Past and Present

At the intersection between the historical past and the political and cultural issues of the present day.

Race, Racism, and the Middle Ages

East Africa: Five Million Years of History


This is Part XX of The Public Medievalist’s continuing series on Race, Racism and the Middle Ages, concluding our interview with Chapurukha Kusimba, Professor of Anthropology at American University. You can go back to the beginning of the interview here. 

Chapurukha Kusimba, Professor of Anthropology at American University.

In our last installment of our interview with Professor Kusimba, we explored how, despite what many colonialist scholars thought, the complex and beautiful civilizations of East Africa were unequivocally African. For our final part, Professor Kusimba and I discuss the written sources waiting for any historian intrepid enough to try to conquer them, and the long, long, long history of his homeland.

Writing East African History

The Public Medievalist: So returning to Africa, so I’m curious because there is this paucity of written documents that we’ve been talking about. It’s interesting within the African context because they’ve got these sophisticated societies. They’re practicing Islam, which is a scriptural religion. So what do you think happened to those documentary sources– were they not produced? Were they not kept? What happened?

Kusimba: They’re there! Those documentary sources exist, but most of them were kept within families.  The bulk of the archival sources that do exist today are curated in several places, including the Kenya National Archives, the Institute of Swahili Research at the University of Dar es Salaam, Libraries at Fort Jesus, and Lamu Museum in East Africa.  However, many original documents were taken in the 1940 through the 1960s by European collectors and anthropologists.  My understanding is that so most of those documentary sources are now at the University of Bergen in Norway.

Professor Rex Sean O’Fahey and his colleagues, including Anne Bang have worked on them.  Anne has especially been instrumental in having some of the documents restored and digitized.  Professor O’Fahey has been working on making these documents available. But after years of the scholarly community waiting, we have begun to wonder whether some of those will see light of the day.

There are also excellent archives of documents in Zanzibar—these mostly document the events of East Africa under the Omani sultanate (from around the years 1940-1963).  Court records document everyday events including conflicts over land, discussions on the position and role of under the Omani sultanate, debates on sharia law versus traditional law or mila.  These documents are useful for legal anthropologists and historians.

Economic anthropologists, historians, and geographers will find that port records on exports and imports exist for the past nearly 300 years. Some of this can also be found in Lisbon, Mumbai, Surat, Mombasa, and Zanzibar.  And then you have chronicles. Each city had chronicles. The Pate and Kilwa Chronicles are the most well-known, but other towns and cities had their own chronicles as well. From these chronicles, careful and imaginative scholars will glean extremely useful information for reading and interpreting local, traditional histories and daily struggles of the coastal peoples to make a living during some of the most traumatic moments of African history. This is the period when globalization and capitalism—which structures current modes of relationship—began to establish its roots at the expense of Africans.

It is also important to remember that most of these chronicles were written in the 18th century. They recount events that occurred many years before.  One should therefore be aware of the context in which they were written.  I am not necessarily dismissing their authenticity, but as a scholar, I am careful with the potential dangers of invention, innovation, glorification, and creation of alternative histories to justify or lament present-day experiences. Like any document, I think that one should read them very carefully. They do have their own problems and this, as I understand it, is not unique to these documents.

A Linguistic Hurdle

Kusimba: There’s one problem. Another is that most of the chronicles are written in Swahili, but using the Arabic script.

TPM: Wow. That’s got to be very complicated!

A page of Swahili-Arabic poetry by Al-Inkishafi. MS 47770, SOAS. Original from:

Kusimba: Yeah, that’s complicated because few non-native scholars, and even relatively few native ones, can read it!  As far as I know only a handful of archaeologists who work on the coast today are literate in Arabic script or Swahili. And to understand these, you have to have both languages.

And so, I think that these archives are not being fully utilized.  One other problem for East Africa is that the Portuguese Period there lasted from around 1500–1750; and it lasted until 1970 in Mozambique. The archives during that period are in Lisbon and in Portuguese.

Unfortunately for modern scholarship, we are impatient with learning and truly internalizing knowledge. Academia, perhaps ironically, does not reward scholars who spend significant time learning but are not, themselves, producing new knowledge in the form of scientific papers and books. The era of “public or perish” has killed real scholarship.  Thus, some students would say, “Professor Kusimba, I would love to learn all these languages—Arabic, Swahili, Portuguese, and maybe English—fluently. But by the time I master these languages, I’m essentially going to be unemployable!” Yes, they would be knowledgeable, but basically too old to be employed.

TPM: Yes. Becoming fluent in four completely different languages and their historical variants could take a huge amount of time. And with no guarantee of being rewarded in the long run for all that effort, I can see why people just don’t do it. Hell, I had a hard enough time with Latin. 

Kusimba: Yes. So it’s a question of time. And I just don’t think that kind of patience exits anymore in the academy except for the very few who might have independent means and don’t need a regular academic job to pursue their hobbies.

TPM: And that means that the only people who can do this work are rich hobbyists, which brings us right back to the nineteenth century model of scholarship.

Kusimba: A lot of young people want to have their PhD by the time they’re thirty, and then move on get tenure in their mid-thirties. At that point, it’s probably too late to learn and completely master another language. And so, our fantastic archives suffer as fewer and fewer scholars can consult them in their original form.

And I think part of the reason is, “Hey, wait a minute! Europeanists do this. Classical scholars take time to learn all these old languages. Why do we make it easy—why do we not insist that scholars who are interested in the global south do not in fact do the same?” Why do we have such a double standard?  One for western scholarship and other for the global south?

If you look at Swahili poetry, it’s so advanced. These guys are writing poetry—at least what exists today—by at least 1400. And so these texts do in fact exist where they have been studied and those scholars who studied them initially translated them. I think that we do have evidence of very early, very sophisticated thinking and writing about daily life of Swahili people, by themselves.  But we do not care to learn so we can engage their ideas.  Why?!

TPM: Can you give me an example of this poetry? I imagine people would be very interested in seeing it.

Kusimba: I can think Al Inkishafi, Muyaka bin Haji, Swifa ya Nguvu Mali, Utendi wa Adamu na Hawa, Malenga wa Mvita, Malenga wa Mrima, Utenzi wa Mwana Kupona among many others.

Changing the Picture

The Curse of Ham, by Ivan Stepanovitch Ksenofontov. This biblical curse was one of the justifications that Europeans made for their oppression of African peoples.

TPM: Why do you think the image of East Africa, or of Africa, changed so radically between the Middle Ages and the Early Modern Period?

Kusimba: The European encounter with Africa occurred at the time of recovery following the devastating effects of the Black Death and the Little Ice Age.  Europe recovered much faster than Asia and Africa. So, it was extremely difficult for European travelers to visualize societies so utterly devastated by these events—and by the slave trade. They found it impossible to imagine these places as capable of what was then defined as “culture”.

We have often undervalued the devastating effects of slavery. Imagine: during the slave trade, most Africans lived nearly every of the last four hundred years—from 1500 to 1870—as if it was their last.  Not a single permanent building was erected in inland Africa, except the European Fortresses whose primary goal was to hold and ship young, healthy, handsome, and beautiful boys and girls with noted skills out of Africa for the benefit of Europe, the America, and some regions of Africa.

To justify such actions, Africa had to be dehumanized. It had to be portrayed as the place inhabited by brutes who were descendants of Ham.  Yes, that Ham who was cursed by his drunken father Noah!  His descendants, the Hamites were thus destined to serve others. And as brutes, they were seen to be incapable of making history. Today, many scholars who write a fragmentary history of Africa would deny they are furthering this dichotomy. But in the era of elitism that we find ourselves, this kind of scholarship is nevertheless alive and well.

A Final Thought

TPM: Is there anything else that you think it’s crucial for people to know about East Africa? If they, as non-specialists, wanted to look into this more, where is a good place to start?

Kusimba: I come from a region of the world whose history stretches back over 5 million years.  We East Africans are the proud caretakers of the longest and, perhaps, richest heritages of humankind.  Even our most recent history stretching back the last 5000 years is extremely complex.  Thus, in East Africa, you find the most genetically diverse peoples in the world.

To develop a cultural history for each individual ethnic community who have lived and interacted with others during those years is a daunting proposition—and unfortunately anthropologists, historians, and geneticists often go about their business of classifying Africans in ways that create contentious and divisive histories.  These histories have come to define daily experiences that were witnessed with horror in Rwanda in 1994 and are, today, silent as another genocide unfolds in East Africa—this time just north of the Great Lakes region in South Sudan, the world’s newest nation.  The writing of history is thus a serious undertaking which needs to be sensitive and sensibly considered.

As an archaeologist who studies past people’s experiences, I use material culture as witness to the dynamic human experience.  In my view, the primary objective my contribution to the wellbeing of humankind is to explain who we are and what we have been up to for the last five million years.  I am also interested in using the information we have at our disposal today to imagine where we might be in the next 5 million years.  So, everything that we each do, collectively, as individuals and nation states, must be geared to explaining the meaning of life, and our search for that elusive meandering river called happiness!

TPM: That’s a beautiful image, and I can’t think of a better place to stop. Thank you so much for taking the time to speak with me, it’s been an honor.

Kusimba: It’s been my pleasure.

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Race, Racism, and the Middle Ages

“Pizzagate” and the Nocturnal Ritual Fantasy: Imaginary Cults, Fake News, and Real Violence


This is Part XIX of The Public Medievalist’s continuing series on Race, Racism and the Middle Ages, by Michael Barbezat.

You can find the rest of our special series on Race, Racism and the Middle Ages here.

A persistent delusion exists Western culture: that shadowy, conspiratorial groups gather together in secret—preferably at night—to plot the overthrow of society. As part of their plotting, the conspirators supposedly ritually abuse, murder, and consume innocent children.

Ideas about this conspiracy have appeared repeatedly throughout our history. Historian Norman Cohn called this recurrent conspiracy theory “the nocturnal ritual fantasy.” Cohn argues that imperial Romans made these claims against early Christians; later medieval Christian authorities, in turn, made similar allegations against Christian heretics, Jews, and so-called “witches”. Belief in the nocturnal ritual delusion helped to justify deadly violence against these marginalized groups, and, in fact, played an important role in establishing their very marginality.

In all cases, the claims were false. They were nothing more than the imagined behaviour of fantastical enemies that existed more in the minds of those who feared them than in reality. The recent “Pizzagate Conspiracy” that came to a head during and in the wake of the recent American presidential election is a modern form of the nocturnal ritual fantasy. In this modern shape it is just as threatening as its past manifestations, with the threat of violence inherent in those who believe it.

What on Earth is “Pizzagate?”

Comet Ping Pong, in 2016.

The conspiracy theory behind Pizzagate goes something like this: Comet Ping Pong, a pizza restaurant in Washington D.C., is, allegedly, a front for a child sex-trafficking ring with deep connections to Democratic politicians (especially the Clintons) and their financiers. These associates of the Democratic Party would call the restaurant to place orders for “pizza” which, to them, was a code word for underage prostitutes. According to the conspiracy, the alleged organised sexual exploitation of children at Comet Ping Pong also had occult overtones. The participants in the ring were largely thought to be members of “illuminati-type” secret political societies, among whom ritualistic sex orgies were just one of many social/bonding activities.

Further complicating an already convoluted conspiracy, according to the Pizzagate believers, underneath the restaurant there are a series of labyrinthine tunnels and rooms. This underground network hosted ritualistic orgies, and connected Comet to the offices of the other organisations involved in the conspiracy. The members of the secret cult also, apparently, used arcane symbols to communicate with each other. The crossed ping pong paddles that the restaurant uses as its logo were, in reality, meant to represent a butterfly—which itself is, according to this theory, a secret symbol that deep-state paedophiles use to recognise one another. In case there was any confusion, let me emphasize, again, that all of these claims are entirely false.

