Past and Present

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

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

“Race” in the Trenches: Anglo-Saxons, Ethnicity, and the Misuse of the Medieval Past

Indy Tank

This is Part III of The Public Medievalist’s continuing series on Race, Racism and the Middle Ages, written by James M. Harland.

Read the Introduction to the our series here, Part I, here, and Part II here.

Andrew Elliot’s previous article in this series touched upon how crucially important it is to properly and rigorously interpret evidence from the past. He showed what can happen when this goes horribly wrong, outlining some of the disturbing ideological projects which historical evidence has been misused to bolster.

There are few of us in medieval studies more keenly aware of these potential uses than those who work on early medieval archaeology. The reason for this is simple: our field, in its earlier iterations, was misused to help ideologically bolster Nazism.

Until the mid-twentieth century, the main interpretive framework through which archaeological evidence was interpreted was that of “Culture History.” This school of thought held that the patterns of distribution of objects found by archaeologists reflected the presence of already known ethnic groups. These groups were normally assumed to be closely bound through shared blood, language, location in space and time, appearance and culture.

The paradigm was established by scholars such as Professor of Archaeology at the University of Berlin, Gustaf Kossinna (1858-1931). Kossinna used a combination of linguistics and the distribution of prehistoric artefacts to argue that migrating Germans had been the founders of Indo-European civilization. Later, according to Kossina, through their conquest of the Western Roman Empire, those Germans laid the foundations of many modern European nations. It is clear that his work is steeped in nationalism. But the influence of his ideas was not restricted to the far-right. For example, Gordon Childe was largely responsible for the paradigm’s dissemination in British archaeological scholarship, shorn of the more extreme views on race. Childe was a radical leftwinger. But the arguments of Culture History were especially compatible with Nazi ideology, since the Nazis were obsessed with establishing and maintaining what they claimed was the deep antiquity and purity of the German people. The SS even had a dedicated unit known as the Ahnenerbean archaeological strike force, if you like, who were sent to Poland, the Ukraine and Russia in the wake of the Blitzkrieg to capture items from ‘Germanic antiquity’ that could be used to justify the German Wehrmacht‘s advance.

The school of thought needn’t necessarily produce Nazis, of course—even Indiana Jones, famed for his Nazi-punching predilections, would have interpreted material culture through exactly the same frameworks. Many real early twentieth-century archaeologists were equally horrified by the appalling uses the Nazis made of their discipline. But the potential for abuse was there.

The “Culture History” framework has long since been rejected by archaeologists of all political stripes. It was based on extremely restricted sampling of materials, and made enormous and tenuous interpretive leaps on the most fragmentary, sometimes non-existent, traces of evidence.

Deconstructing Anglo-Saxon “Ethnicity”

In my research, I explore how archaeologists since the 1980s have approached the study of ethnic identity in the material record. I focus on Britain from the late fourth to the mid-sixth centuries, during what people call the “adventus saxonum”the migration of the Anglo-Saxons to Britain after effective collapse of Roman rule. Before the 1980s, Anglo-Saxon archaeology was generally culture historical. Archaeologists produced immensely detailed catalogues and distribution maps of the different object types across England. These were used to identify and outline the specific distributions of the Anglian, Jutish and Saxon ethnic groups, following the guiding frameworks laid down by the eighth-century Northumbrian monk, Bede.

But during the 1970s and 80s, archaeologists began to think a bit more subtly about all this. Since the 1950s, anthropologists had increasingly recognized that concepts like ‘tribe’ and ‘race’ never quite work when mapped onto reality. Continued attachment to concepts like ‘tribe’ and ‘race’ was revealed to be grounded in attitudes originating from nineteenth- and twentieth-century European imperialism.

Anthropologists increasingly came to understand that what we now call ‘race’ and ‘ethnicity’ is what is called a “situational construct.”  A situational construct is perhaps a paradox—it’s something that is imagined, but not imaginary. It is self-evident that ethnicity exists in the world, and has very real social power (as any minority at the receiving end of violence will tell you). But its characteristics are derived entirely from peoples’ beliefs about what it is. Its power is entirely in their social responses to it, and the social reproduction of these responses. Detailed empirical research decisively demonstrates that ethnicity cannot be simplistically tied to such characteristics as one’s blood, language, territory or genes. It can be remarkably fluid, and multilayered. Peoples’ ethnicity has even been known to be changeable, though such processes are, of course, far from straightforward.

