The Massachusetts Medievalist DOES NOT LIVE in a “Shining City on a Hill”

Last week, my university hosted former British prime minister David Cameron as part of the Boston Speakers Series, and he closed his remarks with that shop-worn reference to Boston and the United States as a “shining city on the hill.” The Massachusetts Medievalist will now set the record straight on that enormously irritating phrase. World: please stop using it to refer to my city and my country. Its actual context is pretty much the opposite of what you intend.

The original Biblical reference is quite spectacular.  In the Sermon on the Mount, Christ tells his followers that “Ye are the light of the world. A city that is set on a hill cannot be hid” (Matthew 5.14). He encourages his followers to be strong in their faith, even in the face of persecution and oppression.

Our contemporary culture likes to refer to Boston as a “shining city on a hill” due to a much less palatable usage, however, that of an early governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, John Winthrop, who had been elected before the departure from England.  He wrote his 1630 sermon “A Model of Christian Charity” on board the Arbella, the ship that brought him and many of his fellow puritans to the “new world” to establish a religiously pure colony away from the corruption (as they saw it) of the Church of England.

Winthrop’s allusion to Matthew 5.14 occurs towards the end of the sermon, when he exhorts his fellow puritans:

For wee must consider that wee shall be as a citty upon a hill. The eies of all people are uppon us. Soe that if wee shall deale falsely with our God in this worke wee haue undertaken, and soe cause him to withdrawe his present help from us, wee shall be made a story and a by-word through the world.

Winthrop invokes the Sermon on the Mount to encourage his fellow colonists to remain true to their religious convictions — not so much because that’s a valuable thing to do in itself, but more importantly  because others will see them if they don’t. Winthrop’s conclusion creates a world of early protestant surveillance, where “all people” are ready to watch and judge the actions of the colonists. Winthrop’s goal in his sermon and throughout his governorship was enforcement of his version of puritan beliefs and regulations, one in which poverty and illness were signs of God’s displeasure for morally corrupt behavior and lack of religious faith.

Winthrop regimented the daily lives of the colonists he governed as much as possible, ignored instructions from the English Parliament regarding open elections and appointments to office, and established intrusive and humiliating procedures for vetting the religious faith of potential new residents in the colony. He also “owned” two enslaved Pequots, who may have been captured during the 1636-38 Pequot War. And historians now consider Winthrop to be something a of a “moderate” among the puritans in his cohort.

While politicians and cultural pundits frequently invoke Winthrop’s “city on a hill” in a positive way, consider the very beginning of the sermon, which must be largely unknown to those pundits:

GOD ALMIGHTY in his most holy and wise providence, hath soe disposed of the condition of mankind, as in all times some must be rich, some poore, some high and eminent in power and dignitie; others mean and in submission.

In other words, God established social class in his divine wisdom and all true believers had to accept their places in those classes. It is worth pointing out that Winthrop was at the top of each category mentioned (wealth; political, religious, and social power; social status). At the very beginning of the sermon, then, Winthrop establishes divine imprimatur for rigid social and political hierarchies. He also believed, like almost all men of his era, in gender hierarchy — which probably seemed so obvious to him that he did not bother to include it in his list of divinely-created assessed categories.

Note that neither the New Testament nor Winthrop uses the word “shining,” although that adjective is now included in most contemporary political misquotations, including Cameron’s of last week. The idea of “shining” is perhaps implied in Christ’s phrase “the light of the world” but contemporary commentators use it to refer to Boston as a beacon of light, a brilliant example of Boston’s rich cultural heritage that illuminates everyone else, metaphorically and literally. Presidents as disparate as Kennedy, Reagan, and Obama have invoked Winthrop’s “shining city on a hill” to celebrate Boston specifically or the United States in general; the full texts of their speeches make it clear that they are referring to Winthrop and his puritan sermon, not the Sermon on the Mount.

The greater Boston area (which includes Cambridge, where I work, and the suburbs, where I live) does indeed serve as an example of a broad community that values education, the arts, scientific inquiry, and multiculturalism. But we also face crucial issues of overt racism, gentrification, income inequality, and entrenched sexism.  We need to move away from the rigid social hierarchies and narrow minded righteousness embedded in the historical context of Winthrop’s sermon in which he envisioned Boston as a “city on a hill.” Let’s agree to stop using that tired, inaccurate phrase in our own discourse, as it is actually a misquotation of an exclusionist, racist, intolerant Puritan referring largely to his own superiority. That’s not my Boston.

