I had the honor today of being on a panel called “ A Conversation about Intersectionality on National Coming Day.” Each of us was asked to present for 5-7 minutes. Others talked generously and well about students; I focused on what I know best, analyzing medieval literature. I didn’t have time to do much more than sketch some ideas, but if you’d like to see them, they’re below, and maybe they’ll help with your teaching.
I teach mostly medieval literature, and what I’m going to offer today is what an attention to intersectionality brings to literary and historical interpretation, as a model, I hope, to some of the ways those of us in the humanities might teach.
Recently, I’ve been teaching Thomas of Monmouth’s Life and Passion of William of Norwich. “Passion” here means suffering and death, like the “Passion” of the Christ, for Thomas’s work is a twelfth-century account of the torture and murder and eventual sainthood of a boy, apprenticed as a tanner. None of this is unusual fare for medieval writing, except for one thing, which is the reason I’m teaching it to undergraduates in my History and Literature Course: it’s the earliest recorded version of the “ritual murder” legend.
If you’re fortunate enough not to know what the legend is, let me explain: it’s said that every Passover, Jews kidnap, torture, and murder a Christian boy, in scorn of Jesus’s crucifixion. The alleged ritual is, of course, a nightmare version of the Roman Catholic Mass, which is itself a commemoration of Christ’s sacrifice, conducted with what Catholics hold to be Christ’s real flesh. The ritual murder legend is a clear case of projection and inversion, in other words, a common psychological mechanism in which a dominant group blames some minority or disempowered group for everything about its own claimed identity that it finds uncomfortable or worrying. Someone has to be blamed, given the anxiety over the ritual cannibalism at the heart of the Mass.
Now, the Jews were accused of randomly selecting a city every year to hold their ritual; they did it only once a year, and that year, the year Thomas writes about, it happened in Norwich. In centering the ritual in his own community – for Thomas was a Benedictine monk at Norwich cathedral — Thomas aimed to inspire a new cult for a new saint, drawing pilgrims to his workplace. He failed in that goal, likely because Thomas Beckett was far more spectacularly killed not long after Thomas of Monmouth himself died, and no English saint would have ever been able to compete with the popularity of an Archbishop of Canterbury murdered on, sort of, a king’s orders. What Thomas inadvertently succeeded in doing, however, was promulgating an antisemitic legend that continues to be told to the present day, and whose effects for the Jews of Northern Europe would be quite literally murderous.
I’ve been surprised by student reactions when I’ve taught material like this. After I gave a capsule history of medieval anti-Semitism some years ago, and I asked students what questions they had, one asked, “why are Jews so whiny.” As I was being observed that day for a teaching award, I had to pause a little longer than usual before I found a suitably diplomatic way to push back. More recently, while teaching Chaucer’s ‘Prioress’s Tale’ — not a ritual murder story, not exactly, but similarly anti-Semitic — one student interrupted to castigate the tale’s wicked Jews, because she was so horrified by what she imagined might happen to her own son. I responded by observing how antisemitism can weaponize the feelings that are dearest to us, in this case, her own mother love.
But none of that analysis is strictly speaking intersectional. In my remaining time, I’m going to sketch out how an attention to intersectionality can help us notice things about what we teach that might otherwise pass without notice. An intersectional analysis, of course, requires attention to how differing positions of structural difference interrelate. Not all these categories will necessarily be subordinated or minority categories; some categories contradict each other; others amplify each other’s effects, sometimes to weird or surprising effects. Kimberlé William Crenshaw’s foundational article “Mapping the Margins,” to cite the key example, observed that in Anita Hill’s testimony at the Clarence Thomas hearings, we had, on the one hand, feminist anti-rape activism running up against cynically deployed anti-racist anti-lynching activism.
The antisemitism of Thomas of Monmouth’s text draws some of its force from intersecting relations of oppression. Notably, almost none of text’s Jews are women, and none of them are children. The murder victim, William, is a child– a boy, of course, but still not sexed in the same way an adult is – and the boy’s father basically drops out of the narrative in favor of William’s mother, who gets several big grieving scenes.
My students tend to believe, not unfairly, that the Middle Ages was a period that was bad for women; their mistake is to take this period as uniquely bad. That said, the fact of the murderers being men, and the victim and his family being a child and mother, means that we have to attend to the way that the text’s Jews being members of the dominant gender makes them suitable victims. The very oppressed status of women, and, to an extent, children makes them the object of paternalistic protection; and the dominant gender status of Jews means that they be targeted without activating any of the paternalistic defenses that would call for the protection of women. What we have here, in a sense, is a version of Gayatri Spivak’s famous phrase about colonialism and neo-colonialist military adventures, “white men saving brown women from brown men,” and what I’ve tried to hint at, in this brief talk, is how attention to intersecting categories of dominance and oppression helps us to better understand, and to teach, our materials.