The Invention of the Clash of Civilizations. A review of Nancy Bisaha’s CREATING EAST AND WEST

On May 29, 1453, the city of Constantinople fell to the army of Ottoman Sultan Mehmed II (r. 1444–1446, 1451–1481), also known as Mehmed the Conqueror. Even though the relationship between Latin Christianity and Greek Christianity (today known as Roman Catholicism and the Greek Orthodox Church, respectively) had been complicated since their messy break up in the middle of the 11th century, the loss of Constantinople to the Muslim Turks came as a shock to the rest of Europe. Secure in their conviction that the fortified capital of the Byzantine Empire could withstand a long-term siege, allies had been slow to muster forces and send aid. And now, it was too late. The last bastion of the Roman Empire was no more.

In traditional history writing, the fall of the Roman Empire in 476 CE marks the end of Antiquity and the beginning of the Middle Ages. Behind this narrative lies the idea that Rome was the pinnacle of human civilization, and nothing has been the same since. After the light of Rome was extinguished, darkness fell on the world until light was kindled once more with the rebirth of Roman culture in fourteenth-century Italy.

We find evidence of this view of history in the Dark Ages, an outdated name for the time period otherwise known as the Middle Ages, which, incidentally, is also a pejorative name for the time period between the end of Rome and Rome born again. And, we find this view in the name of the time period that in Italy followed the Middle Ages, the Renaissance, which literally means “rebirth.”

This simplistic narrative hides several complicated truths. For one, Rome didn’t suddenly collapse and leave the world in darkness. Nor was it the end of the entire Roman Empire. What happened was that to save the Empire from collapsing, Emperor Diocletian (r. 284–305) divided the massive realm into two halves along a north-south axis, which created a Latin-dominated western half and a Greek-dominated eastern half, ruled by an emperor in the east and a co-emperor in the west. As it turned out, the eastern half dominated over the western half, most notably after Emperor Constantine the Great (r. 306–337) founded a new imperial capital where the Mediterranean meets the Black Sea. He named this city after himself–Constantinople.

As the eastern half of the Empire flourished, the western half struggled to stay together. In 476 CE, Emperor Romulus Augustus was deposed by Ostrogothic king Odoacer and the Roman Empire in the west is considered to have come to an end. The debate on why the Roman Empire disintegrated in the west is a lively one, but suffice it to say, that when the Roman Empire went away in the west, it continued to exist in the east. We call that Rome the Byzantine Empire. Its capital remained Constantinople.

Whereas it can be debated whether or not the Renaissance is a time period of its own or if it is a cultural, political, and artistic movement among the elites of a fractured Italian peninsula that spread its influences over Europe for the next three centuries, the fact remains that during the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries in Italy, new ideas flourished with inspiration from the Ancient world. These ideas built on their medieval predecessors, but as Nancy Bisaha argues in her excellent book Creating East and West. Renaissance Humanists and the Ottoman Turks, they were distinguished enough to warrant the label “new.” And, as Bisaha goes on to prove, one of the main catalysts for these new ideas was the Ottoman Turks taking Constantinople for themselves.

Whereas the relationship between Latin Christendom and the Muslim world at times was contentious during the Middle Ages, it is in the work of the Italian Renaissance humanists that Bisaha traces the invention of a clash of civilizations. People of the medieval world harbored prejudices and cultivated stereotypes about those who were not Christians, but the chauvinism, superiority, and vitriol that can be found in the writings of the Italian Renaissance humanists is of a different kind. The dichotomy between civilizations is more clearly drawn; the Othering of initially the Turks, but later all Muslims, is more marked; and the identity of Europe as something distinct and superior to the rest of the (Muslim) world is in the process of being formed.

By delving deep into a very large corpus of primary sources from Renaissance Italy, Bisaha convincingly demonstrates that these attitudes were not expressed by a chosen few of the Italian Renaissance humanists, but that they were widespread, and that the intellectuals who participated in the debate, which the fall of Constantinople sparked, were many.

Suffice it to say, Creating East and West is an excellent book. The research is extensive and meticulous. The writing craft is exemplary. The historical analysis is on the highest level.

If I were to criticize this book for anything it would be how it positions itself in the existing research at the time of its publication in 2004. As a scholar who has worked in different European countries and in the United States, I am well aware of how difficult it is to obtain books from abroad. I am also well aware that much has changed as to what was available in 2004 compared to today when libraries and book publishing is increasingly digitized.