This important idea ultimately brought a crisis in archaeology. In short, did the ‘culturally’ Anglo-Saxon artefacts that we found necessarily have to be used by Anglo-Saxons at all? Some scholars, like Cambridge archaeologist Sam Lucy, demonstrated that it is impossible to remove this research from nineteenth-century racist contexts. Lucy thus rejected the notion that ethnic identity was a useful category for studying the early Anglo-Saxon period at all. Examining cemeteries in East Yorkshire, the distribution patterns and uses of material that Lucy found didn’t seem to suggest (in East Yorkshire, at least) that medieval people drew clear boundaries between ethnic groups.  Therefore, she argued,  ethnic identity probably wasn’t an important category for these people. The only things truly observable were the expression of ‘local identities’, grounded in characteristics such as gender or age.

Pulling the Rug Out

Yet even this, in my view, has some problems. Like all accepted scientific paradigms, ethnic constructivism isn’t always approached critically. The only consistent criteria that scholars have found as the basis of ethnicity is a belief by an ethnic group’s members that they are members of the ethnic group in question. You are part of an ethnic group simply if you believe you are, and others agree  (though the latter part is crucial. The case of Rachel Dolezal shows that one cannot simply choose their ethnicity, shorn of all connections to the structural and institutional power imbalances other members of that ethnicity have suffered) .

This has some serious implications. It sometimes means that we—both archaeologists and people in general—identify phenomena that resemble ethnic boundaries, and assume that’s what we’re witnessing. But without demonstrating this to be the case, we’re always on shaky ground. Sociologist Rogers Brubaker uses the horrors in former Yugoslavia in the 90s as an example; newscasters, policymakers, political figures and others with influence would, when attempting to explain the causes of the conflict, continually describe it as an ‘ethnic’ conflict between Bosnians, Serbs, and Croats. In reality, Brubaker shows, the people involved in the conflict who explicitly pursued ethnically-defined end goals, such as the main nationalist political parties, were a relatively small group. The underlying causes of the conflict were in reality far more complex, and people fought for a whole variety of conscious and unconscious reasons. But when external observers take people at their word that they are fighting for ethnic reasons, they ‘reify’ (make real) those groups. They reinforce that social phenomenon of ethnicity and ethnic strife by furthering belief in it. But, in doing so, they are imposing this simplistic explanation on complex events and phenomena without basis.

We simply lack any empirical means of demonstrating how the people burying these grave goods thought about themselves in terms of ethnicity. Anglo-Saxon objects are not definitively an expression of ethnic identity. Neither can we argue that they definitively weren’t. We simply don’t have any means of bridging the gap between the source material and the intentions, conscious or unconscious, of the people that made it. We don’t know how they identified themselves, and we simply can’t from this evidence.

What Are We Left With?

What might we be able to learn from these objects instead? My research focus on objects found in graves—remnants of clothing, weaponry, knives, regionally distinct brooches and belt buckles, beads, toiletry items, and combs—first seen in the fifth century. Leaving questions of ethnic identity aside, what traces of symbolic meaning can be identified? Many of the metalwork accessories come from Scandinavia and northern Germany; some of them display decoration which has origins in styles found on metalwork from the Roman military frontier.

Though these styles developed in, and came to Britain from, Scandinavia, they descend from sometimes only slightly earlier styles of Roman metalwork which also make an appearance in the region. These might have come to Scandinavia with barbarians who had served in the Roman Army, and whose families wished to display the status that this gave them when they were buried.

The Western Roman Empire was undergoing dramatic internal political and cultural changes in the fourth and fifth centuries. Most people know this as the ‘Fall of the Roman Empire’, but scholars today question the degree to which Rome truly ‘fell’, or simply transformed into a complex series of local governments with power shifting away from the center—which is not to say, of course, that the process wasn’t violent or unpleasant. Much of the research done in the last couple of decades has argued that these changes, which were previously assumed to have come from mass invasion, or ‘infiltration’ by a barbarian ‘fifth column’, were in reality a gradual militarization of the pre-existing Roman provincial elites. What we know about these so-called ‘barbarian’ groups was written entirely by Romans, and thus is rife with Roman prejudices.

