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

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.