All that being said, I still need to point out that the majority of the books and articles referenced by Bisaha are Anglo-American publications. A handful are European, even fewer are Italian. Of the Italian publications, two are from 1999 and 2002, respectively. The rest are older, some significantly so.

Moreover, in the book’s otherwise impeccable introduction chapter, the historians whose works that Bisaha discusses as the most relevant research that the book is positioning itself against are all either British or American (and they are all men). Publishing this type of book is an important step in the recruiting process towards tenure at an institution of higher education in the United States. Therefore, positioning yourself within the field where you intend to have your career is crucial.

However, that doesn’t change the fact that this is a book on Italian and European history that does not position itself against the work of Italian and European historians. This would be the same as if an Italian historian would write about the American Revolution and then only position their work against that of other Italians.

This is not to criticize Bisaha or her credentials as a historian; it is merely an observation about a systemic issue within academia.

However, this observation does beg the somewhat uncomfortable question: how relevant are Bisaha’s findings in the larger context of European history and historical research? The Italian Renaissance is not my field of expertise, and because of that I am unable to determine whether something of importance did take place in Italian humanist thought following the fall of Constantinople, or whether the writings of the humanists come across as important because they look important in the primary sources.

Or, perhaps the geriatric publications in Bisaha’s references are evidence of the fact that what Bisaha highlights in her book is under-researched among Italian historians, and her findings are something that shakes life into a research field that has stagnated?

I don’t know the answers to these questions, because the book doesn’t tell me.

These reservations aside, Bisaha’s results do demonstrate that a shift did take place among Italian Renaissance humanists after 1453, and these new thoughts that developed are of significance because of Italy’s cultural influence over the rest of late-medieval and early-modern Europe. They are also of significance because we are still living with them today. The roots of Islamophobia and the Othering of people in what used to be the eastern half of the Roman Empire can be found here, in the impressive amounts of centuries-old texts that Bisaha has dedicated herself to.

If you are curious about the roots of the ideas of the clash of civilizations, Western exceptionalism and chauvinism, Creating East and West is the book for you.

In the words of my friend, the Australian, I shall return.

The Sound of Historical Silence. A Review of Michel-Rolph Trouillot’s SILENCING THE PAST

In 2014, President Barack Obama declared March 31 to be Cesar Chavez Day, a federal commemorative holiday in remembrance of the work of activist and union organizer Cesar Chavez (1927–1993). Chavez is known for being the founder of the National Farm Workers Association, which later became the United Farm Workers Union, and for coining the phrase “Si se puede,” in English “Yes, we can,” also known as the presidential campaign slogan that helped Barack Obama become the 44th President of the United States.

But this is only half the story of Cesar Chavez’s life’s work. When he founded the National Farm Workers Association, he had a co-founder whom he worked with for the rest of his life. This co-founder was Dolores Huerta, who, in fact, was the one who coined the phrase “Si se puede,” as she pointed out to President Obama when she was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2011.

As seen in the documentary that chronicles her life and work, Huerta was a controversial person. Although soft spoken, she was considered difficult, and was often treated as Chavez’s sidekick. Her determination, activism, and personal life broke all the perceived rules for how a woman should behave and what a woman should do with her life. Especially if she, as in Huerta’s case, was the divorced mother of eleven children.

Chavez died unexpectedly in 1993. At first, it was expected that Huerta would take over, but eventually she left the movement entirely. What happened after her exit was an erasure of her significance and her work. In the new narrative, Chavez became the sole founder and the rallying catch phrase “Si se puede” became his as well.

After the death of Cesar Chavez, Dolores Huerta was written out of the history of her own movement. What happened to her is what Michel-Rolph Trouillot calls the creation of a historical silence. In his book Silencing the Past, Trouillot identifies four moments when historical silences are created. These moments are:

The moment of fact creation, which is when it is determined whether something that happened is significant enough to be considered a historical fact.

The moment of fact assembly, which is when the historical facts determined the most significant are collected and stored into archives.

The moment of fact retrieval, which is when something that happened becomes a story about what is believed to have happened.

The moment of retrospective significance, which is when a historian sits down and writes history based on the assembled facts while influenced by the narrative of those facts.

Important to keep in mind whenever we discuss anything that has to do with history is that history is not a universal force with its own mind nor does it have a will of its own. History is not headed in a particular direction. History is not an arc that bends towards a certain goal. History is not a judge. History is not a moral guide with a side that is either right or wrong.

