During the late summer and early fall of 2017, Rachel Fulton Brown, a fifty-two-year-old associate professor of medieval history at the University of Chicago, found herself a pariah among many of her fellow medievalists in academia. A member of the Chicago faculty since 1994, Brown had won two teaching awards (she often teaches unusual but popular courses with titles such as “Knights and Samurai”). Her massive (at 752 pages) and dauntingly erudite though quite readable book, From Judgment to Passion: Devotion to Christ and the Virgin Mary, 800–1200, had garnered numerous academic prizes, including an award from the Medieval Academy of America for “a first book or monograph on a medieval subject judged by the selection committee to be of outstanding quality.”
But Brown had committed two sins deemed unpardonable by an academic culture for which the word “liberal” is often a genteel euphemism: She had cultivated a friendship, widely publicized on her personal blog and in hostile public media, with the gay conservative provocateur Milo Yiannopoulos, and she had engaged in online warfare with another academic, Dorothy Kim, then an assistant professor of medieval English at Vassar College. On August 28, 2017, guest writing for the medievalist blog In the Middle, Kim had issued a demand that all professors who specialize in the Middle Ages use their classrooms to “address white supremacy” and signal to their students that “you are not a white supremacist.”
“You really have no excuse to address whether your medieval studies is a white supremacist medieval studies or not,” Kim wrote. “Choose a side. Doing nothing is choosing a side. Denial is choosing a side. Using the racist dog whistle of ‘we must listen to both sides’ is choosing a side . . . . Neutrality is not optional.”
Kim’s manifesto came in the wake of the melee in Charlottesville, Virginia, on August 12, 2017, when a rally called “Unite the Right,” organized by self-described white nationalist groups—and ostensibly organized to protest the planned removal of a statue of Robert E. Lee from a public park—turned into a violent brawl between the white nationalists and a larger group of counterprotesters, some of them sporting the black clothing of Antifa. The Charlottesville riot turned tragic and ugly: One of the white nationalists, James Alex Fields Jr., drove his car into a crowd of counterprotesters, killing one and injuring dozens of others. He was later found guilty of first-degree murder.
Some of the white nationalists at the Charlottesville demonstration had been carrying shields and other paraphernalia that looked more or less medieval: a red-on-white approximation of a Crusader cross and a black eagle apparently modeled on the heraldic symbol of the Holy Roman Empire during the thirteenth century. (Neither was a very accurate reproduction of the original.) The amateur medievalists in Charlottesville that weekend were a fringe of a fringe: National Public Radio counted their numbers in the “dozens.” My own perusal of online photos of that rally unearthed exactly two that pictured medieval costumes.
Nonetheless, the photos generated a moral panic among academic medievalists anxious to distance themselves from any association of the Middle Ages with white supremacy. A week after the riot, the Medieval Academy, joined by some twenty-eight smaller medievalist organizations, issued a statement on white supremacists: “By using imagined medieval symbols, or names drawn from medieval terminology, they create a fantasy of a pure, white Europe that bears no relationship to reality,” the statement read. “We see a medieval world that was as varied as the modern one.” In an NPR interview, Lisa Fagin Davis, the Medieval Academy’s executive director, pointed out an irony: The Holy Roman Empire’s black eagle, imitated by the white supremacists, was associated during the Middle Ages with St. Maurice, a third-century Egyptian martyr whom Western artists had painted as a black sub-Saharan African.
It was in this fraught context that Dorothy Kim’s post for In the Middle appeared. “The medieval western European Christian past is being weaponized by white supremacist/white nationalist/KKK/nazi extremist groups,” Kim wrote. Invoking an alphabet soup of ethnic, religious, and sexual identities that presumably implied victim status, Kim instructed her fellow medievalists to make their “classrooms an inclusive space for the bodies targeted by the white nationalists—your students who are BIPOC [‘black, indigenous, and people of color’], LGBTQIA, differently abled, Muslim, Jewish, and women.” Kim, a self-described émigré from Los Angeles’s Koreatown with a doctorate in English from UCLA, declared that she, as a “woman of color,” didn’t have to worry about inadvertently signaling to her students at Vassar that she endorsed white supremacy, but the 99.5 percent of medieval studies professors (Kim’s figure) who happened to be white were in danger of creating “little Richard Spencers” unless they devoted part of their classroom time to assuring their students that they had nothing to do with the alt-right.
