Thursday, March 15, 2018

Dear Fellow Iberianists: Where Are We? -- Part Two

This is the second installment of a three-part series begun on Sunday, February 25, 2018. Part One appears here.

On ‘Medieval Iberia,’ 
Why We Should Make the Tent Bigger,
and What We Have to Say about Race

by Chad Leahy

Title page from Jacobo Uziel's David: poema heroico (Venice, 1624), courtesy of the Biblioteca Generale della Custodia di Terra Santa (Franciscan Custody of the Holy Land, Jerusalem). Photo by the author.

In a previous post, I suggested that those of us working on Medieval Iberia could be doing more right now to publicly position our field against hate. This second post moves in two parts. Part I: Preliminary comments in response to some of the reactions that my initial post has generated, laying out a case for embracing a shared sense of common purpose. Part II: Thoughts on our particular disciplinary response to the very specific question of Iberian Studies and race in the 21st century United States. (If you have time only to skim this admittedly super long post, please take a look at least at points 1 and 2 at the very end, and especially the call for contributions to Race and Medieval Iberian Studies:A Partial Bibliography).

I: Why We Should Make the Tent Bigger 

I’d like to start with what I think is an essential clarification. By suggesting in my previous post that we should do more, I absolutely did not intend to imply that some of us aren’t already engaged in public work, nor that the decolonizing of Iberian Studies broadly isn’t something that many of us care about. The #HereAreTheIberianists hashtag, courtesy of S.J. Pearce (one of many clearly engaged scholars who I cited with admiration in my last piece), stands as a handsome way to showcase the important work already being done. I think it would be phenomenal if this hashtag could work as a sort of repository of such work, particularly to show the strength of our valuable contributions to a broader audience. As several folks have pointed out, these efforts appear in a variety of media, in a range of languages, and spread across diverse national and local geographies. It’s next to impossible for any one person to keep tabs on all the work, both ‘scholarly’ and ‘public,’ going on in such a range of forums. But I think it would be genuinely beautiful if this hashtag could help us to collectively front this body of work as, precisely, a body of work, evincing the specific strength of Iberianist contributions (writ large) to the broader fight. I would suggest that by exposing such contributions to a wider group of people with allied interests, maybe we can also encourage more dialogue and scholarly interaction across the wide range of disciplinary positions implicated here, both within and outside Iberian or Hispanic Studies.

This last argument leads me to a related point. Another set of observations prompted by my initial post revolves, precisely, around how we delimit proper disciplinary spaces. Most acutely: what is proper to ‘Anglo’ scholarship versus ‘Iberian’ scholarship, in what spaces does such work make sense, and, ultimately, what institutions or groups are endowed with the authority to make judgements about such matters?

I’ll confess I know really far less than I should about the full range of worlds and experiences implicated in Anglo-centric fields, but regarding Iberia, I would like to make explicit something all of us know very well (and this is not intended to be patronizing to Iberianists, but rather to suggest the complications at play here for those less familiar with our fields): We are not, and never have been, a coherent discipline, but rather a constellation of allied fields that approach Iberia through a range of diverse languages, geographies, identities, and political spaces. (For a quick introduction to some of these issues, check out Jean Dangler’s piece in diacritics). For example, what do the proto-imperial endeavors of Aragón across the Mediterranean in the 14th and 15th Centuries have in common with the Caliphate in 10th and 11th-century Córdoba? What do the Cantigas de Santa María (13th century Marian miracles in gallego-portugués) have in common with Rabbi Shem Tov’s Proverbios morales (14th century sententious moral poetry in Spanish with some manuscripts in Hebrew aljamiado) or with Ausiàs March (15th century, largely secular love poetry in valencià)? What does the Sentencia-Estatuto de Toledo (1449), establishing influential blood purity laws, have to do with the Aristotelian commentaries of Ibn Rushd (aka. Averroes, 12th century)?

