An Open Access Review Journal Encouraging Critical Engagement with the Continuing Process of Inventing the Middle Ages

July 14, 2018

Huckvale: A Green and Pagan Land

David Huckvale, A Green and Pagan Land: Myth, Magic and Landscape in British Film and Television. Jefferson NC: McFarland, 2018.
Reviewed by Carolyne Larrington (

Written by an author who has worked as a BBC radio presenter, script writer and researcher, this book is an unusual contribution to medievalism studies. Its stated aim is ‘to explore the British literature of pagan fantasy that foreshadowed so many celebrated British films’ and it offers a brisk filmography in the preface: oddly missing David Rudkin’s evocative made-for-TV Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (1991). The book does, in part, discuss the films listed here, with a particularly interesting final chapter on David Rudkin / Alan Clarke’s Penda’s Fen (1974), but it also ranges widely (indeed rather randomly) across a number of topics relating to pagan fantasy, landscape, and much else besides. The introduction, entitled ‘Into the Woods’ offers up some inconsequential examples of tree-lore and surveys some writers who have depicted woods and forests as sinister. Algernon Blackwood and J. R. R. Tolkien are invoked, and there is a quick overview of the history of mythic landscape from the nineteenth century onwards, culminating in a fogeyish lament for the ‘commercialization and kitschification of … folk traditions’. Chapter one rehearses the well-worn topos of the history of King Arthur. The author relies on nineteenth- and early twentieth-century retellings and summaries for his information; indeed, and problematically in places, source criticism is not a strong point of his approach. Thus, that Chaucer believed there was a ‘pagan aspect’ to Arthur is adduced from the ‘Wife of Bath’s Tale’ (cited directly from Keightley’s Fairy Mythology and without any consideration of Chaucer’s larger purposes in the Tale). Elsewhere in the chapter we learn that the pagan magic and landscape in Tennyson’s Idylls of the King ‘formed the basis of the Celtic revival – and that this turned increasingly away from Christianity’ (though a more historically nuanced account of nineteenth-century Celticism is given in a later chapter). Huckvale takes the Victorian idea of the pagan at face value, and does not ask how far this was either invented or romanticised. Of more interest here is a side-by-side reading of Tennyson’s Idylls and Wagner’s Ring. It is clear that Huckvale knows a great deal about music, and when he expands on Wagner and on British composers (in particular little-known figures such as Rutland Boughton and Granville Bantock) his writing is convincing and informative – even if the relationship of the music either to landscape or to British film and TV is often tangential at best. Eventually the chapter reaches Monty Python and the Holy Grail and Excalibur; here the discussion of landscape becomes a little more central.

The second chapter focuses on the Grail, and the topic of landscape of the Grail quest is better handled; the idea that ‘we are all Grails’ (p. 55) leads into a broadly Jungian reading of myth, though the question ‘what is myth if not a cliché?’ could have been broached with more nuance. Other broadly Grail-related medievalist works: Powys’ A Glastonbury Romance, or more loosely, Ken Russell’s The Lair of the White Worm, bits of Parsifal, Lindsay Clarke’s The Chymical Wedding and Garner’s The Owl Service are marshalled here. Later chapters examine the Green Man, Tristan and Isolde (with a slew of lesser-known works by British composers and poets under the influence of Wagner), the Celtic Twilight (with some lively discussion of The Wicker Man), Pan, Arcadia, The Golden Bough, witchcraft and, finally, Penda’s Fen. Much is shoehorned in here that has little to do with film, tv, fantasy or landscape particularly and connections often seem tenuous. So the Celtic Twilight chapter’s discussion of Yeats notes that a line of Cuchullain’s sounds rather like the formula by which Kullervo announces himself in the Kalevala (and in Sibelius’s Kullervo symphony); in fact it is a standard poetic formula by which a hero designates himself as being his father’s son. Huckvale does not suggest that Yeats might have read the Kalevala or have heard the symphony, but offers the relationship between Yeats’s faery- and myth-inspired writing and Arnold Bax as a comparison to Sibelius’s response to the Kalevala; he certainly does not consider the role of patronymics, heroic identity, poetic formulas in oral tradition or any of the other aspects of the shared connection that might appear salient. At the end of this chapter, a discussion about The Wicker Man, location-hunting as a way of tapping into the ambience and underlying creepiness of well-made horror films meshes well with thinking about psychogeography.

