Fleeing Backwards: The Problematic Present in Medieval Studies

Illuminated manuscript page with a red, almond-shaped wound in the center, flanked by a crucifix and scepter on the sides and Latin writing at the bottom

The Wound of Christ. Jean Le Noir and workshop (attributed), The Prayer Book of Bonne of Luxembourg, Duchess of Normandy, before 1349, tempera, grisaille, ink, and gold on vellum, 5 3/16 x 3 13/16 x 1 5/8 in. Courtesy: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, The Cloisters Collection, 1969



When and how do we talk about the attitudes of an entire field? These conversations often occur in office hours, not in articles, emerging over drinks at conferences or in fights in closed Facebook groups. In my field of expertise, medieval studies, I’ve noticed an insidious trend emerge in recent years: the categorization of certain modern theoretical approaches such as queer theory as “filthy,” less rigorous, anachronistic, and toxic to “good” scholarship. In other words, these methods should be shut down or avoided. As the Russian philosopher Mikhail Bahktin reminds us, however, the concept of filth is more complex than it’s given credit for; it can represent both degradation and rebirth.

Queer theorists Mary Zaborskis and Omari Weeks define queer as that “which may be considered taboo or abject. [Queerness] often disrupts, deviates, or diverges from that which is deemed normal, both in and beyond the field of literary studies.” Medieval studies, as a whole, operates under the assumption that a white, cis, colonialist, heterosexual body renders all forms of theory that challenge that norm as “queer” and not “good” scholarship. Queer theory, on the other hand, challenges that assumption, engaging with what we think of as “identity politics,” which includes postcolonial theory, feminist theory, and critical race theory.

Part of the challenge with investigating discourses of filth is rooted in real issues that arise from an indiscriminate application of theory to text. Rhetorically persuasive scholarship, regardless of time period, demands semantic clarity and historical grounding; the lack of clarity behind a theory can easily become the impetus for a blanket rejection of theory-centric methods of analysis.

Medieval studies, as a whole, operates under the assumption that a white, cis, colonialist, heterosexual body renders all forms of theory that challenge that norm as 'queer' and not 'good' scholarship.

According to the antiquated miasmic theory, filth leads to sickness; it manifests via “bad” or “night air” and can be cured with scented pomanders or sweet smells in hospitals. Under the miasmic model, filth is dangerous because it both signifies and spreads disease; it has the potential to pollute the unexpecting, so we must always be on our guard against it either by cleaning it up or by covering it with sweeter scents. For many scholars, queer methods in medieval studies represent a specter of contagion that, if not eradicated, will weaken the rigorousness and respectability of the entire field. Queer methods become the dangerous miasma against which all medievalists, or so the general advice seems to be, must protect themselves.

The miasmic filth in medieval studies emerges from a manufactured tension between past and present. Rather than methodologically “fleeing backwards” via historical and literary analysis informed by queer methodologies to “uncover historical gay experiences that threaten to disappear,” as queer theorist Heather Love advocates, medieval studies tends to flee backwards into the past, drawing methodological fault lines of “appropriate” and “inappropriate” uses of theory based on medievalists’ incapability between approaches to modern and premodern texts. This attitude comes from the fear of anachronism, but rather than serving as a useful reminder to carefully contextualize scholarly use of queer methods in medieval studies, it creates an atmosphere of toxicity toward queer approaches that forecloses them without further explanation. It’s a symptom that can be traced to overcorrection by medieval scholars in response to the very real threat of periodization, a form of historical approach that favors a narrative of progress. According to this narrative, modernity is the natural result of our movement from the uncivilized Middle Ages through the glories of the Renaissance and into the heyday of modern rational thought. Later fields discuss their work in relation to premodernity just as much as in medieval studies, leading to periodization. The side effect of this action creates an antagonist in modernity in relation to medieval studies: the phantasmic Other against which we must define our own work. Ironically, the exclusive approach that medievalists themselves deploy against recent forms of critical inquiry also mirrors this form of othering.