And what about the very temporality of our respective fields? Not just what but also when is Medieval Iberia? Do we consider the Oran fatwa of 1504 –produced in the wake of the mass forced conversions of Spain’s Muslims, who were looking then to the Maghreb for spiritual guidance after the violent collapse of the Capitulations of Granada– to be ‘medieval’ or ‘early modern’? What do those periodizing labels even mean in such a context? Can we read the early 16th-century morisco el mancebo de Arévolo’s Qur’anic exegesis (written in Spanish using Arabic aljamiado) or the Lead Books of Granada (late 16th century, in Arabic and Latin), without gazing back across the fracturing divide of 1492 that, as Barbara Fuchs has argued, remains lodged at the heart of Hispanism, cleaving it in deeply problematic ways: “a medieval before and a modern after” (496)? Can we hollow out the ‘medieval’ or the ‘Iberian’ from the experiences embedded in Sephardic exile Jacobo Uziel’s David: poema heroico, published in Italy in 1624, written in the language of a land he could not inhabit? Can we read Las Casas (16th century) without considering his grounding in ‘medieval’ epistemology? And then, what to do about more recent history? Not just the mythologizing of 19th century nationalist philology or Francoist deployments of reconquista and cruzada or Aznar’s comments about 711 but also more contemporary things, like a recent review of Fernández-Morera’s book entitled “Al Andalus: Brown Man’s Lust for White Women” that appeared in the neo-nazi publication the Daily Stormer?

I’d like to suggest that Iberian medievalisms such as these, also rooted as they are in a field that is itself so diverse and complex, demand that we push geographies and temporalities to encompass ever wider limits. Rather than close ranks, maybe we can try to imagine a collective convivencia of shared interests. Can we image a space for all of us who are worried about the common goal of decolonizing Iberian Studies writ largealong with other diverse Medieval Studies (writ… however one would like to write, using whatever characters or alphabets one prefers)–to take part in a collective effort grounded not on reclaiming the proper spaces of our respective fields, but rather in fronting what unites us across these borders? I acknowledge that what such work looks like, precisely, will necessarily be field-dependant. I don’t intend to imply that engaged work for Anglo-Saxonists and Iberianists must assume the same forms or be circulated in the same forums. But I do intend to suggest that by embracing shared values and encouraging exchange, and particularly by inviting interested scholars in neighboring fields to be more aware of each other’s work, we all build a stronger common front.

This last point also leads me to ask, out loud, if we should also be rethinking not just who we imagine us to be but also who we image them to be. Who are we addressing in our work, both ‘scholarly’ and ‘public’? Who are we going after? Fernández-Morera and his white nationalist fanbase? Yes! Those who continue to ground aberrant ideologies in the narrative of reconquista? Certainly! (And on this, see much of García-Sanjuán’s exemplary work). There is so much going on out in the world right now that we have no shortage of appropriations to resist or misuses to contest. But what if our ideal imagined interlocutors here are not neo-nazis or falangistas but the people in the office next door? The colleagues we see at conferences? The reviewers of the articles we write? Old friends from grad school?

In thinking about the traditional rift between theory and philology, presentism and historicist antiquarianism, Castillo and Egginton describe a “’quiet’ consensus” currently pacifying Hispanism that I read as not too dissimilar from the criminal non-intervention that Simon Doubleday decries. Without question, many of us are engaged. But many of us also are not, either because we prefer “neutral” critical “objectivity” (which is a fiction) or because we are actively opposed to the very work at hand, reading it as inimical to the field itself, whether for ideological or methodological reasons (and, obviously, ‘methodology’ here runs clean cover for ‘ideology’).

I think that such fractures find a particular resonance when we think specifically about race. I truly doubt I’m alone here: I regularly bump into serious scholars, even scholars whose work is rooted explicitly in Critical Race Theory, who tell me that we can’t really talk about race before the Enlightenment because race as a category didn’t exist yet. I have heard people at conferences say that talking about Sub-Saharan African slavery in Iberia is ridiculous, because ‘there were white slaves, too, you know,’ or that ‘those things’ only really happened in Portugal. I have heard folks in the field say forcefully that so much emphasis on inclusivity in the Academy constitutes "anti-white racism." I have heard people insist that the best way to approach racial and ethnic difference in our field is to understand that what we are really dealing with, here, are literary tropes that follow certain formal conventions, behind which there is no real interesting history or human experience that we should worry about locating.

