Medieval studies at heart of Trump-era culture wars

Researchers criticise lack of diversity on programme of major conference

July 16, 2018
Drummers in medieval parade

The culture wars have returned to academia with a vengeance – if they ever left. Medieval studies, an interdisciplinary field rooted in European history but whose boundaries continue to expand, has seen its share of battles and has again became the centre of conflict.

This most recent dispute involves a proposed boycott of what is considered one of the historically white, male field’s most democratic gatherings. Critics are demanding that the annual International Congress on Medieval Studies, hosted by Western Michigan University’s Medieval Institute, approve more inclusive, self-critical sessions for the 2019 meeting. They also want the congress committee to become more transparent about how it selects the annual programme.

“Now is an urgent, contested time in medieval studies and in the world at large,” reads an open letter of concern published by the Babel Working Group, a scholarly collective that supports the congress. “Responding to the field’s evolution would mean acknowledging its heightened interest in the perspectives of scholars of colour and creating space for these underrepresented voices.”

Babel’s letter echoes a similar personal statement from Seeta Chaganti, an associate professor of English at the University of California, Davis, which was shared by the Medievalists of Color group earlier this week.

“I can no longer participate in nor support the International Congress on Medieval Studies, [at] Kalamazoo,” Dr Chaganti wrote. “While performing a seemingly virtuous commitment to academic freedom, the actions of this organisation’s leadership not only silence marginalised voices but also enable racially-based harassment.”

Prompting such complaints is the recently released programme for the next congress, set to be held next spring. Dr Chaganti wrote that while the Medievalists of Color’s proposed workshop on whiteness was approved, all four of the other sessions it sought to co-sponsor were rejected.

Babel says that while it historically has been granted two sessions at the congress, one of its two 2019 proposals – on the accessibility of public medieval studies – was rejected.

Listing a series of other rejected sessions on globalism, anti-racism and anticolonialism, Babel’s letter says that such topics’ “pervasiveness among proposals implies the urgency with which they currently occupy scholars in the field, and the voices addressing these topics should reflect a commitment to genuine inclusivity and even productive dissensus”.

The treatment of Medievalists of Color, in particular, “minimises the intellectual guidance that scholars of colour would provide at the conference, when these scholars are already severely underrepresented in the field”, the letter also says.

Babel noted that some other scholarly groups had a much higher rate of accepted sessions.

Eileen Joy, a founder of Babel and founding director of Punctum Books, an independent, open-access publisher, said that medieval studies is seeing a fight for its “heart and soul”, harkened by the election of President Trump.

“That’s made some of us sensitive to these issues, more sensitive and more angry than we usually are,” she said.

To the uninitiated, Trump and medieval studies probably seem worlds apart. And in many ways, of course, they are. But Dr Joy and others in her field point out that white supremacists, many of whom support Trump, have misappropriated medieval symbols for their cause. Some of the white supremacists who marched in Charlottesville, last year carried shields recalling the Knights Templar and symbols of the Holy Roman Empire, for example.

The link between medievalism and white supremacy predates Trump and is not exclusive to the U.S. But Dr Joy and other critics of the congress’s 2019 programme say that more attention to these links – and a more inclusive approach to medieval studies – is needed now, in the current political environment.

Some of the disputes within medieval studies come down to personalities, as well. Last year Dorothy Kim, an assistant professor of medieval studies at Vassar Collegecalled on her fellow medievalists to condemn white supremacy and thereby break cultural links between the period and white supremacy. In so doing, she found herself entangled with Rachel Fulton Brown, a professor of medieval studies at the University of Chicago.

Professor Fulton Brown, a self-declared political conservative who blogs about her experiences navigating academia, criticised Dr Kim’s call as unnecessary, saying that any real study of the Middle Ages dispels its mythical links to white supremacy. Her many followers agreed, and some targeted Dr Kim online.

Asked about why medieval studies is so prone to controversy, and where she stood on whether it should be defined by time alone or also by geography, Professor Fulton Brown said that she had always been interested in non-European aspects of the field. One of the first courses that she ever taught as an assistant professor was on medieval travel, for instance, she said.

Yet Professor Fulton Brown, who studies Christianity, described her corner of medieval studies as primarily European. Attempting to approach it in some other way “is like taking the Renaissance and saying we’re going to study the Renaissance everywhere in the world”.

There are also issues of skill, she said. So scholars studying India in the medieval period would have to learn Sanskrit, or those studying the pre-Columbian Americas would presumably be engaged in fieldwork there.

Dr Joy disagreed, saying that scholars have for decades been working to broaden the concept of medieval studies. “The Middle Ages were never just Christian, European and white,” she said. “The only reason people were convinced of that is the way it was defined in the scholarship.”

Western Michigan’s Medieval Institute referred requests for comment to the university. A university spokeswoman said that the institute is aware of the letters online but that it will not respond until it formally receives them.

In in the interim, the spokeswoman said that the institute “encourages an inclusive and intellectually safe environment that welcomes diverse perspectives”. As a scholarly gathering, it has criteria for considering session proposals, she said, including the intellectual justifications offered, the balance of topics addressed, session format and apparent redundancies.

The spokeswoman also said that the institute has an anonymous review panel for the congress, to “provide a candid and forthright review while also ensuring collegiality among all scholars involved”.

Dr Joy and others say that kind of review process has to change, to allow programme participants to appeal to the committee directly when problems arise. Babel’s letter does not propose a full boycott of the congress, and notes that individual members may still attend. But it says that the group as a whole cannot continue to support the congress if things stay the same. In addition to committee transparency, it specifically requests that Medievalists of Color be afforded the opportunity to present two of the four co-sponsored sessions that it proposed for 2019.

This is an edited version of a story that first appeared on Inside Higher Ed.

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