Brown’s response appeared on September 14, 2017, on her blog of personal musings, Fencing Bear at Prayer (she is a skilled amateur fencer and has adopted a foil-wielding teddy bear as her logo), which she has maintained off and on since 2008. The post was more than 2,900 words long—typical for Brown, who never writes short—and displayed all the flamboyant literary, scholarly, and personality traits that I would come to associate with her during a series of interviews at her home near the University of Chicago campus. Her style involved a combination of artistic sensitivity (she illustrated the post with samples of medieval stained glass and manuscript decoration); formidable learning (quotations from the Vulgate Bible and its medieval commentaries); heart-on-sleeve religious passion (she converted to Catholicism in early 2017); free association (as she wandered from themes of floating witches in medieval folklore to her years on her high school swim team); and a hefty helping of sarcasm.
“It’s back to class for those of us who teach in medieval studies,” she began the post, titled “How to Signal You Are Not a White Supremacist.” Making a point not very different from Lisa Fagin Davis’s about the black St. Maurice, Brown directed her readers’ attention to the hundreds of dark-skinned images of the Madonna that the supposedly white supremacist Europeans of the Middle Ages had revered. But whereas Davis’s apparent aim had been to express irritation at white nationalists’ historical ignorance, Brown suggested that Kim’s blog post displayed an equal ignorance of the past. “Professor Kim wants you to be afraid,” Brown wrote in fervid italics. She continued: “How should you signal that you are not a white supremacist if you teach the ‘medieval western European Christian past’? Learn some f*cking medieval western European Christian history, including the history of our field.” (The asterisk is Brown’s.)
It is difficult to overstate the outrage that Brown’s throwing down the gauntlet to Kim provoked among a substantial segment of medievalist academia. Among the first to respond, three days later, were the six regular bloggers for In the Middle, founded by Jeffrey Jerome Cohen, English professor and director of George Washington University’s Medieval and Early Modern Studies Institute. (He left George Washington in 2018 to become dean of humanities at Arizona State University.) In the Middle reflects Cohen’s self-described research specialty: “how queer theory, critical race studies and posthumanism might help us to better understand the texts and cultures of the Middle Ages.”
The In the Middle bloggers, including Cohen, were particularly disturbed that Brown had included a copy-and-paste photo of Kim in her post—even though Kim’s own guest post for In the Middle included a photo of her, and photos of Kim abound on the Internet, including on her Twitter and Facebook pages. The bloggers accused Brown of committing “doxxing and harassment” by “posting pictures of scholars of color.” They also seemed shocked that Brown had used a four-letter word. “This is not normal scholarly exchange,” they wrote. “This is unprofessional discourse by any standard.”
Later that September, some 1,265 professors and graduate students in medieval studies signed a petition to the University of Chicago stating, “We condemn the harassment of junior colleagues and medievalists of color and reaffirm the importance of actively opposing white supremacy in our research and teaching.” And on September 29, David Perry, a former professor of medieval history at Dominican University in Illinois, gave an interview to CBC Radio in which he alluded to “a medievalist who is a friend of Milo Yiannopoulos,” who was not on board with what Perry described as “the mainstream body of medieval scholars” determined to “counter the onslaught of racist medievalism.” The CBC transcript linked to an earlier article by Josephine Livingstone, a staff writer for the New Republic who holds a 2015 doctorate in medieval English from New York University. Livingstone’s article had mentioned Brown by name, taking her to task for an earlier post on Fencing Bear that quoted Yiannopoulos’s characterization of his opponents on left and right as “spineless c*nts.” “I cannot imagine a new PhD feeling entitled to use the language Professor Brown does at her site,” Livingstone had sniffed.
