This essay outlines the current challenges facing medieval studies by focusing on the deployment of “medieval” as a category for knowledge production. It argues that as the field confronts white supremacist medievalism and pushes for a global turn, it exposes the unsustainability of the epistemologies, methodologies, and discourses that have buttressed the formation of the “medieval.” Through an analysis of the “global medieval” archive that Belle da Costa Greene curated at the Morgan Library, this essay also demonstrates how Orientalism still lurks within the global Middle Ages. The essay concludes with an introduction of the ten essays included in this special journal issue, all of which show the ways our push for epistemological progress ultimately undoes medieval studies and other disciplinary formations that have held—or been held by—it.
Medieval studies is undergoing a disciplinary crisis. A field whose conventional purview is Europe's historical, literary, and cultural past from 500 to 1500 CE, its content of study predates the formation of the nation-state, racial capitalism, and European global imperialism, yet the ideological investments of modernity have nonetheless defined and shaped our access to this past. As the larger umbrella of the humanities confronts its exclusionary practices and structures within the university, from nationalizing linguistic departments to siloed curricular training, scholars must contend with a disciplinary formation that cultivates the hegemonic norms of European modernity. Medieval studies has not only propagated European history as white, cis-heteronormative, and Christian but also fostered an elite inaccessibility on the basis of esoteric specialization. Within the crisis of the humanities, medieval studies becomes a battleground: it is either a last priority because its inaccessibility masks its relevance to pressing concerns of the present, or it becomes a priority because it symbolizes tradition for those who want to hold onto Eurocentric narratives about the past.
Scholars have long recognized the colonial structures of medieval studies, but its consanguinity with white supremacist medievalism outside the ivory tower remained a peripheral topic in scholarly discourse until the August 2017 “Unite the Right Rally” in Charlottesville made it mainstream.1 The visual display of Old Norse runes, “Celtic” crosses, and crusader flags at the white supremacist rally threw medievalists into a public relations crisis. It called them to task for not only their academic field's apolitical apathy but also its reification of the “Middle Ages” as a source for white heritage (Lomuto 2016; Kim 2017). In its aftermath, Jo Livingstone (2017), a journalist with a doctorate in medieval studies, wrote in the New Republic that the rally exposed the field's minimal awareness about the “history of medieval appropriation in the race discourse of the United States.” However, since Charlottesville, discussions about white supremacist medievalisms have become so central to the field that the Medieval Academy of America addressed the issue while restructuring its bylaws (L. Davis 2021).
Medievalists now widely accept the complicity of the field in the popular understanding of the Middle Ages as a racially homogenous and isolated white space. In the first week of class, I often ask my students to find an image that reflects their vision of the Middle Ages and they always without exception share images of Europe and white people. They often share fantasy depictions, such as stills from Game of Thrones or a King Arthur adaptation, and sometimes dragons and elves, but I have not yet had a student share an image of a person of color. This whitewashed understanding of the Middle Ages has led the field to rebrand itself with the nomenclature of the global. An umbrella that aims to reach across the premodern world within and beyond Europe, it inevitably destabilizes the notion of what—and where—medieval signifies. The conceptual framework of a global Middle Ages stakes the claim that the Middle Ages happened not only in Europe but everywhere around the world; thus, the framework opens up medieval studies, transforming it into a disciplinary space for research and knowledge production about any place between 500 and 1500 CE. This shift in the structural parameters of medieval studies has served institutional commitments to diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI). But the Middle Ages is a category that exceeds that which it names in content; that is, it is not merely a time period that spans a thousand years of the past. As a historiographic category, medieval limits the interdisciplinary scope of the “medievalist” to European and premodern time.2 Scholars have accepted the epistemological dissonance of “global medieval” and moved ahead anyway, citing the necessity for inclusion; however, an important question remains: can, or should, medieval continue to signify when discussing places outside of Europe?
Aamir R. Mufti's (2016: 11) excavation of world literature's entwined genealogy with Orientalism necessities an important query that elucidates the totalizing moves of medieval studies’ global turn: “If ‘Orientalism’ is the cultural logic of the modern, bourgeois West in its outward orientation, what precisely is its relation to world literature, the concept of a single literary system or ensemble that, at least in theory, encompasses all the societies of the world?” His analysis of the imperial continuities of world literature resonates with how narratives of Western exceptionalism and Eurocentrism can remain housed within the global Middle Ages. Medieval ultimately points back to Europe and thus secures Europe's continuing presence even as it appears to recede within a global framework.
But the global Middle Ages can also offer a process of undoing rather than a destination. As Mufti (2016: 12) has asked, “Under what conditions exactly—methodological, conceptual, and institutional—can the practices of world literature be revalued and refunctionalized for a radical critique of our world?” The contradiction of making the “medieval” global exposes its walls, to use Sara Ahmed's metaphor for the phenomenological practice of diversity work. This exposure undoes the “medieval,” and this undoing can help produce new ways of knowing. Undoing the “medieval” is not a rejection of the term or a call for its replacement, but a process of reformulating epistemologies and recalibrating perspectives on the past and its relation to the present. Geraldine Heng (2022: 29–31) has persuasively made the point that, particularly for global medieval literature, the concepts of world literature and global literature differ. Whereas world literature, Heng argues, can merely amalgamate disparate texts under a hegemonic lens, global literatures necessarily capture interconnectivities across cultures that open themselves to the work of uncentering the world. The use of “medieval” serves the important role of a shared vocabulary that can facilitate interdisciplinary exchange, a concession on our way to progress and change within existing institutional structures. Heng's foundational work in the global Middle Ages demonstrates a path toward the undoing of the “medieval,” for its impetus is the undoing of Eurocentric historiographies and temporalities.3 However, if the global Middle Ages moves forward as a DEI rebrand and not a mode of undoing, far from transforming the field, it may in fact make anew the Orientalist frameworks that have accompanied the field all along. Medievalists can learn from what Mufti has shown about the concept of world literature, how “the cultural and social logics which . . . we have called Orientalism, continue to structure [its practices], even when in transformed and updated forms that do not allow the continuities to be perceived immediately as such” (19).
To offer context for the debates about the “medieval” that this special issue presents, in the introductory essay that follows I examine the link between medieval studies and white supremacist medievalism, and then explore two meeting points that illustrate both the field's current crisis and the necessity of interdisciplinary dialogue. I argue that as the field confronts white supremacist medievalism and pushes for a global turn, it exposes the unsustainability of the epistemologies, methodologies, and discourses that have buttressed the formation of the “medieval.” The first meeting point concerns the obvious incompatibility of the global medieval turn within the English department, which creates a fissure that cracks open the colonial logic that still lays claim to both English literature and medieval studies. This collision invites the medievalist to reorient the function of medieval literature in the English canon from one of nationalist origin to one that introduces multilingual genealogies. The second meeting point turns to how the field's recuperation of Belle da Costa Greene, the founding librarian of the Pierpont Morgan Library and the first Black fellow of the Medieval Academy of America, inadvertently exposes the Orientalism that still lurks within the global Middle Ages. The business of undoing is varied, and the essays collected here reflect a range of approaches and perspectives on this process. Collectively, they demonstrate the necessity for not only speaking across disciplinary boundaries and periodization but also taking stock, reflecting, and imagining possibilities that may not ever be possible but offer progress in their imagining.
