Discrimination has long played a part in medievalism studies, but it has rarely been weaponized as thoroughly and publicly as in recent exchanges. Professor Karl Fugelso explains how these exchanges inspired the current volume of Studies in Medievalism, an inspiring and powerful collection of which we are very proud.
Discrimination has long played a part in postmedieval responses to the Middle Ages, as when the Ku Klux Klan “knights” anchored their racism in that of Sir Walter Scott and other medievalist writers. Nor have scholarly approaches to such subjects lacked for bias, most notably in the conspicuous failure to discuss them prior to the 1970s. Yet discrimination within the professional ranks of medievalism studies has perhaps never been more visible than in a recent series of Internet comments by some of the field’s leading scholars, as chronicled by Nick Roll in his 2017 article “A Schism in Medieval Studies, for All to See.”
In an August 28 post from that year, for the medieval-studies blog In the Middle, Dorothy Kim, a professor of Asian descent then at Vassar, called for fellow professors of medieval and/or medievalist studies to explicitly condemn white supremacy, particularly as it relates to their area of speciality and particularly if they are white. In response, Rachel Fulton Brown, a white professor at the University of Chicago, argued that the notorious racist “Richard Spencer and company […] are bringing back a fantasy that is their own making, and [that is] instantly punctured if you actually study the history of the Middle Ages.” In other words, “we are creating a fear that is unnecessary.” Kim disagreed, claiming that, in this mostly white field, “medievalists need to take explicitly antiracist positions, and act in explicitly antiracist ways in how they conduct themselves in the field,” for “to do so is the only way to work against white supremacy. Protesting that you yourself are not a racist is useless and ignorant.” This, in turn, led Fulton Brown to publicly claim — without actually naming Kim — that the latter’s post was only the latest in a series of public and private disagreements between them and, in subsequent blogs, to post supposed screen-grabs of Kim’s private comments to Fulton Brown, as well as a picture of Kim and a link to the highly popular far-right icon Milo Yiannopoulos. In reply, Kim says she has received a great deal of hate mail, and her supporters, often in the form of professional academic organizations such as the Medieval Academy of America, have condemned the violent imagery on Yiannopoulos’s site and attacked Fulton Brown as racially insensitive.
This exchange, parts of which went as viral as anything ever has in medievalism studies, as well as the broader academic and cultural developments that fueled it, led me to orient Studies in Medievalism XXVIII around the theme of discrimination in medievalism and in the study of it. And the topic proved to be so incendiary that, owing to their own passions or those with whom they discussed their project, many scholars were unable to send the 3,000-word essays they had proposed. But five authors came through and produced a tight, provocative collection of papers that reiterate, refine, and augment the ways in which our seven general articles reveal biases in medievalism (studies), in the subjects and approaches of what may now be the most stimulating and dynamic field in the Humanities.
This guest post was written by Karl Fugelso, Professor of Art History at Towson University.