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March 11, 2017

In the Face of Modern Crisis, Medieval Studies Workshop Questions Discipline’s Own Role

On Monday, March 6, at the Center for the Study of Gender & Sexuality, four Medieval Studies academics led a group discussion among nearly 80 undergraduate, graduate, and Ph.D. students on “Why and How Medieval Studies *Now*?”. Its tagline, “Teaching & Researching the Medieval Past in the Face of Present Crisis,” cued event-goers that the discussion would be focused on how to best incorporate Medieval studies (not so much a department as an assortment of professors from various fields) into Trump-era pedagogy, especially considering the so-called alt-right’s ongoing appropriation of various “Medievalist” tropes, symbols, and more.

However, the workshop was also structured to address some of the more problematic parts of studying the medieval past, such as how, even today, race and socioeconomic status frequently present barriers of entry to the realm of Medieval studies.


“Art History was born of privilege, and remains mired in it.” –Luke Fidler, Ph.D. student, Art History


The event was moderated by Daisy Delogu, professor of French literature and director of the undergraduate Medieval studies program. The opening lecture and ensuing group discussion were based around four rhetorical questions to inspire and guide conversation. The first question was, “How is present crisis (however defined) already internal to methods of teaching and researching the Middle Ages?”

The second question asked, “How is the medieval past integral to the constitution of modernity, including its calamities and turning points?”

The third question: “How can the practices of medievalist pedagogy and the organization of medievalist institutions and communities best respond to injustice and inequality?”

And the final question: “What resources does the medieval past hold for thinking anew about the now?”


“How can we practice and realize a ‘Global Middle Ages?’.… What kind of meaning can people make of it who don’t necessarily think of [the Middle Ages] as a time frame for their own past?” –Julie Orlemanski, assistant professor, Department of English Language and Literature


The questions inspired spirited debate about how to best “correct” certain problematic, Medievalist-inspired ideas in some teachers’ students. For instance, some people look to the medieval past to justify their present xenophobia or nativism. The issue for Medieval studies academics occurs when xenophobes fabricate their own ideas of the medieval past for ideological traction, incorrectly imagining Medieval Europe as a “whites only” paradise of chivalry and beauty.

Delogu defined her own personal crisis as a “Trump-crisis,” to which many in the room nodded in approval, or laughed in solidarity. She then explained that the administration’s planned budget cuts to the arts would inevitably lead to less funding for Medieval studies as a whole.

A chief concern going into the workshop related to the actions of Rachel Fulton Brown, a medieval historian and associate professor at the University. Brown recently stirred up controversy by defending conservative provocateur and former Breitbart News senior editor Milo Yiannopoulos on her personal blog. Because of her ties with Medieval studies, some commentators have associated her study of medieval piety with her Milo-esque, misogynistic views. These associations between the “alt-right” and Medieval studies seem like exactly what that the Medieval studies workshop was rallying against. These academics are strangely receiving the onus to distance themselves from internet “trolls” who, for instance, might digitally add a “Make America Great Again” hat onto a Medieval painting of a beautiful princess.


“The scholarly dangers of looking for what you are expecting [in the past] are obvious.… The archaeology of the Early Middle Ages was used to support Nationalist projects, the origins of the field culminating with its use to support Nazism in the mid-20th century.” –Lucy K. Pick, senior lecturer in the History of Christianity and interim director of the Center for the Study of Gender and Sexuality


Strangely, however, Brown was not mentioned, and it didn’t seem as though the speakers were interested in entertaining the connection. It appeared as though the workshop wanted to distance itself from Brown and therefore champion a more liberal reclamation of Medieval studies. Though the workshop was apparently organized in response to the “crisis” caused by the so-called alt-right and the election of Donald Trump, one wonders if a more pressing catalyst came from Brown’s recent surge in notoriety.

This event was sponsored by the Department of Romance Languages and Literatures, the Historians of the Book club at the Divinity School, and the Medieval Studies Workshop,a recurring gathering of Medieval studies students and faculty. More information about the workshops can be found at: https://voices.uchicago.edu/medievalstudies/

 

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