Fashionable “Barbarians”

Like all imperial powers, the Roman Empire relied on stereotypes, misconceptions, and exaggerated traits in its depictions of the ‘non-civilised’ peoples it interacted with. There’s reason to believe that what we call the ‘barbarization’ of the Roman army—where Roman soldiers were supposedly infiltrated by barbarians—was instead conscious adoption by Romans of supposedly ‘barbarian’ traits. They did this partly because these gave the army an image of martial ferocity, not entirely unlike using ‘redskins’ as the name of an American football team—particularly because of the pejorative implications that that name carries.

In the early fifth century, elites on the continent begin to use the types of burial costume that are normally associated with barbarian migrants. But scholars such as Bonnie Effros, Guy Halsall, Edward James, Philipp von Rummel, and many others have shown that these costumes appeared in the Empire and in the barbarian homelands simultaneously. In some cases, they appeared in the Empire first! So it is absurd to attribute this to barbarian migration. A possible alternative these scholars put forward is that civilian displays of status ceased to be useful to provincial elites after the state’s infrastructure collapsed, and that these elites turned to more martial ways of showing their status.

British Barbarians?

A late fifth-century ‘Anglo-Saxon’ brooch from Rudstone, East Yorkshire. Haakon Shetelig, The Cruciform Brooches of Norway. Though such brooches come from Scandinavia and Germany, the animal decoration on the foot descends from late Roman military precedents.

In Britain, this becomes complicated. Unlike the continent, much of the British material clearly does migrate from Scandinavia and Germany. But we know that Saxons were first settled in Britain by the British authorities at some point in the late fourth or early fifth century, to serve as military reinforcements against Pictish and Irish raiders. Britain had become cut off from the Empire in the early fifth century, after rebelling twice—once in 383 and once in 407—with the goal of placing its own men on the imperial throne.

Pop histories and school textbooks will claim that the Empire ‘withdrew’ its armies to defend other parts of its territory. But it is far more likely that the Empire simply never managed to reassert control after the second rebellion. As a result, Britain suffered a massive social and economic collapse—though they at least didn’t vote for it in a referendum, that time. It may be, then, that that the ‘Germanic’ metalwork we find in the early fifth-century burials might have been used as a substitute for the official Roman metalwork that expressed authority in the Empire. It appears at precisely the same time we see elites all across the Empire become concerned with military expressions of authority.  Archaeologists sometimes go to great and elaborate lengths to explain why a burial contains both an early fifth-century ‘Romano-British’ belt buckle and a late fifth-century ‘Germanic’ brooch. The people doing the burying wouldn’t have seen this as a contradiction. Yes, the ‘Germanic’ brooch might have had its stylistic origins across the North Sea, but it still drew upon a stylistic grammar associated with Roman authority, just like the belt buckle.

Thus, the assumptions underpinning a ‘Pan-Germanic’ ideology are difficult to prove.

There is next to no evidence that the peoples of the Baltic, North Sea and Scandinavia self-consciously identified with one another in this period. That was an assumption concocted by linguistics that is often rejected today.

You’re Doing it Wrong.

Archaeology now approaches these questions completely differently, but popular depictions haven’t kept up. On Monday, The Times published an article about a recent archaeological study of Winchester. As the paper put it, ‘nine Romano-British or early Anglo-Saxon sites’ were studied, which allegedly contained ‘Germanic warriors’. Whether The Times mean a cultural or a racial category is never clear.

Andrew Welton–a PhD researcher at the University of Florida–pointed out that same day that The Times committed serious errors in archaeological reporting. The article casually blends studies of ancient skeletal height with studies of modern DNA and material culture, treating them as part of the same evidence package. Much of this can be put down to poor reporting, and the actual study is probably far more subtle. But The Times’ assertions were still derived from the authors’ own reports. The article suggests that the study makes a link between Anglo-Saxon ethnicity and increased skeletal height–due to the Saxons’ alleged superior diet! This claim is clearly based on more subtle modern work in the field that is still popular. But the article doesn’t mention that this argument is also heavily contested and has problems.

