IMC 2017 report 1: Other forms of otherness and the session 1414 controversy

I’m recently back from the Leeds International Medieval Congress, where as usual I encountered an overwhelming number of other medievalists and their ideas, as well as coping (or not) with variable weather, insufficient sleep and my tendency to eat far too unhealthily.

I want to try in the next few weeks (or months) to reflect on some of what I learnt, but I will start with posts on the two roundtables that I was a panellist on. One was session 914 on crossing chronological boundaries, some of whose themes I will try and blog about in my next post. The other was session 1414, The Medieval Concept of Otherness, a session which aroused considerable controversy on Twitter (see the hashtag #s1414 and a Storify of Dorothy Kim’s impassioned critique* before the session). Since I was one of the panellists, I want to talk about my experience of the session.

First, however, I want to start with some of the background to IMC roundtables. Roundtables at the IMC can be used for a wide variety of discussions. I’ve participated or been aware of ones which are basically demonstrations of a particular project (i.e. the Making of Charlemagne’s project database), ones which are discussing aspects of academic life, such as editing, ones which look at the state of a field, such as on medieval women and power and ones which try to consider the comparative history of a topic across different areas/periods (i.e. cross-cultural discussions of sainthood).

Because of the variety of purposes they can be put to, roundtables are a difficult format to make work successfully, especially at the IMC, where the timeslot is only one hour. The basic problem is to combine a panel with varied perspectives (to encourage discussion) with a topic defined sufficiently that there’s some common themes coming up (so people aren’t simply talking past one another and there’s some common frame of reference). The additional constraints are that the more people you have on the panel (I think the normal range is 3-6), the less time there will be for general discussion, and also the fact that the panellists will often only have been given a vague brief about the theme of the round table by the organiser and won’t have discussed with other panellists beforehand what they’re saying.

Looking back at Session 1414 I feel that I only really understood what the organiser, Hans-Werner Goetz was trying to do when I actually took part in the session and partly because the abstract for the session wasn’t as clear as it could be. The abstract was as follows:

The diverse sessions and papers of IMC 2017 confirm the wide spectrum of approaches and the multiple possibilities involved in the study of ‘Otherness’. Much of the work presented includes theoretical and methodological discussions of the topic, but, judging from the titles and abstracts provided, very few are concerned with the medieval comprehension of what we would describe as ‘Otherness’. Nevertheless, this is a very important aspect of the topic, since we cannot assume that medieval understanding of ‘the Other’ is necessarily similar to our own (or that the medieval concepts are necessarily homogeneous throughout the Middle Ages). None of the pertinent medieval Latin expressions, such as alienusadvenaexter/extraneus, or peregrinus, really designates the ‘stranger’ (or German Fremder) in a strict modern sense. While it cannot be doubted that medieval authors and people had a certain concept of ‘Otherness’, it is nevertheless difficult to define it with any precision. This round table discussion will, of course, not be able to solve the problem, but it will discuss (a) the specific medieval comprehension of ‘Otherness’, (b) its relationship to our modern understanding, and (c) possible approaches of historical investigation.

This round table discussion aims to address these three areas utilising different perspectives, including terminology, perceptions of other peoples, religions, or cultures, as well as considering issues of gender and social exclusion. Although the participants are deliberately chosen from among historians of the Early Middle Ages, it is hoped that their contributions will provide a springboard for discussion, with members of the audience offering viewpoints from other periods and disciplines.

What I now think Hans-Werner was trying to get at was a question of intellectual history/mentalities. There are an almost infinite number of ways of splitting the world into Us/Them, but societies normally have predominant methods of doing so, and these can change over time. (For example, the Protestant/Catholic split in the UK, which was a key divide for centuries, is considerably less salient now, whereas Christian/Muslim has become far more significant). You can therefore reasonably ask, to what extent were the Middle Ages using the same pairs of binaries as modern society and with the same order of priorities? This is a meta-question, before we get to the issue of how this practice of othering worked. There’s also an even more meta-question. Did the Middle Ages possess the concept itself of the Other, in the way that modern society does?

Both of these seem to be valid research questions you can ask and they’re distinct questions from asking how a particular binary worked in the Middle Ages, which most of the conference papers looked at. However, there’s one obvious issue with the question as posed. What do we mean by “the Middle Ages” and “modern society”? I think it should have been made clearer in the abstract that for this specific roundtable, the implicit answer was that the dominant culture in early Medieval Europe (the Carolingians) was being compared with modern Western Europe. It would be perfectly possible to carry out the same exercise (considering if key ideas of otherness were similar) for any two societies, but this is a particularly relevant one because some modern binaries of Us/Them in western Europe can plausibly be seen as originating in the early Middle Ages (e.g. that of Christian/non-Christian with the Christianization of Western Europe).

