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 the issues of people constructing difference, often on the basis of ignorance for political ends, in 'Defining Paganism in the Carolingian World'. I thought I would warm up by setting out why I think studying alterity and difference matters. [NB I have edited this post, removing most uses of the word "otherness" that many people found problematic, in the wake of the interesting debates and polemics surrounding the framing of the Leeds conference.]

Alterity and difference are old themes in medieval studies, but important ones because of their ongoing political resonances and abuse by the Alt-Right. They are central parts 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 difference 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, alterity is normally discussed by groups for internal consumption.

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

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 differences in 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'.

Alterity 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 construct or experience alterity very differently depending on what they have read, who they know, and what they want.

Negotiating alterity, in short, is central to how people see the world and how they act in it. It is not just a matter of intellectual fashion: it is at the heart of a better, more diverse, more politically engaged medieval studies. Studying alterity and difference has much to tell us about the use and abuse of power in all its forms.