Behind the Delusion

This delusional conspiracy theory took shape over the course of several months through innuendos on social media strained through a filter of intense homophobia. Why Comet Ping Pong? The restaurant’s owner, James Alefantis, is a gay man who once was in a relationship with David Brock, a prominent Hillary Clinton supporter. Brock was once a right-wing journalist. But, he became an “apostate” to the conservative case when he re-aligned himself with left-leaning politics. Comet Ping Pong had hosted democratic fundraisers. But perhaps most importantly, it is popular with beltway government employees, journalists, and politicians tied to liberal causes. It is also, as a profile on Slate put it,

both a neighborhood hang for young families as well as a reliable home for eccentrics, queers, outsiders, and their art.

Its stage has been a mainstay of DC’s punk scene, alt scene, and drag scene for over a decade. For the purposes of this supposed conspiracy though, it is a den of left-wing political insiders presided over by a homosexual, against a backdrop of a wide range of “queers”. Whatever one thinks those kinds of people get up to, Comet Ping Pong is an excellent setting for it.

As outrageous as a subterranean child-sex cult operating under a pizza parlour might sound, the story spread quickly and widely on right-wing media. It took off on a subsection of Reddit dedicated to Donald Trump [we don’t link to such sites, but if you must find it, we are referring to the The_Donald subreddit —ed.]. Well-known conspiracy theorist Alex Jones picked it up on his InfoWars radio program. The original Pizzagate subreddit is now closed to avoid “a witch hunt,” and Alex Jones has since apologised for promoting the story. But he has not exactly been chastened; he now calls Pizzagate a distraction from supposedly real conspiracies that threaten his listeners.

Long before Alex Jones’ quasi-apology, one of his listeners, Edgar Maddison Welch, believed what he was told. Armed with an AR-15 assault-style rifle, on December 4, 2016, he entered the popular pizza restaurant to find and to free the child sex slaves he believed were being held there. In his own words, he “just wanted to do some good.” In the restaurant, he brandished his weapon at employees, and fired it into the air about three times. But he found no children taken hostage. As it turns out, the building has no basement.

After Welch was arrested, he still believed it was possible that a hidden child-sex cult connected to liberal politics existed somewhere. But he admitted that “The intel on this wasn’t 100 percent.”

Medieval Pizzagates

The Pizzagate hoax closely follows the model of Cohn’s nocturnal ritual delusion, and has a number of medieval analogues. Take, for example, the sect of supposed Christian heretics near Soissons described by Guibert of Nogent in 1114. Guibert explained that these heretics had a number of unorthodox views on the sacraments, the role of priests, and human salvation. These opinions threatened, what he took to be, the fundamental order of the world.

Beyond their threatening theology, he also described how these heretics rejected heteronormativity by engaging in same-sex sex. They, according to Guibert, held secret meetings, grouping both men and women together, in “underground vaults or unfrequented cellars.” Guibert claimed that in the light of candles:

Some loose woman lies down for all to watch, and so it is said, uncovers her buttocks, and they present their candles at her from behind; and as soon as the candles are put out, they shout “Chaos” from all sides, and everyone fornicates with whatever person comes first to hand.

This is certainly not a regular church service.

But it doesn’t stop there: if one of the women became pregnant in the ritual, they apparently waited until the child was born before taking it back to the underground chamber. There, they tossed it back and forth through a fire until it died. But wait, there’s more: finally, they would take its ashes and make bread from them—and then use that as their sacrament of communion.

Guibert says that after authorities uncovered the sect, two of its leaders were confronted publicly by the Bishop of Soissons. One underwent the ordeal of water, where a person was thrown into a body of water, with their innocence proven by sinking. Perhaps sadly for this person, they failed it by floating.

The second confessed that he believed forbidden things, but refused to be reconciled to the Church. Both were then imprisoned. Soon after, a lynch mob took both of them from their cells and burned them alive.

Papal Persecutions and “Luciferians”

Accusations like Guibert’s continued to be made against supposed heretics. The thirteenth-century papal bull, Vox in Rama (A Voice in Rama), described a form of the nocturnal ritual fantasy that ultimately had an enormous influence over the later persecutions of other groups, particularly the Knights Templar and so-called witches.

In 1233 Pope Gregory IX issued Vox in Rama in response to reports from the Rhineland regarding a group of heretics labelled the “Luciferians.” These heretics, according to the Pope, gathered together in secret to conduct their rituals; their initiation rites were especially sordid. New members joined the sect at these meetings by first kissing toads, (thought in the Middle Ages to be poisonous), and then later by kissing an emaciated pallid man, who appeared during the rite. After sharing a ritual meal, a cat would appear, which they in turn would kiss on its hindquarters. Only after these escalating kisses, would the heretics engage in an indiscriminate orgy, like that earlier described by Guibert.

Templars and accused witches had similar accusations made against them. In the early fourteenth-century, the Templars were accused of conducting initiation rituals like those described in Vox in Rama, but with an even stronger emphasis on accusations of homosexual intercourse.

At the end of the Middle Ages and into the Early Modern period, the rituals ascribed to witches also followed this template. One of the earliest accounts of witches’ rites comes from the Malleus Maleficarum, published in 1486. The authors of the Malleus, Jacob Sprenger and Heinrich Kramer, argued that witches gathered together at night to fornicate with demons, the Devil, animals, and each other. They also reportedly killed children and used their body parts to work magic or ate them. Captured witches, when questioned, supposedly claimed that unbaptised babies were best.

Sprenger and Kramer also described how witches performed many other feats, such as flying through the air or apparently stealing men’s penises and storing them in bird’s nests or a handy cabinet (though they stressed that witches couldn’t really steal a man’s penis; witches could only make it look like they had).

Obviously, none of these tales are true. There were no witches. The Templars did not hold ritualistic homosexual orgies. King Philip IV “The Fair” of France destroyed the Templars in order to get access to their vast wealth, which he used to pay his massive debts. Philip understood the power of propaganda, and he regularly used the typology of the nocturnal ritual fantasy against his foreign and domestic enemies, including even Pope Boniface VIII.

Revealingly, no Templars confessed to Philip’s charges unless they had been tortured first. The causes for authorities’ pursuit of supposed witches are more complicated and variable than Philip’s attack upon the Templars. Explanations have ranged from tensions between Protestant and Catholic communities, especially in sixteenth-and seventeenth-century Germany where the majority of burnings occurred, to local politics, economics, and other factors. The point remains, however, that historians have continually found that the accusations made against so-called witches were patently false. The accusations against all these groups are part of what might be the oldest pattern of “fake news” that exists.

Jewish Conspiracy Libels

A fictional depiction of the murder of Simon of Trent, which was wrongly blamed on the Jews. It became one of the medieval instances of the blood libel, where Jews were accused of murdering Christian children and using their blood in Jewish rituals. Illustration in Hartmann Schedel’s Weltchronik, 1493.

Medieval Jews were also often accused according to this pattern. One of the libels repeatedly levied against European Jews was that they kidnapped Christian boys and tortured them to death in a twisted re-enactment of Christ’s crucifixion.

These tales began in England with the fabricated story of the kidnap, ritual abuse and murder of the Christian boy William of Norwich, written and elaborated by Thomas of Monmouth between the early 1150s and 1174. In the middle of his imagining of William’s ritual crucifixion, Thomas has the Jews of Norwich pause to remark upon the fact that in the torture and murder of little William they are, finally, just as wicked as Christians expect them to be, saying: “That which they ascribe to us we will inflict on them.” In his write up, Thomas manifested his own negative opinions of Jews by putting them into the very mouths of imaginary Jews he presented as real. This is a circular logic that provides justification for prejudice based upon evidence generated by prejudice.

The belief that Jews tortured Christian children, which has come to be known as the “blood libel”, often featured a sexual component as well. In some versions of the blood libel accusation, kidnapped Christian boys were reportedly circumcised against their wills as depicted in a woodcut of the martyrdom of Simon of Trent in 1475. The Jews supposedly used the blood from this circumcision and other tortures to make the matzos for Passover.

Scholars now read accounts like Guibert’s as entirely delusional. According to medievalists such as R. I. Moore and Mark Gregory Pegg, most accounts of medieval heretics before the early thirteenth century are entirely invented. As Pegg argues most strenuously,

There were no pre-existing heresies in the twelfth and early thirteenth centuries until the thinking of Latin Christian intellectuals invented them. The ‘reality’ of heresy that these intellectuals so genuinely feared was actually fabricated by them.

Like the supposed continent-wide conspiracy behind witchcraft, or the secret torture cults of Jews they did not exist. Medieval authors made them up; they imagined them into being.

A Persecuting Society

Medieval authors and authorities created these accounts of heretics as part of their re-organisation of the world into what Moore calls a “persecuting society.” In the eleventh and thirteenth centuries, Western society underwent a permanent change in which “persecution became habitual.” In that period, Moore says:

deliberate and socially sanctioned violence began to be directed through established governmental, judicial and social institutions, against groups of people defined by general characteristics such as race, religion or way of life.

The trope of the nocturnal ritual fantasy played a role in the creation of this persecuting society. By creating an enemy that had to be fought, these authors justified the changes they wanted to make in their world. This legitimated their forceful suppression of other changes to the world that they did not want to see continue.

In Guibert’s case, the people he described did not exist, or at least they did not engage in the lurid behaviour he describes. But those heretics may have been some of the Christian reforming groups—composed of both men and women—like those studied by Herbert Grundmann. These groups were part of a wider movement that included figures who would become pillars of orthodox reform and others who would later be described as infamous heretics.

For example, Norbert of Xanten, founder of the Premonstratensian Canons, began as a poor preacher with both female and male followers, like the “heretics” described by Guibert. When his movement became an official order, his followers, who found official positions in the hierarchy of the Church, abandoned the mixing of the sexes. Much later, Waldes of Lyon, founder of the heretical Waldensians, and Francis of Assisi, founder of the Franciscans and later a saint, began their careers virtually identical to each other.

Guibert, as an orthodoxically-minded monk, did not approve of the mixing the sexes in the religious life; his account of the heretics’ underground orgies emerged from what he assumed such sexual miscegenation would entail. He described what he, essentially, believed these people must be or would become—not what they were. As he portrayed them, potential Christian reformers became monsters, deserving neither dialogue nor understanding but, instead, only death.

The Bloody Consequence of Conspiracy

Templars burned at the stake. British Library Royal 20 C VII f. 44v. Click to enlarge.

Just because the heretics described by men like Guibert did not exist does not mean that real people did not die as a result of these descriptions. They did. Real Templars died for participating in a fake conspiracy. Real women died as supposed witches, and real Jews died as a result of the lies behind the blood libel accusation.

Using the formula of the nocturnal ritual fantasy to describe an enemy du jour justifies violence against that enemy. That Edgar Maddison Welch responded to accounts of Pizzagate with an assault rifle in his hands is no accident; it’s a result consistent with thousands of years of experience. As such, with a little knowledge of history, it’s entirely foreseeable.

The formula of the nocturnal ritual fantasy keeps being used again and again. And it continues to find audiences ready to believe it. For example, before Pizzagate, modern America had a tussle with the nocturnal ritual fantasy in the form of the “satanic panic” of the 1980s and 90s.

During that time, law enforcement and day-time talk shows became concerned with an imaginary ring of secret cults, apparently operating throughout America, whose influence could be seeing everywhere—from the Dungeons and Dragons role playing game to heavy metal music. Geraldo Rivera advised his viewers regarding the warning signs that their children may be drifting towards Satanism.

These cults supposedly meet in secret, among other things, to—you guessed it—engage in the sexual abuse and murder of children. Because of belief in these cults, a string of day-care workers were accused of sexually abusing the children in their care as ritualistic offerings to Satan. Most of the stories of ritual satanic ritual abuse from the 80s and 90s are wildly implausible; under close scrutiny, they have always been proven false. Nonetheless, the nocturnal ritual fantasy hasn’t gone away.