I would argue, therefore, that the question being set up was a reasonable one. One of the big controversies, however was about the choice of panellists: all white Europeans: myself, Anne-Marie Helvétius, James Palmer and Steffen Patzold. It should be noted, however, that “European” is itself a category that isn’t obvious. If you instead categorise the panel as comprising two English people (one working at a Scottish university, one not in an academic post), one French person and one German person, you can immediately see that there are historical periods when the panel members would have been largely Other to each other. And indeed, there are probably people in modern Leeds who would deplore the fact that James and myself consider ourselves European as well as British.

I will leave the question of whether there should have been someone from an ethnic minority on the panel to the end. Why were these particular people chosen to be on the panel? If the aim is to consider possibly different early medieval ways of categorizing the Other then it made sense to look at areas where it’s not yet clear whether early medieval categories match modern ones. Religion is one obvious one, because there are superficially continuities between early medieval concepts and the modern one, so the panel included two people working in very different ways on religious history (Anne-Marie and James). Gender is another area of superficial continuities, so I was invited along, as someone who works on early medieval gender. (I don’t think I addressed the question very well in my comments, but that’s a separate matter). And I think Steffen came as someone who’s worked a lot on the creation of identities in several different areas (e.g. Carolingian bishops’ self construction).

Superficially, there’s an obvious gap in the panellists: someone who looks at the creation of ethnic identities in the early medieval west (although Hans-Werner Goetz has written on that. Indeed, there’s a thematic arrangement of Hans-Werner’s publications on his webpage that’s awe-inspiring in its breadth). But I think there’s a more specific reason for its exclusion: we already know from fifty years of research that ethnic identities worked in a different way in the early Middle Ages from today and there’s also been a lot of research on how early medieval ethnic identities have been used to justify modern European racism. (And it’s probably fifteen years since I heard Dominique Iogna-Prat talk about how it was in the central Middle Ages that anti-Judaism became anti-Semitism, a move from a religious to a racial category). The meta-question on this has already been answered, so it’s not a priority for discussion.

Similarly, we already know that early medieval social hierarchies are conceptualised substantially differently from ours (the Three Orders of society, the importance of the free/unfree divide, noble othering of the non-noble, etc). So again, the fact that wasn’t a specialist on that on the panel isn’t very significant. And I didn’t raise the fact that medieval categories of sexuality aren’t the same as modern ones, because that’s again well-known and well discussed in the literature.

The session was something of a blur and I wasn’t taking detailed notes (and so can’t attribute all the comments), but there were a few points which particularly struck me. James Palmer stressed all the complex grey shades between Christian and pagan, such as “false Christians” and “heretics” (not the same thing). And Steffen Patzold talked about how you could see a Carolingian suspicion of strangers in a variety of regulations about letters of accreditation, checking for runaway unfree etc. It was a useful reminder of how localised othering could be, especially in its tensions with Christian ideas of universality.

As I’ve said earlier, I wasn’t very happy with my own comments. I talked a bit about a point that Hans-Werner also made in his introduction, that “other woman”/“aliena mulier” had connotations that “other man” didn’t, since it could simply indicate her as the wife/possession of another man.

I pointed out the asymmetry of women being Other to men far more than men being Other to women, but also speculated at what it meant to believe seriously that husband and wife were “one flesh”, and hence that husbands and wives were theoretically not other to one another.

I also commented, in a bit of implicit intersectionality, that the use of women in particular as markers of ethnic difference seemed to be less prominent in the Carolingian period than before and after (I compared Tacitus on German women and the key role Jewish and Muslim women played later in medieval constructions of ethnicity).

So I was explicitly showing that some of the mechanisms for gendered othering in the early Middle Ages were different. But I didn’t think to answer explicitly the key meta-question: was the gender system working with the same categories? What I should have said is that I think it was, that I reckon the Carolingian period was working on a two-gender system like ours and that ideas of a third gender for religious were mistaken.

As with most roundtables, the discussion bounced around all over the place, so this is just a few bits that particularly stuck in my mind. There was an interesting question about whether Chinese or Muslim categories of otherness were similar and James mentioned a project at Vienna on Visions of Community that was bringing together scholars of Christianity, Islam and Buddhism to look at similar questions. I speculated on whether it messed with medieval peoples’ minds that Jesus was both God and man, self and other. The difference between medieval and modern views of the agency of objects was also mentioned: a relic really could be believed to be acting, which affects how you conceive of the living/non-living boundary.

