A Farewell letter to Medieval Studies

by sboyarin

I no longer think of myself as a medievalist. It’s not because I no longer feel like I belong in this field/discipline/concentration, but because I have come to believe that it’s not a useful label under which to place my knowledge nor the right paradigm through which to filter the world.

I’ve not come to this position lightly or without a certain amount of agony. For scholarly and social reasons it has been very important for me over the past two decades to see myself as a “medievalist” working within “medieval studies.” My hope, with this post, is to move towards a better scholarly place, hopefully while maintaining my social ties to my network of colleagues and friends who see themselves as medievalists. This is not an attack on anyone, and I don’t expect everyone to agree with my arguments here.


The “Middle Ages” as a concept was already problematic, even in the context of its “ideal” or “original” boundaries (Western Europe, except for Muslim Spain?); it was coined by people in the Renaissance to describe a “middle” period between the classical and the humanist revival of the classics. Scholars of the period have been fighting to reclaim the period so that it is not seen as “dark,” “barbaric,” “a decline of civilization,” etc. This battle continues, even in academic circles. In North America, it seems the term is often synonymous with English history and literature: to be a “medievalist” means to have read Chaucer or be well acquainted with the Hundred Years War. Medievalists working on English subjects get to have specialities: they are “Chaucerians,” “Anglo-Saxonists,” “Langlandians”—there is no terms like “Hispanist” or “Hebraist” to refer to them as a collective. The reasons for this are understandable, and to some extent have nothing to do with the field itself, but the fact does create a definite sense of “centre” and “margin” that is not at all reflective of England’s place in medieval history or culture. But this impacts the numbers of students we have, and the numbers of kinds of courses offered or possible to teach. It impacts how medievalists’ conferences are run, how sessions are created, and how well sessions are attended.


It has become very clear to many of us working in the field, especially over the past few years, that there is a strong and continuing strain of people who value the “Middle Ages” as a golden age of White European Christianity, and who turn to knowledge created by Medieval Studies to support their views. Moreover it has become apparent that there are scholars who have a stake in promoting this view as well. Even medievalists who do not explicitly support this position have been tacitly complicit, creating the possibility of their own scholarship being misused in supporting such views. So now there is another battle over this field/discipline/concentration: its goal is to disprove any historical basis for viewing the Middle Ages as a White Supremacist Wet Dream, and it is also engaged in transforming the field so that it no longer supports the kind of scholarship that can be used, wittingly or unwittingly, as fodder for White Supremacist notions of the past. This is an important battle that matters now more than ever. Even if we entered the field not expecting to fight them, even if we do not think of ourselves or our work as “political” or “engaged”—we must now. I have been inspired by some of the great writing that some are putting out there, in an effort to make a change and a difference. So why then am I saying that I’m leaving “medieval studies”?


Ultimately, in order to win this war of ideas, I think we need to abandon the idea of the “Middle Ages” altogether. It was coined as a matter of rhetoric, to create an illusion, so why fight to maintain a category that was already artificial? While it might seem that part of the solution is easy—just stop centering medieval studies on white Christian Europe—in practice I don’t think it is that easy.  The centrality of England and English in North America, of Christianity and of “Europeanness,” means that the resources will remain stacked towards those topics, such that, even if there is a will to change, the system will buck against it. I also do not think that merely pointing out (over and over again) that medieval England wasn’t white or working to build a “global middle ages” will create real change.


What is currently happening with these attempts is that a few individuals, many from already marginalized groups, bear the burden of the work, and the responses to it too. For their efforts they are personally attacked, their careers slowed, and they are further marginalized.  At big conferences, people attend panel or two explicitly about race and the Middle Ages, but then go back to attending more normative panels. At the same big conferences, the existence of programmed sessions covering medieval topics that expand the scope of “medieval studies” are pointed out as progress, but these are frequently not well attended, or attended mostly by those who are already working in the sub-field; their impact on the larger field is not great, even as they are used as excuses not to make bigger changes. This is one reason I’m no longer calling myself a medievalist: I don’t want my presence in the field—as a Jew, as someone who works in Jewish Studies, on Hebrew and Arabic—to be used as an excuse not to make further changes. Why do fellow medievalists resist checking out panels that are outside their areas of specialization? is it not because the category “medievalist,” which supposedly describes a collective interest and defines what we hold in common, is too broad to actually mean we have shared interests? When all is said and done, what I work on is not really relevant to someone working on the experiences of, say, anchoresses.


Further still, given the problematic roots of “medieval studies,” given its flawed artificial origins and inapplicability to much of the world, given the uphill battle it would take to really change it, wouldn’t it be better just to scrap the whole thing and build something new? It would be hard, take a lot of work and collaboration—but I’m not sure that it would be harder than reforming what exists now. Isn’t this hard? Exhausting? We need to develop something that more organically allows for people working horizontally across geographic regions, or vertically across temporal units (or both horizontally and vertically), to come together based on a shared something, that does not resort to the “Middle Ages” as its device.


So for now, I’m abandoning my commitment to “medieval studies” in favor of other frameworks that work better for me. Two that seem attractive are Mediterranean Studies and Silk Road Studies, but then again I’m also interested in England and the Rhineland, so…  From a practical standpoint (at least for now), this does not mean that I won’t consider going to a big medievalists’ conferences like Kalamazoo or Leeds, but I’ll go and present and listen to panels based on case-by-case, year-to-year, interest and not because of an allegiance to conferences that reflect my part in a collective “medievalist” identity. Similarly, if I find a topic or theme that relates to my work or interests at smaller conferences, I’ll apply. This is also a matter of where my money goes.


That’s where I am now, but this is an evolving process. I’m leaving the door open to change my stance. And as I said at the top, I’m not convinced that this is the only reasonable answer to the questions currently debated by others in our very broad field, and I fully expect that many scholars, peers, and friends will follow a different paths.