Teaching the Pre-Modern Post-Inauguration

In December, I curated a post entitled “Teaching the Pre-Modern Post-Election.” After reading that post, more scholars (including from other countries) wanted to share their thoughts as well. This is, thus, the sequel.

Before continuing, however, I would like to list the statements of medieval (and related) organizations about the Immigration Executive Order:

Kisha


Karen M. Cook, University of Hartford

In the first round of posts on Teaching the Pre-Modern Post-Election, the authors offered a wealth of personal reflections on and suggestions for understanding the significance of the medieval (however broadly writ) in today’s society. In my field of musicology, as well as in all other areas of the humanities, such significance is complex, having as much to do with current stereotypes of the medieval as with traditional narratives, historical documentation, and so forth.

My spring seminar, which I began to plan months ago during the contentious election process, is on medievalism in contemporary Western culture. While on its face I originally intended for the class to investigate a variety of modern cultural receptions of medieval ideas, ranging from Harry Potter and medievalist video games to Gothic novels and the Early Music Movement, I also felt then, and feel even more strongly now, that the topic was timely and necessary, given the frequency with which the terms “medieval” and “Dark Ages” (and musical terms such as “troubadour”) are used in current political and social discourse. As others have also stated, I have no intention of shaping my students’ political beliefs, insofar as that means forging them in the image of my own. But the “medieval” is part of our current vernacular, and it acts as a bit of a catch-all, a blank page onto which we can, and do, inscribe all of our hopes and fears, dreams and nightmares, ideals and prejudices and notions of identity. By probing how these terms are used in today’s society, we can better understand our conceptions of both past and present.

The purpose of this class is not to point out where medievalism goes wrong; it’s not (solely) a class on fact-checking. Rather, it’s on understanding how stereotypes and preconceived notions of the past come to be, what they mean to whom in past and present societies, and how we can critically identify and engage with the multiple levels of meaning that are engendered in them, especially when those meanings are (in my personal opinion, at least) incorrect, disturbing, or offensive. Musically speaking, this can be difficult; music and sound are auditory and thus ephemeral, and in many cases musical medievalisms aren’t so much about the music itself as they are about musical heritage or associations with non-musical medievalisms. By tracing both the sound and the story, so to speak, my students are learning far more than how musical tropes developed—they are learning that at all times and in all places, people have relied on reconfigured versions of the past as a way to shape, and reshape, themselves. By taking a critical eye to why and how this has occurred before, they are already starting to think more carefully about how this phenomenon continues now, which will hopefully lead to a continued critical engagement with all forms of modern media.

Christopher Roman, Kent State University

I teach Dante’s Inferno often. I import medieval literature into my sophomore-level research writing course, a course all university students need to take. It is a course that revolves around concepts of polis—we often spend a good portion of the course weighing what makes good and bad government. If there is an author who is good at suggesting what makes a government go bad, it’s Dante. Dante the exile critiques power gone wrong, power that abuses, power that squanders, power that squashes the very people it should help. Dante casts aspersions on those powers that allow the worst to thrive.  Dante is not a hater; all of this critique comes out of a place of love as he recognizes the potential of good governance.

In the face of Trump-era “alternate facts” and an administration that immediately purges references to Native Americans, the disabled, the LGBTQ community, and global climate change from its official website, Dante, in turn, encourages students to critique, to speak out, to root out injustice in order to reveal its rickety platforms. As Dante smugly accuses his fellow Florentines, “Count yourself happy, then, for you have reason to,/since you’re rich, at peace, and wise” (Purg. ­VI, 136-37). And that’s the sad fact—we are rich in wealth, so poor in social justice. The thieves of Florence now pillage its wonders.

