By virtue of its subject matter as constructed over its history, medieval studies has a legacy of fortifying structural racism and other engines to silence the marginalized.
Throughout the development of humanities curricula, the contributions of medieval disciplines have often undergirded white supremacy. Many historical fields and disciplines chose at earlier moments to re-examine their canons (sometimes participating in what we know as the “culture wars”).
Medieval studies — despite the the intervention of earlier critics who always wanted to see it become more open — continued for much of its past to provide justification for white Western anchors to narratives of literary, historical, and cultural greatness. Even when we studied non-Western objects and histories as medievalists, we tended to presuppose the primacy of whiteness in our modes of thought and analysis, too often unchallenged, in the field’s history, by engagement with critical discourses questioning that presupposition.
And as with all white supremacist projects, that supremacy hid itself in plain sight, shaping not only the field’s content but also, for non-white and white scholars alike, its professional culture, normalizing imbalances in access to visibility and voice.
As we increasingly call out – in all spheres of our lives – the realities of structural racism and other bias, medieval studies has experienced dramatic friction. Some medievalists are recognizing, or finally finding the voice to say, that the systemic bias on which the field has historically depended is one reason why we have never all participated in it freely or equally. Other medievalists corner themselves into denying the existence of systemic bias, or feigning incomprehension of it, in order to defend a curricular, research, and professional culture to which they are attached. […]
Medieval studies is the future because our field is old enough to be young. Let us then take up the charge of its brave early-career members.
They remind us that enduring patterns of harassment and racism make academic freedom a mere myth for some; they assert that positions of misogyny, ethnonationalism, xenophobia, homo- and transphobia, and other biases are not legitimate positions in any conversation because they make freedom for all within the conversation impossible.
Let our old field be the ideal home for those recognitions, one that rejuvenates their force.