if medieval studies is to be "relevant," it will be through the act, not of policing contemporary appropriations of "the medieval" in order to deem them either "true" [to the history we supposedly know so well] or "false" [and therefore worthy of our scorn]--in fact, in my mind, pretty much ALL of culture [scholarship, art, architecture, etc.] is predicated upon one or more gestures of appropriation [nothing springs, Athena-like, out of nothing]--but rather, in the ability of medieval scholars to demonstrate that their knowledge and understanding of that place we call the Middle Ages could actually help us solve certain present-day dilemmas--dilemmas, moreover, having to do with habeus corpus [check out new post at Blogenspiel], torture, what it means to be "human' [look at Karl's dissertation] and human rights, so-called ethnic origins and the battles still being fought in those crucibles, etc. etc. I think medieval studies can be quite relevant, but that also means we have to re-write everything we thought we knew about the past before we can truly begin to adress the present. or perhaps we do both simultaneously.
For a graduate seminar I am leading called "Writing, Race and Nation," we are reading Patrick J. Geary, The Myth of Nations: The Medieval Origins of Europe. A better subtitle for the book might be "The Medieval Non-Origins of Europe," in that the volume demolishes the idea that contemporary nations can trace their heritage to well defined groups of people who have retained their identities unaltered through long stretches of time (e.g. Celts, Franks, Serbs, Gauls). In Geary's account, these supposedly distinct and stable peoples never actually were the cultural and biological unities that they often posited themselves to be, and that nineteenth and twentieth century nationalists were all too happy to embrace as direct ancestors. The book is intended for a general audience, making the well footnoted and more specialized scholarship Geary has previously published accessible outside the academy.
The Myth of Nations is very good at doing what Eileen describes in her last two sentences, above. Taken seriously, the book is quite the flame retardant for the ardent nationalisms, facile racism, and battles over "assimilation" that have never quite left Europe, and lately seem to have been renewed in their heat. Geary speaks at one point of the suppression of "variant memories of the past" (17), and it seems to me that such alternate but truth-filled histories -- pasts in which, for example, Europeans are not always as they were, but ad hoc collations that endure for a while, ephemeral and often polyglot alliances whose names often obscure their internal heterogeneity. These variant memories are what are needed to counter the fantasy and deadly nostalgia of people like Jean Marie le Pen (he of the grand Clovis fixation). Here is how Geary ends his book:
The one constant tendency [in medieval Europe] was for successful groups to establish territorial kingdoms in which politically significant elements of society incereasingly accepted the identity of their leader ... Multiple identities, for different purposes and under different circumstances, were among the resources of Europe's elite.
Nor indeed did the process of change end with the emergence of recognizable medieval kingdoms. The history of the people of Europe has not ended -- it never will. Ethnogenesis is a process of the present and future as much as it is the past. No efforts of romantics, politicians, or social scientists can preserve once and for all some essential soul of a people or nation [this preserved soul is what Geary calls the "poisoned landscape" because of its lethal effects on those whom it would exclude, and on imaginings of more inclusive communities]. Nor can any effort ensure that nations, ethnic groups, and communities of today will not vanish utterly in the future. The past may have set the parameters within which one can build the future, but it cannot determine what that future must be.