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Medieval Academy of America’s 98th Annual Gathering Rethinks What It Means to Be Medieval

By: Siobhan Cooney

May 9, 2023

While medieval studies is usually focused on the interdisciplinary study of the past, Professor Jonathan Ray sees the importance of that scholarship on what it can teach us about the present.

“We look at how any religion develops in contact and conversation and sometimes in tension with these other religious cultures. How we get these religions to talk to each other, to listen to each other, to engage each other positively [are questions that arise today] and were dealt with in various ways before.”

Ray, the Samuel Eig Professor of Jewish Studies in Georgetown University’s Department of Theology and Religious Studies and a faculty fellow at the Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs, finds that there are several important parallels for people interested in the current moment to learn from the medieval scholarship that he and his colleagues are doing.

The Medieval Academy of America (MAA) explores these topics and more. This organization is a scholarly community committed to deepening, broadening, and sharing knowledge of the medieval past in an inclusive and equitable way. They convened their ninety-eighth annual gathering in Washington, DC, from February 23 to 26, 2023.

Breaking from their traditional model of university-based gatherings, the MAA decided to use the entire city as a canvas for intellectual encounters and engagement. This year’s conference included off-site events at various cultural institutions, including a session at the Library of Congress, an excursion to Dumbarton Oaks, and a final reception at the National Museum of Asian Art.

Ray served on the MAA conference’s program committee alongside fellow Georgetown medievalists Sarah McNamer and Michelle Wang. He is also affiliated with Georgetown’s Global Medieval Studies Program, which empowers students to be culturally literate global citizens through an interdisciplinary study of cultures removed in time and space.

Each group, according to Ray, “tries to look at this phenomenon we call the Middle Ages—somewhat problematically or fascinatingly, depending on how you look at it—and tries to rethink where they took place, who’s involved, and what it means to be medieval between two different eras.”

Rethinking What It Means to Be Medieval

Laura Morreale, MAA council member and conference co-chair, points out that the academy’s efforts over the past two decades to change the perception of medieval studies as a “stodgy” practice have resulted in expanded participation that includes a range of personal and professional identities.

“It’s really trying to look not only towards what scholars do, but who scholars are and the different perspectives that each person can bring to the exercise of thinking about the medieval past.”

Not just historians, but linguists, literary scholars, philosophers, theologians, and more contribute to this integrated field. The task of the medievalist, according to fellow conference co-chair Jennifer Davis, “is always solving a puzzle where we never have all the pieces. And because of that, we have to be interdisciplinary…Our sources are too fragmented and complex and uneven to not operate in that way.”

This interdisciplinarity extends beyond areas of study and into methodologies as well, Morreale pointed out, highlighting 2023 conference sessions that relate to digital studies, materialism, and art historical curatorship.

Religion and Internationalism

This interaction between scholars mirrors the interaction between cultures and an ethos of internationalism that underlines this year’s conference and the larger ongoing work of the MAA.

At the conference, Ray chaired a panel on “Localizing the Universal: What Late Medieval Pastoral Texts and Episcopal Statutes Say (and Don’t Say) about Jews and Muslims” and presented in another panel on “The Iberian Middle Ages Today: Rethinking Spanish Historiographies,” focusing on the presence of Jewish people in Spanish scholarly sources.

So-called “modern” religious challenges, such as struggles between notions of religious freedom and faith commitments, were also present in the Middle Ages, says Ray.

“There is perhaps a view of these religions as always being there. One of the ways the religions portray themselves today is being relatively faithful versions of something that begins in the ancient world, right? As a historian, I have a harder time with that. I see these as things that develop within society, within cultural contexts. And they are made, not born.”

Beyond papers, the conference offered experiential learning opportunities such as the world premiere of Rejoicing in Broken Places, a play that explores the lives of nine medieval women and was commissioned in conjunction with the MAA meeting. Special events like this shone a light on “the gendered aspects of religious experience and how we reckon with older traditions that didn’t always give space to voices that we’d like to hear right now,” says Davis.

Looking Back to Look Forward

Cultivating a holistic and inclusive approach to what medieval can mean also lends itself to forward and backward thinking. This conference demonstrated a vested interest in how medieval studies intersects with the world today.

One of the most attractive features of medieval studies, says Morreale, is that “it taps into a kind of imagination and a fascination with the past. It’s so intriguing, and once you start down that road, it’s a pathway towards scholarly discovery.”

Channeling that passion for the past into uncovering parallels with today’s issues is what makes medieval studies scholarship so relevant to our current moment.

For example, when thinking about the war in Ukraine, part of it involves “Russian claims about the distinctiveness, or not, of a Ukrainian identity,” says Davis.

“Those are debates that have been played out in texts that go back to the twelfth century, and that reflect a ninth-century historical reality of Scandinavian presence in the territory that’s going to become Ukraine, Russia. That’s been fought over and it’s debated, but we see the consequence of this in a very real-world way today.”

Davis also emphasizes how it is incumbent upon medievalists to pay attention to and be involved in public discourse to combat misappropriation of medieval narratives and cultures.

Promoting this kind of cultural, historical, and religious literacy is central to the Berkley Center’s mission of seeking a more just and peaceful world by building knowledge and advancing cooperation through research, teaching, and dialogue.

“The Berkley Center is delighted to support the work of faculty fellows like Jonathan Ray and the ongoing work of the Medieval Academy of America in building bridges with scholars across the fields of religion and internationalism,” says Berkley Center Executive Director Michael Kessler.

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