The Trolls of Academe

Meanwhile, at the Annual Meeting of the Medieval Academy of America last weekend...

I am so disappointed. I never saw these “alt-right trolls,” although clearly others were able to see them.

I even went to the panel on diversity and inclusivity that Professor Stoyanoff mentions in his tweet expecting to see some—it was, after all, exactly the kind of event guaranteed to attract trolls! I have read through the tweets from that afternoon, and I can’t see what he is talking about there either. Perhaps if there had been time for some Q&A at the end, the trolls would have exposed themselves, rather than sitting quietly with the rest of the audience as they apparently did.

(I wouldn’t know, I couldn’t see them, but then I was sitting up front so as to be able to pay proper attention to the panel. Perhaps they were behind me.)

The panel itself was extremely instructive. The panelists talked about how much they loved studying the Middle Ages and how encouraging it was to find others like themselves in medieval studies. They pointed to problems in the way other scholars have talked about the Vikings and Chaucer and Marco Polo and Game of Thrones. They encouraged historians to study more languages and literary scholars to read more history. And they talked a lot about nations and how complicated they are to define.

I found the trolls!
But they never named any names so as to help us identify the trolls.

I think I can name them, even if I couldn’t see them.

Their numbers are legion, like the demons that they are.

They are, of course, all white, all European—and all male. If only their ideas were already dead.

Here are a few of their names: Voltaire. David Hume. Casanova. Edward Gibbon.

Do you recognize them? They are all great heroes of what we now call “the Enlightenment,” although that term did not come into regular use until around 1900. They called themselves philosophers or philosophes. And they all had rather pointed things to say about what we now call “the Middle Ages.” Only they didn’t call them that. They just talked about “superstition.” And how it was all Christianity’s fault that Europe had fallen under superstition’s sway.

David Hume for his part made ridiculous the idea of miracles, while that great lover Casanova made ridiculous the very thought that there might be something theologically worthwhile in Sor María de Jesús de Ágreda’s Mystica Ciudad de Dios. But Voltaire is perhaps the most famous for his views on how poisonous Christianity was for European civilization.

As Voltaire wrote to Frederick II, King of Prussia in 1767 (as cited on Wikipedia):
Our [religion] is assuredly the most ridiculous, the most absurd and the most bloody religion which has ever infected this world. Your Majesty will do the human race an eternal service by extirpating this infamous superstition, I do not say among the rabble, who are not worthy of being enlightened and who are apt for every yoke; I say among honest people, among men who think, among those who wish to think. … My one regret in dying is that I cannot aid you in this noble enterprise, the finest and most respectable which the human mind can point out.
Edward Gibbon agreed, crediting the introduction of Christianity with the downfall of the Roman Empire (as cited on WikipediaSee? This stuff is well-known!):
As the happiness of a future life is the great object of religion, we may hear without surprise or scandal that the introduction, or at least the abuse of Christianity, had some influence on the decline and fall of the Roman empire. The clergy successfully preached the doctrines of patience and pusillanimity; the active virtues of society were discouraged; and the last remains of military spirit were buried in the cloister: a large portion of public and private wealth was consecrated to the specious demands of charity and devotion; and the soldiers’ pay was lavished on the useless multitudes of both sexes who could only plead the merits of abstinence and chastity. 
Faith, zeal, curiosity, and more earthly passions of malice and ambition, kindled the flame of theological discord; the church, and even the state, were distracted by religious factions, whose conflicts were sometimes bloody and always implacable; the attention of the emperors was diverted from camps to synods; the Roman world was oppressed by a new species of tyranny; and the persecuted sects became the secret enemies of their country. Yet party-spirit, however pernicious or absurd, is a principle of union as well as of dissension. The bishops, from eighteen hundred pulpits, inculcated the duty of passive obedience to a lawful and orthodox sovereign; their frequent assemblies and perpetual correspondence maintained the communion of distant churches; and the benevolent temper of the Gospel was strengthened, though confirmed, by the spiritual alliance of the Catholics. 
The sacred indolence of the monks was devoutly embraced by a servile and effeminate age; but if superstition had not afforded a decent retreat, the same vices would have tempted the unworthy Romans to desert, from baser motives, the standard of the republic. Religious precepts are easily obeyed which indulge and sanctify the natural inclinations of their votaries; but the pure and genuine influence of Christianity may be traced in its beneficial, though imperfect, effects on the barbarian proselytes of the North. If the decline of the Roman empire was hastened by the conversion of Constantine, his victorious religion broke the violence of the fall, and mollified the ferocious temper of the conquerors.
Sound familiar? It should. It is the whole reason that we have an historiographical field called “the Middle Ages.” These “ages” were only “middle” because they came between the light of antiquity and the light of the eighteenth century, when Gibbon and his enlightened friends were busy trashing their ancestral faith.

