Medievalism and the Gaelic Revival

As I prep for my Irish history class next semester, I’ll share with you the paper I presented at the medievalism conference last fall at Georgia Tech. No notes, as it was a conference paper – apologies!

It is a truth generally acknowledged that nineteenth-century medievalism went hand-in-hand with nineteenth-century nationalism. The Roman Empire was universal, but European nations had their origins in the Middle Ages, and nationalists saw great value in illuminating those origins by means of buttressing their nations’ identities and distinguishing themselves from their neighbors. Such scholarly efforts as the Monumenta Germaniae Historica, the Rolls Series, or the publications of the Early English Text Society were, at least in part, aspects of this project. That political nationalism – that is, the idea that every nation deserves its own sovereign state – led to a great deal of self-righteousness, xenophobia, and violence goes without saying, although I don’t believe that our entire discipline is thereby morally tainted – I take it for granted that illuminating the past is a good thing regardless of the uses to which it is then put. That cultural nationalism – that is, the standardization and promotion of allegedly national customs – involved a great deal of invention and of effacement of minority or local traditions also goes without saying, although as Anthony Smith pointed out, nationalists were not free to make things up out of whole cloth; they had to promote things that were already familiar in one way or another with a large subsection of their respective nations.

One of the more successful nationalist movements in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries was that of Ireland. The Irish Parliamentary Party, founded in 1871, and dedicated to achieving Home Rule for Ireland, eventually succeeded in getting a Home Rule Bill passed in 1914 right as the United Kingdom entered the First World War. Suspended for the duration of the hostilities, the Bill was obviated by the Easter Rising of 1916, which eventually led to the formation of the Dail Eireann and its successful prosecution of a war of independence against the British – although at first the Irish had to settle for Dominion status within the British Empire, and for the partition of their island for the sake of a concentration of unionists in the northeast, an issue that is still with us.

Adjacent to this political movement was a cultural one known as the Gaelic revival. By the late nineteenth century the British Empire was an economic and political juggernaut, and British culture, at least to the British and to a substantial number of Irish, was self-evidently superior to any local customs. Speaking English would open doors, and allow a kid from rural Ireland opportunities that other people would never enjoy. But as everyone knows, British rule of Ireland, dating back to the twelfth century, was unjust and at times terribly oppressive, and the deliberate effacement of Irish culture for the sake of the British empire could be seen an example of “gaining the world but losing one’s soul.” Throughout the nineteenth century, therefore, numerous Irish people attempted to revive aspects of the Irish medieval past as an antidote to British influence. Chief among these was the Irish language, a form of Insular Celtic designated Goidelic that was a powerful symbol of Irishness, given that no one else spoke it. British administrations and even the Catholic Church had promoted the use of English over Irish, which itself had taken a major hit when the Irish potato famine had killed hundreds of thousands of native speakers and forced the emigration of hundreds of thousands more. Even many Irish people felt that the language was an embarrassment, a non-literate peasant’s language and a relic of the past. Nonetheless, it is a shame when a language dies out entirely, and a series of organizations throughout the nineteenth century sought to reverse this trend, starting with the Ulster Gaelic Society in 1830, followed by the Society for the Preservation of the Irish Language in 1876, the Gaelic Union in 1880, and finally the Gaelic League in 1893. Each successive organization was a little less learned and a little more activist – that is, the Ulster Gaelic Society might have been interested in publishing editions of medieval Irish texts, but the Gaelic League wanted to promote the actual use of the language on a daily basis by ordinary Irish people. Douglas Hyde, founder of the Gaelic League and a future president of Ireland, spoke of the “Necessity for De-Anglicising Ireland” for the sake of self-respect. To this end the League published the Gaelic Journal, but more importantly a weekly newspaper An Claidheamh Soluis, rendered in English as The Sword of Light, and numerous books in Irish. Its national organization and numerous branches throughout the country promoted the daily use of the language, through classes and conversation groups, and lobbied for its inclusion as a compulsory school subject and requirement for admission to the National University of Ireland. This activism bore fruit under the Irish Free State, when knowledge of Irish was made compulsory for schoolteachers and civil servants. The Irish Constitution of 1937 names Irish as the first official language of the country, and it is currently protected and promoted in various ways by the Department of Education and the Department of Culture, Heritage, and the Gaeltacht.

