The Boundaries of Medieval Studies: Between Expansion and Expertise

This is both a rumination on the state of the field of medieval studies and a delayed response to a Twitter encounter I had some time ago. I apologize in advance if the remarks below seem personal: I am attempting to respond to ideas, not people, though that is difficult these days.

A while back I read an interesting thread on Twitter by S. J. Pearce, about the insularity of medieval studies, the “dominant paradigm” of “English medieval = Medieval,” and the need to break away from the “Anglo-French-Latin” boundaries that are strangling the field. I didn’t quite follow some of the analysis in the thread, and described it as “a bit opaque to me, as an Anglo-German-crusades scholar” when I retweeted the first part of it. This apparently caused some offense (as in, I was called a “Reviewer 2” and summarily blocked), but I stand by what I said for three reasons.

First and foremost, I’m just not sure this is an accurate characterization of the field in 2016. Take a gander at the upcoming Kalamazoo program, and you’ll see that, while yes, there is a lot of “England,” there’s actually quite a pleasantly bewildering variety of papers that make many sessions delightfully hard to categorize. And there’s lots of Iberia and Mediterranean as well (and central/eastern Europe, but that seems less a priority to our nay-sayers). There is also a wonderful kaleidoscope of time periods represented, as well as papers that cross chronological boundaries (and, seriously, only a non-expert would treat the era of Henry V as somehow the ideological equivalent of the age of Anglo-Saxon riddles).  Also, sub-point 2, most scholars study more than one thing, because they want to develop and expand their minds–for myself, studying the crusades has a broadening effect on one’s scholarship, in terms of looking for contact and connections with societies that are not “Anglo-French-Latin,” and non-“Anglo-French-Latin” scholars don’t get to decide for me whether such an effect occurs. Sub-point 3, it is also worth noting that slapping labels such as “Anglo-French-Latin” onto scholars with pejorative intent is a questionable exercise and that not all non-European “medieval” scholars actually want to be lumped into the European Middle Ages.

Second, the tenor of the conversation, to be honest, seemed to go nowhere. Should non-“European” areas get more space at big conferences such as Kalamazoo? I think that would be a good idea. But what I was sensing very much from the thread (and why I didn’t participate) was less a desire for a good conversation about how to better welcome and integrate diverse geographic specialties into medieval studies, and more the cathartic need to collectively complain about those insular medieval European scholars who refuse to study medieval Islamic (or perchance Iberian) history. And if they don’t, they’re part of the problem, that is, being exclusionary and perpetuating an “oh so white” medieval studies. Anyway, that is my impression; hopefully this is reasonably accurate and not simply a strawman.

In fact, I gather that, from some quarters, the unforgivable sin of much medieval studies is that it largely concerns itself with Europe. And that clearly is unacceptable. I sympathize with the frustration that comes from too often being regarded as a third wheel–I feel that way quite often about the Society of Military History’s attitude toward medievalists or those who didn’t go to the top military graduate programs. Yet I would submit that, despite my sympathy, this reading of the field overlooks your own responsibility in the matter: curiosity works both ways. I may not ever possess the expertise that I would like in Islamic history: time is short, and the subject, even contextualized to, say, twelfth/thirteenth-century Anatolia (which I do study), is vast. So, I keep reading, incorporating bits of that reading into my teaching and research, and keep plugging along. But the shoe is also on the other foot. Those who specialize in the Ottomans, or fourteenth-century North African societies, or the Sufis, or even Hebrew/Arabic Iberian literature, do not have expertise in my areas of study, and reading some of the “greatest hits” of medieval English or German history won’t impart that expertise. The fact is, no one can be an expert on every aspect of the world between 500 and 1500 AD, if we’re still using those numbers to define “medieval studies.”

Why does this point matter? Because, third, by reshaping the study of medieval western Europe to the point that expertise in England or France itself, and the desire to socialize with others who study England or France,  is considered insular, exclusionist, perhaps even “oppressive” of “marginalized” voices (versus expertise in its contacts with the non-Christian world), we will encourage the same kind of facile judgments about European history that non-Europeanists complain are made about their fields by Europeanists. The stakes are actually quite large, because of course the great goal in medieval studies these days seems to be to explain the origins of 1492 (Columbus), 1507 (Hormuz), c.1450 (the conquest of Guinea). In other words, we are overwhelmingly concerned, at the end of the day, with how the “medieval” shaped the modern world, especially European exploration, conquest, and colonization of that world. To understand how that happened without valuing an in-depth knowledge of that European society is, I submit, a very weak approach, and multiplies the chance of errors in interpretation.

So, what is to be done?  The answer, unfortunately, is “not much,” beyond continuing to talk, framing conference and publication opportunities broadly, and, when at conferences, attending at least one panel outside your field–and encouraging doctoral students to have a minor field outside their specialty. The reason for this limited response is one that Pearce discounted as a “cop out” in the thread: the near impossibility of accomplishing what she wants accomplished before medieval studies candidates finish graduate school (or their post-docs, for that matter). Andrew Reeves did, unfortunately, describe the situation very accurately (and Kathleen Kennedy did the same for the link between high school certifications and history faculties).  Pearce seems largely unwilling to entertain the idea that the issue could be a (mostly unavoidable) structural one, rather than an ideological one. Calling it a “cop out” is a cheap way of refusing to engage with inconvenient reality.

And this leads to a final point. Discussions about expanding the horizons of medievalists, of making more visible the links between, say the Indian Ocean, Mediterranean, and North Sea worlds, of studying how the kingdom of Germany, for example, engaged with the wider world–these are all GOOD THINGS, and most people would, I think, agree with them. It makes the field better, and we should welcome as many perspectives as possible in our conferences and professional gatherings. But not at the cost of outlawing or devaluing other types of knowledge. Deciding which kinds of knowledge, which forms of study are or are not “acceptable” would merely be to perpetuate the kind of prejudice currently being objected to (and which I’m not sure actually IS a defining feature of medieval studies). We are engaged in a field of intellectual endeavor that requires enormous energy and passion in order to master just one small part. Until you can change the way humans acquire competency in a subject, blaming ideology rather than structure only weaponizes discourse and accomplishes very little.


P.S. For the record, I haven’t blocked you, Dr. Pearce, because a) you’re still my colleague in the field, and b) personal vendettas are a waste of time. Much respect and good luck in your outstanding work.