The chapter on Pan works rather better than some others, drawing a clear line from the Decadents’ re-discovery of Pan, via Arthur Machen, and Lord Dunsany to the films based on Dennis Wheatley’s novels. The Arcadia chapter is more loosely structured, yoking together retellings of classical myth and history in such diverse figures as Mary Renault and Walter Pater, along with the composers Granville Bantock and Gerald Finzi, culminating in Ray Harryhausen’s Jason and the Argonauts (1963) and Clash of the Titans (1981). Harryhausen’s debt to Victorian painters for his vision, nuggets of film-location lore and earlier and later filmed versions of Greek myth are compared. The Golden Bough chapter returns to The Wicker Man once again, while the penultimate chapter on witches at last engages with some of the best-known folk-horror films and TV programmes of the Seventies and beyond.

A Green and Pagan Land is a very mixed bag. It is the work of an enthusiastic amateur who knows a good deal about British composers and TV and film fantasy, and who has read quite widely in nineteenth- and twentieth-century fantasy fiction. It lacks any kind of theoretical orientation – apart from a quick dip of the toe into Jungian waters – and the author has clearly not read any other secondary literature about medievalism or British folk-tradition. If he had, he would perhaps have escaped some of the book’s many errors: among them: references to the Irish folk-epic ‘The Book of the Dun Cow’; ‘Mercia’ as the Roman name for a part of England; confusion of the Victorian Mary Anne Atwood and the considerably better-know Margaret Atwood; locating Donegal in Scotland; ‘hoards’ and ‘hordes’, and so on. Nor is the book particularly up to date; the section on London fantasy focusing on Peter Pan and Kensington Gardens might have opened up discussion of China Miéville and Ben Aaronovitch, but apart from a couple of recent films (often remakes), the material is mostly last century. Where the author follows his enthusiasms and has thoroughly researched and thought about his material, he does have some illuminating things to say, but, disappointingly, these do not particularly address the topics invoked in the book’s title.        
Carolyne Larrington
St John's College, Oxford

July 4, 2018

6th Biennial Chaucer Celebration, Arizona State University, March 23, 2018

6th Biennial Chaucer Celebration, Arizona State University, March 23, 2018
Reviewed by Chad Crosson (

Organized and led by one of Arizona State University’s own Chaucerians, Professor Richard Newhauser, the 2018 6th Biennial ASU Chaucer Celebration emphasized the important and necessary work of introducing a younger generation not only to the works of Chaucer, but to the humanities more generally. I need not belabor how critical it is at this moment to cultivate an appreciation and understanding of what the humanities offer to a younger generation and to our communities at large. The ever-shrinking job market and English departments have been points of anxiety for some time now. Therefore, I was delighted to see the auditorium mostly filled, not just with academics like myself, but a host of fresh-faced high school students from the local communities - Newhauser had extended the invitation to this year’s Chaucer Celebration to local public high schools so that students with a developing interest in Chaucer and the humanities might attend.

