Medieval History Goes to War With Itself

Historians in the News
tags: academia, medieval history, White Nationalism

Thumb through the program for the 54th International Congress on Medieval Studies and you’ll spot the usual suspects: Beowulf, King Arthur, Sir Gawain, the Wife of Bath, along with a courtyard full of knights, dragons, saints, peasants, witches, wizards, and fools. The event itself features vendors hawking drinking vessels fashioned from bull’s horns and biscotti baked by Trappist monks. The Mead and Ale Tasting happy hour, which boasts a range of sickly sweet and bracingly bitter libations with names like Spiced Welsh Braggot and Raspberry Melomel, is very well-attended.

And then there are the sessions, more than 500 of them, including a roundtable on “The Expressive Qualities of Hair in the Middle Ages,” a gothic calligraphy workshop, and a presentation promising “Proof of the Existence of Giants in Medieval England.” To be clear, this is not a Renaissance faire or some kind of highbrow cosplay convention; there are no giant turkey legs available and the guys wearing hooded robes with rope belts are actual monks. It is the largest annual gathering of medievalists, and one of the few conferences where someone might break into conversational Old Norse or while away an afternoon discussing siegecraft during the Hundred Years’ War.

Lately, medievalists have been warring among themselves. Hanging over this spring’s conference were complaints from the group Medievalists of Color that several sessions on race proposed by its members and others were turned down by the meeting’s organizers. Among the rejected proposals were “How to Be a White Ally in Medieval Studies 101,” “Decentering Privilege,” and “Toxic Medievalisms: Misuses and Abuses of the Medieval in Contemporary Culture.” A letter from the Babel Working Group, a scholarly collective founded in 2004, argued that there “seems to be a bias against, or lack of interest in, sessions that are self-critical of medieval studies, or focused on the politics of the field in the present, especially relative to issues of decoloniality, globalization, and anti-racism.”

While squabbles over session approval are not uncommon at academic conferences, the conflict in medieval studies feels like a struggle for the future of the field, one that sometimes pits older scholars against a younger generation, and those with a traditional approach against those with a more activist bent. And it’s turned personal at times, even nasty and disturbing, with medievalists lobbing insults over Twitter, squaring off in blog posts, and calling for colleagues to be more or less excommunicated from the discipline. 

Read entire article at The Chronicle of Higher Education

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