GMS is a signatory on a letter of complaint written to the Dean of Humanities at the University of Chicago about the recent blog posts of Rachel Fulton Brown. We signed it of our own volition because, whilst disagreement is a healthy part of intellectual endeavour, there are lines that academic debate should not cross. In particular it should not explicitly or even implicitly incite hatred or violence, and it should be conducted in the language of respect for differences of all kinds. We endorse the concern that has been expressed by Dorothy Kim and others about the misappropriation of medieval symbols by far right groups and recognise the responsibility of classroom practitioners to offer rigorous critical contexts for medieval culture.
GMS are proud to support this statement by the Medieval Academy of America condemning white supremacy and the misuse of medieval history.
In light of the recent events in the United States, most recently the racist violence in Charlottesville, Virginia, the undersigned community of medievalists condemns the appropriation of any item or idea or material in the service of white supremacy. In addition, we condemn the abuse of colleagues, particularly colleagues of color, who have spoken publicly against this misuse of history.
As scholars of the medieval world we are disturbed by the use of a nostalgic but inaccurate myth of the Middle Ages by racist movements in the United States. By using imagined medieval symbols, or names drawn from medieval terminology, they create a fantasy of a pure, white Europe that bears no relationship to reality. This fantasy not only hurts people in the present, it also distorts the past. Medieval Europe was diverse religiously, culturally, and ethnically, and medieval Europe was not the entire medieval world. Scholars disagree about the motivations of the Crusades—or, indeed, whether the idea of “crusade” is a medieval one or came later—but it is clear that racial purity was not primary among them.
Contemporary white nationalists are not the first Americans to have turned nostalgic views of the medieval period to racist purposes. It is, in fact, deeply ironic that the Klan’s ideas of medieval knighthood were used to harass immigrants who practiced the forms of Christianity most directly connected with the medieval church. Institutions of scholarship must acknowledge their own participation in the creation of interpretations of the Middle Ages (and other periods) that served these narratives. Where we do find bigotry, intolerance, hate, and fear of “the other” in the past—and the Middle Ages certainly had their share—we must recognize it for what it is and read it in its context, rather than replicating it.
The medieval Christian culture of Europe is indeed a worthy object of study, in fact a necessary one. Medieval Studies must be broader than just Europe and just Christianity, however, because to limit our object of study in such a way gives an arbitrary and false picture of the past. We see a medieval world that was as varied as the modern one. It included horrific violence, some of it committed in the name of religion; it included feats of bravery, justice, harmony, and love, some of them also in the name of religion. It included movement of people, goods, and ideas over long distances and across geographical, linguistic, and religious boundaries. There is much to be learned from studying the period, whether we choose to focus on one community and text or on wider interactions. What we will not find is the origin of a pure and supreme white race.
Every generation of scholars creates its own interpretations of the past. Such interpretations must be judged by how well they explain the writings, art, and artifacts that have come down to us. As a field we are dedicated to scholarly inquiry. As the new semester approaches at many institutions, we invite those of you who have the opportunity to join us. Take a class or attend a public lecture on medieval history, literature, art, music. Learn about this vibrant and varied world, instead of simply being appalled by some racist caricature of it. See for yourself what lessons it holds for the modern world.
2015 GMS student essay prize-winner, Laura Kalas Williams (Exeter) has reported on her progress since winning the GMS student essay prize, awarded to her at the Gender and Emotions conference at the University of Hull in January of 2016. Laura’s essay has since been published in the SMFS journal, Medieval Feminist Forum: A Journal for Gender and Sexuality, and she successfully negotiated her viva in September of this year (for which, many congratulations to Laura!). She is now co-editing a collection of essays based on the successful 2016 conference with Daisy Black and Amy M. Morgan, entitled: Gender and Emotion in Medieval Culture: Uses, Representations, Audiences. In her report, appearing as a blog entry on Exeter University’s Centre for Medieval Studies blog (http://blogs.exeter.ac.uk/medievalstudies/2016/10/gender-emotion-and-a-prize-winning-conference/), Laura underlines the importance of the annual GMS conference for encouraging and supporting both PhD students and early career academics, as well as emphasising its collegiate inclusivity and welcome of diverse approaches to the Middle Ages. You can access Laura’s blog-post here.
On October 6th, the Guardian newspaper ran a follow-up headline article on academic harassment, this time linking its prevalence to the Savile scandal and those besetting the Catholic church in recent times. It certainly did not make for pleasant reading (https://www.theguardian.com/society/2016/oct/07/scale-of-sexual-abuse-in-uk-universities-likened-to-savile-and-catholic-scandals).
See also, the follow-up online contribution from the following day, ‘Accounts of sexual harassment in UK universities’ (https://www.theguardian.com/education/2016/oct/07/i-was-so-traumatised-accounts-of-sexual-harassment-in-uk-universities), documenting the accounts of more than 100 women contacted by Guardian investigative journalists, Sally Weale and David Batty. It’s good to know that the Guardian is on to this in a big way and that the type of lobbying we have been trying to undertake on this pernicious issue in recently years may now begin to reach a far wider concerned public.
The Society for Medieval Feminist Scholarship is committed to combating such harassment and part of its initiative is accruing resources to help inform and assist anybody concerned with harassment in academic contexts. So, do please keep sending in information, reports and strategies for the Society to collate and add to its resources page.
For those of us deeply concerned about the proliferation of sexual harassment and microagressions within academic contexts, it is gratifying to see the UK-base Guardian newspaper carrying a report of this as its headline article on Friday, August 26, 2016 (https://www.theguardian.com/education/2016/aug/26/sexual-harassment-of-students-by-university-staff-hidden-by-non-disclosure-agreements).
Admittedly, it is a pity that the report was semi buried at the end of August and just before a national bank holiday, but what it has to say on this growing concern is most welcome. Also useful are the links included in the article, especially a link to the recently formed 1752 Group, a lobbying group convened by four former students of Goldsmiths University, London, to help combat sexual harassment within academia at all levels. The Group’s website also contains a very useful set of resources, providing information and strategies about dealing with academic harassment.