Someone pointed out that religious conversion meant that the other could lose that otherness, and someone else was referring to how Polish/German distinctions were being articulated partly in terms of women’s behaviour. (It was useful being reminded of the eastern part of Eastern Europe, because there are a whole lot of ethnic distinctions that have been made there in the last 1500 years or so that have nothing to do with skin colour or even necessarily with religious difference).

So that was how I experienced and understood session 1414, which like a number of IMC sessions, worked partially but not entirely. I think the questions which the roundtable were intended to discuss were valid, although I think the abstract (and possibly also the title) of the roundtable could have been improved. In particular, we didn’t talk about methodological approaches at all, and the suggestion that we would seems to have aroused hostility because the panel was (probably rightly) thought to be insufficiently versed in some current theoretical approaches to Otherness. And as I’ve said, I didn’t think my comments were as well directed as they should have been.

As to the composition of the panel, I think having all its members being historians of Merovingian/Carolingian Europe (broadly speaking) was necessary to give it what thematic coherence it had, given that we were thinking about all forms of otherness. (There were other roundtables that did the opposite, bringing together historians of Western and non-Western cultures to discuss a more tightly bounded common theme). So the question then is: should we have included a non-white historian of early Medieval Europe on the panel?

I’m in favour of more diversity of panels generally, if it’s feasible. The problem is that there are relatively few senior people from ethnic minorities researching Merovingian/Carolingian Europe. (There are some more PhDs coming through, but you’d normally expect to be a postdoc at least for a panel like this, because it can be a bit daunting otherwise). Then you also need someone who would be at Leeds anyhow, which ruled out some more people.

Finally, you’d need someone who was researching a topic relevant to otherness, and the early medieval historians from ethnic minority backgrounds whom I know aren’t necessarily doing this. Asking someone to talk on a panel whose theme doesn’t relate well to their own research does strike me as pretty much the definition of tokenism. So my provisional answer is that I couldn’t think of any obvious candidates for this panel, but that if anyone reading this can, please tell me, so I’ll know better for next time and can suggest an alternative to myself.

Note: if you wish to discuss this post and the issues raised with me, you are welcome to do so in the comments here or on another suitable blog of your choosing. I will not be discussing the panel on Twitter, because I do not feel the format allows for nuances of argument.

*I originally wrote “rant” here, quoting Dorothy Kim’s own term (which appears in the first tweet in the Storify I link to). Since some readers of the blog see this as offensively dismissive of her views, I have replaced it with the phrase “impassioned critique”, since I hope that is a better neutral description of her comments.


25 thoughts on “IMC 2017 report 1: Other forms of otherness and the session 1414 controversy

  1. “So my provisional answer is that I couldn’t think of any obvious candidates for this panel, but that if anyone reading this can, please tell me, so I’ll know better for next time and can suggest an alternative to myself.”

    Dr. Dorothy Kim, for one.

    Also, I wasn’t at the conference, but I don’t understand why this panel had to be about the early Middle Ages in particular. Opening it up to late medievalists would have allowed the organizer to draw on a considerably larger pool of scholars working on race and other vectors of power differential.


    • Dorothy works on Merovingian/Carolingian topics? Not according to her CV. So if the panel was st least in origin meant to discuss Mer/Car defs of otherness compared to our own, isnt including someone who does not work on anything related but included simply because of race tokenism and just as bad as exclusion?


  2. Eric Weiskott, I think you missed one of Magistra’s points: the panel was deliberately composed of historians who specialise in the Early Middle Ages. Dorothy Kim is an expert in some areas, but she is neither strictly an historian nor does her work focus on the Early Middle Ages.

    Liked by 1 person

    • But the organizer’s decision to restrict the panel by time period and discipline seems arbitrary or post-hoc. The panel was advertised as “The Medieval Concept of Otherness” not “Otherness in Carolingian History.” Again, I wasn’t at the conference, but I can imagine how this could have felt like a bait-and-switch for some attendees.

      I’d also like to make a point about the “Early Middle Ages.” US literature scholars generally don’t divide the Middle Ages into three subperiods (early/high/late) the way European historians do. Dorothy Kim works on Early Middle English literature. For many in my field, twelfth- and early thirteenth-century texts like Lawman’s Brut and Ancrene Wisse are ‘early’ not ‘late.’ Actually, the periodization of Early Middle English is an ongoing debate. So this panel’s self-definition of “Early” is inflected by a particular institutional perspective.


