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21.04.10 Albin et al., Whose Middle Ages?

The Medieval Review

21.04.10 Albin et al., Whose Middle Ages?


Whose Middle Ages? Teachable Moments for An Ill-Used Past is a book about origins: the foundation of a field, the incipience of a racial imaginary, the beginnings of hatreds, and the merging of disparate cultural streams into new assemblages. In his introduction, David Perry wastes no time in staking out the most consequential contention of the book, one that deliberately unmoors the reader from any certainty about possible medieval sources for those origins: "There's no such thing as the Middle Ages and there never was. The notion of a medium aevum that is neither one thing nor the other, permanently stagnating in the in-between, has always been a fiction" (1). This broad claim about the Middle Ages as a fiction alongside the surprising durability of that fiction motivates the volume's deeper polemic; many people outside of the field (and a number of people within it) have misunderstood fundamental aspects of the Middle Ages, which has led to significant misuses of the field. This perspective is of a piece with the field's ongoing reckoning with issues of race. It is not a coincidence that Whose Middle Ages? includes an afterword by Geraldine Heng, whose own ground-clearing The Invention of Race in the Middle Ages anticipates and informs Perry's framing of the key issues.

I put Whose Middle Ages? in relation to Heng's recent major intervention and the reshaping of the field more broadly to emphasize how important and necessary the volume is. This is perhaps nowhere better demonstrated than the broad topical range of the various essays, which collectively attest to the number of consequential channels in which the Middle Ages have been deployed. Usually these involve a destructive miscasting of medieval history for modern ends. For example, Stephennie Mulder uses the case of the Mashhad al-Husayn, a northern Syrian shrine built with the collaborative efforts of Shi'a and Sunni Muslims, to dispel the myth of Muslims being eternally in conflict with one another, a narrative that serves Western imaginings of the Middle East as mired in medieval conflicts and antiquated divisions. A few chapters, on the other hand, offer a contrast to the refrain of addressing and correcting the ill-use of the Middle Ages. Notably, Cord Whitaker's innovative research has unearthed medieval influences on the Harlem Renaissance that broadens conceptions of who has participated in constructing the popular imaginings of the Middle Ages.

This latter set of essays notwithstanding, the prevailing proposition of the volume--to correct these misuses in an accessible form--necessitates some profound compromises in its presentation. The book is divided into three elusive categories "Stories," "Origins," and "#Hashtags," a structure that is usefully fuzzy in so far as it subverts any fruitless searching for teleologies and more capably lays out the cluster of problems that have developed around the reception of the Middle Ages. All of the articles are sharply written, but startlingly brief. There are few footnotes. The authors generally opt for "further reading" lists, which similarly seems to be meant to unsettle expectations of what sort of conversation scholarly work can provoke. These are strong choices, and they shift the onus of constructing the Middle Ages onto the reader. This is perhaps the source of the only significant problem the volume presents, but it is one that colors the whole project. Ironically, given its premise, Whose Middle Ages? is stuck in the middle; it is firmly between being a familiar version of a scholarly collection of essays and being an accessible book framed around large provocations. Tellingly, the word "immigration" is defined, but the "commercial revolution" of the thirteenth century, mentioned a page later, is not (71). As Heng writes in her afterword, the political and historical events that have brought this volume into being are evidence that we "must assess the nature of academic and public desire" for what the Middle Ages offer. This is a book that refuses the pretense of offering exhaustive answers to anything, which is a wholly refreshing stance on medieval studies as a discipline and the popular sense of the Middle Ages as always-already knowable. However, as a reader it might be difficult to feel like one can engage the Middle Ages in a meaningful way without immersing oneself in a field that has not yet extricated itself from the problematic epistemologies that necessitated the book's creation.

The question of "Whose Middle Ages?" is potentially a democratizing one; it suggests that it is impossible for a single group to wholly identify with the period to the exclusion of others. However, the counterintuitive result of this volume is to illustrate that the Middle Ages have been possessed quite often in a manner that has forestalled other forms of apprehending the period. This is to say that the initial question is perhaps a mistaken one. A more accurate (but far less catchy) question for this volume's framing would be "When were the Middle Ages?" The essays consider the complicated workings of temporality: that the Middle Ages are not only continually being (re)possessed, but they are also constantly being recreated. Frequently, what is considered to be medieval is actually constituted of decontextualized historical material, nostalgia, and the desire to implicate the past in historically incompatible political structures. It is in negotiating these temporalities and the purposes they serve that this volume is able to make its most incisive interventions. Each writer presents with considerable clarity the evanescence of the Middle Ages when read at the confluence of multiple intersecting moments in time.

Magda Teter perhaps best highlights this in her essay "Blood Libel, a Lie and Its Legacies." She describes the origins of the blood libel and its circuitous reappearances through history, focusing on how medieval and early modern "chronicles, annals, polemical anti-Jewish works, and the lives of saints" have had been unquestioningly mobilized not only for their content, but for their ideology by some modern readers:

"In complex ways, these premodern chronicles shaped the way future generations would remember the past, as they, according to historian Heinrich Schmidt, wrote events 'into a future,' making 'their presence last'" (49-50).

Her tracing of the blood libel's persistence demonstrates how vital it is not to dismiss malicious or simplistic engagements with the medieval past as merely "banal medievalism" or "modern uses of the medieval that vaguely gesture to the Middle Ages" (114). Not only can medievalisms quickly be transmuted for harmful ends, but they can indeed reflect medieval attitudes that require careful examination. Geraldine Heng suggests in her afterword that this volume engages "the transactional nature of all present-day encounters with the past" while searching for an alternative "ethical relation to the past" (278). Of course, part of that ethical relationship is articulating the demands we have for the medieval past and reckoning with the multifarious ways in which the archive makes demands of us. A reader looking to this book for conclusive ideas about an ethical relationship to the Middle Ages will not find them here. However, this is hardly surprising; Whose Middle Ages? is, after all, charting an iteration of the Middle Ages that is just beginning.