Studying the Middle Ages requires curiosity, intellect and a sharp mind. Whether you study the Carolingian Renaissance or the persecution of the Cathars, you must have the wisdom to question your assumptions, challenge common modes of thinking, and think outside of the box. I’ve published many articles and videos about the Middle Ages, as it is my favourite historical period. Unfortunately, the discipline of Medieval Studies has declined, due to a misplaced fear of white nationalism.
The discipline of medieval studies, particularly in the Anglosphere, appeared in the early 20th century where academics such as George Gordon Coulton encouraged an interdisciplinary approach to studying the Middle Ages. Since then, numerous university departments and faculties emerged with the goal to advance scholarship and understanding of a historical period prone to stereotypes and mischaracterisation. Famous examples include the Centre for Medieval Studies at the University of York, the Medieval Institute at the University of Notre Dame in Indiana as well as the Department of Anglo-Saxon, Norse and Celtic at Cambridge University. In the United Kingdom, there are many Masters degrees in Medieval Studies, where students immerse themselves in the history and culture of the Middle Ages. The program at the University of York stands out in particular, it being the oldest one in the United Kingdom. For the next generation of medievalists (those who study the Middle Ages), there are fantastic ways to engage with medieval history and culture.
Although ‘medieval studies’ refers to an interdisciplinary approach, there are numerous opportunities available for British students interested in the history, literature, art and archaeology of the Middle Ages. Despite medieval history receiving less emphasis in America and Australia, there are many avenues for scholars to develop their interest in the Middle Ages. This is worth celebrating, partially because of the numerous popular misconceptions about the medieval period. Longstanding stereotypes of dirty peasants, religious zealotry and irrationality are common associations with the Middle Ages. The emergence of serious scholarship regarding medieval history ought to be welcomed.
However, fears and concerns of white supremacy have distorted the study of the Middle Ages. Certain events, whether Charlottesville, the election of Donald Trump or anti-Islam sentiment in Europe have contributed to this fear. In response to this, many medieval studies faculties offer seminars and readings regarding white supremacy and the Middle Ages. At the International Congress of Medieval Studies, there is a ‘Whiteness Workshop’ which urges its participants to become ‘racially conscious scholars’ against the white nationalists who are apparently co-opting the Middle Ages.
This is a frustrating approach to the Middle Ages for several reasons. The events of Charlottesville and the election of Donald Trump were complex events. Donald Trump is not a white nationalist, and many who protested against the Robert E. Lee statue removal were not violent or aligned with white supremacy. While anti-Islam sentiment exists in Europe, we should not simplify this into categories of ‘good’ or ‘bad.’ Although moral judgement is necessary in regards to social issues, it should not be the first thing a scholar does.
Unfortunately, medieval scholars have simplified these events and individuals associated with them. This is made more frustrating when such scholars make no attempt to understand why they occur. There are no interviews or engagement with white nationalists or even those accused of it. It’s easy to accuse someone of Islamophobia, but it’s much harder to debate them and expose your arguments to outside scrutiny.
Likewise, medieval scholars point to Marine Le Pen for misrepresenting Joan of Arc. This is evident in Jennifer Kilgore’s article ‘Joan of Arc as propaganda motif from the Dreyfus Affair to the Second World War.’ Another example comes from senior lecturer at the University of Lincoln, Andrew B.R Elliott, whose article for the Public Medievalist, decries the apparent misrepresentation of the Middle Ages by neo-Nazis and the far right, labelling it as a ‘vile’ love affair.
But both Le Pen and her supporters are never represented in medievalist scholarship or journalism, unless to condemn them for ‘misrepresenting’ the Middle Ages. No one is given a chance to explain their position or actions in medievalist scholarship. Medievalists deny themselves the opportunity to strengthen their position through rigorous debate and discussion. The far right are not above scrutiny, but this can only occur if academics are willing to engage with their subject matter.
Rather, medievalist scholarship on the Middle Ages involves taking quotes and events out of context, and never interviewing those involved. Even when the Oxford Union invited Alice Weidel, leader of the German political party Alternative For Germany (AfD) in the Bundestag, TORCH (The Oxford Research Centre In The Humanities) did not engage with Weidel or anyone from the AfD. Rather, TORCH hosted a seminar about the far-right in the context of medieval studies. There is no mention of engagement with conflicting viewpoints or any individual who disagrees that the far-right are co-opting the Middle Ages.
This is poor scholarship, and only fuels sentiment that academia is insular and hostile to public judgement. It is not necessary to sympathise or agree with the far-right (or those labelled as such) to understand the importance of their perspective and feedback in an academic context. When conducting research, the scholar must put aside their personal feelings and beliefs. This is necessary for effective research and scholarship. No professor or student has to agree with the far right to engage with their ideas and behaviour. The sad reality is that academic freedom is in serious decline, with established professors and public figures facing deplatforming. This was made clear at the University of Sussex, where philosophy Professor Kathleen Stock got bullied out of her position. Unfortunately, Stock is not an isolated case. Because of this, medieval studies can’t reach its full potential while academia is overall hostile to serious inquiry.
