Medievalists, Recoiling From White Supremacy, Try to Diversify the Field

July 16, 2017

Diego Cossentino
Vincent W.J. van Gerven Oei was among the medievalists who took to social media to express their dismay over presentations at a conference.

Vincent W.J. van Gerven Oei arrived on time for the 9 a.m. keynote lecture at the annual International Medieval Congress at the University of Leeds, in England. Titled "The Mediterranean Other and the Other Mediterranean: Perspective of Alterity in the Middle Ages," the lecture kicked off one of the largest annual medieval conferences in the world, which this month featured the theme of "otherness."

The room wasn’t crowded; most attendees — more than 2,400 of them, from 56 countries — were still arriving or recovering from jet lag, so Mr. van Gerven Oei took a seat near the front row. But as soon as the introductions began, he noticed something odd: All of the speakers discussing "otherness" were white, European men.

"Well, that’s awkward," he recalls thinking. "I wonder whether anyone is going to say something about this."

But in introducing the keynote speech, the moderator made a joke about otherness: If audience members thought he was just another old, white man, they should just wait until after his holiday at the beach.

"Whether or not he intended it as a joke, it obviously ridicules the entire importance of race in this debate, as if it was merely a matter of lying in the sun," Mr. van Gerven Oei says. "I was thinking I could do two things: Either I can just get up and leave, and it will be very awkward, or I can tweet about this."

He chose the latter, tweeting about the joke’s tone-deafness from the account of the publishing company that he works for. And he wouldn’t be the only scholar to tweet about the conference that week: In the following days, as a roundtable discussion on medieval otherness featured only white panelists, and a discussion on "decolonizing" medieval studies faced criticism, nonwhite medievalists took to social media to criticize the conference’s lack of diversity.

"The IMC simply chose to ignore the expertise of people of color and ‘others’ whose knowledge on issues of race and otherness has informed decades of scholarship," Jonathan Hsy, an associate professor of English at George Washington University, wrote in an email to The Chronicle. "If the thread organizers had listened to critiques voiced about the thread’s problematic framing and exclusions at any point during the planning process or indeed during the conference itself, this entire conversation could have been inclusive and innovative."

The criticisms of the conference’s diversity stem from problems in medieval studies for decades — that it is still too Eurocentric, male-dominated, and resistant to change. But as the medieval era has become increasingly prevalent in rhetoric used by white supremacists to advocate for a return to racial, ethnic, and religious purity, many nonwhite medievalists are feeling a new urgency to combat the stereotypes that accompany the field.

Alt-right online forums have co-opted themes from the Middle Ages and created memes that feature a battle cry from the Crusades, "Deus vult," or "God wills it," to advocate for violence against nonwhite people. A man charged with killing two men in Portland, Ore., in May posted on his Facebook page "Hail Vinland!!! Hail Victory!!!," referring to the 11th-century Norse colonization of North America.

"It should be a really, really important time for the field to reflect on why are these things going on and what can we do to combat that," says Dorothy Kim, an assistant professor of English at Vassar. "The worry I would have is that, is the field going to be forever linked to white supremacy?"

The alt-right’s "fantasy" of the medieval past couldn’t be further from the truth, says Suzanne Akbari, director of the University of Toronto’s Centre for Medieval Studies. "The medieval past is actually highly integrated, highly diverse, with a tremendous amount of cultural interchange. Reconstructing those histories of exchange, both cultural and economic, is a very vital area of our field."

Medievalists from underrepresented groups say they see this as a watershed moment for them to speak up and change the status quo.

"We have to talk about this within our community, and by extension, we need to adjust our theoretical frameworks," Mr. van Gerven Oei says. "It is all very painful, but it is the real world knocking at our door."

‘A Safe Place to Be Elitist’

Although conversations about increasing the diversity and inclusivity of scholarship are hardly unique to medieval studies, scholars in the field say that it has been slow to change, and that it still struggles to confront xenophobia, racism, sexism, and ableism within its scholarly community.

The medievalist Eileen A. Joy believes the problems stem from a combination of factors: The subject matter itself can be Eurocentric, the institutions that have served as the centers of medieval scholarship are places where avant-garde research is often not welcome, and some scholars may be attracted to medievalism because of its focus on whiteness and Christianity.

"The field has been rather proud of its resistance to critical theory, which then just attracts even more people to the field who themselves want to be resistant to theory and see medieval studies as a safe place — a safe place to be elitist, a safe place to be white, a safe place to be Christian, Eurocentric, misogynist, etc.," Ms. Joy says.

A growing number of nonwhite medievalists are entering the field, however, and with them a mounting effort to create more conferences, journals, books, and scholarly groups for minority medievalists or for those who focus on nontraditional research.

“It just takes a long time and a lot of emotional labor to push back against those tropes and those stereotypes. Sometimes, I think, for the people who are really engaged in that emotional labor, it really feels like you're just howling into the wind.”
It was this approach that attracted Ms. Joy, who was becoming frustrated with the discipline’s homogeneity. She left her job as an associate professor at Southern Illinois University at Edwardsville to help start an independent, open-access publishing house, Punctum Books, and a scholarly working group dedicated to advancing nontraditional scholarship.

"I realized the only way the field will change or be more welcoming or more inclusive is if some of us actually devote all of our time and energy to creating new spaces, new presses, new journals, new conferences where this kind of work can be developed," Ms. Joy says.

But for the most part, scholars who don’t fit the mold of the stereotypical medievalist — "a cis, heterosexual white guy in tweed, possibly with a little gray hair, maybe with a beard," Ms. Kim says — face obstacles to changing the field from within.

"It just takes a long time and a lot of emotional labor to push back against those tropes and those stereotypes," says Lisa Fagin Davis, executive director of the Medieval Academy of America. "Sometimes, I think, for the people who are really engaged in that emotional labor, it really feels like you’re just howling into the wind, and then no one is listening."

‘A Lot of Work to Do’

Still, medievalists say the fact that the International Medieval Congress chose the theme of "otherness" this year is a step toward encouraging wider scholarship. The debate has also encouraged scholars to start rethinking how they view diversity — both in academic work and among academics — in medieval studies.

Such was the case for Rachel Stone, a visiting research fellow at King’s College London and a librarian at the University of Bedfordshire. She was one of the panelists in the roundtable discussion about medieval concepts of otherness. A blog post she published in which she tried to respond to criticism of the panel was criticized by some nonwhite medievalists as dismissive of their concerns.

Since then, Ms. Stone says, responses to her post have helped her "think more carefully and explicitly about [her] own assumptions and prejudices" and have given her a different perspective when it comes to diversity and inclusion in medieval studies.

Axel E.W. Müller, director of the International Medieval Congress, says that as organizers continue to receive feedback from the latest conference — which itself has grown increasingly more international — it will work to make improvements for future conferences.

Apart from meetings, though, medievalists say they must also encourage younger, underrepresented scholars with new perspectives to become interested in the discipline. They must produce interesting, inclusive scholarship that demonstrates the field’s relevance to the modern world, says Mr. van Gerven Oei, who studies the Old Nubian language.

"I feel every day how it is relevant for a rather large group of people who are oppressed, who see in the research in the medieval Sudan a way of retrieving part of their identity and part of their cultural heritage," he says, "and I feel immensely honored to be part of their struggle and be part of the way in which they recover their past."

It comes down to an issue of critical mass, he says. "There are so many regions that are just begging for at least one scholar to once, in the eternity of humanity, to look at it. There’s a lot of work to do."