Wednesday, May 8, 2019

Menacing Medievalists

A very large convention of medievalists is about to convene in Kalamazoo, MI; and in this regard our newspaper of record on Sunday published a lengthy article that has fluttered the medieval dovecotes by advertising Medieval Studies as another battlefield in the culture wars.  Specifically a growing group of medieval scholars, generally of the younger generation and of radical political stripe, are attacking "traditional" Medieval Studies for fostering racism and other criminal bigotries, and particularly for providing aid and comfort of proponents of white nationalism and hawkers of white supremacy.  Members of an emergent group called "Medievalists of Color" have become prominent in the discussion.

Medieval Studies have by no means been exempt from controversies.  A lot of my own career has involved debate and polemic.   A fruitful ferment is not foreign to any aspect of humanistic study. Disciplinary expansion and adjustment is more or less constant.  There is an unceasing undertow of intellectual revisionism, new models and schools of thought, improved techniques, new “approaches”, many accompanied by new insults to the English language in the “foregrounding of marginalized voices” and that sort of thing.  Engagement with “real-world” problems is a common aspiration.  Ivory tower types are an endangered species.   There is also the ambiguous operation of a generational or Oedipal imperative.  Young scholars may be inclined to revere their mentors but they also want their jobs.  There are still happy evidences of the ancient apprentice system in academic life, but young people do seek their place in the sun.  The possession of tenure, while not exactly the Olympian superiority of Christminster port-drinkers to the blighted aspirations of Jude the Obscure, can seem oppressive to the untenured.  Tenure once gained, the transformative process by which the Young Turk becomes the Old Fart is a mysterious one which few of us who have experienced it can date with specificity, and none who has not yet can even imagine. 

The term “Medieval Studies” is a rather vague one, denoting no sharply defined object of study or particular scholarly discipline or approach.  But if the term is elastic it is not unbounded.  “Medieval” is an adjective used in European languages to identify an historical period.  If you know a little Latin you can see that it must be a medial period between two other ages.  The pre-medieval period is often called the “Ancient World” or “Classical Antiquity.”  The “age” following is “the Renaissance”.  The period, roughly, is 500-1500.  These are manifestly Eurocentric categories.  But a millennium is a very long time and Europe is a very big space populated by vastly different peoples, frequently on the move.  Medievalists include historians, literary scholars, experts in the history of art and architecture, archaeologists, liturgists, archivists and codicologists, dendrochronologists, musicologists and numerous other ists.   It is all great fun, but the price of admission for most distinguished medievalists, really knowing one’s way around a vast Latin literature, requires years of apprenticeship.  The idea that Medieval Studies is some kind of narrow or parochial enterprise is ludicrous.

The Medieval Academy of America, of which I once had the honor of serving as President for a year, was founded not a hundred years past.  Its mission: teaching, scholarship, and useful publication of materials.  The Academy’s founders were mainly learned Harvard historians and philologists; its headquarters remain to this day in Cambridge, MA.  Like the rest of the human race, they were products of their time.  Among the greatest of them was Charles Homer Haskins (in those days academic gravitas, which Haskins had aplenty, nearly required three sonorous names).  He was a man of parts who had been among President Wilson’s most important lieutenants, an energetic administrator, a master of ancient and modern languages, and a superb writer.  I still recommend his great book, The Renaissance of the Twelfth Century (1927) to people wanting to sample the intellectual excitement of one enduring style of Medieval Studies.

According to the Times, the field of Medieval Studies is inherently “conservative”.  I don’t know that this is true, but I hope it is.  Obviously I do not speak of the “politics” of its practitioners.  In my experience the political profile of medievalists in American and European universities is not much different from that characteristic of other large swaths of the academic humanities, meaning that by large majority they are leftists.  But the twin traditional aims of academic study have been the conservation of old knowledge and the discovery of new knowledge.  Very often the new challenges, modifies, or even demolishes the old.  But only cultural Philistines, fascist book-burners and Communist cultural revolutionaries glory in intellectual vandalism.  It was a very foolish librarian who threw away his Shakespeare first folio once the second had issued from the press.  As the recent fire at Notre-Dame de Paris might remind us, the material relics of medieval Europe remain pitifully vulnerable; and that is no less true of its great spiritual and intellectual legacies.  God bless the conservators.

