Monday 20 May 2013

Global + Middle Ages= Academic Innovation?

Catalan Atlas
Lately, I’ve been thinking about the term ‘global’ in relation to the Middle Ages. It is nothing new within the study of contemporary culture, but when applied to the medieval time period it seems to be the current hip catchall. In other words, the idea of using a ‘global’ perspective to delineate or enhance the current debates within the arena of medieval studies has come to be a means of academic innovation. ‘Global’ gives the medievalist yet another way to think, to contextualise, to (sometimes forcibly) fit their area of research in with everyone else who specialises in the Middle Ages. Unfortunately, the term comes with its own preconceptions and historical baggage that may make it more dangerous than helpful.

Last week I had the privilege of attending the yearly International Medieval Congress held at Western Michigan University in Kalamazoo. Of the seminars and events at Kalamazoo,  I attended a roundtable titled, ‘What Was Global in the Middle Ages?’. Since the premise of Beyond Borders is based on the concept of a globalised Middle Ages, I thought it best to see how other scholars define and incorporate ‘global’ into their own research. This is what I found: Confusion. Confusion about how medievalists can agree upon an overarching definition of ‘global’ that addresses all aspects of culture—European, Asian, African etc…

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Overall, I did not find that each panellist had difficulty in applying the concept of ‘global’ within their respective field, but I did find that these applications did not correlate with each other. This led me to wonder—is the concept of ‘global’ so subjective that it applies only to certain areas in different ways, thus making it another alienating factor in the scholarship concerning the Middle Ages? ‘Medieval’ refers to a Western time in history, a time that does not coincide with other cultures or places in the world, for example China, the Middle East and Africa. This leads us to consider what the Middle Ages or medieval means in reference to these cultures, and furthermore, does the aspect of a ‘global’ Middle Ages even fit into their historical repertoire? As you can see, the questions that arise when one considers the ‘global’ Middle Ages becomes cyclical and thus moot. So then, what is the point besides making scholars more painfully aware that we don’t know all the answers and that we too sometimes can be so engrossed in our own specialisations that we become a metaphorical embodiment of ‘An Idiot Abroad’ when asked to consider a medieval global perspective.[1] How do we cope when faced with the task of analysing our specific area of research from another perspective when there isn’t a clear definition of how one should approach such an examination and more importantly what this examination actually means?

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I do not claim to have the answers to any of these queries, but I can offer what a ‘global’ perspective means to me as a scholar of magic in the Middle Ages. When I began my studies in Art in the Global Middle Ages at the University of Edinburgh, I considered myself an Islamic art historian who was concerned with pre-Islamic and Islamic traditions of magic. However, as my research evolved I found that my examinations began to, but more importantly needed to, include other cultures’ traditions as well. Let us take the magic square as an example. Within the Islamic traditions of magic is the use of the magic square, but the magic square did not originate as an Islamic tradition, it was a Chinese tradition that spread to India and the Middle East and so on. Hence my analysis of the magic square in reference to ‘Islamic’ magic led me to consider its origins in order to better contexualise its use within an Islamic context. This example does not apply to cultural studies across the board, but it does provide an insight into how ‘looking at the bigger picture’ or thinking ‘globally’ can actually improve scholarship that is relegated to one particular culture or part of the world. Non-Eurocentric expertise does not make a scholar ‘global’, but instead the act of taking the activities of other cultures into account, to me, leads to a well-rounded or ‘global’ perspective. These activities may not directly translate into ones own work, but it may inform it in a broader context. 

Thus, when used with care, the term 'global' may suggest a conscious interpretation of the activities and traditions of other cultures, which not only applies to the enhancement of contemporary scholarship, but to the scholarship of the Middle Ages as well.


[1] This is in reference to Ricky Gervais’s and Stephen Merchant’s acclaimed television show ‘An Idiot Abroad.’ 


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