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22.08.33 Hoenen/Engel (eds.), Past and Future

22.08.33 Hoenen/Engel (eds.), Past and Future

The sixth annual European Congress of Medieval Studies was held by the Fédération Internationale des Instituts d’Études Médiévales (FIDEM) in Basel in 2018. It is probably for that reason that the resulting conference volume, Past and Future: Medieval Studies Today, reads as a transcript from a different era rather than a road map for the Medieval Studies of the present or for the future. It is therefore not the fault of the participants of the Basel conference that their ideas for our discipline in 2018 are, in my view, inadequate in 2022--the world has been through quite a lot since then! Nevertheless, this volume has convinced me that we medievalists need to do a better job collaborating across the world to discuss our field’s importance in the present and the challenges and opportunities for the future. For while this volume promises an assessment of what “the medieval past mean[s] today for a global and culturally diverse future” in its introduction (vii), the vast majority of the essays contained therein do not deliver on this promise.

There are two essays in the collection that do a lovely job demonstrating what innovative Medieval Studies work looks like in 2022. Hilde De Weerdt’s “On the Future of Medieval Studies: A (Chinese) Historian’s Perspective” takes apart Joseph Strayer’s classic idea (from 1970) of the “medieval origins” of the nation-state by showing how Strayer’s paradigm is inadequate to medieval Chinese examples. The burgeoning nation-states in China were decidedly un-Strayerian to De Weerdt, relying on an ethnic criteria and certain class solidarities that went unaccounted for in Strayer’s work. De Weerdt’s article insists that medievalists nuance notions of “medieval origins” of modern developments when they are based on European evidence alone, and instead look at global medieval cultures comparatively to understand premodern “origins” of modern phenomena in more complex ways. Similarly insightful, Nicolas Martinez Bejerano’s essay “With Feet on the Ground: Some Remarks about Vulgarization of Christian Thought in Nueva Granada (1758-1767)” discusses the legacy of medieval Christianity through eighteenth-century settler colonialism in the “New World,” tracing how medieval Franciscan theology was applied, and the precedents of the medieval conversion of Arabs and Jews were intentionally rejected, during the “culturalization” (359) of indigenous peoples in the Americas. By showing how the medieval context is essential to understanding the playbook of eighteenth-century missionaries and colonists, Bejerano demonstrates how knowledge of the premodern is key to comprehending the modern.

Beyond these two examples, however, most of the remaining essays do not work to present an innovative present or future for Medieval Studies. Several scholars cite the new importance of “multi-culturalism” (27) in Medieval Studies due to our “globalizing world” (vii). But, aside from Bejerano, nowhere in this volume is there an article that mentions Islam or Judaism--an egregious oversight--and 17 out of 19 essays deal with the European context. Several scholars highlight our field’s historical exemplarity at “rethink[ing] traditional disciplinary subdivision[s]” (215). Yet the interdisciplinarity in the volume is limited, since it is rarely contained within a single article, and the disciplines represented are only music (1 essay), literature (3 essays), philosophy/theology (5), digital humanities (4), and history (6). This means that art history, archaeology, and material culture are completely ignored; more recent, revolutionary experiments in interdisciplinary work in Medieval Studies, like medical or environmental humanities, or the application of cognitive neuroscience to histories of experience/emotion/the senses, go unmentioned; and future interdisciplinarities (e.g., a scholarly landscape that has eliminated siloed departments entirely; a university where scientists, social scientists, and humanists all work together; or a dystopia in which there are only 5 humanists in each university) are not imagined. Moreover, several studies are outdated in their historiography. An article gives a “post-colonial queer reading” of a crusade narrative, but “doing gender” (229) has gotten more complex than “men and women” (9). [1] The philosophy/theology papers do not register that there is a global movement in philosophy to dismantle the canon, relying instead on age-old figures. [2] Even the definitions of the discipline of history are antiquated: few historians today would claim that historians solely aim to “uncover the exceptionality of particular historical phenomena” (136); R. G. Collingwood’s romantic notion that historians altruistically seek out their subjects’ “common human nature” (6) has been nuanced by post-colonial historians (among others); and the question of whether there was ever a “common European culture” (135) in the Early Middle Ages feels like an old paradigm for the study of “western civilization” that has been increasingly seen as problematic. When we think about our scholarship in outdated ways, what we write can injure our readers and students, and can open our field to misuse by authoritarians and white supremacists--so mistakes like these could have a real destructive power, despite the good intentions of their authors.

