended for the first time as a student in 1986 and, with few interruptions, as a participant since 1990; I also served as chair of the English department at Western Michigan and was an affiliate faculty of the Medieval Institute between 2007 and 2012.

I know the Western Michigan medievalists and reject the dotted line the letter of concern insinuates between the faculty of the Medieval Institute, on the one hand, and the racist neo-Nazis marching in Charlottesville, Va., on the other. That line was even more than dotted in some of the simultaneous social media posts about the issue.

3. Josh Eyler, new administrator of the Facebook group, responds at his blog.

First, [Utz’s article] positions the debate as the BABEL Group versus the world, and this is simply untrue. Yes, it was the BABEL steering committee that authored the letter, but the hundreds of additional signatures indicate that the concerns raised in the letter are shared by many. Second, the article suggests that the issue of inclusivity is limited to an inclusion of areas of study and/or viewpoints on the field. This is certainly one dynamic, and I want to address it before moving on.

To demonstrate that the ICMS really is inclusive of different fields, Utz first cites the many (and diverse) types of traditional sessions that the ICMS has offered in the past, which have been sponsored by groups like the Pearl Poet Society and Cistercian Studies. He then suggests that the ICMS has embraced more recent areas of study by saying, “The 2018 program, for example, features the term ‘race’ nine times, ‘disability’ nine times and ‘gender’ and ‘feminism’ 48 times.”…

The bigger issue, though, with respect to inclusion is one that the article barely even addresses, which is the degree to which scholars from traditionally underrepresented groups have felt included in both the ICMS and Medieval Studies. The call for ICMS to include more sessions about the state of the field is directly related to this larger point about inclusivity. It isn’t just a push for “progressivism” for its own sake but is a response to structures that have pushed people to the margins.

4. And Tom MacMaster responds to that (on the new Facebook group, Medieval Studies – State of the Field):

Hmm, I think he’s continuing to deliberately miss the point of much of the pushback to the Babylonians’ demands but accepting the frame that this is largely a dispute between, on one side, “inclusivists” who want to discuss a broader Middle Ages and white supremacists who want to preserve an all white (cisgendered, heterosexual, and male) scholarly community studying a exclusively all white Europe only Middle Ages. Unfortunately, while that might be comforting, I notice instead that the “two camps” seem to be largely made up of:

1) a group that doesn’t study the actual past but, instead, is centered in English Literature departments. And does largely reception studies of what happened in the southern part of one island (basically Beowulf, Chaucer, and friends) and is engaged in performative wokeness (well-off white liberals acting out what they envision as scenes of radical anti-racism to gain approval from other well-off white liberals and feel superior to the hoi polloi). They wish to force their activities on everyone else and demand that everyone else grant them status for being so woke online and in K’zoo sessions

and 2) a group full of people who are heavily from History and related disciplines who actually study actual medieval subjects and have been looking at these sorts of “big picture” issues for… their entire careers. Often, these are the people who read languages beyond English and its immediate forerunners and so, when told to “decolonize medieval studies” “look beyond England!” don’t apologize profusely for not having done so but return to their study of, say, medieval Iraqi texts, Mongolian expansionism, or the trans-Saharan slave trade. When they (we) are then shouted at for being wicked evil racist neo-Nazis for not thinking 100 sessions on “Medievalisms & transgendered POCs in WoW online” are the cat’s meow, a “camp” emerges.

The complaints that academic conferences covering the study of the Middle Ages are not spending enough time and energy on the study of the 20th and 21st century is the key complaint. Yes, many fantasy and historical fictions are set in the Middle Ages but no, they aren’t medieval; they are modern. And yes, some on the far right (as well as in the far left, center and everywhere else) use emblems in the middle ages.

But, among the Anglophone far right (and in these discussions, they are the only ones who count), the medieval is far less interesting than, say, the Second World War, the American Civil War, or the European Age of Imperialism and far less likely to be referenced. There are, of course, medievalist academics and others keenly interested in dressing up in costumes and carrying out violence in the name of early medieval ideals – that group of cosplayers led by an academic specializing in early medieval literature that took over Raqqa and Mosul comes to mind or the medieval references that litter the rhetoric of all sides in conflicts in the Levant (not to mention giant statues of medieval kings under construction by a party that has been accused of genocide); but none of those are of interest to this discourse. And why would they be?

The self-styled “progressives” and “anti-racists” in this discussion are only interested in Anglocentric and insular topics and seem to care little and know less about other fields.

It is all performance and it is frankly insulting to academics and anyone who isn’t an upper class white North American. It insults everyone outside the US by prioritizing the trivial and passing whims of American culture; it insults all non-whites by assuming that they need the patronizing protection of the benevolent and paternalistic (maternalistic?) woke white liberals and must be coddled and told comforting lies; it insults African-Americans by putting upper class Asians forward as the spokespeople of anti-racism and silences black voices; it insults all those concerned with truth, honesty and free and open debate by pushing a narrative devoid of evidence as the only true path.


I enjoyed the 53rd annual International Congress on Medieval Studies, held this past weekend on the campus of Western Michigan University in Kalamazoo, Michigan. I have been attending this conference since 1995; this one was my fifteenth. It was great to see old friends and make new ones. Some highlights:

• The state of Michigan, it seems, has been willing to invest in WMU – or at least the place attracts enough students that it can do good things with all the revenue generated. The dorms have been given a makeover, and there was a new one that conference attendees could stay in for some extra consideration. There is also a massive new dining building, and the pond has been extended and has a new bridge across it (although there were no swans this year, to my chagrin).

