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 alienus, advena, exter/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.