Endlessly Repeated Nocturnal Fantasies

One of the (obviously) photoshopped memes depicting Hillary Clinton as a demon prior to the 2016 election. In October of 2016, Alex Jones of Infowars called Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama “demons from hell”.

The nocturnal ritual fantasy demonstrates that fake news isn’t new. It’s a tried-and-true strategy of literal demonization that gets used when the basic pillars of a society are being remade. Modern America is undergoing just such a remaking. Its racial, religious, and economic demographics are changing, and women, like Hillary Clinton, are slowly moving into social spaces and positions of power traditionally reserved for men. Likewise, homosexuality is becoming more accepted both socially and in law.

The nocturnal ritual fantasy can serve as a weapon for those threatened by such changes, but it also can serve as a weathervane of sorts or a declaration of intent. Following Hannah Arendt’s thoughts about totalitarian thought, it’s the sort of thing that would need to be true in order to justify what certain right-wing groups would like to do. For us today, it’s an indication of the seething desire to use violence, justified, righteous violence, in response to a changing society. The conclusion to a recent article in Spin Magazine stated that Welch was:

the first gunman to take the warning of the right-wing conspiracy theory complex as literal calls to arms

In our immediate context that might be true. But in a longer historical view, however, the kind of conspiratorial thinking behind proto-Pizzagates have always worked as a call to arms. We need to understand the deep genealogy behind the more extraordinary examples of false information presented as fact that we are currently seeing in our world. If this genealogy is clear to us, it will be easier to identify the directions in which the larger tides of modern violent and persecutory delusion are taking us.

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Race, Racism, and the Middle Ages

The Mystery of Stephen the African


This is Part XVIII of The Public Medievalist’s continuing series on Race, Racism and the Middle Ages, by Sihong Lin.

You can find the rest of our special series on Race, Racism and the Middle Ages here.

Woody Strode and Kirk Douglas in Spartacus (1960).

We are accustomed to seeing people of colour in Ancient Rome. It is easy to think of examples from films set during the Empire—Djimon Hounsou and Omid Djalili in Gladiator, Omar Sharif in The Fall of the Roman Empire, or Woody Strode in Spartacus. The same is sadly not true for depictions of people of colour in the Middle Ages. This has fed the idea that as soon as the Roman Empire collapsed, its people of colour disappeared from Western Europe.

The reality was, of course, far more complicated.

Sometime in the late sixth century, a priest named Stephen, in Auxerre, France, was asked by his bishop to write a biography of a fifth-century saint. This was not particularly unusual for the time and we know that Stephen agreed to the request, as we still have the priest’s reply and the Life he eventually composed.

So far, so good.

What makes this cache of documents unique, however, is that two different ninth-century sources referred to Stephen as Stephanus Africanus: “Stephen the African.”

Stephen the African

This is a curious epithet. If you read it literally, of course, this suggests that Stephen was originally from Africa. L.-M. Duru, the nineteenth-century editor of these texts, did so, and confidently stated that “the woes of his country no doubt forced him [Stephen] to leave it”. This was in reference to the Moorish revolts in North Africa in the late-sixth century, and therefore placed the priest within a firm geographical and historical context.

Unfortunately, this cannot be proven by any evidence; as is often the case with nineteenth-century historians, it should be taken only as a suggestion that matched Duru’s own preconceptions.

We now know, for example, that the epithet Africanus did not necessarily mean that Stephen was from Africa. Mark Handley, author of Dying on Foreign Shores: Travel and Mobility in the Late-antique West, has convincingly shown that “regional” names in this period can have little to do with their bearers’ place of origin. Take for example a Roman woman: Caecilia Graecula—Caecilia the Greek. Despite what her name would imply, her epitaph suggests, instead, that she was originally from Spain, not Greece. Given the social nature of nicknames, Stephen may even have earned the name simply because he had a dark complexion.

Stephen very well could have been from Africa. We will never know for sure. Even so, we can explore the context around his hypothetical life. Just how plausible is it that a man born in Africa could become a priest in Auxerre in the sixth century? Were people from Africa migrating to Europe in the Early Middle Ages?

African/European Migration in the Early Middle Ages

Before we go further, I have to point out that the only incontrovertible evidence from the earliest part of the Middle Ages relates to people from North Africa, not sub-Saharan Africa. There is some evidence of trade between the Mediterranean world and the more-distant parts of Africa, including some surprising finds in east Africa that originated in Anglo-Saxon England. But we do not have enough evidence to confirm instances of individuals moving from so far south into Europe, or vice versa.

North Africa, on the other hand, had been a long-standing part of the Roman Empire. After 535, though Roman authority in Western Europe had collapsed, North Africa was once again ruled by a Roman government—the one in Constantinople. This empire is frequently referred to as “Byzantium” by historians, but at this point it was still indisputably Roman. They saw themselves as Roman, and called themselves Roman.

Despite its continuing Romanness, early medieval North Africa remains understudied. It also hardly features at all in how the public imagines the Middle Ages. But that is a failure of the modern imagination, since North Africa was not at all forgotten in the early medieval West.

Spain and North Africa

Over the course of the sixth century, the wars of famous Eastern Roman Emperor Justinian I brought North Africa, Italy, and even parts of Spain under Roman rule. But this did not mean stability. Moorish unrest led to a great deal of turmoil in North Africa, which caused several North Africans to become refugees in Spain.

According to a seventh-century author, Ildefonsus of Toledo, a North African hermit named Donatus fled this danger to Spain with “seventy monks and a great collection of books”, around the year 570. The seventh century Lives of the Meridan Fathers also records how another African, Nanctus, moved to Spain for unknown reasons and ended up receiving the patronage of King Leovigild (568-586). Admittedly Nanctus met a messy end: he was allegedly murdered by some of his tenants who disliked how poorly the abbot dressed. Even so, it is striking how much he seems to have prospered in the years prior to his murder.

Interestingly, migration was not just from North Africa to Europe, but also occurred the other way. A little later in the Lives, we are told that an unfortunate Gothic bishop named Sunna fled to Mauretania, the western region of North Africa. Historians disagree on whether it was a forced exile, or a more voluntary move to convert the locals to Christianity. But in either case, from the privileged perspective of the elite of Merida (in Spain), North Africa was seemingly not far away at all.

Isidore of Seville, and Possibly Africa

Isidore of Seville (right), not only a noted bishop and the patron saint of the Internet, but also linked to North Africa. Meister des Codex 167. Click to enlarge.

These are only a few scattered references to North Africans in Europe. But other, circumstantial, evidence indicates that they were not unique exceptions. Historian Roger Collins has, for example, suggested that Isidore of Seville may have originated from “outside the Iberian peninsula, possibly in Africa”.

Saint Isidore of Seville was the dominant voice in the Spanish Church during the late sixth and early seventh centuries. He was archbishop of Seville, and such an impressive scholar that he is widely considered to be the last great “Father of the Church”. His histories of the Iberian Peninsula were the bedrock of Spanish histories for centuries, and he is widely cited as a leading light of Christian thought by writers like Chaucer and Dante.

Collins believes Isidore may have been North African. His argument relies, in part, on Isidore and his brothers’ rather un-Spanish names. These are not fool-proof indicators of their origins. But when combined with the preservation of sixth-century North African texts and the growing veneration of African saints in Spain at the time, it is tantalisingly plausible. Indeed, the most useful narrative of the unrest in North Africa was written by John of Biclaro—a contemporary writing in Spain. Clearly, some members of the Spanish Church were very interested in news from North Africa.

Gaul and North Africa

The Roman (Byzantine) Empire in the Seventh Century. Click to enlarge.

Of course, you may think, Spain makes sense because of how close it is to North Africa. But what evidence is there for Gaul (now modern-day France), the supposed home of our “Stephen the African”? The contemporary textual evidence is sadly non-existent, though there are some oblique hints in the sources. Gregory of Tours, the foremost historian of Merovingian Gaul, described in the early 590s a Frankish embassy to Constantinople that briefly stayed in Carthage. These envoys were no push-overs and quickly got themselves into a brawl with the local guards. In Gregory’s telling, one surviving Frank eventually boasted that:

The prefect of the town sent to attack us two or three thousand men whom he had collected […] I, too, would have been cut down in that fracas, had I not had the courage to defend myself like a man.

Ignoring the ambassador’s (much exaggerated) bravado, this alleged “fracas” in Carthage is also a hint to North Africa’s place as a pit-stop for travelers between Gaul and the Empire.

Other examples can be found in the seventh century, when the Eastern Roman Empire faced an unprecedented crisis. It was buckling under the pressures of its war against Persia, and the subsequent Arab conquests. Both of these have been thought to be the final nail in the coffin for cross-cultural exchange within the Mediterranean, though as the previous essays in this series have shown, that is not the case.

We can still add some colour to this picture. One seventh-century anti-Jewish polemic written in North Africa provided a tantalising detail. Its fictional protagonist, a merchant from Constantinople, had promised that:

if I arrived in Africa or Gaul, I would sell the cloths and bring the gold back intact to the holy and royal city [Constantinople].

This brief comment hardly represents reality, but it is perhaps an indication of how such a journey was not yet wildly unrealistic in the minds of contemporaries—that the two places remained connected.

Archaeological evidence can also shed some light on this question. For example, there was a measurable influx of imperial gold coins—probably minted in Carthage—into Gaul in the early seventh century. This suggests that imperial diplomats continued to travel from North Africa to meet with Frankish kings. More specifically, a coin hoard buried in south-west France around 660 has been interpreted by historian Michael McCormick as evidence of North African refugees fleeing the war in their home province. Despite the distance and lack of written sources, it was clearly still possible for North Africans to cross the Mediterranean.

England and North Africa

We are on firmer ground, surprisingly, for Anglo-Saxon England, as we have a far more promising lead in the seventh century. According to the Venerable Bede, the most famous of all the early medieval historians, a North African abbot named Hadrian travelled to Canterbury from Naples. He then became the right-hand man of the Archbishop of Canterbury—Theodore of Tarsus, who was, incidentally, a Greek monk from what is now Turkey. Together, the two men make a fascinating duo: a North African abbot, working in tandem with a Greek archbishop from Anatolia, with both becoming respected members of Anglo-Saxon society.

Of course, Hadrian was at the apex of the church hierarchy, so his experience may not have been representative of that of other North African migrants. Recent analysis of burials in the British Isles, however, provides us with something more concrete. A small number of individuals buried in and around the seventh century in south Wales, the Isle of Man, Northumberland, and Cambridgeshire have all been found to be from the southern Mediterranean, with North Africa being one of the likelier possibilities for their origins. At the moment, there are nearly twenty probable results; this number will grow larger as more research is completed.

These conclusions rely on the analysis of chemical isotopes in their teeth; depending on what you ate and drank as a child, your teeth contain different amount of oxygen and strontium. As different regions yield different results, it is possible to see whether someone was local to where they were buried. These findings are therefore remarkable indications of some of the options available to those born within the Roman Empire in this era. Even the British Isles were a plausible destination for emigration for people much further afield.

The textual evidence is similarly telling. In his eighth-century Ecclesiastical History of the English People, Bede included the following speech:

We learned that it [method of dating Easter] was observed at one and the same time in Africa, Asia, Egypt, Greece, and throughout the whole world.

In Bede’s eyes, England was clearly part of a much wider Christian world—a world that included far more than just Europe. In their eyes, the British Isles were situated at its very edge, while the city of Rome was its symbolic heart. With the centre of their faith in the distant Mediterranean, it is natural that North Africa and the Middle East continued to feature in the Anglo-Saxons’ collective imagination. This is especially true since a few individuals from these faraway places, though few in number, likely lived among them, and possibly vice versa.

Where Do We Go From Here?