Two weeks ago, Theresa May was the first leader of a foreign nation to visit Donald Trump and welcome his presidency. In a joint press conference, May claimed that the United Kingdom and the United States share ‘a relationship based on the bonds of history, of family, kinship’.

An Anglo-Saxon cremation urn. Unlike some of the metalwork, these items definitely came from northern Germany. Image credit: Thorskegga.

For many of America’s founding fathers, this bond of kinship came from the white, Anglo-Saxon past. Thomas Jefferson proposed that the Great Seal of the United States feature Hengist and Horsa, ‘the Saxon chiefs from whom we claim the honor of being descended, and whose political principles and form of government we have assumed.’ Historians now widely believe Hengist and Horsa to be mythical. But so-called ‘Anglo-Saxon nationalists’ remain obsessed with these ideas. Their culture historical understanding of ‘Anglo-Saxon’ ethnicity is cross-fertilized by links to the Alt-Right, White Supremacists, and neo-Nazi groups.

It is a dangerous time to be peddling oversimplifications of the Anglo-Saxon past. Loose fragments of evidence and vague symbols are far too frequently used to weave elaborate and totally unprovable narratives. Some early Anglo-Saxon cremation urns, for example, feature stamped decorations including swastikas. That symbol’s presence on such artefacts in late Roman Scandinavia as well as northern Germany and ancient India was used to argue that the symbol must have been the preserve of ancient Aryans.

Such a claim is manifestly ridiculous. Some have claimed the swastika might represent the god Thor, but there is next to no evidence for this. Yet culture historical assumptions about a geometrically simple symbol were enough for Hitler to personally adopt it as the symbol of the most brutal and horrifying regime of the twentieth century.

The alternative I’ve offered above is debatable. The events of the fifth century are fraught with uncertainty. But we cannot treat highly debatable interpretations like facts. When we do that, we create space for very simplistic narratives. Such narratives can have genocidal consequences.

Continue to Part IV of our Series: Is Race Real?

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

A Vile Love Affair: Right Wing Nationalism and the Middle Ages

The Standard Bearer

This is Part II of The Public Medievalist’s continuing series on Race, Racism and the Middle Ages, written by Dr. Andrew Elliott. His next book, Medievalism, Politics, and Mass MediaAppropriating the Middle Ages in the Twenty-First Century is available for pre-order now.

Read the Introduction to the our series here, and Part I, here.

The Middle Ages have long served as a convenient treasure trove for right-wing nationalism and racism.

Let’s start by looking only at the 20th century. The rise and proliferation of fascism throughout Europe in the 1930s was underpinned by a surprisingly persistent use and appropriation of medieval history and imagery—what scholars call “medievalism.” In her PhD thesis, Flora Ward has described how Francisco Franco, dictator of Spain from 1939 to 1975, relied on the memory of Spain’s medieval past in order to underpin, and legitimise, his rule. Similarly, in a recent volume of Studies in Medievalism Pedro Martins has recently shown how Portugal’s António Sardinha relied on medievalist fantasies of honour and nobility as a way of bypassing Enlightenment ideals of reason and Republicanism.

Far-Right French Politician Marine Le Pen at a rally in front of a statue of Joan of Arc.
Far-Right French Politician Marine Le Pen at a rally in front of a statue of Joan of Arc.

Jean-Marie Le Pen, former leader of France’s far-right National Front party, made a series of claims indicating that ‘real’ French identity was only valid if it could trace its roots back to the 5th century king of the Franks, Clovis. His daughter, Marine Le Pen, continues his legacy by marching annually to the statue of Joan of Arc to honour ‘proper’ French identity (by which she means white, European and Christian). In what is becoming a family tradition, her niece, Marion, has also been compared to the saint, in an attempt to lay claim to medieval history as the unique property of the far right.

But by far, the most infamous example is, of course, Hitler’s use of the medieval past to promote a nostalgic historical nationalism.  Allegedly, according to Uli Linke (p. 198), Hitler even attempted to trace his own genealogy back through Norse mythology to Germanic warriors, and even to Odin himself.

