Monday, 16 September 2019

Weaponising Medieval Studies

In his 1893 Preface to Robert Steele’s Medieval Lore, Morris argues that ‘at the present time those who take pleasure in studying the life of the Middle Ages are more commonly to be found in the ranks of those who are pledged to the forward movement of modern life’.  There is thus, in his view, a structural link between medievalist enthusiasms and Socialism.  If this ever were true, it has certainly been reversed in our own period, where white supremacist demonstrators at Charlottesville, USA, march with shields depicting Crusader motifs or banners featuring Anglo-Saxon runes.  The medieval period is being politically weaponised as part of a narrative that pits a unified white European Christendom against the threat of Islam; and the old Crusader war-cry, ‘Deus vult’, apparently features regularly on closed far-right websites.

Medieval scholars are, of course, fighting back with the appropriate professional weapons: argument and evidence.  For they must not only resist contemporary Fascist weaponisation of their field, but also confront the harder, and more internal, question: does medieval studies have an inbuilt white supremacy problem of its own?  Calls are afoot to ‘decolonise medieval studies’, and a group of ‘Medievalists of Color’ has been formed in the USA.  The aim is to show that medieval Europe was more racially diverse than we have conventionally thought, and that it faced significant issues of migration of its own.  This American debate formally arrived in this country with the conference on ‘Medieval Studies and the Far Right’ at St Edmund Hall, Oxford, on 11 May of this year.

It may be too utopian right now to believe that we can restore the link that William Morris saw between medieval enthusiasm and left-wing politics.  We may have to restrict ourselves for the moment – till our US comrades have got rid of Donald Trump, say – to the more modest but still politically urgent task of challenging white-supremacist constructions of the medieval.


Tony Pinkney said...

I am grateful to both the New York Times and the Economist for fine articles which have helped me write this post. For full details of the Oxford conference (which, alas, I didn't know about at the time), see:

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