The morning thus began appropriately with a reading by YA novelist Kim Zarins, who, with smiles and encouragement, acknowledged these young students at the opening of her reading. Zarins’ book, Sometimes We Tell the Truth, offers a 21st-century retelling of the Canterbury Tales, which takes place (appropriately for that morning’s younger audience) on a school bus during a field trip to Washington D. C.; and the chapter Zarins selected to read revealed to me the knowledge and interest she must have in her young readers. Indeed, if nothing else revealed the extent to which Zarins understood her audience, the fact that she transformed the Franklin’s Tale into a rendition of Harry Potter fanfiction - narrated by a young student pilgrim - did. I smiled, listening to her excerpt, remembering fellow writers from my own undergraduate years and the attention they gave to the reading and writing of Harry Potter fanfiction. And those familiar with that genre and the Franklin’s Tale would have been pleased by Zarins’ choice to make potions instructor Severus Snape the “tregetour” (illusionist) who agrees to help a young Aurelius win his love through deception. Of course, this portrayal would not be complete without Snape’s sneering words of warning that winning love in such a way does not typically work as planned. Consequently, Zarins’ version of the tale reached its audience with a thoughtful mixture of serious and morally complex teen romance, along with a subtle and quirky humor that never allowed one to take the drama too seriously. In short, she recreated for her audience how many might imagine that Chaucer himself entertains - with concerns of human and moral significance, all while not losing sight of the offbeat enjoyment this art might afford.

The second and final presenter was Patience Agbabi, who has received wide recognition as a former Poet Laureate of Canterbury, and who read from her latest book, Telling Tales, a poetic reimagining of Chaucer’s poems and characters through the lens of contemporary genres. Agbabi wasted no time hooking the attention of her audience by opening with no less of a gregarious character than Harry Bailey himself - master of ceremonies - transforming his bravado into her own masterful performance of London grime (a musical genre influenced by hip hop, and composed in the parlance of contemporary East London), in rhythm-filled, rhyming couplets, which I would like to imagine that Chaucer himself would have particularly enjoyed.

From beginning to the end of her readings, Agbabi had the enormous talent and ability to keep everyone in keen anticipation of her next poem. In fact, I do not believe that I have observed seen high school students so taken with a poetry reading. To see them (perhaps unexpectedly) moved and inspired by poetry was its own treat. But just as great of a treat was to witness the range of Agbabi’s poetic retellings of Chaucer’s Tales, retellings which spanned the world of rap / hip hop / grime, 1960s Soul, elegy / monody, and dramatic monologue (to name a handful); her book thus presents its own modern miscellany of popular genres.

I would also like to take a moment to appreciate the way Agbabi handled material from what may be considered Chaucer’s darker work, namely, the Prioress’s Tale - subject matter that many would not have blamed her for leaving out. However, Agbabi took a tale of anti-semitism - with the murder of a Christian schoolboy in a Jewish ghetto - and created a darkly moving poem based on true events, in which a young, black Londoner, murdered on the streets near his home, speaks through her poem. Silence permeated the auditorium as we listened to the voice of a dead youth offering a last appeal of love and farewell to his mother. Such a poem, of course, is timely for a young American audience beset by gun violence, and it became all the more apparent the way in which the “medieval” can be an excellent tool to explore contemporary socio-political issues. Yet Agbabi did not allow her audience to remain in one emotional or intellectual space for long, as she soon transitioned to both a humorous and meditative portrayal of the Wife of Bath, placing her in Nigeria, the prior home of Agbabi’s own parents. It was refreshing to hear the Wife live again and loom large in an entirely new cultural context, and speaking for a new female experience. Indeed, this retelling reminded me how important it is that we continue hearing from the Wife of Bath, especially as another generation of feminists struggles to be heard.