In October 2017, Livingstone wrote for the New Republic: “This solidarity between outright advocates of white supremacy and a conservative academic was already scandalous. But Professor Brown strained matters further when she publicly attacked the nontenured, woman of color scholar Dorothy Kim, encouraging her to ‘learn some f*cking western European Christian history’ after Kim wrote about the field of medievalism’s complicity with white nationalism.” (The asterisk in this case is mine, not Livingstone’s.)
A couple of weeks earlier, Donna Zuckerberg, sister of Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, holder of a PhD in classics from Princeton, and onetime student in a Tolkien class taught by Brown at Chicago, weighed in on her former teacher. In Eidolon, an online classics journal founded by Zuckerberg with “an explicitly, proudly progressive mandate,” she blasted Brown’s
racist foregrounding of Kim’s body; the snide, punching-down tone about Kim’s professional accomplishments; and Brown’s choice to actively bring Milo Yiannopoulos and his followers into the fray in an appeal so blatant that it cannot in good faith be called a dog-whistle.
On October 13 and 16, 2017, George Washington University sponsored a pair of all-day conferences ostensibly devoted to “The Crusades, the Middle Ages and the Alt Right” (the title of one of the day-long sessions). Cohen attended but played no official role in either conference (both of which I attended). One of the moderators on October 13 was Matthew Gabriele, a professor and coordinator of medieval and early modern studies at Virginia Tech. Gabriele had written a piece for the Washington Post that summer after a series of jihadist attacks in London, arguing that the Crusades weren’t really a “western, Christian defensive response to Middle Eastern incursions” in the Holy Land, as most historians would have it, but rather an invention by medieval and modern “Islamophobes” as cover for Christian violence against Muslims, Jews, and others. As panelist Susanna A. Throop, chair of the history department at Ursinus College and author of Crusading as an Act of Vengeance, 1095–1216, put it: “Romanticized memories of the medieval past” had served to justify “imperialism and colonialism,” along with “torture and murder by whites.” A favorite image at the October 13 conference was a 1935 painting of Hitler on horseback clad in medieval plate armor.
But the real if unstated subject of both conferences was Brown and what she had written on September 14. And the real if unofficial star of both conferences, who was frequently called upon by panelists to offer her opinions—though she played no formal role on either day—was Dorothy Kim. Surrounded by a coterie of academic fans, Kim lost no time in denouncing “Nazi historians who have PhDs.” She advocated for “critical race theory” as part of graduate school training for medievalists, as a corrective to their profession’s alleged whiteness obsession. Even more explicit was Wan-Chuan Kao, an assistant professor of medieval English at Washington and Lee University. Kao mocked Brown’s blog post and called her “pathological.”
The most surprising denunciation came from panel moderator Bruce Holsinger, a professor of medieval English at the University of Virginia. In 2007, Holsinger had published Neomedievalism, Neoconservatism, and the War on Terror, which accused the George W. Bush administration of appropriating a “model of feudal sovereignty” in Iraq. But after Charlottesville, he seemed to have decided it was the alt-right, not the Bush neocons, who were the actual torture-promoting “neomedievalists.” This revisionism marked his brief speech at the October 13 conference. “I was in graduate school with Rachel Fulton Brown,” Holsinger confessed. Indeed, during the 1990s the two had been protégés of the venerated medieval historian Caroline Walker Bynum at Columbia University, and they had together edited a 2009 Festschrift in Bynum’s honor. But now, Holsinger said, “It’s repulsive. It was a particular moment of shattering.” Holsinger was not entirely clear about who or what the antecedent of the “it” was supposed to be, and he did not respond to my repeated requests for an interview.
Kim did not respond to my interview requests, either. Her Vassar web page, unlike those of most college professors, contained no information about her professional career: no list of scholarly publications, no overview of the courses she has taught, not even an office address. This was by design. In a 2018 interview published in The Public Eye, the quarterly magazine of the “social justice” nonprofit Political Research Associates, Kim said that she had become terrified of alt-right “troll storms” after Brown wrote her “learn some f*cking history” post. She persuaded Vassar administrators to scrub her web page, move her office to an unlisted location, and even replace her name on her campus housing property deed with that of her partner.