In 2019, Fordham University Press published a collection, Whose Middle Ages?, as a corrective to the field's glaring lack of scholarly discourse on white supremacist medievalism (Albin et al. 2019). Books by Helen Young (2016), Andrew B. R. Elliott (2017), and Daniel Wollenberg (2018) had already shown the necessity of this conversation, but Charlottesville created a wave of interest that drew the attention of scholars who had previously overlooked the topic. Social media and news outlets erupted in discussion about what scholars should do about white nationalists’ appropriation of the Middle Ages. Public historians of the period agreed that they could intervene by delivering a more diverse picture of the medieval past, and Whose Middle Ages? emerged with the aim to do just that. The collection introduces the period to students and other nonexperts while also foregrounding how white supremacist movements throughout various points in history, such as the Nazi regime, used the Middle Ages to corroborate their fantasies about white purity and superiority. The editors invited David Perry, a journalist and former professor of medieval history, to write the introduction because he had used his considerable social media presence to fashion himself the leader of this discourse. However, I have argued elsewhere that Perry's public writing reflected public relations concerns—an investment in the public perception of white medievalists more than the experience of those targeted by white supremacy (Lomuto 2019, 2020).4 His introduction and the structure of the collection itself captures a similar ethos. In my blurb for the book, I wrote that the collection is “a valuable teaching resource [that] will inspire necessary discussions about the politics of engaging the past in the present.” But what the collection does not offer is an overt recognition that the reason the Middle Ages has resonated so easily within these racist ideologies is because of its significance as a historiographical category that is, in fact, inextricably bound with white supremacy, anti-Semitism, and Islamophobia. The perspective of Whose Middle Ages? regenerates the age-old myth that racism is borne of ignorance instead of a strategic product of the educated elite.
Certainly, sinister ideologies in the modern era have used specific aspects of the medieval past that have nothing to do with white supremacy, such as Norse mythology or the “Celtic” cross; and the notion that medieval Europe was racially homogenous and can emblematize modern fantasies of white ethnonationalism is just that: a fantasy. However, to speak of the “appropriation of the Middle Ages” raises an important question with serious implications for the future of the field tasked with studying it. What does it mean to appropriate a time period? And from whom is it being appropriated? The meaning of the Middle Ages resides within a specifically Eurocentric timescale that cannot be understood in isolation from its inherent ideologies of white supremacy: it is a modern historiographical category irrevocably bound to “rise of the West” narratives and their concomitant investments in modernity and white heritage production. The Middle Ages is both the barbaric past of a civilized modern Europe and the cradle that ushered Europe's exceptionalism into being.
The Middle Ages has belonged to white supremacists throughout its development; and thus it is not their appropriation of the Middle Ages we are currently witnessing, because you cannot appropriate what already belongs to you. Kathleen Davis and Nadia Altschul (2009: 1–2) have called out the iterative construction of the category of the medieval, explaining that it “came as a function of European colonization. . . . The Middle Ages, like many other periodizations, acquired its defining characteristics and apparent solidity over the course of several centuries, in concert with political, economic, nationalistic, and territorial efforts that included those of colonialism.” And in her monograph Periodization and Sovereignty, Davis (2008) details the colonial violence of periodization that the “medieval” wields. With the display of Old Norse runes by the neo-Nazis at Charlottesville, we are witnessing the natural evolution of this construct's deployment within white supremacist ideology, and at the same time we are experiencing a disciplinary transformation in which it is the medievalist scholar who aims to appropriate “the medieval” for something to which it has never belonged: a discipline detached from—and even resistant to—the white supremacist ideology of European exceptionalism.5
Although Charlottesville now serves as the watershed moment that thrust the field into crisis and galvanized its scholars toward change, that moment arrived with the force of a movement because of the groundwork of medievalists who have long agitated this politically dormant field. In the late 1990s and early 2000s, a series of books and edited collections developed the subfield of postcolonial medieval studies, in which there were two distinct yet overlapping branches: one that tackled the field's complicity with colonial systems (including that of the university) and one that transgressed the traditional borders of what counted for “medieval” topics. Much of this work was comparative, interdisciplinary, and transgressive. Although the more institutionally appealing global medieval studies has since replaced it, this subfield nonetheless helped create the conditions of possibility for our current moment of internal reckoning and potentially productive instability. The intention here is not to excavate origins but to suggest that the current crisis has been brewing for decades, producing insight along the way. Scholars such as Kathleen Davis and Nadia Altschul as well as Kathleen Biddick, Jeffrey Jerome Cohen, Jacqueline de Weever, John Ganim, Geraldine Heng, Patricia Clare Ingham, Ananya Jahanara Kabir, Sharon Kinoshita, Barbara Lalla, Kathy Lavezzo, María Rosa Menocal, Michelle R. Warren, and Deanne Williams, among others, laid the foundation for current discourses that place white supremacist medievalism in relation to the field itself, for their work has shown the politics of the field and the important role that medievalists hold in not only making the medieval but also undoing it.
The Global Middle Ages and the English Department
In a recent essay in boundary 2, Joe Cleary (2021: 145) traces the colonial history of the English department and writes:
If the expansion of the English language across the globe and the morphology of English literature departments have now grown so familiar as to appear wholly unremarkable, it is important to remember that neither the dominance of “global English” nor the current structures of English departments were ever inevitable; there are histories to both. The more self-critically aware we are of the contingent nature of the present fundamentals of the English department, the more we may be open to changing things in the future, if change indeed is what literary scholars want.
Cleary argues that the crisis of the English department in an era of “global English” stems as much from external circumstances such as student enrollment and the contraction of the humanities as it does from the inadequacy of its internal structures. Cleary's injunction invites an examination of the place of medieval literature in the English department.6
Kathleen Biddick's 1998 monograph The Shock of Medievalism revealed that the Early English Text Society (EETS) was founded in 1864 with the explicit aim of using the apparatus of historical research to authorize the imperial dominance of English. The EETS founders made the unequivocal statement, “We are banded together to trace out the springs, and note the course, of the language that shall one day be the ruling tongue of the world, which is now the speech of most of its free men” (quoted in Biddick 1998: 93). Biddick's research exposed how the field of medieval studies developed within the nationalist and imperialist agendas of the modern university. She shows how language and literature departments incorporate medieval literature as a foundation for their colonial structures. Beowulf, for example, became the beginning of the English canon, and EETS disseminated their modern editions of Middle English literature in India's colonial education system before they made their way into England's curriculum (Lampert-Weissig 2010: 27). In French, La chanson de Roland (The Song of Roland) became “a precocious assertion of French national sentiment [that] performed important cultural work as the Third Republic strove to overcome the humiliation of the Franco-Prussian War and formalize its colonization of Algeria” (Kinoshita 2006: 15). This structure of literary study asks medievalists to sublimate the multilingualism of our research materials and present them to students as a buttress for nationalist, imperialist, and monolingual understandings of culture and belonging (Hsy 2013). Doing so entrenches the idea that it was not until Europe set sail for conquest that the world was in motion—or existed at all.