Next Blog Post: some suggestions for a replacement

The Massachusetts Medievalist on (approximate) historical parallels

These past two weeks have featured turmoil in the world of medieval studies as University of Chicago history professor Rachel Fulton Brown has cyber-bullied Vassar English professor Dorothy Kim via a variety of media. As with the Allen Frantzen “femfog” maelstrom of early 2016, one of my first, selfish reactions was simply relief that I am not on Facebook and thus am shielded from the worst of the interactions. An overview of the controversy, with many links to other commentary, is available here.

I’ve been mulling over some similarities between our current moment and the rise of second wave feminism in medieval studies and academia in general (c.1975-1995). Daniel Pigg articulated something similar in a 27 Sept 2017 post to the MedFem-listserv when he stated that:

Medieval studies  as a discipline began to ask new questions as the number of women scholars increased in the 70s, 80s, and 90s. Those were important questions to ask, and they have been transformative in the way we understand the Middle Ages. I believe Dorothy Kim and others are beginning a new trajectory of studies of the medieval past that will require that we investigate what it means to engage in scholarship on the Middle Ages.

Inclusion of women in the study of any historical period seems so obvious now that it’s hard to remember it was a revolutionary idea forty years ago. Pioneering feminist scholars of the 1970s and 1980s needed to demonstrate that women acted as historical agents in the Middle Ages and that written and material sources about those women and activities were available. They needed to overcome the completely incorrect, patriarchal assumptions that  1. women didn’t do anything important in the Middle Ages (except for a few “exceptional” women like Eleanor of Aquitaine) and 2. even if they did do anything important, women’s activities, philosophies, practices, and beliefs were not recorded in any way accessible to modern scholarship.

This patriarchal resistance to women’s studies and women’s history has largely ebbed, only to be replaced by similar resistance to the scholarship of multiculturalism and diversity. Many white supremacist/neo-Nazi organizations celebrate a “pure,” all-white European Middle Ages (which is also ideally patriarchal and aristocratic), and that supposed purity stems in some measure from the ongoing, modern academic assumption of whiteness in the European Middle Ages. A multicultural Middle Ages challenges that assumption of whiteness, and medievalists who study a multicultural Middle Ages find themselves in a position similar to that of the second wave feminsts: needing to prove that people of color acted as historical agents in medival Europe and that sources about those people and activities exist. The Medieval People of Color website and twitter account are on the front lines of this project; I had planned also to include a link to the Medievalists of Color collaborative website as well, but it has been hacked (and is now unavailable).

Medievalists like these, in the vanguard around issues of race, multiculturalism, and inclusivity, are performing essential work similar to that of the “foremothers” celebrated each year by the Society for Medieval Feminist Scholarship at Kalamazoo (it is worth noting that those foremothers are all white and also upper-middle-class, by virtue of education if not by actual salary).

Drawing historical parallels between cultural moments is always risky, but I think that at this pivotal cultural moment in medieval studies – of the terror in Charlottesville, of the Leeds conference debacle, of the insidious cyberbullying  — medievalists can take heart from the outcome of the roughly analogous situation of second wave feminism in the academy. Feminist inquiry and politics once ridiculed by patriarchal intransigents are now mainstream and respected; pioneering scholars who took enormous risks in fledging women’s studies programs are now tenured senior faculty on endowed chairs.  I hope that forty years from now, I am sipping fine wine in the Ancient Scholars Rest Home and reminiscing to incredulous graduate students about a time when almost all medievalists were white, when our scholarship assumed the whiteness of our subjects, and the idea of a multicultural Middle Ages was little more than an idea rather than an accepted tenet of medieval studies methodologies.

The Massachusetts Medievalist begins fall term

Note, evening 16 Sept: this post went up before the 15 Sept e-incident of Chicago medievalist Rachel Fulton Brown engaging in ad hominem insults of Vassar medievalist Dorothy Kim; the post’s spirit is most definitely with Kim’s arguments about the intersections among medieval studies, white supremacy, and pedagogy. For a solid recounting of the events, see Richard Utz’s blog here

Post, early morning 15 Sept: Like most medievalists, The Massachusetts Medievalist has been thinking about how to address the overt medievalism of the current white supremacist movement in the USA while simultaneously beginning the academic year and trying to finish the summer to-do list.