Most assistant professors scramble frantically on the publish-or-perish treadmill to turn their doctoral dissertations into books, and otherwise churn out publications in their specialties so as to impress the senior members of their departments. Kim’s research specialty is thirteenth-century English devotional literature, but it seems to have taken a backseat to her current preoccupation, “digital humanities,” a catchall phrase coined during the 2000s that can refer to anything from creating electronic versions of manuscripts to posting scholarly thoughts on social media. Kim has done some of the former, an enterprise she calls “DH1,” on a 2013 National Endowment for Humanities grant that was supposed to yield digitalizations of two medieval English manuscripts—although six years and $200,000 later, only one of them seems to be available online. She has since progressed, as she explained in a 2015 interview with the online medieval journal Hortulus, to what she calls “DH2,” a “critique of DH1 often in relation to discussions of gender, race, ability, etc.”
Kim’s first book, Disrupting the Digital Humanities—published in November 2018 with the avant-garde Punctum Books—is quintessentially DH2. It is a collection of essays that she has edited to counter the exclusion of “the radically diverse work that actually constitutes the field.” Another book, Digital Whiteness and Medieval Studies, is scheduled for publication in July 2019. Kim has also become a regular media source and conference speaker on such topics as “diversity,” “whiteness,” and “decolonization” in medieval studies.
There is no doubt that segments of the alt-right have appropriated versions of medieval imagery in order to further a vision of America as an exclusive province of white “Europeans”—actually Northern Europeans of more or less Germanic descent, since Italians, modern-day Greeks (in contrast to their classical-Greek forebears, regarded by many on the alt-right as blond Teutons), and especially Jews never count as white in the reckoning of white nationalists. Neverthless, it is safe to say that most people, far from romanticizing the Middle Ages, regard them as a cross between Game of Thrones and Monty Python and the Holy Grail, with overtones of Mark Twain’s supercilious A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court.
Until recently, academic medieval studies seemed to be immune from the mix of identity politics, impenetrable postmodernist jargon, and social-justice witch-hunting that has taken over most of the humanities and social sciences. It’s not that most professors of medieval history and literature aren’t political liberals. It’s that medieval studies used to be so technically and linguistically demanding (deciphering Latin manuscripts, for example) that scholars didn’t need to worry about being called out for not being sufficiently alert to critical race theory and other progressive obsessions. As one medievalist professor, who requested anonymity, told me in an email: “People who do Near Eastern languages, Classics, Slavic languages, Asian languages, Byzantine history and, until recently, Medieval history have been protected from the worst of the SJW idiocy, because SJW idiots aren’t smart enough to get a foothold in those fields.”
All of this is changing fast. Perhaps because of pressure from university administrators to shorten degree programs to churn out doctorates, perhaps because secondary and even post-secondary education these days fails to train would-be medievalists in the rudimentary skills they need (what public high school teaches Latin?), standards have fallen, especially with respect to languages, but also with respect to technical skills such as paleography, which graduate students even at elite universities often must learn on their own, if at all. The standards have fallen fastest in university English departments, where graduate programs function in part as catchment areas for warm bodies to teach mandatory freshman composition for rock-bottom pay. It was no accident that the majority of the medievalist academics who gathered at George Washington in October 2017 to censure Rachel Fulton Brown hailed from postmodernism-soaked English departments.
The field of medieval history, in contrast to medieval literature, has been somewhat resistant to this trend, partly because historians still generally believe that they can shed light on what actually happened in the past, not just on the socially constructed narratives that literary theorists might find. Nonetheless, postmodernist politicization has made inroads even into history departments. Progressive academics have picked apart the field of medieval studies itself as a social construct: a narrative invention by self-glorifying scholars of European descent.