As a maneuver away from these epistemologies, English departments have rapidly embraced the global turn in medieval studies. From an institutional vantage point, global medievalist positions serve DEI aims insofar as they enable a diversified syllabus and may even cultivate a more diverse faculty. But global medievalists in English departments are still in English departments; that is, they still teach within the parameters of a nationalist linguistic structure that is tethered to a white and male-dominated English literary canon. However diverse the reading list, these courses ultimately circle back to English, even if only in the linguistic form in which their global medieval texts are delivered to students or, because of the nature of major and minor requirements, in the points of reference students make to other texts in their curricular background. Thus, a global medieval English framework cannot simply deliver global literatures of the premodern world; doing so ignores what we already know about the imperializing moves of global literature: “For all its claims to inclusiveness, it cannot quite conceal the asymmetrical arrangement of power that structures it as an apparatus and a field” (Mufti 2016: 5). Instead, the global Middle Ages in an English department demands an inward-facing critique of the legacies of race and imperialism that medieval English was formed to reproduce and buttress within the Western academy.7 This meeting point presents a productive instability for the future of both fields and of other disciplines that coalesce around myths of linguistic nationalism.
Global narratives about the Middle Ages speak back against the very construction of history that the “medieval” helped form: the idea, that is, that modern Europe, and its epistemologies of whiteness, is the birthplace of cultural and scientific invention, of artistic and intellectual genius. The “global turn” explores new methods of teaching and research that focus not only on Europe, or even the diversity of medieval Europe, but also on the global significance of a flourishing world outside Europe whose economic, intellectual, and cultural advancements far outpaced Europeans. It has drawn into the field some of history's most influential empires, such as the Mali, Mongol, and Khmer. As medievalists demonstrate how the Middle Ages was a time not of European isolation but of global trade and cross-cultural exchange—evidenced through art, architecture, literature, religion, and material goods—they contravene the notion of the “Middle Ages.”
This epistemological project repositions not only space but also time within our construction of history. Geraldine Heng (2014) has argued that a global Middle Ages activates a framework of overlapping temporalities through which multiple modernities materialize and thereby counter the myth of modern European exceptionalism. At the same time, Sylvie Kandé (2009) has made the case that although the notion of an “African Middle Ages” asserts the inclusion of Africa's precolonial history within a European timescale that systematically and maliciously erased that history, it nonetheless necessitates Africa's inclusion in world history on Europe's terms—and those terms have consequential limitations. To the extent that a “global medieval” framework requires Europe's presence and its timescale, it forecloses the possibility of necessary frameworks that eschew Europe entirely.
Global has become a shorthand term for diversity and inclusivity, where it stands opposed to isolationism; and when thinking especially about the Middle Ages, that isolationism readily translates into white supremacist rhetoric and myths of white heritage. So the “global Middle Ages” signals an inclusive Middle Ages where the whole world—not just Europe—is represented. But as Mufti (2016: 13) has argued about world literature, “hidden inside [it] is the dominance of globalized English.” The global has a perspective. In Reading the Global, Sanjay Krishnan (2007: 1) intervenes in the trend toward taking the “global” as an empirical concept that describes “a transparent comprehension of the world”; he argues that
the global describes a mode of thematization or a way of bringing the world into view. It does not point to the world as such but at the conditions and effects attendant upon institutionally validated modes of making legible within a single frame the diverse terrains and peoples of the world. A “global perspective” ought not simply be taken to mean that the world is grasped in its entirety but should alert the reader to the way in which the world is constituted—rendered visible and legible—through a particular style of perspectivizing that is as useful as it is dangerous. (4)
Krishnan's analysis, crucially, calls for a critical reading practice when taking a global frame. A central question driving any such project must be, From whose perspective is the “global” world being seen?
Thus, what is the perspective instituted by the fusion of global and medieval? A global Middle Ages can unmask the colonial gaze that the politics of periodization obscures. As a practice, not a system or “one-world talk,” to use Mufti's formulation of the ongoing imperialism of global frameworks, the global Middle Ages can make the perspective of medieval studies the object, not subject, of critique. It can expose the colonial, racial logic that has underscored and sustained knowledge about the past and its use within modernity's hegemonic structures. The global Middle Ages could be a Eurocentric gaze on the world that reformulates itself within the language and apparatus of the modern liberal university (Melamed 2011, Ferguson 2012), or it could be an entry into that gaze to destroy it from the inside out, an option that yet hovers with Audre Lorde's prudent warnings about the “master's tools.”
The opening of Biddick's essay “Bede's Blush: Postcards from Bali, Bombay, Palo Alto,” included in The Shock of Medievalism, builds from Umberto Eco's insight that medievalists are dreaming the Middle Ages, dreams that are “midway between Nazi nostalgia and occultism” (quoted in Biddick 1998: 83). These dreams, Biddick argues, began in the Renaissance and have since become a nightmare:
In their sleepwalking, humanists invented a Middle Ages as a place and time of non-origin and formed an identity essentially informed by a claim of what it was not. Nation-states of the nineteenth century, in contrast, produced a place and time, a Middle Ages, to stage the cultural origins of the “Western animal” (Eco's term). At the end of the twentieth century, such overdetermined constructs of the Middle Ages haunt medieval studies as a double bind of origin and nonorigin. (83)
Medievalists are still caught in this double bind. Some are what Biddick calls “pastists”—those who treat the past as a bounded period radically different from modernity—and some are what she calls “presentists”—those who hold up a mirror to the Middle Ages and ask it to reflect histories of our modern or postmodern identities. These two camps, she suggests, “debate over the epoch in which to locate radical ‘past’ alterity instead of questioning desires for such a boundary as an effect of specific historiographic metanarratives” (83). In other words, what would happen if we stopped treating the Middle Ages as a pre-modern space of either absolute difference or contiguous reflection, and started thinking of it as a construct in which the national and imperial formations of the nineteenth century are ever-present?
