The Massachusetts Medievalist on medieval authorship (with reference to Anne Spear and the Sewanee Medieval Colloquium)

Last month, the Massachusetts Medievalist traveled to the Sewanee Medieval Colloquium, which featured blooming spring flowers and engaging conversations about the Middle Ages.  My role was to act as respondent to two fine papers in a session on Medieval Gender and Medieval Form; I want to focus here on my response to the second paper, Anne Spear’s “Anchoritic Affect: Gender and Form in þe wohunge of ure lauerd,” which won the conference’s award for best graduate student paper. (The wohunge appears only in British Library MS Cotton Titus D.18; open-access Middle English text here; unfortunately, it seems like there are no open-access Modern English translations, although I recommend Catherine Innes-Parker’s excellent 2015 edition and translation from Broadview.)

Spear’s paper made me think about our modern ideas about medieval authors, and about how we need to reconfigure those ideas, especially regarding anonymous texts that were made explicitly for women users. Herewith a version of part of my response to her work:

At Sewanee, Anne’s conclusions focused on how the Wohunge is ultimately “reflective of female experience” and she nuanced the distinction between what she termed the male author and the female voice of the text. In this distinction, she followed current scholarly consensus about the prayer’s authorship, although the Wohunge‘s first editor (Thompson, 1958) suggested that the author was probably female. Innes-Parker has discussed various manuscript evidences that show that the texts in the Wooing Group circulated independently from one another; Innes-Parker suggests copies on single sheets or in small booklets that would have been easy to handle and quick to copy among and for other potential users.

It could be my lack of familiarity with the critical traditions around the Wohunge group, but I have not been able to find any incontrovertible evidence that the “author” of this text is one person who is a man, or even one person who is a woman. From Innes-Parker’s presentation of the textual traditions, and from Spear’s excellent analysis of the female voice articulating its passions and desires, I suggest that we need to complicate our idea of authorship, especially for a text that obviously has a much more complicated history of transmission than its sole surviving manuscript witness.  To take just the Wohunge as a single example —  allow me to propose a narrative like the following:

In the English West Midlands in the first half of the thirteenth century, an aristocratic, professed religious woman asks her priest/confessor/scribe to create a prayer booklet for her that will allow her to read and recite as prayer texts some of the ideas he and she have been discussing in their conversations about her religious devotions and practices.  He does so. When he first brings it to her, she reads it enthusiastically and then, the next week, asks him to make a fresh copy incorporating some changes and additions she would like to see. She especially wants the addition of “huniter,” “honey-drop,” since it reminds her of the beehives behind the house where she spent her childhood.

A month or so later, she asks him to copy those now-revised texts and send the small booklet to one of her female relatives, whose religious devotion is also well-known among their community and social networks. That woman is very pleased to receive this important gift, and before she asks her scribe/confessor/priest to copy the booklet as a gift for the local abbess, she asks him to expand the reference to the crown of thorns, since the local abbess is known to be especially devoted to the crown among the instruments of Christ’s passion. Perhaps she even specifically dictates the expanded lines to him –or, dare I suggest, to her?

Multiply similar exchanges numerous times both before and after Scribe B creates the text that we know from Cotton Titus D.18. Such a narrative conforms more closely to that of the “writers’ room” model that guides much of our modern television and film writing than to a default Romantic model of a single, implicitly male author individually creating an entire text.

Another potentially useful modern concept here is our culture’s current wrestling with the implications of open access and creative commons publishing. A number of media scholars have thought about the implications of medieval literary cultures as pre-copyright, of course, especially when the primary goal of most manuscript copying was adherence to rather than expansion of the original primary text. I wonder if the Wohunge group as well was something of an open-access group effort, only one stage of which is represented in Titus D.18.

Ultimately, we need to question more radically the idea of presumed individual male authorship of a fixed, unchanging text of the Wohunge, thus understanding the text we have of the Wohunge prayer as a text composed, revised, re-written, and tweaked by a variety of authors and users along its way to the form we have. This process would then function as a useful model in further analysis of this female-voiced text and indeed in the many anonymous texts that form the bulk of extant medieval literature.