Of course, it is not only the right wing who use the past in this way. Tommaso di Carpegna Falconieri, in his excellent book Medioevo Militante [Militant Middle Ages], outlines how the Middle Ages came to be resurrected in support of a surprising range of political stances. However, it is the Far Right who often find it most fitting, as a way of hiding pseudo-scientific race theories under the disguise of ostensible historical legitimacy.

The real trick, for both Hitler and his successors, was to employ the Middle Ages as a seemingly benign mode of nostalgia. In a tense climate of economic depression, widespread misinformation, wounded national pride, and knee-jerk racism, each successive movement promoted a return to the past. The past they invoked was a putatively shared national identity—shared by those whom they considered racially ‘pure’—that allowed for a nostalgic use of the past. Such ideas are designed to make extremist ideologies more palatable, more mainstream, and more inclusive. They don’t reject other races, they say, they celebrate their own heritage (in reality by rejecting the non-White ‘Other’).

Such appropriations of the Middle Ages have been massively successful. They were so successful, in fact, that the shadow of National Socialism would cast a pall over similar political medievalisms (at least in mainstream politics) for much of the remainder of the twentieth century. Even so, Louise D’Arcens and Clare Monagle have recently identified a ‘comeback’ of medievalism in modern politics. They have pinpointed the ways in which the medieval past has returned to seemingly mainstream discourse. It is present in the mouths of John Howard in Australia, Stephen Harper in Canada, David Cameron in the UK, Marine Le Pen in France, and Donald Trump in the US.

Why Is It Back, and Why Now?

In his book Neomedievalism, Neoconservatism, and the War on Terror Bruce Holsinger offers one part of the answer. Holsinger describes how the logic of the war on terror has reintroduced a series of medievalisms to post-9/11 discourse. Following this logic, it is easy to see how accusations that al Qaeda (and later IS) are ‘medieval’ introduce a stark division between the ‘modern’, ‘evolved’ West and the ‘primitive’, ‘barbaric’ East. This infuses the Bush doctrine (“you are either with us or against us”) with imperialist and orientalist overtones (as John Ganim has persuasively argued in his book Medievalism and Orientalism).

Seeing world leaders standing on the floor of the UN and calling entire cultures (and, by extension, Islam) “medieval” is shocking. This is only somewhat softened by the extent to which insulting something by calling it “medieval” has been normalised by its repetition in political discussion. In my upcoming book, Medievalism, Politics and Mass Media, I describe this phenomenon as ‘banal medievalism.’ The term describes the repetitive use of medievalisms without any real intentions of indicating the actual past, but which nevertheless draw their power from their recognisability and repetition.

A second reason for the return of the Middle Ages in political discourse can be found in the rise of blogging and social media. This has seen proliferation of user-generated content and allows a staggering number of people to join in political discussions online. The lowered barriers of entry are, in themselves, laudable (they are the means by which I am able to write and publish this article). But one of the fringe consequences of the so-called ‘Web 2.0’ is that the use of the Middle Ages no longer needs to be footnoted. We can talk of ‘crusades’ as though there was only one. We can claim to be, or find, King Arthur. We can talk of Robin Hood or Joan of Arc by simply pointing to their Wikipedia pages, which are curated by the crowd, for the crowd. In a post-Truth era, the challenge to authority allows us to make the past mean whatever we want it to mean. Statements are fact-checked afterwards, rather than researched beforehand.