Unfortunately for Irish nationalists, their language project was not nearly as successful as, say, the revival of Hebrew was among Jewish immigrants to Palestine. My personal feeling is that there is something structural about the English language that impedes its speakers from easily learning other languages, which means that once English takes hold of a population it is difficult to root out – and Irish is not the most easy language to learn anyway, if you are approaching it as non-native speaker. Furthermore, Irish is complicated by the fact that it is subdivided into three major dialects, giving lots of opportunity for mutual incomprehension. Thus, of necessity, a large body of Irish medievalism took place through the medium of English. This movement went by a number of names, including the Irish Literary Revival, the Irish Literary Renaissance, or the Celtic Twilight. Medieval Irish myths were translated into English and published, such as by the Ossianic Society, founded in Dublin in 1853, whose members sought to translate Irish literature from the “Fenian period of Irish history,” “Fenians” being the “fianna,” small, semi-independent warrior bands of Irish mythology, particularly as depicted in the Fenian Cycle, where some of them are led by the legendary Finn Mac Cool. Modern authors took this material as a source for their own works, including Lady Augusta Gregory’s rendering of the myth of the hero Cuchulain, or several works of William Butler Yeats which referenced the myth, such as his poem Cuchulain’s Fight with the Sea (1892), or the play On Baile’s Strand (1904). Yeats had founded the Irish National Literary Society in 1892, to publish such works, and he, Gregory, and others founded the Irish Literary Theatre in 1899 and then the Abbey Theatre in 1904 as a vehicle for staging Irish plays by Irish writers, many of them medieval in their theme. Some Gaelic League members were suspicious of this effort for taking place through the medium of English, but there can no doubt about the national sentiment of its members.

In the medieval Ulster Cycle, the hero Cuchulain, as a boy, “went forth with his hurley and his ball.” He encountered a group of boys who “threw their three fifties of balls at him, but he caught them all against his chest. They threw their three fifties of hurleys at him, but he warded them off and took an armful on his back.” Whatever this describes, it is apparent that by the time of the Statutes of Kilkenny, imposed by the English crown in 1362 in an attempt at preventing English settlers from going native, the Irish played “horlings, with great sticks and a ball upon the ground, from which great evils and maims have arisen.” (The statutes enjoined that settlers draw bows, and throw lances, and participate in other gentlemanlike games instead.) The antiquity of hurling, and the fact that the English had tried to ban it, was irresistible to Irish nationalists, and it became the main focus of the Gaelic Athletic Association, founded in 1884 in Thurles, Co. Tipperary, by Michael Cusack and six others. Hurling was still a rural pastime in nineteenth century Ireland, played with sticks and a ball in many local variants. The GAA’s task was to standardize a set of rules for the game, so that any team anywhere could play any other team, and to organize those teams into leagues. In this way the GAA was no different from similar contemporary organizations in Britain and America, such as the National Association of Base Ball Players, the Football Association, or the Rugby Football Union. The hurling game that the GAA formalized eventually featured a fifteen-man side, a 90 by 150-meter field, two methods of scoring (in the net for three points, over the net for one), and various permissible ways of handling and passing the ball. In order to counter the popularity of the two British codes of football (that is, soccer and rugby), the GAA devised its own code, which it christened Gaelic football. It deliberately used the same size of field, number of players, and methods of scoring as hurling, and seemed to be a compromise between soccer and rugby, solving certain problems of both – it allows handling the ball by hand, forward passing, and physical contact between players, but not tackling or rucking. Most importantly, both hurling and Gaelic football were cast as ineffably Irish and would transform the young men playing them into healthy, tough, and self-respecting members of the Irish nation. These sports were certainly cast as more manly than the effete, non-contact, and very British sports of soccer and cricket.

The GAA set itself to promoting not only these putatively Irish sports, but the Irish language and Irish music and dance as well. If the Irish are known for anything, it is for their distinctive style of music, and for their bardic tradition dating back to the Middle Ages. To the twelfth-century Gerald of Wales, the Irish were “incomparably more skilled in playing musical instruments than any other people.” Their movements were quick and lively, and their melodies sweet and pleasant. “They glide so subtly from one mode to another, and the grace notes so freely sport with such abandon and bewitching charm around the steady tone of the heavier sound, that the perfection of their art seems to lie in their concealing it.” Gerald mentions the tympanum and the harp as being the two instruments of Ireland; Henry VIII chose the harp as the heraldic symbol of Ireland when he elevated the country to the status of a kingdom in 1543, in order to impose his Reformation on it. The Statutes of Kilkenny alluded to the Irish bardic tradition when it forbade “Irish agents” like “pipers, story-tellers, bablers, [and] rimers” from coming among the English settlers, on the principle that they were acting as spies. This rich and anti-English tradition was, like hurling, an important aspect of nineteenth century Irish cultural nationalism, and the Gaelic League sponsored an Irish arts festival called the Oireachtas na Gaeilge from 1897. Based on the Welsh Eisteddfod, the festival featured readings of original poetry and the performance of traditional Irish music.

