Medievalists make the leap to modernity at UM 

The paper session might be “esoteric,” cautioned University of Montana literature professor Ashby Kinch, speaking to a reporter who’d walked into the second day of a summer conference on medieval studies. The comment, intended as polite advice, was also tacit acknowledgement that the conference had all the elements of a meme mocking the Academy: a dozen or so specialists sequestered on the fourth floor of the Maureen and Mike Mansfield Library, reading papers about the Middle Ages to each other. Entertainment would consist not of LARPing, but of critical inspection of the illuminated manuscripts laid out in the special collections reading room.

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The questions posed by presenters were equally esoteric, if less remote from modern interests. What can medieval nunneries reveal about Glacier National Park? What does medieval liturgy have in common with American Indian storytelling? What do Icelandic sagas tell us about Montana homesteaders?

More than even Kinch might have thought, it turns out. UM’s first medieval studies conference, held July 27–28 and cosponsored by the Mansfield Library and the Medieval Studies program at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., brought together scholars from across the country who share two seemingly unrelated traits: a research interest in the Middle Ages and a personal tie to Montana. The Montana part, Kinch assumed, wouldn’t amount to much more than a way to recruit participants.

“We’ve been surprised how strong the connection to Montana was to informing how they do their scholarship,” he said.

Medieval society has a way of worming itself into the present, whether through pop culture—Game of Thrones’ fantasy world borrows heavily from medieval tropes—or politics. But its legacy is complicated. Medieval “tends to be a synonym for barbaric,” says Sarah McNamer, an associate professor of English and medieval studies at Georgetown. “One of our implicit goals in teaching medieval studies often is to say, ‘Hey, this is a period of sophistication, light, beauty, interest.’”

On the other hand, the era has proven ripe for idealization by far-right white nationalists, who see it as a “preracial space where whiteness can locate its ethnic heritage,” as medieval scholar Sierra Lomuto wrote in a December 2016 blog post. Kinch points to figures such as Richard Spencer, whose invocation of European purity, he says, warrants rebuttal by medieval scholars who have a more nuanced understanding of the period.

Medieval scholarship at UM is supported by what Kinch describes as an “astounding” collection of manuscripts of Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales, including editions from 1561 and 1687, that illustrate the work’s evolving significance over the last 600 years.

Similarly, Kinch says, comparing Europe’s Middle Ages to distant cultures—whether Native Americans or 19th century Montana homesteaders—can help us see both in new lights. The resonances were personal for University of Maine associate professor Sarah Harlan-Haughey, whose presentation compared the Icelandic sagas to the stories passed down through her family of homesteaders in Montana’s golden triangle. Both in style and substance, she found, the thousand-year-old tales hit strangely close to home.

“We Montana medievalists may write about a world far removed in time and space from this one,” she told her peers, “but why not seek out strands of relevance?”

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