Medieval Otherness

The annual Leeds International Medieval Congress launches in two weeks with the theme of ‘otherness’. It is also ten years since I first wrote properly about this subject, in ‘Defining Paganism in the Carolingian World‘. I thought I would warm up by setting out why I think studying ‘otherness’ matters.

Otherness is an old theme in medieval studies, but an important one because of its ongoing political resonances. It is a central part of studies of gender, sexuality, identity, social status, and power generally. Anywhere there is a difference, or perceptions of difference, there is struggle and there is opportunity. It was one of those things, like money and a changing environment, that drives change.

The establishment of otherness unfolds in two intimately related ways: in action and in telling. These can, however, unfold independently from each other. It also operates differently for internal and external consumption: for a group to assert their difference to another group might be part of dialogue (or monologuing disguised as dialogue) but it is also often a way in which that group might talk about themselves, who they are, and what they are not. Indeed, otherness is normally discussed by groups for internal consumption.

For medievalists, as for experts in other fields, otherness is entwined with issues of ‘constructedness’. Both sides of the long-running debates on ethnic identities recognised fundamentally that identities are not givens, but things that are made. Similarly, historians of sex and gender recognise the importance of cultural creation – and expectation inversion – alongside biology. Few things just ‘are’, regardless how much money you have and how loud you shout. Most things are made.

But there is anxiety, because difference is not always created through the simple observation of obvious binary categories or even of actual differences. Nor is the action generated by otherness always reducible to simple clashes of ideas or practices. It is not surprisingly how often monsters and the fantastical creep into play.

Within things I have been reading about recently, a good example is provided by the ninth-century martyrs of Córdoba, women and men killed after provoking Muslim officials in Spain. The binaries, on first glance, are obvious: Christian vs Muslim, Latin vs Arabic, conquerors vs conquered. The people involved understood the nuances involved there well enough. And yet:

  • Many Christians did not approve of the antagonistic behaviour of the martyrs, did not recognise them as ‘martyrs’, and indeed some sought to stop them. From a similar starting point, they perceived ‘difference’ differently.
  • The Christian polemicists who defended the martyrs did not see otherness of religion or language as the defining issues per se. Instead, by considering themes from the Old and New Testaments, their principle concern was heresy and the corruption of the faith. Often they were really talking about themselves.
  • There had been relatively harmonious Muslim-Christian relations in Spain for decades leading up to the ‘martyrdoms’. Conflict was not ‘inevitable’.

Otherness is not just about differences between people, but about the ways people seek to exploit those differences to various ends. It can be highly situational, with simple triggers turning everyday tolerance into something less comfortable. It is endlessly corruptible. Two people from similar backgrounds can experience otherness very differently depending on what they have read, who they know, and what they want.

Negotiating otherness, in short, is central to how people see the world and how they act in it. Never take it for granted, not in the past, and certainly not now. Studying otherness has much to tell us about the use and abuse of power in all its forms.