bonæ litteræ: occasional writing from David Rundle, Renaissance scholar

Immigration and the Medievalist

Posted in Uncategorized by bonaelitterae on 23 May, 2010

This short post is the child of coincidence, a concoction of three facts. One: I was at a conference on Friday discussing how the benefits of migration could be discussed in school history classes. Two: this morning a light early-morning surfing beached me In the Middle, as it were, reading a post about how some would wish the Medieval Academy of America to cancel their conference in 2011 as its location, Arizona, which has passed a law intended to identify and deport illegal immigrants. Three: this morning is a Sunday and, for the first time in months, my other life (the one which sees me stand for election to various levels of government) has not supervened.

I will admit that, in the heat of the British General Election, the Arizonian debate had passed me by but catching up on the news now, I appreciate how depressed decent Americans can be by what’s happened there. Yet, my immediate reaction — my liberal politician’s reaction — to the suggestion the Medieval Academy should be cancelled was that would give no advantage to the progressive cause. Of course, a conference of such size has financial clout and its absence could be seen as a sort of sanction, and we could enter a wider argument about the efficacy of sanctions. But my outsider’s response to the debate dovetails with my own take on the discussion with which I was involved on Friday.

My attitude, shared by others at the conference, was that we should not so much be looking to make migration a theme in school history classes as appreciating that Europe’s identity is a migrant identity, a tale of shifting communities within and across its geographical area. In short, ‘migration’ is not a modern invention to be discussed solely in its late twentieth-century manifestations. Indeed, much better to move the class-room talk away from matters where even young minds will have been affected by home-life diatribes (on either side of the issue). Instead, let’s discuss the normality of migration — with its tensions as well as its benefits — be it, in Britain, the arrival of the Saxons, or the displacement of the Huguenots, from Louis XIV’s France or the influx of Irish into nineteenth-century Liverpool.Allow the students themselves to extrapolate from their learning to the present-day situation.

Similarly, would it not be appropriate to make Tolerance and Migration central themes of the Medieval Academy meeting to be held in Arizona? The medieval experience of immigration is not irrelevant to the present debates and highlighting that, within and outside the conference hall, should be made to feed into the ferment of discussion that is taking place in and about Arizona. Now, more than ever, is surely the time to have a large gathering there, engaging with rather than shunning the local community. It nearly makes me wish I could get on a plane and join them there. Nearly.