A number of more energetic bloggers have written in a much more timely manner about about the medievalism on display at the neo-Nazi rally in Charlottesville in August 2017; Paul Sturtevant’s Public Medievalist site provides excellent commentary and links to other resources, and this wonderful Medieval People of Color tweet educating white supremacists about the African origin of one of their favorite symbols is still garnering attention in social media:

Screenshot of tweet showing the heraldic symbol of St Maurice
Screenshot of tweet showing the heraldic symbol of St Maurice

My own small contribution was to assign Josephine Livingstone’s “Racism, Medievalism, and the White Supermacists” of Charlottesville for the first day of English Lit I. As at many universities, our English majors take core survey classes in the histories of American and Engish literature; as at many universities, our first term “covers” the medieval through the neoclassical periods. But I felt uncomfortable starting a unit on medieval English literature without addressing the political elephant in the room.  Yes, the United States is at a cultural moment when I felt it necessary to explicitly dissassociate myself and my discipline from white nationalist movements.

Teachers refer repeatedly to the need to have “uncomfortable conversations” in the classroom, and boy, was I uncomfortable in a brief discussion of Livingstone’s work and its relevance to our academic coursework. Students had a few contributions, making that section of the class a bit of a “conversation,” but most were reticent. I’m glad that moment happened, however, and hope that it will begin to pave the way for more moments that could be less awkward.  Beowulf promises to bring issues of immigration, border crossing, power dynamics, and political alliance into class discussion, illustrating a series of productive connections between an early medieval cultural artifact and our contemporary political discourse.

The Massachusetts Medievalist Reads Melissa Range’s Scriptorium

The Massachusetts Medievalist has been on something of a hiatus, eating blueberries and corn and lobster, visiting Crane’s beach and Walden pond, following on Twitter the revelations at #ISAS2017 (more on that in a future post).  But I’ve also been reading a lot of poetry, taking some summer time to read Tracy K. Smith (our new U.S. poet laureate), David Elliott (a Lesley colleague), and Melissa Range.  These poems have provided me a mental and emotional break from medieval-studies-as-usual.

Range’s work is actually not a complete break from medieval-studies-as-usual, however. Her title – Scriptorium – invokes the medieval space in which manuscripts were made, and her work draws on medieval poetry, especially in Old English. She combines medieval theology with contemporary Appalachian culture; she engages with medieval and modern theologians as she questions the world around us, its beauty and its horror, hearkening to Beowulf, Eliot, and Hopkins in a variety of tightly presented forms. In many ways, I am Range’s ideal reader – I know the references to The Dream of the Rood and the Ashburnham House fire without having to check the notes in the back of the book. I am also in awe of the way she uses language and imagery in ways both medieval and completely new: she lets us see “the sailor’s compass / made of ice-trussed stars” (“Ultramarine”). Does “ice-trussed” qualify as an Old English kenning? Maybe, but does it matter?

I was most struck by Range’s series of sonnets interspersed throughout the collection, all named after materials used in manuscript illumination:

Verdigris
Orpiment
Kermes red
Tyrian Purple
Lampblack
Minium
Woad
Ultramarine
Gold leaf
Shell white

All of these sonnets challenge our understanding of the form, even as they adhere to it.  “Woad,” for example, contains rap echoes in its internal rhymes, even as it uses half-rhymes to complete its rhyme scheme.  It begins:

Once thought lapis on the carpet page, mined
from an Afghani cave, this new-bruise clot
in the monk’s ink pot grew from Boudicca’s plot –
a naturalized weed from a box of black seeds found
with a blue dress in a burial mound.

This collection take us through the medieval world of book- and poetry-making, invoking the calves whose skins will make the manuscript folios (“Scriptorium,” the penultimate poem in the collection) as well as the pigments and precious materials that will decorate the pages of the Gospels. And yet she connects those seemingly obscure references to deep and contemporary issues of faith and its place in our culture, making us see that the “grime / of letters traced upon the riven / calf-skin gleams dark as fresh ash on a shriven / penitent” (“Lampblack”).

