Why am I a medievalist?

Racism and medievalism

The recent swell of publicly expressed racism, xenophobia, misogyny, and other forms of prejudice in western democracies has led to redoubled calls for professional students of the Middle Ages to address the role medieval history has in supporting racist views of the world. That’s ‘medieval history’ both in the sense of professional research and in the sense of wider understandings of the medieval past. (I’m thinking of things like Sierra Lomuto’s ‘White Nationalism and the Ethics of Medieval Studies’, Donna Zuckerberg’s excellent ‘How to Be a Good Classicist Under a Bad Emperor’, Sarah J. Pierce’s ‘ “Both Sons of Spain”: Medieval Jews and Muslims in the Imagined Nation’, and a prominent more-heat-than-light Twitter spat about migration in late Antiquity. This post also owes a lot to the PhD research of Vicki Cooper at Leeds.)

If I have a contribution to make at this point, it’s to offer an autobiographical account of how neatly linked medievalism and racism can be. It’s easy to google our way to self-confessed fascists toting isolated bits of medieval culture in notional support of their inhuman politics. But as a professional Anglo-Saxonist, I’d like to sketch out some of my own ideological commitments at the soft end of the same spectrum. (And I do (so far) think it is the same spectrum.)

Here’s a (selective but meaningful) sketch of me and my relationship with medieval stuff at two points in my life: twenty-five years ago, and now. My relationship with medieval stuff has (I’m grateful to report and my colleagues will be grateful to hear) changed so much in between these points it’s in some ways bizarre to talk about the two together. Yet the relationship between twelve-year-old me and medieval stuff still feels intimately familiar to thirty-seven-year-old me today, and utterly recognisable in the public discourses around me. I’m not suggesting many medievalists got into their subjects as young as I did or in the same way. But I do hope that my autobiographical musing might be stimulating for other people as they size up their own implicit ideological commitments within medieval studies.

Me aged 12-14, in sub-rural Buckinghamshire (one of the wealthy counties in the London commuter belt)

If at this point in my life you’d given me a Cambridge University prospectus and said ‘which degree do you want to do?’ I’d have chosen Anglo-Saxon, Norse and Celtic — the degree I was lucky enough to do, and the subject from which I now make a living.

  • I have to do a school project about a foreign country. I ask my teacher why I can’t do Britain; he explains it might be healthy to learn about somewhere else. I choose Norway — I’m not sure why, but at least it seems a clean, upstanding sort of place.
  • I go to see Robin Hood, Prince of Thieves for my twelfth birthday (I think it’s great, but I take it for granted that Morgan Freeman is only in it for political correctness).
  • I have to rank my preferences for what foreign language to study at school; I write a screed in and beyond the ‘any other comments’ box about how much I hate romance languages. German would be okay (although the accent is ugly). (But I don’t really like modern languages at all and really want to do Latin, the deadest language on offer.)
  • I take myself for walks in the pretty countryside, wondering if it looked this way a thousand years ago.
  • I read The Lord of the Rings.
  • I try to read the Penguin translation of Beowulf, which is baffling, but I pretend it’s good anyway.*
  • Although I know that living in the eleventh century would be rubbish, I can’t help thinking it would be kind of cool.
  • I feel like I don’t have an accent or a particular identity. It doesn’t occur to me that, in a global context, my whiteness, Englishness, southernness, or even masculinity are actually quite distinctive. I think it might be cool to have an identity; Saxon yeoman would do fine.
  • I have hardly any idea what a university is and no idea at all that you can get paid to teach at one, but that doesn’t stop me educating anyone I can get my hands on about medieval stuff.

The short version, then, is that I got into medieval studies (at least partly) as a small-n nationalist teenager because it offered me an alternative view of my identity while not raising any really serious challenges to me assuming that white men are the default variety of human. And in lots of ways, twelve-year-old me is still a companion to my older-and-wiser self a quarter of a century later.

Me aged 37, in Leeds (one of the wealthy cosmopolitan cities of northern England)

I know now that I have an accent! But there are still some significant continuities between my work now and my prior self.