All this brings me to a larger consideration of the value of medieval studies and medievalism to a contemporary culture now more than ever in need of self-reflection. Without making it explicit, the readings that morning explored the potential of medievalism to capture imaginations and thereby potentially capture support for both medieval studies and the humanities; retelling Chaucer allows one to touch directly on contemporary issues through narrative rather than critical essays, thereby reaching a more diverse audience. As Carolyn Dinshaw has so insightfully argued, the idea of multiple temporalities co-existing allows for one to provide commentary (or social critique) on the other - as we may also recognize how the “medieval” has perennially created such opportunities: whether in thinking about torture (e.g., “getting medieval”) or in creating fantasy (e.g., Tolkien-based films) that showcases a fictionalized medieval world that distances the present (real) life, even as it still reflects that life. Interpreting the present through the past and the past through the present is one hallmark of medieval writing, as Dinshaw astutely observes regarding Sir John Mandeville, who “for the most part...interprets the others that he encounters in his eastward travels as versions of himself and his own culture,” creating an “asynchronous now.”[1] Likewise, today’s recreated “medieval” (exemplified by these readings) provides the fictional occasion to think about current events or to offer apparent modes of escapism that never really escape the present. Put another way, these readings suggested how the medieval has become not just a recreated past but an alternative space, one which has the capacity to defamiliarize the contemporary culture and philosophy introduced to that space. The question that naturally arises is, by defamiliarizing (or perhaps re-familiarizing) the present through the past, might we be better able to reflect on our current times?

Such ideas of multiple temporalities and an “asynchronous now” were difficult to miss at this gathering of ASU’s Biennial Chaucer Celebration. Indeed, what better demonstration of how temporalities meet than by witnessing two contemporary authors render Chaucer for an audience composed largely of high school students, who are themselves potentially fans of Game of Thrones and Harry Potter, and all the conceptions and misconceptions those works present of medieval temporality. Zarins and Agbabi memorably revealed the many ways in which these temporalities might crossover: whether through contemporary fanfiction, based on both Chaucer and the fictionalized “medieval” of Harry Potter, and spoken by youthful narrators; or through various geographical spaces and musical genres that reinvigorate the Canterbury pilgrims through contemporary and multicultural voices. In all, Newhauser, Zarins, and Agbabi are to be commended on multiple fronts, not only for introducing Chaucer’s work to a new generation and cultural context, but also for demonstrating so immediately how Chaucer (and the “medieval”) still speaks to the social, political, post-colonial, and racial experiences of our times. Regardless of the academic interests we may have in fictional reimaginings and youthful retellings of the Tales, or representations of Harry Bailey as a suave hip hop artist with a charming swagger, I left these readings satisfied at observing a younger generation taken in by the vivacious and edifying spirit of Chaucer’s tales and poetry - and isn’t that really a good thing for everyone?

[1] Dinshaw, “All Kinds of Time,” Studies in the Age of Chaucer (2013), 3-25, at 10.

June 27, 2018

Mondschein, Words and Swords


Words and Swords: A Samizdat on Medieval Military History and the Decolonization of the Academy[1]

Ken Mondschein (ken at kenmondschein dot com)
The past two years have seen a growth of a movement, notably amongst our colleagues in literature but with the support of many in other disciplines, to “decolonize” the practice of medieval studies. This includes de-centering Europe, and especially northern Europe, as a locus of study; challenging narratives of a white, male, Christian Middle Ages perpetuated by white, male, Christian historians; considering critical race and gender theory in our work; and rejecting earlier historiography as supporting systemic racism and imperialism. While this movement is partly a culmination of long-brewing changes, it is also a reaction to the emergence of the alt-right and its use of medieval symbolism. Dorothy Kim, in her influential essay “Teaching Medieval Studies in a Time of White Supremacy,” has said, “medieval studies is intimately entwined with white supremacy and has been so for a long time… objective neutrality… no longer works, because it facilitates white supremacists.” In other words, we have no choice but to engage in this work: to not do so is to implicitly support injustice. No matter what one’s own politics or position on the matter, this debate has become the historiographical question of the moment, and it is part of our professional responsibilities as historians to be au courant on these ideas.

