As a Medievalist I Can’t Help You. Maybe Nobody Can. (Or, what I’m not going to tell my students after Paris)

[[[I wrote this all out as I was thinking about what I would say this evening to the students in my honors seminar. They’re a group of forty students whom I see once every other week for an hour to guide them in research fundamentals, loosely structured around the theme of Jews, Christians, and Muslims in Spain then and now. Because of the theme of the course and because we will be traveling as a group to Europe next month, I thought I had to say something to them about Paris; but the group was too large and too unfamiliar just for an informal debrief-chat. So I had to put some though into what I was going to say to them rather than how I might guide a conversation.]]]

I want to start out by talking about gargoyles. Gargoyles are one of the most iconic kinds of medieval art, but most of the ones that are still on buildings today are from the nineteenth century; they’re replicas and new inventions from a period when there was a renewed interest in the Middle Ages in Europe, and they became a way for people to articulate their own concerns and ideas without really claiming them. They couched their deepest, darkest secrets in neo-medieval art. But make no mistake about it; these are the monsters of modernity.

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Amongst the gargoyles of Notre Dame are very few human figures, and the ones that are there represent the racialist theories of the nineteenth century. One of the few medieval scenes that remains includes a group of people rising from the dead at the Apocalypse, and one of those is a representation of a black man; it is one of the earliest representations that we have of a black person in European art. It is sympathetic and unremarkable: a black person amongst the dead that shall be raised.

By contrast, the single human form on façade of Notre Dame as it was restored in the nineteenth century is known as the wandering Jew. There is nothing monstrous about this representation, but it is telling that the only human amongst all the monsters is a member of a religious minority, racialized into monstrosity in the nineteenth century. This gargoyle is telling the story not of medieval Jews but of modern race theory.

An apochryphal legend is that the wandering Jew chimera bears the likeness of an especially hated foreman on the restoration project. It’s not true, but the tale foreshadows a complete reversal in the modern period.

Gargoyles require periodic restoration, and just as was done for Notre Dame 150 years ago, the façade of the cathedral in Lyon was more recently restored. Rather than being hated, the stonemason’s foreman at the building site was respected by all of the craftsmen for his reasonable expectations and his fairness. And so one of the stone masons decided to honor him by carving a gargoyle in his likeness and giving it his name, Ahmed, and his piety as a Muslim by carving the phrase “Allahu akbar,” God is great, into the base of the figure.


Perhaps predictably, local religious conservatives kicked up a storm, complaining about the Islamization of their cathedral. To its eternal credit, the local church administration spoke out in favor of Ahmed the Gargoyle, pointing out that like Muslims, Catholics also believe that God is great and are willing to attest to that in any language. Gargoyles and chimeras just are a neo-medieval form for people to express their opinions, good and bad, about the modern world.

God is great is what the attackers shouted out in Paris this weekend as they gunned down people in the dozens. But it is also what French Muslims called out when they prayed that night for their country. And it is the sentiment, inscribed in Arabic at the base of the Lyonnais gargoyle. If gargoyles are expressions of modernity, Ahmed more than most hearkens back to the Middle Ages, when educated, literate people knew that they could read in many language, accept many truths, and hold many contradicting ideas — sic et non — with no problem. Arabic was no contradiction to Europe, and the greatness of one unitary God was mutually acceptable.

Obviously I am starting out today talking about Jewish and Muslim gargoyles in France because in a seminar on Jews, Christians, and Muslims in the country just next door, I didn’t think I could leave this weekend’s events unremarked.

Spain’s Islamic history is different than France’s. And in part because of that difference, I can assure you that our trip will be okay. Besides that, universities are risk-averse; NYU would not send us if there were any hint of danger. Our activities are being planned by people who live and work in Madrid and know lay of the city and its rhythms and are arranging everything with a safety-first attitude.

[[[That last bit is a lie. I reasonably suspect it will be fine but I am terrified all the same. I will tell them this lie over, and over, and over again until they believe it and I do. The flowers and the candles will protect us and we will not be cowed by men with guns. Trust me. I am the one with the advanced degree and the authority. Trust me; this lie must be true.]]

But just like the gargoyles of an imagined medieval France, a lot of observers take medieval Spain as a vessel through which to express their modern ideas, monstrous or marvelous. They see it as a place where Jews, Christians, and Muslims created a productive, coherent artistic and literary culture together and ask why it cannot be so today; or they see a place in which law and politics vacillated between protective and repressive and deadly and remark that given our joint historical past, today could be no other way.

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[[[This is the part that I’m not going to tell them:]]]

There’s a sense that the Middle Ages, and the Spanish Middle Ages in particular, ought to have something to say to us at moments like this.

As a medievalist I can’t help you; and in darker moments I think that maybe nobody can. I can give you a framework in which you can hang your own ideas and aspirations and vision of the world. Sometimes it’s valuable to be able to talk about modern issues from behind the safety of a medieval guise. But conversely, maybe it’s not any better to imagine a medieval world in which coexistence figured differently than it is to imagine a superhero multiverse in which a man of steel will catch you when you fall and vanquish the bad guys who pushed you into the chasm.

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I don’t have answers anymore; maybe I never did. A few months ago, in one of the Republican presidential candidate debates, Carly Fiorina said she was prepared to tackle the ISIS problem because her bachelor’s degree is in medieval history and philosophy. Everyone in my line of work laughed because the Middle Ages cannot fix a world irredeemably changed by the Enlightenment and the rise of the nation-state and the fraternal-twin ideologies of imperialism and colonialism. But it gives us something to do as the world crumbles around us and, more importantly, a way to do it.

[[[I will pick up again here.]]]

Most of you are not going to write your senior honors theses on a medieval topic; a lot of you are not going to write in a humanities discipline at all; but you are all heirs to the Middle Ages by virtue of being here in a university. The idea of gathering together to pursue higher education, to ask great questions, and to hold many contradictory ideas all at once and have that be okay is an invention of thirteenth-century Paris.

So let’s get on with going all medieval on your book review assignment, asking good questions and holding two contradictory opinions — sic et non — at the same time without exploding into a fit of modern clarity.

[[[In the end, I skipped the gargoyles and told them only the part that I thought I would not; that was the heart of the matter.]]]


3 thoughts on “As a Medievalist I Can’t Help You. Maybe Nobody Can. (Or, what I’m not going to tell my students after Paris)

  1. This is a beautiful, thoughtful piece, which articulates many of our modern uncertainties. Thank you for this.

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