I enthusiastically acknowledge that many folks are working on this very problem right now from diverse positions within Medieval Studies, but my point is that, at least from the vantage of Iberian Studies, there is clearly much more that can be done. What I am insisting is that in asking “Dear Fellow Iberianists: Where Are We?,” I am also thinking about these very anonymous subjects I’ve just described. Our colleagues, our friends, our mentors, our students. The we I imagine is not the already-engaged scholar on the frontlines, visibly, publicly combating hate and ignorance. It’s all of us in Hispanic Studies departments who deal or think in or around the fringes of the medieval. And let’s be honest, that’s a lot of people. Many of us are hired into pre-1700 positions. Many of us are hired as Generalists who have to teach everything from Atapuerca and Aztlán to Zapatero. When I imagine we, I’m thinking of all of us. I’m thinking also about my former self, who I will confess enjoyed a long period immersed in the imaginary world of an anti-political philology rooted, unquestionably, in white, male, straight, cis-gendered privilege that made it frankly easy to ignore the pressing urgency of our field in the Now. I’m also thinking about the dissertation advisees of the serious, well-respected scholars who signed the dustjacket publicity blurbs for Fernández-Morera’s book.

When I ask where we are, I am talking about the part of we that is all of us. I imagine this to be a huge tent, and I imagine there to be space in that tent for vast hosts. I imagine all of us advocating and educating from whatever positions we might occupy here. And I imagine a spirit of collaboration, inter- and intra-disciplinary communication, openness, and good will to be great assets that can only strengthen our collective efforts.

II: What We Have to Say About Race

In what follows, I would like to think a little more specifically about the question of race that lies at the heart of the matter here.

It would be good to acknowledge, first, some important reasons why our experiences as Iberianists facing the specific question of race in contemporary Medieval Studies, particularly in the United States, might not be equivalent to that of many of our colleagues working in other areas. The essential point of departure here is a simple recognition that the very well-documented fascination of the Alt-Right with the Middle Ages—so central to what is happening in Medieval Studies right now—hangs on a decidedly non-Iberian imaginary. The question for Iberianists from this vantage can easily become: what have we to do with white nationalism in the contemporary U.S.? We know that hate groups especially love the idea of Vikings and runes and Thor’s hammers, Celtic crosses and Celtic music, the Crusades, Gothic blackletter typeface and the fiction of a pure Anglo-Saxon race. This is common knowledge, particularly in the catalyzing wake of Charlottesville. But what of Iberia? Iberia’s complex cultural, ethno-racial, religious, and linguistic past—its hybrid forms and protean border crossings—would seem to render it an uneasy fit in amongst the aforementioned medievalist appropriations. Maybe we just don’t have a big role to play in resisting our appropriation for the purposes of hate because, well, we just aren’t really being appropriated that much. Perhaps the radical alterity of medieval Iberia, its intuitive “midcoloniality” grounded in a “multiculturalism” worn very much on the sleeve, is just not a natural fit. (See Nadia Altschul’s “The future of postcolonialapproaches to medieval Iberian Studies”).

Despite such legitimate points, I would urge us to recognize something frontally: the same ideologies that weaponize The Myth of the Andalusian Paradise are, despite it all, definitely at work co-opting a variety of Iberian subjects that many of us work on. It does not take much effort at all to dredge up traces of admiration for Spain’s expulsions of Jews (1492) and moriscos (1609-1614) scattered around on sites like Stormfront and /4chan. (I refuse to link to such places). And the Alt-Right appears at least intrigued with the narrative of reconquista (for example, one Stormfront user asks: “Is there any good documentary about the Reconquista? I doubt it since it's something the jews and libtards [sic] wouldn't like to make”). I have also encountered in several places an absolutely fascinating and completely bizarre-o deployment of reconquista as a way to imagine a perceived re-Mexicanization and browning of the American Southwest. And such folks are, of course, foreseeably also big fans of the foundational mission of the Holy Office (one /pol/ user suggests that the Grand Inquisitor Torquemada is “/ourguy/”). Sánchez-Albornoz even shows up once in a while—although mostly in monolingual Spanish threads—probably thanks to the ideological utility of Sánchez-Albornoz’s homo Hispanus, that transhistorical (white) Catholic Roman-Visigothic essence at the heart of authentic Spanishness. In short, it would be disingenuous to suggest that our field, unlike Anglo-Saxon studies or Crusade studies (to mention just two intuitive examples), is somehow immune to such appropriations.