As someone who is paid to teach all eras of “Western Civilization” and “World History” to undergraduates; who educates students of all colors, genders, and sexualities both in the classroom and in the fencing salle; who is committed to social justice both within and without the academy; who readily engages with nonacademic communities such as fandom and reenactors; who is worried about the use of my subjects of study by those who would like to return to an imagined age of European ethnostates; and who, as a Jew, is personally targeted by alt-right ideologies, I believe that understanding the arguments made by our colleagues, as crystallized in the essays published by the Medievalists of Color group and the In the Medieval Middle blog, is an imperative. I would like to suggest in this brief essay that we medieval military historians not only should pay attention—for our field can easily be seen as old-fashioned or even reactionary—but also that we have much to contribute to this effort. In fact, I would argue that in many cases, we are already doing consonant work. Further, I would like to suggest that an “intersectional” perspective could provide a useful tool for us to explore some of the core questions in our field in new and interesting ways. Thus, even as I question some of the approaches taken by previous generations (and their larger implications), I will also defend the value of some traditional subjects of study and their ability to contribute to the overall aims of “decolonization.”

Interactions between different peoples and cultures are not always peaceful, and students of the Middle Ages must be aware of this unfortunate fact. The medieval world, as Robert Bartlett points out in his Making of Europe, was created on the frontiers, and often through violent processes. From the Carolingian empire to the Crusades to the German Drang nach Osten, “Europe” was formed through the conquest and Christianization of new lands and enfolding these into a worldview that unified the socio-economic, the moral, the historical, and the cosmological. If we are to ask if the migration era was a violent swamping of Christian Rome with “foreign barbarians,” a more-or-less peaceful merging of cultures, or if the truth lies in some middle ground between these, then continuity of military institutions from antiquity to the Carolingian world, and armed response to migrants, give us key data points with which to answer the question. The rise of Carolingian social-military structures is worth studying, as well: it parallels that of the associated worldview of Latin Christendom, which in turn transformed over the ages and was carried along with successive waves of colonizers from the Carolingian conquest of Saxony to the Norman conquests to the Crusades (including the Baltic and Albigensian Crusades) and the Reconquista. A significant part of medieval warfare was also driven by slave-taking, and this has likewise become part of the historiography (see, for instance, the various recent works by David Wyatt and John Gillingham). If we are to understand imperialism and exploitation of subject peoples, and the ideology that justifies it, we can not neglect the Norman conquest of Wales and Ireland or the subjection of Livonia any more than we can neglect the Spanish conquest of the Americas or the Belgian Congo, as they are all linked in a long history of thought, institutions, and ideas. Just as historians of the latter subjects should appreciate the importance of our work for their areas of concern, so those of us working on the former topics need to take account of the new scholarship on modern imperialism, which can provide us with invaluable perspectives, questions, methodological examples, and theoretical frameworks.

The Crusades in particular were not only a military venture—and one whose memory is deployed by both latter-day white nationalists and the Islamic State—but also incubators of social exchange and transformation that enabled the exchange of new methods of craft production, economic and social administration, and other cultural products. The work of medieval military historians on the Crusader states, the Reconquista, and the Norman conquest of Sicily, Apulia and Calabria show that medieval society was indeed “diverse,” that “the Mediterranean” is a valid term of analysis, and that we cannot consider Europe in isolation. The most interesting history frequently happens in liminal zones, and, as D. K. Fieldhouse noted for modern imperialism, it was often that the colonial tail wagged the metropolitan dog. Whether we can say the same for the Middle Ages is an open research question.

Medieval military historians necessarily take a transcultural view of such interactions. We have long used Greek and Arabic sources: studying Byzantine-Latin and Muslim-Christian interactions shows us how different cultures saw one another and reached accommodation and how the struggle of would-be conquerors and resisters, often beginning with xenophobia, led to mutual respect, accommodation, and, if not tolerance, at least convivencia. What is more, some of the advances of the Muslim world were seen as highly desirable by northern Europeans and were readily adopted. Indeed, we medieval military historians have long evaluated these encounters in a non-judgmental, nonpartisan way that would frustrate any white nationalist who bothered to do any research deeper than looking at memes on the Internet. From there, it is but a small step to include a postcolonial approach that looks at the effects of these interactions on both colonizers and colonized. Asking questions such as “how is a Welsh archer fighting for the English crown like, or unlike, a Sepoy?” can only enrich our understanding of our subject of study.