The Massachusetts Medievalist reviews Voices: The Final Hours of Joan of Arc

Between watching the crocuses bloom and the robins feast, the Massachusetts Medievalist this past weekend spent some time with my colleague David Elliott’s brilliant and disturbing new book, Voices: the final hours of Joan of Arc.

Ostensibly a YA verse-novel, Voices is genre-defying.  It is indeed all poetry, but it’s not a novel (although it provides a narrative), it’s not a biography (although it relates the crucial events in the life of the historical woman we call Joan of Arc), and it’s not even really “YA” (whatever that amorphous term means).  Elliott has made a space to experiment with a variety of voices as he explores the life of Joan of Arc, probably the most recognizable medieval woman in our contemporary pop culture.

For those who need a refresher: Joan was a teenage peasant girl who followed the instructions she heard in her head from Saints Catherine, Michael, and Margaret to wear men’s clothes and lead the French king to victories in battle during the conflict known as the Hundred Years War. She was captured by the English in 1430, tried as a heretic, and then burned at the stake in 1431.

Cover image of Elliott's Voices

Elliott has given voice to a number of the inanimate objects that figure in Joan’s narrative: we hear the thoughts of the armor she wore, the church altar she prayed before, the sword she used, even the crossbow that wounded her in battle when she was captured.  As she stands bound to the stake of execution, Joan herself speaks her own narrative –  while the fire grows around her, she tells and reflects on her own story. The fire itself speaks as well, the most frequent narrator after Joan.

Elliott’s accomplishment here – and that of the editor and type-designer who supported him – is remarkable on a number of levels. Other than Joan, the characters and voices speak using late medieval poetic forms like the triolet or the rondeau (helpfully listed in the author’s note at the end of the text), forms that Joan and her communities would have known. Some of these poems are also presented as shape-poems: the sword’s episode is presented on the page in the shape of a sword, for example. Joan herself speaks in what Elliott calls “a kind of toned-down spoken word,” with varied line lengths, internal rhymes, and startling, individualized imagery and diction. Direct quotations (in Modern English, not French!) from the Joan trial transcripts are scattered throughout the text.  I can only imagine the consternation at the Houghton Mifflin marketing department: you want us to sell WHAT?

And yet it works. By the end, we know Joan, her thoughts, her dreams, her beliefs, and we dread the fire and the ending even as we know it is inevitable. While I’d recommend Voices to anyone, I especially want my colleagues in medieval studies to read it, to see the ways that contemporary authors continue to reshape the texts of the Middle Ages in exciting and provocative ways.

To whet that appetite, some lines spoken by Joan’s war horse (part of a rondel):

Many a knight had been cowed and outdone
by my spirit, left broken, unseated, unmade.
But she understood. Unbridled blood runs
molten and wild, unrestrained, unsurveyed.

And she was like me and so we were one.

 

And coda: my colleague Anthony Apesos has made a series of paintings loosely based on the Tarot deck, thematically appropriate in a week where I helped the sophomores struggle through T.S. Eliot’s “Waste Land.”  See his unsettling and beautiful “deck” here as well as his kickstarter page, where he explains the “suits” in his deck and some of his thinking behind the images. Enjoy!

The Massachusetts Medievalist returns to the Old English Exodus (and the startling African woman at its end)

The Massachusetts Medievalist took advantage this week of some bonus time to return to the semi-stalled project on the African woman of the Old English Exodus (all my students are reading and writing but as of this moment I have no student work to read). I blogged about her last spring during my initial burst of activity on this project, and I now face a deadline, since I’m giving a paper about her at Kalamazoo in May.

I’m still wrestling with the end of the poem, where the afrisc meowle (“African woman”) appears during the Israelites’s celebration after their crossing of the Red Sea and the destruction of the Egyptian army in the same waters. She is “easily-found, on the ocean’s shore, gold-adorned” (þa wæs eðfynde Afrisc meowle, / on geofones staðe golde geweorðod , ll.580-581). In April, I stated that I thought she was the “only woman of color in the Old English poetic corpus.” Today, I’m sure that she’s the only African woman in the entire Old English corpus, both poetry and prose. I’m still not quite sure exactly why that’s important, but I know it is.

Sometime in the last few months, I stumbled upon the following wisdom from one of our Nobel laureates:

“Imaginary Africa was a cornucopia of imponderables that, like the monstrous Grendel in Beowulf, resisted explanation” Toni Morrison, Origin of Others (104).

