Activists demand more social justice in Medieval Studies

A prominent association of medieval studies scholars has pledged to boycott the discipline’s largest annual conference over a lack of social justice programming. 

On July 11, the BABEL Working Group published an open letter to the organizers of the International Congress on Medieval Studies (ICMS), which is planning to host its annual conference of about 3,000 academics at Western Michigan University in May 2019, outlining two “concerns” about the conference.

“The first is that there seems to be a bias against, or lack of interest in, sessions that are self-critical of medieval studies, or focused on the politics of the field in the present, especially relative to issues of decoloniality, globalization, and anti-racism,” the letter explains, adding that the second concern relates to an alleged “lack of transparency around the process by which ICMS programming decisions are made.”

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The letter, which has been signed by more than 600 people as of press time, argues that by rejecting workshops such as “How to Be a White Ally in Medieval Studies 101,” “Toxic Medievalisms,” and “Intersectionality and the Medieval Romance,” the ICMS organizers are hurting scholars of color and excluding their perspectives. 

“The rejection of multiple sessions co-sponsored by Medievalists of Color (MOC) in particular minimizes the intellectual guidance that scholars of color would provide at the conference, when these scholars are already severely underrepresented in the field,” the letter protests. 

Other workshops rejected by ICMS organizers included “Toxic Medievalisms: Misuses and Abuses of the Medieval in Contemporary Culture,” “Race and the Medieval,” “Translations of Power: Race, Class, and Gender Intersectionality in the Middle Ages I and II,” and more.

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While the BABEL Working Group suggests foul play, a review of previous conference schedules indicates that social justice issues are not typically discussed at the conference.

Instead, workshops on topics such as “Commemorating Æthelflæd, Lady of the Mercians,” “Transmaterial Dynamics between Italy and Iran,” and “Law as Culture: Inquisition, Landholding, and Murder” are more likely to be seen during the event. 

In an effort to influence the topics of discussion at the upcoming conference, the BABEL Working Group demands that the ICMS organizers allow at least two of the previously rejected workshops to be added to the 2019 schedule, threatening to withdraw thousands of dollars in annual support if the ICMS does not comply.

“If ICMS chooses not to recognize the special urgency of supporting the Medievalists of Color this year…the BABEL Working Group does not anticipate putting more of our collective resources into the Congress,” the open letter warns. 

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“Now is an urgent, contested time in medieval studies and in the world at large,” the letter asserts. “What may look like duplicate sessions to the current small group of decision-makers are, for others, urgently different conversations that need to happen for the field to be inclusive and to move forward. Decisions that seem in favor of ‘academic freedom’ or ‘fairness’ to the current small group of decision-makers, for others, reinforce structural inequalities.”

The letter goes on to invoke “the current political climate here in the US and abroad” as justification for why the rejected workshop proposals should be reinstated, suggesting that the field of medieval studies should serve as “a site of resistance” against the “darker forces” of nationalism and academic freedom. 

“We implore the Congress Committee to work together with us to ensure that the discipline of medieval studies will act as a site of resistance to, and also refuge from, these darker forces,” the letter concludes. 

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In an interview with Campus Reform, ICMS spokeswoman Paula Davis said that conference workshops are approved based on a strict criteria, including “the intellectual justifications offered for individual sessions,” “the balance of topics addressed,” “the balance of sessions of various formats,” and “apparent redundancies among proposed sessions.”

Davis noted that the ICMS is aware of the open letter, but explained that the group will only respond if and when the letter is formally presented to the organizers of the upcoming conference. 

CORRECTION: This article has been corrected to reflect that the International Congress on Medieval Studies conference will be held at Western Michigan University in Kalamazoo, not Kalamazoo College.

Follow the author of this article on Twitter: @Toni_Airaksinen