At the same time, we must recognize many of the subjects beloved of medieval military historians might be considered as implicitly supporting a teleology of European hegemony. These include the history of technology, the growth of nation-states, and the study of knighthood and chivalry. I am not saying that these histories cannot be written, only that we must be sensitive to the “intertwining” of such subjects with a narrative of white supremacy. On the other hand, exploring how European global hegemony came to be, if done mindfully, can be a valuable part of critiquing it.

For instance, the history of military technology can be of value for elucidating a diverse Middle Ages. One brief example: Migration-era and early medieval Scandinavians—“Vikings”—greatly valued the advanced metalcraft of the Near East, and swords of “Damascus steel” are common archeological finds. Norsemen were also great travelers, serving, for instance, as the Byzantine Emperor’s Varangian Guard. This provides concrete evidence that the glories of the “white” Viking age were no such thing: to the contrary, Scandinavians were acutely aware of their marginal and impoverished status on the edge of the known world.

The ideas of chivalry, just war, and rightful conduct of war (jus in bello) inform the history of our own moral systems and cast light on modern conflicts. Were these steps towards a modern system of ethics, or a “bro code” that allowed privileged men to act with impunity? The primary literature is filled with just such questions, but what meaning did these debates have in their own context? The works of John Gillingham, Matthew Strickland, and Richard Kaeuper, to name three eminent historians, speak to these important issues. But these works cannot be read in isolation: Ruth Mazo Karras has shown how we cannot approach the history of chivalry without considering the social construction of masculinity. Gender studies has given us invaluable tools for the study of chivalry, such that any recent work on the subject would seem incomplete without considering this vantage.

Moreover, telling women’s stories has long been an integral part of the work of studying medieval military history. The work of Valerie Eads, Helen Nicholson, Megan McLaughlin, and others have shown that women were an integral part of this core activity of medieval society. Sichelgaita of Salerno, Mathilda of Tuscany, and Eleanor of Aquitaine were all women of power who, far more than just “holding down the castle” while their husbands were away, enacted their own political aspirations through military means. So, too, were women without privileged birth part of, and indeed key to, medieval armies. The military history of the Middle Ages is not only one of knights, kings, and queens, but also one of “ordinary” women who did the gendered labor without which these ventures could not have functioned—and who could take up arms or participated in siege works when the need arose.

However, other areas of study and methodologies are inherently problematic. One of the major historiographical subtexts of medieval military history is the top-down formation of nation-states, particularly in the Hundred Years’ War. The specific argument, as made by Clifford Rogers and others, is that the need to more effectively govern and organize territorial units for greater military effectiveness contributed to more centralized states. Medieval military historians thus seek to contribute to a discourse that is ultimately rooted in nineteenth-century nationalist discourses, and which sees this development as teleologically inevitable and desirable. To be sure, this is a complex issue, and one in which intent and outcomes are muddied. For instance, Daniel Franke was quite correct in his December 18, 2017 response to Carol Symes on the AHA website that, concerning the Monumenta Germaniae Historica, “German ‘nationalism’ had no fixed trajectory after Napoleon” and that “the MGH [was] squarely at odds with the growing tide of central European anti-Semitism.” However, he missed the point: Symes did not critique the MGH authors’ anti-Semitism, or lack thereof, but rather that they sought to “construct the nationalist narratives that bolstered the claims to territory, patrimony, and sovereignty on which 19th-century European states and aspiring states depended.” In other words, their intent didn’t matter; it was the overall episteme they supported. The postmodern argument, deriving from Benedict Anderson’s seminal 1983 work Imagined Communities, is that the modern nation-state itself is an inherently racist, exclusionary construct. Writing its history in a manner that does not take these ideas into account is therefore problematic.