Morrison’s latest essay collection, The Source of Self-Regard, also includes a version of this sentence (as well as, separately, a full essay about Grendel and his mother). I’m interested here in her point that “Imaginary Africa….resisted explanation” — voicing for me the way the afrisc meowle has resisted the patristic explanations imposed upon her by critics in the last 50 years, as I discussed in April. I’ve also discovered that a number of early editors wanted to eliminate her entirely, emending the very clear text in the manuscript to remove her disturbing presence that “resists explanation” by changing afrisc to [h]ebrisc or meowle to neowle (or both).

Thanks to limited but free access for individuals to the Dictionary of Old English at the University of Toronto, I was able to find myriad references to journeys in Africa londe, a reference to a probably fictional author named Africanus, and a mention of a general’s victory ofer þa Africanas in Carthage, but no other women, no other individuals, described as African. So the afrisc meowle is multiply-unusual: she appears in a poem, she is female, she is individually distinct. She is also gold-adorned, a not-unusual descriptor for high-status women in Old English poetry (think of Wealhtheow in Beowulf, passing the cup in the hall).

The two lines describing her do little more than break up the otherwise seamless narrative of the Israelites’ celebration on the shore of the Red Sea. Before the description of her, they sing victory songs; after it, they divide the treasure that has washed up after the destruction of the Egyptians.  There’s no narrative reason in the poem for her appearance, and there’s no Biblical reason either — the narrative from the Hebrew Bible moves from the songs of celebration to the departure from the shore, with no distribution of treasure and no haunting, disruptive reference to a gold-adorned African woman.

So more research has led simply to more questions: I stand by my earlier rejection of patristic “explanations” for her presence and need to think more — and more quickly!– about her increasingly unsettling, Othered presence at the end of the OE Exodus. I’m sure she will resist any explanation of her that I propose as well.

The Massachusetts Medievalist roadtrips to Worcester Art Museum for Indian and Iranian manuscript art

The middle of Massachusetts can tend to get lost: Boston is an obvious destination for long-distance tourists and day-trippers, and western Massachusetts boasts various museums and performing arts venues, complemented by lots of lovely outdoor spaces. In the center of the state, Worcester Art Museum (WAM) is a relatively hidden gem in the revitalizing city of Worcester (soon to get its own minor league Red Sox team).  The museum beckons for a medievalist road trip to its “Preserved Pages” exhibit before it closes 6 January 2019.

WAM’s manageability is just one of the many reasons to love it, and like most of the galleries and exhibits, “Preserved Pages” occupies a relatively small space that is intellectually and emotionally accessible (as opposed to the somewhat overwhelming experiences of more gargantuan museums like the Met).  The items on display are all single-leaf illustrations that came from more substantial books or albums; they are divided into a number of sections (women at court, illustrations from the “Book of Kings”).

The medievalist in me gravitated to the earlier works, of course, although the exhibit as whole forces westerners to question the very periodization that divides “medieval” from “early modern.”

This watercolor from the early fourteenth century, Bahram Gur Hunting Onagers (wild ass), shows Chinese stylistic influence on Persian visual arts; it also depicts a universally recognized heroic king. I love the fur tails (lynx? gray leopard?) attached to the king’s hunting gear – and the museum has thoughtfully provided hand held magnifiers to allow visitors to study detail like the intricate patterns of the king’s robe and boots.

Watercolor of a king riding a horse, hunting herd animals

My favorite item in the exhibit, however, dates somewhat later: the c.1580 “Conversation between a man and a woman,” a watercolor from the Mughal period. The gold-flecked paper frame is exquisite, and the image itself finely detailed (thanks again to those magnifiers!).

A man and a woman gesturing and talking to each other in a gold-flecked frame

The figures sit in a beatifully enclosed architectural space. They look at and gesture to each other — the viewer becomes voyeur to this intimate and thoughtful moment. This conversation is peaceful and positive; the expressions on both faces are welcoming and empathetic.  The artist has shown us here the moment before the couple’s hands touch, as they are about to make physical the connection already established by their eyes and their faces.

