Decolonising the Medieval
WHEN the University of Leicester announced they would axe Medieval Literature as part of decolonising the curriculum, there was no predicting the outrage it caused. Yet for many different reasons, there was a unified reception that this decision was ridiculous.
The Daily Mail brashly decried: “Welcome to the University of WOKE! Leicester has ditched Chaucer, is ‘decolonising’ its syllabus and marks ‘International Womxn’s Week’… no wonder it’s turning into a first-class failure”. Immediately Leicester’s decision was weaponised; The Mail pointed an outraged finger at the so-called woke agenda trying to eradicate Englishness from an English degree.
Meanwhile, an overwhelming 2,850 academics from around the world signed a letter to the Leicester Vice Chancellor protesting the decision. They highlighted the value of Leicester’s Medieval research to the field and shone a light on the cynical reality of what happens when a university does not care about decolonisation as much as it does money.
The topic of decolonising the curriculum has long been misunderstood, as highlighted by The Daily Mail’s headline. A discussion sparked when a statue of Cecil Rhodes “fell” on a campus in Cape Town has since gained traction on a global scale – especially in relation to Higher Education. Some academics look down on it as “fashionable”; others see it as the future of education as we know it. One of the biggest misconceptions is that decolonisation is as simple as diversification, but it is not as easy as replacing Austen for Audre Lorde. One aspect of decolonisation, as a constant form of disruption, asks that we interrogate schools of thought currently in place. That we consider, for example, why Admiral Croft might be assigned to the East Indies after the Battle of Trafalgar in Austen’s Persuasion.
One of the biggest misconceptions is that decolonisation is as simple as diversification, but it is not as easy as replacing Austen for Audre Lorde.
Let’s be clear on one thing: Leicester’s decision to get rid of Medieval Literature does nothing to decolonise the curriculum. During my time as an English student at Exeter, I have encountered my fair share of Medieval Literature. This year, I took a module that specifically looks at the Medieval through a decolonial lens. The first thing confronted in this module was the legacy of white nationalist appropriation in Medieval studies – the image of the Knights Templar, the crusades, the focus on Medieval Europe and isolationism – and furthermore how contemporary medievalists have tried to combat it. As such, we read of how stories travelled across the globe, de-centering Medieval Europe. We learned how indebted English bookmaking traditions were to North Africa and looked at Chinese manuscripts telling the story of Alexander the Great; we even read the great English hero Geoffrey Chaucer through a decolonial framework.
Departments across the country are beginning to cut staff, and it is just a question of who will go and how the University can justify it.
The point is that the module employed decolonial methods to approach the Middle Ages, and it did so in an accessible way. It was clear that the convenor understood decolonisation not as something only applicable to literature from colonial and post-colonial eras, but how colonial thought processes can become retroactively ingrained into our very understanding of literature and history. The Middle Ages may be considered pre-colonial, but the very fact that it has been appropriated by white nationalists shows how it has been impeded by colonial mindsets. The very suggestion that Medieval studies can not be decolonised only reinforces everything that white nationalists pedestalise about the era.
Considering this, I cannot help but feel sceptical as to whether decolonisation was ever the University of Leicester’s real aim in getting rid of Medieval Literature. After all, surely medievalists in the department could easily explain strides made in decolonising the Middle Ages. Cambridge academic Priyamvada Gopal saw through the guise and astutely called it what it was: “Managerial cuts, as I understand it, are what’s going on, and they are using diversity as a cover.” This brought to the forefront another concerning prospect: the drastic underfunding of the Humanities is finally beginning to show. Departments across the country are beginning to cut staff, and it is just a question of who will go and how the University can justify it. And as our degrees further succumb to marketisation, universities across the country will look for ways to market themselves as innovative. As such, the University of Leicester’s decision provokes a startling question: will decolonisation of the curriculum be taken seriously, or will it be reduced to a cheap marketisation tactic for universities to wield?