      • And at Oxford in the 1960s (and perhaps even now?) , a history degree in anything after the fall of Rome was deemed “modern”. I think Magistra’s essay is lucid on the make-up of the panel. You may not be aware of this, but Leeds is dominated by (unsurprisingly) UK and European definitions, and it is history-heavy. So it’s completely unsurprising that panels would reflect those norms. Moreover, not all European scholarly traditions, whether History or Literature, recognise three sub-periods. For example, German historiography recognises only two divisions, Früh- and Hochmittelalter. The panel was meant to begin from the perspective of early medieval history, not literature, and that at least was clear in the description!

        Liked by 1 person

  3. I am aware of how history-centric Leeds is. It’s part of the reason I haven’t been yet.

    The description for the panel speaks of the “certain concept of ‘Otherness'” held by “medieval authors and people.” Sorry, but I don’t see how this excludes literature or art or archaeology or religion, all fields in which concepts of identity and power are at issue.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Eric,

      To clarify matters initially: I was not the organiser of the panel and did not write the title or the abstract for it.

      Since you haven’t been to IMC Leeds you might not be aware that there wasn’t a single roundtable on the evening concerned: on this night alone (Wednesday) there were nine others in the same timeslot (and the same number on Mondays and Tuesdays). Dr Dorothy Kim was already speaking at one of these other sessions on Wednesday, so would not have been available for our panel; she had spoken at a roundtable on Monday and moderated one on Tuesday.

      It’s entirely common to have roundtables where the panellists are all from a similar discipline (archaeology, literary studies) or time period. For example, I attended a roundtable on the theme of the Otherness of Women all of whose panellists are historians of England or France in the period after 1000. It should probably have been signalled in the title or more frequently in the abstract of session 1414 that this was specifically early medieval historians looking at the question, but I do not know why the idea of a panels of such a type looking at otherness is intrinsically invalid. As a panellist I heard earlier at the conference pointed out, there’s nothing intrinsically coherent about the European Middle Ages in the period 500-1500. As a result, panels and roundtables that don’t either have a tightly-defined theme or alternatively some kind of shared methodology/temporal/geographical focus don’t often give rise to very productive discussions.


      • I understand that you were not the organizer, but much of your blog post deals with the organization of the panel. I was responding on that basis.

        I don’t see the relevance of the schedule. Presumably, as with other conferences, panels get scheduled to avoid double-bookings. You yourself spoke at two roundtables. Had Dorothy Kim (for example) been included in your panel, I expect that she would not have been slated to speak elsewhere at the same time. Or if somehow she had, the choice between the two panels would have been hers to make. In my experience, in general, “We didn’t ask because we figured s/he wouldn’t be available anyway” is not a productive strategy for assembling a panel. (I’m not saying that logic was deployed in this case.)

        While having never been to Leeds, I am familiar with the concept of discipline- and period-specific panels. I never suggested these were “intrinsically invalid.” Rather, with due respect to your area of expertise, the scope of this particular panel seemed out of proportion with its stated topic, title, and description.


  4. I don’t think she’s trying to deny that it was badly advertised; I think she’s trying to explain what the thinking may have been behind this and how it lead to a disjuncture between title/description and content. Whether you find that convincing is, of course, an entirely different matter. (And in any case, let’s bear in mind that Magistra was *not* the organiser.)

    Liked by 2 people

  5. This was a really rather thoughtful piece, and has the advantage of being offered by someone who was present at the panel in question.

    The only good thing to have come out of the whole rather baffling kerfuffle is that we at least talk about the lack of ethnic diversity in medieval studies. In this regard, I do, though, wish the energy that has been spent on discussing this session (mostly by people who weren’t even at it) would have been spent on thinking of ways of attracting more ethnic minority students to the study of the medieval European past. That would be perhaps all the more imperative, given how the medieval European past has become some kind of idealised status quo ante for the US far right.

    But you are also right in pointing out that, in a European context, nationality matters (all the more so in Brexit Britain). Indeed, by being international in composition and outlook, this panel (and the whole IMC) was making a very concrete political point. That doesn’t let us Europeans off the hook in terms of ethnic diversity, but it adds a layer of complexity perhaps unfamiliar to some of those commenting.

    I was also shocked by the abuse you received on twitter. Some of the language there was plain sexist. Let me apologise for those male colleagues who flaunt their privilege. Ditto for those who, having run out of arguments, ended up resorting to rather vile polemics. Your calm and restraint have been both exemplary and admirable!