Nationalists promoted other aspects of medieval Irishness, such as the distinctive Celtic interlacing patterns found in medieval manuscripts, distinctive Irish typefaces, and medieval symbols like the Irish wolfhound and the Irish round tower (which contrasts with the square Norman tower). But it is important to note that, like Renaissance humanists, Irish nationalists admired a certain period in the past, but cherry-picked what they wanted from it, and even then changed it quite a bit to suit their own situation. The sports and the language were going to rescue the Irish from the shame of “West Britainism.” Nationalists, though, did not see that it was necessary to revive medieval dress, styles of housing, or modes of production – the conveniences of the modern world allowing them the leisure to revive the Irish Middle Ages in other ways. The distinctive Irish style of horseback riding (that is, no saddle or stirrups), mentioned both by Gerald of Wales and in the Statutes of Kilkenny, also went unnoticed. Religion was off the table. Whether Catholic or Protestant, Irish nationalists saw no need to attempt to revive the Celtic Christianity that had caused so much trouble at the Synod of Whitby, or which “saved civilization” in the words of Thomas Cahill. The distinctive role of monasteries, the unique penitential system, and the novel calculation of the date of Easter were not seen as fit for revival. The Roman Catholic Church had ended these things, but here was an international body that most Irish nationalists could get behind, especially as it was not a Church that many British people belonged to. Finally, no one sought to revive any medieval Irish forms of law or government. The organization of the country into tuatha (basic geographical units containing about 5000 people), ruled by petty kings, then provincial kings, and then a high king, all governed by the Brehon Laws, was not an issue in the way that language was. The organization of the country into counties under Common Law was too useful or entrenched to be seriously challenged.

But what about political nationalism? What was the relationship between the medievalist cultural revival and the desire for independence, procured either constitutionally or violently, and ending up in the very modern forms of either Home Rule, or complete republican independence? Most cultural organizations eschewed politics, at least openly. The Gaelic League made no formal statement on how Ireland was to be governed. But the Gaelic League was also the school of revolution. Many future political leaders first met through the League, and the majority of the signatories of the declaration of the Irish Republic in 1916 were members of the League, including Patrick Pearse, who had been very active and had served as the editor of its newspaper An Claidheamh Soluis. The GAA, as well, was not ostensibly political, and yet it was infiltrated by the Irish Republican Brotherhood, a secret society dedicated to overthrowing British rule in Ireland, who recruited through it, largely on the principle that strenuous physical activity was ideal preparation for armed rebellion. During the war of independence, some GAA teams were simply undercover units of the Irish Republican Army. In both of these cases, therefore, we see an illustration of the principle that “politics is downstream from culture.”

Anyone studying Irish history will find it difficult not to sympathize with the Irish. But their oppressors were also the bringers of modernity. The question that every Irish nationalist had to grapple with was: how can we retain our self-respect while still living in the twentieth century? How can we be unmistakably Irish while maintaining some manner of relevance? The answer was the selective medievalism of the language, the literature, the sports, and the music, all of which admittedly involved a certain amount of invention, but which were otherwise compatible with modern life. The English language may have opened doors, but one’s own language is a most powerful symbol, a sentiment with which other colonized peoples of Europe, such as the Finns, Hungarians, Czechs, or Poles, would certainly agree. A language goes to the very core of one’s being, but it’s flexible enough that one can still live in the present while speaking it. Organized sporting leagues, as well, are very modern, but why not organize them around something putatively Irish, instead of British? Katherine Sims wrote that the “neo-medieval fantasies indulged in by enthusiasts are easy to caricature” but “if the return to an imagined Gaelic world represented for some an escape from the pressures of modernization, for others language revival was the means by which Ireland could enter the modern world, without losing its identity.” (Others have noticed this effect as well: Jackson Lears pointed out how turn-of-the-century American medievalism served to reinvigorate American capitalism.)

Of course, as with all other forms of nationalism, Irish nationalism, whether cultural or political, was exclusive. Nationalism excludes those who aren’t members, or at least rearranges social values so that some people who aren’t judged to be Irish enough lose out. Even if the Irish were the subaltern in their relationship to the English, plenty of Irish people did not mind speaking English, and having to learn Irish in middle age in order to keep one’s job as a civil servant could not have been fun. Furthermore, citizenship in the United Kingdom and British Empire did open doors, and to many people Irish independence must have seemed like the Brexit of its day, although trade and emigration were not drastically impaired with independence. And yet, it’s not as if no injustice existed before independence, and the pride and self-respect of self-government, and the state promotion of putatively Irish customs, were welcomed by a healthy majority of Irish people. The fact is that many academics are too willing to see only the bad side of nationalism, when in fact, like religion, it has positive as well as negative qualities. The revived Middle Ages that underlay the Irish national project may have been selective and reconstituted, but they were not in and of themselves harmful – and the publication of Irish medieval texts or works of literature based on them a great service to scholarship and humanity.

SEMA 2019

This past weekend I was a participant in the annual conference of the Southeastern Medieval Association (SEMA), held this year on the campus of UNC-Greensboro. Despite living in the southeast I had never attended before, and I was glad that I did – it was fun like Kalamazoo, albeit on a smaller scale. As ever it is with conferences, it was good to see old friends and to make new ones, and to learn new and interesting things in the sessions. The two plenary speakers, Sonja Drimmer and Holly Crocker, were especially good. 

