Medievalism: From Nationalist and Colonial Past to Global Future.
I was also one of many medievalists whose horror was mixed with a sense of depressed familiarity. It is no secret today to scholars of the Middle Ages, and perhaps most of all to scholars of medievalism, that the Middle Ages have of late proven repeatedly to be amenable to weaponization by promoters of white supremacist hatred. My attention was drawn to the alleged gunman's allusions to the Battle of Poitiers/Tours, where Martel's Frankish forces turned back the Umayyads, because my research since 2015 has focused on the medievalism underpinning right-wing populism in France, (1) including that of Renaud Camus, who claims that it was the sight of a veiled North African woman living in a medieval French village that inspired his thesis that immigration is leading to the 'great replacement' in Europe of white Christians by non-white, non-Christian non-Europeans. (2) Others pointed to the accused gunman's allusion to 'Acre 1189' as yet another of the multiplying instances of white supremacists using the Crusades to mandate threats and violence against Muslim populations across the west.
Medievalists have been united in their condemnation of these murderous weaponizations of the period to which we have devoted our scholarly lives. There has been less unity, however, especially on social media platforms, over what exactly is being condemned. Some have rejected populist distortions of historical facts in the service of an overt, and overtly violent, political agenda, arguing that it is an aberrant use of history that can be exposed as antithetical to the disinterested empiricism of responsible medieval scholarship. Others, and I count myself among them, argue that these recent medievalisms cannot be separated from the longer tradition of ideologically privileged and institutional practices that have placed the Middle Ages in the service of nationalist and colonialist ideologies. Recognizing this does not mean that medieval scholars need to take responsibility for every rogue uptake of the period for nefarious ends, or that we abandon the distinction between scholarship and populism. But I do believe we have a collective duty to acknowledge the legacy we have inherited from our discipline's historical relationship to ideologies that have underpinned regrettable forms of social exclusion.
This call might have a new urgency, responding to the recent and ongoing international shift to the populist Right, but it is not new. In 2012 Kathleen Davis showed that the Enlightenment creation of a feudal and pre-secular Middle Ages forged periodizing distinctions that have privileged Western modernity, meanwhile relegating modern non-Western and colonized subjects to a benighted premodernity. (3) Many others have explored how, in a converse but complementary move, romantic nationalist medievalisms from the eighteenth century on have rested on nostalgic and implicitly exclusionary invocations of continuous national, racial, and cultural identities rooted in localized medieval pasts. Work produced since the 1980s has revealed that nationalism, far from being the preserve of popular and creative medievalisms, undergirded the establishing of university Chairs, curricula, and studies. And Nadia Altschul, Michelle Warren and I (among others) have shown that these nationalist medievalisms were in turn imposed far beyond Europe via British and European settler colonialism. (4) In these colonial contexts, assertions of continuity with European tradition at both popular and institutional levels were implicated in a wilful disavowal of the colonial spaces' deep Indigenous pasts, which were displaced by temporally shallower 'deep' European pasts. Each of these Eurocentric medievalisms has buttressed cultural, political, and juridical exclusions--many of them violent--of non-national and especially non-Western people.
Medievalists' attempts to address this legacy have not been limited to excavating medievalism and medieval studies for racist-nationalist pasts. One important move to establishing an anti-Eurocentric medieval futurism includes the creation of the Medievalists of Color collective, which is challenging the discipline's inherited and now habitual exclusion of non-white perspectives, and providing resources to encourage the white majority in the field to acknowledge racial difference in our scholarship, our curricula, and our conferences. (5) I am also excited by the increasing energy being directed at changing the scholarly narrative from the inherited nationally based one to one that presents the medieval as an epoch of interconnectedness: of exchanges, migrations, and cross-race and interfaith encounters. Sahar Amer and Laura Doyle have declared this a disciplinary paradigm shift, in which the Middle Ages are now being understood via a longue duree reconceptualization of 'the global'. (6) The globalist shift has seen a recent surge of work on Eastern Eurasia, the Islamic Mediterranean, and Africa, shifting the centre of gravity away from medieval Europe. Australasian medievalists should consider the ways we are uniquely positioned to take this further, taking up Janet Abu-Lughod's appeal for the Asia-Pacific region to be given increased attention within work on the 'medieval world system'. (7)
Related to a globalist approach to the Middle Ages is a complementary interest in global medievalism. Scholars of medievalism have the opportunity to account for how cultures beyond European and its settler colonial societies have interpreted their own place in a putative 'medieval world system', their colonial inheritance of long European pasts, and their own past empires coeval with the European Middle Ages. Some work on this is underway: scholarship on Ottoman medievalisms has begun, others have examined Islamic State's invocations of the medieval caliphates to underwrite its religious extremism, (8) and Candace Barrington and Jonathan Hsy have for the past few years been organizing the Global Chaucers initiative, which traces the author's reception around the world. Continuing this geographical expansion can potentially inspire the development of a more sophisticated and capacious formulation of 'medievalism'.
