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:
- Medieval Academy of America Response to Immigration Executive Order
- MEARCSTAPA (Monsters: the Experimental Association for the Research of Cryptozoology through Scholarly Theory And Practical Application) Statement on US Rejection of Refugees and Border Restrictions
- A Statement Concerning Recent Events from the BABEL Working Group
- Society for Medieval Feminist Scholarship
- International Center of Medieval Art
- International Society of Anglo-Saxonists
- Society for Classical Studies
Anonymous (due to possible repercussions)
Teaching the Pre-Modern under a Repressive Regime
I teach the pre-modern in a country where I cannot publish the following under my own name without fear of repercussions, a country which in a little over a decade has descended from an authoritarian democracy to a kleptocratic autocracy, and is rapidly descending further.
Academics and students are among the primary targets of repression here. Scholars criticizing government policy have been treated as criminals; thousands have lost their jobs for teaching at the “wrong” universities; some have been prosecuted for signing an open letter asking for peace; one landed in court on terrorism charges for an exam question; another was fired for comments about the country’s leader during a lecture. Professorwatchlist.org, here, is not a private initiative, but a national, institutionalized reality.
Likewise, students have been jailed for demanding tuition-free education; for retweeting satirical tweets from mainstream outlets; for protesting the higher education authorities on any number of issues. In addition to the repression from the regime, the country has always had ethnic and religious tensions, which are currently exacerbated by an internal war being fought out in part of the country and the most atrocious of conflicts being fought in a neighbouring country
Controls on media, on the one hand by closing down independent news outlets, on the other by regularly shutting down access to social media sites such as Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube, have worsened the country’s pre-existing proclivity for conspiracy theory, which was partly nurtured by a history of actual conspiracy throughout the Cold War, but now mainstreamed by the pro-government press pushing outlandish narratives of international cabals involving the CIA, MI5, parallel structures, shady bankers, and a supposed deep state.
These factors have many impacts on my practice as scholar and lecturer. Some of these are straightforward. For example, there is the repression of freedom of expression – and its resulting self-censorship. From the moment I started to consider applying for jobs here, I toned down my commentary on social media; from the time I started my job, I practically ceased commenting about the country’s current events online altogether. All my online political commentary is now by proxy: I comment on Theresa May’s autocratic tendencies, on the move toward kleptocracy under Donald Trump, on the lies of the British tabloid press and Breitbart – thus making it possible to discuss the principles of the issues central to the political situation of the country I work in. I choose for the by-proxy approach partly for my own safety, but partly also because I am aware that students may follow me, for example, on Twitter, and I do not want to set an example of behaviour that may endanger them. I do not know how many of my students follow me, as much of their online activity has already become anonymous over the last half decade. Social media has an important function to play in resistance against repressive regimes, but open, direct commentary on public (and especially non-anonymous) social media accounts from within the country is not its most effective use and exposes the poster to huge risks of retaliation.
More complicated are the impacts on teaching practice: the repressive environment has implications for my role as a teacher and for the learning environment in general. In practical terms, for the reasons above, I am careful in my choice of electronic media to use for assignments – preferring closed, secure environments such as the university management system over open platforms such as WordPress or Twitter. Alternatively, I opt for on-paper alternatives. There are also unexpected limits on scholarly practice: not only social media are regularly inaccessible, but even some crucially important sites, such as the Internet Archive, are blocked here, and therefore only accessible with VPN. I am fortunate enough to be able to borrow access to a UK university’s VPN, but think there is a good case to be made for universities in “free” countries to consider supplying VPN to colleagues in countries with repressive regimes.
More fundamentally, the repressive environment results in a whole new set of, often undeclared, desired learning outcomes. When a central course aim is to instill a critical approach to reading primary sources, the implications of that aim are different in a country where critical readings of certain sources is criminalized than it would be normally, regardless of whether that criminalization is codified in law, or an effect of the extralegal, unpredictable, repressive actions of the regime, or even those of its supporters in the media or on the street.
Thus, in the classroom, too, I avoid explicit discussion of current affairs in the country – this is partly a result of self-censorship, but partly also the result of my awareness of the political polarisation among my students; I know there are certain topics which cause huge divides among my students, and I would not be able to manage a discussion of current affairs in such a way as to make each of my students feel safe and valued, where some students’ “values” include the deprivation of the physical safety of others; certain mainstream political positions in this country, while formulated in terms of anti-terrorism, are genocidal; and following a bombing which cost the lives of friends of students in my classroom, I am unwilling to countenance the possibility of other students in my class repeating the government’s lies about such atrocities.
