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Whose Medieval Studies?

Medieval studies groups say a major conference is trying to limit the number of diverse voices and topics. The debate is part of a bigger fight over whether medieval studies should remain a fundamentally European field.

July 12, 2018
 

The culture wars have returned to academe 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 this week again became the center 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 program.

“Now is an urgent, contested time in medieval studies and in the world at large,” reads an open letter of concern published Wednesday 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 color 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. (Medievalists of Color also signed BABEL’s letter.)

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

Prompting such complaints is the recently released program for the next congress, set for spring in Kalamazoo, Mich. 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, “minimizes the intellectual guidance that scholars of color 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.

‘Heart and Soul’ of Medieval Studies

Eileen Joy, a founder of BABEL and founding director of punctum books, an independent, open-access publisher, said in an interview 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 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, Va., 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 Joy and other critics of the congress’s 2019 program 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 College, called 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.

Fulton Brown, a self-declared political conservative who blogs about her experiences navigating academe, criticized 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 Kim online.

Chaganti’s statement says that she asked the congress to block someone involved in the Kim debate -- presumably Fulton Brown -- from a session she and Kim hosted on whiteness at the most recent meeting, in May. But the congress allegedly refused to exclude anyone, citing academic and intellectual freedom.

Fulton Brown, who has defended ex-Breitbart personality Milo Yiannopoulos, and who has written for Breitbart herself, is now accused of insinuating on her Facebook page that Joy is a pedophile. In fact, Joy posted what she called a “rant” about the congress on Facebook, sharing a meme of a feminist Japanese anime character.

In a discussion about Joy's comments on Fulton Brown’s page, one of Fulton Brown's friends suggested that the anime character looked like Pedobear, a internet symbol for pedophiles. Joy, who says that the bear is an example of how Fulton Brown uses tactics of far-right trolls, asked her to remove the reference, and she refused.

Fulton Brown reiterated Wednesday that she did not mention the bear herself, and said that no serious accusation was ever made against Joy. The discussion remains on her page.

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, Fulton Brown said she’s always been interested in non-European aspects of the field. One of the first courses she ever taught as an assistant professor was on medieval travel, for instance, she said.

Yet 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 here.

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. 

Paula M. Davis, university spokesperson, said the institute is aware of the letters online but that it will not respond until it formally receives them (BABEL plans to deliver the letters, with more signatures of support, next week). 

In in the interim, Davis 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.

Davis 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.”

Joy and others say that kind of review process has to change, to allow program participants to appeal to the committee directly when problems arise. BABEL's letter doesn't 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 it proposed for 2019.

Chaganti, who said she will not return to the congress within its current structure either way, did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

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