Peripheries of the Middle Ages
I am a Historian. Some would say I am a Medievalist, but I prefer Historian. I am also South American, born and bred. I had the chance to spend four years of my life living in the UK as I worked on getting my PhD — which I finally did, and now I am back in Brazil.
My text begins with so many “I”s because I want to share the experience of a South American academic who dealt with the Middle Ages in the Old Continent. Much has been discussed about the inherent, structural racism that infects Medieval scholarship lately. Rightly so. As with any paradigmatic discourse, whatever is produce within the Ivory Towers of the world will, more or less, reproduce staples of thought and social practices that, more often than not, are retrograde. It is not surprising that we reached the point (thanks to the internet, most likely) where these classic views of a proud, European Middle Ages and angry, small people met. For many, the very concept of Middle Ages will enforce the perspective of a time without multiculturalism, without migration, without the vocal presence of People of Colour, etc.
Well, most of us have been trying to catch up with Postcolonial discussions and to deconstruct ideas of the “Racist Middle Ages”. And by “most of us”, I mean Europeans and North Americans in general. The anxiety that comes with the reproduction of wrong Medievalisms is certainly a product of geographies of power who detained — and still detain — hegemony over most of the world. Sure, it is a necessary cultural self-criticism; sometimes, it is also the legitimate experience of first or second generation immigrants who will rightly transport their hardships to paper, thus creating important and combative views.
The result of this anxiety is mostly of a narrative tone. We review terms, we drop certain positions and we try to sustain others. In practical terms, I suppose we try to engage with the wide public. And question the lack of diversity in panels and conferences. And we do those things in English, in North American and European conferences, where registration fee is more than the minimum wage in Brazil and transport and accommodation will cost more than what most (even) middle class people will earn in two or three months. Whereas the tone of language is progressive, spaces are still colonial. Poor, peripheral people are not really invited into these places, are they? They are not given a voice of their own.
Take Brazil, for example. There are literally hundreds of Medievalists in Brazil. Most of them are either finished or finishing their PhDs. They pop up throughout the whole country, in every region, and come in different shapes, colours and sizes. They explore a plethora of topics, despite the nonexistence of libraries and the utter impossibility to read the up-to-date articles that SciHub cannot reach. Argentina also has a thriving community of Medievalists… Chile, as well. And I am only talking about South America. Where are they when it comes to debate “Otherness” or racism?
I helped organising an international conference in this place called Curitiba (my hometown) a few years ago. It stirred some polemic because it was in English! Nonetheless, many foreign colleagues came and, in the end, it was quite fun. It was not a big conference, though, because so many people just couldn’t afford the trip to Brazil…. and, there! Do you get the irony?
A few days later, we had the first Medieval conference in the Amazon. That was quite insane. It took place in a town called Bragança, located in the Northeast of Pará, between the tropical forest and the ocean. We had a few presentations in English, but almost all else was in Portuguese because, you know, the hegemonic language of Academia hasn’t reached everyone yet. So many undergrads attended, because that was very, very new. So many undergrads were interested in the Middle Ages, despite their cultural and geographical backgrounds… and yet, people hardly hear about it in the Centres, I suppose. Ian Wood, who was there, enthusiastically talks about this conference whenever he can, but Brazil is just so far away, it is so expensive to get here.
I am not pointing fingers at my North American and European colleagues. In fact, my experience in the UK allowed me to meet great, genuinely interested and worried people, friends who are sensitive and sympathetic. And, above all, this experience, as far as I can tell, never transformed me into the “Brazilian Medievalist”. Maybe I was “the Jordanes guy”, but ethnicity was never that much of an issue, to which I am glad. However, as someone who lives and works in the periphery of the Middle Ages, I have to say that I get slightly uncomfortable with efforts to “decentralise” the Medieval academic discourse when they do not really pay attention to what happens outside the centre. Who knows, maybe South American historians have something interesting to say when it comes to alterity? Or maybe Central Asian scholars? African academics? True efforts to challenge dominant positions have to acknowledge the peripheries (culturally, geographically, politically) not just in theory, but in practice as well.
Centres have their own problems with racist Medievalisms, that is true. And these problems have to be addressed in their own context. However, I doubt that progressive, socially-engaged historiography wants to stop there. I know that most of my colleagues are open, curious and really want to decentralise ideas and discourses. So, take it from a Latino Historian (in case you are into hierarchies of exclusion): try getting in touch with academics who cannot afford to go to Europe or the US, try to publish (yes, in English) with the many, many Open Access journals of Brazil and Argentina, for example. If you can afford, go to conferences outside the Centres — or maybe even help organising conferences outside! If you are feeling bold, maybe you could even try learning new languages! It can be Portuguese or Spanish, if you want to remain in the European language zone.
As a starting point, that is a good, sympathetic way to be inclusive.