On context, community, and #medievalconferences

As you might have read, I am pretty isolated in my department – I have an amazing cohort, wonderful professors, and a great advisor, but I am one of two medieval English grad students (and the only active one). So making use of the online medieval community has been crucial to my success. Twitter, especially, has become a place for making connections and keeping up on current trends and events in the field. But I rarely interact directly. Thus, in a way, I’m on the periphery, something I’ll talk about in my next post. As a “peripheral medievalist,” I keep up to date on these trends, follow voices, and, as I’m doing on this blog, try to keep pace with them, but my contributions are limited. Keeping pace, and (hopefully), one day interacting, are steps in the future, but this post is that first part – keeping up-to-date on trends and following voices.

I followed one such event on Friday October 13, 2017: the Middle Ages, the Crusades, and the Alt Right Symposium was held at George Washington University. Organized by Matthew Gabriele (Virginia Tech), Bruce Holsinger (UVA), and Amanda Steinberg (GWU Libraries), the conference began with welcoming remarks by Gabriele. He referenced the conference’s origins on Twitter:

In June of this year, I had a brief piece in The Washington Post, responding to the aftermath of the London Bridge attacks . . . This sparked, very interestingly, responses from distinct online communities (mostly on Twitter) – people on the right who didn’t agree, people who had heard about this kind of Islamophobia but didn’t know the history, and medievalists who knew the history but weren’t aware of these appropriations. There was little overlap in those discussions though. Medievalists weren’t talking to the public and the public weren’t looking to scholars for context. But, as this online conversation developed, it became crystal clear that, by and large, those two communities wanted to engage, they wanted to know more.

In July, the symposium was announced (again on Twitter), and afterwards New Republic ran a story about the conference and its origins. As it remarks, the conference was responding to the “resurgent white supremacist movement” and its appropriation of medieval motifs such as the ‘Deus Vult’ slogan; the conference aimed to discuss “where those ideas come from, what the real Middle Ages was like, how universities are reacting to this newfound interest, and how these modern groups are themselves evolving.”

Using the hashtag #AltCrusade17 (collaboratively created via Twitter on the morning of the conference), a channel of information began streaming, documenting the physical conference in what would eventually be storified by Jonathan Hsy as an archive. What might not have been expected (or perhaps it was?) was the stream of memes, nasty replies, and meant-to-be-nasty-but-just-confusing replies by alt right twitter users as they hijacked the hashtag (though I don’t want to publicize their posts here, #AltCrusade17 is a good place to find them).

Though this backlash may speak on its own, the conference is a response to a long list of events and trends, not the least of which is the rise of the alt right. Others have spoken (in depth, and very efficiently) of these, but it may be useful to see some of the major events within the medieval (digital) community together. So, quickly, some context:

Blogs like In the Middle and Quod She begin to spring up in the early 2000s

@LeVostreGC joins Twitter in 2011, having already begun his blog “Geoffrey Chaucer Hath a Blog” in 2006. He also starts “Whan That Aprille Day” in 2014, to propose that medievalists

remynde folk of the beautye and grete loveliness of studyinge the wordes of the past. And thys ys for all wordes, of all tonges, and no tonge ys bettir than eny othir and all are belovid of us. And eke ower mission ys to bringe to mynde the importaunce of supportinge the scolership and labour that doth bringe these wordes to us.

An article about “feminist fog” in January 2016 sparks responses from In the Middle collaborators (here, herehere, and here – note that Fulton, discussed below, is also mentioned in these posts), websites like Jezebel and The Material Collectivescholars on Twitter, and even a post in The Chronicle of Higher Education.

In May 2016, a white supremacist kills Ricky Best and Taliesin Myrddin Namkai-Meche in Portland, having “hailed” Vikings on Facebook. Professor David Perry responds with this article.

At IMC Leeds in July 2017, on Mediterranean otherness panel of all-white male scholars, a tasteless joke is made and receives considerable (deserved) backlash: The Chronicle responds, scholars post on blogs (here and here), organizations like the Society for Medieval Feminist Scholarship and the Shakespeare Association of America send open letters, and once more Twitter lights up up.

White supremacists in Charlottesville put medievalists on the public map again, at The Medieval Academy Blog on Aug 18, Inside Higher Ed on Aug 21, CBC Radio on Sept 9, and Pacific Standard on Oct 9.

And most recently, Professor Rachel Fulton Brown’s attack against Professor Dorothy Kim, which produced a wave of public responses: Inside Higher Ed, at The Chronicle (behind a paywall), over at HuffPost (twice!) and Eidolon, on blogs like Quod She, In the Middle (also here, here, and here), Medieval Karl, and How did We Get Into This Mess?, among others, public letters of support from medievalists at the University of Chicago, The New Chaucer Society, the Medieval Academy of America, the International Piers Plowman Society, and the Society for Medieval Feminist Scholarship. Professor Adam Miyashiro was also targeted around the same time, and medievalists took up a letter of support for him.

Perhaps not so quickly!

The point is, however, that medieval studies is not only getting more public attention, but it is also becoming more and more entrenched in the digital world. And this leads to a lot of good things, as well as bad; isolated students like me can feel connected, academic worlds can bump shoulders with public ones, public confusions can create “rifts,” information can be mishandled – the list goes on.

If so, then this leaves us with more questions than it does answers. Of course, they can’t all be answered in one blog post, and probably not by me! But this trend is worth paying attention to, and I will continue to observe, share, and question:

How can medievalists, especially grad students, begin to find and use the vast amount of resources/connections available? For grad students, how do we move from the periphery to the conversation at hand?

Is #MedievalTwitter “public”? Is it mainly “academic”?

Could something be gained by researching specifically medieval digital communities?


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