If the Middle Ages are a dream, a fantasy—a nightmare—that engenders white European, cis-heteropatriarchal, Christian superiority, then it is time to wake up. Speaking specifically about the field of early American literature, but germane to medieval studies as well, Joanna Brooks (2006: 319) has posed the question, “Do the stories we tell about the past have the power to call us into a new relationship with the present?” To narrate the past is to create the present and open up the future. However, it is not only stories of a premodern past that medievalists must tell but modern stories too. The historical figure of Belle da Costa Greene has emerged in recent years as a celebration of the field's diversity and a symbol for its commitment to future inclusion and equity. But Greene's story also shows how white heritage production and Orientalism were part of the development of medieval studies and integral mechanisms in its process of becoming.
Belle da Costa Greene: Racial Passing and a Global Medieval Archive
The Pierpont Morgan Library in Manhattan helped establish medieval studies in the United States, and it still offers one of the most extensive archives of medieval manuscripts. I was fortunate to visit the Morgan during the summer of 2019, when I called up M. 723, a fourteenth-century French manuscript from Picardy that contains Hayton of Armenia's La fleur des histoires d'Orient and Marco Polo's Le livre des merveilles d'Asie. M. 723 is a European manuscript, but one that captures the interconnected world of medieval Eurasia as well as extensive Mongol-European relations. It falls within a “global medieval” framework, and it has been at the Morgan since 1927. As I carefully turned each page of this beautifully illuminated codex, careful not to rub the ink or crease the vellum, I was astounded to turn to 68r and find its entire right-side column covered in the writing of a modern hand. On the left-side column of 68r is the medieval scribe's copy of Hayton of Armenia's Colophon, neatly written across twenty-three of the column's twenty-six lines. On the right-side column is a full translation in modern English, likewise spanning the same number of lines so that the original text and its translation appear neatly together, in parallel fashion. “Translation” is written at the top, a header to what follows. The next three folios are blank (68v–69v), but then 70r once again presented me with modern handwriting, prominently displayed: in the center of the folio, underlined, reads “Marco Polo / Le Livre des Merveilles d'Asie” followed by a loose translation: “(The Book of Messer Marco Polo)”—a title page for the medieval text! To view modern handwriting in a medieval manuscript, particularly one so carefully preserved at so prestigious an institution, is a shocking experience. However, I soon learned to whom this modern hand belonged, and it no longer seemed surprising. The hand belonged to the woman who purchased the manuscript and, almost one hundred years ago, prepared it for researchers precisely like myself: Belle da Costa Greene, the librarian and director who helped found the Morgan Library and built its original archive.
Belle da Costa Greene was a luminary in the rare book world of the first half of the twentieth century. In 1905, J. P. Morgan hired Greene, who was at the time working at the Princeton University library, to catalog and purchase rare books, manuscripts, and art for his personal collection. Her curatorial expertise turned this collection into a world-renowned public library for research, and she became one of the most important librarians in modern American history. A note in the Times Literary Supplement (1949: 436) about the library's twenty-five-year anniversary celebration since opening to the public credits and praises Greene for the collection: “It is in [Greene's] honour that this rich and various selection has been put on show; and this is no formal compliment, for these acquisitions bear testimony to her judgement, knowledge, practical abilities and above all her sense of quality.” In fact, this entire notice about the anniversary celebration is about Belle Greene even though it is titled “A Great Institution,” a testament to just how synonymous they were. She came to define the Morgan Library by the time she retired in 1948, and her presence is still important to visitors today. The library's audio tour tells visitors that Greene was “known as the soul of the Morgan Library,” and her name serves as the example entry on the sign-in sheet in the reading room: she has a prompt 4:00 p.m. sign-out time, when the reading room closes each weekday. In July 2019, a bronze bust of Greene created by the artist Jo Davidson was installed next to the fireplace in the East Room. Greene thus continues to reside within the library with an honor that respects the centrality she held during her lifetime.
Greene also holds a place of significance within medieval studies. In 1939, the Medieval Academy of America (MAA) inducted her as a fellow, an elected membership granted “to honor major long-term scholarly achievement within the field of Medieval Studies.”8 While Greene had a wide range of intellectual interests, her archive reflects a particular commitment to the Middle Ages. In her festschrift, a massive volume of five hundred pages and nearly four hundred images edited by Dorothy Miner (1954), about half of the articles focus on medieval subjects. In fact, Greene's unprecedented work at the Morgan coincided with the formation of medieval studies in the United States: the MAA was founded in 1925, only one year after the library became public in 1924. She not only curated extensive medieval manuscripts but made them accessible to scholars in ways that aided the expansion of medievalist research. Notably, Hope Emily Allen, a famous medievalist known for her work on Margery Kempe, wrote to Greene asking for her help on an edition of Wynkyn de Worde's Treatise of Love.9 Greene also collaborated with Max Farrand, her counterpart at the Huntington Library, to devise systems that would make their materials accessible to students who “cannot afford to ‘go East’ or ‘go West,’ ” a collaboration she thought would “prove that both libraries have passed beyond the merely ‘collectors’ state, and are now interested, mainly in making their important original material available to serious students wherever located.”10 Her interests were not in antiquarianism (as they had been for Morgan) but in scholarly research.
Greene's incredible contribution to the field—and historical research more broadly—has warranted her a place of honor within the MAA, and in recent years, her racial identity has also prompted discussions about the field's past diversity and its commitment to inclusion and equity in the present. Greene lived her public life as a white woman, but her Black heritage was confirmed by historian Jean Strouse in her 1999 biography of J. P. Morgan, published about fifty years after Greene's death in 1950. She was born into a prominent family in the Black community of Washington, DC, in 1879. Her mother was Genevieve Ida Fleet Greener, a pianist and music teacher. Her father was Richard T. Greener, the first Black man to graduate from Harvard College and a well-known activist for civil rights during Reconstruction. According to historian Heidi Ardizzone (2007), Greene began to pass for white as early as eight years old, soon after the family moved to New York in 1887. Richard was often away for work and his relationship with Genevieve became increasingly strained, leading to divorce in 1897. Ardizzone has surmised that as she became more estranged from her husband and the color line became increasingly rigid in the 1880s, Genevieve gradually turned away from her Black social circles and started to live as white. By 1900, Genevieve and her children had dropped the final R of Greener in all official documents, giving them a new name that would have separated them from Richard and his continued prominence in the Black community. Ardizzone suggests that they started using this name as early as 1894, when Greene was fifteen. Greene and one of her brothers also added “da Costa,” a Sephardic surname that helped them fashion a Portuguese ancestry that could account for their darker complexion.11 Born Belle Marian Greener, she lived most of her life Belle da Costa Greene.