In September 2015, Allen J. Frantzen, a well-respected expert on Anglo-Saxon literature who taught for more than thirty-five years at Loyola University Chicago, published a post on his personal blog titled “How to Fight Your Way Out of a Feminist Fog.” The post, echoing rhetoric from “men’s rights” websites, declared that the feminist movement was a “sour mix of victimization and privilege,” and admonished men to take the “red pill” of reality and break out. Frantzen is openly gay, and his scholarship has explored homoerotic themes in Old English writings. But his sexual orientation didn’t save him. His post caught the attention of In the Middle bloggers. Jeffrey Cohen posted a lengthy entry in January 2016, declaring, “It is my obligation to condemn publicly misogyny and other forms . . . of hate from any scholar in my field.” Another In the Middle blogger, Jonathan Hsy, a colleague of Cohen’s in the George Washington English Department, co-signed a letter to Barbara Newman, then-president of the Medieval Academy, calling Frantzen’s post “anti-feminist and explicitly misogynistic” and asking the Academy to reaffirm “our commitment to creating and maintaining a culture that does not tolerate harassment, bullying, or other forms of abuse.” Among the other signers was Eileen A. Joy, Kim’s publisher at Punctum Books. The Medieval Academy didn’t quite accede, but it did promise to consider a “resolution regarding respect for diversity, inclusion, and academic freedom.”
The online skirmishes between Dorothy Kim and Rachel Fulton Brown didn’t begin with the “learn some f*cking history” controversy of August and September 2017, but rather around the same time as the Frantzen dust-up in 2016. Brown had written a post for Fencing Bear titled “Three Cheers for White Men.” At 228 words, it was short by Brown’s standards. It praised the males of the West for inventing and promoting such concepts as chivalry, marriage by consent (instead of forcing girls to accept their families’ choice of a mate), suffrage for females, and the free-speech guarantees enshrined in the First Amendment and now regarded as universal liberal values. “Hug a white man today!” Brown enthused.
It took a few months, but the post eventually caught the attention of Dorothy Kim. At this point, Kim had been battling against “digital whiteness” in medieval studies for several months: In May 2015, she had participated in a roundtable titled “Homonationalism” at a medievalists’ conference in Kalamazoo, Michigan, at which she declared that it was time for medieval scholars to start calling out colleagues who were using the field to “uphold white supremacy and military machines.” In January 2016, she did just that, writing a lengthy post on the Society for Medieval Feminist Scholarship’s Facebook page that censured Brown for “the consistent upholding of whiteness as a category.” Brown responded with a series of Fencing Bear posts in which she tried to explain what she had meant in her “Three Cheers” post, and the controversy died down, at least for a while.
Meanwhile, in February 2016, Milo Yiannopoulos, then a senior editor for the Breitbart News Network, embarked on his series of increasingly flamboyant and contentious speeches on college campuses, usually at the invitation of Republican student organizations and sometimes provoking protests that turned violent. In the fall of 2016, Brown wrote to Yiannopoulos: “Dear Mr. Yiannopoulos, I teach at the University of Chicago.” It was the “best opening line I’ve ever had,” laughed Brown when I interviewed her. “I adore what you’re doing,” she added. “Well, he wrote back in minutes!” Soon enough, Brown was emailing Yiannopoulos
arguments that I would make myself but I could see that he could use, because we were in sympathy with the sort of values that we share. Values that come from Christianity, particularly Catholicism, but also the sort of Western values of property rights and capitalism and democracy and classical liberalism.
In return, Yiannopoulos started linking Brown’s Fencing Bear blog posts on Breitbart.
In December 2016, Yiannopoulos’s tour bus rolled into Chicago and the two met personally. Brown began to see him in archetypal, even liturgical terms, as a “holy fool” (she had nicknamed him the “Kung Fu Panda,” after the cartoon character). “Milo always wears his pearls, and he always wears his cross. What I’m saying is that he’s playing a kind of mythological role, as trickster,” she said. “He plays the fool, and the left and the right both end up loathing him because they’re both the establishment. His willingness to play the fool, like [St.] Francis did, like Jesus does, like the Kung Fu Panda does, like I’m willing to do.”