I am, however, as a teacher of the pre-modern, at a huge advantage over my colleagues in contemporary subjects, as I am able to discuss such issues by proxy: we can fruitfully discuss issues surrounding dictatorship through, for example, classical Greek texts; we can learn to dissect propagandist approaches to the past through the study of nineteenth-century appropriations of medieval history. The country I teach in has a long tradition of authoritarian approaches to history, particularly in primary and secondary education – within this tradition, and particularly in the current context of autocratic kleptocracy, there is a special responsibility for teachers of the pre-modern, and particularly of the pre-modern text, to encourage critical attitudes to the past and critical attitudes to text. The advantage I have to lecturers in subjects that are “closer to home” rests on the fact that most of my students have only the most rudimentary conceptions of the materials and concepts I teach – Western Civilization, the Middle Ages, the Renaissance, Humanism, the Enlightenment, etc. – it is a relatively small effort to destabilize and complicate those core concepts; more ingrained ideas, particularly when based on an authoritarian approach to history, such as they have about the history of the country and its religions and peoples, are much harder to challenge. Thus, I teach how texts work in a context where the stakes, for my students, are relatively low, and prejudices not ossified or linked to political identities; I am hopeful that the critical approaches which I instil in my students to the pasts that I teach, will in the long run encourage them to apply critical readings to contemporary and local discourses, too. The by-proxy approach makes it possible to teach the unteachable, to create an environment in which students will learn what the authoritarian regime would prefer them not to learn, without putting me, and more importantly, them, at risk.
Iain A. MacInnes, University of the Highlands and Islands
The post-Brexit UK, for myself as a medieval historian, is a somewhat strange landscape indeed. I read with interest the views of academic colleagues from the USA who voiced their commitment to, and belief in, the continued importance of pre-modern history in a post-Trump world. Historians in the UK too have been engaging in a great deal of post-Brexit discussion, and stressing the importance of our discipline in a Britain that appears increasingly xenophobic. What is interesting is that historians did attempt to have their say in the EU Referendum debate. The views of historians were sought from both sides in the referendum – both the campaign to remain, and that to leave – and two group of academics formed to reflect the two options on the ballot paper (Historians for Britain, for ‘leave’, and Historians for Britain in Europe, for ‘remain’). Medievalists were prominent in both groups, and medievalists were and remain vocal in various online fora as discussions regarding Brexit and its consequences continue. Still, this prominence has come at something of a cost. On the one hand, there have been suggestions that the thoughts of historians did not go far enough, and that they failed to have a wider impact on the voting people of the UK. On the other hand, the thoughts of historians have been somewhat caught up in a more populist backlash against those deemed to be part of the metropolitan elite, ivory tower intellectuals daring to comment on issues of far greater immediacy to, and impact upon, ‘the people.’ As a prominent member of the Vote Leave campaign commented, “people in this country have had enough of experts.” Considering that the referendum resulted in a victory for the leave campaign (by 52% to 48%), where does this leave such academic ‘experts’? And where is the place for those who study the pre-modern in a post-Brexit Britain that, even before the referendum, had suggested that “society doesn’t need a 21-year-old who is a sixth century historian” [from the Vice-Chancellor of Queen’s University, Belfast, no less].
I suppose that my own views on this are influenced in part by where I live and work. Teaching in the Highlands of Scotland, in a part of the UK that voted to remain in the EU (by 62% to 38%), we cannot ignore the fact that Scottish voters chose a very different path than those in much of the rest of the country. How does this affect what I teach my students? Probably very little, inasmuch as myself and my colleagues have always (as many others do) placed Scottish History within a wider British AND European (as well as global, of course) context. Still, it does reinforce the need to re-emphasise the long-term nature of Scotland’s European connections, and the fact that migration from Scotland was a constant element of its history. On one of our modules, Scotland, the North Sea and the Baltic, this is made clear through a variety of examples of religious, intellectual, commercial, economic, military, diplomatic and cultural exchange. Scottish intellectuals and students taught and studied at Europe’s great universities, a medieval and early modern parallel to the ERASMUS programme of educational exchange (now potentially under threat) between European institutions that allows students from across the continent to experience another culture and learn in a European setting. Scottish troops fought in the armies of Europe across the medieval and early modern periods, a situation replicated in the twentieth century when European forces in exile were based in and fought from Scotland. And Scottish and European traders sold their wares from ports across Britain and Europe, and settled in the countries to which they gravitated with their wares, notably those Scots who sought to make money in early modern Poland, in so doing providing an interesting comparison to twentieth-century Polish (return?) migration to Scotland.
It is these obvious parallels between the pre-modern and the present day that help students to understand the place and prominence of Scottish relations with Europe, that such connections are of long-standing, and that they were and are perfectly ‘normal.’ Whether students really read or engage with mainstream newspapers is debatable, but the sheer scale of right-wing media and its constant anti-European message is undoubtedly invasive, and its main ideas enter wider discourse far too easily. It is our job, as academics, to provide proof against the unsubstantiated reports, exaggerated figures and outright lies of both mainstream media, and less established sources of information dissemination. We are there to provide an alternative, to provide evidence, and to give our students food for thought that there is an alternative view. After that, they have to come to their own conclusions. But at least they will do so based on evidence, discussion and analysis.
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.” 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.”
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.
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.” 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.
 Dennis Looney, Freedom Writers: The African American Reception of Dante Alighieri and The Divine Comedy (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 2011), 5.
 Looney, 207.
 Gloria Naylor, Linden Hills (Penguin: New York 1986), 275.
 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.