  • I have gone out with people from, and lived in, a few different countries; I enjoy trying to speak their languages; I now have close family on three continents. My partner’s a person of colour and articulate about the consequences that has. These people and experiences have made it obvious to me that I do have distinctive identities — intricate and mostly enjoyable variations on Southern English, British, European, and Citizen of the World. I have some idea that my whiteness is not just a blank normality, but is itself a distinctive identity (which also happens to afford me a lot of privileges).
  • I teach in a country with the lowest or nearly lowest social mobility in the OECD, whose education system functions primarily to replicate the social hierarchy (though of course I’m honoured to have taught people who were exceptions): I am, mostly, paid by my already well educated students to polish them up a bit more and help them keep competition from further down the social ladder at bay. I am the biggest earner in my household, which is in the UK’s 93rd percentile by income (much lower by wealth, but on the way up). I now have no desire whatsoever to live in the eleventh century. But would this be true if I was still living with frustrations and limitations comparable those I had as a teenager?
  • My main claim to fame (apart from the Old Norse Magic Sheet!) is a book about Anglo-Saxon elves. It’s really scholarly and I’m proud of it, but it’s perhaps not coincidentally also on a topic twelve-year-old me would have approved of. Quite a lot of people have bought it, some because they’re neo-pagans seeking an authentic English identity through nostalgic invented religion (which is okay as far as it goes — live and let live). Some of them also think that England has too many migrants, that it should be reserved for white people, and/or that Islam is an inherently dangerous religion (all of which is very much contrary to a live and let live philosophy, so I find it alarming that my research has for some people been a brick in the wall for these attitudes). I spend a lot of time explaining to my students that writers don’t determine what readers make of their texts … But I am aware that twelve-year-old me would have read the book through a white nationalist prism — perhaps the acorn didn’t fall far from the oak.
  • My top dinner party introduction is that I teach Icelandic for a living. I am proud to get to promote a language with only 300,000 speakers. But I’m aware that Icelandic is probably the best supported and most thriving language of its size in the world — indeed, it’s much better supported than many far bigger languages. At least 6,000 languages — 85% — are both smaller and worse served. So why am I devoting so much effort to Icelandic? The main reasons are: (a) Leeds’s institutional commitment to the subject, dating back to the 1920s; (b) the fact that my younger self chose to invest time learning Old Norse rather than, say, Konkani; and (c) current students’ enthusiasm for learning about the land of Björk and the Vikings. The students are often unsure why they want to study Iceland, but it seems a clean, upstanding sort of place.

So for all my right-on politics, my work as a medievalist is embedded in much deeper, conservative and often xenophobic ideological structures, both in my own biography and in the biographies of my institution and my students, which lock me into political projects far beyond my immediate control. My twelve-year-old self remains oddly influential, or at least still feels at home.

Which is not the end of the world…

I’m not saying this to beat myself up (much) or to suggest that twelve-year-old me should already have been a fully rounded human being or to imply there’s no point trying to change things. Rather, I’d like to see more colleagues and students reflecting deeply on their ideological commitments to the medieval in order to change things. Some of us can I’m sure conclude that we’ve come to the subject without any significant baggage. But it’d be wise to check, and perhaps revealing!

Happily, by facing these ideologies head on, I make my subject more interesting for me and my students (whatever our politics might be). Here are a few examples:

  • It’s traditional to teach Old English and its literature alone (or perhaps alongside Old Norse and/or Middle English). I’m now teaching it with extensive reference to the multilingual, multi-ethnic culture in which it was spoken — which also makes for a richer palette of primary texts to draw on. (As the populist and perhaps heavy-handed tone of this module description suggests, this is still a small step, but it’s a start.)
  • Our field has never really got on top of the post-modern crisis in historiography (which posits that the past is all just stories — a proposition that suggests that ultimately you can tell any story about the past you like). I haven’t cracked this problem, but I should always discuss it with my students now. The key political challenge of our day is right there at the centre of my subject.
  • Sierra Lomuto emphasises that globalising your scope without addressing the politics of your subject doesn’t do any good for a progressive political agenda. But globalising your scope while also addressing politics opens up exciting possibilities on lots of fronts. One (with hindsight) obvious point for me is that lots of early medieval north-west European verse has really interesting contemporaneous comparisons in the Arabic-speaking world. Surely the only reason no-one’s ever worked on this is the old Eurocentricity of medieval studies, that tacitly defines today’s Europe as modern by giving it a medieval past, and defines the borders of today’s Europe by excluding the Islamic world from participating in that medieval past. I’m not going to become a proper Arabist any time soon. But by stretching my teaching, I might inspire some students to.

