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Middle Ages without borders: a conversation on medievalism

Tommaso di Carpegna Falconieri
Pierre Savy
Lila Yawn

f) Political medievalisms 3

2) Inconceivable! Thinking critically about medieval history in the undergraduate classroom

Roisin Cossar

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1In 2017-18 I adopted a new approach to teaching medieval history courses, engaging students in discussions of the role played by nostalgia, fantasy, and politics in shaping modern views of the Middle Ages. A confluence of nearly simultaneous factors in the summer and fall of 2017 underpinned this decision. These included: “alt-right” visions of a white, Christian Middle Ages and their defense by some medievalists; the rise of “free speech” debates at Canadian universities; and the roundtable on race at MAMO III, when participants and audience members discussed why historians, unlike literary specialists, were often unwilling to apply critical race theory to the Middle Ages. Many historians have struggled to convince our students that the medieval period, like the modern era, is shaped by political perspectives. Students sometimes treat our classes as an escape from politicized contemporary history, but their romantic ideas of medieval culture can in fact resemble the destructive fantasies of a Christian, whites-only Middle Ages propagated by the alt-right. On the other hand, recent attempts to counter that retrograde image with a vision of medieval society as a “melting-pot” threaten to replace one fantasy with another, effacing the power differentials that marked the medieval past. This paper instead proposes a model for teaching critically engaged medieval history that appeals to undergraduates, supports effective historical thinking, and fights Nazis.


University of Manitoba, Winnipeg

© Publications de l’École française de Rome, 2021

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