Non-conclusive thoughts on the relationship between medievalism and European cultural hegemony

Hello, internets. I’m at ANZAMEMS. It’s delightful! Constant Mews, in opening the conference, spoke heartily and fondly of the strong sociability which characterises antipodean research communities for early European study. He’s right, and though the conference is much smaller than Leeds it’s diverse and vibrant and very very friendly. There are people here I haven’t laid eyes on since last ANZAMEMS and it’s delightful to see what’s become of them in the meantime.

But that’s not what brings me back to the internets. It’s a puzzling point which Constant raised in his opening comments. We had been given a Welcome to Country, and a thought-provoking few words on the importance of culture, heritage, and listening to the experience of others, by Aunty Diane Kerr, a leader from the local indigenous community. Constant then spoke about something I’ve seen few medievalists* talk about in relation to our discipline: the expansion and veneration of European culture and history as part of the colonial process.

Constant spoke of the ANZAMEMS theme, ‘Cultures in translation’, as embracing ideas of fluidity, transition, and moving away from the dominance of the European historical narrative as brought out to Australia from mostly the UK, with seasoning from Europe and the US. He spoke of this as something ANZAMEMS really wanted to be doing.

… but how? I don’t know what ANZAMEMS may have been doing or attempting to do**, but when I look at the program, it’s European history. There’s only a very little about Europeans interacting with other places and cultures. I think Constant did well to remind us of our troublesome place as people who have chosen – many of us in contexts where other options were available – to specialise in, devote our energies and our teaching to, the history and appreciation of European culture.

I don’t know that ANZAMEMS this year lives up to Constant’s hope of going beyond the dominance of European history. What I do think is that there is something useful to be done not beyond but within that tradition: not expanding, but fragmenting. I notice, especially with these themed conferences where everyone tries to bend the theme their way, that we often end up talking about inter-cultural exchange within Europe. About dominant and excluded perspectives within Europe, and the ways which different cultures rubbed up against each other throughout our period. England, of course, is a wonderful example; as is the Anglo-French cultural zone, or for that matter, even the slightest brush with pre-revolution France.

It seems to me that there are two particularly damaging myths built into a system which preferences European culture and history: a myth of a European monoculture*** and a myth of cultural progress. The latter allows you to view any evidence of cultural variance within Europe as a stage in the past, a building block on the way to monocultural modernity.

This, I think, is something medievalists can and should easily counter; and as medieval studies is often experienced as safely alien, buffered from the present by the safe barrier of the early modern, I think collaboration with early modernists is particularly useful here. It’s very often poor historical work to approach ‘medieval Europe’ as a monolith – although we sometimes have to, for expediency’s sake.

And I do believe we should resist the urge to read the past as the origins of the present or the historical narrative as a consistent progression toward the ‘civilised’. That’s usually poor history, as well as politically Euro-centric. For instance, in a series of papers on emotions associated with crime and execution, one paper looked at early modern English customs of ‘benefit of clergy’ and the emphasis on mercy and redemption in thought surrounding that practice. We might have moved on from death penalties, mostly, but one would be hard put to say that the principle of mercy is less commendable than the patterns of punitive justice which underpin the current system.

That’s not enough, not by a long shot; real change needs far more than that. But it’s not worthless, either. I think a sharp awareness of the changeability of social systems, value systems and intellectual systems is critically important to… well, to any critical thinking about modern society, and that is something that cannot be supplied by modern history and anthropology alone. Then there’s the immense commonality of humans over time: consistent experiences like sex, childbirth, death, grief and suffering, which are embedded in vastly different social systems and shouldn’t be treated as ahistorical and are so easily recognised. That, too, is valuable, for if the past is alien and yet recognisable, then so to ought the cultural variance of the present be accessible if one pays attention long enough to find the point of common interest.

*coughs* Here endeth the lesson for today.


*Here. I understand it’s a problem which most people teaching introductory world lit or world history courses in the US have to wrangle with, on a broader scale.

** Things a conference or organisation could do, if they wanted to broaden their purview in this way, would be to organise and sponsor panels on cross-cultural topics (bonus points if you move beyond the crusades…); dedicate travel bursaries to people working in particular fields; dedicate travel bursaries for delegates from Asia, Africa, the middle east or South America. Advertise calls for papers well outside of the usual medieval places. Seek keynotes, etc etc. For all I know, ANZAMEMS may have tried some of these methods.