This is why my fellow students and I in a graduate seminar I took during my doctoral program at Fordham found the historiography of the Haskins lineage so troublesome—that is, the work of the line of eminent historians trained by Charles Homer Haskins, including Lynn White, Jr. and Joseph Strayer, and Strayer’s own student William Chester Jordan. Strayer does not consider in his Medieval Origins of the Modern State that the Normans might have been influenced by the more sophisticated societies of the Mediterranean; rather, it is the northern Europeans—specifically the French and English—who were the torchbearers of civilization. In his consultancy for the CIA during the period when the agency was working to outmaneuver the Soviet Union by destabilizing national governments, Strayer was picking up the thread of thought that his frustrated mentor Haskins had left dangling after the disastrous post-Versailles tapestry of Europe had been woven—basing an order for the present in a particular conception of the past.  Strayer may have had the noblest ends and was a noted opponent of authoritarianism, but, like the MGH authors, he was part of a regime of power-knowledge that led to numerous injustices and atrocities.

However, the situation is far more complex than can be covered in a Modern Global History seminar; sometimes there are no good answers; and there are numerous well-intentioned people in the State Department who see the situation with all of its nuance, who nonetheless persist in trying to build a more prosperous and peaceful planet, and who view our work with interest. Such work, however well-intentioned, can still benefit from the perspective of critical theory: For instance, when we read Jordan’s Women and Credit in Pre-Industrial and Developing Societies in a graduate seminar at Fordham, one of my fellows pointed out that chronologically separate societies are not commensurate: Africa could not develop as Europe did as it had no Africa to loot, and that the artificial nation-states carved onto the African map by colonizing powers are not the slightly more organic nation-states of Europe; for my part, I pointed out that it is a fallacy to think of “modernity” and “progress” being a single arrow that points inevitably to one teleological result.

I would argue that the history of state-formation can (and should) be written in such a way that it is not foreign to an intersectional view of medieval history—and in fact, I think that it is necessary to do so. Even if we condemn the Westphalian nation-state as a racist, imperialist construct, it remains an indisputable fact that such political units are a part of our geopolitical landscape. The United Nations is composed of representatives of nation-states, and the decisions made by national leaders affect billions. The Israel-Palestine conflict, for instance, is essentially one of national sovereignty. Knowing how these political units came to be can inform not only more ecumenical, more just state-building in the world today—efforts that will hopefully reduce the overall amount of violence, corruption, and human misery—but help explain the origins of, and expiate the effects of, modern imperialism. These new ways of asking questions are not a substitute for scholarly rigor—rather, they complement it. Intersectional and postcolonial theory can help us ask good questions, suggest methods for answering questions we didn’t think could be answered well, or see gaps and topics we have previously overlooked.

Furthermore, at the same time as we recognize some subjects as problematic, we must also recognize that many of the other subjects we study—the military orders, fight-books, chivalry and knighthood—are of interest to the alt-right. Though probably less appealing to white supremacists than the Third Reich, these subjects can, as Dorothy Kim puts it, still be “weaponized.” Yet, they are also of interest to vast numbers of random laypersons. My own subject—historical fencing treatises—appeals to many who see such works as artifacts of an autochthonous Christian European culture (despite evidence of Jewish and African masters), as well as numerous people who simply like to swordfight. If we do not write the histories of these subjects, we leave a blank page for the popular imagination to inscribe what it will. The history will then be written by those who do not consider the broader perspective and who reject the more inclusive narratives we support. I would therefore exhort my colleagues not to neglect the traditional questions, but rather to bring a new eye to them and to write with greater sensitivity to questions of race and gender. I would also exhort us—as medieval military historians have long done—to continue to sortie forth from the Ivory Tower and bring our educational campaign to the wider audience of popular history enthusiasts, re-enactors, and K-12 educators.