Why? Because history is something that is made by people with agendas. With “made” I mean written. With “people” I mean historians and those who commission their work, whether it be educational institutions, museums, government organizations, or publishers. With “agendas” I mean the contexts of political power that define our interpretation of history, as well as the implicit and explicit biases, prejudices, and preconceived notions that all people carry within them depending on the kind of society that has shaped them and which affect how we interpret the world.

This is why Trouillot talks about the Haitian Revolution as a non-event in Western historiography. The Haitian Revolution is a historical fact. The Haitian Revolution exists in the archives. The narrative of the Haitian Revolution is either a fight for freedom of the enslaved population of the French colony of Saint Domingue (the Haitian narrative) or an illegal slave revolt that needed to be destroyed (the French, American, and British narrative).

Because history writing is connected to power, empires, and the nation state, and because the kind of history writing that has come to dominate the world is that of the West, the latter narrative prevailed over the former and the Haitian Revolution was excluded from the moment of retrospective significance. The Haitian Revolution was silenced. It became a non-event as far as history was concerned.

Similarly, the holidays we celebrate and the people we commemorate also create silences. By focusing on the creation of Columbus Day as a federal holiday, Trouillot demonstrates how an insignificant date became a federal day of celebration while silencing the deaths of millions. On October 12, 1492, Christopher Columbus reached what is today the Bahamas. Consequently, this day is considered the day the “New” World was “discovered.” But only in retrospect and several centuries after the fact. Columbus kept a journal during the voyage that he famously believed would take him to India. There is no entry for October 12 in that journal. What is more, news about the landing in the Bahamas didn’t reach Spain until 1493, at which time the impact was limited.

The celebration of Columbus Day has been made possible by the sanitizing of Christopher Columbus as a person and the silencing of what took place following the landing in the Bahamas. For us to be able to celebrate a person or an event, by necessity we need to look away from the negative aspects. This is true for Christopher Columbus, and it is true for Cesar Chavez.

Cesar Chavez was married to his wife Helen his entire life and had eight children with her, but he also had relations with other women. Chavez co-founded the union with Dolores Huerta, but he was a chauvinist who did not allow women in positions of power within the movement. Cesar Chavez Day is a celebration of Mexican-Americans, but Chavez and Huerta rose to national fame by organizing Filipino-American farm workers.

Every historical investigation involves setting boundaries or else the investigation will achieve nothing, no questions will ever be answered, no search for information will ever be complete. Consequently, to write history is to be complicit in the creation of historical silences.

Historians, then, seem to be in a bind. They are damned if they set boundaries for their investigation. They are damned if they don’t. So, how should they solve this conundrum?

Historians need to get down from their high horses where so many are still strapped. Historians sometimes come across as arrogant, and to a certain extent we are. We are trained to think that the way historians engage with the past is the only correct way, and because our way is the correct way, we are never wrong. When criticized, the weapon historians use in their defense is objectivity. But as Peter Novick has shown, objectivity in history can be utilized to hide prejudices and biases; it can even promote racism. Objectivity is what makes it possible for historians to create insidious historical silences while at the same time coming across as skilled scholars with integrity.

To combat the continued creation of these insidious historical silences, historians, as Priya Satia suggests in her book Time’s Monster, need to embrace the subversive side of history writing that is taking nation states, empires, and the historical profession itself to task. One way of doing this is for historians to move outside of their comfort zone to a greater degree than we are doing now. A great place to start is Michel-Rolph Trouillot’s Silencing the Past.

In the words of my friend, the Australian, I shall return.

In Remembrance of Forests Past, Or How Aimless Wanderings Will Bring You Back Home

The street where I grew up ends in a dead end where the ground drops off into a ravine. The drop is steep, and as a child it scared me. Other kids in the neighborhood would hurl themselves tobogganing down into the precipice after it snowed, but I always opted for the gentler slope of the footpath next to the ravine, which connects the dead end of my street to the lower parts of another street a few blocks away.

I love to walk to explore. But living in South Florida where everything is built to accommodate cars rather than pedestrians, and where the climate makes parts of the year difficult for outdoors activities, the opportunities for aimless wanderings are limited.

When I went home to visit over the winter holidays, I made up for this by walking for hours, going wherever my feet–or indeed, someone else’s–would take me.