*** And with that often comes a laughably narrow definition of ‘white’, which is treated as synonymous with ‘civilised’ and thus with Europe. Ask me about how the White Australia policy didn’t consider Italians to be white. Or most Germans. GO ON, ASK ME.


9 Responses to “Non-conclusive thoughts on the relationship between medievalism and European cultural hegemony”

  1. Annelise Says:

    I really liked this post…thanks for passing on the thoughts and insights.

    I’m interested in reading about Jewish and Islamic experiences, interactions, and writings in medieval European contexts. You’ve encouraged me to keep remembering the diversity in European cultures then, and more generally to appreciate various cultures’ histories in our present world. Keeping things in their right balance tends to make them richer, anyway.

  2. Annelise Says:

    The idea of fragmenting the discipline as you described, to correct it without damaging it in the process, is so good.

  3. Annelise Says:

    And the desire to seek out common human experiences while knowing how embedded they are in different cultural systems is also good. As humans we always have a lot to learn about valuing people and building simple, real relationships with people who are in different worlds than we are. But it does matter to. In the end I think our respect for and connection with others can always be built on strongly shared experiences. Things that may be dissimilar, and in parts unsharable, but in meaningful ways still accessible to anyone who recognises the intrinsic value in others. To be good at this, and strengthen our society in this, is worth the commitment to constant relearning.

  4. Jonathan Jarrett Says:

    The terminology is against us, I have to say. ANZAMEMS have maybe a better pitch by combining medieval and early modern, which opens up the world a bit, but medievalists have first to deal with the fact that the word that defines their period subscribes them to a European periodisation between ancient and modern, into which not just the rest of the world but some parts of what is now Europe, most especially Scandinavia (were Swedes and Norwegians ‘white’?), don’t fit at all. (In Sweden `medieval’ is between Iron Age and modern, I suppose, without that messy Roman interval.) Even if one attempts to `go global’ in that period, the period itself is only significant in terms of what happened in Western Europe. We might do better simply to aim for a discipline of `studies in historical societies before the printing press’. I just made that up but I wonder if it might not be genuinely useful if it were framed right.

    • Annelise Says:

      Maybe have both? Emphasising the global history in that way seems good, and when speaking about Europe it makes sense to be able to periodise its own history.

      The decision to divide it with printing, or with all these other boundaries, is heavily value-laden… which is okay, as long as it serves to answer practical questions… and as long as those questions are good ones in all our context of wanting and needing to look back.

      • Annelise Says:

        I mean that lumping the period in Europe that we call medieval in with the rest of the world and also with the ancient period is a really good thought, in a way. It reminds of the continuities and takes away some false, imposed boundaries. But then again, what about the distinctions that there are, they things that bring the medieval material together and are worth keeping a glance at? And why should all that history be studied as one entity and then ‘the world with printing’ be studied as something else? So the formation and ongoing remaking of schemata in our large-scale understanding here is well helped by making periodisation more specific to each topic, theme, group, etc… and then by looking at the relationships between these streams as well… being less inclined to generalise/periodise except where it is either (and you consciously keep these separate) relevant or necessary.

        I don’t know a lot about medieval studies, so these are kind of distant impressions.

      • Jonathan Jarrett Says:

        Print was an arbitrary choice of boundary, for sure. I wanted something that could be found everywhere, but I’m less than convinced that increased access to accurately-reproduced texts in large numbers has the same effect everywhere. Still, it’s a technology that (pretty much by definition) tends to be documented and would be archaeologically recoverable in most environments and forms…

        • highlyeccentric Says:

          I don’t think print is the right boundary (the Chinese had it ages before the rest of us!), but yes, there might be something to be said for that…

          • Jonathan Jarrett Says:

            I’m not sure that makes it the wrong one. Could one not argue for China having had a really really extended early-modern-analogous period? I mean, I don’t know Chinese history well enough to say but my point is I think that a scheme like this also enables asynchronous comparison. It may also open cultural-technological determinism à la Niall Ferguson, however, which is something I’d prefer not to step in, so maybe I need to go clean my mental shoes.

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