* It IS good. It’s amazing! But it was later in life that I come to this conclusion with any confidence, and for different reasons…


About alarichall

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14 Responses to Why am I a medievalist?

  1. Haukur says:

    There is so much delicious food for thought here that I have trouble even beginning. But I imagine your story here applies to many people. Let’s say a young man becomes interested in medieval literature because of an attachment to – let’s call it martial, patriotic virtues. But once he gets so far as to study these things in a university he has become a member of a culture which values a very different set of virtues, which he duly internalises. But he still retains the delight from his childhood in medieval things. What happens? One thing that can happen is that he starts to perceive the old literature as in sync with his new value system. So it turns out that the medieval writers were ever so cosmopolitan and wrote ironic and clever texts which subverted gender roles and criticised warfare so on and so forth. And I’m not going to say this is wrong per se and maybe it’s a useful corrective to some earlier views. But let’s maybe not overdo this? I cringe a bit at the module you link to, with the description starting out with this sentence: “Early medieval Britain (c. 500-1100) was a vibrant, multicultural and multilingual society.” Like, okay, yes, this is not totally wrong but it’s a pretty selective view and I imagine it would have seemed a foreign way of looking at things to the typical person at the time.

    • alarichall says:

      Thanks Haukur! And as your musings emphasise, it’s also a privilege to be interested in a subject and then to get to go to university and really get to grips with it: this may indeed include acculturation to a new set of values (as it did for me), but it also includes the chance to gain a much deeper grasp of the facts, which is transformative in and of itself. I think the balance and interaction between those two personal transformations (one ontological and one epistemological) is really interesting and I’d love to understand it better.

      You’re right about that module outline, and as our narrow window of opportunity for tweaking blurbs at Leeds is about to come round, I’ll revise it soon 🙂 Forgive the length of what follows: don’t feel obliged to reply! But it’s something I’ve wanted to give some thought to, so I might as well do it here.

      Apart from not wanting to write anything cringeworthy in general, I also don’t want to fail at recruiting students because I look like I’m trying too hard! On the other hand, the blurb has to convince 19-year-olds with little or no academic exposure to medieval stuff to take the module instead of (excellent) alternatives like Postcolonial London or Imagining Posthuman Futures. (This, of course, also reverts to my point about how my institutional role is in some ways inherently conservative.) Moreover, my average student’s default expectation is something like: “Early medieval Britain (c. 500-1100) was a backward, homogeneous, and culturally stagnant society.” And although this is in important senses true, it’s a pretty selective view which I need to resist both to recruit but also to provide a factually balanced perspective. (Part of the issue here, of course, is that the course inevitably studies the art of cultural elites, who did live in an artistically vibrant, multilingual world, with lots of travel — but which does provide a pretty circumscribed view of early medieval life, with its own political implications.)

      That said, is ‘vibrant, multicultural and multilingual’ so different from how Bede portrays Britain at the beginning of the Historia Ecclesiastica?

      BRITAIN, an island in the ocean, formerly called Albion, is situated between the north and west, facing, though at a considerable distance, the coasts of Germany, France, and Spain, which form the greatest part of Europe. … Britain excels for grain and trees, and is well adapted for feeding cattle and beasts of burden. It also produces vines in some places, and has plenty of land and waterfowls of several sorts; it is remarkable also for rivers abounding in fish, and plentiful springs. It has the greatest plenty of salmon and eels; seals are also frequently taken, and dolphins, as also whales; besides many sorts of shellfish, such as muscles, in which are often found excellent pearls of all colours, red, purple, violet, and green, but mostly white. … This island at present, following the number of the books in which the Divine law was written, contains five nations, the English, Britons, Scots, Picts, and Latins, each in its own peculiar dialect cultivating the sublime study of Divine truth.