I have reproduced, from the conference program, notice of my session, which was held at 8:30 on Saturday morning. To my surprise, this session turned out to be somewhat controversial. The main criticisms, which started Friday afternoon on Twitter (i.e., before the panel had even been held), focussed on the identities of the participants. In a general sense, it was asserted, any discussion of Charlottesville ought to have included non-white panelists, and in a specific sense, some of the people on the panel were deemed bad people. I don’t know if I was included in this august group, but Richard Utz certainly was (for his defense of the idea that medieval studies doesn’t have to be explicitly political), and presider Dan Franke even more so. I had known about Franke’s open letter to the Medieval Academy last year, but what really upset people, I discover, was his defense of Rachel Fulton Brown back in 2017 (a stance he has since modified). It’s not that this action was in any sort of bad faith, it’s just that, according to one Tweeter, Franke’s essay “went to RFB’s blog, and from there to the white supremacist web in entirely predictable ways…. [Even] if Franke didn’t INTEND to support white supremacy, the IMPACT of his writing doesn’t change… We must take care how we use our academic authority – which does matter and have impact – towards justice or towards hate.” Another person even claimed that he would not attend a conference featuring such a panel. 

What to say about all this?

First off, I think that it’s somewhat rude to criticize a panel before it has even taken place. Why not attend the panel, hear what people have to say, and respond to that? Critiques based on identity leave me cold. I am a systematizer, not an empathizer, and it might be self-serving, but I believe that this is how academia ought to be arranged. You’ve heard it said before, and I agree, that “great minds discuss ideas, average minds discuss events, and small minds discuss people.” Among its many other problems, social media has encouraged a small-minded focus on people. We academics are supposed to be able to consider ideas independent of the identities of their sponsors, and I find these ad hominem attacks especially ironic given the regular denunciations of “prestige culture” one reads on Twitter. What is all this concern about who is cool and who is uncool, if not a form of prestige culture? 

As for people’s racial identities, all I can say is that every other speaker I heard at this conference was white, in a general reflection of the demographics of the field. Even white people have occasionally interesting things to say, and when it comes to denouncing white supremacy, it especially behooves white people to do so! And demanding creative control over a panel (especially from a distance!) is presumptuous. I would say that if anyone objects to Panel 45, they are always free to organize their own panels. 

Finally, I disagree with the notion that one must at all times watch what one says, lest the wrong people take solace from it. On the contrary, one should fearlessly speak the truth as one sees it! Preemptive self-censorship (“crimestop” in Newspeak) is not a habit that an academic should get into, I should think for obvious reasons. I’m old enough to remember Ari Fleisher’s admonition that “all Americans should watch what they say,” and how strenuously (and rightly) academics objected to this. As a colleague says, every historian’s motto should be “fiat historia ruat caelum.” 

(And anyway, unlike most of his critics, Dan Franke was actually at Charlottesville, as a counter-protester!)

I’m pleased to say that panel went well. To be clear: all the panelists, and the presider, took a firm stand against white nationalism. In turn:

• Richard Utz spoke about the value of deliberation in one’s activism. Since Charlottesville, some medievalists have slowed down, while others continue to demand instant change. Outrage has an essential place, but when the same energy is directed towards every little thing, it loses its legitimacy and its efficacy.

• Ilana Krug spoke about our role as teachers, because it is on campus that white nationalists are recruiting, and we need to equip our students with the means to resist their efforts. It is important to unmask such groups as Identity Evropa (now rebranded as the American Identity Movement) and Vanguard America, to challenge their claims head-on. Insofar as these groups idealize the Middle Ages in the service of their ideology, we medievalists must passionately defend the truth about them. 

• I spoke about the importance of getting things right. If it’s important to fight against white nationalism, and the misappropriation of the Middle Ages in the service of white nationalism, then it’s worth getting our facts straight. The truth will eventually come out, and if it is revealed that we have been in the habit of making things up, it will undo whatever good we have attempted to do. (I used St. Maurice’s black eagle as an example of a widespread but false misconception that spread in the wake of Charlottesville.) 

• Laura Morreale praised the work of medievalists of color. She acknowledged that she can’t understand racism at first hand, but only as a thought experiment. Structural inequities in the field are pervasive, however: many practicing medievalists are stuck in the adjunct pool, with no hope of ever receiving tenure or even stable employment and benefits. They’re forgotten, unseen, and “less than,” and if we don’t deal with this pervasive problem, other activism won’t amount to much.

The discussion afterwards was stimulating and fruitful. The room was packed, and everyone was on their best behavior (no insults, shouting, crying, storming out, etc.). I thought that Dan Franke was especially graceful. I was glad for this reaction on Twitter:

I just left that panel, which was productive and interesting (though the composition of the panel was an obvious problem). It concluded with pleas from many that we, as medievalists, all work together to combat the actions of white supremacists…

Alas, not everyone agreed:

Only Krug discussed racism and hers was the only paper about trying to prevent fascists from radicalizing students at predominantly white institutions. Utz & Good focused on countering “extremism” from scholars of color. Morreale talked about being an independent scholar.