In this climate, the Middle Ages have become particularly fertile ground for the kinds of pseudo-scientific race theories espoused by white supremacist blogs and far-right nationalist groups. In the USA, for example, Neo-nazi website Stormfront [Editor’s note: It is our policy never to link to sites like Stormfront. They don’t deserve the traffic.] illustrate the ways in which a pseudo-historical medieval past can be reworked into a racist fantasy of blood purity and exclusive nationalism. Their propaganda includes a shocking “book” called “A History of the White Race”. It is in fact not a book, but a downloadable PDF, akin to Oslo terrorist Anders Behring Breivik’s “book” in both quality and content. Its most salient feature, however, is that it rates as perhaps the most egregious misuse of history by the far-right today. In their ‘history’, Stormfront literally rewrite the entire history of humankind to suggest a genetically-predetermined supremacy of the supposedly pure white race. They begin by dismissing both evolution and creationism as equally implausible “theories”, then turn to “archaeological evidence” (no evidence at all is actually offered) which “proves” that Homo sapiens (who, they claim without evidence, are solely the ancestors of white Northern Europeans) miraculously survived an ice age. Their fantasy Homo sapiens then “appeared out of the north and swept down through Europe, physically destroying Neanderthal man”. They then go on to rewrite the Middle Ages. In their fantasy Middle Ages, the resistance of Islamic expansion by white European armies was brought about simply because of the natural supremacy of the white race.

It cannot be overstated: this ‘history’ is not only scientifically illogical and completely unsubstantiated; it is historically ludicrous. However, no matter how absurd, claims like these fit perfectly within the right wing’s distortion of history in general, and the Middle Ages in particular. Furthermore, they draw their power not from their factual basis but from their similarities with other neo-Nazi or right-wing sources.

This illustrates a lesson for supposedly ‘post-Truth’ world. That lesson does not come from history, media theory, or journalism. It comes from advertising: truth comes from recognition, repetition, and non-contradiction. The far-right isn’t exploring the truth, they are building a brand.

The Middle Ages in the Far Right-Wing Bubble

So why are the Middle Ages in particular so susceptible to this sort of misuse? One response may be difficult for some scholars to accept, since it means that we have to shoulder some of the responsibility. Scholars design curricula that unduly privilege the written record, and material remains of the European Middle Ages. At the risk of oversimplifying, the abundance of material and cultural remains from a largely white European Middle Ages leads to a disproportionate focus on white, European medieval history. This leads to the (often unwitting) perception that, simply, white history is all the history there ever was.

The extent to which this overprivileging of white Christians dominates the memory of the past can even be found in a throwaway joke in Mel Brooks’ 1993 film, Robin Hood: Men in Tights. In one scene, Robin (Cary Elwes) recruits Ahchoo (Dave Chappelle) as the only black member of his band of Merry Men. On hearing his name, Robin’s servant Blinkin replies: “A Jew? Here?”

The joke only works if you believe that somehow Jews didn’t exist in the European Middle Ages. Obviously this is demonstrably untrue, but gains credence nonetheless given the predominance of white writers in medieval history curricula across the world.

Another part of the response, equally simplistically, is that the medieval past offers particularly useful ideas precisely because of how often the Middle Ages are invoked outside of historical enquiry. Blogs about the Vikings (such as that of Norwegian metal singer Varg Vikernes, with his pompous “Ancestral Cult” blog) groan with references to suppo

An advertisement for the extreme-right English Defense League utilizing crusader imagery to promote its anti-muslim agenda.
An advertisement for the extreme-right English Defense League utilizing crusader imagery to promote its anti-muslim agenda. Yes, they did misspell “defending”.

sedly pure bloodlines reaching back to the Norsemen and Vikings. They are both genealogically and genetically meaningless, and bear alarming parallels with Hitler’s attempted genealogy back to Odin. Other blogs, such as that of the ‘Traditional Britain Group’, the ‘English Defence League’, or ‘Boudica BPI’ in the UK use common tropes of medievalism to construct a heritage for themselves within an imaginary, exclusionist white history. The far-right British National Party (BNP) run a regular summer camp called “Camp Excalibur,” which celebrates Britain’s white heritage.

The multiple blogs on these topics, exist within a ‘counterjihad filter bubble’ of their own creation. In this bubble, extreme-right figures like Pamela Geller, Robert Spencer, Fjordman, Bat Ye’or, Geert Wilders and Anders Breivik all use medievalism to support their theories of racial identity without encountering opposing voices or contradiction. No footnotes are required: they need only link back to other bloggers in their community. By joining together an imagined community of like-minded followers, the closed circuit of these networks reinforces their paranoia and shuts out any opposing views. Once a person connects to these groups online, the self-referential circularity of those networks offers what appears to be a genuine and powerful alternative to the mainstream media, or mainstream scholarship. Such circularity leads far-right groups to boycott the mainstream media, calling it biased, or lately “fake news,” and has turned them towards attacking the “liberal academy.” They thus over-privilege stories posted by members of their own communities, and mute any inconvenient truths. Recognition, repetition, and non-contradiction.

