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.

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