Many of us now find ourselves in a (mental) state of exile. Despite Dante’s central place in the white, Western canon his poem and political positioning has inspired a long tradition of critiquing power from those in the oppressed corners of America. As Dennis Looney writes, Dante “becomes a model for a host of African American authors who see themselves in exile too and who use him to shed light on their own experience of this fate.”[1] Looney traces how each generation of black authors adapts Dante to speak to a political moment: frontier, abolition, Civil Rights, and racism. Looney concludes that “the Dante they value is at times unruly, in various ways radical, and to varying degrees political, and he helps them make a case against injustice as he accompanies them on their journey toward freedom and civil rights over the course of the history of the United States.”[2]

As a companion to Dante’s Inferno, I often teach Gloria Naylor’s masterwork Linden Hills (1985), a re-telling of Inferno that critiques the social mobility and middle-class hollowness of a suburban black community eponymously named. Two poets, Willie and Lester, travel to the bottom of Linden Hills becoming entangled in the lives of various people as they work odd jobs for the residents. The structure of the narrative parallels the rings of Dante’s Hell. It is when Willie and Lester hit the bottom circle of Linden Hills that Willie takes a moment to size-up the neighborhood:

If anything was the problem with Linden Hills, it was that nothing seemed to be what it really was. Everything was turned upside down in that place. And he was tired of thinking about it, tired of trying to put those pieces together as if it were some big great puzzle whose solution was just beyond his fingers.[3]

But this all sounds familiar, right? Everything suddenly seems upside down in our government. An inauguration cake plagiarizes from the previous administration, but is mostly made of Styrofoam. The White House Press Secretary declares that this was the largest inauguration crowd ever: “Period.” Pictures show the contrary. And, (well, not finally, I’m sure this is only the beginning) the administration appeals to “alternate facts” when questioned on the veracity of inauguration crowd numbers.

Despite the frustrations of Hell, Willie doesn’t give up. See, Willie has 665 poems in his head. Through his journey down, no new poems have come. He had never written any of these poems down. But, he realizes “his poems only made sense in his ears and mouth. His fingers, eyes, and nose. Something about Linden Hills was blocking that and to unstop it, he would have to put Linden Hills into a poem.”[4] Is it telling that there was no poem at the inauguration? This absence of poets and poetry underscores how these forms speak to power in ways that power cannot control.

In one of the early cantos of the Purgatorio, Dante takes a moment to lament the current state of Italy. He writes:

Ah, Italy enslaved, abode of misery,
pilotless ship in a fierce tempest tossed,
no mistress over provinces but a harlot!

How eager was that noble soul,
only at the sweet name of his city,
to welcome there his fellow citizen!

Now your inhabitants are never free from war,
and those enclosed within a single wall and moat
are gnawing on each other.

Search, miserable one, around your shores,
then look into your heart,
if any part of you rejoice in peace. (VI, 76-87).

Our political moment feels tempestuous. How to find peace? We still can rejoice in that peace. We just have to recover it. Again. I suggest we must continue to defend poetry and all of the arts, humanities, and intellectual culture finding itself continually under attack because it speaks to fascism and authoritarianism in ways that befuddle oppression.

And here’s the thing, Dante gets out of Hell; he figures out which side is up. Dante has to learn how to hope again in the face of treachery. Dante has to learn how to identify his worse prejudices, his own sins even. Sin itself for Dante is rooted in the abuse of power, the treacherous, those who will bring their country down with hate. But hate is so much trump. Wind does not know which direction to blow in the face of truth.

[1] Dennis Looney, Freedom Writers: The African American Reception of Dante Alighieri and The Divine Comedy (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 2011), 5.

[2] Looney, 207.

[3] Gloria Naylor, Linden Hills (Penguin: New York 1986), 275.

[4] Naylor, 275.

 

Ken Mondschein, American International College
(Ken adjuncts in Springfield and was an adjunct at Westfield State until his classes were cut this semester due to under-enrollment. He is desperately seeking a full-time position. The following is adapted from the Introduction to his Game of Thrones and the Medieval Art of War, forthcoming from McFarland. He will be speaking on the subject at Kalamazoo this year.)