You will say, Christianity deserved it. Harvard professor Steven Pinker, among others, would agree with you.

As Pinker put it in a recent interview about his new book on the glories of the Enlightenment, as reported by Mark Bauerlein:
Pinker has a new book out, Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress. In it, he argues that the world is becoming a better place. Health and longevity have improved, and violence and murder have dropped precipitously since the Middle Ages. We overlook those improvements, Pinker says, because the media like to report bad things. He calls for a more balanced representation of current conditions. 
But he also finds another hindrance: religion. Too many people, Pinker says, still believe in tall tales and pseudo-religious tricks (also known as miracles). They tend not to be the smart people. Hewitt presents this quotation from the book: “Few sophisticated people today profess a belief in heaven and hell, the literal truth of the Bible, or a God who flouts the laws of physics.” 
When asked by [Hugh] Hewitt, Pinker proceeds to define “sophisticated people” as those who are “aware of the scientific realities of the last several centuries.” Pinker acknowledges that religion has, at times, helped to “mobilize people’s moral sentiments,” but it also has an enervating effect, when people count on God to intervene in the real world.
Do you see now why I called Hume and Voltaire and Casanova and Gibbon trolls? Pinker is parroting their version of what Christianity means, reiterated ad nauseam for over two centuries now. So familiar has it become that Pinker doesn’t even need to justify it. He simply knows that “few sophisticated people” believe that nonsense about miracles or heaven and hell. Sophisticated people like my colleagues in academe. None of whom reads the Bible expecting to learn anything literally—as opposed to psychologically or metaphorically—true.

I was sorry that we didn’t have time for Q&A at the end of the panel on “decolonizing the Middle Ages,” because I did have a question that I wanted to ask. I was intrigued that everyone on the panel talked about the Middle Ages as something someone would want to study, as if it carried no stigma at all, when the whole reason that the field exists is because philosophes like Hume and Voltaire and Casanova and Gibbon thought the period was ridiculous, not to mention dark.

In my colleagues’ description of our field, the Middle Ages is possessed of prestige and status. It is something that they want to be able to study not just by themselves, but in the company of others who also study them, so much so that to be (or to feel) excluded from the study of the Middle Ages was something that, quite clearly, caused them pain, thus their impassioned call for “decolonization,” the opening out of the field to include scholars like them and the kinds of questions they ask.

Listening to my colleagues talk about the way in which they saw the study of the Middle Ages, I was fascinated. This is not the way I saw things when I first entered the field. Yes, there were scholars whose work I admired, but hardly any of my fellow graduate students outside of medieval history thought that our field was anything special, quite the reverse. We were not just the geeks who studied the period with dead languages. Even the classicists did that. We were the geeks who studied the Dark Ages, the period nobody else wanted to touch.

Studying the Middle Ages was, as it were, deplorable. Nobody but us geeks wanted into the club.

Clearly, something has changed, but it took hearing my colleagues talk about it on the panel to help me realize what it was. In an important way, I realized as they were talking, the Middle Ages as they see them are no longer medieval. No longer “middle,” no longer deplorable. Rather, they are something central to the academy and, therefore, to our intellectual life.

And yet, not one of them mentioned Christianity as the reason for studying the period, whether for better or worse.

It was as if Christianity, religion, faith did not exist. It had been wiped from their definition of the period—a period which, conceptually, had previously existed only thanks to faith, or the lack thereof. To be sure, some of them mentioned peoples of other religions—Muslims, Jews—but the bounding of the period as the “middle” between classical pagan antiquity and modern secular humanism was gone. The Middle Ages are cool—thanks to Game of Thrones. And dragons. And because Chaucer is fun to read.

No wonder they could see those trolls and I couldn’t. It must be because I am so superstitious and they are not.

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