The remainder of the articles in the volume are incredibly technical, which feels narrow and uninspiring for the visionary purpose of this volume. There is no denying that Medieval Studies will always have huge language and manuscript skill requirements, and it is certainly to our collective benefit that medievalists scour manuscript archives, decipher medieval scripts, and read and translate medieval languages, as they have done for centuries, and as they should do for the centuries to come. But there is a disproportionate number of essays (10/19) on critical editions and idiosyncratic manuscript variations for a volume claiming to map out Medieval Studies’ future. The digital humanities examples in this collection are quite basic--they include critical editions and concordances of texts, and maps of medieval urban spaces, and they ignore the more expansive, future-looking work happening in Digital Medieval Studies that moves beyond archiving and aims to reconceive and reconfigure how we tell stories and make arguments about the medieval world. [3] Past and Future is sparsely peppered with fascinating, obscure moments in Medieval Studies historiography--for instance, the invention of the “doxographical method” in medieval philosophy in 1879 (318)--but I wish that there had been more of these tales from the past, and that they had been marshalled for interpretive reflections on why such techniques were invented when they were, what they show about how we’ve grappled with our field before, and what they might forecast about our field’s future. There is an article on public history and Medieval Studies, a topic oft overlooked in our field, but the case studies examined therein are all of European Christian festivals performed for European audiences. For the Medieval Studies of the present and future globalized world, shouldn’t we consider the more diverse “publics” of 2022--e.g., New York City schoolchildren visiting The Met Cloisters, Google Arts & Culture creating an open-access site of the “Treasures of Timbuktu,” or the Louvre Abu Dhabi’s exhibition on medieval chivalry in the Middle East and Europe?

Throughout the collection, the question “Why Medieval Studies?” is repeatedly asked. One of the plenary speakers, Matteo Nanni, quotes Marc Bloch, answering that, for both himself and Bloch, it was a “free choice” (3), not for “relevance or utility” (4) but for “entertainment” and “pleasure” (23). The Humanities are indeed for the pleasure of our contemplation, to challenge us intellectually and emotionally, to stir our passions and interests. But we need to also acknowledge that, in 2022, this is a position under real threat. The post-COVID landscape, a hyper-capitalist/student-as-customer society filled with culture wars threatening curricula (especially in the United States), has threatened the system of liberal arts education. Programs in Medieval Studies and humanities departments are being eliminated; students are being discouraged from studying anything that isn’t obviously career-focused; and retiring medievalists are not being rehired. As a result, we need books like this one to take its charge much more seriously. We need to not assume that everyone understands the value of a critical edition. We need to involve not just scholars in dialogue about the past, present, and future of our field, but also our (often more diverse) undergraduate and graduate students, as well as university administrators, non-profit grants organizations, and even political leaders to participate in these discussions. We need to constantly question whom we are writing for, whose Middle Ages we are describing and giving voice to, what the implications of our conclusions might be for wider, more diverse, more public audiences of the present, and who might make up those audiences in the future. We need to observe how scholars from other fields have innovated the way scholarship is done--Saidiya Hartman’s “critical fabulation” comes to mind, but there are so many others!--and think about how we too might be able to marry the erudition of our field with more creative energy that will allow our work to be as rigorous as ever but also new and path-breaking. We need to urgently reconsider what the future of Medieval Studies could be in a world that is grappling with the legacies of racism, slavery, and colonialism; in a world increasingly filled with fascism; in a world whose biosphere is collapsing; in a world where politicians are policing what is taught in elementary, secondary, and college classrooms; in a world where gender inequality and discrimination is on the rise; in a world where corporate, capitalist greed is more important than human lives. To be good stewards of the past, good teachers in the present, and good planners for the future, we need to preserve, teach, build on, and explain what medievalists have been doing for centuries, and we also need to critically reflect on what we’ve done and prepare to go beyond it, into a world we haven’t experienced yet. We need to think radically and creatively about how we describe, teach, interpret, and communicate our field, so that we can ensure that future generations will still find it worthy of study and preservation.



1. Leah DeVun, The Shape of Sex: Nonbinary Gender from Genesis to the Renaissance (Columbia, 2021), for instance.

2., for instance.

3. Laura K. Morreale and Sean Gilsdorf (eds), Digital Medieval Studies--Practice and Preservation: Collection Development, Cultural Heritage, and Digital Humanities (ARC Humanities Press, 2022).