The Unbearable Whiteness of Medieval Studies

I’ve been demoted from snake to low-hanging fruit. As University of Chicago Divinity School M.A. student Dr. Karl E. H. Seigfried argues in his recent Sightings piece:
Few academics today openly support the Milo Yiannopouloses of the world, so denouncing the new breed of public hate monger can seem less like a brave stand than a signaling of virtue. By picking low-hanging fruit and standing against the most obviously bigoted targets, protesting professors avoid addressing parallel problems in their own disciplines.
Cue outrage. I’ll wait... Nothing yet? You do realize what just happened here? In one fell swoop, as befits a Viking, Dr. Seigfried renders both me and the colleagues who have been doing their best to distance themselves from me these past several months ridiculous. I can’t decide whether I should be outraged or relieved. I rather enjoy being a snake, opening people’s eyes. Just call me Lady Wisdom.

But according to Dr. Seigfried, I am not the real problem. (In truth, I am not. But, like Milo, I have learned how futile such protestations of association can be.) Rather, it is the field of medieval studies writ large, where the majority of faculty are white. In Dr. Seigfried’s view, however much my colleagues in the field may decry the overwhelming whiteness of our profession, they are kidding themselves if they think, for example, that “broadening the curriculum to establish a ‘multicultural Middle Ages’” will provide an effective counter to the racism historically attendant on the study of Anglo-Saxon language and literature.

Dr. Seigfried delivers the coup de grâce:
If Old English really does have “a serious image problem,” a full assessment of the issue requires reflection on issues of race in the hiring practices of the discipline itself.... To assert that white nationalism in the public sphere can be countered with white saviorhood in the academic realm is quite questionable.
His solution:
The same scholars who criticize the alt-right, call for expansion of subjects covered, and declare support for various embattled communities need to openly address and diligently fight the lack of diversity of their own faculties. Until the institutions reflect the diversity of their wider communities, it’s all too easy for the public to scoff at professors who decry prejudice while perpetuating systems of inequality in their own workplaces.
My guess is Dr. Seigfried (see author photo) will not be applying for academic jobs in Norse Studies any time soon. I have a harder time guessing how he plans to attract students from underrepresented communities to the study of Anglo-Saxon.

Perhaps he does not want to. “Medieval England as a field is dead,” one of my colleagues in medieval history asserted recently.*** Nor has it been particularly lively for the better part of my career. More precisely, nor has it been the field about which my colleagues in medieval studies allow themselves to be openly excited. That would poor taste. Much better to wax breathless about...anything other than the history of medieval England--or anywhere else in northern Europe (unless it’s pagan).

My colleagues’ solution--dismissed by Dr. Seigfried as disingenuous--has been to include in their telling of the history of medieval England (and other points north) the stories of those who do not fit the nineteenth-century’s celebratory image of the Anglo-Saxons, Vikings, and other northern European peoples, which, my colleagues worry, has been co-opted by newly nascent forces of white supremacism. (Again, not me, to give the futile but necessary liturgical response.)

“Medieval Europe was not ‘white,’” these colleagues insist (if not yet in print, then vigorously and vociferously on my Facebook wall). Nor, any longer, are the proper subjects of medieval studies “white.” As Mary Dockray-Miller puts it in her article cited--and criticized--by Dr. Seigfried:
Long before the Black Lives Matter movement on campuses across the country called for  a more inclusive, more diverse curriculum, the discipline of medieval studies had been working toward the establishment of a “multicultural Middle Ages,” a way out from under the field’s reputation as thoroughly dead, white, and male. Since the 1980s, women authors, audiences, and subjects have been more frequently included in the field--part of the influence of second-wave feminism. Work on the Islamic Middle Ages has made its way from specialized journals into undergraduate textbooks. And the study of medieval Africa and the medieval Far East is on a similar, though slower, trajectory into recognition.
Which is all well and good, insofar as all history is ultimately world history. No country, not even England, is an island in anything except geographical terms. But the elephant in the still white, dead, Christian, and male.

“Why study Europe in the Middle Ages?” I asked my Facebook salon. “Even those whose ancestors came from England don’t care about it anymore. Why should anybody else?”