Standing at the dead end, I started down the gentle slope of the path of my childhood’s tobogganing to where it connects to a footpath across the ravine that on the other side meets the embankment of the railroad that runs behind all the houses on our street, ours included.

There was snow on the ground the day I decided to go all the way down to the bottom of the ravine, enough for the ground to be frozen and tracks to be visible, but not too much to make walking difficult. As I traversed the ravine, I discovered that someone wearing thick boots had gone there before me. The path and its tracks wound deeper into the ravine, downwards, always downwards, taking me closer to the railroad, and then further away, until I found myself at the bottom, where a creek gushes forth through the railroad embankment, strong, confident, and with such force that ice could never settle on it.

The name of the creek is Kvarnbäcken, or Mill Creek, and it runs from Lake Botered on the other side of the railroad to Lake Vänern, the third largest lake in Europe after Lakes Ladoga and Onega in Russia, and where town is.

At the bottom of the ravine, I lost track of the boots, but instead I picked up another set of tracks.

A fox’s paw prints.

I couldn’t tell where the fox had come from. Perhaps from the other side of the railroad. Or maybe it had crossed the creek, using the concrete of the embankment’s foundation as a bridge. Nevertheless, I could tell the direction in which it had been headed.

I decided to follow the tracks of the fox to see where they would take me.

The fox must have been a creature of comfort. Instead of blazing its own path through the trees, it followed the footpath as it wound its way through the forest along the banks of the creek. Together we walked, the fox in the past and I in the present, in the same direction as the gushing water. And then we reached an up slope in the ravine.

There was a small rapid here, making the creek jump down a step or two as it bent to accommodate the slope. Across the rapids were narrow planks, covered in snow and ice. The fox had easily trotted across, but I would have to wait for another time when the footing was safer.

Photo: Erika Harlitz Kern

I said goodbye to the fox and climbed up the slope where I found myself in the parking lot of the tenement building at the bottom of the street that connects to my street through the gentle footpath of tobogganing past. Here began a shorter, level street, that moved away from the ravine.

I walked all the way to the end of this street, took a right at the hillock I always thought unremarkable until my Dad showed me that it is a fort from World War II, and found myself at another dead end. I was back at the ravine. Here, the even braver children would go tobogganing on the footpath that hurled itself into the precipice. The challenge was to control your toboggan mid-flight so that you could turn with the footpath and not end up in the creek or break your leg on the ruins of the mill that has given the creek its name.

I started down the hill, remembering the times I had tried to navigate my bicycle up and down it, never succeeding entirely. Downwards, the slope made it too difficult to steer. Upwards, too difficult to pedal. Or the time when it rained so hard that parts of the path washed away and you couldn’t ride a bike at all, and when you walked you had to jump over the furrows as if playing the floor is lava.

Where the footpath turned, the ruin and the creek greeted me. The ruin silent, overgrown and covered in snow, the creek roaring onward, down towards the lake. In the summer, the creek is silent, almost dry. In the winter, not so.

Here were more rapids, larger, steeper, rambunctious, covered in foam. It’s the perfect place for a mill that runs on water power. A neighbor once went to the local archives to learn more about the mill. He traced it to the eighteenth century. Maybe it’s older than that. The hollow road that leads to it through what remains of the forest that once surrounded it bears witness to a time of activity in these now empty woods. The school nearby, where I went, my sister went, my Dad and Uncle went, and for a short while one of my cousins, is expanding. Houses are being built everywhere. The town is expecting more people to move in now that the trains to the city run more often.

I saw the changes from where I stood next to the ruined mill. This used to be old forests, gravel paths, ponds with frogs and salamanders, cow pastures. Now, the trees were gone. The footpath was closed off and had become part of the schoolyard. The pond was overgrown, and the cows grazed elsewhere. In J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Fellowship of the Ring when the four Hobbits set out for Rivendell, I always imagine in my head that they walk through the pastures and the trees along this footpath, next to the creek and the ruin. I look at the changed landscape before me, and I think of Sam and Frodo and what they felt when Saruman took over the Shire.

I continued down to the banks of the creek where there was another bridge across the rapids. Though this bridge was also covered in ice and snow, it was wider with a railing, so I walked across and climbed the slope on the other side.

At the top of slope, I discovered a lean-to and a fireplace with logs for seats surrounding it. I saw traces in the snow everywhere. Boots from several people. Tire tracks. Coals and ash in the fireplace. But no garbage. From growing up here, I knew that the boots were from teenagers in the area and the tire tracks were from mopeds.

