Monday, September 07, 2015

Medievalists and the Global Refugee Crisis


[UPDATED September 8 with more links! Scroll to the end of this post.]

This entry falls somewhere between a compilation of links/resources and a proper essay. In this blog posting, I wanted to reflect a bit on the global refugee crisis that's currently in the news and consider how (or if) medievalists might respond to what's happening in Europe and elsewhere.

Part I: Medievalists on Twitter

[Images from my twitter feed yesterday (September 6), including premodern iconography of the biblical Flight into Egypt.]

The image above is a screenshot from my mobile device yesterday morning—and it happens to provide a sample of different ways medievalists (premodern academics) are engaging with media coverage of the plight of refugees in Europe and other places around the globe:
  • The Refugee Tales Walk is a collective effort by activists and storytellers to showcase the stories of refugees indefinitely detained in the UK; taking its cue from Chaucer's Canterbury Tales, the project tells stories of lives in transit. Note this brief blurb on the Global Chaucers blog; you can also follow "Refugee Tales" on Facebook or on twitter.
  • Kees Teszelszky, historian of early modern Dutch-Ottoman-Hungarian relations, chimed in on the plight of refugees by tweeting depictions of the biblical Flight into Egypt (Mary, Joseph, and infant Jesus on horseback) from 16th-century sculpture and stained glass; another tweet suggests the recursive history of refugees in transit through Hungary in particular. [ also linked to an article about medieval refugees fleeing Hungary during Mongol invasions.]

Popular media (especially social media) has deployed the adjective “medieval” to varied ends: sometimes the term targets refugees themselves, but other times refers to the perceived mentalities of governments (European as well as Middle Eastern) in response to this crisis [I won't link to particular examples here, but a quick search for "medieval" and "refugee crisis" certainly brings up examples].

In mainstream news media, people of varied religious backgrounds are discussing the ethics of refugee welcome, including

Historical context: In an earlier conversation on twitter (after the mass murders in the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, SC, and subsequent news coverage of an online racist screed attributed to the shooter), Karl Steel stated that we as medievalists must be prepared to disrupt racists’ idea of "Europe." As indicated in the article about nativism and xenophobia linked above, the refugee situation has laid bare political anxieties over a "Muslim takeover" of Europe, and related fantasies of a white, Christian nation can become the implicit or overt basis for excluding refugees from over land or sea—and not only in Europe but also across the so-called “Global North” of industrialized countries (e.g., Australia, Canada, New Zealand, United States).

Part II: Discomforts of Analogy

[Top half of image: The opening to The Man of Law's Tale (illus. Edward Burne-Jones) in The Kelmscott Chaucer (William Morris, 1896) depicts Constance set adrift on a rudderless ship. 
Bottom half of image: In the opening scene of the 2003 BBC adaptation of The Man of Law's Tale (written by Olivia Hetreed, directed by Julian Jarrold), Constance is a Nigerian refugee.]