    I also would like to respond to some of the comments you received here:

    Eric: but aren’t you engaging in othering? In the sense that they ascribe universal validity to norms and practices with which you happen to be familiar, but that are culturally and historically contingent (English lit departments in the US), and dismiss as invalid those that do not conform to those socially constructed norms? For instance, isn’t the problem with focusing on vernacular texts that – AS England, a few Iberian charters and – of course – Byzantium and the Islamic world apart – those are rather scarce before the twelfth century? In that context, a distinction between early and high medieval would be odd, for sure. What, though, happens the moment Latin narratives are included (or those in Persian, Greek and Arabic)? Would one still lump together the literature produced over a millennium, or would it make sense to focus on a few centuries at a time? Furthermore, given that this was a history panel, aren’t historians allowed to move within the conceptual parameters developed in relation to the source material with which they work? Granted, had this been a panel on – let’s say – the period 1050-1300, I would have expected a few literary scholars to be involved, but then see my earlier point about the practicalities of round tables. Ditto about archeologists (though I’d also like to point out that no historian would talk about ‘identity’: it’s such a fluffy term that it means everything and nothing – Ilya Afanasajev at Birmingham/Oxford has done some rather splendid work on the issue).

    Anotherdmanedmedievalist: German academics do distinguish between Früh-, Hoch- and Spätmittelalter. French ones, on the other hand …


  6. Hi! Thanks for posting some of your reflections. As a non-attender, I cannot address individual comments, but I do empathize with not being happy one’s own comments. Every time for me!

    Questions related to the make-up of the panel lie primarily at the organizational stage and with the organizer(s). One question we might ask ourselves as organizers when we find we have a lack of diversity on a panel is ‘how has my formation of the subject led to this lack of diversity?’. Or to put it another way, how can this discussion include more voices.

    One response might be to reformulate the question. If the temporal and/or geographical parameters seem to be an issue (paucity of minorities in Merovingian/Carolingian Europe scholarship), then maybe we can think of some thematic links that would open up the parameters. For example, the thriving spaces of the Carolingian frontiers offer a great place for cross-temporal thinking. Perhaps someone working on the same spaces in earlier or later periods could offer useful perspectives, even if it doesn’t seem like it fits within the narrowly defined idea at first.

    Another response, which is gestured towards in the post, is to bring in younger scholars. If there is an issue of no senior minority scholars available, then bring in younger scholars and provide a supportive, encouraging and welcoming environment for them. (My experience with the organizer is that this might not be their strong suit). The younger scholar might cherish the opportunity and give previously unheard perspectives. Or maybe it won’t work the way we wanted. This happens. Then we redouble our efforts to support younger scholars. The daunting-ness of being in a panel like this is not a property of the round table, but brought into being by the participants. We can make these fora more open and welcoming if we organize them and work to make them so.

    In other words, the organizer should do the work it requires to offer greater inclusion. If that means bringing in someone who works on a different period, but who has much to offer from a theoretical framework, then the organizer might spend some time pre-conference to work out ideas with the panelist so that they are informed of the debates and issues within the period even if they aren’t an expert.

    Asking people to suggest candidates ex post facto shifts responsibility to others to do what the organizer failed to do to pre-conference. That said, I would suggest Linda Jones, whose The Power of Oratory in the Medieval Muslim World is based on sources from Iberia and the Maghreb from the eleventh to fifteenth centuries, and reaches further back (if the 1000s are not early enough) for historical context. She could address “a specific medieval comprehension of ‘Otherness'”. If the qualification is ‘Carolingian’ or ‘Carolingianist’, then no. But this would go back to the framing, title and abstract, all of which seem to be broader than the session itself.

    As the post notes, there has been much work on early medieval ethnic identities as the bases for modern racisms. We need to continue to consider how our framing of academic inquiry contributes to perpetuate modern institutionalized racisms. When we posit that we already know something based on x-number years of research or that a question has already been answered, we appear to dismiss those lines of inquiry as not worth studying/engaging. Yet, it is the nature of academic work that we continue to question questions-answered and re-assess what we already know. Even if one believes that we know that ethnic identities worked differently in the (early) middle ages—the organizer may see this as settled—there continues to be a vibrant range of work discussing, examining and introducing new theoretical approaches to the topic(s). The organizer has written on the subject; he might have considered including other points of view as well in the round table.

    If, however, these concerns regarding inclusion are not those of the organizer, then a better title and abstract (as have been suggested) are in order, something like ‘The concept of otherness in Carolingian historical evidence’ might have better signed the session. As it stands, the abstract notes the difficulties in defining medieval concepts over a broad geography and timeframe (“we cannot assume that…medieval concepts are…homogenous throughout the Middle Ages”), and then notes that participants are deliberately chosen from among historians of the Early Middle Ages, while hoping that the session can provide a springboard for viewpoints from other periods and disciplines. This reads as if the organizer has organized the panel to suit their own specific interests and then has somewhat emptily gestured towards other viewpoints (perhaps to legitimize some of the broad language in the first paragraph?).