Unsure of what to do next, I saw that someone walked away from this party, through the forest in the direction of the railway. I decided to follow.

My eyes fixed to the snow, I walked together with this new stranger through the trees and up the slope where I once again reached the railroad. To the right in the distance was the creek, the embankment with the fox’s tracks, and beyond that the dead end where it all started.

I listened for the hiss in the metal rails that signal an approaching train. The rails were silent, and so I crossed. On the other side, the tracks continued down the slope, through more trees, and then I walked out onto a field. The tracks continued in a straight line, past the watch tower for the moose hunt, no stopping, no meandering. This person was headed somewhere (home?) and knew how to get there.

At the other end of the field was the highway, the E45 that runs in a north-south direction from the Swedish Arctic to Sicily in Italy. The E45 used to run through town, like roads did before heavy traffic. Since 1991, the E45 by-passes the town and instead, it cuts through here, adding noise to our up-until-then tranquil garden, leveling yet another ravine where I struggled to handle my bicycle, shifting the small gravel road that for centuries had run through the farm from which our neighborhood got its name.

On hot summer days in kindergarten, we used to go swimming in the lake where the creek begins. Sometimes we would drive there in the teachers’ cars, other times we would walk and be pushed in carts. The walk took us through trees and along a gravel road with clover growing along its banks and along fields of oats. Ripening oats smell sweet in the sun; they taste sweet, too.

The highway changed all that. The gravel road disappeared. The oats were replaced by fields of grass. You could no longer drive across the railroad behind our street, and so the neighbors we used to have on that side were no longer our neighbors.

The construction of the highway all those years ago confused my inner geography to such an extent that when I reached the other end of the field and stood at the wildlife fence watching the stranger I had been following walk through the gate in the fence to cross the road, it took me more than one moment to realize what I was looking at.

It was another one of the forts from World War II.

We used to walk past this fort on our way to the lake. Back then, nobody cared about it. It was in the middle of nowhere. The only people passing by were people like us, on our way to go swimming. Or people like the ones who one time had left their empty bottles behind and what looked like a blood-stained shirt.

When the highway was built, I lost track of the fort. I had no idea how to get back to it. And yet, here it was. Suddenly, my inner geography snapped back into place. Standing there by the fence, I knew exactly where I was because I recognized where I once had been. I also realized something else I had never known. Walking to the lake in the summer with the teachers and other children, I had always felt that I was far from home. But standing there next to this fort as this December-day moved towards its rapid, early-afternoon end, I realized that my house was very close.

With the setting sun to my back, I followed the wildlife fence along the highway, following nobody’s tracks but my own. When I reached the steps of the house, I came from the other direction from where I had started. My aimless wanderings had taken me in a circle back home.

In the words of my friend, the Australian, I shall return.

The War that Showed Us How an Underdog Can Beat the Russian Army, Or My Latest for The Daily Beast about the War in Ukraine

It’s been a while since last time, but this weekend I had another piece published by The Daily Beast. This time I wrote about The Winter War, which was fought between Finland and the Soviet Union from November 1939 to March 1940. The Winter War was a war of aggression where the Soviet Union attacked Finland with the intention of occupying territory and installing a puppet government.

Outside of the Nordic countries, The Winter War is pretty much an unknown conflict, but it is important to know about it because of the parallels to Russia’s war on Ukraine. Not only has Putin used the same fictional reasons for war as Josef Stalin, the Ukrainians’ fight to repel the Russians share similarities with how the Finns managed to fight off the Red Army.

To read the article in its entirety, please click here.

In the words of my friend, the Australian, I shall return.

Photo by Baptiste Valthier on

Conferencing in the Third Year of the Age of COVID, Or Reflections on the 97th Annual Meeting of the Medieval Academy of America 2022

Ceiling decorations in Gökhem parish church, Västergötland, Sweden. The decorations are fromthe 15th century, and are probably the work of Master Amund. Photo: Erika Harlitz-Kern

I have always enjoyed going to conferences. Even though I am an introvert and not particularly good at networking, I go to conferences anyway. I do it to meet new people, put a face to a name I already know, and to get an idea of the newest and latest research.

When I was a doctoral student, I went to conferences all the time. At that stage of your scholarly career in Sweden, it is comparatively easy to get funding for attending conferences, and with Europe literally on your doorstep, there are plenty of gatherings to choose from.