My friends leapt into the fray.
A: Perhaps I’m wrong, but I think there must be many people who are hungry for a sense of roots and belonging to a civilization and a culture. For several years, I’ve been enchanted by Winston Churchill’s idea of “the English-speaking Peoples,” with its implication that English history is part of the heritage of English-speaking Americans (regardless of where their DNA came from). It’s clear that even now, we Americans are shaped in part by the fact that our original colonies were founded by Britain, and by the English language. I dearly wish that the continuities between British and American culture were emphasized in our schools, rather than the idea that we Americans are utterly different from the British.
B: I can understand why Europeans still study the Middle Ages (assuming they do) because it explains their ethnogenesis--the Anglo-Saxons and the English, the Franks and France, and so forth, but why do Americans do it?.... [The] American Revolution was supposed to mark a break from All That.... In my view a central aim of the humanities is to broaden horizons, and whatever our heritage we should seek to learn something about Greece and Rome, about India, China, and Islam. Just reinforcing one’s ethnic heritage seems provincial.
A: The American Revolution had some of its roots in ideas that were developed during the English Civil War. Nothing comes from a vacuum. I’m only beginning to learn about it, but it seems clear that there are good reasons why the American Revolution happened in the former colonies of Britain, specifically. We Americans are taught to think of ourselves as if we appeared like Athena, springing fully-formed from the head of Zeus, but in fact we have roots in English political, legal and cultural traditions.
C: Two words--Magna Carta!
B: Are not you folks, well, a bit defensive? It seems that the sole benefit of studying the Middle Ages is to reinforce anglophone chauvinism. Surely it must signify more than that. In my view the pivotal event of Western medieval history is the Investiture Conflict, which had little to do with England and the English.
Test yourself: A, B, or C? To judge from the way my colleagues in medieval studies are embarrassed to claim an interest in medieval England qua medieval England--or northern Europe insofar as it was Christian--most of them would agree with B: the only reason to study the history of the English-speaking peoples--or Christianity--unapologetically is chauvinism. Even to suggest that Old English is worth studying as the root of our modern language smacks of provincialism. Better to study anything else--the history Greece and Rome, of India, China, and Islam--than to waste time, especially as Americans, on the history of the insignificant island from which the majority of our country’s founding political, legal, religious, linguistic, and cultural traditions came.*

I know, I know: not everyone in medieval England was what we would now call “white” or Christian. But most were (unless these categories are meaningless, too), and quite a few of them were male (ditto): Anselm of Canterbury (d. 1109), who went head-to-head with two kings (William II and Henry I) over the issue of investiture, not to mention writing some of the most beautiful prayers to the Virgin and her Son. Stephen Langton (d. 1228), who went head-to-head with King John over his election as archbishop of Canterbury, thus embroiling John in the argument with his barons that led to Magna Carta. Geoffrey Chaucer (d. 1400), William Langland (d. ca. 1386), John Gower (d. 1408), and the Pearl poet, who together invented English as a literary language. The kings and members of parliament, the judges, lawyers, sheriffs, and clerks, who together over the course of centuries invented the common law. The monks, friars, and university scholars who wrestled with how to explain and embody the elements of their Christian faith. The burghers and craftsmen who built up the towns.

Of course, it’s more complicated than a story of Great White Men. Of course, we need the stories of the women, the pagans, Muslims, and Jews, the foreigners, and the outcasts in order to appreciate the tradition in full. But if the only reason one would want to study literature written by white men is to reinforce one’s sense of superior whiteness, how exactly, as per Dr. Seigfried’s suggestion, is going into “the high schools in underserved communities to recruit for [bookish fields like religious studies]”--his shift in terms-- going to work?

My colleagues in medieval studies would seem to want to have their rainbow-colored cake and eat it, too. They want to shed the image of medieval studies as predominantly white, Christian, and male by including in the rubric “medieval” the traditions of every part of the world other than the European (which is fine) without having to explain why someone who is not white--or Christian or male or dead--would want to study the traditions that came from the regions where the people were predominantly Christian and white (unless, as I said above, no one was, because no one now wants his ancestors to be identified as white, never mind Christian). I would be more convinced by Dr. Seigfried’s exhortation for my colleagues in medieval studies to commit themselves to hiring colleagues from underrepresented communities if he could explain why anyone from such a community would want to study what he does: the mythology of the Norse.

If there are reasons for such study other than championing one’s own whiteness, it would be good to know.**

*For those unpersuaded, I highly recommend David Hackett Fischer’s Albion’s Seed: Four British Folkways in America (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1989). I have blogged about Fisher here, here, and here.
**If it is not clear, I think there are, but at the moment the burden of proof lies on those who reject the reason I would give: that these traditions made important contributions to the history of humankind without which our present civilization would not exist. My guess from Dr. Seigfried’s blog is that his argument would be in favor of paganism over against Christianity.
***[UPDATE May 24, 10:10am: He tells me it is more complicated than his original assertion suggested. Watch this space!]

Image: Anselm of Canterbury presents his book of prayers to Matilda of Tuscany. Admont, Stiftsbibliothek, Cod. 289, fol. 1v. On praying Anselm’s prayers, go here.

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