Medievalists now celebrate her as the first Black fellow of the MAA. In 2018, Nahir Otaño Gracia spearheaded efforts to institute a scholarship fund specifically for medievalists of color, and the MAA named it in Greene's honor. The following year, Tarrell Campbell organized the Belle da Costa Greene conference at his home institution of Saint Louis University, which featured three prominent medievalists as keynote speakers, themselves all women of color: Monica Green, Seeta Chaganti, and Dorothy Kim. Shavauna Munster (2019) reflected on her experience at the conference, writing, “discussions regarding scholars who have overcome adversity and have succeeded in making their voices heard are indispensable to medievalists of color, like myself, who have occasionally felt their work was not pertinent to the field due to that lack of representation.” In a predominantly white field like medieval studies, Munster's words resonate with my own experience as a mixed-race Asian American scholar. Medievalists of color can often feel like outsiders who must prove we belong not only in terms of expertise but because of our identities, too. But when I visited the Morgan in 2019 and stood in Greene's original office, the magnificent North Room with two levels of rare books, ornate ceiling paintings, and a bust of Boccaccio on the mantel, I was struck with a sense of connection that translated into belonging.12 Knowing that a pivotal influence on our field was, in fact, a Black woman has had significant impact on medievalists of color. Particularly for Black scholars in the field, she is a hidden figure whose celebration within the MAA makes a powerful statement about resistance and achievement in the face of US anti-Black racism.
At the same time, Belle Greene's prominence as a symbol for diversity also exposes “the walls” of exclusion, to return to Ahmed's metaphor, that continue to enclose medieval studies, particularly in relation to the global turn. Within Greene's archive at the Morgan, we can glimpse how her curatorial choices sought to apprehend a diverse, global world, while also aiding a white Euro-American heritage project. In William Courtenay's (1982: 20) article on the growth of medieval studies in America between 1870 and 1930, he describes the European scholars who came to the United States before and during World War II; he explains that what they found “in the universities, colleges, and institutes of America [was] a world in which the Middle Ages were studied and appreciated not only as a period in its own right but as part of the cultural past of America.” As Courtenay articulates here, the formation of medieval studies in the United States imported European culture as a heritage with elite status.13 One need only stand in the original entrance of the library to see this dynamic. The foyer, known as the Rotunda, transports visitors to Renaissance Italy, which was Morgan's goal: there are grand marble columns and a marble floor, for example, and blue and white stucco reliefs based on the Villa Madama in Rome, designed by Raphael. Belle da Costa Greene's project at the library was to help build a cultural institution in the likeness of European cultural institutions, imbuing a comparable intellectual and aesthetic value that Europe held (and still holds) in the American imaginary.
Medieval England was of particular significance to Morgan. Circling the ceiling of the East Room, the original main library, are roundels depicting allegorical figures that represent the arts and sciences as well as portraits of historical men who represent various contributions to Western culture. In the roundel dedicated to the printing press is a portrait of William Caxton, not Gutenberg. In fact, it was Greene's purchase of sixteen of Caxton's early print books that secured her position as Morgan's private librarian and launched her reputation as a powerful player on the rare books and manuscripts circuit. In 1908, only two years into her job, she went on her first trip to Europe for a book auction of Lord Amherst's personal collection, which included the coveted Caxton editions. Through a savvy and skillful negotiation before the auction even began, she convinced Amherst to sell these gems to her privately, successfully swooping in on established book dealers with years more experience.
Although the medieval collection Greene curated was mostly European, it was not exclusively so. In other words, you would not have found (then or now) a collection of medieval manuscripts reflecting a fantasy of racial homogeneity or European isolation. Many of the manuscripts, including M. 723, would merit inclusion in bibliographies for archival research on the global Middle Ages. For example, in 1912, Greene acquired M. 500, a thirteenth-century bestiary that Ilkhan Ghazan, the ruler of the Mongol Ilkhanate of Persia, commissioned around 1295. In Greene's festschrift, Richard Ettinghausen (1954: 460) credits Greene with the acquisition, writing, “Miss Greene's unerring eye has provided us not only with a magnificent series of paintings, but also with the earliest Persian binding so far found to which an exact date can be attributed.” In 1911, Greene purchased an important collection of ninth-century Coptic manuscripts that reflect the history of Christianity in Egypt.14 And the last item she acquired before her retirement in 1948 was an illuminated Gospel Book from Ethiopia (M. 828).
If this archive contributed to the development of an American medieval studies as a heritage discipline, then what does it mean that a global Middle Ages held a role in that process of (white) heritage production? Although this archive does not reflect a fantasy of racial homogeneity or European isolation, it does capture a fantasy of Western dominance. The myth of European superiority, which emerged through the apparatus of modernity, rests on the desire for—and ownership over—the non-European world. Part of the importation of European culture to an elite American institution like the Morgan Library is the importation of an apprehended non-European world, whose histories and cultures are working in service of the development of an American culture imbued with an imperial—not geographically isolated—European heritage. In other words, the global medieval archive here, included within the heritage of an American medieval studies, is steeped in Western colonialism.
The correspondence between Greene and Charles Read, who was the curator at the British Museum and who guided her through the acquisition of the Coptic manuscripts, exposes these larger geopolitics that contextualize that acquisition. Read writes to Greene, “They [the dealers] first made sure that the mss would not be seized by the British government, as stolen out of Egypt, as of course they were.”15 His remark here is a crucial reminder that the colonial gaze of Orientalism inflected the development of the American medieval archive. It is not Asia and Africa that matter in the acquisition of these materials but rather their use within the archive, which could turn, to use Edward Said's (1978: 115) own words, “vast geographical domains into treatable, manageable, entities.” Within the Orientalist gaze, “directly dealing with Oriental source material . . . helped a European to know himself better” (117). Rather than the erasure or dismissal of the non-European world, a desire for and apprehension of that world underscores Greene's collection of medieval manuscripts and its significance in the heritage project of a nascent American medieval studies—and this process has implications for the production of whiteness.
Greene's inscriptions in M. 723 reflect her deep commitment to the study of the Middle Ages—indeed, to a global Middle Ages: as the librarian, she is guiding the researcher through the manuscript, insuring that we can follow its contents. She also wrote small pagination marks in the corners of many of the library's manuscripts, a point Dorothy Kim analyzed in her keynote at the Belle da Costa Greene conference. As recounted by Munster (2019), Kim argued that these corner markings “can be viewed simply as categorization notes or as a literal attempt by Greene to mark her place in a history that is largely Eurocentric.” The inscriptions I stumbled upon in M. 723 further evidence Kim's supposition, but they are not on the peripheral edges of the folio; they are in the column where the medieval scribe would have written. To write directly and so extensively in the manuscript reflects her confident ownership over it. In his memorial to Greene, Curt F. Bühler (1957: 643) refers to the Morgan Library as “HER library,” and indeed so too were the manuscripts. Her handwriting delivers her expert scholarship alongside the hand of a fourteenth-century scribe whose writing passes along the words of a fourteenth-century author. Through her direct inscriptions in the manuscript, Greene is inscribing herself into an elite, white American culture, one that would have excluded her had she not passed for white. She is claiming ownership over what she believed was that elite white culture's heritage. M. 723 thus confronts the reader with the layers of meaning that accrete through time as these materials come into our purview.