Range’s poetic voice pulls medieval imagery and seemingly obscure literary references into an important poetic present, where “this good news is for everyone, / like language, like color, like air” (“Scriptorium”).  It’s only the second of August – plenty of time left in the glorious summer to revel in her poems.

Book cover

CFP: A Feminist Renaissance in Anglo-Saxon Studies

CFP: A Feminist Renaissance in Anglo-Saxon Studies
Special Sessions at the 2018 International Congress on Medieval Studies
10-13 May 2018
Western Michigan University
Kalamazoo, MI

A Feminist Renaissance in Anglo-Saxon Studies I: Interdisciplinary/Extramural

This session seeks papers focused on ways that a Feminist Renaissance in Anglo-Saxon studies can resonate inside and outside the university. Ideally, papers will combine traditional academic analysis of Anglo-Saxon artifact(s) (text, object, etc.) with reflection on ways that feminist analysis can or should function outside of traditional academia. We anticipate that some presenters will also grapple with the definition of the term “feminist” in 2017/2018, both in and out of the field.

 

A Feminist Renaissance in Anglo-Saxon Studies II:
Projects in Process (a roundtable)

Rather than the more usual roundtable of 6-8 short presentations, this roundtable seeks 5-6 scholars to describe feminist works-in-progress in the context of 2-3 specific questions about the state of the field and its future. Each panelist will take no more than 7 minutes, leaving time for substantial conversation after the initial, brief remarks. We plan to share these questions (over social media, listservs, etc.) before the Congress in order to give potential audience members and the presenters time to reflect on these issues and lay the groundwork for fruitful, substantive discussion that includes audience members as well as panelists. These questions could include: How does your current feminist project fit into your teaching? How does your current feminist project address the ongoing “crisis in the humanities”? How do you engage your non-medievalist colleagues in your feminist project? How do you convince your department head/dean/provost that your feminist project is worthwhile and thus worthy of institutional support? With input from digital communities, the organizers will finalize these centering questions in January of 2018.

 

Submit abstracts as PDF attachments to:
Mary Dockray-Miller
Humanities Dept.
Lesley University
mdockray@lesley.edu

Review of abstracts will be ongoing until the Congress deadline of 15 September 2017.

The Massachusetts Medievalist Visits City Life: The Quest for Progressive Medievalist Imagery

This past Tuesday I had the good fortune to attend the weekly meeting of City Life/Vida Urbana , a Boston community organization that advocates for residents on a variety of issues, primarily around housing. Check out this video by Twice Thou that raps City Life’s mission and history.

There are a lot of good reasons to be interested in CL/VU’s activities, but as the Massachusetts Medievalist I wanted to see how they use a sword and shield in the part of their meeting where they welcome new people into their organization. The media has been full recently of medievalist imagery appropriated by neo-Nazis and white nationalists; for a contextual overview, see this part of The Public Medievalist’s great series on “Race, Racism, and the Middle Ages.”

I’ve been searching for a contradictory kind of imagery, an appropriation of the medieval for contemporary progressive causes, perhaps in ways analogous to the early-twentieth-century U.S. suffrage movement’s use of Joan of Arc imagery in their parades (see my 22 May 2017 entry for details on that quest). A Lesley colleague’s involvement with CL/VU tipped me off to their sword and shield.

CL/VU uses a theater-prop plastic sword and a large homemade shield at all of their meetings and many of their protests and rallies around the city. Rather than ancestral heraldry, the shield proclaims that “NO ONE LEAVES” around a simple image of a house.

Antonio Ennis, community organizer at City Life / Vida Urbana, with sword and shield
Antonio Ennis, community organizer at City Life / Vida Urbana, with sword and shield

The sword represents the fight that CL/VU brings to banks and courts and corporations while the shield represents the legal aid they provide to protect their communities from foreclosure and eviction (for more detail, see this news item written at the height of the mortgage crises).