      Which is not to say that Bede was telling the whole truth — but I’m not sure my words make for a bad summary of his tone. The interesting challenge here, of course, is navigating the tension between narrating the past on its own terms, and in ours — which relates to the postmodern crisis in historiography.

      (via http://sourcebooks.fordham.edu/basis/bede-book1.asp)

      • Haukur says:

        Thanks for replying, Alaric! You bring up yet more good stuff to chew on but I think I’ll limit each comment to one subject. Here: Bede. Yes, I would argue that “Early medieval Britain (c. 500-1100) was a vibrant, multicultural and multilingual society” implies something different from Bede’s description in Book 1. Bede doesn’t say that early Britain was *a* society – certainly not one society where people of many ethnic groups live intermingled in equality and harmony, which is the implication I think a naive student will take from “a vibrant, multicultural and multilingual society”. Bede describes the different nations as living largely separate from each other – that is to say when they are not waging war on one another, which they frequently are. This, too, is too facile a summary, but you take my point.

        For every high-minded harmonious note like “each in its own peculiar dialect” you could cite a dozen passages about annoying savages and heretics who need to be kept out or kept in their place. At the end of Book 5, Bede lays out the present situation of Britain, it is worth quoting from this:

        “The Scots that inhabit Britain, satisfied with their own territories, meditate no hostilities against the nation of the English. The Britons, though they, for the most part, through innate hatred, are adverse to the English nation, and wrongfully, and from wicked custom, oppose the appointed Easter of the whole Catholic Church; yet, from both the Divine and human power withstanding them, can in no way prevail as they desire; for though in part they are their own masters yet elsewhere they are also brought under subjection to the English. Such being the peaceable and calm disposition of the times…”

        Next up: 12-year-old me!

      • Haukur says:

        I’ve been thinking more of the issue of the personally transformative aspects of becoming a scholar. Some Googling around led me to a study which says the following:

        “Another explanation for the disproportionate number of liberals in academia is that education per se causes students to become more liberal. For example, many may view education as “enlightening” and believe that an enlightened view comports with liberal politics. There is little evidence that education causes students to become more liberal. Instead, several longitudinal studies following tens of thousands of college students for many years have concluded that political socialization in college occurs primarily as a function of one’s peers, not education per se (Astin, 1993; Dey, 1997). These studies show that students become more liberal if they are around liberal peers, and more conservative if around conservative peers. Even the classic Bennington Study (Newcomb, 1943) concluded that it was conformity to liberal norms, more than education per se, that led students to become more liberal. Thus, reference group norms, more than educational enlightenment, lead people to become more liberal in college.”

        This is an area of study which I was not previously familiar with.

      • alarichall says:

        Thanks for your comments on this, Haukur! And sorry I only just got round to them :-\ Mind you, these issues aren’t going to disappear any time soon. The question of how we label the intercultural and interethic relations of eighth-century England would repay some (new) proper research, I think. I’m not sure people have looked at it much since the convulsive shift from talking about ‘race’ to talking about ‘ethnicity’ in the later twentieth century, which was led by archaeologists. I don’t know what the technical, sociological/anthropological uses of terms like ‘multicultural’ are, and it might be instructive to test out different terminologies/typologies against our early medieval evidence. (For example, I like how the synod of Whitby (allegedly) takes place in English and Irish partly because the king knows those languages; the native Latin-speaker present has to take a step back because his English isn’t up to it; and the guy who interprets Irish into English can do so because he’s a native English-speaker who was trained at an Irish foundation *in Northumbria*.) From the linguistic evidence, very divergent minimalist and maximalist possibilities are available: that somewhere like Northumbria actually contained a lot of Welsh-speakers, with English-speakers not being dominant demographically — or totally English-speaking except in some areas of recent conquest. Anyway, I’m not sure people have asked questions of the evidence in quite the ‘present-minded’ way that the discussion would provoke — and it might not be mad to do so!