    But the burden of presenting differing points of view from other periods and disciplines is placed on the audience. Why not ensure alternative viewpoints by putting the ‘springboard’ for other viewpoints in the panel, rather than hoping that it might offer itself from the audience?

    Liked by 1 person

    • Aidan,

      Your suggestions on approaches by organisers are very helpful: I’ve ended up discussing some of them further in my response to Seeta below, just because they seemed to fit in well there. I’m also grateful for the reference to Linda Jones, whose work I didn’t know. An important part of increasing diversity in Medieval Studies generally is going to be white scholars like myself becoming more aware of the BME scholars who are already in adjacent fields.


  7. “…we already know from fifty years of research that ethnic identities worked in a different way in the early Middle Ages from today and there’s also been a lot of research on how early medieval ethnic identities have been used to justify modern European racism. (And it’s probably fifteen years since I heard Dominique Iogna-Prat talk about how it was in the central Middle Ages that anti-Judaism became anti-Semitism, a move from a religious to a racial category). The meta-question on this has already been answered, so it’s not a priority for discussion.”

    This whole paragraph floored me with its dismissiveness. The meta-question has been answered? But ample scholarship has not been done on bishops and heretics and gender–the topics you mention were more of a priority?

    Liked by 2 people

    • Kat,

      My statements come from my knowledge of the post Word War 2 historiography of the early medieval period. I’m not sure of your medieval history or other background, so forgive me if I refer to something you already know. The study of early medieval ethnic identities is a long-established field, as seen in the work of Walter Pohl, Ian Wood, Patrick Geary and Bonnie Effros, for example. They are all senior early medievalists who have written extensively not only on the topic of the creation of early medieval ethnic identity, but also on how myths from the early Middle Ages were reused by European nationalists from the eighteenth century onwards.

      Saying that we know that early medieval ethnic identities work in a different way from ours is a negative statement that is relatively easy to make: it is like saying that early medieval friendships did not work in the way modern ones do. That does not mean to say that we do not need to explore further the details of how early medieval ethnic identities worked, and many papers at IMC 2017 were doing so, such as Jon Jarrett’s work on Muslims in Catalan charters. But we know enough after 50 years of study to know what is not the case.

      In contrast to this long interest in early medieval ethnic identity, one of the reasons that I was invited onto the panel was that I published one of the first two monographs ever on Carolingian masculinity in 2011. (The other was also published in 2011 by Lynda Coon). Whatever the position in other medieval periods and disciplines, post-Roman history generally came to grips with gender substantially later than with ethnic identity.


  8. Dr. Seeta Chaganti, Associate Professor of English (UC Davis), has asked me to post this, as she’s having some technical trouble with WordPress:

    “My absence from Leeds precludes my commenting on the panel, but I’d like to comment on this blog post itself, acknowledging that my perspective is limited in lacking a full sense of the post’s intersection with the panel. It strikes me that the author has chosen to address the controversy around the panel by means of a detailed discussion of intention: hers and the panel’s. While Magistra makes explicit that her goal is to describe her personal experience, which is of course her right, I want to raise a couple of points about the privileging of intention in the context of a controversy like the one at issue here. In such a context, the more space is allotted the specific intentions of the panel, the less emphasis the panel’s impact on its audience receives. In addition, the narrative of intention foregrounds the unique individualities of the speakers at the cost of consigning scholars of color to the realm of the general and indistinct. Consistent with these thoughts, I’ll emphasize that I speak here not of the post’s intentions but of the effects it might have on readers who look to it for help in understanding this controversy. I (again humbly, since I wasn’t there) mention these points about intention, impact, and the politics of racialized individuality (all familiar concepts in critical race theory) in the constructive spirit of giving the author some different perspectives to consider and in the hope that they might help others who are processing their own reactions.”

    Liked by 1 person

    • Seeta,

      Apologies that this is going to be a very long response, but your comment foregrounded important issues about the distinction between intent and audience reception that I hadn’t fully thought through in my initial post. It’s helped me mentally reframe the controversy and be more conscious of the unspoken gaps in assumptions being made and how they might be bridged more sensitively.

      Regarding my initial post, this was in the context of a slightly unusual situation in which the roundtable had been extensively criticised before it took place (on the basis of the title, abstract and panel composition), but I was not aware of anyone discussing in any detail the proceedings of the roundtable itself. I therefore linked only to the most sustained critique beforehand (that by Dorothy Kim). If there are other prior critiques that anyone reading this thinks added substantively to what Dorothy said, please let me know and I will attempt to link to them. Similarly, if anyone in the audience on the night wishes to publish their response to it online, I am happy to include it on this blog or to link to it at another location.