But moving beyond Europe and its settler colonies offers important taxonomic challenges to those working within a discipline whose very name takes European geotemporal coordinates as its starting point: medium aevum, between Rome and the Renaissance. There has recently been debate about whether, or how, the term 'medieval' should be applied to cultures for whom these coordinates do not pertain. (9) Geraldine Heng and Lynn Ramey, acknowledging its utility yet also its inadequacy, have claimed that it can only be embraced 'under erasure'. (10) Because the geographical and temporal compass of medievalist receptions extends far beyond their starting point in the European Middle Ages, and these receptions are often the products of colonialism and globalization, there is less anxiety about whether they can be called 'global'. But the term 'medievalism' similarly needs to be used, at least for now, under erasure; given the role of colonialism in the history of medievalism, we need to be conscious of the term's capacity to recolonize. We need to develop a critical framework and terminology that is responsive to the specificities of regional 'medievalisms' outside of the European/Eurocolonial sphere but which has wide and robust applicability for scholars working across different global medievalist settings. This will advance current moves to displace the Eurocentric frameworks that have circumscribed views of the Middle Ages' continuing significance to the modern world.
(1) Louise D'Arcens, 'Nostalgia, Melancholy, and the Emotional Economy of Replacement: Feeling for la France profonde in the Novels of Michel Houellebecq', Exemplaria, 30.3 (2018), 257-73.
(2) Thomas Chatterton Williams, 'The French Origins of "You Will Not Replace Us": The European Thinkers behind the White-nationalist Rallying Cry', New Yorker, 27 November 2017 <https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2017/12/04/the-french-origins-of-you-will-not-replace-us>.
(3) Kathleen Davis, Periodization and Sovereignty: How Ideas of Feudalism and Secularization Govern the Politics of Time (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2012).
(4) Nadia Altschul, Geographies of Philological Knowledge: Postcoloniality and the Transatlantic National Epic (Chicago: University of Chicago Press 2012); Michelle Warren, Creole Medievalism: Colonial France and Joseph Bedier's Middle Ages (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2011); Louise D'Arcens, Old Songs in the Timeless Land: Medievalism in Australian Literature, 1840-1910 (Perth: University of Western Australia Press, 2011).
(5) Medievalists of Color: <https://medievalistsofcolor.com/>.
(6) Sahar Amer and Laura Doyle, 'Reframing Postcolonial and Global Studies in the Longer Duree', PMLA, 30.2 (2015), 431-38.
(7) Janet Abu-Lughod, Before European Hegemony: The World System AD 1250-1350 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1989).
(8) Andrew Elliott, Medievalism, Politics, and Mass Media (Cambridge: Boydell &
(9) R. I. Moore, 'The Global Middle Ages', in The Prospect of World History, ed. by James Belich and others (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016); Daud Ali, 'The Idea of the Medieval in the Writing of South Asian History: Contexts, Methods and Politics', Social History, 39.3 (2014), 382-407.
(10) Geraldine Heng and Lynn Ramey, 'Early Globalities, Global Literatures: Introducing a Special Issue on the Global Middle Ages', Literature Compass, 11.7 (2014), 389-94.
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|Date:||Jul 1, 2019|
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