WAM obtained many of these items through purchase in the first half of the twentieth century.  They are rarely on display, because of their fragile nature and also because of the highly specialized expertise needed to create an exhibit like this one (which is co-guest-curated by a Harvard graduate student in art history and a Harvard professor of Islamic art). WAM has provided a rare and important opportunity to see these intrinsically beautiful works that also productively disrupt Euro-centric notions of history and art. As I said: the exhibit closes 6 January.

The Massachusetts Medievalist begins to think about nation, race, and ethnicity in the Old English Exodus

In preparation for my new research project on the Old English Exodus, I’ve been reading the poem in its original language and in a variety of translations; I’ve also been reading its source text, the book of Exodus from the Hebrew Bible.  I’ve known for a while that I would turn next to this poem, as I think it can inform and be informed by this particular cultural moment, when many Americans are having difficult but essential conversations about race, ethnicity, immigration, and nationhood.  For me, the text’s original appeal was the brief mention of the Afrisc meowle at its very end (l.580) – the gold-adorned African woman who celebrates the triumph of the Israelites as they cross the Red Sea out of slavery towards the promised land.  I think she is the only woman of color in the Old English poetic corpus.

Here’s an image of that text from the manuscript (Oxford, Bodleian Library MS Junius 11, f.171):

image of the Exodus manuscript (detail)

A transcription of the text in question (starting from the second word):

              afrisc meowle on geofones staðe gol
de geweorðod

Which translates into Modern English as  “the African woman, on the water’s shore, with gold adorned.”

Most commentators on this part of the poem identify this woman as Moses’s Ethiopian wife, who is understood exegetically to represent the “Church gathered out of the nations.”1 Whatever her patristic meaning, she is also the only individual woman mentioned explicitly in this poem focused on battle, armies, tribes, and miracles.

Her participation in the celebration constrasts her with the most famous meowle in Old English poetry, the geatisc meowle (Geatish woman) who mourns at the funeral pyre at the end of Beowulf (l.3150). Both of them, however, are distinguished as a single woman in a group, separated from the group lexically if not logistically.  The meowle in Beowulf is surrounded by her people, the Geats for whom she predicts sorrow and defeat in the near future.

In Exodus, the afrisc meowle is eð-fynde (easy to find) within the group of celebrating Israelites – perhaps because of her gold ornaments, but more likely because of her physical difference from the Israelites, the phenotype of her skin color. The meowle of Exodus is in the group but not entirely part of it – she is differentiated as Afrisc rather than included as one of the Israhelum (Israelites) even as she sings and collects treasure with them. Her marriage with the leader of the group, the celebrated hero and law-giver, is not enough for her to completely assimilate into the folc or the Isrehela cynn (terms the poet uses to refer to the Hebrews following Moses).  Even alliance with the most powerful of patriarchs cannot fully integrate her into the group.

Marked as Other by her gender, her skin color, and her geographical origin, this easy-to-find woman has begun to represent for me the deep history of tensions in cultural assimilations and exclusions. Twentieth-century critics focused almost entirely on her exegetical meaning, allegorizing the actual meowle out of their interpretation of the poem. It’s time to refocus critical attention on her and her place in the text.

More updates to follow throughout the summer as I deepen my lexical and literary investigations into the Old English Exodus…..

  1. Fred Robinson, “Notes on the Old English ExodusAnglia 80 (1962): 363-378, at 376.

 

The Massachusetts Medievalist on the Medieval Echoes of Jesus Christ Superstar

If my twitter feed is any indication, much of the United States watched Jesus Christ Superstar on NBC last night and loved every minute of it.  I loved it as well, and I spent a lot time thinking about the medieval aspects of the production, a topic that would probably surprise many of the cast members.

Image of John Legend as Christ on the set of JCS

The set was brilliant – open scaffolding, a “deteriorating basilica” ceiling and back wall, an open fire pit (how’d they get a permit for THAT?), and an asymmetrical, multi-segmented stage that allowed the dancers and main cast members to get close to different parts of the audience. The costumes nodded to biblical-theatrical convention (John Legend’s deliberately timeless pants and shirt) as well as to the musical’s roots in the 1970s (Brandon Victor Dixon’s outfit for the last number) and to our contemporary moment.