Ultimately, we can say very little for certain about “Stephen the African”. But we can say quite confidently that other North Africans, whether anonymous or more well-known, did move to Western Europe during the early parts of the Middle Ages. Given the dominance of Latin Christian culture in North Africa at that time, there may indeed have been a priest named Stephen among them. But even if Stephen was not an African, there were many who were.

Some of these North Africans held positions of power and influence, but many more—as evidenced by the burials in England—were seemingly ordinary people. For all the grand historical trends discussed by historians, such as the decline of long-distance trade or changes in culture, individuals still moved from place to place to find a better life. Their lived experiences, though mediated through unrepresentative texts, provide the needed corrective to how the Middle Ages is still imagined.

It is difficult to make many strong conclusions about specific individuals from this period. But it seems clear that North Africa was an integral part of the early medieval world. The persistent mobility of people, ideas, and texts between the two continents means that, when thinking about the Early Middle Ages, we should always keep North Africa in mind.  Certainly, when we study this period, “Europe” as a concept is less than useful. In the twenty-first century, it is surely now more important than ever to also tell these stories, and to reincorporate Africa and its people into our ideas of the medieval world.

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Race, Racism, and the Middle Ages

Uncovering the African Presence in Medieval Europe


This is Part XVII of The Public Medievalist’s continuing series on Race, Racism and the Middle Ages, by Adam Simmons.

You can find the rest of our special series on Race, Racism and the Middle Ages here.


The BBC is revising history to suit its own anti-White narrative.

So claimed a commenter at the right-wing website Biased BBC. The object of their ire: the 2017 three-part BBC drama-documentary of the Norman conquest of England, 1066: A Year to Conquer England. The reason for this critique is that, in this series, Robert de Beaumont, one of William the Conqueror’s main aides, was played by an actor, Jotham Annan, who is black.

The historical Robert was not of African descent. But the BBC’s portrayal raises a question: were sub-Saharan African people present in medieval Europe? Despite their glaring absence from many histories, both popular and academic, they were. They came as traders, as explorers, as warriors, or—for those we only know by the archaeological record—for many reasons that we will never know. One in particular came as a king.

The Fourth Crusade Encounters a Nubian King

Robert de Clari was a French knight who was part of the ill-fated Fourth Crusade. In his account of the Crusade, Conquest of Constantinople (which he wrote around 1216), he offers a tantalizing account of the presence of Africans in medieval Europe. From it, we can begin to construct a wider picture when placed in context with other sources.

According to Robert’s account, in 1203 the Crusaders on the Fourth Crusade were in Constantinople playing a part in a major imperial power struggle. They had come there upon the request of Alexios IV Angelos, with the aim to restore his deposed father, Isaac II Angelos, to the throne, ultimately resulting in both being jointly named as co-emperors.

While they were in the city, they witnessed an unnamed Nubian king. As Robert described:

And while the barons were there at the palace, a king came there whose skin was all black, and he had a cross in the middle of his forehead that had been made with a hot iron. This king was living in a very rich abbey in the city, in which the former emperor Alexios had commanded that he should be lodged and of which he was to be lord and owner as long as he wanted to stay there.

Robert’s description of the king having a branded cross on his forehead would have been true for a Nubian at that time (a practice that is still occasionally continued today among some communities). This is a detail he was unlikely to have made up, which means that it likely was true.

Nubia and Christianity

The Kingdoms of Nubia in relation to the cataracts of the Nile.

In order to claim that the Middle Ages—and Christianity—were implicitly “white” requires you to ignore or erase huge swaths of history. One of those is the entire history of the black African Christian Kingdoms that thrived in northeast Africa during the Middle Ages. Some of these were the kingdoms of Nubia.

Nubia includes the region to the south of Egypt in what now southern Egypt and Sudan. It stands as one of the corridors between sub-Saharan Africa and Northern Africa, along the winding banks of the River Nile. Medieval Nubia existed roughly during the same time span that scholars attribute to the European Middle Ages: the long thousand years between the fall of the Kingdom of Meroe in the 4th century CE, and its eventual cultural conquest by Arab Muslims from the north over the 15th century.

Over most of that 1100 year span, Nubia was a Christian kingdom—it was “officially” Christianized by Byzantine missionaries in the 6th century. It stood as one of several black African Christian cultures in the region. Until around the 8th century, the Nubian region consisted of three separate kingdoms: Nobadia, Makuria, and Alwa. But at some point at the beginning of the 8th century Makuria annexed Nobadia, leaving two kingdoms.

Despite being one of the “Churches of the East”—i.e. non-European Christians—Nubia (and its neighbour Ethiopia) are rarely mentioned in discussions of early Christianity. Despite this, they stand alongside the Christian communities that existed in Syria, Armenia, Georgia, India, or even Egypt. And more, they existed not just as isolated churches, but as explicitly Christian Kingdoms.

Moses George in Constantinople

That brings us neatly back to the Christian Nubian king arriving in Constantinople. Robert never reveals his name, but Nubian documentary evidence, surveyed by Giovanni Ruffini, suggests that it was possibly King Moses George. According to Robert, Alexios was said to have given this king “great honour”—emphasising the prestige of the king.

When the emperor saw him coming, he rose to meet him and did great honour to him. And the emperor asked the barons: “Do you know,” said he, “who this man is?” “Not at all, sire,” said the barons. “I’faith,” said the emperor, “this is the king of Nubia, who is come on pilgrimage to this city.”

This story of the visit by King Moses George appears not to have been of much interest to other authors at the time. Despite appearing at the court of the emperor in Constantinople, not a single (surviving) Byzantine Greek writer mentions the event.

This leads us to three possible conclusions. Either:

  1. There were other sources detailing this event, but they have been lost.
  2. Robert de Clari invented the whole thing (though there seems little reason why he might), or
  3. This visit was not as weird for contemporaries to see as we seem to think.

Those scholars who have addressed this event differ on which of these interpretations is correct. But my inclination is towards the third possibility. Firstly, this is because Constantinopolitans prided themselves on the ability to welcome many embassies and host many different cultures. For example, Eustathios, Archbishop of Thessaloniki, noted that they hosted Ethiopians at the court of Emperor Manuel I in either 1173 or 1174. This ability was important to them. Further evidence of this is that an interpreter was seemingly readily available at the court, which allowed the Nubian king to communicate with his hosts. Robert relates:

Then they had an interpreter talk to him and ask him where his land was, and he answered the interpreter in his own language that his land was a hundred days’ journey still beyond Jerusalem, and he had come from there to Jerusalem on pilgrimage.

Robert also made special note that the king was a Christian, and participating in one of the quintessential medieval Christian activities: pilgrimage. In fact, he was on the pilgrimage to end all pilgrimages. He had already been to Jerusalem, and had made his way to Constantinople (though apparently most of his retinue perished along the way). After Constantinople, the king had hoped to travel to Rome, and then to Santiago de Compostela, before returning to Jerusalem. Apparently, he planned to die in Jerusalem:

And he said that he wanted to go on pilgrimage to Rome and from Rome to St. James, and then come back to Jerusalem, if he should live so long, and then die there.

Santiago de Compostela and Rome

Such a tour was certainly ambitious—it may even seem fanciful. Looking at the Google map of the route, above, the trip, if done over land, would cover 13,246 kilometers (8230 miles). Ambitious though it may have been, these were well known pilgrimage spots.

The shrine to St. James at Santiago de Compostela in northwest Spain dates to the 9th century. The Camino de Santiago (Way of St. James) was (and remains) one of the most popular pilgrimage routes in medieval Europe.

Medieval Spain was a well-known multicultural melting pot of peoples. Pilgrimage to Santiago is mostly associated with European Christians, but this is an incorrect assumption. In fact, one 12th century Latin text lists Nubians as one of the 72 different nations from which pilgrims came to visit the shrine. Even more, a century after King Moses George’s trip, in 1312, historian Ibn ‘Idhāri al-Marrakuši also mentioned Nubians as pilgrims to Santiago. So even if the king did not go—or did not survive the trip—other Africans appear to have done so, and be counted among the black faces present in medieval Europe.

The Cathedral at Santiago de Compostela.
The church of Santa Stefano degli Abissini in Rome.

By contrast, we know less about the African presence in Medieval Rome. We have not yet found any evidence of Nubians in Rome—though that, of course, does not necessarily mean they did not come. In terms of the King’s trip, we do not know whether he passed unremarked upon, or never made it to city.

As a fascinating sidebar, however, we do know about a significant African presence in medieval Rome in the 15th century. Beginning in 1402, multiple Ethiopian embassies arrived throughout Europe (notably in Spain, France, and Italy). This contact was sustained—by the 1480s, the church of Santo Stefano degli Abissini was built/restored in Rome specifically for Ethiopians to use (one seventeenth century writer dates this donation as early as the 1160s!). This established a permanent, dedicated place of worship for visiting Ethiopians and the burgeoning Ethiopian community. We don’t know exactly how many came, nor do we know all of their names and stories. But the overall point that black Africans were present and accepted in medieval Europe—especially later medieval Europe—remains.

Some Other Considerations

The travels of King Moses George only touches the surface of the African presence in medieval Europe. The absence of Africans in many medieval sources does not necessarily mean that they were completely absent from society. It instead reflects the interests and priorities of the author. Greek sources may not mention the visit of the Nubian king if it were not unusual. Europeans travelled to Africa; the reverse should be expected.

Africans should not just be associated with Islam, or paganism, or painted with the broad brush of the exotic “other”. Many were Christians and regularly interacted with European Christians in the Holy Land and in Europe. In a similar way to Robert and William in the BBC drama-documentary, some Africans and Europeans would have been companions, even friends. Most importantly, major European cities were never homogenous; a wide range of peoples of all shades were coming and going all the time.

Further Reading

Here are some places to begin to uncover more about the Nubian king’s visit:

  1. Robert de Clari, The Conquest of Constantinople, trans. E. H. McNeal (New York, 1969), pp. 79-80.
  2. Rostkowska, ‘The Visit of aNubian King to Constantinople in AD. 1203’, in New Discoveries in Nubia. Proceedings of the Colloquium on Nubian Studies, The Hague, 1979, ed. P. van Moorsel (Leiden, 1982), pp. 113-6.
  3. Hendrickx, ‘Un roi Africain à Constantinople en 1203’, Byzantina, 13.2 (1985), pp. 893-8.
  4. Fiaccadori, ‘Un re di Nubia a Constantinopoli nel 1203’, Scrinium, 1.1 (2005), pp. 43-9.

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Race, Racism, and the Middle Ages

Who Built Africa?


This is Part XVI of The Public Medievalist’s continuing series on Race, Racism and the Middle Ages, continuing our interview with Chapurukha Kusimba, Professor of Anthropology at American University. You can find the first part of our interview here. 

You can find the rest of our special series on Race, Racism and the Middle Ages here.

Chapurukha Kusimba, Professor of Anthropology at American University.

When we left off our conversation with Professor Kusimba, we were discussing how necessary it is for people looking at Africa to study early texts about the continent. Misconceptions about early Africa are rife in our culture. Many of these misconceptions are intellectual remnants of the colonial past, a past which states that Africa is a place unknown and unknowable, full of an exotic, primitive “other”. The dirty secret is that colonialists needed Africa to have been this way in order to justify their own superiority, which in turn justified both their own role in the colonial destruction of the continent, and their ancestors’ founding of the colonial system.

And the truth of the matter is that the colonial system in Africa did not come to an end that long ago. Kenya, for example, only achieved their independence from Britain in 1963—merely 54 years ago. It is therefore unsurprising that people—colonized and colonizer—continue to struggle with the legacy of this dark period.  Part of this struggle involves rewriting the outdated, racist, colonialist narratives of history. Ridding ourselves of a colonialist mindset is hard, but necessary.