The valuable manuscripts that she curated, in the library she built, reflect a medieval past that held significance in Greene's present. Her handwriting in M. 723 is a material illustration of the way we stamp the past with ourselves, how we cannot ever remove ourselves from the meaning we make, the knowledge we produce, in our archive. But this entanglement goes both ways: just as we make the past, the past makes us. Examining Greene's inscription compelled me to think about how she—and her particular racial identity—matter to this encounter. The phenomenon of racial passing in the twentieth-century United States directly exposes the instability of race, while also inherently pointing to the sociopolitical investment in its fixity (an insistent attachment to biology, the body, visibility). Passing captures both the elusive nature of race and the desire for racial order at once. As Anne Anlin Cheng (2019: 14) has put it, “Race is a dream of embodiment that speaks, paradoxically, through abstract forms.” Greene exposes how racial formations are contingent, unstable, and reliant on external relations—and that even medieval manuscripts could play a role in one's self-constitution.
Greene's relationship to her archive is one of racial becoming—through the materiality of her manuscripts, she adopts and affirms an inclusion into whiteness. Likewise, so too can the medievalist replicate this racial becoming. I would like to suggest that as Greene's own identity emerges within the present encounter with her archive, the instability of racial formations presents itself as a crucial point of analysis for parsing the implications of a global medieval turn today. The fact of unstable racial formations means that whiteness is potentially always up for grabs: one can become white—not just in appearance but also in service. Even a global Middle Ages, a concept whose aim is certainly to counter white Eurocentrism, can work in service of the white Euro-American hegemony. Mufti (2016: 90) offers medievalists a productive guidepost for approaching the global in our field: “Far from being mutually exclusive ideological formations, Anglicist and Orientalist ideas and practices coexisted productively in the cultural and educational institutions inaugurated by colonial power.”
The “Medieval” Undone
The global Middle Ages can undo the coherence of the “medieval” and thereby the coherence of medieval studies; from there, other formations that have held it together or been held by it—such as the English department—become undone as well. This turn exposes the obsolescence of the structures and methods that have defined the discipline, and we cannot merely patch up their inadequacies with a wider geographic scope. But how do we do this work of undoing when we are doing it within the very framework we are trying to undo? This is the question many medievalists are grappling with. Demonstrating the necessity of branching out beyond strictly academic spaces, Dorothy Kim and Mary Rambaran-Olm have led important discussions across social media and other public forums about white supremacist medievalism and its continuing hold on medieval studies (Kim 2016, 2017, 2019a; Rambaran-Olm 2018, 2019; Rambaran-Olm and Wade 2021). Rambaran-Olm's (2021: 388) scholarship has also demonstrated how periodization “operates within the framework of white supremacy, prompting scholars to view time both episodically and linearly rather than as a complex web.”16 In a special issue of New Literary History, Rambaran-Olm models the historical analysis she calls for, in which she weaves together an analysis of “how BIPOC scholars have often been erased from Early English studies” (393) and her research on two early medieval figures—Hadrian and Archbishop Theodore of Canterbury—who both migrated to England (from Africa and Tarsus, respectively) and had significant influence on its cultural development, but whose non-European origins scholars have sublimated to produce narratives of English exceptionalism.
An emergence of special journal issues (among others, see Whitaker 2015; Kim 2019a; Bychowski and Kim 2019; Andrews and Beechy 2020; Rambaran-Olm, Leake, and Goodrich 2020) has contributed peer-reviewed scholarship that pushes the bounds of the field to include critical theories previously dismissed as anachronistic to the period (see also Wade 2022). For example, Tarren Andrews's special issue of English Language Notes explores the compatibility—or incompatibility—between medieval studies and critical Indigenous studies (see also Duperron and Edwards 2021). Andrews (2022: 2) emphasizes that any collaboration between these fields must begin with medievalists slowing down and “extending invitations” to Indigenous scholars, being careful not to appropriate and to consider “the ethics of kinship and reciprocity that we owe Indigenous peoples, places, and communities who have labored to craft Indigenous studies as an academic field.” Andrews pinpoints the way scholars will jump to show inclusion without the care such collaboration requires.
Within a cluster of essays in the Cambridge Journal of Postcolonial Literary Inquiry that centers the work of Geraldine Heng, Seeta Chaganti (2022: 126) calls for medievalists to “act in solidarity with fields that have formed themselves in the crucibles of radical missions,” and she focuses specifically on the multiple fields that constitute critical ethnic studies. She makes the crucial point that “solidarity means looking beyond the invention of a better medieval studies” because, she argues, what this work of transforming the field ultimately requires is the work of “transforming the world” (130). Matthew Vernon (2018), Cord Whitaker (2019), and Jonathan Hsy (2021) have examined how appropriation of the Middle Ages has operated not only as a force for white supremacism but as a resistance practice within communities of color. Their work shows how medievalism serves as a site of racial conflict wherein white supremacist oppression regenerates yet also meets resistance. This push and pull within medieval studies has mobilized the crisis within the field, generating a productive conversation about where we go from here.
The essays in this present special issue join these medievalists to examine how the current crisis can move us forward. They take up the question of what the “medieval” itself does—and impedes—as a category around which to formulate knowledge production. The collection begins with a question: “Cui Bono: Who Is the ‘Medieval’ For?” The first three essays explore how, as a historiographical category, the usefulness of the “medieval” has clear limits. Raha Rafii (2023: 44) opens the section with the crucial reminder that the concept of a Middle Ages serves “a progressive history that culminate[s] in a phase called the European Enlightenment and ‘modernity,’ ” one in which non-Western societies exist frozen in time, in a barbaric and backward past “where they deviate from notions of ‘appropriate’ social and political development, often in relation to an adequately ‘secular’ public sphere.” Rafii offers a critical analysis of “Islamic history” as it exists as an epistemological construct of Western academic study. She shows how both “Islamic” and “medieval” function as binaries to modernity, co-constituting the notion of “Western civilization” within a model of progressive history. Rafii thus argues that the starting point for parsing the extension of the global Middle Ages to Islamic studies—the concept of an Islamic “medieval” period—should focus on how “academic institutions, colonialist and neo-imperialist geopolitics, and neoliberal market forces have long instrumentalized the nature of knowledge produced about Muslims” (34). Orientalism remains the structural lens of the Western academy in which studies of Islam and Muslims have fueled persistent and ongoing Islamophobic violence, from the US invasion of Iraq to Narendra Modi's Hindu nationalist policies in India. Rafii makes clear that the “medieval” benefits narratives of civilizational progress and Western subjectivities, the solution to which lies beyond the Western academy and its models of knowledge production.
