Reclaiming the Middle Ages from contemporary politics

15 August 2019

By LUKE SLATTERY
12:00AM AUGUST 10, 2019

“Three cheers for white men!” American medieval scholar Rachel Fulton Brown proclaimed in the 2015 blog post that effectively remade her.

Until that moment this spry, white-haired University of Chicago academic was known chiefly as the author of a 750-page scholarly doorstopper titled From Judgment to Passion: Devotion to Christ and the Virgin Mary, 800-1200.

With her incendiary blog, designed to counter with a few salient historical facts the ritualistic enmity towards “dead white Anglo-Saxon males” among tenured radicals, Brown catapulted herself into the culture wars. Her post urged readers to “Hug a white man today!” She has never looked back.

Ahead of a public lecture in Sydney next week on great books of the Middle Ages, Brown stresses a point that she has hammered on her Fencing Bear at Prayer blog: “It was white men who extended suffrage to women. White women invented feminism and white men supported them.” Much of what she has to say on the web is playful and provocative — it’s in her gift to be both simultaneously — but the title of her blog can be taken quite literally. She is a devoted prayerful Christian, baptised and reared a Presbyterian and received into the Catholic Church in 2017. Her sport of choice is fencing. “I’ve been a sport fencer for 16 years,” she tells Inquirer. “Putting on a fencing mask changes you.”

When viewed through its art, architecture and literature, the Middle Ages can seem like a dreamscape of noble ladies, chivalrous knights and troubadour poets, saturated in the ideals of courtly love. Of late, however, it has been dragged roughly by its wimple and gorget into the 21st century. The Middle Ages have been renamed the Middle Rages, and Brown, 54, labelled a “violent fascist” and “white supremacist” for her refusal to follow colleagues in denouncing the subject for complicity in the ideals of white ­nationalists. She describes herself, with a touch of sadness, as her discipline’s “poster monster”.

In August 2017 a fellow medievalist, Dorothy Kim, who was disturbed by the adoption of medieval regalia by some protesters at the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, called out her colleagues as “ideological arms dealers” trading racist weaponry in the classroom.

“Today, medievalists have to understand that the public and our students will see us as potential white supremacists or white ­supremacist sympathisers because we are medievalists,” she wrote in a blog post. “The medieval Western European Christian past is being weaponized by white ­supremacist/white nationalist/KKK/Nazi extremist groups who also frequently happen to be college students.”

Brown hit back. Not only did she insist that she is not, and never has been, a white supremacist, she went to some lengths to trace the multiracial threads in the New and Old Testaments as well as the culture of medieval Christianity, stressing in particular the genuine Catholicism (from the Greek katholikos, meaning universal) of the early church.

Her riposte to Kim, similar in thrust to her argument with Anglo-masculophobes on campus, is that history in neither its broad sweep nor in its fine textual detail confirms the image of a “white supremacist” medieval world. “How should you signal that you are not a white supremacist if you teach the ‘medieval western European Christian past?’ ” she asked, pointedly echoing Kim, who teaches medieval literature at Brandeis University, Massachusetts, and is the author, most recently, of Digital Whiteness & Medieval Studies. “Learn some f..king medieval western Euro­pean Christian history, including the history of our field.”

Speaking from home in Chicago, Brown, who is married, plays the fiddle, confesses to a Myers Briggs Introverted Intuitive Thinking Judging personality type, and has a Cardigan Welsh corgi barking in the background, is rather more muted than her often peppery blog persona. She quotes Paul’s letter to the Galatians as confirmation of her creed’s blindness to colour, class, gender or race: “In Christ there is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor ­female.” Yet it can’t be easy to ­retain her equanimity in the often-vituperative world of politicised aca­deme. She mentions, a little wearily, that she has just been tagged in a thread: ­“Rachel Fulton Brown has repeatedly allied herself with white supremacists and has harassed scholars of colour in our field (presumably a reference to her criticism of Kim). I don’t want anything to do with her.”