        But it’s definitely crucial that I don’t just try to attract students to the past just by making it look like it fulfils their desires for the present. It’s also important, for example, to make the case for studying violent, patriarchal or otherwise ethically unappealing cultures — while not implying that we study them because we wish to become them.

    • alarichall says:

      Also, many thanks for the pointer about how acculturation works at universities. Very interesting indeed. Part of the question here would be what role the educators have in shaping group norms in their capacity as members of the group (rather than in their capacity as educators per se) — and what the ethical responsibilities of the educators are in those circumstances. It looks like a discussion about this may unfold on Facebook but for completeness’s sake I might come back here and post some thoughts later on — if it turns out I have any worth making public!

  2. Haukur says:

    We’re back in 1992. Hey, 12-year-old Alaric, meet 12-year-old Haukur! You two would have had a great time playing Warhammer together and one-upping each other with arcane knowledge. I had just learnt Völuspá by heart back then, though I don’t think reciting it at school won me any friends.

    I relate to a lot of what you say about your 12-year-old version. Mine, too, would be happy and probably not surprised to learn of my present life pondering old manuscripts. And I just finished an article on Völuspá. Come to think of it, it was just last week that I spent 8 hours playing a board-game with my PhD-student, and a wargame at that. Maybe I’m an unreconstructed 12-year old?

    One thing I think I experienced differently is that I’m fairly sure that I had a strong sense of ethnic identity at the time. To see what that looked like here’s a quotation from Vigdís Finnbogadóttir’s New Year address in 1991 (almost any of her speeches would illustrate this well):

    “Öll eigum við okkur draumsýnir. Mín draumsýn er tengd því að við lifum í landi sem verði með sanni þekkt fyrir lifandi menningu, fyrir þekkingu og fyrir heilbrigt líf. Ég vil að þegar menn hugsi til þessa lands þá sjái þeir fyrir sér hreint land og óspillt, hreint loft, heilnæman mat, mannlíf sem stendur á gömlum merg og veit um leið öll þau tíðindi sem skipta máli á hverjum tíma. Við eigum reyndar töluvert af þessari mynd úti í heimi, eins og ég hef svo margoft orðið vör við á ferðum mínum. Það er ekki nema satt, að meðal upplýstra manna ríkir töluverð aðdáun á Íslendingum, fámennri sjálfstæðri þjóð sem ein þjóða í Evrópu hefur varðveitt fornt tungumál, sterk þjóð og stolt sem hafnar því að apa eftir orð úr ólíkum tungumálum heldur keppist við í nútímanum að þýða hugtök yfir nýjar uppfinningar og þekkingu með nýyrðum sem falla að þessari makalausu tungu, svo þjóðin geti haldið áfram að tala hana óbrenglaða og hugsa á henni með eigin orðum. Þeirri vegsemd fylgir að sjálfsögðu vandi: sá vandi að standa sem best undir henni og öll þurfum við að taka á okkur þá ábyrgð. En ekki til þess að rembast við að koma til móts við óskhyggju erlendra vina okkar, þótt ágætir séu, heldur fyrst og fremst vegna okkar sjálfra, sjálfsvirðingar okkar og vilja til að lifa í þessu landi. Og það var einmitt fararnestið sem okkur var fengið í byrjun þessarar aldar þegar hylla tók undir frelsi okkar og sjálfstæði.”

    To wit: Pure nature, a pure language, a sense of tradition, national pride, freedom and independence. Or, as you put it, “a clean, upstanding sort of place” – and usually with the warning that there were few of us and it was our duty to preserve this. I grew up on this and it became a part of me, and it still is.

    Politically speaking, 12-year-old me might be disappointed to learn of some of my present political views which he would have found boringly centrist and incoherent. As a teenager I was fascinated with socialism one week and libertarianism the next – any great ideological system and none of these silly compromises. And teenage me would have felt particularly betrayed to learn that both my children have patronymics rather than matronymics.