Promo poster of Brandon Victor Dixon as Judas

But the medieval vibe came not from the set or the costumes but from the event.  All evening, I felt like I was having an experience something like that of the audience of one of the medieval miracle plays. In late medieval England, communities gathered on Corpus Christi day (21 June) to perform what we now call Cycle Plays — a series of dramatic re-enactments of the narratives of biblical history. The City of York actually still produces its Cycle, although quadriennally rather than annually.

With a probable origin in smaller-scale re-enactments in the church building, by the late Middle Ages the English cycle plays had moved out of the church and into the community with elaborate portrayals of the Creation of the World, the story of Noah, the Last Judgment – and many, many highly focused episodes of the Life of Christ. These included the Last Supper, the trial before Herod, the raising of Lazarus, and of course the betrayal and the Crucifixion. Last night, we watched John Legend as Christ submit to the Crucifixion just as medieval English people watched one of their neighbors enact Christ’s death on the cross in the Cycle Play.

I watched the broadcast with a small group at a neighbor’s house, rather than in a large group of townspeople on the village green. But the live broadcast, an event now reserved almost entirely for sports competitions, provided that sense of larger community. Our band of neighbors knew that we were experiencing the performance in real time with thousands of other Americans and viewers all over the world.  Because of the general decline in religous observance in the United States, many of those viewers were watching the performance as a cultural rather than religious experience. The Christiological narrative was the vehicle for the dancing and singing, rather than the opposite.

In the English Middle Ages, the Corpus Christi play was an annual event of civic pride and community celebration, and perhaps NBC will follow that medieval lead and present us every year with a version of Jesus Christ Superstar. If so, perhaps my future students will know the narrative of the life of Christ, whether or not they believe in it, seeing it as an important part of a shared, American cultural expression.

The Massachusetts Medievalist prepares for Kalamazoo

The program for the 2018 International Congress on Medieval Studies in Kalamazoo (10-13 May 2018) is now available, and the Feminist Renaissance in Anglo-Saxon Studies sessions are slotted into the dreaded 8:30 and 10:30 Sunday morning time slots. Becky Straple and I are the organizers of those sessions; we decided last fall that we would publicize / solicit feedback via social media on possible discussion questions for the “Feminist Projects in Process” round table session.

That session will begin with five short presentations:

Anglo-Saxon Philology and Digital Humanities: A Cautionary Tale for Twenty- First-Century Medievalists (Mary Dockray-Miller)

Does Beowulf-Scholarship Have a Gender Problem? (Spoiler: Yes) (Christopher Abram)

Hierarchies of Knowledge (Erin E. Sweany)

Finding Saint Ælfgifu: Digital Tools and Anglo-Saxon Women (Rachel S. Anderson)

Reading Female Characters from Chronicles to Pop Culture (Kelly Williams)

Among other issues, the participants will address these questions:

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 has your feminist project changed, if at all, to engage with, reflect upon, or react to recent political developments and the rise of the #MeToo and #TimesUp movements?”

Becky and I decided to add the last question (which was not in the original call for papers) in light of events and revelations in the past few months around sexual harassment and sexual assault throughout our culture.  These three questions will help Becky guide the discussion after the presentations.

To suggest other topics that would enrich the discussion after the more formal presentations, use the comment function below; tweet @MdockrayMiller or @restraple; contact Becky via Facebook.

And — if you’re attending Kalamazoo, please come to hear and contribute to the conversation,  despite the suboptimal time slot!

The Massachusetts Medievalist on A World Without “Whom” and the Undergraduate History of the English Language class

Yes, the Massachusetts Medievalist is at that point of the semester when reading a book about language usage feels like a guilty pleasure — but this is a very funny, very informative book about contemporary language.  While I suspect I am not Emmy Favilla’s ideal reader (since I am a middle-aged medieval studies professor who does not use most forms of digital media), I found her work to be immediately relevant to mine; it will shift the tone of my History of the English Language (HEL) class in spring 2018.

Cover of Favilla's "A World Without 'Whom'"

The creative writing major at my university requires the HEL class; the class can also count as elective in the English major. My teaching is largely socio-historical rather than technical: we don’t learn the International Phonetic Alphabet and we spend only a few weeks on Old and Middle English. Indeed, many of my HEL students have never thought about the concept that our language has a history at all, and a big part of my job is to get them to realize how our language’s history affects their daily lives and communications. Discussion about the linguistic impact of the digital revolution permeates the course, and Favilla has provided a myriad of useful examples to illustrate this lightning-fast language change.