At the same time, precisely when we need solid journalism and media literacy, news consumption in general has seen a shift towards online sources instead of newspapers, radio or television. A startling report from the Pew Research Center estimated that in 2014, 30% of US adults got their news wholly or mostly from Facebook. The problem comes with the internet’s self-referentiality which ultimately serves to demolish traditionally impartial guarantors of authority and reliability. As Upworthy CEO Eli Pariser argues in his book The Filter Bubble: What The Internet Is Hiding From You, “for most of us now, the difference in authority between a blog post and an article in the New Yorker is much smaller than one would think”.

Owning the Past

In the context of these self-referential filter bubbles, the Middle Ages of the Far Right seems to be rooted in an inclusive celebration of the past, joining a nation together in celebration of heritage. But instead, looking beneath the surface, the misuse of the past forms a powerful strategy rooted in a dangerously exclusive rejection of anyone considered ‘Other’. By calling into doubt the experts who study the Middle Ages, their online pick-and-mix of the past allows them to sidestep accusations of racism by adopting a seemingly celebratory mode of medievalism. In their attempts to dissociate themselves from overtly fascist or neo-Nazi organizations, these networks congregate around the Middle Ages as a shared past and point of contact. The Middle Ages in this context is forcefully conscripted to support their racism and anti-Muslim invective.

Tying these ideas together, it becomes obvious that the normalization of terms like ‘medieval’, to mean barbarous or primitive play perfectly into the right-wing playbook. The insistence by far-right groups that Islam is ‘medieval’ subtly implies that the religion is fundamentally incompatible with modernity. In light of this, their closed-circle media strategies thus offer these groups a dangerous platform to rewrite the past.

In this fraught online landscape, the Middle Ages provides fertile ground for a staggering range of ideologies. In the context of the so-called ‘post-truth’ social landscape before us, amid the deepening mistrust of experts and intellectuals, the rejection of authority means the loss of any ability to talk reasonably about the validity of interpretations of the past. The Middle Ages can mean whatever we—whatever they—want them to mean. The debate is thus not about the past, but about who owns and controls that past. It is for this reason, then, that it is so important that sites like The Public Medievalist and others are able to play a role in the online discussion of complex issues like race, gender, religion and cultural identity in public forums. And scholars have to assume as much responsibility as anyone else to promote inclusivity in their curricula.

Bruce Holsinger suggests—with tongue firmly in cheek—‘we are all medievalists now’. Medievalists, and people interested in the real Middle Ages, must work to ensure that the Middle Ages does not end up meaning whatever a specific ideologue decides it should, but instead reflects all the evidence, particularly all the historical nuances and complexities. It is these nuances and complexities that make history both true and meaningful.

As Nicolas Sarkozy lamented in the ‘tug-of-love’ over Joan of Arc in the 2007 presidential elections, “Joan of Arc is France [and not a symbol of racial exclusion] How could we have let the extreme right confiscate her for so long?”

Continue to Part III of our Series: “Race” in the Trenches

The Public Medievalist does not pay to promote these articles, so we would love it if you shared this with your history-loving friends! Click to share with your friends on Facebook, or Twitter.

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A Brief History of a Terrible Idea: The “Dark Enlightenment”


This is Part I of The Public Medievalist’s continuing series on Race, Racism and the Middle Ages, written by one of our newest contributors, Dr. Dark Age. Dr. Dark Age is a medieval studies professor and a scholar of the many disturbing abuses of the Middle Ages.

Read the Introduction to Our Series on Race, Racism, and the Middle Ages Here.

As a medieval studies professor, I try to free my students from the myth of “the Dark Ages.” Popular histories would have you believe that once the Renaissance came along—to steal a line from historian Judith Bennett— humanity “woke up, bathed, and stopped grievously oppressing women.” I remind students about the Renaissance witch trials, bloodshed between Catholics and Protestants, and the international slave trade. I point out that many things we consider barbaric, racist, and sexist sprang into being long after we left the so-called Dark Ages and saw the light.