Julie Orlemanski's essay steps inside the institutional investments of a scholarly journal, postmedieval: a journal of medieval cultural studies, to consider what advantages “medieval” may bring to an undoing of Western knowledge production. From her embedded vantage point as an editor of the journal, Orlemanski traces its history as it emerged from a working group, BABEL, which was formed specifically to push back against the field's traditional epistemologies. In tracing this genealogy, she shows how a transgressive movement at the edges of the field inched its way to the center but, in so doing, came to work in service of academia's capitalist structures. Orlemanski (2023: 72) thus explores what is still possible from within that space, acknowledging the challenge that “to be postmedieval is simultaneously to undo the medieval and to propagate it. It is to draw others into the time frame of the West even as we try to warp and crack the grid.” She poses the possibility that, when confronted through critical exploration, “terms like global, the Middle Ages, and theory can be catalysts to confront the Eurocentrism, transnational flows of capital, dominance of English, and politics of time that make those words significant for us” (79). To remain within the institutions of the Western academy is to never “escape from what we critique, [because] we are also constituted by it” (79), but the unsettledness that such critique, generates, Orlemanski argues, is the next step forward within a discipline tethered to the corporate university and its historical foundations of colonialism.
Michelle R. Warren's (2023: 85) essay looks far into the future—ten thousand years—to consider what the “medieval” means when our now has long receded into a new middle period between “the beginning and the possible end of human civilization.” Warren shows how, from the perspective of geologic time and the inevitable effects of our climate crisis, the concept of a “long now” readily links us in the second millennium to those in the first and the fourth. Undoing periodization undoes time, but, as Warren considers, does it undo its politics and colonial complicities? Warren analyzes the Long Now Foundation, a tech project founded in the 1990s that created the 10,000-Year Clock and the 10,000-Year Library, to argue that tech medievalism “creates a retrofuturist framework for ‘the long now’ in which the medieval is both precedent and prediction” (85). Warren's analysis reveals the ways in which the medieval features at various points to both project the colonialism of time on the distant future and install connections across vast temporal distances that can eliminate the imperializing notion of anachronism.
In the second part, “Disciplinary Dilemmas,” three essays explore deeply ingrained disciplinary formations and epistemologies that have shaped the study of medieval literary and cultural histories, and likewise pose barriers to forging new methods of study. To parse the emergence of the global Middle Ages as a salve to medieval studies’ Eurocentrism, Adam Miyashiro turns to debates already staged in the field of comparative literature about the Eurocentrism of “world literature.” He enjoins medievalists to excavate lessons already learned outside of medieval studies and to take seriously the impossibility of situating medieval literature and objects of study within disciplinary frameworks founded on nationalism, monolingualism, and geographic isolation. As he demonstrates that the trade networks of the medieval Mediterranean reached as far as northern Europe, and how material evidence reveals contact between the economies of the Abbasid Empire and the kingdom of Mercia, Miyashiro also reveals the necessity for medievalists to expand their citational practices beyond medieval studies. He ends his essay with a proposal not merely to redefine the borders of periodization but to critique their political motivations. He argues that making the Middle Ages a global concept “reinscribes traditional narratives of modernity that European colonial encounters in subsequent centuries have defined” (Miyashiro 2023: 118). He thus asks the question at the core of our current disciplinary dilemma: “How can medievalists break out of the Eurocentrism endemic to the contemporary study of the Middle Ages?” (118). He suggests that one methodology is to eschew periodization entirely and follow the networks that have shaped the materials of our study, however far—in time and space—they take the scholar.
However, as Shokoofeh Rajabzadeh details in her essay about her experience as a doctoral student with precisely these aims of breaking free of disciplinary limitations for the sake of epistemological integrity, pushing for these changes comes at a deep personal cost with no promise of return. Her advocacy work at the University of California, Berkeley, taught her unexpected lessons about how medieval studies sustains its exclusionary structures. Her efforts to expand the medieval studies program to include courses on Arabic language and literature, and training in areas such as postcolonial theory and critical race studies, were met with resistance not only from the professors who governed the curriculum but also her peers. Her analysis leads her to the conclusion that “it is in that middle space, where students are not yet professionals but also no longer strictly students, where the disciplining of the ‘middle’ is determined” (Rajabzadeh 2023: 143). Her essay also reveals how it is, ironically, the crisis in the humanities that causes medievalists to cling to the field as it has been rather than view it as an occasion for transformation so that the study of this interconnected past continues and is not lost to the commodification of higher education.
Christopher Livanos and Mohammad Salama's (2023) essay, which follows Rajabzadeh's, shows precisely why the disciplinary changes that Rajabzadeh was calling for in her graduate program have implications for scholarship both within and beyond medieval studies. They examine the harmful persistence of a Biblicist approach to scholarly analyses of the Qurʾan, a method borne out of Islamophobic medieval Christian exegesis, which they attribute to the connection between the European Middle Ages and the modern university. Their analysis reveals how the work of Peter the Venerable, a twelfth-century Benedictine Abbot of Cluny, and other anti-Muslim polemicists created the earliest translations of the Qurʾan, which continue to influence the anti-Muslim sentiment that permeates contemporary studies of the Bible in the Western academy. They thus demonstrate how central medieval texts are to contemporary studies. As a Christian-focused and Eurocentric field, medieval studies has not intervened in the continued influence of Peter the Venerable, and crusade ideologies more broadly, on scholarly engagement with the Qurʾan. If medievalists intend to globalize and transform the field's Christian-Eurocentrism, then they must contend with how anti-Muslim medieval commentaries and translations of the Qurʾan have filtered into our current academic systems. If Euro-medievalists viewed Arabic and Islamic studies as equally important linguistic and historical contexts for their studies, a core point Rajabzadeh made to her colleagues, they could disrupt the Islamophobic methodologies that persist not only in medieval studies but other fields as well—in this case, Qurʾanic studies.
The final section, “Critical Possibilities,” answers the call of Miyashiro's essay to eschew periodization. Medieval studies has traditionally excluded or marginalized critical theories that have emerged and developed to elucidate modernity's systems of power because of their anachronist application to premodernity, a period before Europe's global imperial dominance, racial capitalism, and the formation of the nation-state. However, the medieval-modern divide is itself the result of Eurocentric epistemologies, and these three essays demonstrate how medieval materials deepen and nuance concepts such as Orientalism and race once our scholarly methods no longer tether them to modernity—or parameters defined by periodization. Periodization can stagnate our capacity to theorize while also reifying the white Eurocentric hold on scholarly inquiry. Opening modern critical theories to premodern contexts begins to crack the epistemological foundation that has so thoroughly bound white Eurocentrism and modernity.
Mariah Min's essay elucidates how the long history of Christian Europeans racializing Jewish people in the Middle Ages informs the anti-Semitism of Nazi ideology. She argues that this history is relevant beyond the academy, which she demonstrates in her opening discussion of Whoopi Goldberg's comments on The View, whose understanding of race led her to mistakenly claim that the Holocaust was not about race. Turning to the Chaucer classroom, where medievalists are eager to include voices of color to diversify a white syllabus but not necessarily to interrogate white epistemologies, Min (2023: 184) argues that critical attention to race is the only way “to appreciate the sharpness of [this work's] critical teeth.” She makes a case against the concept of “medieval race studies” because its boundedness gives “license to regard the nonmedieval . . . as peripheral,” when it is the present that offers ways of seeing the past (184).