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Race, Class and ReligionRace, Racism, and the Middle Ages

Cupid at the Castle: Romance, Medievalism, and Race at Atlanta’s Rhodes Hall

Atlanta Wedding Photographer – photography by –

This is Part XV of The Public Medievalist’s continuing series on Race, Racism and the Middle Ages, by Richard Utz. 

You can find the rest of our special series here.

This article is an extension of a chapter in his recent book, Medievalism: A Manifesto, currently available from Amazon here and directly from the publisher here. A Public Medievalist review of the book is forthcoming.

Atlanta’s Rhodes Hall, built in 1904, recoups some of the costs of its upkeep by offering itself as a venue for banquets, celebrations, and feasts. In fact, since 2012, it has been a winner of a Bride’s Choice Awardsfor best wedding ceremony and reception venue. So popular is the site that renters are willing to fork over $2,000 for a four hour event on Monday through Thursday, and $3,500 for one on a Saturday.

The owners can do this, in no small part, by capitalizing on the fantasy of being married in a castle.

But do couples really know what kind of history they are entering when they get married at Rhodes Hall? While the hall may overtly project an image of fairy-tale medievalism, when you scratch the surface, you find something altogether darker and more complicated.

History of a Georgia Castle

The origins of the building also have to do with love, in this case, the love between Amos and Amanda Rhodes. After a trip to the Rhine castles in Germany, they wanted to have their very own private castle built in one of the most ostentatious areas in early twentieth-century Atlanta.

Amos Rhodes, had fulfilled his American dream. He had risen from a position as regular laborer for the L. & N. Railroad to become one of the richest furniture entrepreneurs in the South. And he was eager to display his wealth in the quickly growing city. Amos and Amanda asked renowned architect Willis F. Denny II (1874-1905) to construct their new residence.

Atlanta First United Methodist Church, also designed by Willis F. Denny II.

Denny had previously designed two churches in the Gothic Revival style: Atlanta’s First United Methodist and St. Mark’s United Methodist. He then built the Rhodes’ home in 1904 in a similar style, Victorian Romanesque Revival, which was normally restricted to large public structures (courthouses, churches, libraries, university buildings, department stores, and train stations) like San Francisco’s St. Mark’s Lutheran Church (1895), Chicago’s Marshall Field Wholesale Store (1887), and Sydney’s Queen Victoria Building (1898). The Rhodes family called their new mansion “Le Rève” (“The Dream”).

The granite for the mansion was quarried twenty-five miles east of Atlanta from Stone Mountain. This was the same Stone Mountain which would, in 1915, become the site for the founding of the second Ku Klux Klan, and for which, also in 1915, the Daughters of the Confederacy would commission a carving of the Confederate icons Robert E. Lee, Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson, and Jefferson Davis. This connection is more than simple geographical coincidence. The Rhodes family settled in their castle in a quickly growing modern Atlanta, a city which, in part because of its modernity and rapid growth, offered better living conditions and career opportunities for both white and black workers and businesses than any other city in the late nineteenth-century South.

A Changing Atlanta

Between 1890 and 1910, Atlanta’s total population rose from 80,000 to 150,000; the black population grew from about 9,000 people in 1880 to about 35,000 by 1900. For more on the change in Atlanta at this time, see Gregory Mixon and Clifford Kuhn’s, “Atlanta Race Riot of 1906,” in the New Georgia Encyclopedia.

This growth increased job competition among both black and white workers, and also exacerbated class distinctions. White elites feared the social intermingling of the races, and responded with increased segregation; the white and black neighborhoods were separated. The gubernatorial campaign in 1906 was especially inflammatory; both candidates (each of them white) accused each other of being too responsive to Georgia’s black citizens. During this campaign season, fear among white Atlantans, especially the perennial unfounded fear of black sexual violence against white women, led to attacks by white mobs on black citizens between September 22 and 24.

During these race riots, about forty African Americans were killed, along with two white people. A five-year-old white girl, named Peggy, was traumatized when she saw her father—who did not own a gun—stand outside his front door, holding an axe and an iron water key, ready to defend her against the supposed black assailants. The girl was Margaret Mitchell. She would become one of the nation’s first women journalists and author of Gone With the Wind. Margaret may have learned the wrong lesson from her experience; David O. Selznick’s 1937 movie version of her book was fittingly summarized for spectators with Ben Hecht’s opening intertitle:

There was a land of cavaliers and cotton fields called the Old South. Here in this pretty world. Gallantry took its last bow. Here was the last ever to be seen of knights and their ladies fair, of Master and of slave. Look for it only in books, for it is no more than a dream remembered, a civilization Gone With the Wind….

(For those interested in learning more, the medievalist ethos of the elite culture in the South of the United States epitomized in Gone With the Wind has been explored by medievalists like Tison Pugh in his recent book Queer Chivalry: Medievalism and the Myth of White Masculinity in Southern Literature).

Medieval Atlanta

As Scottish and English immigrants formed the bulk of European immigration to the early South, these immigrants often considered themselves more British than American. They thus looked to Britain, and British self-fashioning narratives, for their cultural and social standards. Walter Scott’s medievalist novels like Ivanhoe and The Talisman, which romanticized the English court and an idealized portrait of “chivalry”, captured the early Southern imagination. And so, it was that the medieval knight, rather than the American pioneer, which became the Southern masculine ideal.

They linked themselves to the closest contemporary archetype of the medieval knight, the British nobleman—spawning the image of the “Southern gentleman”. This enabled the Southern aristocracy to rebuke newer (and Northern) “foreign” ideologies of materialism, feminism, and pacifism specifically because they seemed to be the very antithesis of honor, valor, gentility, hospitality, and chivalry. They created their own scaled-down version of what they saw as a medieval court: the Southern gentleman slave owner and his belle on their plantation. As Scott Horton wrote for Harper’s Magazine in 2007:

No doubt you learned in grade school that it started at Fort Sumter and that slavery and states’ rights had something to do with it. But no. The Civil War sprang with fully loaded double-barrels from the pages of Ivanhoe. No doubt about it.

It is against this general cultural background that Amos and Amanda’s Atlanta castle can be understood. It is a nostalgic architectural anchor to the bygone glory of the South, as well as Southern aristocratic culture’s deeply felt medieval roots. Like Walter Scott himself, who built for himself Abbotsford, a Victorian Gothic baronial home in 1824, they decided to inhabit a romanticized piece of the past in their own quickly changing and often threatening present.

A Confederacy in Stained Glass

The stained and painted glass windows of Rhodes Hall, featuring scenes and figures from the Confederacy. Photo by the author.

The visual and symbolic center of Rhodes Hall is a massive mahogany staircase which moves visitors’ eyes to a series of stained and painted glass panels. In these panels the owners and their architect created a church-like shrine to the “Lost Cause,” romanticizing the rise and fall of the Confederacy from the Battle of Fort Sumter (1861) to the Battle of Appomattox (1865).

Robert E. Lee heroic stained and painted glass image in Rhodes Hall. Photo by the author. Click to enlarge.

The windows were executed by the von Gerichten Art Glass Company, who had been recognized with four gold medals for their craftsmanship at the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair.

The glass panels consist of two longer sections depicting seminal historical moments, for example the election of Jefferson Davis as President of the Confederate States of America (1861), battle scenes, or other nostalgic moments of the Old South, interrupted by medallion-like portraits of Confederate politicians and generals. Each window is topped off by illustrations of abstract virtues like Wisdom, Justice, and Moderation, or mottos and seals celebrating various Confederate states.

The panels with scenes from the Old South provide eloquent commentary on the race relations in Atlanta in the early twentieth century. The many medievalizing gestures in Rhodes Hall serve to conflate the medieval and the ante-bellum past.

Stained glass in Rhodes Hall, depicting a confederate soldier saying goodbye to his family in front of an idealized plantation and enslaved people. Click to enlarge.

In one image (right), a Confederate soldier on a horse, probably an officer, gallantly waves goodbye to his wife, son, and daughter, who return his greeting. Playing in the dark, over on the left of a stately manor house and close to the shade of some trees, stand six black figures in white and beige worker’s clothes. They observe the departure scene without visible emotion. Their hands are at their hips or down on the side of their bodies, but their motionless and unfree status provides the symbolic backdrop in front of which the gallant manhood and freedom of the white male hero may be depicted.

In a second image, situated years later, a bearded patriarch on a cane stands by as his wife greets their son who, now on foot, has returned at the end of the war. Their yard is now overgrown with ivy and other

A second stained and painted glass image, featuring the soldier returning home after the war; the house is in ruins, the enslaved people gone. Photo by the author. Click to enlarge.

abundant flora, and an askew shutter on the Classical revival ante-bellum plantation manor hints at the fact that the place has seen better days. No slaves are to be seen anywhere.

Image of American Indians painted on the ceiling in Rhodes Hall. Photo by the author. Click to enlarge.

If what can be inferred about Amos Rhodes’s taste for the Romantic and exotic in other rooms is any indication—his own favorite room features paintings with ‘noble native savages’ as idealized objects of another bygone era—he felt a deep yearning for a time when medieval knights and ladies, that is Southern gentlemen and their belles, and when medieval peasants and slaves, that is African American slaves, all knew their “rightful” place. Therefore, it is no surprise when the final of the three painted glass

scenes from the Old South shows what the Confederate officer was willing to fight and die for. It is a bucolic image of four African Americans occupied with providing the economic foundation for the Southern economy and lifestyle: King Cotton.

Another stained and painted image in Rhodes Hall; this one depicts enslaved people picking cotton. Photo by the author. Click to enlarge.

The packed basket up front and the ample future yield on the plants celebrate an agrarian and anti-industrialist economy which demanded ever more slave labor.

Only two generations after the American Civil War, the newly built Rhodes Hall still signified that legacy. The race riots of 1906 indicated that African Americans in Atlanta still had a long way to go to overcome the fortress mentality the monumental private castle enshrined.

Marriage in the Confederate Castle

What do today’s visitors know and think about the interplay of race and medievalism in Rhodes Hall, about six generations after the Civil War? Couples who get married there often explain on Facebook:

“It’s a nice place with some history to offer;”

“I felt as though I had slipped into Downton Abbey.”

“I reccomend [sic] this venue to anyone who wants a unique and historical feel to their special day!”

“Thank you for allowing me to literally walk into history in my own state.”

Clearly, the sense of historical distance, the “alterity” (if you will) of Rhodes Hall is all they are looking for. They accept the celebration of the “Lost Cause” as something bygone that happened sufficiently long ago not to stay away.

The Georgia Trust presents Rhodes Hall as a place of innocuous alterity for its customers. Image by Ben Miller, Creative Commons 2.0 license.

The Georgia Trust for Historic Preservation, a non-profit organization, has a long-term lease agreement for Rhodes Hall with the State of Georgia; it is doing an excellent job at maintaining the historic building. It prefers to advertise this innocuous level of alterity. Their web site focuses on how the recent renovation efforts have included “Going Green”. Descriptions of the building’s history avoid potentially sensitive contexts, and rather focus on Rhodes Hall’s representative character for what is summarized as Atlanta’s “belle époque”. Of course, the saintly-looking generals that wedding photographers inevitably capture include fervent opponents of reconstruction (Robert Toombs, 1810-1885), a Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan (Nathan Bedford Forrest, 1821-1877), and the head of the Ku Klux Klan in the State of Georgia (John B. Gordon, 1832-1904). The political and racial views that guided these Georgians’ lives and careers, while no longer officially tolerated, continue to haunt race relations in Georgia. Recent events in Dahlonega, GA, perhaps encouraged by the national political climate, make this abundantly clear.

Time for a Change?

Confederate stained glass window formerly in Washington National Cathedral. The battle flags have since been replaced with solid red or blue panes of glass.

