My first time witnessing discrimination in the world of Medieval studies occurred last spring, when I read this article from the website of the University of Chicago’s Divinity School, written by U Chicago medievalist Rachel Fulton Brown. In it, Fulton Brown criticizes the protests that prompted the cancellation of a talk scheduled to be given by alt-right political commentator and alleged white nationalist Milo Yiannopoulos at UC Berkley. She goes on to claim that violent reactions to Yiannopoulos and other conservative figures are the result of the strict secularization of American education which begun in the late 19th century. Universities’ “denial of religion as the basis of culture is the source of the violence we are now witnessing, both on campuses and across America at large”, she says. Further explaining her argument, she asserts that the minds of students are open
“and being filled with what they are given in place of religion: multiculturalism; race, class, gender; the purportedly secular ideas of socialism and Marxism. Particularly for those students, and faculty, who have little to no religious education outside of school, these ideals have become their faith. This is why students and faculty find Milo so threatening. He not only challenges them to examine beliefs they have never been taught to question. Thanks to his near charismatic appeal as a speaker, at least for those who attend his talks rather than stand outside protesting, he holds the possibility of conversation, of changing hearts and minds.”
People protesting Milo Yiannopoulos’s talk at UC Berkley, Feb 2017
My initial reaction to Fulton Brown’s piece was essentially the same as my reaction now – I was appalled that a professor working in my intended field of study at my dream university would write an article brimming with heavy implications of Christian superiority, supporting a notorious racist, sexist, transphobe, xenophobe, etc.; and condemning the attention given to multiculturalism and issues of inequality in our current education system. However, I didn’t give the article much thought, dismissing it as an isolated instance of bigotry within a generally accepting scholarly community. But during a conversation I had with Andrew Albin, a medievalist at Fordham University, this summer, the Rachel Fulton Brown controversy came up and Professor Albin brought to my attention the fact that notions of white, Christian, male supremacy are in fact a much larger problem in the field of medieval studies than I had assumed. Seeing as discrimination on the basis of race, gender, religion, etc. has risen to prominence in national political discourse as a result of the events at Charlottesville this summer, I thought that the topic of discrimination and medieval studies would be interesting and relevant for my blog post this week.
I began my research into this subject by returning to the work of Rachel Fulton Brown. While looking through her blog, I found several posts that confirm the prejudice indicated in the article discussed above. The first, entitled “Talking Points: Three Cheers for White Men”, applauds the men of Medieval Europe for coming to the eventual realization that rape is bad, as is treating one’s wife like a slave. Another article provides a guide for arguing against “Social Justice Warriors”, advising readers not to apologize for offensive remarks, even when they cause others to suffer emotional traumatization. Various other articles offer further praise for Milo Yiannopoulos, who becomes a God-like figure in the scripture of Fulton Brown’s blog.
Professor Fulton Brown is, however, one of many medievalists who have exhibited discriminatory beliefs. In 2015, medievalist Allen J. Frantzen attacked feminism in a blog post entitled “How to Fight Your Way Out of the Feminist Fog”. Last July, a racist joke made by a speaker at the International Medieval Congress in Leeds sparked outrage in the medievalist community. And, most disturbingly of all, white supremacists have made heavy use of medieval imagery, such as the symbols of the Knights Templar and the Holy Roman Empire.
Alt-right demonstrator at a rally in Portland, dressed in a costume inspired by the Middle Ages and Roman Empire
Clearly, there is something that draws racists, sexists, and bigots of all varieties to the Middle Ages. This is hardly a surprise. After all, the very idea of the “Middle Ages” carries with it heavy implications of Euro-centrism by asserting that history should be divided according to fluctuations in western power. Of more significance than this, however, is the way that modern society tends to view the medieval world. Whereas it is generally understood that under the Greek and Roman Empires, as well as during the Renaissance and beyond, significant multiethnic cultural exchanges took place in Europe, the Middle Ages are often seen as a period of European cultural and ethnic isolation. Furthermore, the Christian church reigned supreme in medieval Europe, not yet challenged by the secular ideas that arose in later centuries. Finally, the Middle Ages give us the image of the crusader- the Christian warrior fighting against non-Christian infidels.
While most of us can recognize that all of these perceptions of the Middle Ages, regardless of whether they are true or not, are negative. To us, they are details of history that should remain forever banished to the past. But to white supremacists, these aspects of medieval life are cherished ideals that represent the white, Christian, male-dominated world they long for.
As awful as the resent outbursts of discrimination among both medieval scholars and medieval history enthusiasts have been, they have served to bring awareness to the legacy of discrimination in the often white, male dominated, Eurocentric field of medieval studies. The increasing recognition of this issue brings with it the possibility for change. As stated by the Medievalists of Color in an article published on the topic of race and Medieval studies, “This is a watershed moment that, if used productively, will make medieval studies home to an intellectual environment that is sustainable and innovative, promotes risk-taking, and leverages an ever greater number of experiences and scholarly lenses in order to build the most comprehensive body of knowledge about the Middle Ages possible.”
Behring, Natalie. Alt-right Demonstrator Kyle “Based Stickman” Chapman at a Rally on June 4th, 2017, in Portland, Oregon. 4 June 2017. Pacific Standard, Social Justice Foundation, psmag.com/education/nazis-love-taylor-swift-and-also-the-crusades. Accessed 9 Oct. 2017.
Berger, Noah. Protesters Demonstrate against Breitbart News Editor Milo Yiannopoulos in Berkeley. 1 Feb. 2017. Los Angeles Times, http://www.latimes.com/opinion/readersreact/la-ol-le-milo-yiannopoulos-berkeley-free-speech-20170206-story.html.