“high places round these lakes”: Medieval Studies and White Settler Colonialism at UW-Madison

ACMRS Arizona
The Sundial (ACMRS)
8 min readJul 7, 2020


by Maxwell Gray

Elevated view of a double-tailed turtle effigy mound on Observatory Hill on the University of Wisconsin-Madison campus.
Wisconsin Historical Society, “Turtle Mound on Observatory Hill (University of Wisconsin-Madison),” Image ID 34547 (1910)

Three years ago in the summer of 2017, Adam Miyashiro challenged fellow scholars of early medieval England to decolonize their field, echoing Sierra Lomuto’s call eight months earlier for medievalists to reject the “global middle ages” in the absence of critical race studies. The same summer, the Medievalists of Color organization asked their white colleagues to meaningfully engage with critical race and ethnic studies in their scholarship, and Dorothy Kim challenged white medievalist colleagues to reject white supremacy and neutrality in their teaching. Since then, Lomuto, Nahir Otaño Gracia and Mary Rambaran-Olm have continued to argue medievalists must revise how they study, teach, and represent medieval studies and its past and present histories.

At the University of Wisconsin-Madison where I have the privilege of studying Old English poetry, the relationship between medieval studies and white settler colonialism is part of a long history on campus that remains ongoing. The public land-grab university occupies stolen ancestral Ho-Chunk land called Teejop (day-JOPE) (“Four Lakes”), where the Ho-Chunk people have lived and called home since time immemorial. In June 2020, Angela Peterson created a petition to remove from campus the iconic university statue of Abraham Lincoln who signed the Morrill Act in 1862, converting stolen Indigenous homeland into critical seed funding for public and private universities, including the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Short walks from the English department on campus where I’m a PhD student are multiple effigy mound groups built by the ancestors of the Ho-Chunk people in the region between 700 and 1100 CE. Many other mound groups were destroyed during the construction of the university campus in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

In the “long nineteenth century” medieval studies was an important touchstone for antiquarian and archaeological study of Indigenous North American mounds and mound builders. Antiquarians and archaeologists often compared Indigenous mounds to mounds of classical and medieval history and literature, including the tomb of the hero Beowulf at the end of the Old English poem. At the time many amateurs and scholars alike denied Indigenous mounds were the works of First Nations peoples. Some writers identified Indigenous mounds as the works of Phoenicians, Israelites, Hindus, or Norse Vikings. These racist theories closely participated in white settler dispossessions and erasures of First Nations peoples and cultures, including strategies of forced removal and cultural genocide. Today they remain critical parts of the ongoing history of medievalism, medieval studies and white settler colonialism described by Adam Miyashiro.

Comparison of Indigenous Wisconsin burial mounds with the Aeneid’s tomb of the Trojan Hector (“A mighty mound sepulchral”).
Selection of George Gale’s Upper Mississippi, or, Historical sketches of the mound-builders, the Indian tribes and the progress of civilization in the North-west, from A.D. 1600 to the present time (1867)

Over more than two thousand years, the Ho-Chunk people and their ancestors built thousands of effigy and burial mounds in the Four Lakes region. White settlers destroyed many of these mounds in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries after they forcibly removed many Ho-Chunk and other First Nations peoples from their homelands in Wisconsin in the early nineteenth century. No legal protections for Indigenous mounds on private lands across the state existed until 1985, and legal protections remain precarious today but for the activism of Ho-Chunk and other First Nations peoples of Wisconsin, for whom those mounds that survive remain sacred sites.

My current creative research project called MOUNDS is an ongoing experimental, digital documentary poetry project where I’m seeking to revisit and respond to this complex past and present racist history at my home institution. Fundamentally, myself a white settler, medievalist graduate student occupying ancestral Ho-Chunk homeland, my research question is: “what does it mean to practice medieval studies, and what may it mean to practice medieval studies otherwise, here in this place?”

The project digitally and poetically curates public and archival documents and images to try to reconsider and reimagine alternative relations among Indigenous Ho-Chunk mounds, antiquarian and archaeological study in the Four Lakes region, and medieval studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Per its title the project takes as its critical “point of departure” — Erich Auerbach’s Ansatzpunkt — the figure of the earthwork “mound” across historical, literary, and cultural texts and contexts, interrogating and transforming the comparison of Indigenous mounds and the mounds of the Old English poem.

The project’s first four digital documentary poems I published online earlier this year approach the problem through the characters of close friends Charles E. Brown (1872–1946) and William Ellery Leonard (1876–1944). Brown was the longtime secretary of the Wisconsin Archeological Society, and a key character in the local history of white settler research and, ultimately, preservation of Indigenous Ho-Chunk mounds in the Four Lakes region. Leonard was a popular professor of English literature at the university, and a famous poet and translator, including of the Old English poem Beowulf. He was also in his own words an “amateur Indianologist” who often joined Brown in his archaeological research of Indigenous Ho-Chunk mound groups on the shores of the region’s lakes.