Nevertheless, I admit that we would be left wanting if we were to go hunting for tattoos of Santiago Matamoros or Torquemada or Don Claudio at places like Charlottesville’s Alt-Right rally. Tellingly, unlike terms such as “Celtic” and “Norse,” a search for the terms “Iberia” and “Spain” in the Southern Poverty Law Center’s substantive Hate on Display Hate SymbolsDatabase yields no results. And it’s not too hard to venture some educated guesses as to why. We might argue, for example, that the dearth of such public appropriations of Iberian symbols, tropes, and slogans is due to popular ignorance of Iberian history in the United States. Or, more suggestively, perhaps we might even fault the strategic racializing of Spain that George Marsical years ago associated with the uses of the Black Legend in the 19th-Century U.S. Maybe Spain is just too Other, too barbarian, too suspiciously brown, too much a sort of imaginary almost-Mexico to be useful for the Alt-Right. (See also several of the contributions in Rereading the Black Legend and Eric Griffin’s “From Ethos to Ethnos: Hispanizing the‘Spaniard’ in the Old World and the New”). And then there are those pesky demographics. There are so many Iberian Muslims and Jews and people of color that maybe even triumphalist Catholic ethno-nationalism starts to look suspect.

So while diverse medievalisms obviously lie at the core of Spanish nationalism (see this, courtesy again of S.J. Pearce), perhaps we can agree that Iberia doesn’t enjoy the same cache as other medievalist subjects among North American white supremacists. Such a situation might even be cause for rejoicing, if it weren’t for the fact that our field is, nevertheless, expressly deployed to support abject ideologies of hate in the US, even if to a far lesser degree. Allow me to acknowledge, also, that the ultimate measure of our engagement as scholars should not be whether or not we are embraced by neo-nazis. The more important question remains: given the contours of our field(s), especially for those of us in the US, what specific role do we play in the broader disciplinary counter-crusade being waged across Medieval Studies to resist right-wing narratives built on the masculinist fictions of homogenous European cultural Catholic whiteness? And going back to my points earlier about rethinking who the us is here: what, similarly, are we doing to combat the more benign but no less problematic positions of those among our own ranks who deny that race is even a question we can or should think about? Such race deniers are, I’m afraid, legion in Hispanism. How do we fight them?

I would like to underscore what I’m sure many of us already know: the question of race and the Middle Ages is in fact an exceptionally relevant question in particular for Iberianists to confront since race, especially when conceived of as a question of blood and blood purity, heredity and the body—and not just as an allegedly pre-Modern non-scientific frame for processing purely cultural or religious differences—is integral to the very invention of the Spanish nation itself. These are concerns lodged at the heart of our field. (Check out this and this and this and this and this and this and this and Altschul’s comments here, and  maybe some of Heng’s comments here). And need we even mention that Iberia’s racial epistemologies –rooted deep in Classical and Medieval thought– served to justify practices of forced labor and slavery long before the triangle trade was even a glimmer in Britain’s eye? (See this and this. James Sweet’s comments here remain relevant, as well, although some of his points could be qualified). Given the unique place Iberia occupies as a key motor in the historical development of modern racializations, couldn’t we play a more protagonistic role in contemporary discussions about race both in Medieval Studies and in the sphere of medievalist appropriations? Shouldn’t we be all over the partial bibliography on race and Medieval Studies recently published in postmedieval? We have many things to say here, and I think that we’re saying many of those things already, through publications and in our classrooms and in our conference papers and in our blog posts. But can we find ways to say those things in even more concerted, collectivized, loud ways? And, most especially, in ways that will invite greater collaboration across our diverse fields? Ways that will invite folks across the Anglo-Iberian divide to talk to each other more? Ways that will make it harder for the in-house race deniers to insist on the fictions they love? Ways that will facilitate the use of our work for all of the allies that sit under the big tent that I earlier envisioned?

