When it comes to race relations we should look to the medievals, not critical theorists
Each May some 3,000 scholars descend upon Kalamazoo, Michigan for an annual conference of medieval studies. It’s a kind of jamboree for a wildly diverse group of academics who love their historical subject. It’s not the sort of thing the New York Times usually writes about.
Yet just this week, Times reporter Jennifer Schuessler took a sudden interest in medieval studies, lamenting the way in which the election of Donald Trump coincided with the rise of ethno-nationalists who occasionally use deracinated symbols of imagined medieval crusaders. Sound relevant to Kalamazoo yet?
The Times reporter covering the Kalamazoo beat clearly thinks it is relevant, asking the question: “Does medieval studies have a white supremacy problem of its own?” Along with others she cites approvingly, Schuessler criticises medieval studies for remaining “an intellectually conservative field that has largely resisted the waves of critical theory that have washed over much of the humanities in recent decades. It has also been slow to take up the subject of race.”
It’s an ironic accusation, and one which deserves some scrutiny. Schuessler’s story trades on some genuinely unfortunate anecdotes of guild conflict but these seem more like “presenting issues” for Schuessler’s advocacy for a group of critical race theorists who want their approach to medieval studies embraced by the guild.
The irony in all this is that it was medievals, rather than critical race theorists, who truly recognized that we all share a common human nature, no matter race or creed. The theorist who argues that every race has a specific ethno-epistemology is really in a poor position to understand the metaphysical realism of medieval thinkers. If critical race theorists are busy unmasking racial violence under every historical rock, how on earth will they understand the way medievals were interested in the patterns of reality which tell against that theory? How can the critical race theorists understand interactions between medieval Jews, Christians, and Muslims in the medieval university? Will they not walk right past the most important medieval disputes in order to foist imagined modern ones upon them?
It’s ironic for another reason, too.
Once upon a time, the work of racial equality was a contemporary cause of justice, tied to actual sins. We rightly remember Martin Luther King Jr with genuine admiration. One can understand the civil rights movement as a product of the medieval Christian social vision: let’s overcome racial injustice so that we can see that we’re all brothers and sisters who share a common nature. But the irony is that critical race theory see the world as fundamentally divided by racial violence.
Where King could look at injustices and preach about the effects of original sin, the critical theorists aim at the most pernicious kinds of racial scapegoating for every imaginable offence. Instead of seeing Adam’s sin at the root of every actual sin, they see racial violence as the root of our human predicament. If that is true, then they will never be done “uncovering” racial violence. They will tip over every medieval stone until Christ comes again. But to what end?
Yet, you might well ask, why does one want power over Kalamazoo? As Monty Python once famously put it, mocking the Marxist approach to history, to show “the violence inherent in the system”.
The deeper question to ask is why study the middle ages at all? Good scholars would say, to understand them. But can critical race theorists do that? Schuessler never asks that question. She doesn’t approach medieval studies as a scholar who wants to understand, but instead favors a political project attempting to subvert a discipline. Which leads to the deepest irony of all, that such a political approach merely projects our problems onto the past in a way that actually makes the words and deeds of historical subjects unintelligible.
Medievals were realists who had intelligible disputes for one simple reason: they believed that the shared enterprise of human discourse was about reality itself, and was ordered to the end of human perfection, ultimately found in God. If the New York Times could rise to that medieval standard, we all might benefit more from their Kalamazoo beat.
C C Pecknold is Associate Professor of Theology, and a Fellow of the Institute for Human Ecology, at The Catholic University of America in Washington, DC