Finally, I would like to point out that question is not just how we do our scholarship, but how we interact with living people today, including our colleagues. At the 2018 Medieval Academy meeting, Geraldine Heng called for more diversity in creating conference panels, choosing authors for edited publications, and the selection of plenary speakers. As she pointed out, a conference panel that seeks to address Othering but consists entirely of white males is troublesome. (And, contrary to what I once said, a joke about it is not “harmless social lubricant,” but deeply harmful in that it trivializes the uphill battle faced by scholars of color.) Unfortunately, it is an inescapable fact that studying medieval military history, like studying medieval history in general, is a bit of a ludicrous career choice: it helps to already have a backpack full of privilege to go into this field. My own students of color, I have observed, tend to be more interested in practical career choices such as medicine, law, and business. It is an inescapable fact that the sub-discipline of medieval military history is, as the kids say these days, “so white.” It has also by and large been male, though there are many excellent female scholars in this field such as Valerie Eads, Theresa Vann, Helen Nicholson, and Anne Curry, and De Re Militari has seen a balance of genders in the speakers it has invited to speak in its lecture series over the past few years.

While we cannot go down to the Agora and rope reluctant women or scholars of color into our professional activities, nonetheless, it is incumbent upon us to, as the Medievalists of Color say in their Collective Statement, take the opportunity “to understand the perspectives and experiences of medievalists and other people of color.” This is doubly so if we are to write postcolonial, intersectionalist histories. I ask my colleagues to engage, to listen, and accept that the people best equipped to imagine Otherness are the ones who have themselves been Othered in our society. We can solve the seemingly insolvable problem by inviting scholars who work on other periods and places to provide needed perspective. Diverse perspectives can only make our work stronger. I have included some suggestions for avenues of investigation—weapons technology as cultural exchange, Welsh archers and Sepoys, Jewish and African fencing masters—over the course of this essay; other research questions will readily suggest themselves.

I will argue to my last breath both that medieval military history has a place in the academy and for the value of the traditional subjects of study. Considering the alt-right’s interest in Vikings, Crusades, and ancient swordplay, I would even say expertise in this subfield is crucial. But is important in the larger sense, as well: human beings are inherently political animals, and unfortunately sometimes these conflicts spill over into actual violence—between states, between factions in a state, between kin groups and religious sects, and between individuals. Our history is one of the subjection of one people to another and the looting of labor and resources, justified by regimes of power-knowledge. However, by understanding this history, we equip ourselves to recognize and combat these tendencies.

What is happening now in the academy is a re-alignment in the distribution of resources that plays heavily into ideas of power, authority, and legitimacy. The STEM fields and vocational careers are at the front of the line to receive increasingly scarce funding in institutions that increasingly resemble for-profit businesses. Meanwhile, administrators look upon the place of the humanities in the new order of things as being to reinforce the Weltanschauung of McWorld even as humanities professors themselves advocate for previously excluded groups to have their just share of the ever-shrinking resources. We must look at which way the wind is driving the waves to keep our heads above water even as we seek to swim against the current. Fortunately, medieval military history has placed an excellent flotation device beneath our seats. By studying the history of warfare, we not look at the origins of inter-group confrontations and equip ourselves to engage in the next conflict—or, preferably, to avoid it—but also cast light upon our nature as creatures who commit violence. However, we are also moral animals: Though most of us are guilty of benefitting from an unjust society, this is not an excuse for amorality in our academic work or our professional conduct. Being a good scholar requires keeping abreast of, and taking seriously, changes in our discipline and related fields. Medieval military history is indeed valuable, and understanding critical race and gender theory will help us bring a new perspective to these subjects for the twenty-first century. We have much to think about.

Ken Mondschein uncomfortably straddles the line between the “academic” and “popular” historian. A full-time contingent professor and medieval martial arts teacher, he is also a widely published and professionally active active scholar, a jouster, and a modern épée fencer and coach. He received his PhD in 2010.

[1] This essay was originally posted on the De Re Militari site, but taken down in accordance with editorial policy, as DRM does not publish opinion pieces. I would like to gratefully acknowledge Cliff Rogers' help with feedback and edits.