      I willingly admit that as one of the panellists I am not the best person to comment on its effect on the audience or indeed to give an accurate account at all, but in the absence of other accounts of a roundtable that had been so controversial beforehand, I thought it would be useful to provide my perspective of what had happened as a starting-point for future discussion. This included an extensive account of the presumed intent of the organiser partly because, as I indicated, I was not entirely sure of the intent beforehand. (This lack of clarity is not unprecedented in roundtables: in the other one I participated in at IMC 2017, one of the panellists beforehand was heard to say that she wasn’t sure why she’d been invited onto it).

      In discussing the intention behind the panel I was also trying to start working out (doubtlessly inadequately) whether the intention of the roundtable itself had been inherently unsuitable or the execution wrong, because I felt it was only by understanding where the problems were in the process that people could discuss the matter more constructively.

      Reading your comments and others, I also think it might be useful now to make explicit the fact that the controversy also crossed three important academic fault-lines: between the early medieval and later medieval period, between historians and literary scholars and between Americans and “Europeans”. Someone in the earlier roundtable I participated in pointed out that the European Middle Ages, defined as 500-1500, had no really coherence as a period, and similarly I think the study of the Middle Ages is often done from so many different viewpoints as to invite misunderstanding and sometimes hostility. I want to unpack these three fault-lines not simply to explain myself as a Carolingian historian from the UK to others, but also to explore for myself and those coming from a similar academic background what assumptions I am making and how these may come across to an audience coming from other scholarly traditions.

      The first fault-line is that of the early medieval period within Medieval Studies. The early medieval period, which I think of roughly as covering 500-1000 CE, (though others might define it differently), is relatively marginalised within the study of the Middle Ages generally. It’s not uncommon for edited collections or conferences on “medieval” topics to include very little material (or none) for the period between 500-1000 and for scholars of later medieval periods to be relatively ill-informed about it (e.g. not realising the extent of the sources available or not having being aware of some important research topics within the period).

      The second fault-line is between historians and literary scholars and their frequently different methodologies. In particular, historians tend to be considerably more sceptical about the usefulness of theory than literary scholars are. There isn’t an obvious power differential here (as with the early medievalist issue), with both sides prone to feeling slighted by the other.

      The third and final fault-line here is between US and “European” scholars. I use the quote marks here deliberately, because one of the frequent complaints of scholars from the UK, Netherlands, Italy etc is that Americans generally have little appreciation of the distinction between these different cultural traditions. More generally, the unfair stereotype of US scholars (including medievalists) is that they presume that how things work in the US academic system and in US society is the way that it operates everywhere or at least should operate elsewhere in the world, and the unfair stereotype of “European medievalists” is that they are a conservative elite who regard the European Middle Ages as their own personal possession and look down on any “outsiders” who venture into the field.

      Crossing any of these cultural fault-lines can sometimes be fraught and create misunderstandings; crossing several of them at a time is very difficult. Thus if a (hypothetical) white American scholar of Middle English literature tells a group of UK early medieval historians that they are studying topic X wrongly because they are not using theory Y, without showing awareness of what has already been written by them on topic X, they are likely to get a frosty reception. And similarly, if I, as a white British Carolingianist were to pontificate on a US scholar’s queer reading of Chaucer, while showing minimal understanding of literary methodology, I would rightly be shot down in flames and my criticisms dismissed, regardless of any possible merit.

      Much of the heat in this debate, I feel now, independent of the racial aspect, came from a perceived lack of respect for different scholarly traditions. Thus when I made statements about early medievalists’ study of ethnic identity, I made them within my assumed context of an audience who are familiar with the extensive scholarship from the last fifty years on this topic. To someone who is not, this can clearly come across as arrogance. Similarly, when a US literary scholar refers to the use of critical race theory, someone like me who knows of the theory only as it concerns modern institutions (such as the US educational system or UK criminal justice) may be unduly sceptical of its usefulness for medieval studies.

      As a sidenote, although I would not want to burden Seeta with providing references, if anyone reading this would like to provide examples of particularly successful applications of CRT to medieval topics, especially medieval history, I would appreciate the chance to extend my knowledge of the theory’s applications.

      Reflecting on these three fault-lines and how they make communication more fraught, I can appreciate more both how I failed to communicate effectively or sensitively at times, especially by seeming unfairly dismissive of others’ scholarship, and also how I misunderstood others. In particular, I should have rephrased my statement that Twitter lacked nuance (which was taken as an attack on Dorothy Kim’s initial thread, as I should have foreseen). Instead I would want to say that Twitter’s emphasis is on speed and passion, whereas posting on a blog is better suited for a more reflective conversation. (Those who protest about racism on Twitter would probably say that speed and passion are precisely what’s needed in identifying it, but I felt my response would be better if it was not immediate and I could consider my words more carefully).