In 1910, Leonard wrote and read aloud the elegiac poem “The Mounds of Madison” for the Madison State Assembly of the Wisconsin Archeological Society. Later that same year, Brown published the poem in his report of the state assembly in the society’s quarterly bulletin The Wisconsin Archeologist. Leonard wrote:

And here was seed-time in the self-same loam
We plow today; here too was harvest home.
Here were assemblies of the counsellors;
Here unsung heroes led the hosts to wars.
Here gathered at seasons family and clan
To serve the god from whence its line began,
Or bury its chieftains; for the gods, the dead,
Were unto them as us yet more than bread,
Yet more than drink and raiment, as it seems;
And they, as we do, lived in part by dreams.
And the high places round these lakes attest
The age-old mysteries of the human breast.

More than ten years later, in 1923, the scene of buried chieftains at the “high places round these lakes” reverberates in the ultimate scene at the end of Leonard’s philological translation of Beowulf, where of the tomb of the hero Leonard writes:

The sky the reek had swallowed. The Weders raised thereby
A mound upon the headland, that was broad and high,
Seen afar from ocean by sailors on their ways,
And built the battle-bold One a beacon in ten days.
Around the brands and ashes a wall they ran and wrought,
The worthiest contriving of men of wisest thought.
And in the barrow set they ring of gem and plate,
And all the splendor-booty out of hoard of late
Forth their hands had taken, urged by heads of hate.
They gave the wealth of jarlmen to earth for to hold,
Now where yet it liveth, in the mould, the gold,
As useless unto mortals as it was of old.

In these lines of Leonard’s translation, the “high places round these lakes” of “The Mounds of Madison” become the single “mound upon the headland, that was broad and high;” the sacrifice of bread, drink and raiment becomes the sacrifice of “ring of gem and plate” and “all the splendor-booty out of hoard of late;” and the ethereal lives (like ours) “lived in part by dreams” foreshadow the material “uselessness” of “wealth of jarlmen to earth for to hold.” But my point isn’t “oh look how these mounds are like this mound.” It’s that the “mounds of Madison” — both Leonard’s elegiac poem and the Indigenous Ho-Chunk mounds themselves that white settlers Brown and Leonard knew well — are important parts of the critical history of the “mound upon the headland” at the end of the Old English poem.

Small histories like this one remind us our investments in Old English poetry are never only or simply in Old English poetry. Rather, they’re part of complex networks of investments, often in whiteness, often as stolen property, including its tremendous privileges for white settlers like myself. Leonard’s academic career as a scholar, translator, and poet and his close friendship with Brown represent for me some of this assemblage of attachments among medieval studies and white settler colonialism and privilege. In my work, they represent critical spaces to explore, work through and against (our own) conscious and unconscious postmedieval attachments to whiteness and settler colonialism — critical work I consider one of the many responsibilities of practicing medieval studies today as a white settler.

The experimental digital documentary poetic forms of the MOUNDS project represent creative arguments and digital poetic laboratories for this kind of inclusion of ongoing histories of white settler colonialism and research in modern and contemporary, local and global histories of medieval studies, especially of early medieval England and Old English poetry. At the same time, the project also represents its own poetic-ethical wager that these difficult histories may remain generative of alternative histories and futures of medieval literature and medieval studies. (Looking back now, the project may be read in close conversation with Donna Beth Ellard’s Anglo-Saxon(ist) Pasts, postSaxon Futures.)

30 lines of project PHP & SQL code, including server connection, querying database tables, and executing and echoing results.
Selection of project server-side code (PHP, SQL)

The project then attempts to rehearse and redirect white settler documents and histories — of antiquarianism, archaeology, literature, ethnography, and folklore, among others located at the Wisconsin Historical Society and university archives — in creative and chance ways that interrupt their dominant ideologies and epistemologies, making poetic space for counter and emergent forms of history and knowledge. Individual poems use server-side code to select and load random collections of lines of curated public and archival documents from a relational database of citations. The resulting versions of digital documentary poetry remix historical, literary and cultural texts and contexts to represent alternative histories and futures of comparison, connection and dialogue, inviting users’ own critical acts of reading, and participation in the generation of new poetic relations, inside and outside the text.

First 17 lines of project relational database table, featuring text from William Ellery Leonard’s personal narrative.
Snapshot of select project relational database table, text by William Ellery Leonard (1920), edited transcription by Maxwell Gray (2020)

The project doesn’t pretend to decolonize medieval studies. Rather it seeks to disrupt and disorient the ways medieval studies (especially of and by white settlers like myself) imagines its own past, present and future, unsettling the ground for the real, required decolonization work in the direction of more inclusive, decolonial futures of the medieval past and postmedieval present. It makes the argument we need critical race and ethnic studies, especially settler colonial and Indigenous studies, to understand medieval studies and our own medievalisms (including criticism and critique of the project itself). It also challenges other settler medievalists to learn, teach and work through and against the ongoing histories of medieval studies and white settler colonialism at their own institutions. Finally, the project holds out hope for chance connections and critical interpretations of new versions of medieval literature and medieval studies, at the complex, crowded intersections of the past, present, and future.

Maxwell Gray is a medievalist graduate student at the University of Wisconsin — Madison. You can find him on Twitter at @maxgray20.



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The Sundial (ACMRS)

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