One of the madder aspects of current political polemic is a free-for-all iconographic frenzy—a kind of Rorschach test in which the inkblots are linked by trip-wires to contemporary cultural anxieties—that fosters alarming interpretations of strange signs and symbols like Pepe the Frog or the circling of the index finger and thumb of the human hand.  That some racist marchers in Charlottesville carried emblems similar to that on the shield of the Knights Templar, which actually says absolutely nothing about the opinions or methods of medieval historians, is cited in the Times’s bill of particulars.  A fair amount of my own scholarly energy was spent in iconographic analysis.  It ought not be a casual pastime. 

One might recall another such episode of cultural illiteracy.  Rudyard Kipling, who died in 1936, had in the 1880s, some years before the birth of Adolph Hitler, adopted as his personal icon of good luck an ancient Indo-European emblem popular with Indian Hindus, among many other groups.  In medieval European heraldry the sign is called the croix gammée or cramponnée.  We all know it as the swastika.  Many early editions of Kipling’s works are decorated with this ornament.  Kipling was fanatically “anti-Hun”.  He practically moved heaven and earth to get his son into the Great War, in which he perished.  In his last years his attitude toward Chancellor Hitler was no more friendly than that toward Kaiser Wilhelm had been.  Nonetheless there is a fairly copious left-wing literature of the Thirties indicting Kipling for Nazism.  The iconography of his good luck charm was said to confirm his imperialism and jingoism.

Several of the more bizarre charges of today concern the alleged medievalism of the Confederate States of America.  But the cavaliers of the South were reading Sir Walter Scott, not Marsilius of Padua.  Scott was no less entitled to his version of the Middle Ages than were other nineteenth-century writers like Marx, Ruskin, Carlyle, Pugin, the brothers Grimm, Maitland, the younger Troeltsch--or for that matter Gilbert and Sullivan: “Though the Philistines may jostle, you will rank as an apostle in the high Aesthetic band / If you walk down Piccadilly with a poppy or a lily in your medieval hand.”  The same indulgence is of course available to the Medievalists of Color, as also to those of colorlessness.  Let a thousand flowers bloom—unchoked by the tares of virtue-signalling and political correctness.  But the way to handle ideas you don’t like is to examine and dispute—not censor—them.

The white supremacists in the Charlottesville march are advocates of inchoate but reprehensible ideas that have no purchase in American intellectual life.  The totalitarian political movements of the twentieth century, Fascist and Communist alike, had widespread representation in European cultural life, including in its universities.  If there is a self-identified American fascist or white supremacist on any American campus, I have yet to hear of that person; and I am inclined to be skeptical of political “identifications” volunteered by others.  The idea that our contemporary racists are inspired by serious medieval scholarship of any stripe is absurd.

It is my opinion that we have too many Harrisons in our academic institutions.  I refer to an imaginary character in a well-known Frost poem.  “Harrison loves my country too, /But wants it all made over new…/his mind is hardly out of his teens:/With him the love of country means/Blowing it all to smithereens/And having it all made over new.”  There are other approaches.
In 1823 the great philologist, historian, and medievalist Ernest Renan was born into a Breton landscape still physically maimed by the violence of the Revolution.  He was raised in the reactionary intellectual milieu of the Catholic “rechristianization” of the French countryside and trained for the priesthood.  His profound researches into Christian origins occasioned his abandonment of Christianity.  His intense lifelong secular faith would become that of the political Liberals—a term meaning roughly what it means in American English today.  Since he wrote about so much, including the origins of the nation state and the role of inconsistently defined “race” in its development, he has not escaped a certain amount of contemporary opprobrium.  In his own lifetime his deeply reverent but demythologizing Life of Jesus (1863), an international bombshell bestseller, was hardly less influential than the nearly contemporaneous work of Darwin in shaking the already crumbling foundations of the old creedal faith.  A reactionary pope called him “the arch-blasphemer of Europe”.  Late in his life this son of the Antichrist wrote as follows in the preface of a charming memoir of his youth.

In seeking to add to the treasury of truths which comprise the capital acquired by the human race, we are the successors of our pious ancestors, who loved the good and the true in the form received in their time.  The most distressing error is to believe that one serves one’s country in the calumny of those who founded it.  All a nation’s ages are the leaves in the same book.  The true progressives are those who begin with a profound respect for the past.  All that we do, all that we are, is the culmination of a time-honored labor.  As for me, I am never more firm in my Liberal faith than when I dream of the miracles of the ancient faith…