Stirring the coals of outrage, as Brown explains, is her friendship with Briton Milo ­Yiannopoulos. The self-described “cultural libertarian” — code for publicity-seeking ultraconservative provoca­teur — and former editor of Breitbart News was denied a visa to enter Australia this year after anti-Muslim comments he posted following the Christchurch massacre. The openly gay — Brown ­describes him as the world’s “most famous faggot” — commentator’s new book, Middle Rages: How the Battle for Medieval Studies Matters to America, goes into bat for Brown in her row with Kim.

Until her “three cheers for white men!” post of 2015, Brown had used her blog, she explains, largely for rumination and reflection. But her decision to tackle “more darkly cultural questions” led her to examine the intersection of past and present, or politics in thought and action. She took an interest in Yiannopoulos, ­started to watch his videos and eventually emailed him. “That contact blossomed into a friendship,” she ­explains. “We share concerns about Christianity. He’s playing on a much bigger stage and that’s brought my work to a bigger audience.”

In response to the concerns first raised by Kim, and repeated by other academics vexed by the apparent allure of medieval ­imagery for the far right, Brown points out that only a few far-right protesters are seen in “vaguely” medieval costume, and their preferred symbolism appears to be pagan Germanic and pre-Christian. The implication is that if proto-fascists want to dress up in Wagnerian garb, scholars of the medieval world have little purchase on the problem.

“I was simply suggesting to my colleagues that they might be stoking hysteria and if they want to dispel this sort of thing they should do their job and tell the story,” she says, reprising the history of her ­notorious stoush, minus the sting. “Good history dispels the popular myths about the medieval world, and the fantasy version of the ­Crusades.”

Her personal and professional focus is not, in any event, with the masculine world of the Knights Templar or the bloody wars of the Plantagenets. Her medieval world is a thing of beauty: a civilisation singularly devoted to the Virgin Mary. The culture, in her view, was completely infused with Marianism. And to the extent that medieval Christianity helped to define Western civilisation, we still live at some level, she believes, in a matriarchal culture.

“To understand Mary as medieval Christians imagined her, one has to understand everything,” she says. “She is there in the art and the architecture and the music. She is there in the literature and the liturgy and the liberal arts. She is there in the most elevated expressions of human imagination and in the humblest prayers for help. She is there in the politics and in the ideals of marriage, in battle cries and in pleas for mercy for the ­oppressed. Medieval Christianity is inconceivable without her.”

The Virgin Mary was not only the mother of God, Brown argues, she was an emblem of the city and of civilisation. The medieval world and its devotion to the Virgin Mary is far from our own, and its fragile hold on the contemporary imagination was underscored symbolically this year by the near-destruction of Notre Dame (“Our Lady”) of Paris. The idea of recovering the difficult texts of this ­period and reverse engineering them into a Great Books curriculum doesn’t drive Brown. Nor does nostalgia. “I don’t want to bring back the medieval world,” she says. “That will not work. It’s like taxidermy. I want instead for you to have the living sense of what it meant in that period to create.”

Brown has taught at Chicago for 25 years and worries about the tendency to read literature as an exercise in speaking knowledge to power. She detects a mood in ­undergraduates — a kind of hollowness — that she interprets as “a fear of being affected by the texts that we read. It is a fear of what might happen if we let the great books that we read work on us.”

If there is one thing she would like to recover from the Middle Ages it’s not so much the texts that were inherited and read, transcribed or written but an attitude to reading. “Scripture is inexhaustible,” she says. “It’s a consistent story. Medieval students of scripture knew that the stories were true but they didn’t know all its truths, its full dimensions. Scripture was a constantly unfolding revelation of mysteries. So, from the medieval point of view these texts are very much alive; we need to unlock all these layers. And to read — to read for wisdom.”

Credit: The Australian Newspaper – click here to read the full article.

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The goal toward which Western society moves is the Civilization of the Dialogue. The spirit of Western civilization is the spirit of inquiry…. Nothing is to remain undiscussed. Everybody is to speak his mind. No proposition is to be left unexamined. "
- Robert Maynard Hutchins