Anne Le (2023: 190) takes up a similar problem with the concept of “medieval Orientalism,” which “entrenches the medieval-modern divide, an epistemological barrier” that cuts off historical texts from contributing to the development of modern theory. Although medievalists have successfully revealed the way that medieval literature presents the Christian West and Muslim East in a relationship not of binary opposition but of ambivalent interchange, they have not contextualized this ambivalence as a tool of Orientalism; instead, it has served to show how these texts were not Orientalist. Le turns to a medieval French text to make the case that the characteristic ambivalence between the Christian protagonist and his relationships with his Muslim adopted mother (later wife) and peers shows how, in fact, ambivalence underscores the way medieval French literature advanced a discourse of Latin Christian supremacy. She argues that post-Saidian theories of Orientalism have likewise shown the machinations of ambivalence in Orientalist discourse; thus, she makes the point that scholarly dialogue across the medieval-modern divide would aid the development of theories of Orientalism for both medievalists and nonmedievalists alike.
Shoshana Adler's essay explores the critical insight that queer theorists can bring not only to local interpretations of medieval poetry but also to how we understand emotional attachments across disparate temporalities. Adler (2023: 213) uses the medieval figure of the leper, a symbol that “marks historical distance” while also generating “emotional recognition,” to expound the affective conditions that drive the recursive histories of white supremacist medievalism. She argues that “circuits of desire” (213) animate white supremacists’ attachment to the Middle Ages as white heritage, and thus queer theory offers a promising framework for tackling the problem. If emotional attachment underscores the connection between the medieval past and white supremacists, then it stands to reason that merely correcting the historical record is not a sufficient response from scholars. Adler demonstrates how the concept of “spoiled history” in queer studies, in which cherished objects become de-idealized without displacement, offers a paradigm for medievalist scholars who, she argues “are uniquely positioned to produce attachment genealogies of a period whose special status needs spoiling” (218).
Elizabeth J. West concludes “The ‘Medieval’ Undone: Imagining a New Global Past” with an afterword that both reflects on its collected essays and explores its implications for her research in Africana studies. West shows how her investigations into the lives of enslaved Africans and African-descended peoples in the Americas led her to the pre-1500 history of the Temne people in West Africa, who experienced forced removal and migration trauma during the expansion of Islam in the Middle Ages. West's foray into “global medieval” histories, she argues, enriches our present understanding of the impact of cultural DNA on how enslaved Africans experienced the Middle Passage and the development of generational trauma. For West (2023: 243), global medieval studies has opened new epistemological pathways for exploring how “Africans arrived tabula inscripta to the shores of the Americas from their forced voyages across the Atlantic” in ways that continue to hold significance. West also suggests, as she reflects on the conversations generated through these essays, that even if it is impossible to “dismantle the embedded racist epistemology that is the master tool of Western intellectualism, part of the struggle is to not leave it uncontested” (245). Contesting and challenging from within, West reminds us, constricts the spaces for its institutional regeneration.
These eleven essays, including the introduction and afterword, raise questions about disciplinary formation and the productive possibilities that emerge through crisis. The authors work across different disciplines and fields, but each intersects with medieval studies, and together they show the necessity for building critical frameworks and methodologies that reimagine medieval studies as not, to return to Biddick's (1998: 16) words, “a discipline based on expulsion and abjection and bound in rigid alterity, but one permeable to the risk of futurity.” The present crisis requires interdisciplinary collaboration and risk-taking: to imagine a new global past is to imagine a new, unbounded present, one open to the possibility of an obsolete “Middle Ages,” a concept undone by our own epistemological progress.
I am immensely grateful to the contributors of this volume for thinking with me about these issues; the privilege of reading and discussing their essays throughout the writing process helped sharpen my own perspective. I am also grateful to the librarians at the Morgan Library for their invaluable guidance on my research on Belle da Costa Greene, especially María Isabel Molestina. I am also grateful to Paul Bové for encouraging the project, Casey Williams for immense editorial support and compassion, Casey Wang for vital editing assistance, and the Rowan English department for generous feedback.
Kathleen Biddick (1998) argues that this separation between medieval studies as academic discipline and medievalism as external popular culture was the deliberate design of nineteenth-century scholars who created the discipline.
See also Young and Finn 2022, who develop the concept of “global medievalism,” storytelling practices in popular culture that resist the colonialist systems and racist logic embedded within the construct of the Middle Ages.
Mary Rambaran-Olm 2022 shows how these investments underscore Perry's own book, The Bright Ages, co-authored with Matthew Gabriele, in a review that became the center of a highly publicized social media discussion (Schuessler 2022).
This scholarly appropriation of the “medieval,” the move to transform the concept into a neutral historiographical category, is not new. Joachim Kurtz's (2018) description of the Middle Ages as a “colligatory concept” illustrates how “medieval” can come to mean a middle period, such as in the case of Chinese historiography, that does not inherently return to a Eurocentric gaze. However, such usage means the “middle” periods across the globe do not always match up synchronically to achieve the aims of interconnectivity sought by the “Global Middle Ages.”
These debates are already happening; notably, the University of Leicester cut its English language and medieval studies program in January 2021 (Jagot 2021).
See also Momma 2012, which details how modern philology shaped the study of English literature within a context of English imperialism.
See “Fellows and Corresponding Fellows,” Medieval Academy of America (website), https://medievalacademy.org/page/fellows (accessed April 1, 2023).
Hope Emily Allen to Belle da Costa Greene, March 27, 1940, Director's Files, 1903–1948, Box 1374, Morgan Library and Museum, New York.
Belle da Costa Greene to Max Farrand, November 17, 1930, Director's Files, 1903–1948, Box 1367, Morgan Library and Museum, New York.
Greene's choice of the name Da Costa seems significant, as it connects her to the Jewish diaspora and particularly the history of the Conversos (Bodian 2008).
I am grateful to Christine Nelson, who was the Drue Heinz Curator of Literary and Historical Manuscripts at the time, for offering me a personal tour of the library and Greene's office.
See Miyashiro 2019 for a discussion about how this use of the Middle Ages was part of the US settler-colonial project.
See Achi 2018 for more about this significant acquisition at the Morgan.
Charles Read to Belle da Costa Greene, December 3, 1911, ARC 1310: Morgan Collections Correspondence, Charles Hercules Read file, Morgan Library and Museum, New York.
The special issue in which Rambaran-Olm's essay appears is a publication emerging from the RaceB4Race colloquium, hosted at the Arizona Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies under the leadership of Ayanna Thompson, which advances research on race in medieval and early modern studies, conducted particularly by scholars of color.