No, as noted above, Utz countered unfocused, promiscuous outrage from everyone, and Good countered false narratives, as being counterproductive to real antiracist work. The correct response is: thanks, that’s absolutely right! But “countering extremism” has now become the party line, apparently:

I’m sorry… countering extremism from scholars of color? And people have the audacity to say that some of these people were being genuine. Having said that, Krug sounded like she had some good points.

The original Tweeter criticized me in particular:

It is disorientating to try to stay calm (so you aren’t labeled as hysterical or angry) and respond to what feels like an alternate reality where the objectionable part of Charlottesville is Medieval POC tweeting about St Maurice.

Well, I thank you for your self-control. I appreciate it! All I can say is that I write what I know, and I never claimed that the @MedievalPOC tweet about St. Maurice was the only objectionable part of the Unite the Right rally at Charlottesville (quite apart from any questions of “whataboutism” that people frequently denounce). 

I thought that was the end of it, but on Wednesday a strange comment on the SEMA Facebook page appeared:

after the panel… while I was updating some work in the hallway, I was distressed to overhear conversations among the panelists which were in no way civil; medievalists of color were repeatedly attacked, personally, and dismissed academically, and the nastiness of these hallway conversations was severe enough that I asked one group to please move along and eventually left the area altogether. I regret that I did not confront anyone directly. Obviously, I have no right to critique anyone’s personal conversations, but these were very public and such nastiness does not improve conditions for anyone in medieval studies, and they render calls for “civility” sadly ironic.

I state that this did not happen. I assume the author is referring to me, Krug, and Franke, who were discussing the panel and the state of the field in general. But we were not loud, we were not “repeatedly and personally” attacking anyone, and no one ever asked us to “move along.” This is practically libelous! And it represents a novel development for me: if there is nothing objectionable about the panel as such, you can move to criticizing private conversations in the hall afterwards. (I suppose that in the near future, at conferences, we’ll all have to wear body cameras that record all interactions, so that we can prove that we’ve stayed on the right side of the conference code of conduct.)

Anyway, I was pleased to read a recent opinion piece in Time by Matt Gabriele and Mary Rambaran-Olm, two of the wokest medievalists in the game. They warn that we must be “on guard against false narratives about the medieval period,” since:

Fascism thrives on false narratives, particularly those that involve misleading origin myths and manipulation of terminology and symbols to reinforce hate. That makes it essential that we get the past right, especially when false narratives are used to justify so much anti-democratic politics in today’s world.

Of course, it’s not just fascism that thrives on false narratives. Furthermore, one must always be on guard against tendentiously identifying opinions that one disagrees with as “false” and opinions that one agrees with as “true.” But I am actually glad to see the appearance of these words. It wasn’t too long ago that academics avoided them, on the principle that there is no such thing as truth, only competing narratives of power, which in practice often meant that you could just make things up, as long as your heart was in the right place. But no, you can’t just make things up! We need to get them right! Selah. 

UPDATE: Dan Franke comments at his blog. He also writes, regarding his alleged abetting of white supremacy: “I don’t have any records of my AHA post being shared beyond Rachel’s blog and a few shares on Facebook. Unless I missed something, it was never shared on 4chan or 8chan. It was shared on Reddit where it got no traction. I can’t remember whether Milo shared it on his blog or not, but I have this sense that if so it didn’t gain much traction because Milo’s followers were generally not interested in the kind of conversation that Carol Symes and I were having. So I’ve never understood this line of attack, on evidentiary grounds.”

UPDATE: Another friend writes: “I would say that what was perceived as offensive (principally by those who did not attend and who did not do any work to put the panel or conference together) was the loss of control over the terms of the discussion. If one were to really answer the question, “Medieval Studies 2 years after Charlottesville: Where are we now?” the answer would be that the parameters of the discussion have been firmly delineated; that is, who is allowed talk about it, and how we are allowed to talk about it.”

Toronto Flaggery

I enjoyed a great weekend in Toronto, where I participated in the Royal Heraldry Society of Canada’s Study Day with a talk on symbols of Newfoundland (drawn in part from previous posts on this blog). It was nice of my parents to come in from Port Hope for the day (and for my cousins to put me up). 

Photo: Robert Walsh.

In keeping with one of the themes of this blog, I took some photographs of flags that I saw.

This is the interior of the “Great Hall” of Union Station, which features a display of all the provincial flags of Canada.

Flag of Toronto, flying on University Avenue. This flag dates from 1974 and was the flag of the old City of Toronto proper, i.e. one of the constituent cities of Metropolitan Toronto, which included East York, North York, Etobicoke, Scarborough, and York. With the abolition of these cities in 1998, the flag of the one part became the flag of all the parts, since the 1999 grant of arms to the amalgamated City of Toronto did not include a flag. The design references the distinctive architecture of Toronto City Hall.