In addition to addressing a broader historical view of "Europe" and its meanings over time, how might medievalists think more carefully about analogies made between the lives of medieval people and refugees today?
  • The Refugee Tales Walk (mentioned in Part I) provocatively invites people to contemplate similarities between the plight of present-day refugees and experiences of medieval travelers, with a clear ethical and political objective: building compassion and solidarity with displaced peoples and using art and storytelling to combat prejudice.
  • In a blog post from over a year ago, Steve Mentz reflected on Caroline Bergvall's book Drift (2014), a work that juxtaposes the Anglo-Saxon elegy "The Seafarer" with the story of a boat of Algerian refugees that was seen—but not rescued—by NATO vessels in March 2011.
  • Chaucer's The Man of Law's Tale tells the story of Constance, a tempest-tossed and much-imperiled protagonist. Her story begins in Rome, but her subsequent transit to (Muslim) Syria and (pagan but Christianizing) Britain—with many travails and dangers in between—have invited comparisons between this story and refugee experiences in the present. In a 2003 adaptation of The Canterbury Tales for the BBC, six tales were set in modern multiethnic Britain. The Man of Law's Tale (written by Olivia Hetreed and directed by Julian Jarrold) casts Constance as Nigerian refugee who mysteriously washes ashore in northern Britain—and the story goes on to consider modern-day complications of race, trauma, religious community, and cultural assimilation. This adaptation is complete with a scheming mother-in-law figure and courtroom drama scene (all present in Chaucer's original), and I've found this attentive adaptation useful when teaching my medieval literature classes. [For more about this production, see Susan Yager's 2007 article; I also address some linguistic aspects of this adaptation in a 2014 essay collection.]
I'll end this post by referring, in a roundabout way, to my own discussion of medieval Constance narratives (Chaucer's rendition as well as analogues by Boccaccio, Gower, and Trivet) in my book Trading Tongues (2013). The focus of my analysis on that book was on perpetual disorientation of the protagonist and she moves across space and language. Earlier this year, Pamela Troyer reviewed my book in the Rocky Mountain Review, and I was intrigued by her account of how she brought my chapter into her classroom. I quote these paragraphs here not because of what Troyer says about my book itself but what rather for her attentive reflections on the varied perspectives and life experiences of students from recent immigrant backgrounds:
After reading Trading Tongues, I experimented with Hsy's ideas in a required course I teach that includes readings from Canterbury Tales. The class had students majoring in literary studies, secondary or elementary education, and creative writing. Three of them were bilingual and most of them from area public schools, which are now multilingual communities; the Denver Public Schools posts its "top languages spoken" as Spanish, Vietnamese, Arabic, Somali, Amharic, Nepali, and Russian. Since we only spend six weeks on Chaucer's works, I have never assigned the Man of Law's Tale, but after reading Hsy's treatment of the Custance story [...] I wondered if the students might identify with her traumatic experience of geographical and linguistic displacement. [...]
I fully expected the class to be perplexed and stymied by the strange elements of the story and by Custance's impossible travel trajectory—the story is so medieval!—but a surprising number of the students related to her vulnerability and powerlessness. They saw her as a recognizable victim of racial violence, religious persecution, and sexual harassment, bartered by "pimps" or "slave traders." A student whose parents immigrated from Guatemala wrote with unexpected clarity that Custance "is just like many women in the world today, a social outcast with no access to justice except the fantasy of God's grace." My students found Custance's peripatetic suffering plausible and accessible. What they found "medieval" and unrealistic was the conclusion of the story: Custance survives her travails (the French root of travel) without having been raped or beaten and without losing her healthy child to kidnappers or death. Unrealistically she is reunited with her people in material comfort in her homeland. One first-generation American summarized it as "typical immigrant wishful thinking." (Troyer 98)

Troyer's discussion tantalizingly ends there, and there's much more about this classroom experience that could be explored. How does an affective response to a seemingly alien medieval world change how one thinks about (im)migraiton, desire, hope, nostalgia, life trajectories? I'll just end this posting by asking few questions. What are the ethical investments of medievalists in this current humanitarian crisis (or any crisis, for that matter)? How (or should) we address urgent present-day concerns in our scholarship, in our classrooms, online, or in the streets?

UPDATES [September 8]:


Steve Mentz said...

Very nice, Jonathan -- thanks for all the links! I've also been thinking about Caroline Bergvall's brilliant book *Drift*, which is about the 21c refugee crisis by way of "The Seafarer." Maybe at some point I'll sneak in a quick update or extension of what I wrote about it in 2014:

and 2015

Jonathan Hsy said...

Thanks so much for that reference, SM: I'm a big fan of Caroline Bergvall's "Meddle English" (teaching it this term!) but hadn't yet come across "Drift." I will look forward to reading it, and thanks for these links. I've added your blog post to the list above, and if you do end up extending/expanding what you wrote about it let me know.

Karen Schousboe said...

Perhaps you might also wish to note the comments here: Barbarian Hordes and Pitiful People
As it happens, it was much worse then...