Didn’t the humanities already have this conversation in the 90s? Isn’t this old news?  I’ve joked with colleagues for years that medieval studies as a discipline is about ten years behind broader literary studies in terms of trending methodologies and areas of interest. If this was another example of a gut aversion to new ways of doing literature, it could be resolved by time. However, 1990 was thirty years ago, and medievalists don’t live in a cocoon separate from these larger disciplinary conversations. The fact that the field is a decade behind current conversations regarding, for instance, the applicability of race theory to literature is not just a natural facet of this form of scholarship. Readers in the audience of the Chronicle of Higher Education or any news regarding academia and white supremacy in the last few years may be aware that medieval studies has been wracked by intrafield strife recently surrounding “liberal” versus “conservative” approaches and critiques of the field. Scholars such as Sierra Lomuto, Dorothy Kim, Jonathan Hsy, and Julie Orlemanski have come under fire for advocating a social-justice approach to teaching the Middle Ages, particularly in the face of events like the Charlottesville rally for white supremacy in 2017. Racist protestors, like their Nazi predecessors, deployed medieval iconography and distorted history to advocate for a return to a “racially-pure” history and society. Their work and the work of others in the medieval subfields of history of science, comparative literature, and queer studies such as Mary Rambaran-Olm, Geraldine Heng, and Carolyn Dinshaw, have been deemed by some as tainted by political ideology and/or drawing false equivalences between past and present.

Ironically, the exclusive approach that medievalists themselves deploy against recent forms of critical inquiry also mirrors this form of othering. Didn’t the humanities already have this conversation in the 90s? Isn’t this old news?

It’s a truth universally acknowledged among medievalists that there will always be some scholars who push back against critical theory out of principle. But the resonance of discourses regarding the applicability of queer theory only became clear to me in one of those office hours conversations. In the process of writing my dissertation prospectus, I met with an advisor and friend whom I greatly respect. According to the grad student grapevine, this mentor had a reputation for being averse to queer approaches to literary studies; over drinks, some of my peers told me this person advised them to avoid queer theory at all costs. Though none of their published work hints at such an opinion, when I asked this advisor, point-blank, about what they thought of applying queer theory to the literature of the past, they replied, “Honestly? I think it’s bullshit.” When they asked me why I wanted to know, in spite of their familiarity with my methods (which struck me as disingenuous), I replied that I used queer and gender theory in my work. They shrugged and said, “Well, no one has ever done it successfully, so…”

This colleague is, like me, a queer white woman. My shock at this response may be seen as naïve, given the evidence throughout history and most obviously in the 2016 US elections that women, especially white women and queer people, can be complicit in upholding patriarchy, racism, homophobia, and other ideologies at their own expense. Yet this conversation doesn’t exist in a vacuum. Although this was the first time I’d heard this rhetoric of filth, it certainly fit into the larger conversations that take place constantly, innocently or not, regarding methodological legitimacy among medievalists. If I hadn’t been previously trained in queer theory by medievalists prior to graduate school, a conversation like this from a senior, tenured, respected colleague would have shut down any future endeavors in the field.

Mixed media artwork showing a spot of blood on gauze

Speech in Honor of Vito the Holy Martyr, Birgit Jürgenssen, 1984, book, lace, gauze, 20 x 15 x 4cm. © Birgit Jürgenssen, Estate Birgit Jürgenssen / Bildrecht Vienna, 2020; Courtesy Galerie Hubert Winter

I would have recognized this treatment of queer methods far sooner had I been paying attention. The professional organization Medievalists of Color has been a leader in this regard. In August 2017, they released a statement condemning the resonances of white supremacy in medieval conversations regarding race and racism in the profession, aiming to call attention to this critical issue that the medievalist and woman of color Sierra Lomuto had brought up a year prior. Despite their efforts, the widespread ramifications of degrading certain methodological approaches to literature as “filthy” came to a head a year later, when a noted far-right wing activist and self-described “cultural libertarian,” Milo Yiannopoulos, published an article online entitled “Middle Rages: Why The Battle For Medieval Studies Matters To America.” In this article, he asserts that medieval studies, the “critical study of Europe’s self-identity,” is imperative in our understanding of the West. When academics participate in “witch-hunts, name-calling, boycotts, and intimidation” due to a difference in opinion, academia would suffer from “incalculable damage.” In his example of these witch-hunts, he uses the celebrated religious historian Rachel Fulton Brown’s branding as a “violent fascist” and “white supremacist” after she issued public praise of Christian identity in the Middle Ages. Her academic blog, The Fencing Bear at Prayer, had begun supporting Yiannopoulos in the lead up to the 2016 election, two years before Yiannopolous published his article. They had since become fast friends, writing and working together.