• Enjoyed a lovely dinner with my friend Kevin Harty of Lasalle University in Philadelphia. Kevin has been a major source of St. Georges for me, and I appreciate his two latest ones:

• To my great delight Michael Wood was a participant in this conference. He is most famous for his history/travel videos, which are always popular with my students (including one from the 1980s on the Trojan War). I did not know that his original training was as a historian of Anglo-Saxon England, and his presentation on Aethelflaed, Lady of the Mercians (who died 1100 years ago, in 918) was illuminating. Episodes of Wood’s series King Alfred and the Anglo-Saxons (“Alfred of Wessex,” “The Lady of the Mercians,” and “Aethelstan, the First King of England”) were shown on successive nights.

• Enjoyed the plenary session by William Chester Jordan of Princeton University, who spoke about the converts to Christianity that St. Louis made on his crusades, and their subsequent integration into French society. I did not know about this.

• Attended two sessions of the American Association of Irish Medieval Studies in preparation for my trip there later this month. I was happy to see my old friend Lee Follett from my days at the University of Toronto. 

•  Pleased to talk with Michael Gervers, who had supervised my Master’s thesis at Toronto. He has numerous scholarly interests beyond medieval England, including medieval Ethiopia, in which capacity he was at Kalamazoo this year. His work on Ethiopian rock-cut churches was noticed by the Toronto Star late last year, and Prince Ermias Sahle-Selassie Haile-Selassie has awarded him the Grand Cross of the Order of the Star of Ethiopia in recognition of his research.

• My own paper, featuring my work on St. Michael, was given in honor of the retirement of my friend D’Arcy Boulton, emeritus of Notre Dame. Again, a great session and a lovely dinner afterwards with D’Arcy and co-panelists at the Great Lakes Shipping Company, a longstanding Kalamazoo institution.

Medieval Academy

Device of the 93rd annual meeting of the Medieval Academy of America (2018), at Emory University.

The springtime meeting of the Georgia Medievalists’ Group was folded into something much grander: the 2018 annual meeting of the Medieval Academy of America, held this past weekend at Emory University (specifically, the Emory Conference Center Hotel – what you can do with Coke money!). This one was my third, after Minneapolis (2003) and Phoenix (2011). Phoenix, as I remember, was controversial – Arizona had recently passed an anti-illegal-immigrant law, and there was tremendous pressure on the Academy not to hold the meeting there. They went ahead with it anyway, largely for financial reasons, although they changed the theme, especially welcoming presentations dealing with medieval immigration and xenophobia. (My paper, on the Flemish weaving community of fourteenth-century London, which was decimated during the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381, fit with this theme very nicely.)

This conference was not quite as controversial, although it threatened to be. Unbeknownst to most people, there has been some conflict in the medievalist world of late, with some people claiming that the entire field is inherently racist, and others objecting to this identification. This conflict has taken place largely over the Internet, with all the hyperbolic self-righteousness that such interaction usually entails. To address the issue, the conference organizers arranged for a plenary session of Medievalists of Color, whose presentations were actually pretty good and did not descend to the level of an Internet comment thread, despite occasional references to “white fragility”* or the notion that “research is violence.” They also avoided calling out their opponents by name, which was a nice gesture. (As much as I would love to see a revival of medieval-style academic debate, the topic here is so sensitive that the bad consequences would surely outweigh the good, if people who don’t believe that the field of Medieval Studies needs “decolonizing” were to be given equal time.)

As ever, it was good to see old friends and to make new ones, and most of the papers were pretty good. My favorite presentation was the final plenary, by Michael McCormick, of the Initiative for the Science of the Human Past at Harvard. Apparently researchers at SoHP can now deduce the atmospheric content of the past from the ice cores of Greenland or Antarctica without even melting them, and with a much finer granularity than previously (gleaning two million data points for a period twenty thousand years, for example). Thus have they determined that human metallurgy has been putting pollutants into the air for a very long time; it’s not just a function of the Industrial Revolution. Even more interesting is a partnership between the SoHP and the Max Planck Institute in Germany called Archaeoscience of the Ancient Mediterranean, which aims to reconstruct the human settlement patterns around the Mediterranean going back to the late Bronze Age. I was amazed to learn that teeth contain evidence of one’s diet up to age twelve or so. Pulp in the molars of corpses contains evidence of disease-causing bacteria; what researchers are now able to determine is how the DNA of a disease mutated over time (specifically, the Yersinia pestis bacteria of the plagues of Justinian in AD 541-42), which allows them to plot exactly where it appeared and when, and thus to reconstruct ancient trade routes. Fascinating stuff!

Other highlights of the conference included the facsimile of the Bayeux Tapestry, on loan from the University of North Georgia (with many copies of the pamphlet explaining it, by yours truly). The conference program was the most edifying I’ve ever seen: in addition to maps, the schedule, and the list of participants, it also featured short articles on the founding of Emory, Emory’s campus architecture, noted medievalists Kemp Malone, Stephen White, Thomas Lyman, and George Cuttino, the Candler School of Theology, the Pitts Theology Library, the Carlos and High Museums, and other things of local or medieval interest. Finally, I would be remiss if I did not point out the excellent heraldry of this conference! The Medieval Academy’s coat of arms is a wonderful thing, featuring a splendid rose-en-soleil. 

The Academy’s journal is Speculum, and its device features a hand holding a mirror – a punning coat of arms, since speculum is mirror in Latin (it has a different meaning now, of course).

Both of these coats of arms, I understand, were designed by Pierre de Chaignon la Rose, who also came up with Harvard’s heraldic system in the 1930s.

Emory University itself uses a fine, simple coat of arms, featuring a crossed trumpet and torch. It is based on the university seal, which dates from 1915.

* Thesis: anyone who interprets opinions he disagrees with as “violence against bodies of color” does not get to talk about white fragility.