On Saturday, March 4th, a Multicampus Research Project titled the Middle Ages in the Wider World (MAWW) launched with an all-day conference at the Townsend Center for the Humanities at the University of California, Berkeley. A two-year initiative, the UC-wide collaboration encourages scholars and college instructors to reframe their approach to the European medieval period and make it more global in perspective, according to co-PI Sally McKee, professor of history at the University of California, Davis.
University of Illinois Professor of History and Medieval Studies and founding executive editor of the journal, The Medieval Globe, Carol Symes gave the keynote speech and turned her talk into a call to action since she comes from one of the first institutions to embrace the global Middle Ages.
Initiatives like the MAWW examine modes of communication, posit the medieval world as central to study of global processes and interrogate current perceptions of medieval people and phenomena. For example, the first volume of The Medieval Globe, “Pandemic Disease in the Medieval World: Rethinking the Black Death,” brought together geneticists, anthropologists, and humanists, who working together produced the first volume of work that synthesized new information about the plague’s origins (Asia), its spread (vast), and decline (ongoing).
Later, as an example of how she has interrogated perceptions of medieval people and phenomena, Symes drew the audience’s attention to an image of WWI monument featuring Joan d’Arc cradling a soldier wrapped in the flag of France, pointing towards Notre-Dame de Strasbourg. She also mentioned a Red Cross Magazine cover featuring the spirits of George Washington, St. George, and Joan d’Arc leading allied soldiers into battle. As these images demonstrated, we are still culturally constructing the Middle Ages and our proximity to them.
Symes also addressed the recent and troubling politically motivated misinterpretations of the Middle Ages as a homogeneously white and monolithic culture. She insisted that thinking about the Middle Ages globally “can combat racist and nationalist myths reliant on pseudo-medieval grand narratives of a halcyon, homogenous west.” Also, remedying stigmatization and stereotyping of “medieval” people can expose strategies that are the basis for current forms of oppression (ethnic, racial, religious, etc.).
Emily Albu, a Professor of Classics at UC Davis who attended the conference, affirmed that this “wider perspective” informs her own work on the medieval Peutinger map and that she’s excited “to see the ways this global view enriches research across the field of medieval studies.”
The next MAWW event will take place at the University of California, Santa Barbara in 2017 and will conclude with a workshop here at UC Davis in April, 2018. These events will feature research funded by the MAWW. For more information, or to apply for funding, visit their website. Applications for funding are due March 31, 2017.
–Cordelia Ross, DHI Graduate Student Researcher and doctoral candidate in the Department of English