At each weekly meeting, people new to CL/VU come to the front of the room for a ritual that echoes a medieval knighthood ceremony. Tenants and owners in danger of eviction or foreclosure stand close together and all grasp the hilt of the sword.  The meeting leader holds the shield; last Tuesday, Twice Thou, whose non-rap name is Antonio Ennis, took this role. He asked them, “Are you willing to fight for your home?” After an initial, somewhat hesitant response, he turned slowly in a circle, showing the shield to all sides of the room. Then he yelled, “Are you willing to fight for your home?” Those gathered in the front of room shouted, “Yes!” and he and all the seated attendants yelled back, “Then we’ll fight with you!” It was exhilarating.

meeting of City Life / Vida Urbana, 13 June 2017
meeting of City Life / Vida Urbana, 13 June 2017

The meeting continued with updates on CL/VU rallies and activities in its networks. A nascent tenants’ association held a separate meeting in the hallway. A staff member handed out slices of pizza to late arrivals. Members met individually in a side room with pro bono attorneys.  I hope they get the help they need.  My much less necessary quest has been fulfilled – I found a multicultural, multiracial group of working-class Americans consistently using medievalist imagery for their own politically progressive practice, creating solidarity and purpose with the symbolic meanings of sword and shield.

The Massachusetts Medievalist on Ta-Nehisi Coates, Between the World and Me

This coming week I’ll be attending Lesley University’s Cultural Literacy Curriculum Institute and l’ve spent the past few days doing the assigned reading to prepare for the workshop.  One key text is Coates’s Between the World and Me, which was a campus-wide read a couple of years ago. I read it then but wanted a refresher for this year’s discussion. Last night I poured myself a glass of nice chardonnay and settled in with Coates. My reflections here come from my English professor/medievalist side – there are many ways to discuss this important text, but I want to make some generic connections between Coates’s letter to his son and varieties of medieval literature.

The word “text” in the previous sentence is crucial. Like Virginia Woolf and many other (post)Modernist writers, Coates is playing with genre.  The Library of Congress call # for Between the World and Me begins with E185, placing it in the overall category of “History of the Americas.”  But Between the World and Me is probably not a history book. It could be classified as a memoir, or an autobiography, or a political essay, or cultural critique – or all of those things at the same time. It defies easy classification and in doing so challenges the way that we usually examine texts or apportion different readings to different disciplines or departments. I suspect that Coates is not often taught in a literature class, but he is indeed a literary artist and is also very aware of his work as part of a literary tradition (he tells us that he spent most of his sophomore year in the library, after all).  Coates is on some levels emulating the medieval genres of conduct literature and the public epistle. In this very contemporary, politically charged text, he draws on some of the oldest western literary traditions.

Conduct literature – advice from an adult to a younger person – is as old as human civilization.  The genre exploded in the European Middle Ages with conduct manuals in every European vernacular as well as Latin (Johnston’s Medieval Conduct Literature is a great introduction). Some were written by actual parents for actual children; others by spiritual or fictional or metaphorical adults.  Women as well as men wrote these advice manuals – one the earliest known medieval women writers was Dhuoda, a ninth-century Frankish aristocrat who wrote a conduct manual for her son. In providing reflection and advice for his son, Coates is treading this well-worn path. Also like these medieval authors, Coates knows that his actual audience is much broader than simply his biological child.

The public letter also has roots that go further into the past than the medieval period — the notion of the letter as a private exchange between two people is a modern idea.  In the Middle Ages, letters were understood as public documents that circulated far beyond the original writer and recipient, socially, geographically, and chronologically. Unless they specifically directed otherwise, letter writers assumed that the letter would be read aloud in a quasi-public setting in front of a group or community. Since literacy was not generally available, people of all social classes relied on literate men and women to write and read their correspondence. When Gregory the Great sent a letter to Abbot Mellitus about the conversion mission to England, he did not know specifically that Bede would copy it over one hundred years later into the Ecclesiastical History, but he did know that he was proclaiming policy that would be widely and publicly shared throughout the church community. Throughout Between the World and Me, Coates occasionally uses “you” to remind us, his general readers, of the fiction that the text is actually addressed only to his son. If he had wanted simply to write a letter to his son, he would have done so in our modern sense of composing private correspondence that is not generally shared with others (after all, it is a federal crime to open mail addressed to someone else). The epistolary form of the text thus provides a sense of intimacy, of privacy, between the modern author and his audience. The medieval, public form of the letter combines with our modern sense of the privacy of correspondence to create an effective and affective generic blend.