From “Deus vult” spray-painted on mosques to the neo-Nazi Traditionalist Workers Party (TWP), carrying shields with Norse runes on them when they held their riot-sparking rally at the California State Capital in Sacramento on June 16, 2016, to white-supremacists flocking to medieval martial arts as part of their “cultural identity,” the Middle Ages are being used for political ends in a way that has seldom been seen in the postwar world. All of this points to the need for professional medievalists to address popular audiences. The question is if we, as a group, are up to the task.

The audience for whom we professional historians really write is one another, and popular interest does not result in the creation of any more tenure-track professorships (which are already as rare as hen’s teeth). Unlike our colleagues in vocational programs, the hard sciences, and business and law schools, we liberal-arts professors neither wield power nor generate wealth. Fiscally speaking, we have brought nothing to the potluck, so we had better at least be entertaining dinner guests and help clean up afterwards. Our job is to produce socially useful truths, not debate how many angels can dance on the head of a pin. (The answer, by the way: as many as want to.)

The socially useful truths that we serious-minded historians are concerned with are, as ever, dependent on the political needs of our society. Michelet searched for the beginnings of the Eternal France and Ranke looked for the underpinnings of the reich, but ever since the cultural revolutions of the 1960s, our concern has been the ongoing struggle for civil rights and social justice. These emphases are based not just on idealism, but on realpolitik: Global business knows no borders, and we live in an increasingly diverse, multicultural, and interconnected world. Middle-class populations in developed nations are not reproducing at replacement rate and continued economic sustainability requires emigration. The clannishness, nationalism, and isolationism of the past are not good for the bottom line, and the first job that we historians—the keepers of the sacred story—must accomplish is explaining, justifying, and upholding the power regime. In our case, that’s globalism as espoused by Hillary Clinton—not isolationist retreat into some “authentic” national culture as buoyed Donald Trump’s candidacy.

This affects academia all the way from curriculum committee meetings all the way down to what we do on a day-to-day basis. While my grandmother, who taught high school American history from the 1950s to early ’80s, declared the divine inspiration of the Founding Fathers and the Constitution to her dying day and decried “revisionist” history, I talk to my undergraduates about Jefferson and Washington as slave-owners and point out the contradictions between their rhetoric of liberty and their owning other human beings as chattel. Similarly, courses in Western Civilization, first instituted to praise the white male patrician as the inevitable heir of the genius of Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle, have been by and large replaced by insipid World History surveys that make students into cultural tourists doomed to regurgitate trivia about millennia-old civilizations onto Scantron test forms. In teaching these courses, I am doing no more than what my forebear in ancient Mesopotamia did when he came down from the ziggurat to tell the peasants that the reason they had to pay taxes to the king was because it had been decreed so in the sacred order of the world set down by the gods at the beginning of time. My job is to take the sacred (text)book and use it to explain Why Things Are The Way They Are.

Medieval history is therefore problematic: It is, after all, the history of dead white males and of the origins of the modern imperialistic European nations, devoid of even the redeeming quality of showing how the West reduced the rest of the world to the sad state it’s in today. No matter how popular medieval history might be outside the Ivory Tower, it will remain deeply unfashionable in academic circles.

If medieval history is problematic, then neomedievalism—medieval history reflected back at itself through the funhouse mirror of the pop-culture profit motive—is more so. My own anecdote: When I confessed to Carlene Hatcher Polite, my college creative writing professor (who had been prominent in the Black Arts Movement) that I was a member of the Society for Creative Anachronism, she asked me why I was interested in “that white stuff.” According to her, I should be more concerned with my authentic Jewish identity (though adherence to fundamentalist Judaism, ironically, would have precluded a Western liberal education), just as her African-American students should be interested in their African-American identities, Chinese students with their Chinese identities, etc.