      So accepting that whatever the intentions of the roundtable, it had negative effects on at least some BME medievalists, I want to consider how I (and others in my position) might move forward. Suppose a hypothetical white British Carolingianist wants to organise a roundtable on a similar theme at IMC 2018, how could this be done more sensitively? I want to return to some of the questions I discussed in my initial post but with some further reflections. Obviously, anyone reading can pick away at these issues more in the comments, if you think my views here are still missing key points.

      Should the roundtable have a different title and abstract?
      Yes, it should: the universalizing claims s.1414 made (though not unique to this roundtable) were obviously unhelpful.

      Should a roundtable on “Are Carolingian Conceptions of Otherness the Same as Ours?” (or some similar title) include as a panellist someone working on ethnic identity?
      I’ve outlined why I think this might not be needed, but I can understand why others might disagree. The only point I would add is that the more specificity there is in the subject specialisms required of the panellists, the harder it becomes to ensure diversity in terms of gender and ethnicity (since you are cutting the candidate pool down).

      Should a roundtable on “Are Carolingian Conceptions of Otherness the Same as Ours?” include as a panellist an established BME scholar who worked in a substantially different field?
      Whatever the good intentions in this, I think the overall audience reaction would be unlikely to be positive.

      Should a roundtable on “Are Carolingian Conceptions of Otherness the Same as Ours?” include as a panellist a junior BME scholar working on Otherness?
      This was suggested by Aidan, in his helpful reflections on what an organiser should be doing, but I am not convinced that this would be a good move. From my own experience this year, having spoken a number of times in IMC sessions but appearing as a panellist in a roundtable for the first time, the roundtable format is more daunting because it’s less structured. In an ordinary session, you will be speaking on a familiar topic and will normally have to answer only a relatively limited number of questions that are in theory related to that topic. As a round table panellist, you’re often speaking on a more general topic and you may be asked to respond to very varied questions. In addition, it’s often very difficult for even a skilled moderator to ensure that all the panellists get the same opportunity to speak in the general discussion. Unless you had a roundtable consisting largely or entirely of junior scholars, I feel that a junior BME scholar might well be marginalised in the discussion, which would be profoundly unhelpful for them and the audience.

      Should a roundtable on “Are Carolingian Conceptions of Otherness the Same as Ours?” have its theme and title expanded slightly in order to include an established BME scholar working in a closely-related field?
      This was Aidan’s other suggestion, and I think would be helpful. In particular, I was initially too quick mentally to discount some BME early medievalists I know as “not working on otherness” or not working on exactly the right period. It would be better to consider e.g. a move from a strictly Carolingian focus to an early medieval one, and also discuss with such scholars whether they might be able to explore some aspect of Otherness in a different but complementary way to the other panellists.

      Do white early medieval historians need to become more aware of the BME scholars already in their field?
      Undoubtedly: there were BME scholars who might have been suitable for the panel whose names only occurred to me several days after first considering the issue. And there were BME scholars that I thought of whom some of my early medievalist friends either hadn’t heard of or hadn’t thought of in this context. One of the most important ways of increasing diversity on roundtables may be simply ensuring that white scholars like myself become more aware of the increasing numbers of BME scholars of the early medieval period, so that we are better informed on potential panellists to approach.


  9. I’m learning a huge amount from this painful exchange (and the Twitter discussions). As a white man who’s mainly worked on medieval masculinity/sexuality from a pretty Anglo-centric perspective, I’ve belatedly started trying to fill in some of the huge gaps in my knowledge by reading (translations of) non-European primary texts and a range of medieval poco scholarship, etc. In the spirit of listening and learning, would any commenters feel able to recommend good state-of-the-field articles/books that the organiser of this panel might have profited from?
    I realise a reading list isn’t going to solve many problems, but it might be somewhere to start in furthering a better-informed dialogue!


  10. Thank you for this, Magistra. To your question about sources, you might find helpful the readings attached to the Kzoo “Whiteness in Medieval Studies” workshop: (not related to medieval studies, but basic works on critical race study that many of the medievalists attending the workshop seemed to find helpful); and the bibliography being developed at: (which also welcomes further suggestions).


      • I wondered if you were away from the computer when this came through, so fair enough. But that seems like a good reason to turn on full moderation. I manually approve all comments on my own blog.


    • Thanks, that’s very helpful – particularly the possibility of saying that people must only be approved the first time they comment. I always worry that useful comments will get trapped in spam/moderation because I’ve forgotten to check the spam trap or haven’t spotted them.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s