Friday, June 30, 2017

Medieval in the modern world

The University of Manchester (image from Wikimedia Commons)
It's Friday night, and I'm on a quiet train on my way back from the Medieval in the Modern World conference in Manchester. This is the third iteration of the conference, which will next convene in Rome in late 2018. The ethos of the conference is to look at (in a rigorous, analytical, and scholarly way) how the Middle Ages survives in the modern world.

The relevance of the medieval to modernity is the bread and butter of my scholarship, and I was delighted to be presenting at #MAMO2017. I met up with some people I hadn't seen for a long time, met a lot of smart and interesting people, and generally had a great time chatting about medievalism, gender, race, and how great the cakes were.

This post is my attempt to summarise some of the incredibly rich research and the ideas that came out of the conference that I think will influence my thinking for quite some time. Of course, every scholar will have a slightly different take home message. As someone interested in sexuality and gender, it was always going to be that aspect of the conference that would stick with me the most. But, there were some very clear themes that seemed to come up again and again that seemed to reflect current thinking about the medieval, medievalism, and the contemporary world. Many of these these themes overlapped, but I thought it might be useful to jot them down here for future reference. I apologies in advance for any mistakes, omissions, or errors - I blame a tired brain after 3 days of excellent and inspiring conversation.

1) The medieval is political (and it's not pretty)

I would much rather this were not the case, but it was impossible to deny that the dominant theme running through so many panels and conversations over coffee, cake, or wine, is the co-opting of the Middle Ages by white supremacists, social conservatives and, in short, all kinds of unsavoury people. This isn't something I  was unaware of, but the fact that this was a thread running through so many panels - on nationalism, on social media, on film, on games - was sobering. It made me realise that, as comfortable as I am in my feminist scholarship bubble, that there is something sinister, something dark going on in my discipline, that I really need to pay more attention to.

What MAMO2017 was great for was the reinforcement that I can do something about this. It felt like a real call to attention and action and I've come away with a whole host of ideas for ways to counteract this racist, ahistorical appropriation of the Middle Ages. In some ways, medieval studies has never felt more like social activism and I am equipped and ready.

2) Authenticity vs realism

The distinction between authenticity and realism in medievalism is not at all new - this is a question that has concerned film and games researchers for a good while. However, it seemed that this was a question that kept coming up during the conference. Victoria Cooper (@drsyrin) gave a really nice definition of each of these at the start of her talk:

Realism = current understanding of the Middle Ages.
Authenticity = conforming to expectations of what 'feels' right or 'appropriate'.

This conceptualisation of authenticity was a light bulb moment for me. I spent the rest of the conference thinking about that idea of the Middle Ages as a 'feeling' - this idea that the 'medieval' is affective (I wrote this down in capital letters in my notebook). If the Middle Ages is a historical period whose primary aim is to make you feel something, as medievalists do we need to address or speak to this? I need to think this through a little more, but there's definitely something there... watch this space.

3) The medieval is raced (but how?)

I owe this subheading to Cord Whitaker (@CordCWhit) who joined the conference by pre-recorded YouTube video. Well known for his work on medieval studies and race, Cord was part of a round table session on medievalism and race, where the erasure of diversity from medieval studies and from medievalism was front and centre. Dorothy Kim (@dorothykim98) put forward an important question: the personal is political, but is your scholarship? (The answer is always yes).

I've seem a tweet doing the rounds recently that calls out Doctor Who for its implicit assumptions about race. It points out that when a character who is meant to regenerate and be created entirely new is regenerated a dozen times as a white man, that is not a neutral act, it is a deliberate and meaningful act. MAMO2017 did a really good job (compared with every other medieval studies conference I've been to) of making that deliberateness overt. With medieval studies, particularly given the co-option of the field and discourse by - not to put too fine a point on it - racists, it is so important to question what is seen as the default, the norm, the unquestioned.

The conference continues tomorrow, so I recommend you follow the hashtag #MAMO2017 on Twitter if you're at all interested. I've certainly taken away a lot of things to think about.

1 comment:

  1. I spent the rest of the conference thinking about that idea of the Middle Ages as a 'feeling' - this idea that the 'medieval' is affective (I wrote this down in capital letters in my notebook). If the Middle Ages is a historical period whose primary aim is to make you feel something

    I did a little bit of checking (e.g. "Humanist concepts of renaissance and middle ages in the tre- and quattrocento") to confirm this but it feels to me as though the very labelling of "the Middle Ages" and "the Renaissance" lead one to feel that the Romans were logical/scientific/cultured and there in some way closer culturally than the "Middle Ages" (which is a period of darkness/falling away/a regrettable interlude).

    Of course, that's not the kind of feeling that the current "white supremacists, social conservatives and, in short, all kinds of unsavoury people" have about the Middle Ages but both suggest that people's understandings of/feelings about the past are often shaped by how they see the present (and what they'd like to see in the future).

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