This is a significant contribution to medieval studies and has already generated discussion among medievalists debating disciplinary politics. Trisected into “Stories,” “Origins,” and “#Hashtags,” the book reads like a polyvocal series of blog posts on doing medievalism in an age of recrudescent fascism.
The volume begins with pieces introducing students to vexing and/or easily misunderstood concepts such as the Crusades (Nicholas Paul) and Shari’a (Fred Donner). W.M. Ormrod’s piece, summarizing a recent project on immigration in later medieval England, could feature in courses on contemporary Britain, as a corrective of the myth of homogeneous ethnic purity that Brexiteers fetishize. Several contributions are stand-alone reads: Sarah Guérin’s article reconstructs the world of the trans-Saharan exchange networks that provided medieval Europe’s ivory and gold.
One of the most telling moments in the volume comes in Magda Teter’s piece on anti-Semitic blood libel. Teter describes a scene in Lincoln cathedral, when neo-Nazis attempted to honor Hugh, star of an anti-Semitic tale at the heart of the blood libel mythos (44–45). A priest drew their attention to a 1953 plaque the cathedral erected to underline the nefarious history of the cult. This didn’t interest the Nazis, who proceeded to memorialize the “saint.” Ideological thinking’s intractability is on abundant display here. As Kant once observed, against stupidity, there is no remedy.
Sandy Bardsley’s article introduces the reader to the English peasantry and sources for its history, rightly underlining archeology’s importance here. It does not leave room for the matter of how peasants struggled to improve their lives via collective action. Although Katherine Wilson does address weavers’ revolts (27–8), further attention to the protagonism of peasant men and women and their urbanized brethren would have been merited, especially given that revolt and resistance among the medieval laboring classes has generated significant attention in recent years.1
Engaging with the politics of medievalism, one can focus on correcting misconceptions, or on identifying countertrends, moments when the medieval imaginary is adaptable for projects of liberation. Cord J. Whitaker’s wonderful “The Middle Ages in the Harlem Renaissance” exemplifies the latter tack. The author introduces readers to Jessie Redmon Fauset’s use of the European Middle Ages “to stake African Americans’ claim to the history and culture of the European Middle Ages and the entirety of the English literary canon” (81). Fauset’s medievalism evokes Walter Benjamin’s description of his approach to quotations, as like “robbers by the roadside who make an armed attack and relieve an idler of his convictions.”2 Fauset’s quotation of what one might, with Twain in Life on the Mississippi, label the antebellum slaveowners’ Ivanhoe medievalism, transforms the political valence of the medieval European imaginary and the reader’s perception of the Harlem Renaissance, underlining “…the strategic viability of medievalism as a tool for the advancement of racial justice” (87).
One can hope that future such volumes will include more medievalists of color—a point Sierra Lomuto has already made—and more fully integrate understudied areas and experiences within Europe and in other regions of the world. There are, for example, notable geographical constraints on the book’s “Europe.” David Wacks’ welcome Iberian excursion aside, “medieval Europe” here lies north of the Alps and north-northwest of the Danube and Elbe. Italy is largely absent; the Balkans, Poland-Lithuania, and the Byzantine commonwealth, invisible. This is, in a way, understandable. In the United States, we generally take northwestern Europeans to represent all medieval Europeans, just as the image that many Americans have of the indigenous inhabitants of North America in fact represents only specific High Plains tribes, such as the Lakota and Cheyenne, after they acquired horses and firearms.3 The European continent’s southern and eastern thirds offer much to scholars of several topics discussed here, such as immigration, inter-faith negotiations, intercultural exchange, and the nationalist use of medieval figures and events.4 Likewise, these are exciting times for those interested in the “medieval” history of the Americas, with archeological work reconfiguring what we know of pre-contact native civilizations, from Amazonian terraforming to environmental degradation at Cahokia. This points the way for incorporating the First Nations more fully into global medieval history. Geraldine Heng’s afterword likewise underlines how central China and India—the central cogs driving premodern Afroeurasian technological innovation, industrial production, and commercial exchange—must be in any “global” approach to the premodern past.5
This does not diminish the book’s value. There is much here for non-specialists—“Three Ways of Mis-reading Thomas Jefferson’s Qur’an” (Ryan Szpiech) or “‘Celtic’ Crosses and the Myth of Whiteness” (Maggie Williams) could feature in American Studies courses, for example—while we medievalists will be using it for quite awhile.
See in particular J.A.S. Telechea, B.A. Bolumburu, and J. Haemers, ed., Los Grupos Populares en La Ciudad Medieval (Logroño: Istituto de Estudios Riojanos, 2014); J. Firnhaber-Baker and D. Schoenaers, ed., The Routledge Handbook of Medieval Revolt (London: Routledge, 2018); S. Cohn, Jr., Lust for Liberty (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2008); C. Malatras, “The ‘Social Aspects’ of the Second Civil War (1341–1354),” in Thessalonique au temps des Zélots, ed. M.-H. Congourdeau (Paris: ACHCByz, 2011), 99–116; C. Wickham, Framing the Early Middle Ages (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008), 519–91; and, beyond Europe, Y. Rapoport, “Invisible Peasants, Marauding Nomads: Taxation, Tribalism, and Rebellion in Mamluk Egypt,” Mamluk Studies Review (8:2) (2004): 1–22.
Quoted in H. Arendt, Illuminations (New York: Harcourt, 1967), 38.
A. Taylor, American Colonies (New York: Penguin, 2001), 405.
See, for example, M. Panov, The Blinded State: Historiographic Debates about Samuel Cometopoulos and His State (10th-11th century) (Leiden: Brill, 2019).
Cf. B. Campbell, The Great Transition (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2016); G. Parker, Global Crisis (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2013), esp. 115–51 and 642–67, on China in relation to other polities in the premodern world.