Also on University Avenue, the flag of the University Club of Toronto, which was granted in 2006. 

Flying from the Ontario Legislative Building at Queen’s Park, the flags of Ontario, Canada, and Legislative Assembly, which consists of the arms of Ontario with crossed maces and an embattled bordure. This was granted back in 1992 and was somewhat controversial, if I recall correctly, since generally legislatures get badges, not full coats of arms. Plus, it seems that the actual flag granted to the Ontario Legislature was supposed to be square, not rectangular.

Enjoyed a nice dinner at the Royal Canadian Military Institute, where the flags of Canada’s three armed service commands are prominently displayed in the lobby.

Also on display at RCMI, a World War I era Canadian red ensign, complete with nine-quartered coat of arms. 

I walked by a renovated Varsity Stadium, the main sports field of the University of Toronto. Flying on Bloor Street were two U. of T. flags, one featuring the university’s coat of arms with a reversed background (nice effect!), and another athletic flag featuring a T and a maple leaf. 

Finally, a flag that I did not know about. In front of the Legislative Building we encountered a protest in favour of Azad Kashmir, with numerous examples of its flag being displayed.

Global Medievalisms

I was pleased to participate in the 34th international conference on medievalism this weekend at Georgia Tech. This conference was last held at Tech five years ago, right at the dawn of this blog. The Georgia Medievalists’ Group was a co-sponsor, and several GMG members participated, including your humble narrator (with a paper on the medievalism of the Gaelic Revival), Emory Law professor Sasha Volokh (who spoke about American rhetorical appeals to medieval law), and Reinhardt English professor Graham Johnson (who spoke about pragmatic speech in Game of Thrones).

Keith Kelly of Georgia Gwinnett College and Graham Johnson of Reinhardt University.

Medievalism is defined as the study of the “reception” of the Middle Ages in times after the Middle Ages, and it’s all around us. Medievalism-ists (for lack of a better word) uncover the medieval origins of things, and examine present-day appeals to the Middle Ages, for both noble and base reasons. I enjoyed the presentation of Ken Mondschein, who is an active member of the Historical European Martial Arts (HEMA), and who can fight while dressed in a full suit of plate armor.

HBO’s Game of Thrones television series was a very popular topic at this conference (six papers in total) – thus did I learn of the existence of a Bayeux-style Game of Thrones tapestry, currently on display at Bayeux

Some Good Advice

From Chronicle Vitae (hat tip: Richard Utz): 

How Not to Be a Jackass at Your Next Academic Conference

If you’ve spent any time at an academic conference, you know the scene: A stage full of scholars have just finished presenting their papers. As the Q&A session begins, a woman rises from the audience and prefaces her remarks by saying, in so many words, that she hadn’t been invited to appear on the panel. But here, anyway, are the highlights of her paper—and her credentials and biography, too.

Or maybe a senior professor speaks up. He barks at a graduate student on the panel, embarrassing the student by ripping his paper to pieces. Another professor steps forward and asks the panelists a series of multipart questions she already seems to know the answers to.

Perhaps a guy raises his hand to comment and quotes verbatim from Jürgen Habermas’s The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere. Or he decides to show off his French by citing Frantz Fanon’s manifesto Les Damnés de la Terre, when he could have kept it simple by using the English title, The Wretched of the Earth.

Some of these moments may be byproducts of social awkwardness; others are signs of bad manners. Some might not even bother you. But they’re all fairly common. I witnessed several of them earlier this month—including the Habermas and Fanon name-checks—at the American Historical Association meeting.

Why do so many academics risk coming off like jackasses at conference Q&A sessions? Some scholars say it’s because those sessions are more about pageantry than conversation: Showing other scholars how much you know is often more important than actually listening and learning.

There’s another reason, too: Developing good conference manners—and social skills in general—just isn’t part of graduate school training. I gathered a list of behaviors, both comical and aggravating, from a few dozen academics. As I read through them, I wondered: What would Emily Post, the famous etiquette author, do?

I decided to call up someone who would know. Emily Post’s great-great granddaughter, Anna Post, keeps the flame alive, conducting business-etiquette seminars across the country as an etiquette guru at the Emily Post Institute. She carved out some time to chat with me about academic disorders and how to cure them. 

Click the link to read some excellent advice

The Academic Sandbox

The always-entertaining Charlotte Allen weighs in on the recent kerfuffles in medieval studies, in First Things. A choce excerpt:

Until recently, academic medieval studies seemed to be immune from the mix of identity politics, impenetrable postmodernist jargon, and social-­justice witch-hunting that has taken over most of the humanities and social sciences. It’s not that most professors of medieval history and literature aren’t political liberals. It’s that medieval studies used to be so technically and linguistically demanding (deciphering Latin manuscripts, for example) that scholars didn’t need to worry about being called out for not being sufficiently alert to critical race theory and other progressive obsessions. As one medievalist professor, who requested anonymity, told me in an email: “People who do Near Eastern languages, Classics, Slavic languages, Asian languages, Byzantine history and, until recently, Medieval history have been protected from the worst of the SJW ­idiocy, because SJW idiots aren’t smart enough to get a foothold in those fields.”

