Whose Middle Ages?

by sboyarin

Quick note: I’ve been thinking about this in response to things I’ve heard at the IONA conference at SFU in April, but I write slowly so it’s taken some time to articulate even this short piece.

One thing I’ve heard from a lot of medievalists of colour was that at some point in the career (even for some of them when they are tenured professors) is that someone has asked them so version of the question: “Why would you be a medievalist?”- with the assumption that as people of colour they shouldn’t be interested in the Middle Ages which is European and White (or so the questioner assumes). And while there are so many problematic aspects to this question, and I’m certainly not in a position to speak to many of them, I wanted to address one of them from my position as a Jewish scholar working in medieval studies. While no one has questioned me about why I work on the middle ages there are certain issues that intersect with what a Jew working on them experiences and this question aimed at medievalists of colour.

As a scholar who primarily works on medieval Jewish literature I have had to become familiar with the literary traditions of the cultures in which the authors I work on lived. This is because Jews were influenced by the cultures surrounding them. Obviously, this changed from place to place and time to time- but one cannot truly understand medieval Jews with out knowing about the wider. So even if we begin with a problematic distinction between literary traditions that are ”mine” to study and those that are not, this distinction cannot be maintained because of the influence these traditions exert on mine. (I would argue that this influence goes both ways, but that’s not really my point here so I won’t spend time on it). This pertains not just to literature, but to all aspects of culture, art and history. For example, one cannot study Jewish medieval book making without knowing about the dominant forms of book making happening at the same time (even if there are important differences).

With this in mind it is important to realize that while there is a complex relationship between the present and the past, a lot of our understanding of the present is framed by our understanding of its relationship to the past. So, to return to literature again, our understanding of the current English literary canon is tied to our understanding of the history of English literature: does it begin with Beowulf? What contribution does Chaucer make? Etc. Thus interventions about the relationship of medieval Jews to the literary tradition are as much about the present as they are about the past.

Now because of the long histories of colonialism and imperialism British and North American culture have had a strong (and disastrous) impact on the world. To put it bluntly: the cultural heritage of Europe has been “thrust upon” Asia, Africa, and America. Understanding how this works, and working to dismantle it, come to better terms with it, engage with it as equals, is not just about studying the present, or even the “recent” histories of colonialism and its legacies, but it is also about studying the past. The “European Medieval” belongs no less to any person of colour than it does to any one of European heritage.

I want to end by reiterating that this is a complex issue with multiple levels, many of which I’m not qualified to speak on, but I wanted to present one (perhaps small) facet of this issue in solidarity with my colleagues of colour.