Throughout the book, Favilla emphasizes two guiding principles: respect and clarity.  She provides excellent, specific advice about “How to Not Be a Jerk” (the title of chapter 4); for example, use “marriage equality” instead of “gay marriage” and “people with disabilities” rather than “disabled people.” Instead of trying to adhere to archaic rules about punctuation, she advocates punctuation that simply makes meaning clear: do you mean “I love your sister Drew” or “I love your sister, Drew”? She wants whom to become extinct, simply because it’s not needed for clarity in standard English, and explains the evolution and nuances of the new use of because as a preposition (as in because science)(163).

I know that my students use because as a preposition; they are more accustomed to singular they than I ever will be; they use emojis more than they use footnotes. Favilla’s work will help me contextualize these language changes that they know, that they are experiencing in real time, within the broader history of the language as a whole. For instance, English language users have been turning nouns into verbs for over a thousand years – so Favilla’s example of person as a verb  (as in “I immediately forgot how to person”)(211) is just a recent example, so recent as to sound awkwardly amusing, of a linguistic trend that also includes OE beag (n., crown) and beagian/begian (v., to crown).

Favilla has provided the most recent chapter of the History of the English Language along with some interesting sign-posts as we head into a world without “whom.”

Flavilla, Emmy J. A World Without “Whom.” New York: Bloomsbury, 2017.

The Massachusetts Medievalist thinks about labor pain and a medieval manuscript

This week, the Massachusetts Medievalist road tripped to Yale’s Beinecke Library to see “Making the Medieval English Manuscript: The Takamiya Collection in the Beinecke Library.” (Nota bene: the exhibit closes on 10 Dec!) While there are many stunningly beautiful and interesting items in the exhibit, I want to focus on Takamiya MS 56, which the catalog officially terms a “prayer roll” but is also described as a “‘birth girdle,’ which, if worn, would protect women in childbirth” (Gathering 29). It’s a long, thin strip of parchment, about five and half feet long and only three and half inches wide. Its use was quite literally as a girdle or belt, wrapped around a woman in labor to protect her and the child, and to help her with the pain. The prayers and invocations are in Middle English and in Latin, so this is a multilingual women’s artifact from the first half of the fifteenth century.

Prayers in Latin and Middle English, nails and other implements from Christ's Passion
New Haven, CT, Beinecke Library Takamiya MS 56; image from exhibition catalog.

As with many of the items in the exhibit, I wanted to have a more thorough look than that provided by the display cases. While I’m sure the curators wouldn’t allow it, I’d really like to unroll the entire item (advertised then and now as “equal to the height of the Virgin Mary” – at 1730mm, the Virgin was slightly taller than me?) to see all of the images and prayers and then perhaps wrap it around my own midriff, checking the artifact for signs of similar usage hundreds of years ago. Are there creases or dents or stains that could indicate use during active labor? Could it have torn or frayed or abraded during an unusually intense contraction? Did a laboring woman feel a sense of relief when it was applied? As I stood in the Beinecke lobby, suddenly thinking about the deliveries of my own two daughters with all the benefits of twentieth-century techology, I felt an odd kinship with an imagined series of medieval English women who labored with the help of this manuscript rather than with epidurals and other modern technologies. They were, I hope, soothed by the prayers and the physical application of this talisman.

Once the exhibit is taken down, MS 56 will go into storage, retrieved when requested to be viewed in the reading room; I hope it will also be digitized and made available online for those unable to travel to New Haven to see it. I’m sure some enterprising scholar will do an edition (and translation?) of the bilingual prayers it contains.  But I also hope that people who work with it, virtually or actually, will take a moment to think about the real labor pains of the real women who used this item 600 years ago, before epidurals or spinal blocks, and who endured the fear and risk of childbirth, protected only by their own strength and that of a devotional and wearable text.

Works Cited:
Clemens, Raymond, Diane Ducharme, and Emily Ulrich, A Gathering of Medieval English Manuscripts: The Takamiya Collection at the Beinecke Library (New Haven: Beinecke Library, 2017).

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.