Could those in charge of Rhodes Hall profit from others’ best practices to deal with this complex situation? For example, in 2015, the leadership of Washington National Cathedral decided to deal with a series of Confederate War-themed stained-glass windows in their place of worship. The windows depict Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson, featuring images from the lives of the two generals and implicitly representing them as exemplary Christians. This causes an obvious problem for the contemporary members of the cathedral’s congregation.

Cathedral leaders agreed to remove and replace with plain glass any Confederate flag images in the windows. These images were originally installed in 1953 after lobbying by the United Daughters of the Confederacy (an organization founded, incidentally, ten years before the construction of Rhodes Hall and similarly dedicated to heroic readings of the Civil War and the “Lost Cause”). However, before executing any changes, Washington National Cathedral resolved to make this process a public moment of communal learning, with various discussions and presentations for more than a full year. As the Rev. Dr. Kelly Brown Douglas, the Cathedral’s Canon Theologian, states on the cathedral website:

Instead of simply taking the windows down and going on with business as usual, the Cathedral recognizes that, for now, they provide an opportunity for us to begin to write a new narrative on race and racial justice at the Cathedral and perhaps for our nation.

And in 2015, the Very Rev. Gary Hall, then dean of the Cathedral, told NPR that the cathedral leadership was “not trying to whitewash our history” but rather

to celebrate our history. But since the cathedral tells the story of America, and just as America is trying to come to terms finally with the Civil War and slavery and racism and segregation, it seems to me that it’s more appropriate for us to have windows that tell that story in all of its complicated fullness than just present a kind of public relations picture of a couple of Southern generals.

Might it be time for Rhodes Hall, the Georgia Trust, and the city to engage in similarly public discussions about the conspicuously medievalist building on Atlanta’s Peachtree Street? Since it is not a place of continuing worship, but a former private residence now in the public trust, there is no need for removing or even “emending” the windows. Any public discussions, some of them undoubtedly controversial, would not end the attraction for those who would like to celebrate their wedding as part of the entrepreneurial “Cupid at the Castle” project. However, these discussions could contextualize Rhodes Hall’s historical alterity in more responsible and socially productive ways.

Note: I am grateful to Dr. John Turman, former tour guide at Rhodes Hall who, on May 14, 2013, provided me with a list of all scenes, symbols, and individuals depicted in stained and painted glass.

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Race, Racism, and the Middle Ages

Recovering a “Lost” Medieval Africa: Interview with Chapurukha Kusimba, part I


This is Part XIV of The Public Medievalist’s continuing series on Race, Racism and the Middle Ages.

You can find the rest of our special series here.

If I asked you to imagine medieval France, you could likely close your eyes and summon a reasonably detailed image. You could probably do the same for Italy, Spain, or Jerusalem. After reading the other articles in our series, Sicily might not be such a problem, and places like Hungary, Kiev, or Tunisia might even be in your repertoire. And even though they are not typically thought of as “medieval” (as Dr. O’Doherty explained in her “Where were the Middle Ages?”), you might at least have a few details about further flung places like India, China, or Mongolia.

But what about Africa—specifically, sub-Saharan Africa?

The kingdom of Kongo and its leader Mvemba a Nzinga, as represented in Civilization VI. Image courtesy of Brandon S. Pilcher,

Even as a medievalist, I will confess to drawing a blank. Having played the Civilization series of games, I was familiar with the names Mansa Musa and Mvemba a Nzinga, but knew little else about them, or the rest of the continent and its peoples. And in the absence of knowledge, we begin to fall back on stereotypes—imagining the continent much the same way as the European colonizers did: full of tribal people in thatched huts holding spears.

This is a problem, and a core one for our current exploration of Race, Racism, and the Middle Ages. Even though sub-Saharan Africa is not typically labeled “medieval,” people from sub-Saharan Africa—either travelers or by ancestry—were very much a part of the medieval world. And as we learned from our essays on maps, medieval people—especially Islamic traders—had travelled there.

Much of the lack of popular knowledge is a product of racist, imperialist attitudes towards Africa—even among professional historians. Take, for example, an infamous statement by Oxford historian Hugh Trevor-Roper. He stated that Africans have no history because they have no documentary history, and that prior to European colonization, African history was no more than “the unedifying gyrations of barbarous tribes in picturesque but irrelevant corners of the globe.”

Trevor-Roper opined this in the 1960s. Thankfully, he is continually being proven wrong by the burgeoning fields of African history, anthropology and archaeology. But, as we have explored continually in this series, popular perceptions of the past are often slow to catch up, especially when they are fighting against a racist headwind—one that, in this case, says that Africa is either unknowable, or not worth knowing. This attitude claims that it is, and was, a place without culture, sophistication, or the agency to decide its own fate. But that could not be further from the truth.

Chapurukha Kusimba, Professor of Anthropology at American University.

To begin to correct this, I was fortunate to be able to sit down with Professor Chapurukha Kusimba in his office at American University. Professor Kusimba is an Anthropologist and Archaeologist who specializes in the archaeology and cultures of East Africa. He has done landmark excavations in several sites on the Swahili coast and Madagascar, and the author of over a hundred books and articles, including the landmark The Rise and Fall of Swahili States.

Our conversation ranged widely across the continent, the misperceptions of Africa and Africans, and his life’s work. Below is the first part of our conversation—where Professor Kusimba reveals a medieval world very different from how we are accustomed to viewing it—when Asia, rather than Europe, was the world.

Methodological Racism

Professor Kusimba began by addressing how crucial it is that people study early Africa, as well as and the long-held prejudices that led to ignoring an entire continent:

Professor Kusimba: Without Africa there would be no humanity. Africa is the birthplace; we are all African in a sense. The notion of Africa as a place that lacks agency has been countered by many historians.

TPM: How did this idea that Africa has no agency come to be?

Kusimba: There are Judeo-Christian notions that explain away their agency. On the one hand, you have the “Hobbesian dilemma”: an idea that somehow promoted European exceptionalism vis a vis the ideas for justifying enslavement of African. The big question in our time is how could human beings do this to fellow human beings? I think the discussions of slavery and enslavement, ironically, has focused on only black versus white issues.  In reality Europeans have a long history of enslaving each other!

TPM: If you look at the Roman Empire…

Kusimba: Greeks and later Romans sought slaves in central Europe; Persians too were equal opportunity enslavers. As were Ancient Africans of the Nile Valley. Today, some medieval scholars deny or only grudgingly accept the African identity of Egyptians.  So, the justification of slavery—of Africans arising from their lack of agency and history—is often attributed to the work of German philosopher Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel.  He saw Africa as a place that really didn’t merit anything worth talking about.

TPM: And as we know, Hegel was massively racist.

Kusimba: I think, for the most part, it was many 18th and 19th century European thinkers. In Africa, often we go back to the late colonial period in the 1960s, to Oxford Regius Professor of History Hugh Trevor-Roper. In writing and thinking about history, historians relied, as many still do, on written documents. With the exception of a few, historians were slow in utilizing anthropological sources in the writing of history. Oral traditions had not yet been incorporated into “history.” So, he rightly, in his time, declared that the only history visible in Africa were European activities. It was a world in which documentary evidence was preciously scarce and historians did not understand those documents written in African languages, like Geez, Hausa, or Swahili.

So, when you think about that period—the 1850s—when Europeans begin to venture into Africa, first as explorers and later as colonizers, there was little documentation. Europeans writing about colonial Africa had to rely on oral texts and, sometimes used Arabic texts where they existed.  But even these texts were equally biased. Like Europeans, Arabs had their own prejudices. For them the world was composed of the people of the book, who included Jews, Christians, and Muslims—and everyone else: Kafirs.

So, Arab writers, even the most liberal of the time, they viewed Africans through their own lens. For example, even an uncritical reading of One Thousand and One Nightsʾalf layla wa-layla, reveals a very racist document.  Because the devil incarnate is usually this black creature; writings about representations of Africa through the Arabian Nights series are equally as racist.

TPM: So the denigration of Africa was pretty universal.

Kusimba: In Swahili, we say “An empty hand, a dry hand cannot be licked” ‘Mkono mtupu haulambwi. That is to say, when one is, poorer one has a lesser network. You are powerless. Everybody will feel they are justified to step on you as they forge ahead.

When Asia was the World

Professor Kusimba and I discussed the way that Western Europe’s central role in the Middle Ages has more to do with later scholars than historical realities. A truly accurate view of the world during the Middle Ages should focus on Asia as the proverbial center of an increasingly globalizing world:

Kusimba: I think many historians and economic historians now characterize the period from the Tang dynasty in the 8th century to the end of the Ming Dynasty in the 16th as the period when Asia was the world. In many ways Asian empires, including the Islamic Caliphates, China, and India, were economically and politically powerful. At the time, the world revolved around them.  Much of the progress we now attribute to the Silk Road—maritime and overland trade—arose there.

That is the time when major transformations in science and technology, in commerce, in standardization of currency, banking, finance, all of these institutions come to bear. And in many of these empires, including the Mughals of India and the Safavids of Persia, had a huge impact in the entire “old-world” political economy. Commerce between the Mediterranean world and Southern Europe, North Africa, East Africa, South Asia, and East Asia was regular—the entire region was completely intertwined. People moved back and forth and settled temporarily—but mostly permanently—wherever their fortunes took them.

One of the major attractions of this period is that these Muslim and Buddhist empires were extremely trader-friendly. And I think that because the Muslim caliphates spread across this entire region, from North Africa, including parts of West Africa, North East Africa, going all the way to Central Asia, this means that as any Muslim, Jewish, Christian, Hindu, or even Zoroastrian merchant could travel the length of the world without risking molestation. The rules of doing commerce had become, essentially, standardized. Merchants, whatever their religious affiliations, were welcome in all these lands without risk of being enslaved. And so this 800-year period is when we can rightly talk about a period of early globalization.

TPM: Early globalization.

Kusimba: Exactly, this was the coming together of economic and political elites. There was always a tension among them. But this period is characterized by a rare rapprochement. So archaeologically, when you look at the period between at least 750, up to 1500, or even up to the present, you will recover at these port regions that were part of the Silk Road network–from Guangzhou [Canton] all the way to Mombasa and Zanzibar—find the same artifacts.

TPM: Trading the same things everywhere?

Diffusion map of qingbai-ware [chinese-style pottery] finds in Arabia and East African archaeology. Source: Bing Zhao. 2015. “Chinese-style ceramics in East Africa from the 9th to 16th century: A case of changing value and symbols in the multi-partner global trade.” Afriques 6. Available

Kusimba: The same trade goods; very similar. The same elite tastes, people consuming the same things. I can show you some of the trade ceramics that we find, or Chinese silks, which were the fashion of elite work everywhere.   Indian cloth was bought and sold across the region. As for jewelry, South Asian trade beads were popular from hunter-gatherers of the Kalahari to the elite men and women of Cairo. Beginning in the 1800s and 1900s we find Venetian beads beginning to venture into these markets.  Today, an excavation of a Dutch settlement site in South Africa, a Native American village in New France (Illinois), or colonial fortress in Wisconsin will yield the same Venetian beads. So it speaks to the globalization that has been going on since the eighth century but also speaks to a tide that was turning in Europe’s favor.

In terms of my work, I study the period between the rise of Islam, from the death of Prophet Mohammad, to the European advent, following the Portuguese successful circumnavigation around Africa and in search for direct sea route to India. And then of course, Columbus’ discovery of the New World.

And so on the one hand, during the Tang Dynasty a unified imperial China rose to become a superpower. China’s investment—both imperial as well as private—in major industrial complexes resulted in their monopoly of probably 80% of the world’s demand of porcelain and silk.  At the same time, we also see major investments in institutions of learning, the rise of Universities.  People went to China, Baghdad, Isfahan, Cairo, Toledo, and so on for further education, as they do today in America.  They studied many disciplines, from medicine, to mathematics, geometry, calligraphy, commerce, poetry and so on.

TPM: And you see this much more in China than in Europe?