After I moved to the United States, I stopped going. There were several reasons for this. First, I dedicated my first few years to getting a Green Card and finding a job.

Second, for a medievalist there aren’t that many conferences to choose from. There is the International Congress on Medieval Studies in Kalamazoo, MI, the Annual Meeting of the American Historical Association, which changes location, and the Annual Meeting of the Medieval Academy of America, which is also ambulatory. There are of course workshops at universities here and there, but they usually cater to small, specialized groups.

Third, money. Traveling to any conference costs money and as contingent faculty, there is little to no funding to apply for. As for time, the conferences tend to be during the semester, which means that while the conference is happening, I am busy teaching. Or, as in the case of the Annual Meeting of the American Historical Society, the conference takes place in the first week of January, usually a day or two after the New Year, when travel tends to be more expensive because people are traveling after the holidays.

Also, the hotel deals on offer for conference participants (again, I am looking at you AHA) are still very expensive. Add to that the fee to attend the conference, which can be pretty hefty. Most conferences do offer tiered conference fees where the fee is reduced for students and contingent faculty, but not all do. And then there is the International Medieval Congress in Leeds, UK, which offers a discounted rate but only for a limited number of attendees who first need to submit paper work of proof of income to demonstrate that they are of the deserving. (They do know that the Victorian and Edwardian eras are over, right?)

Then, COVID happened. Everything shut down and there was total confusion everywhere. Organizers of academic conferences scrambled to find a solution. Some canceled out right. Others went ahead as planned. Others hooked themselves up to various online conference platforms with varying success rates.

By 2021, things had settled. The pandemic was still raging, but vaccines were rolling out, and we had all become Zoom aficionados. As for conferences, they all went virtual. And for the first time in many years, I could start attending them again. So, I signed up for the Medieval Academy of America, the ICMS in Kalamazoo, and the IMC in Leeds (where I paid the full fee because the IMC discount requirements are undignified).

Now, in 2022, the pandemic is still going on, some of us are vaccinated, and we are slowly learning to live with COVID-19 as an unwanted, intrusive presence in our lives. As for conferences, they are either virtual or hybrid, that is to say, they are in person and virtual at the same time. Which means that I can attend conferences this year as well.

Last weekend I attended the 97th Annual Meeting of the Medieval Academy of America, a hybrid conference that took place at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville and on the Whova virtual conference platform. What follows are my thoughts and experiences of this and other MAA meetings that I have attended.

Over the years, I have had an on-off relationship with the MAA. I first joined out of curiosity as a doctoral student and even attended the annual meeting when it was held at Yale University in New Haven, CT, in 2010. I felt then that the MAA as an organization was outdated, and eventually, I let my membership lapse. Recently, though, the MAA has developed into one of the more interesting academic organizations, and to support the work they are doing to make the field of medieval studies more inclusive towards contingent faculty and scholars of color, I am a member once again.

The MAA’s work towards inclusivity is visible in the program of the 97th annual meeting, at least when it comes to topics. Medieval studies is a notoriously white-dominated field, which has not changed much despite the MAA’s new direction. This is a systemic problem in medieval studies as a whole, and to address this issue, we all need to work towards a solution, not just the MAA. However, the annual meeting does show in distilled form how homogeneous the field currently is, and, judging by the doctoral students and early career scholars who participated, will continue to be for quite some time.

As for the sessions I attended, I chose which to attend based on the teaching and research that I am currently doing. I ended up attending four sessions out of 65, not counting breakfasts, social gatherings, and committee meetings of which I attended none. (What am I going to do, watch people while they eat?)

The sessions I attended were session 19. Technologies of High Medieval Science, which I selected based on my research into the Codex Gigas; session 21: Northern Seas and Liminalities, which I selected based on my expertise in the Scandinavian Middle Ages; 47. Teaching (and Learning) the Global Middle Ages; and finally, 57. New Religious Histories. I had also wanted to attend session 20. Finding Meaning in Global Medievalism, but since it was scheduled at the same time as session 21, I had to make a choice.

As for what I got out of these sessions, the results were mixed. A recurring issue with the sessions at the MAA is that the session titles promise a wider scope than the individual presentations ultimately deliver. A case in point is session 19 of this year’s program where the title was the far-reaching “Technologies in High Medieval Science,” which ended up consisting of three papers that focused on specific aspects of specific primary sources.