All of this is changing fast. Perhaps because of pressure from university administrators to shorten degree programs to churn out doctorates, perhaps because secondary and even post-secondary education these days fails to train would-be medievalists in the rudimentary skills they need (what public high school teaches Latin?), standards have fallen, especially with respect to languages, but also with respect to technical skills such as paleography, which ­graduate students even at elite universities often must learn on their own, if at all. The standards have fallen fastest in university English departments, where graduate programs function in part as catchment areas for warm bodies to teach mandatory freshman composition for rock-bottom pay. It was no accident that the majority of the medievalist academics who gathered at George Washington in October 2017 to censure Rachel Fulton Brown hailed from postmodernism-soaked English departments.

The field of medieval history, in contrast to ­medieval literature, has been somewhat resistant to this trend, partly because historians still generally believe that they can shed light on what actually happened in the past, not just on the socially constructed narratives that literary theorists might find. Nonetheless, postmodernist politicization has made inroads even into history departments. Progressive academics have picked apart the field of medieval studies itself as a social construct: a narrative invention by self-glorifying scholars of European descent.

“How serious is this whole thing?” a colleague asks. In honesty I have to reply that, given the numbers of people involved, it’s not all that serious. Medievalists might not be “monkish” but, from what I can gather, most of them don’t even know about the Brown-Kim feud, and cannot muster the interest to care when they are apprised of it. It seems to be one of those things that becomes all-consuming if you’re a social media junkie. People with actual lives and real research agendas tend to have different priorities.

Alas, you might not be interested in war, but war is interested in you. So-called “woke” medievalists, the “SJWs” of the discipline, while numbering perhaps 100 at most, are influential beyond their numbers, for the reasons that Joseph Epstein noticed. Some of them have infiltrated the higher reaches of the Medieval Academy, where they bend it to their will by instituting a risible Professional Behavior Policy, sending around an email asking the membership to “thoughtfully consider” a statement by the Medievalists of Color essentially accusing the entire field of being racist, or giving free lifetime membership to Dorothy Kim on account of the alleged harassment she received from fans of Milo Yiannopoulous. And if no one pushes back against this sort of thing, it will eventually become the new normal, and given the online behavior of its proponents they will end up ruthlessly excluding anyone holding contrary views from the Medieval Academy. This is not an exaggeration – they truly believe they are in an apocalyptic struggle against the forces of evil, and anything done to further their cause is morally justified. This is not even a conflict between the “left” and the “right,” it is between emotionally secure adults who have an expansive attitude toward other opinions, knowing that they themselves might not have all the answers, and people who believe, e.g., that refusing to ban Rachel Brown from attending a session at the Kalamazoo conference “allowed a false conception of academic freedom to undermine true academic freedom” (cf. Joseph Stalin on “true freedom“), or who say things like this:

Georgia Regional PAT Conference 2019

On Friday, March 30, Reinhardt students Jessie Fanczi and Grant Ashton traveled to the University of West Georgia in Carrollton to participate in this year’s Georgia Regional Phi Alpha Theta Conference. There were four concurrent sessions of three panels each over the course of the day, and the overall quality of the papers was very good. Jessie presented a paper on Stanley Porter, one of the pioneers of racial integration at Reinhardt College in the late-1960s, while Grant gave a paper on the Gaelic Revival of late nineteenth century Ireland.

Grant Ashton and Jessie Fanczi, UWG, March 30, 2019.

There was no keynote speaker for this conference, but a poster session, a novelty for me. I especially liked one by Lesley Jones of the University of North Georgia on women and the occult in the nineteenth century, complete with Edward Gorey-style original illustrations:

Other interesting papers I heard addressed the Astor Place Riot, the German Student Movement of 1968, NBA star Allen Iverson as a hip-hop icon, US Senator and Supreme Court Justice Hugo Black, Presidents James Madison and John Adams, and Baptist minister John Leland. A session that I chaired featured papers on Catherine the Great, the policy of “salutary neglect” toward the American Colonies in the eighteenth century, and the Spanish Civil War as represented in the Daily Worker, the official organ of the Communist Party of Great Britain.

I repeat that the quality of these papers was very high. The swag was good, too! It was kind of the nursing school to lend us their beautiful new building for this conference. Thanks to Colleen Vasconcellos and Stephanie Challifoux of UWG’s History Department for organizing such a great event.

Code of Behavior

The Medieval Academy of America, following a survey of the membership taken last year, released a Professional Conduct Policy on January 2. I quite liked this coverage of it, on the College Fix. Excerpt:

According to the document, it is meant primarily for the protection of “those in vulnerable positions” from other medievalist members, who could potentially “assert a relationship of power” over them.