I would like to close with two calls for specific action, related to all of the preceding.
  1. If you know of, or are personally engaged and working on, relevant stuff that you feel would benefit from reaching a broader audience—even if, perhaps especially if, that work is published in other languages or geographies—please consider S.J. Pearce’s hashtag #HereAreThe Iberianists. By putting this diverse work together all in one place, we render it more visible and we also invite the cross-germination of ideas that might arise from seeing things we were unaware of, written from disciplinary positions distinct from our own. This could be just one small gesture in the direction of even more collective action, a more common front, a bigger tent.
  2. In a related gesture of brazen and absolutely admiring imitatio, I have created a Google doc to start work on our own version of Jonathan Hsy and Julie Orlemanski’s labor facilitating the construction of a critical bibliography on race and medieval studies. Here it is: Race and Medieval Iberian Studies:A Partial Bibliography. Allow me to note that, as I envision this document, there should be space here not just for rigorously historicized ideations of race drawn from the long and diverse Iberian Middle Ages but also for later medievalist appropriations of race rooted in those same histories. Medieval race as seen from Early Modern Spain; Medieval race as imagined by 19th-century nationalist philology; Medieval race as imagined by Franco; Medieval race as imagined by white supremacists in the contemporary US. It goes without saying that this should also be a space for showcasing work in the full range of diverse languages, geographies, and identities implied in all of our related fields. And it should be a space to privilege the work of POC / ethnic / religious minority scholars, in particular. 

Both of these requests are extended not as disciplinary challenges to make more noise nor as criticisms of those already deeply engaged in this work. I offer them simply as ways for us to potentially make more audible the substantial noise already being made. But also—not just for the sake of symmetry but because there is, in fact, more to be done—Dear Fellow Iberianists: can we make some (more) noise?

Chad Leahy is an Assistant Professor of Spanish at the University of Denver. His research centers on the politics of Jerusalem in Late Medieval and Early Modern Spain. He has published on a range of topics including Lope de Vega, Cervantes, and the morisco expulsion, and teaches regularly on al-Andalus.  

Friday, March 09, 2018

your effort did not go unnoticed

by J J Cohen

Hi everyone,

I'm sharing here an image of a letter that arrived in my office early in the week, an anonymous letter sent through the mail by one of my students, thanking me for a practice that has become automatic: talking on the first day of class about the right of every student to mental wellness. As I go over the details of the syllabus each semester, I linger upon the university resources that I have collected for them, and speak a bit about how even though college is supposed to the "best time of your life!" it is in fact a difficult period of transition and transformation during which many young men and women experience anxiety, depression, and other challenges to mental well being. I have been making this little speech for the past few years, ever since my son as a freshman grappled with panic attacks and anxiety -- and allowed me to talk about it in public so that other people his age would know they are not alone. He's pretty amazing.

I have been surprised and, when I think about it, deeply pleased that sharing this image catalyzed a helpful and intense discussion on Twitter (where it was retweeted and liked at what seemed to me an amazing scale) and Facebook (where Shit Academics Say shared it to quite a response) about college and mental wellness: follow those two links and read through the comments students and teachers have been making in response. I did not expect to hear back from a student about how simply speaking about these issues -- gently articulating that they are not abnormal and that every student has a right to thrive and to care for themselves -- made such a deep impression. I have found over the years that it is often the small, unguarded personal things we say in the classroom that stick, not the brilliant close readings or the magnificent PowerPoint driven lectures. So if this note encourages more teachers to speak about mental wellness on day one of class, I will feel like more good has been released into the world.

So thank you, anonymous student. You make me so very happy -- and I wish you all the best.

Friday, March 02, 2018

On Courtly Love and Toxic Masculinity

By Leila K. Norako

One of the ways I encourage my students to see the relevance and importance of what we do in a medieval literature classroom is to take opportunities to look at what we have inherited from that time period. I am, as a result, always on the lookout for ways to make seemingly arcane concepts like courtly love more accessible and immediately relevant to undergraduates, many of whom will have never encountered them prior to taking my class.

In the course I’m currently teaching (a 10-week survey of medieval and early modern English literature), I pivot from Old English literature to High and Late Medieval English lit by way of a lesson spent mainly on Marie de France’s Bisclavret. To help students understand the relational dynamics in the text, I’ve found I need to spend a bit of time explaining the concept of courtly love. We go through the salient details, and students tend to remark simultaneously on the seeming alienness of the concept but, almost always, tend to notice that there are certain parallels/holdovers in contemporary culture (i.e. the idea that a man has to pursue and be persistent in winning a woman, and that in doing so he betters himself). Over the past few years though, especially in light of the growing awareness (and seeming popularity) of "Men’s Rights Activism" and, more broadly, the toxic masculinity that courses its way through mainstream American culture, I’ve felt more and more compelled to drive home to students the underbelly of the courtly love paradigm, and how we can still see aspects of that paradigm in our culture today.

