This is the first post in a series of guest contributions from current Indiana University, Bloomington graduate students celebrating their contributions to our community and to the broader study of the Middle Ages. Here, Zac Engeldow (English) shares his experience participating in the digital “Transgender Roundtable on the Pardoner.”
The roundtable streamed live on May 7, 2020 and was organized by M.W. Bychowski (Full-time Lecturer in the Department of English at Case Western Reserve University). Alongside M.W. Bychowski and Zac Engeldow, it featured Blake Gutt (Assistant Professor/Postdoc Fellow in the Department of Romance Languages and Literatures at the University of Michigan), A.J. Odasso (Senior Poetry Editor at Strange Horizons Magazine), and Joy Ambler (Coordinator of Equity and Diversity Engagement and History faculty at the Dwight Englewood School).
When M.W. Bychowski (also known to her friends as Gabby) asked me to join a Zoom roundtable on issues of trans identities, the plague, and Chaucer’s the Pardoner, I felt a little apprehensive. In our group chat on Facebook, we decided that we wanted to stream our roundtable on the same week that the International Congress on Medieval Studies, which happens every year in Kalamazoo, MI, would have taken place. We knew that many medievalists—ourselves included—would be feeling the void left behind by ICMS’s cancellation and wanted to foster both scholarly discussion as well as to recapture a sense of community that had been put on hold during the increasing concerns of the global pandemic. Still, as most of my friends and colleagues know, the end of the semester, right around when ICMS occurs, is always a mad rush of writing, grading, and other concerns which were only compounded by our quick transition to remote instruction for the remainder of spring semester.
Part of my apprehension came from the regular chaos that accompanies the end of the semester, but it also came from the fact that I am not a Chaucer scholar. However, as Gabby constantly reminded us, our main goal was to entertain people and have a good conversation with each other, which made the roundtable feel less daunting and more like a conversation between friends. Of course, we all knew the importance of having this conversation about plague, trans identities, and community in relation to Chaucer’s the Pardoner in light of COVID-19. Our decision to have this “Transgender Roundtable on the Pardoner” was also a chance to engage with what is surely going to be a historic event when we look back on 2020.
Much like The Pardoner’s Tale is a record and a kind of reckoning with the Black Plague and mass death, we knew our roundtable would also be a record for the work that both medieval studies and trans studies can offer in times of crisis, when inequality between minority populations can be exacerbated. So often is medieval studies co-opted to support oppressive ideology related to race, gender and sexuality that our roundtable sought to reckon with these misuses of the Middle Ages, showing how medieval and trans studies can respond to current concerns—such as how to care for each other during a global pandemic, how to create community in times of crisis, and how Chaucer’s the Pardoner can remind us of those bodies and identities that are vulnerable to brutality.
My fellow panelists helped me be more attentive to the ways that the Middle Ages can help us be better respondents to pandemic, to what kinds of bodies and identities are valued and welcomed as a part of a community, and also the necessity of medieval studies to engage with these issues in the context of history. In this way, medieval studies can become better equipped to highlight and deal with the realities of what identities and bodies are targeted and made vulnerable in times of political, economic, and social upheaval.