Read properly, medieval history is about the divine comedy of Christianity—and about the rise of its great Eastern antagonist, Islam.”
That’s a line from a 15,000-word commentary by Milo Yiannopoulos on the argument that has been running through Medieval Studies for a couple of years now. It is worth a read, along with past news accounts of varying quality (here, here, and here).
To get a flavor of the debate, which turns upon how much the field is tainted by white supremacy (and the fact that some white supremacist groups favor medieval garb and arms), consider some of these statements by people within the field or reporting on it:
“Today, medievalists have to understand that the public and our students will see us as potential white supremacists or white supremacist sympathizers because we are medievalists.”
“Some comments and conversations suggest that our white medievalist colleagues experience dismay at assumptions about them based on their race: their intentions seem not to matter; they are objects of suspicion; their positions are assumed to be wrong. We ask white medievalists feeling this way to recognize that this is what it is like to be a person of color every day, in the world and all too often in the profession.”
“In fact, ‘medieval’ Europe was co-created in tandem with white supremacism, the ‘scientific’ racialization of slavery, and modern European imperialism. Moreover, previous generations of medievalists, often working in the service of these modern projects, have not only shaped the terms of our engagement with historical sources, their work has shaped the sources we have.”
There is much, much more to the debate, and Yiannopoulos details moments in it that show how deeply and relentlessly identity politics is out to change the field. The controversy was exacerbated by the election of Donald Trump, according to the leftist reformers, and it doesn't appear to be waning any time soon.
If you want to see just how ferocious the skirmishes can be, consider that after history professor Rachel Fulton Brown wrote blog posts ridiculing allegations of white supremacy in medieval studies and challenging the historical competence of lead critic Dorothy Kim (who alleged that Brown’s statements had encouraged racist and sexist harassment of her online), a letter of protest was sent to University of Chicago administrators, signed by 1,500 academics, charging Brown with incompetence, ignorance, and endangering a female colleague of color.
One isn’t quite sure what to make of all this. The communications that Yiannopoulos recites in his article show how confused and emotional people are about the situation. They also show that the state of the argument today doesn’t lend itself to straightforward behavior.
One reason, perhaps, why identity politics seems to be having difficulties in Medieval Studies that it hasn’t had in other fields has to do with the nature of the field. My area, American Literature, easily absorbed multiculturalism decades ago. But Medieval Europe is so mono-religious and mono-racial that efforts to “de-Eurocentrize” and de-Christianize the study of it have been frustrated. The field also puts a heavy burden of linguistic and historical knowledge on its practitioners. (You can’t do Middle English if all you know is American English.) Those elements exasperate the multiculturalist impulse, making Medieval Studies a challenge to all those younger academics who’ve been trained to undo white privilege.
Read the Milo account and the downright bizarre back-and-forth among Brown, the identitarians, and himself. The people accusing the field and Brown of racism and sexism and worse don’t seem to realize that their shrill tones are the exact opposite of the beauty and sublimity of their objects.
Mark Bauerlein is senior editor of First Things.
Photo by Justin Brendel.