That the medieval world is different from our own is not in doubt — though ancient influences still pervade our thoughts and dreams nonetheless. There is a powerful need to connect medieval literature to issues preoccupying contemporary America in both research and teaching, to show how the modern world emerges from its distant ancestors, how it mobilizes its antecedents to create mythologies of progress and identity. But the equations are never simple, and difference must be respected and understood along the way to building bridges between the eras.
My teaching and research reflects this constant tension between modern and medieval. I yearn to understand the past, but not as purely academic discipline, a topic remote from reality. Our ideas, good and harmful, tap their roots into elder days, draw nourishment from its wellspring — and sometimes even find their limits and liabilities in ancient practice and ideology. My book (to be released October 2017) is a study of the politics of food in medieval romance, and that could perhaps be seen as isolated and circumscribed topic. But the implications extend beyond its immediate application in the literature and its history. To imagine food as political is to question our own politics of food, to wonder how we make our worlds in the image of the edible, how identity is materially based, nourished just as the corporeal. To give another example, I teach a class on travel in the medieval imagination, a subject that taps into culture and difference, class and economics, space and time, globalism and locality. These are issues contemporary culture still struggles with, still mistrusts and obsesses over. Modern proponents of cultural purity and isolationism are threatened by the need for travel, for interrelation, for communication, for connection, and these urges could stand to be challenged by the long-enduring nature of travel and consort.
There has never been a better time to be more aware of our roots as medievalists, and to be mindful of how images of the Middle Ages are mobilized in contemporary culture. Medievalists, as the scholars of distant periods, need to step up and use our eloquence and knowledge to resist the easy and pernicious mythologies of irrationalism — racism, fascism, nationalism — that appear emboldened by global crises and tensions. From Islamophobes tagging walls with “Deus Vult,” to neo-Nazis shouting “Hail Vinland” before committing atrocious acts, to current political fascinations with crusade and jihad, to the glamorization of brutality in the popular Game of Thrones books and television series. The Middle Ages I observe and study is no safe space for white supremacist fantasies of neo-Nazis, but neither is it innocent of its own sort of racial, ethnocentric, and religious tensions and misgivings. We are the ones with the tools to investigate the complexities of the truth. We cannot trust anybody else to do this job for us.
The role of modern medieval scholarship is to excavate the past, to gauge critically cultures and artifacts of those distant times, to determine how they inform our perspectives of the present. The nexus between time periods is what makes this task vital and urgent. Pretending that history does not include us no longer can be accepted. The Middle Ages does not languish in isolation, in need of rescue. Every intervention makes new meaning, creates innovative models, forms new arguments, looks at evidence in fresh ways. Medievalism requires not only archives and texts and languages — it also draws upon concepts and ideas, theories created both in the distant past and on the leading edge of the present. Every new idea or fresh approach re-appraises the archive, re-organizes the information that is available, brings the marginal into centrality, intellectual hinterland into the cosmopolitan. We have a responsibility not just to the archive, but to the ideas that generate that archive. Theory informs practice at all stages, from organizing social orders, to forming universities and libraries, to disseminating and preserving texts, to determining which academic project one pursues and promotes. The theory wars might be over for a while now — but new theories of the medieval might just save our discipline from penny-pinchers and fascists alike.
It is incumbent on today’s scholars everywhere to approach the Middle Ages self-consciously, with an awareness of how we project our own faults and liabilities on our objects of study. In a modern culture that celebrates and promotes whiteness it is all too easy to look back and see inevitability. Take the description of a hero or heroine from an Old French romance and its all-too-common admiration for that character’s “fairness.” It is common enough to interpret current attitudes of white supremacy as “natural,” endemic to our culture. Not that they aren’t at all — but probably that “fairness” so exalted is being compared to the sunburned and weathered complexion of the average peasant. It is an expression of class-based difference, and not necessarily race.
Early medieval scholars often looked to their texts and histories to determine the origins of their own societies’ imperialism, Christian supremacy, and even proto-fascism. Their legacy is a bit like a game of Russian roulette: disastrous survivals and dangerous ideas just an unlucky pull away. But there is also much to be commended as well. Rather than turn a blind eye to intellectual history, we need to embrace it, work through it, figure out our own disciplinary liabilities. We must use the tools of the past in order to forge a more inclusive Medieval Studies. Honesty and self-reflection is hardly detraction, not a dismissal. White people are often scared that if you take away white entitlement, there will no longer be a culture. Of course there will be: the Middle Ages shows that there was a vibrant culture before whiteness.
None of us would accept “Well, that’s just how they did things back then” as a valid rationale for anything from one of our students. Why should we say it ourselves when confronted with the sometimes-troubled complexity of our disciplinary ancestors? Self-imposed isolation and obsession with anachronism endangers medievalism, marginalizes us, and may even render us disposable appendages of the academy. To be remote was safer, perhaps, but the challenges of the present confront us. Medievalists new and established must step forward to take on what is difficult, approach the past bravely, grow the field, actively defend its importance. We do so by refusing cordon off the past from the present, by making the long ago relevant and urgent, by fully inhabiting time and tradition but refusing to be limited by it.