What actions does the policy define as troublesome? While it is highly specific as to what constitutes sexual harassment, all of the other potential violations in the categories of “harassment,” “microaggressions,” “bullying” and “social media” are very general.

“Harassment includes demeaning, humiliating, and threatening actions, comments, jokes, other forms of verbal and/or written communication, body language, and physical contact,” the policy states.

This generality has been taken by some to be problematic; despite the academy saying it “will not take breaches of professional or ethical behavior lightly,” what exactly constitutes a breach in its judgement appears to be lightly outlined, if at all.

Much of what is written about is based upon an individual’s personal judgement or feelings. For example, the academy strictly prohibits harassment in the form of “demeaning” or “humiliating … body language,” but does not state what types of online actions are considered violations of either. It also says that bullying “may include refusal to recognize … personal constructions of work,” which, as the word “personal” implies, differs from one professional to another.

Under the category of “microaggressions,” instead of detailing in the policy what types of behavior are restricted, it links to a Tumblr blog titled “Microaggressions.” The blog’s last post was from over a year ago, and in the FAQ section in response to the question “What makes you an authority on microaggressions,” its authors admit that they “aren’t.” They do, however, define the term as “the subtle ways in which body and verbal language convey oppressive ideology about power or privilege against marginalized identities.”

Rachel Fulton Brown comments that:

If feelings are going to be the way in which we determine whether or not people belong in the conversation, then… it’s a change in the character of the professional body, from one of mutual interest to social belonging, and that will change its effectiveness.

For my part, I was amused by this nugget from the policy:

Harassment is a form of discrimination and misconduct by which the harasser asserts a relationship of power over the harassed through behavior that causes feelings of fear or distress.

Apparently every single meeting with one of my grad-school professors was “harassment.” 🙂


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.

Georgia Regional Phi Alpha Theta Conference, 2018

The 2018 Georgia Regional Phi Alpha Theta Conference took place on Saturday, April 7 at the Georgia Institute of Technology. Carla Gerona and Daniel Amsterdam were the main organizers. Thirty students representing ten Georgia universities presented papers over the course of the day. I was impressed by the overall quality of these presentations.

Reinhardt was represented by the talented Madeline Gray, shown here seated between Jake Schenberg (UGA) and Carolyn Wood (Georgia State), participants in a session on local Georgia history. Mr. Schenberg spoke about the people displaced by the construction of the Buford Dam, which created Lake Lanier, while Ms. Wood addressed the integration of the Atlanta Police Department, which was made difficult by all the Klansmen who were members of it. (Something I did not know about: the Columbians, “the nation’s first neo-Nazi political organization,” formed in the summer of 1946.)

Ms. Gray presented her paper on the racial integration of Reinhardt College in the 1960s. Written as part of Ken Wheeler’s Town and Gown IDS course last fall, it featured interviews with some of the still-living participants, and primary source research in the Reinhardt newspaper, yearbooks, and trustees’ minutes. President James Burgess deserves much of the credit for ensuring that this process ran as smoothly as possible.

I’m pleased to say that Ms. Gray’s paper won an honorable mention award at the closing ceremonies! Well done! (The photo shows her between Profs. Amsterdam and Gerona.)

The keynote was a very interesting presentation by Douglas Flamming, professor of history at Georgia Tech. Entitled “Red, ‘Pink Gold,’ and Blue: Southern Shrimpers and Soviet Shrimpers in the Gulf of Mexico, 1945-1975,” it took as its starting point an incident that occurred in March of 1963, some five months after the Cuban Missile Crisis. The shrimper Ala, out of Fort Myers, Florida, had been fishing for several day on the Tortugas Banks off Key West when it lost power and started drifting eastwards through the Straits of Florida – a little too close to Cuba for Cuban comfort, apparently, which sent three Soviet MiG fighter jets to intercept it, one of which actually fired on it. (The Ala’s difficulties may have been deliberate, as the Americans had just installed a radar station on Key West whose signal was impossible to fly under, and they may have wanted to test it – the MiGs were chased off in under five minutes.) This incident served to open up an investigation into the application of technology developed during World War II (e.g. diesel engines and sonar) to shrimping, which entered a golden age in the mid-twentieth century (this is the era when breaded shrimp appeared in TV dinners, and the shrimp cocktail was an emblem of sophistication). The Soviets, for their part, in a search for more protein to feed their people, sent out massive fishing expeditions, organized like a naval battle fleet and complete with processing factories on the flagship. (As you can imagine, fishing in international waters produced a classic “tragedy of the commons” situation, and Gulf shrimping is largely moribund these days – the shrimp that most Americans consume today is farmed in southeast Asia.)

I had been to Georgia Tech before, but hadn’t really had the opportunity to see the campus. The parking lot was quite a ways from the Hall Building, so I was interested to discover such details as the Tech Walkway, the Tech Green…

the Kessler Campanile (reproduced on the logo above)…

and this engineering-themed sculpture in Tech colors.