To make this point, I read the following poem to the students, explaining that it was written by Bernard de Ventadorn (1135-1194), an influential troubadour poet:

Bernat de Ventadorn en un cançoner:
BnF ms. 12473 fol. 15v, cançoner K 

"Can vei la lauzeta mover"

When I see the lark beat his wings
for joy against the sun's ray,
until he forgets to fly and plummets down,
for the sheer delight which goes to his heart,
alas, great envy comes to me
of those whom I see filled with happiness,
and I marvel that my heart
does not instantly melt from desire.

Alas, I thought I knew so much about love,
and really I know so little,
for I cannot keep myself from loving her
from whom I shall have no favor.
She has stolen from me my heart, myself,
herself, and all the world.
When she took herself from me, she left me nothing
but desire and a longing heart.

Never have I been in control of myself
or even belonged to myself from the hour
that she let me gaze into her eyes—
that mirror that pleases me so greatly.
Mirror, since I saw myself reflected in you,
deep sighs have been killing me.
I have lost myself, just as
handsome Narcissus lost himself in the fountain.

I despair of women,
no more will I trust them,
and just as I used to defend them,
now I shall denounce them.
Since I see that none aids me
against her who destroys and confounds me,
I fear and distrust them all
for I know well they are all alike.

In this my lady certainly shows herself
to be a woman, and for it I reproach her,
for she wants not that which one ought to want,
and what is forbidden, she does.
I have fallen out of favor
and have behaved like the fool on the bridge;
and I don't know why it happened
except because I tried to climb too high.

Mercy is lost, in truth,
though I never received it,
for she who should possess it most
has none, so where shall I seek it?
Ah, one who sees her would scarcely guess
that she just leaves this passionate wretch
(who will have no good without her)
to die, and gives no aid.

Since with my lady neither prayers nor mercy
nor my rights avail me,
and since she is not pleased
that I love her, I will never speak of it to her again.
Thus I part from her, and leave;
she has killed me, and by death I respond,
since she does not retain me, I depart,
wretched, into exile, I don't know where.

Tristan, you will have nothing from me,
for I depart, wretched, I don't know where.
I quit and leave off singing
and withdraw from joy and love. (emphasis mine)

I place particular emphasis on the bolded portions of the poem, and then read the following excerpts from the Santa Barbara Shooter’s manifesto. This time, however, I introduce the text only by saying that it was written very recently:
 1.     All of that pleasure they had in life, I will punish by bringing them pain and suffering. I have lived a life of pain and suffering, and it was time to bring that pain to people who actually deserve it.   
 2.     I will punish all females for the crime of depriving me of sex. They have starved me of sex for my entire youth, and gave that pleasure to other men. In doing so, they took many years of my life away.  
3.     I cannot kill every single female on earth, but I can deliver a devastating blow that will shake all of them to the core of their wicked hearts.  
4.     They are all spoiled, heartless, wicked bitches. They think they are superior to me, and if I ever tried to ask one on a date, they would reject me cruelly.  
5.     I dreaded how horrible it would be to continue suffering my miserable, lonely, celibate life in such a beautiful city where everyone else experienced the pleasures of sex and love. That would be the darkest hell. And that was exactly what was in store for me.  
6.     On one of my very last days as a teenager, as I was sitting at my usual place . . . I saw a sight that shattered my heart to pieces. A tall, blonde, jock-type guy walked into one of the restaurants, and at his side was one of the sexiest girls I had ever seen. She too was tall and blonde. They were both taller than me, and they kissed each other passionately. They made me feel so inferior and worthless and small. I glared at them with intense hatred as I sat by myself in my lonely misery. I could never have a girl like that. The sight was burned into my memory, and it caused a scar that will haunt me forever.  
7.     I realized that I would be a virgin forever, condemned to suffer rejection and humiliation at the hands of women because they don’t fancy me, because their sexual attractions are flawed.  
8.     They are attracted to the wrong type of male. I always mused to myself that I would rather die than suffer such an existence, and I knew that if it came to that, I would exact my revenge upon the world in the most catastrophic way possible. At least then, I could die knowing that I fought back against the injustice that has been dealt to me.  
9.     If I can’t have it, I will destroy it. I will destroy all women because I can never have them. I will make them all suffer for rejecting me.  
10.  If they won’t accept me among them, then they are my enemies. They showed me no mercy, and in turn I will show them no mercy.
After reading these excerpts, I ask if any of the students can identify the text in question. I’ve done this four times now in different classes, and every time at least a few know right away who wrote it, and are quick to tell their peers – if any of them are chuckling at the absurdity of the statements – that the comments are anything but funny. The atmosphere of the class changes every time at this point in a hard but necessary way. We take a look at both of these documents (I provide them with copies), and students are asked to note both the key differences between the culture and texts in question, but also the many eerie similarities and parallels – especially when it comes to the privileging of male sexual desire and the objectification of women.