As much as I disagreed with her—geek culture is my culture—I won’t say she was wrong. There is good reason for “that white stuff” to be suspect. Victoria Cooper, then a PhD student at Leeds, gave a very well-received paper at the 2015 International Medieval Congress in Kalamazoo, Michigan entitled “Playing Politics: Exploring Nationalism and Conservatism in Fantasy Video Games” in which she explored how “medieval” imagery and the idea of “authentic” national culture could easily be turned to serve right-wing, anti-emigrant political ends. The Middle Ages are, in Cooper’s words, imagined as “gritty, white, male, and powerful”; to her, “medievally-themed video games are a space where whiteness can be anchored, in a ‘happy history’ where a world is free of multiculturalism and white guilt.”

Cooper spoke of implicit Eurocentrism, but I will go one step further: The ugliness exhibited by reactionary neomedievalists is often explicit. Look, for instance, at the threats received by Malisha Dewalt, the author of the Tumblr “People of Color in European Art History,” which documents premodern depictions of Africans and Asians. Dewalt has documented and blogged about this harassment at length, and I needn’t repeat it here. Interested parties can simply search on her site.

Yet, those who look to the Middle Ages for a “gritty, white, male, and powerful” past are “doing history” no less than I was as an underpaid assistant editor of World History textbooks when I drew on second- and third-hand accounts of the historian of Chinese science Joseph Needham’s groundbreaking work to draw an overstated picture of the accomplishments of the Han Dynasty. Unlike my panegyric to gunpowder and astronomy, though, they are drawing on conceptions of history that have decidedly gone out of fashion. To nineteenth-century historians, the past was a march towards the “perfection” of what was considered “modern” society. Just as northern Europeans were superior to southerners and peoples in colonized lands were more “primitive” than Europeans, historians such as Jacob Burckhardt saw the European Middle Ages as a “dark age” that would inevitably cede to the Enlightenment. Conversely, romantic historians such as Michelet and romantic writers such as Walter Scott used the past to locate eternal national character in the mists of time. Both of these tendencies give us an “imperialized” Middle Ages: a time period that was a culturally “purer,” but also more “primitive.”

The combination of these two ideas, taken into the realm of pop-history, births that appealing meta-narrative: A past that is potent, freed from the constraints of a modernity that is perceived as decadent, unnatural, feminized, constraining, and emasculating. This troubling lineage is strongly reflected in neomedieval and fantasy fiction: Robert E. Howard’s Conan the Barbarian is the archetypical white colonialist hero, effortlessly slaying hordes of dusky-skinned savages by virtue of his superior genetic heritage. Fritz Leiber’s Fafhrd and Grey Mouser story “The Sadness of the Executioner” actually contains the line: “he proceeded by gradual and not unnecessarily brutal steps to ravage her.” The plot of The Lord of the Rings may be summed up in the Gaffer’s line about “chasing Black Men up mountains.” (Who mourns the Haradrim, and what are orcs if not convenient untermechen?) Even many of Walt Disney’s movies, inspired as they were by the Grimm Brothers’ tales and their ideas of volksgeist, can be seen as “a space where whiteness can be anchored.”

So, there are disturbing implications to losing ourselves in a world based on an imaginary Middle Ages. But the alternative is much worse.

Let me relate an anecdote that Dan Smail, one of my grad school professors, once told me. He was visiting a British colleague, and the topic of conversation turned to the continual war on the humanities—universities in the UK being in a weaker strategic position in this regard, since the state has greater control over them and is continually sending around bureaucrats, like Henry VIII’s Visitors, asking academic units to justify their existence. Dan’s friend naturally expounded on the value of a liberal arts education, the importance of critical thinking skills and writing, and all the usual platitudes that we find in New York Times op-eds.

“That’s all well and good,” Dan replied. “But maybe the most important justification is that people just want to learn medieval history.”

The ivory tower is under siege. The business of America is business, as Calvin Coolidge said, and the humanities have been deemed irrelevant to these ends. Conservative politicians have attacked liberal curricula and interfered with governance, academic freedom, and tenure. Preparing students for the workforce is becoming seen as the highest and only goal of pedagogy. If current trends continue, research into the humanities will soon be restricted to a lucky few in elite institutions and an undifferentiated horde of amateur enthusiasts—some of whom will hold advanced degrees, but none of whom, save the fortunate, will have access to the tools of research such as academic libraries, databases, and travel grants.