Kusimba: Much more in China. You see the rise of Universities in Baghdad, In Damascus, Aleppo, many of these places. You see the development of what I call “Think Tanks”, much like the Brookings Institute that we see today. These think tanks were incredible because they attracted and welcomed diverse scholars who were united by their love of knowledge. At these universities, you would find Christian, Muslim, Jewish, and Buddhist students and faculty. They were all there, meeting and discussing the major topics of their time and writing about them.  All this was supported and financed by the state. Some of the best poetry, developments in geometry, discoveries in medicine, investment in ceramic production were invented at this time.  The father of modern medicine, Ibn Sina, an Uzbekistani, is from this period. So were poets like Rumi. Leo Africanus and Ibn Khaldun’s writings, among other scholars of the time, have left us rich archives to excavate.

TPM: Do you see these advances in your work?

We are now doing these elemental analyses of the ceramics that we get. And we know that these guys are thinking about ways to improve their products.  These advances were not accidental. They arose from the deep desire to know and willingness of the state and economic elite to invest in scientific exploration. You can imagine that there is a huge kiln, supported and financed by the state. But you can also visualize chemists who are carrying out experiments and ensuring that they finesse the processes of making pottery. You can see these developments being made.

TPM: These research institutes, where did they exist? What were the names of the most well-known, prodigious, famous ones?

Kusimba: If you look at Isfahan [ed., in modern day Iran], Aleppo, Baghdad, Basra, and of course Alexandria, Cairo. There are all these centers of learning, from Mumbai to Spain, and many of these places, that are developing. And, in West Africa, you have Timbuktu. And then you have Buddhist Confucian schools, some of those Universities develop as temples. So many of these scholars moved from temple to temple, from mosque to mosque to learn.  There was a huge network of scholars along with the vast networks of merchants. But there is a real belief in literacy. For Muslims, Jews, and Buddhists scholars, literacy was really a thing. They loved knowledge. And although many of the scholars were armchair scholars, they collaborated with merchants. They would ask them to bring back seeds of different plants from different parts of the world so they could experiment with them.

TPM: That’s fascinating.

Kusimba: But why is this important? This is important because even as archaeologists digging about in these remote places that no one has ever hard off or cares to know, it is really important that we engage with the writings of these early scholars. Because without engaging with the writings of these early scholars, we soon run into the same inventions and biases that we criticized.

Next week, I continue the interview where he reveals the Africa he knows—not lost in the mists, but powerful, sophisticated, and intimately connected with the rest of the world. Continue to part II of the interview, here.

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Race, Class and ReligionRace, Racism, and the Middle Ages

Feeling ‘British’


This is Part XIII of The Public Medievalist’s continuing series on Race, Racism and the Middle Ages, by Eric Weiskott.

Go back to the beginning of the series here.

A lot of the excellent new work that has been done on race and racism in the Middle Ages—both in this series and also within academia—focuses either on telling the stories of people of color in the Middle Ages, or understanding how the racial categorizations of people of color came to be. But whiteness, as a racial category, was also under construction during this period. In medieval Britain, there was a centuries-long dispute over who had the right to feel British.

Over the course of the Middle Ages, ‘Britishness’—the right to claim British identity—became racial property. I call this racial identity a ‘property’ (an idea I’m taking from Cheryl I. Harris) to emphasize its status as an object of political power. Like real estate, Britishness in the Middle Ages became a thing to be owned. And it had value. By appropriating the anti-imperialist ideas of the very peoples they had subjugated, English writers represented themselves as the heroes of their political history.

One way to see how this worked is to notice who claimed the identity, and who was barred from claiming it. Celtic-language speakers on the island (i.e., the pre-Roman peoples of the island, including the Scots and Welsh) were the original target of the label ‘British,’ but these people were pushed aside as the English took it for themselves. Britishness didn’t include Jews, who lived as a religious and ethnic minority in medieval England until their expulsion by royal decree in 1290. It didn’t include Africans, either, whose presence in England in small numbers is attested from Roman times and especially toward the end of the Middle Ages as the trade routes connecting Europe and Africa grew more numerous and more heavily trafficked. Feeling British was not an experience available to everyone.

Postcolonial Britain

Perhaps paradoxically, for all of its recorded history, the island of Great Britain has been a postcolonial space. The Romans invaded in the first century CE. The Angles, Saxons, and other continental West-Germanic-speaking peoples did in the fifth century, the Vikings in the ninth through eleventh centuries, and the Normans in 1066. Over this time, the terms Briton and British acquired two different meanings. These terms could refer to:

  1. indigenous Celtic-speaking peoples as opposed to the descendants of continental invaders, or
  2. all the (white) inhabitants of the island.
Kingdoms of Great Britain, circa 600 CE.

The difference mattered politically, in terms of governance and land ownership. As a result, the word British became an ideological battleground in medieval genres of writing as disparate as historiography, prophecy, and romance. Writing in medieval Britain spanned multiple languages, including Latin, Norman French, Old and Middle English, Welsh, and Old Norse. This essay emphasizes the Middle English language, in which the concept of Britishness realized its full force as a political weapon.

For modern people, the very term British conceals the multiethnic and postcolonial reality of life in Britain, both medieval and contemporary. It implies that the people who inhabit, and inhabited, Great Britain are one monolithic people—or that the identity can be claimed by one group.

For centuries after their arrival, the Anglo-Saxons and the native Celtic speakers lived interspersed among several relatively independent kingdoms. (The precise number of kingdoms is debatable and changed over time.) Speakers of different languages intermingled, though many Celtic speakers retreated westward, to present-day Wales, in response to the Anglo-Saxon settlements. Later, multiple kingdoms merged into a new polity known as England (Old English Englaland ‘land of the English’), centered in the south. At that time, the term English (OE englisc) could be contrasted with British (OE bryttisc). The word British, derived from Latin, referred exclusively to Celtic speakers on the island and in Brittany in present-day France.

Remembering the Britons

The publication of a new history would soon change that. In the 1120s or 1130s, half a century after the Norman Conquest of England and Wales, a Welsh cleric named Geoffrey (now commonly known as Geoffrey of Monmouth) published a chronicle in Latin called History of the Kings of Britain (Historia regum Brittaniae). Geoffrey’s work narrates some of the major episodes in British history, from the arrival of the legendary Brutus of Troy (allegedly after the destruction of Troy in around 1200 BCE) to the reign of the seventh-century CE Welsh king Cadwallader. It is also the first work to connect King Arthur and Merlin, who had previously been characters in their own, separate, stories. History of the Kings of Britain concerns British history before and after the arrival of the Anglo-Saxons, and it adopts the political perspective of the indigenous peoples. Its core message is that the English have dispossessed the Britons, and the Britons must await the return of Arthur to regain political control of the island. Arthur is king of the Britons, not the English.

Yet the political situation in Geoffrey’s Britain was far more fluid than ‘British vs. English.’ A covert purpose of Geoffrey’s book was to empower the Norman aristocracy in Britain to speak with authority about politics on the island. Geoffrey chose to write in Latin, the most prestigious language known to him, rather than in English, French, or Welsh.

But to use Geoffrey’s book as political ammunition, one had to ‘become’ British. So, this is exactly what both the English- and French-speaking elites began to do. In this way, Geoffrey gave later writers a vocabulary for negotiating the relationship between ethnicity and authority.

Seeing and Making the Future

King Vortigern and the Prophet Merlin | Cambridge, Corpus Christi College, MS 476, 2v

Geoffrey didn’t just engage in history, he also engaged in prophecy. Book seven of the History of the Kings of Britain includes The Prophecies of Merlin (Prophetiae Merlini). In this book, Merlin tells the future of the Saxon (i.e., English) and British (i.e., Celtic-speaking) peoples at the request of King Vortigern. The juxtaposition of history and prophecy—since an apparently historical figure is, in this case, telling the future—may seem strange, but it was widespread in the Middle Ages. History and prophecy were often two sides of the same coin.

Subsequent English political prophecies—yes, this was a fairly common genre—drew heavily on Geoffrey’s History in order to define Britishness and to position the English as victims. For example, an anonymous fifteenth-century genealogical scroll now held at the British Library ends with a prose passage. In it, an angel prophetically admonishes Cadwallader, the last ‘British’ king. The passage derives from the conclusion of Geoffrey’s History. In Middle English, it reads, in part:

Thow ner non of thyn herys of thy blode shal not inherete this lande ageyn vnto the tyme that tho pepyl. that inhabyde it be funde in the same synnys. that thou and thyne ar drewyn out for at this tyme. […] And than shal be a fynal distructione of the Saxonnes and Normans and of al other strangeres of this lande.

(Neither you nor any of the heirs of your blood shall inherit this land again until the time that the people who inhabit it are caught in the same sins for which you and yours are driven out at this time. […] And then there shall be a final destruction of the Saxons and Normans and of all other strangers in this country.)

As you might expect, prophecy is never really about the future. It is about what happened in the past and what should be done in the present. Behind the address to an ancient British king is an Englishman speaking to other Englishmen. The rest of the manuscript is in Latin, the language of history, law, and the church. This more intimate and literary passage appears in English. In a turn toward the extreme—at least from a modern perspective—the text looks forward to the genocide (“fynal distructione”) “of the Saxonnes and Normans.”

Geneological Rondel for King Arthur | Oxford, Bodleian Library, Ashmole Rolls 26

In the British Library scroll one can see how history writing was used to reinterpret a racial/ethnic category for a specific political purpose. The scroll was created in the 1460s, during the civil wars known as the Wars of the Roses, and is a work of propaganda meant to bolster the claim to the throne of the Yorkist Edward IV. The English writer casts himself, and his English audience, as spiritual descendants of Cadwallader and the Britons; he equates an anti-Saxon stance with a pro-Yorkist one. Such an equation is a flat contradiction in modern ethnic terms, but it made sense in the context of fifteenth-century politics and history writing.

Once it had been translated from Latin and Welsh into English, political prophecy served new political ends. For English readers, prophecy relocated strife between actually existing British peoples onto the distant past. Though they were relative newcomers, the English used prophecy to imagine themselves as natives rather than “strangeres of this lande.” To make room for the English, the actual indigenous (Celtic-speaking) peoples had to recede to the background of politics.

Britishness and Romance

Romance was the most popular literary genre in medieval England, so it was a natural place for English writers to explore what it meant to be British. The Brut, written in the late twelfth century, is arguably the earliest known romance in English. It is a translation of a translation: an English adaptation of a French version of Geoffrey’s Latin History. The Brut reimagines British history as an adventure story, complete with glittering battle scenes and epic speeches. Under the guidance of the author (known in the text only as “Lawman”), King Arthur comes into his own as a legendary hero—no longer a pseudo-historical figure, but the adventurous leader we know today.

Lawman sometimes uses the term Briton (Early Middle English Brutte) in the older sense, to mean ‘speaker of a Celtic language.’ At other times he uses the word in the newer sense, to mean ‘(white) inhabitant of Britain.’ An example of the newer sense is a moment in the King Arthur section when Lawman equates the Bruttes who hope for the return of Arthur and the Anglen (‘English’) whom Arthur will lead in a rebellion against Norman oppressors. In this text, both the word British and the word English have become something like racial designations, over and above linguistic difference in Lawman’s Britain.

British vs. English

The Daily Mail, the UK’s most popular right-wing tabloid engages in subtle and not-so-subtle racist dogwhistling that contributes to current debates on whether ‘British’ means ‘white.’

In historiography, prophecy, and romance, Britishness became a cudgel for enforcing a new sense of (racial) belonging. That sense of belonging, of feeling British, was linked with the claims that England and the English made over the entire island of Britain (and, in fact, beyond it—to Ireland and France).

In claiming Britishness, the English set the stage for the modern nationalism that enabled the British Empire, and created ambiguity between the Modern English terms English and British. Welsh people today are unlikely to say British when they mean English, or vice versa, but English-speaking residents of England are prone to this political/semantic slippage.

