Geraldine Heng, University of Texas, Austin
Cord Whitaker, Wellesley College
In this seminar, we will study the ways in which the Middle Ages invented race as well as the means by which modern understandings of the medieval world continue to inform and influence race.
The seminar’s modern inspiration is the long established, if increasingly visible, use of medievalism in movements whose objectives are to grant rights and privileges to people of certain races while withholding them from others. When neo-Nazis marched on Charlottesville, Virginia, USA, in August 2017, some carried shields emblazoned with the Black Eagle of the Holy Roman Germanic Empire. It was apparently unknown to its white supremacist bearers that the insignia is strongly associated with Saint Maurice, who was black and is widely depicted in medieval European art with dark skin. When medieval symbols are taken out of their contexts—in obviously wrongheaded ways and in more subtle ways, too—it is urgent that scholars in medieval studies attend to the situation and appropriation of the Middle Ages in the modern West. The voices of experts in medieval culture and history are of dire importance in research, in curricula, and in the wider world.
The seminar’s medieval inspiration could come from any one of a plethora of medieval texts—from European chronicle romances such as The Three Kings of Cologne;to pseudo-Aristotelian scientific texts such as those contained in the Secretum Secretorum, the Physics, and the Metaphysics; to the travel narratives of the Nestorian monk Rabban bar Sauma and the Book of John Mandeville. The seminar’s inspiration could come from any number of pieces of visual art, such as depictions of Saint Maurice. Its inspiration could come from any number of medieval events, especially but not limited to events comprising the Crusades. These items depict, examine, and demonstrate how differences in character and spiritual worth can be discerned by observing a subject’s bodily conditions, including skin color.
The seminar will explore the intersections, productivities, and even potential drawbacks of using critical race theory, postcolonial studies, and decolonization as tools for understanding medieval studies' place in the world and shaping the field as a political and cultural actor--within and outside the classroom. The seminar will ask, what extant theories might effectively do this work? To what extent does medieval critical race studies require the development of entirely new theories and practices in order to approach medieval material in intellectually responsible ways? How might the methods of the various disciplines within medieval studies—literature and history, among others—intersect and diverge in effecting and continuing to establish a rigorous medieval critical race studies?
Seminar participants will contribute 7-9 page essays on any topic related to the seminar. Papers will be pre-circulated among participants before the Colloquium. Participants will then present shorter, lightning-talk versions at the Colloquium. Participants are encouraged to consider pedagogy as well as research. Our classrooms are the most effective spaces for shaping medieval studies’ influence on the modern world. In recognition of this fact, the seminar will include discussion of teaching as well as an interactive and collaborative workshop in which seminar participants will lead Colloquium attendees in thinking creatively about the interaction of medieval studies and race in their classrooms.