A New York Times article can’t resist the obvious and amusing verb as it describes an ugly scuffle within the guild of those who study the Middle Ages: “Medieval Scholars Joust With White Nationalists. And One Another.”
The article chronicles an unedifying tale of buffoonish clashes between the grievance-identity guerillas and the tone-deaf Old Scholars Club. My first reaction was to dismiss the whole donnybrook as yet another illustration of Sayre’s Law (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sayre%27s_law).
But then I realized that the humor here is only surface-deep: I have attended the International Medieval Congress in Kalamazoo for the past seven years as a fascinated scholarly outsider (my field is the history of Christianity in the nineteenth century). In that time, I have found medievalists to be, more than the scholars in any other field I know, “amateurs” in the best sense of that term. That is, even the best credentialed and most published among them tend to study what they study out of pure fascination – love (the root amare, from which “amateur” is derived) is not too strong a word. This political posturing is a distraction and a blight in the midst of a Guild of Extraordinary Geeks who study what they study out of no other agenda than coming to a deeper acquaintance with fellow humans long dead–whose lives, cultures, and ideas compel them to long, late nights of study, and all the accompanying sacrifices of the academic life.
This vitriolic battle among the lovers of medieval knowledge is also sad because while courtesy, circumspection, humility, wisdom, and so many other (intellectual) virtues all fall among the first casualties, at the same time careers are being made–and everyone knows it.
And this just shows how deep the infection of political posturing runs in academe as a whole, and how unlikely it is that it will heal itself anytime soon.
(Tangent-that’s-not-really-a-tangent: while I was at Duke University in the late ’90s, I heard a distinguished and celebrated Americanist call some figures from American history “fascists.” The parallel (though I don’t remember what group he was attacking) was simply ludicrous. This historian was clearly subsuming responsible scholarship and teaching to partisan attack. In that moment I lost all respect for him–and I started developing my “crap detector” for such unhelpful polemic. I hasten to add that, in the classes (at least) that I took, that detector almost never went off around professors. Unfortunately, however, when it came time to start teaching undergraduates at that same university, I could barely hear myself think for the jangling of that detector’s alarm. The sport of elite undergraduate students appeared to be that most ugly and unpleasant game of heated, moralistic attack-dogging.)
A final word: this present climate constrains me to add: I find the poison on the left and the poison on the right here equally, well, poisonous. A pox – or (why not) a full-on medieval plague – on both their houses!
Let us learn from such “jousts” what we should certainly learn: to discern where our work may illegitimately and harmfully minimize past sins or silence present voices. But also, to discern where the agendas of a variety of “culture wars” have rendered us useless as scholars. Let us not allow an honest desire to redress scholarly wrongs to become yet another one of those currently ubiquitous self-righteous and self-aggrandizing crusades (yes, I used the word), waged from the saddle of that most ugly of animals: the Moral High Horse.
And then, having dismounted and recovered what may be the dim and fragmented light of truth from the smoking furnace of polemical heat, let us return to the field of the Passionate Intellect with a redoubled will. For honest scholarship that follows wherever the evidence leads is a balm in a time of turmoil.