In the twenty-first century, conflict over whether British continues to mean ‘white’ has surged in the news and in national politics. Far-right nationalists, such as members of Britain First, oppose a racially diverse UK and seek to recover a precolonial, monocultural imaginary status quo. As we have seen, in the recorded history of Britain, no such status quo ever existed. Since the time of the earliest written texts, Britain has always been multicultural. The racialized difference between medieval and modern immigrants—say, Vikings vs. Pakistanis—is due, in part, to medieval battles over Britishness.

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Race, Class and ReligionRace, Racism, and the Middle Ages

Miraculous Bleach and Giant Feet: Were Medieval People Racist? II


This is Part XII of The Public Medievalist’s continuing series on Race, Racism and the Middle Ages, by Dr. Dark Age.

Go back to the beginning of the series here.

This bizarre image is from a 1544 book called the Cosmographia, a catalogue of peoples of the earth. The Cosmographia itself, though slightly post-medieval, is based on the medieval pseudo-travelogue Mandeville’s Travels. Though it presents itself as a true account, modern readers know that Mandeville’s Travels is completely invented. But Mandeville’s book was quite influential in medieval times and for centuries afterward: Christopher Columbus and Sir Walter Raleigh are said to have consulted Mandeville before their colonial explorations. Mandeville’s messages about the earth’s different people—particularly the earth’s different races—thus may have played a role in the centuries of conquest, slavery, and discrimination that would follow the Middle Ages.

The races Mandeville says he encountered are rather unconventional. Take the Ethiopian “sciapod,” the man with the huge foot in the image above. His foot is large, according to Mandeville, so he can shield himself from the hot African sun. And standing to his left, hanging out between a Cyclops and a dog-headed man, is the “Indian” Blemmyae: a man with a face in his chest—because he has no head. Mandeville tells us his condition is a curse from God, possibly for cannibalism.

Clearly, Mandeville had distressing ideas about what foreign bodies looked like. Perhaps even more disturbing were his ideas about why they looked that way. Obviously, he never actually encountered the strange races he imagined, but like many medieval people, Mandeville believed that a body’s external appearance revealed a person’s internal qualities. The foreign bodies he imagined took shape based on this fantasy.

Medieval people believed that bodies were fraught with meaning, and not just foreign bodies. An external change in appearance could be evidence of an internal emotional or religious condition. If a knight lost his color, for instance, he was usually diagnosed with lovesickness. But there are less benign examples. Leprosy was sometimes considered a physical manifestation of sin devouring the body, which led to the social ostracizing and abuse of its victims.

The Asgard alien “Thor” from the Stargate TV series looks very much like a prototypical “grey” alien.

Before we get ahead of ourselves and decide humanity abandoned this kind of ignorant thinking when we discovered that the earth revolved around the sun, consider the way a lot of modern science fiction imagines aliens. From Whitley Streiber’s Communion and Stargate’s Asgard to Men in Black and even the “alien” emoji, we expect people from outer space to have enormous heads and eyes, but no body hair. Ostensibly, their large heads represent their greater intelligence. Their lack of hair may connote their disconnection from what we consider to be our own lowly ‘animal’ natures and the great heights of civilization these aliens have obtained.

In other words, both now and in the Middle Ages, the body is not just a biological machine or a shell for a soul. Some people imagine that it functions as a prophetic tome, an external text we think we can “read” to determine a person’s internal characteristics. This notion that bodies can be interpreted to learn about geography, culture, illness, or sin form the foundation of the complicated medieval concept of race. And some of its most problematic features are still with us today.

Racism’s Childhood

Until recently, many scholars considered the Middle Ages innocent of racism. They claimed that the origins of modern-day racism lay in the Renaissance, when Europe launched the transatlantic slave trade. Any comparison between medieval and modern ideas about race risked charges of “presentism”: superimposing contemporary values inappropriately onto the past. Yet although medieval ideas about race, bodies, and color differ from our own, difference is not the same thing as disconnection. Rather, as the late Italian scholar Umberto Eco has argued, “looking at the Middle Ages means looking at our infancy, in the same way that a doctor, to understand our present state of health, asks us about our childhood.” And as it turns out, looking at the Middle Ages can teach us a lot about both our deeply ingrained ideas about bodies and the racism that we are still confronted with today.

An apt example lies in one of the most perplexing moments in the medieval understanding of bodies. The Middle English poem The King of Tars, (which Rachel Moss has recently written about very poignantly), features a Muslim Sultan who converts to Christianity. At the moment of his conversion, the angels don’t sing. There’s no applause. Lightening doesn’t strike a mosque or anything. Instead, something even more bizarre happens: when he converts, the sultan turns from black to white.

Worse yet is the poem’s depiction of an interracial child. Before his conversion, the Sultan has a son with his Christian wife. But that child is born a shapeless lump of flesh with no bones. As soon as the child is baptized as a Christian, however, it instantly transforms into an beautiful, healthy infant. Apparently some white medieval poets, like some contemporary politicians, had issues with “somebody else’s babies.”

Mapping Race

So what does the sciapod pictured above—the original Bigfoot, so to speak—have to do with the color-coded conversion of the Sultan and his child? The answer is complicated. When we look for the historical roots of complex ideas, thinking in linear terms can be inexact, at best. Instead, I like to think of historical concepts as a web. If you begin to trace one of the strands, you’ll often find that it’s inextricable from a veritable tangle of other strands.


Julius Caesar.

For instance, one foundation of the medieval conception of race is “geographical determinism,” an idea that Paul and I have discussed in earlier posts. Geographical determinism is the theory that different environmental conditions—like proximity to the sun, access to water, and weather—create different human bodies and minds. This is the same convenient theory Julius Caesar employed to argue that Rome had the perfect conditions for human flourishing. The ancient Roman claim to environmental perfection was obviously not ideologically neutral: it led to a skewed view that saw that the rest of the world as somehow flawed.

Consider classical descriptions of Ethiopians. Ancient Greeks and Romans used the term “Ethiopian” to incorrectly conflate the residents of sub-Egyptian Africa. The word comes from the Greek Aethiops, which may have meant “sunburnt,” “fiery-looking,” or more literally, “burnt face.” The geographically-based designation “Ethiopian,” then, carries an implication of African Otherness, because of its companion assumption that the “unburnt” face is, presumably, just a face.

But while we might find a thread that leads to anti-African discrimination in some ancient etymologies, we cannot yet explain the hierarchy of whiteness that feeds contemporary racism. After all, the ancients themselves were darker than the whiter northern Europeans, whom the Romans considered strong and spirited, but not particularly bright. Instead, we have to trace this thread forward in time, and further north.

Bartholomaeus Anglicus, De proprietatibus rerum, 1485

Medieval clerics, who often relied upon Roman texts, adopted their tendency to paint all of Africa with the broad Ethiopian brush. Their geographical determinism was also equally biased, just in a more northerly direction.  Bartholomeus Anglicus, a thirteenth-century Franciscan monk, posited that the men of Africa were “burnt” by their proximity to sun. Bartholomeus argued that this gave them dark skin and curly hair, but because Bartholomeus also thought that courage could leak out of a man’s pores when he sweat, he claimed that Africans would be “cowards.” By contrast, men of the north (like Bartholomaeus himself, by eye-rollingly happy coincidence) were lucky enough to live in cold weather that “stoppeth the pores” and kept the people “bolde and hardy.” Albertus Magnus, his thirteenth-century contemporary, argued that Indians were bound to be good at magic and mathematics because a little heat could make a person smarter—but he declared that Ethiopians would be incapable of such things because they are exposed to too much heat.

At this point, it’s becoming harder and harder to distinguish geographical determinism from “ordinary” racism. Still, there is one thing Albertus believed that we do not: over the course of generations, he argued, people with black skin who were relocated to a cold climate would eventually turn white. To medieval Europeans, as Paul has pointed out, skin color was a changeable trait, not a permanent marker. And so we have another ingredient in our Sultanic conversion stew—that in the medieval mind, skin color can change with the weather.

Still, medieval climate change cannot fully explain the deeply problematic portrayal of the Sultan and his son in King of Tars. First of all, when the Sultan turns white, he’s still on his home turf. Second of all, his conversion is instantaneous, miraculous. We must consider, then, another crucial ingredient of his conversion, which is that the poet thought the Sultan’s formerly black body might be caused by his Muslim faith.

Seeing the Light?

Unraveling this thread gets us closer to the roots of the dichotomy between blackness and whiteness. Taken literally, the dichotomy is very strange: what made white people decide that they were white, as opposed to, say, beige? The privileging of whiteness, as scholars who dare to delve into medieval prejudice have discovered, may be the result of theological hierarchy. The color white was often used as a metaphor for spiritual purity; by the same token, some medieval writers used the color black to symbolize spiritual darkness.

Writers like the twelfth-century poet Chrétien de Troyes use blackness as a symbol of demonic nature: Chrétien’s Percival features a magical maiden who rides up on a mule, bearing a fierce-looking whip, who curses the hero. The narrator tells us, “You’ve never seen iron as black as her neck and hands.” This damsel’s exaggerated color is meant to imply her demonic origins: the narrator goes on to compare her to creatures who live in the bowels of hell. Likewise, when his hero Yvain rescues a group of ladies who are being held prisoner and forced to sew clothing continuously, their captors are described as the sons of a demon who are “black and hideous.”

Whiteness, on the other hand, is used to connote beauty or spiritual purity. Romance heroines such as Chrétien’s Enide and Fenice are described as “fairer and whiter than the Lily-flower” with bosoms “whiter than the new-fallen snow.” (This depiction also marks class distinction, which I will address below.)  And as Paul notes, in the German romance Parzival, Fierefiz’s mother demonstrates her devotion to her black-and-white child’s Christian father by constantly kissing his white spots.

Some believe that these imagined connections between skin color and faith began during the Crusades. The Northern European crusaders found that the Jews and Muslims they encountered in the south had darker skin, and thus, they may have begun to associate this visible difference with a “stain” on their enemies’ souls. As a result, geographical determinism became inextricably entangled with religious thought.

White Gold

There is a final thread we need to consider, and this is the way medieval Europeans thought about class. Nobility was considered a God-given gift that gave aristocrats the right to rule. In medieval romance, class, like ethnicity and faith, can also be read on the body. Darker skin was sometimes considered a symbol of a lower class station, partly because of the hierarchy of whiteness, and partly for more practical reasons: nobles did not have to labor outdoors. Thus the heroine of the thirteenth-century romance Silence, a noblewoman masquerading as both a minstrel and a man, must stain her glistening white skin with dye so that she will not reveal herself as royalty.

So now we have a fuller picture of what on earth the author of The King of Tars was thinking when he transformed his Sultan from black to white. But it isn’t a pretty picture at all. The Sultan’s white skin is a marker of his internal ‘purification.’ This medieval poet believed that a person’s faith in the Christian God could help him transcend “limitations” of biology or birth. At the same time, conversion is also the force that colonizes both his black body and the Islamic world, erasing faith and their culture. The Sultan’s body becomes metaphorical ground for the pre-colonial fantasies of northern Europe.

Leaving Infancy Behind

Despite the fact that medieval ideas about race and bodies are not the same as modern ones, some of our worst stereotypes about the meaning of bodies and skin color began to take shape in the medieval past. And in the Renaissance, this confluence of ideas about race, geography, and faith led to the horrifying conclusion that the children of Africa carried the “curse of Ham” and were therefore destined to be enslaved. Even in today’s supposedly ‘enlightened’ scientific age we persist in looking for physical evidence of the condition of someone’s soul and of their supposedly “natural” capabilities and inclinations. As advances in genetic research lead to casual metaphors about who does or doesn’t have democracy “in their DNA,” we must take care not to return to turning bodies into texts that we think we can read.

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