Decolonizing the Middle Ages: A Roundtable in Answer to Present Challenges

AHA Session 10
Thursday, January 3, 2019: 1:30 PM-3:00 PM
Williford C (Hilton Chicago, Third Floor)
Ken Mondschein, Anna Maria College and Goodwin College
Nadia Altschul, University of Glasgow
Patrick Geary, Institute for Advanced Study
Nicole Lopez-Jantzen, Borough of Manhattan Community College
Carol Symes, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

Session Abstract

Historians of medieval Europe have recently faced a strong intellectual challenge from our colleagues conversant in critical theory, primarily housed in literature departments. The basic organizing principles and methods of medieval historiography, it has been argued, are programmed to support a predominately cis-gendered, white, male, heterosexual, Christian, patriarchal regime of power-knowledge—regardless of the individual historian’s own intellectual and political commitments. What is needed, therefore, is a movement to reshape the historical study of the premodern past, a movement cognizant of critical race theory, intersectionality, and indigenous studies, among other critical frameworks.

Failing to do so, it is argued, not only (re)inscribes modern paradigms and regimes of power onto the medieval past, it contributes to the ongoing white-nationalist appropriation of the Middle Ages, “weaponizing” medieval studies as a tool that can be used to promote toxic masculinities or a worldview free from white guilt—and that can be violently deployed against non-Christians, peoples of color, and other vulnerable populations.

In response, some have argued that these claims are specious and overblown, or that they place politics ahead of historical data. They hold that historians must certainly avoid misrepresenting the Middle Ages in all of their diversity and eschew the misuse of historical scholarship, but they insist that we are inevitably and appropriately limited by what our sources reveal and by our debt to a centuries-old body of knowledge that cannot be sidelined or jettisoned. All of those arguing in good faith, meanwhile, would agree that historians must avoid anachronistic or teleological interpretations or uses of our evidence.

We are seeking to organize a joint roundtable for the 2019 AHA/MLA annual meeting, in which discussants representing diverse viewpoints will speak to the following

1. To what degree has the field of medieval history, including core disciplinary questions such as the history of religion and the origins of nation-states, been shaped by agendas that are demonstrably imperialist, racist, gender-unequal, or otherwise indebted to modern (i.e. post-medieval) categories and projects? And, depending on the extent to which this is true, is it necessary or desirable—or even possible—to reframe the questions and to practice the craft of medieval history in entirely new ways?

2. How great is the threat of popular white-nationalist appropriations of (sometimes pseudo-) medieval narratives and imagery, and how can scholars and educators effectively address this phenomenon? For example, is it necessary to explicitly endorse orcondemn a particular worldview in the classroom?

3. What is the state of our knowledge about concepts and categories of race in the premodern past, prior to the Atlantic slave trade and the advent of modern scientific racism? How does emerging scholarship on this subject have the potential to challenge and reframe existing narratives and assumptions?

4. Can historians responsibly apply postmodern critical race theory, or other critical frameworks, to the medieval past? Is it possible, for example, to teach a Middle Ages that is "diverse"? Is there an "intersectional" medieval history? A history of medieval indigeneity?

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