Brown, by this time, was notorious at the University of Chicago for her pro-Milo blogging. The editor of Sightings, the online magazine of Chicago’s Divinity School, invited her to contribute an article. In a February 16, 2017, piece titled “Why Milo Scares Students, and Faculty Even More,” Brown blamed a riot at the University of California, Berkeley, which had led to the university canceling his scheduled speech, on the collapse of a Christian culture that once underlay America’s colleges, most of which had been founded by Christian churches with religious missions. “The issues that Milo talks about are usually considered political, but in fact have to do with people’s deepest convictions: the proper relations between women and men, the definition of community, the role of beauty, access to truth,” she wrote. Some twenty-nine Divinity School professors, two-thirds of the faculty, signed a letter of protest, and the school issued a statement declaring that Brown did not represent the “diverse views” of its faculty. Other professors, in op-eds and media interviews, accused Brown of “racist, civilizationist, and theocratic opinions.”
Early 2017 represented the high point of Yiannopoulos’s career on the conservative circuit. Some jokes he made around that time about his teenage molestation by a Catholic priest suggested that he endorsed pedophilia—leading to his resignation from Breitbart, as well as Simon & Schuster’s cancellation of its publication contract for his then-forthcoming book, Dangerous. Later, an October 2017 article on BuzzFeed News alleged ties with Richard Spencer and other white nationalist figures. Yiannopoulos denied any such connections, but the allegations cost him the financial backing of billionaire (and Donald Trump supporter) Robert Mercer. The BuzzFeed article also implicated Brown, describing her as a “conservative thinker” who had fed Yiannopoulos ideas about “the righteousness of the West.”
Not long after Yiannopoulos’s defenestration from Simon & Schuster, Brown wrote a mournful post on Fencing Bear that compared Yiannopoulos’s fate to Christ’s ignominious death on the cross. (The post, titled “Mother and Son,” actually consisted of a quotation from a twelfth-century meditation on the sorrows of the Virgin Mary.) Jeffrey Cohen posted a screengrab of Brown’s post, which in turn got the attention of the New Republic’s Josephine Livingstone. She contacted Emilio Kourí, chair of the University of Chicago’s history department, to inquire whether Brown’s blog, linked on her Chicago faculty page, “could be considered part of her body of scholarship.” It was apparently a hint that Chicago ought to punish Brown for supporting Yiannopoulos. Kourí replied that Brown was “entitled to express her opinions and to publish them” and that “blogs are not part of any performance or promotion reviews in the History Department.”
It seemed, also, that Dorothy Kim had been monitoring Brown’s online production for some time. The Society for Medieval Feminist Scholarship’s Facebook page is private, but Brown said that friends of hers who belonged to the group had sent her screenshots of Kim’s posts, which Brown then published at Fencing Bear. The screenshots featured Kim attacking Brown over an article on Milo she had written for Breitbart (“right wing, antisemitic, neo-nazi, white supremacist, white nationalist, antifeminiist [sic], etc. etc.”). “Her views are violence to me, my family, anyone vulnerable post [Trump’s] election, and to any woman in this Facebook group,” Kim wrote in late 2016. In April 2017, Kim posted a reference to “our two senior medievalists” (Brown and Allen Frantzen, presumably) “who are white supremacists and manosphere pundits.” On August 15, 2017, several weeks before Brown was to tell Kim and her allies to “learn some f*cking . . . history,” Kim again slammed Brown—this time using her initials—as a “fascist” with “repugnant, racist, and basically overtly white supremacist views.”
The dominant narrative among many progressive medievalists is that Brown used the safety of her tenured position at Chicago to hound a minority woman who lacked the job security of tenure. “Brown is attempting to use right-wing media and right-wing networks with a long, documented history of harassment and abuse as a strategy to promote her own fame and bludgeon her opponents into silence,” medievalist-turned-journalist David Perry wrote me in an email. In November 2017, Carol Symes, a historian of the medieval theater at the University of Illinois at Urbana–Champaign and onetime friend of Brown’s, posted an article on the American Historical Association’s website stating that Brown had “used her privileged position and powerful allies to deride, bully, and persecute a junior, untenured medievalist of color.”