Session 21 was very interesting, mostly because all three presentations, and the discussion that followed, succeeded in balancing the narrow with the broad. For example, Jonas Wellendorf’s presentation about the mythical island of Hvítamannaland, imagined to be located off the Atlantic coast of Ireland, taught me something new about the medieval Icelandic worldview, while Krystin Christy’s presentation on slavery among badgers and beavers in the writings of Gerald of Wales provided me with a deeper understanding of bestiaries and animals as medieval allegories. Session 47, meanwhile, made me want to write an op-ed on how the Global Middle Ages so easily become Western Imperialism by another name, even when the scholars involved consider themselves proponents of post-colonial scholarship. Session 57 was interesting, mainly because an argument was made in favor of taking seriously how people of the Middle Ages related to the supernatural; we need to take it seriously, because they took it seriously.

As for the hybrid format, I support the continuation of a virtual component because it enables so many more people to attend conferences. Starting last year, conferences like the annual meeting of the MAA have extended their reach with scholars and attendees connecting from all parts of the world, which is great.

However, when comparing the hybrid format to a complete virtual format or a conference that is entirely in-person, the hybrid format is the least productive when it comes to scholarly interaction.

In session 47, all speakers were virtual, as were the attendees, which resulted in a group of people speaking on a screen in front of an empty classroom. When I logged out of that session after it had run almost 10 minutes over time and showed no signs of stopping, it had become a fully-virtual conversation between the speakers, who also had written a book together.

In session 57, the speakers were both virtual and in-person, but at the start the mic was picking up sounds in the room and it was difficult to hear the speakers before it could be fixed. Also, one of the in-person speakers had a weaker voice, and because there was only one mic in the room, it was difficult to hear parts of his presentation. In this session, the classroom was full, and the audience was in a good mood and talkative. All this is great, but the result was, as a remote participant, the session ended up an experience similar to watching live-TV. One of the moderators addressed us who were attending virtually and asked if we had any questions, but if I had turned on my camera and unmuted myself to speak, it would have felt as if I were intruding, rather than contributing.

Overall, my experience of the 2022 MAA annual meeting is similar to my experience of the 2021 and 2010 MAA annual meetings in that this is not a meeting for me. I don’t mean this as criticism of the MAA; they are doing a great job putting these meetings together in an age where everything is in flux while also working to make the field more welcoming towards scholars of color and scholars who, for one reason or another, are on a professional trajectory other than the traditional path.

The feeling I get when I attend the MAA, regardless of the conference format, is one of alienation. I am on the outside looking in. I think the reason why is because the community of medievalists in the United States is small, and the group of scholars who would attend a meeting such as the MAA is even smaller. Personal contacts are key, and these personal contacts are mainly established during post-gradual studies.

Coming from the outside with no connections to any parts of the American educational system makes it nearly impossible to break into a conversation that has been going for decades, unless you yourself have participated in at least some part of it. (I am aware that all scholars who move between countries face challenges like this, but, what sets the American higher education system apart is that universities here claim to be places where scholars can come from anywhere and thrive, which is not true. Classism and xenophobia is rife, is what I’m saying.)

Also, the view of the medieval world that is presented at the MAA, whether it be in its original Eurocentric form or in its expanded Global form, is decidedly American. At its core, the study of the Middle Ages is the study of European history, but as a person from Europe with a terminal degree in medieval history from a university in Europe, what I find when I attend the MAA are ideas about an abstract Europe in the distant past with little to no connection to the actual Europe existing today and how this Europe interacts with its own past.

Yes, the MAA is the Medieval Academy of America, so it makes sense that the participants are either Americans or based at an American university. However, to come across references to research done on medieval Europe in Europe by scholars at European universities that are not Oxford and Cambridge is rare.

The problem here is that positioning yourself among other American medieval scholars matters more than engaging with research outside of American medieval studies. After all, this is how careers are made, regardless of where your university is located. However, if you are studying a part of the world that is not where you live, you need to start paying attention to what is going on there. And here I’m not talking about American scholars traveling to European archives and reading the primary sources in the original languages; that they do and they are very good at it. But any kind of production of knowledge is ultimately a conversation among scholars, and that conversation is here being ignored.

With the 97th Annual Meeting of the Medieval Academy of America behind me, the question remains what I will do when the 98th annual meeting comes around in 2023. Right now, all I can say is that it remains to be determined.

In the words of my friend, the Australian, I shall return.