As Brown’s public condemnations of queer methodologies and identity politics became wider known among her medievalist colleagues, some pushed back. Facebook posts propelled this blogger’s opinion to the forefront of conversations in the field. Panels at 2018 The International Congress of Medieval Studies at Kalamazoo (ICMS), the largest medieval conference in North America, even addressed this topic, and Brown and Yiannopolous themselves either attended or live-tweeted responses to panels (and Brown’s ban from some panels) throughout the weekend. I attended that conference and felt the tension; it was the gossip on everyone’s lips, and it was clear that everyone had picked a side, though they may not have verbally acknowledged it.

On July 20, the Medieval Academy of America hosted a webinar on race and racism in teaching the Middle Ages; three days later, the medievalist program RaceB4Race hosted a roundtable on historical and contemporary lenses in which it invited its participants to inspect, interrogate, and re-envision the phrase 'To Protect and to Serve.'

In spite of the growing criticism of Brown’s claims and her friendship with—and endorsement of—Yiannopoulos, more and more scholars—even important feminist scholars such as Jane Chance—spoke out to defend not only Brown’s right to critique but the very content of her condemnations. The same voices who had initially spoken out against Brown ended up being the same dozen or so scholars forced to respond to every new development. Several professors said on the record that the article by Yiannopolous could educate readers on the state of medieval studies and advocated for Brown’s methodological and ideological views. Yiannopolous’s research was the product of and supported by prominent voices in the field; rather than expressing a “nonacademic” opinion, he was able to coax medievalists into expressing their personal methodological opinions on the record.

Since Yiannapolous’s article was published in 2018, little has changed in the field of medieval studies methodologically, though not for lack of trying. In May 2019, urged on by a letter written by member and professor of English Seeta Chaganti, members of Medievalists of Color participated in a boycott of the ICMS. This boycott was inspired by the tolerance of Brown’s views in 2018 but also by the wholesale rejection of all four co-sponsored conference sessions proposed by Medievalists of Color for the 2019 ICMS. In September 2019, Mary Rambaran-Olm, a medievalist and the vice president of the International Society of Anglo-Saxonists (ISAS) at the time, resigned her position publicly during that year’s RaceB4Race Symposium. She cited the overwhelming whiteness of the Society as well as its refusal to consider a name-change, given that “Anglo-Saxon” is a term central to white supremacist ideology, as ISAS itself admitted in a 2019 Insider Higher Ed article. In a stroke of social media genius, she maintained her access to the ISAS twitter account she created (@ISASaxonists) and continues to tweet actively about racism and white supremacy in the field. Soon after Rambaran-Olm’s public resignation and call for action, ISAS announced that they would change the name of their organization, but not without further backlash from white medievalists.  Finally, in November 2019, the organization officially changed its name to the International Society for the Study of Early Medieval England (ISSEME)—though the original name still made its way onto the voting ballot in deference to the scholars who opposed what they saw as bringing modern politics into an academic field.

Where do we go from here? The COVID-19 pandemic has, in many ways, put the machine of academia on hold. One benefit has been the explosion of public scholarship (webinars, articles, and discussion groups) on the relationship between past plagues like the Black Death and our present moment. The explosion of righteous anger across the United States in response to the murders of Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, and other victims of white supremacy hasn’t gone unnoticed, either. On July 20, the Medieval Academy of America hosted a webinar on race and racism in teaching the Middle Ages; three days later, the medievalist program RaceB4Race hosted a roundtable on historical and contemporary lenses in which it invited its participants to inspect, interrogate, and re-envision the phrase “To Protect and to Serve.” Though each of these panels tangled with miasmic methodologies, their Q&A sessions revealed that the methodological tensions between past and present clearly remain entrenched up to this publication. Only by questioning our own inherent biases as medievalists, scholars, and as a predominately white field can we begin to move beyond the methodological timidity that hinders our progress as a discipline.



Kersti Francis is a writer, editor, and Ph.D. candidate in English at UCLA. You can find her writing in Publisher’s Weekly’s Booklife section, Public Books, and Medieval Feminist Forum (forthcoming 2021). She can also be found procrastinating on Twitter, where she tweets about feminism, magic, queerness, dogs, history, and niche debates in academia.