But it’s not just the far-right, or members of the public, who should comment on this topic. Other academics in medieval studies ought to as well.
The problem is a lack of a meaningful challenge from academics and non-academics, despite the bold claims made by some medievalists. The argument ‘the far-right misrepresents the Middle Ages’ deserves scrutiny and closer analysis by academics and members of the public across the political spectrum. We must not treat the Middle Ages as some antiqued event that only those with esoteric knowledge (in this case, individuals with advanced degrees) can understand. Nor should we exclude others from analysing, or using, medieval history. Unfortunately, the fear of the far-right by academics has only fuelled the unfortunate perception that the Middle Ages is too strange, too peculiar, too alien for a lay audience to understand. This is a shame, because the Middle Ages does not belong solely to academia. Anyone can learn Old French, appreciate a Gothic Basilica or study the Battle of Hastings by visiting a library, travelling or using an online resource. This is positive, and ought to be encouraged. The public has many avenues to connect with the Middle Ages, and will continue to do so, even without the blessing of academia.
There are threats facing the discipline of medieval studies. The most urgent and apparent one is Islamic extremism. A key trait of ISIS is the removal of history sites and artefacts. A sad example is the destruction of the 10th century Chaldean Church by the Islamic State in Iraq. The remnants of the 12th century Bash Tapia Castle in Mosul have also been destroyed. Another upsetting example is the destruction of the 12th century Green Mosque in central Mosul. Various artifacts and works of medieval literature are burnt by ISIS. Adding to this is the Genocide of Christians by the Islamic State within Iraq, Libya and Syria. In February, 2016, the European Union recognised the slaughter of Christian minorities as genocide. Also, millions of Muslims have been killed or impacted by ISIS brutality.
This is also present in France, where the 2018 Strasbourg Attack at a Christmas Market left five dead and wounding eleven. This terrorist attack took place outside Strasbourg Cathedral, a strong symbol of the Catholic Church and the Middle Ages. Another tragic example was the 2020 Nice stabbing, where three parishioners were brutally murdered in the Neo-Gothic Notre-Dame. This was labelled a terrorist attack, as the Tunisian illegal immigrant shouted ‘Allah Akbar’ while holding a Quran. On 31st October, 2020, a Greek Orthodox priest was seriously injured after being stabbed in a Lyon Church. These terrorist attacks had strong medieval symbolism (churches, holy books) and theologies. If a medievalist can comment on Charlottesville, why can’t they comment on the many slaughters happening in France and in the Middle East? The hyper focus on the far-right co-opting the Middle Ages results in ignoring actual threats to medieval history and culture.
Islamic extremists have no love for the Middle Ages, as one observes in the brutality committed by ISIS. Many motifs of the Middle Ages in Western Europe, such as Christmas Markets and Gothic cathedrals, are treated with violence and contempt by Islamic extremists. Without underplaying any threat from the far-right, it is fair to argue that Islamic extremism is a more pressing and urgent matter to medieval history.
Another threat to the Middle Ages is progressivism. Although minor compared to ISIS, the progressive ideology promoted by many medievalist scholars and students is concerning. While every academic is entitled to their own political philosophy, there is little point in denying the ‘woke’ aspect of medieval research. A few months ago, the Tolkien Society put forward a seminar on ‘diversity’ within Tolkien’s work. Although this angered many fans, it was hard not to observe the snobbish attitude present among medievalist scholars. No, Samwise Gamgee is not gay, and no amount of “textual analysis” will change my mind on this.
This is also quite apparent in English departments. While researching this article, I came across a grovelling condemnation from Medieval English scholars from the University of Oxford. An affiliate dared to mock upcoming seminar topics regarding gender, race and postcolonialism. Of course, academics being the children they are, could not stand this. Personally, this affiliate deserves a medal and a round of applause. The current orthodoxy gripping academia is a joke. This is made worse when one considers the silence of academics and administrators regarding rising tuition. Academia is truly captured by a sick ideology (one that’s widely unpopular in the West).
An upsetting trend is occurring in Medieval Studies: academics unwilling to face criticism, giving into wokeness, ignoring Islamic extremism and whinging about white nationalism. All of this weakens the research potential for serious scholarship in the Middle Ages. This is a shame, because medieval history and culture is fascinating. From Insular manuscripts to stained glass in Chartres Cathedral, medieval studies ought to be vibrant and exciting. Although I am harsh on many academics in this article, I will praise those who engage with the public, conduct rigorous research and are willing to have their assumptions questioned.