    It is certainly a good point that it is useful and noble to learn about things that our 12-year-old selves knew nothing about. I have a half-finished article in my files where I try to proof that two extinct languages from the Rio Grande area are distantly related to each other. But I’m stuck on obtaining the final data I need. There’s a manuscript in the Smithsonian Institute which I need to look at to confirm some things but they charge so much for photographs that it would be cheaper to fly over and take a look in person. And it would be awkward to obtain funds for that since this doesn’t really fall under the mission of my institute. So, yeah, you’re certainly not wrong that there are plenty of cultures and languages which are less served by scholarship than Icelandic is.

    • alarichall says:

      Thanks also for these musings! Good to know I’m not alone in these matters… And I had no idea about the extinct languages from the Rio Grande stuff! How cool! I’m hoping to be in the US in the autumn if you want to send me to have a look…

  3. Haukur says:

    On the Arabic front, I am reminded of Steingrímur Thorsteinsson’s translation of Arabian Nights, where he makes some comparisons with medieval Icelandic literature:

    “Er kveðskapur þessi næsta auðugur af hugmyndum og samlíkingum, en þó gera menn meira orð á því, heldur en í raun og veru er. Því sömu samlíkingarnar koma fyrir aftur og aftur, líkt og kenningarnar í hinum forna kveðskap vorum. … Eins kann sumum að hætta við, að taka einungis eftir hinu óstjórnlega í ímynduninni, þar sem ræðir um risa, anda og ýmsar stórkostlegar hugsmíðar, sem eiga skylt við hið indverska hugmyndalíf og jafnvel hina fornu trú forfeðra vorra … hver getur lesið um hinar stórkostlegu sjónhverfingar svo, að honum detti ekki í hug ferð Þórs til Útgarða-Loka?”

    This was written in 1857. But if we set the time machine back to 1992, this was one of my favorite books and I would spend long hours with the three hefty tomes. And I remember reading the preface and having no idea what ‘kenningar’ was supposed to mean in this context.

    • alarichall says:

      Spacy! What a great reference point: ta. Conversely, I read the preface and have altogether little idea what ‘kenningar’ might mean in any other context… This is quite fun too: T. M. Johnstone, ‘Nasīb and Mansöngur’, The Journal of Arabic Literature, 3 (1972), 90-95. There’s little enough written on the mansöngur form in English, but what there is is a comparison with Arabic!

  4. Haukur says:

    My critique of the module description probably came across more harshly than I intended. I like the ‘populist’ style and the method of listing a bunch of exciting things: “The True Cross speaks; a woman sits and weeps; an archbishop, faced with Viking invaders, calls on his nation of sinners to repent; exiles ply the icy sea.” This is great. Concrete examples often give a clearer idea than generalized abstractions.

  5. I guess I’m one of those Pagans you mentioned. lol I have to say that it is nice to see Medievalists doing such work, falling outside of the right to far right side of the spectrum. Not that I am much on the left anymore, but I’m far from the right as well. It would be my hope, “progressive”, or otherwise, that those in your field, falling outside of the far right, alt right, and whatnot, continue to produce quality works.

    As I watch Heathenry grow, I see the far right having a greater influence, which I find disturbing. Since, looking at the Anglo-Saxons in that time period, and being immigrants themselves back then, it saddens me to see people using them for political maneuvering. I look at them and see little in common with modern politics, since they lived in such a different world. So, I’m not the biggest fan of history with a political agenda.

    I also like to think that folks could draw their own conclusions, but for all of this talk of folkish pride, they seem to forget that the Anglo-Saxons had little issue in going to war with each other, at least when they were still Heathen, the idea of an Anglo-Saxon folk didn’t much exist. I know to non Heathens it probably isn’t too much an issue what Heathens do, but as it grows, I figure it is bound to touch the larger culture, so, I’d like to hope that the majority of us, who do not hold such views are noted as well. That we welcome the developments in the academic community that might help us teach others that there is much more to the Anglo-Saxons than the far right would like to be known.

  6. Pingback: Teaching the Pre-Modern Post-Election | MASSachusetts State Universities MEDIEVAL Blog

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