American History or Medieval History

Earlier this week, there was a fun discussion on The Twitters about a job ad that read: New job: “tenure track position: American history OR Medieval history.” At first, like a bunch of other people on Twitters, I was baffled by this (although I could understand easily enough how a department might need one or the other and for now was happy with either). 

After a bit of good natured discussion about it, I got thinking about whether a position of American OR Medieval history could almost as easily be a position in American AND Medieval history. My brain made this leap, in part, because such a position would not feel particular foreign to my experiences as someone with an interest in Medieval history (broadly) and a growing interest in US history. It would also coincide with recent developments in the field. After mulling it over a bit more, I got to wonder whether we might see more of these kinds of positions in the future.

And here’s why:

1. Global Middle Ages. One of my favorite books of the last year is Eleni Kefala’s, The Conquered: Byzantium and America on the Cusp of Modernity (Dumbarton Oaks 2020). I blogged about it earlier in the year. The book compares a literary lament for the fall of Constantinople with a similar pair of laments for the fall of Mexica empire “Huexotzinca Piece,” and the “Tlaxcala Piece.” 

Such innovative comparisons remind us that it is entirely plausible for an individual to have lived through the fall of Constantinople in 1453 and the first wave of conquest in the Caribbean and Central America in the early 16th century. In other words, American history, inasmuch as it imagines its beginning with the first journeys of conquest by Europeans to North, Central, and South America is not particularly far removed from an event often associated with the end of the Medieval East. 

Works like Laila Lalami’s 2014 novel, The Moor’s Account, which tells the story of at the Narvaez expedition from the perspective of in 1510 offers a fictional view of the disastrous expedition from the perspective of Mustafa Azemmouri or Estebanico, an enslaved Moor. Lalami’s account plausibly assumes that Estebanico continued to practice many elements consistent with his upbringing in the larger Islamic world. Whether we see this world as “Medieval” or “Early Modern” does not matter much especially once we divorce such terms from narratives grounded in European history and the narrative of European expansion.

Embracing the concept of a global Middle Ages means that it is no longer a contradiction to study Medieval history and American history. Just an an “Ancient historian” might be expected the teach the entire history of the Roman Republic from the founding of the city to the rise of Augustus, so a historian might be expected to study periods defined by, say, the Fourth Crusade and the American Revolution or the Battle of Kosovo (1389) and the American Civil War.      

2. World-Systems. My experience with the intersection of Medieval history and American history did not come from such expansive and, frankly, 21st century readings of Medieval history, but world systems theory (in its plurality of guises). I wish I could claim that my reading of F. Braudel’s The Mediterranean World in the Age of Phillip II spurred me to think expansively about history and material culture (especially as Braudel’s ideas have been adapted and critiques but works such as P. Horden and N. Purcell’s The Corrupting Sea (2000)), but instead, I started to realize that the study of American history and Medieval history were not so far removed by hanging out with P. Nick Kardulias.

Kardulias is an archaeologist who wrote his dissertation on the archaeology of the Late Roman and Byzantine fortress at Isthmia (which he published as a book in 2005). A quick scan of Kardulias’s publications show his expansive area of research interests that include historic buildings in Northern Ohio, American rock shelters, and prehistoric and historic sites in Greece and Cyprus. Throughout his career, he demonstrated how studying a range of material culture and history contributed to understanding systems that functioned on transregional and even global scales.

His support of my interest in the modern sites in Greece, for example, was absolutely formative and encouraged me to think about broader patterns of human history especially in rural landscapes. Kardulias’s insights, in a general way, informed my work at sites of short term occupation in the contemporary Bakken oil patch in North Dakota and in Greece and Cyprus.      

Of course, one could protest that Kardulias is an anthropologist or an archaeologist, but we shared advisors and while my PhD says History and Nick’s says Anthropology, we still have a good bit in common.

3. Skills and Methods. Common skills and methods often anchor the ability to move between a Medieval and American context and should extent to our ability to teach those fields. As I became more and more interested in certain questions, it became pretty obvious that the skills that I had honed in the Medieval Mediterranean could serve to answer questions in a American context as well.

To be clear, I’m not the first to sort this out. For example, my colleague David Pettegrew has used his data crunching and GIS abilities developed through the study of the Late Roman and Early Medieval Corinthia in Greece and Cyprus to study race, economy, and social change in Harrisburg. Kostis Kourelis, who’s speciality is Byzantine and Frankish Greece, has made meaningful contributions to the history of Greeks in Pennsylvania, my work in the North Dakota oil patch, and in understanding the global scope of the Avant-garde. Richard Rothaus is (literally!) another dean of this kind of thinking as he published a well-respected book on Late Roman Corinth as well as running, for a time, his own CRM company in the Northern Plains and continuing to publish and present on the Bakken, Japanese internment, the Dakota Wars, and so on. 

I know plenty of archaeologists and historians who have meaningful sidelights doing local archaeology, archival research, and heritage. It doesn’t take much time for this kind of work to lead scholars to have feet in multiple specializations. Of course, this isn’t limited to Medievalists and I know plenty of prehistorians and even Classical archaeologists who have done significant archaeological and historical work outside their fields.

4. Reception. Perhaps among the fruitful area of contemporary studies of the ancient and Medieval world is reception studies. This is honestly, not an area where I have much experience other than the regular stream of panels at various meetings. Of course, this isn’t to suggest that I don’t recognize the importance of reception especially as post-colonial state building continues in places like the Near East where the Medieval legacy of these places intersects with political interests anchored in Orientalism. To understand the way in which Orientalist legacies (as one example) have shaped our view of the past involves understanding the histories that produced such views of the Near East. 

Of course issues such as race, gender, and ethnicity (and ethnogenesis) likewise require a foot in both the Medieval and the Modern worlds and cultural, economic, and geopolitical history as well. One can hardly imagine speaking with authority on complex interplay between past views and present policies without being an expert on both.  

5. Teaching. Finally, there is a real sense of urgency in the study of the Ancient and Medieval worlds these days. The chorus of scholars suggesting that our field requires not just significant changes, but perhaps existential ones. This coincides with the changing needs of departments and challenges associated with enrollments in liberal arts and history in particular. 

Being flexible and having a foot in US and the Medieval gives one the ability to both navigate the changing political, disciplinary, and frankly economic landscape of the academy. While this might seem crudely opportunistic or even cynical, I think that it is still acceptable to approach ones livelihood with a bit of realistic strategizing especially at institutions which offer a bit less in he way of insulation for the vagaries of political fortune. I suspect that someday I’ll contribute to our department’s offerings in American history not because I have a deep or profound knowledge of the topic, but to help our department respond to opportunities and pressures from various stakeholders. 

That this might intersect with the growing feeling that the study of the Ancient and Medieval worlds is overrepresented in the academy, is mostly just a coincidence. Times, priorities, and ethical imperatives change with time and maintaining a certain amount of flexibility ensures that one’s knowledge remains appropriate and relevant.  

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