But it is just as likely that the derision, bullying, and persecution actually go in the other direction. I interviewed Jane Chance, a recently retired English professor and director of medieval studies at Rice University, where Brown received her undergraduate degree. Chance is what one might call an old-school feminist, having battled for decades for more women in leadership positions in her profession. She expressed evenhanded sympathy. “I’m for both of them,” she said of the Brown-Kim clash. “[Kim] truly believes that this is important—she’s all about race, and I was all about women. But you’re talking about high school–level harassment here. It’s just despicable.”
Chance said that on the Society for Medieval Feminist Scholarship’s Facebook page, female scholars had taunted Brown’s looks as well as her professional competence: “They said she’s really ugly, things like that.” Chance added that she had offered to mediate between Brown and the In the Middle crowd, but Jeffrey Cohen’s only response had been to unfriend her on Facebook.
Rachel Fulton Brown may have tenure at the University of Chicago, but she hasn’t yet been promoted to full professor. Her latest book, Mary and the Art of Prayer, received a respectful review from Barbara Newman in the Medieval Academy’s journal, Speculum, but it remains to be seen whether Brown will continue to be welcome at scholarly conferences. When I last spoke with her, she did not appear worried about her professional prospects. “We at Chicago—we stand for academic freedom,” she told me. Indeed, Chicago is the school whose dean of students, John Ellison, sent a letter to incoming freshmen in August 2016, warning them not to expect “safe spaces,” “trigger warnings” about unsettling course material, or the cancellation of “invited speakers because their topics might prove controversial.” Nonetheless, few academics either inside or outside Brown’s field have voiced support for her.
Kim never did achieve tenure at Vassar, but she is taking a second shot at it as an assistant professor in the Brandeis University English department. She was also a presence at a July 2018 medievalists’ conference at Leeds University, speaking at a roundtable titled “Racism and Nationalism in Medieval Studies and in Medievalism.” There, Kim requested that her presentation not be tweeted, but an audience member made a recording that was passed on to me. (I confirmed that member’s identity via a phone conversation, and the voice in the recording is distinctly Kim’s.) The five-minute paper she delivered was a tour de force of vilification. Its sole subject was Rachel Fulton Brown, whom Kim named six times. Using the words “fascist,” “fascists,” and “fascism” no fewer than eighteen times, Kim accused Brown of using scholarship to create “alt-right religious propaganda” and indulging in “the medieval aesthetics of fascist hate.”
Around the same time, Seeta Chaganti, a professor of medieval English at the University of California, Davis, announced that she would no longer participate in the medievalists’ conference in Kalamazoo because its organizer, Western Michigan University’s Medieval Institute, had declined to honor Chaganti’s request that Brown be barred from attending a May 2018 conference session Chaganti had organized, titled “Whiteness in Medieval Studies 2.0,” at which Dorothy Kim was also a speaker. Chaganti’s statement, posted on the Medievalists of Color website, did not mention Brown by name, but a reference to “her connection to Yiannopoulos” made precise identification inescapable. Chaganti wrote that Brown had a “history of enabling and stoking harassment,” and that she, Chaganti, was “concerned for Dr. Kim’s ability to speak her opinions with freedom in the possible presence of this colleague.” Chaganti added that the Medieval Institute’s “decision allowed a false conception of academic freedom to undermine true academic freedom.”
“True” academic freedom. All this might resemble the high school mean girls’ freezing out the outsider at their cafeteria table. It might also resemble something more sinister: a vicious and tireless public campaign to destroy someone’s professional career as punishment for holding views at variance with the reigning take-no-prisoners progressivism. But Brown hasn’t retreated from the combination of belligerence and humor with which she regards her white nationalism–obsessed colleagues. “We as medieval scholars have been trying for a hundred years to create a better perspective on what the Middle Ages were like,” she told me. “You think, really, that we’re going to have any effect on some guys who want to dress up like knights? That’s my answer to my colleagues who keep having these conferences—that there’s no need to worry about white supremacists taking over medieval imagery. It’s like we haven’t even dealt with Mark Twain yet.”
Charlotte Allen taught medieval history and literature at the Catholic University of America.