My first response to our critics, then: In a time of neoliberal management of universities, where everything comes down to the bottom line, the best justification is market demand. Medieval history puts students in seats, which is, after all, the coin of the realm. We have a vast and hungry audience, yet very little high-quality nutritive information flowing to them. If we professional historians do not undertake works of this sort, we cede the field to enthusiastic but misinformed amateurs—or, worse, to the entertainment industry.

But there’s more. If we historians only write books that are only bought by library purchasers at R1 universities, we do nothing to rebut the pop-culture Middle Ages as a Jurassic World of resurrected straight white male barbarians out of a Frazetta painting—since the reality was nothing of the sort. (Not that I have anything against straight white male barbarians or Frank Frazetta.) The narrative of nativism, of ethnocentrism, of the Middle Ages as “a world… free of multiculturalism” has won by forfeit. If we historians are going to push a narrative of diversity and inclusion, popular subjects such as medieval military history need to be written from that perspective.

We can, I think, draw parallels to the controversy between academic historians of the Civil War and Civil War reenactors. Peter Carmichael, a professor of history at Gettysburg College, drew the ire of the reenactment community when he was paraphrased in the Wall Street Journal on June 28, 2013 calling re-enactments an “ ‘unfortunate distraction’ from a deeper understanding of the Civil War.” The article went on to say that Carmichel preferred “living history encampments, where people can hold a musket or eat hardtack, giving them a tangible experience of the past,” but the National Park Service historians are best of all: “All you need to do is stay in the National Park and you’ll come away with a very deep understanding of what happened here.”

Carmichael’s statement was decried as elitist in reenactment circles, and rightly so. Regardless of whether, for instance, African-American units are properly represented (or for that matter, men under 50 years of age and a BMI of 30 are properly represented) on the reenactment battlefield, battle reenactment is a spectacle that engages the public and puts the proverbial asses in seats. Worse, it alienates the very people we professional historians should be trying to reach, since Civil War reenactment is rife with Confederate apologists who insist that the war was about state’s rights and not slavery.

However, to simply say that anyone marching around with the Stars and Bars is a racist ends any possibility of dialogue. The Confederate battle flag (like the Middle Ages) is a polyvalent symbol, read as in some circles as standing for a racial regime, in others as a piece of a proud heritage, and in still others as an artifact of a troublesome history that must be glossed and interpreted, but not suppressed. If we decry everyone who wears a Confederate uniform as a closet racist, we do not change their beliefs, but alienate them and push their discourse further underground.

I’d rather we look to the story of Derek Black as a model for our goals. Derek was the son of Stormfront founder Don Black, an active participant in white nationalist media, and widely seen as an emerging leader in that subculture. However, as Eli Saslow writes in his October 15, 2016 Washington Post article, Derek was also a passionate medieval recreationist who decided to attend New College in Sarasota, Florida to study medieval history—searching, as do many neo-medievalists, for that gritty, white, male-dominated past. Derek managed to keep his background a secret until his second semester, when he was studying abroad in Germany. Upon his return, the outed white supremacist was at first ostracized from his college community—until one student, Matthew Stevenson, an Orthodox Jew, reached out to him and began inviting him to his multicultural Shabbat dinners. Gradually, put in close contact with people of other races and ethnicities and faced with a very different view of the Middle Ages from what he had originally believed, Derek’s views began to change. In time, he completely renounced his white-nationalist sympathies.

My forthcoming book Game of Thrones and the Medieval Art of War is my own Shabbat dinner—an open invitation to all that will not only make high-quality, nutritious information palatable, but also foster discussion and a sense of community. I think that we, as academic medievalists, have the obligation to do the same—and that tenure and promotion committees should reward such efforts even above publishing in exclusive journals hidden away behind paywalls.

 

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Filed under Guest Post, Medievalism, Non-Medieval, Scholar, Teaching, Uncategorized

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