I suspect that my colleagues in the Cultural Literacy Curriculum Institute will have discussion focuses far from literary genre when we get to Between the World and Me next Wednesday.  Coates’s work is brilliant in many ways, and I’m looking forward to learning more about how it can affect my pedagogy and the multicultural goals of my university.  As the Massachusetts Medievalist, however, I also want to celebrate the ways that Coates deftly uses medieval traditions of genre to establish a trustful and intimate relationship with his audience.

The Massachusetts Medievalist Goes to the Schlesinger

Last Friday, I visited the Radcliffe Institute’s Schlesinger Library on the History of Women in America. What business, you might ask, did the Massachusetts Medievalist have at an institution dedicated to American history?

I’m at the tail end of a project I started five-plus years ago, currently titled Public Medievalists, Racism, and Suffrage (yes, I need a better title! suggestions welcome!). The Schlesinger visit was a crucial part of the “suffrage” focus, because I am investigating uses of medievalist imagery by the American suffrage movement and had hit something of a wall. The American suffrage activists were following the lead of their U.K. sisters, who used the language of crusade and Joan of Arc to describe their “quest” for voting rights.

The most famous example of the medievalist impulse in American suffrage history is Inez Milholland’s performance as the “herald” of the Women’s Suffrage Parade in Washington D.C. on 3 March 1913.

With her crown, sweeping white cape, flowing hair, white horse, and riding gloves shaped like armored gauntlets, Milholland provided a medievalist illustration of the glamour of the suffrage movement. The cover of the parade’s program, expensively printed in color, exaggerated Millholland’s medievalist costume in its extravagant trappings for the horse, the billowing purple cape, and the “Votes for Women” flag on the trumpet.

Cover of March 1913 Suffrage Parade Program

I was having trouble, however, finding less-famous medievally-inspired suffragettes, and so turned to the experts at the Schlesinger for assistance.  Ellen Shea, Head of Research Services at the Schlesinger, gave me an overview of some of their excellent finding aids and research guides. To be honest, I had looked around on their website quite a bit before making the appointment, had found the amount of information overwhelming, and had not found anything useful for my topic.  Ellen did a great job making their vast resources seem much more manageable and focused.

With Ellen’s help, I found many medievalist-suffragist primary sources, most of which will end up in the book.  Right now, I want to share two images (I’m figuring that it’s okay to post these images here, since I retrieved them from the open-access via.harvard.edu) that show that the medievalist impulse in American suffrage went further than Inez’s 1913 parade outfit.

Medievally-costumed women at May 1914 Boston suffrage parade

The first shows two participants in the Boston suffrage parade of 2 May 1914; they were specifically dressed as Joan of Arc and Isabella of Spain (Ellen found that information for me too, in a contemporary Boston Globe article). Like Inez, these women ride astride, not side-saddle, and they seem to be having a good time.  They were probably inspired by Inez, at least to some extent, although they have chosen to depict specific medieval women rather than invoking the Middle Ages more generally.

The medievalist imagery extended as well to the American collegiate suffrage movement, as the Stanford University chapter of the Collegiate Woman Equal Suffrage League used the image of a questing knight to advertise the club’s meeting in “Roble Hall Saturday 2pm Sharp.”  The Stanford Knight-Lady’s horse wears a fabulous fleur-de-lis caparison; her accessories include a sword and the banner proclaiming the club’s name and featuring a crowned queen in a sunburst. Unfortunately, the Stanford suffragettes didn’t include date or year on their poster, and the Schlesinger notes it only as 1903-1926, so we have no idea if the poster could have been inspired by Inez’s 1913 performance.

Poster advertising suffrage meeting at Stanford University

All of these images draw on contemporary, popular conceptions of the European medieval world to proclaim American female strength and perseverance in the activist’s fight for full citizenship. That’s why the Massachusetts Medievalist was at the Schlesinger Library, and my trip there proves a point I make continually to my students:  When in doubt, ask a librarian!

Meet the Massachusetts Medievalist

The Massachusetts Medievalist blogs in this space on medieval studies, the humanities, higher education, and Massachusetts cultural events, especially medieval-related ones.

The Massachusetts Medievalist is Mary Dockray-Miller, professor of English in the Humanities program at Lesley University, author of The Books and the Life of Judith of Flanders, and avid fan of Massachusetts arts and culture.  Follow me on Twitter @MDockrayMiller