The conversation tends to branch out after a while, as students come up with additional examples in contemporary culture that mirror what we see in courtly love literature, especially examples of “persistent pursuit” (see this article as well)  in Hollywood films. In closing, I offer that this kind of comparative work is one way of many to accomplish a central goal of the course: to learn about the past in order to figure out what we have inherited from it and, in doing so, make ourselves better equipped to identify concepts and paradigms that do more harm than good.

I was reminded of this lesson (which I taught several weeks ago) after reading several op-eds in the past couple of weeks on the connection between toxic masculinity and the mass shooting epidemic in our country at present. A day after the Parkland shooting, Ashley Alese Edwards wrote an op-ed for Refinery29 entitled “We Need To Talk About How Toxic Masculinity is Killing America.” In it, she quotes Monica Mclaughlin, deputy director of public policy at the National Network to End Domestic Violence, who offered the following in an interview with Refinery29:
In the domestic violence community, we brace ourselves for a likely, inevitable connection to violence against women when these horrific mass shootings come out. It’s never a surprise.... Where have those messages come from? Why do young men, men of all ages, think they have an entitlement to women in their lives that they can maintain through violence and threats?

Edwards points to experts who offer that the way in which boys tend to be socialized, and the tendency to blame mental illness (which, she and others offer, simultaneously stigmatizes the vast majority of people with mental illnesses who are non-violent, while implicitly suggesting that mental illness is an excuse for violent behavior). But as Edwards offers in closing, and as I offer to my students, the answer to a question like Maclaughlin’s also needs to include discussions of the cultural values that are disseminated through a wide variety of means. And in complement to what Edwards offers, I contend that medievalists can and should invite our students to consider the ways in which aspects of courtly love’s underbelly continue to circulate and persist in our respective cultures, and how they too contribute to the kind of masculinity that can and does lead to feelings of entitlement, which all too often then leads to violence (worth considering in light of the frequency with which mass shooters are also domestic violence perpetrators). 

Screenshot from a french animated adaptation of
 Bisclavret. You can rent or purchase the short film here.
 In the class discussion on Bisclavret that followed my short lecturette on courtly love, for instance, we talked about the fact that the entire court is more willing to believe a dog they just met than a woman they have known (and presumably respected) for years. Students notice all the more readily how quick everyone around her is to suspect her because she is the victim of a brutal attack. They wonder why she is never given a name. They notice too that the wife is not malicious in intent when she conspires against her husband, but rather that she does what she does out of deep fear. And by way of this intro to courtly love, they notice how clearly the wife tries to use the courtly love paradigm as an exit out of her now terrifying marriage, but also how the entire process of attempting to acquire agency within a restrictive paradigm that privileges male desire can only backfire in the end. In short, by being invited to attend not only to the mechanics of the courtly love paradigm but also to its underbelly, the students were all the more able to detect the potential subversiveness of Bisclavret in ways they otherwise might not have been able to do.

Based on the connections my students have continued to make in the weeks following
the lesson above, they seem to be realizing more and more — for all of the crucial/salient differences between 21st century America and Medieval England — that there exists an array of aged paradigms and concepts that persist in some form even today, ones that we have to continue to confront. And that, in tandem with the courage and ferociousness of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High students and their fellow students around the country, gives me no small amount of hope.