But now that I know about the “Dark Enlightenment,” a sociopolitical theory that’s all the rage in white supremacist circles, I might hold back a little.

Anyone trawling the Internet to try to shed more light on the Dark Ages might stumble onto some disconcerting defenses of medieval times. You might, for instance, find yourself on the neo-Nazi Stormfront message board, where user “Fading Light” writes:

The “Dark Ages” is one of my pet peeves…”

Hey, mine too, Fading Light!

“…brought up constantly by anti-Whites to bash our race…”

Wait. What?

Fading Light goes on to brag, “I collect European achievements from that period as a hobby just to point out to people who believe in ‘Dark Ages’ how stupid they are.”

This is sort of like a medievalist’s wet dream turned into a nightmare: it turns out the same sites that promote links to “Top 10 reasons the Dark Ages were not dark” also post links to anti-Jewish conspiracy theories and flattering Hitler fan art. And one of their favorite things to link to, these days, is the Dark Enlightenment manifesto.

The Other Red Pill

DE often uses medieval philosophy to promote its theories. These Magic: The Gathering style cards are designed by Dark Enlightenment fans. Note: I’m pretty sure Magic: The Gathering does not endorse these messages.

“Dark Enlightenment” (DE) is a theory dreamed up by self-styled Internet philosophers who claim to trace modern-day problems to the end of the Middle Ages. According to DE proponents, the Enlightenment’s humanism, democracy, and quest for equality are responsible for the decay of Western civilization. DE gurus write long, self-aggrandizing online screeds that dabble in just enough science, philosophy, and political philosophy to be dangerous. They promise to “cure your brain” of Orwellian leftist propaganda by giving you a “golfball-sized red pill” that will sear your throat like a live coal” (!)

Swallowing that massive rhetorical pill is supposed to urge the reader toward the following conclusions:

  • Democracy leads to the zombie apocalypse.

DE manifestos sometimes use zombies as a metaphor for mediocrity, or sometimes for devouring each other in the name of capitalist self-advancement. And, once in a while, they actually seem to be talking about real zombies. What the West needs to save itself is a return to good, old-fashioned monarchy.

  • Political correctness—by which DE means indulging in any pretense of human equality—is killing Western civilization.

As an ‘antidote’ to the poisonous infection of equality, DE manifestos posit an alternate theory they call “Human Biodiversity” (HBD). But while “Human Biodiversity” sounds like some kind of lovely futuristic plan for a colony in outer space, exploring the Dark Enlightenment subreddit will wipe that pleasant illusion away:

“Individual humans and human groups,” their page explains, “differ in ability, psychological disposition, intelligence, and other traits for genetic reasons. Genetics can explain 50% or more of the differences in lifetime outcomes within and between human groups. Other factors are minor by comparison.”

This, DE proponents argue, is not racism, but what they call “racial realism”: the idea is that biology and genetics endow us with different behavioral traits, and therefore we should all play different roles in the world.

“Racial realism” is, of course, a fantasy that has been thoroughly debunked by geneticists. If that 50% figure they quote sounds made up, that’s because it is. But interestingly, the attempt to separate ‘racialism’—attributing behavioral traits to different races based on biology, genealogy, geography, or environmental influences—from racism actually echoes a debate among medievalists held at the beginning of this century. Scholars asked: can we really talk about “racism” in a time before modern concepts of race existed? Some medieval white people believed that sin was associated with darker skin, but is that the same as “racism,” or was that technically religious discrimination? What about medieval adaptations of classical geographical theories, which posited that different climates invested the races with different strengths and weaknesses? Germans, according to Caesar, were tall and strong because they wore little clothing in cold environments and bathed in cold rivers; unsurprisingly, Caesar believes Romans like himself sprang from a climate perfectly conducive to martial and intellectual excellence.

Most medievalists have long since moved past the debate over terminology, which seems like rather dubious hair-splitting when even seemingly “neutral” racialisms impose hierarchies, usually with whiteness at the top. And white supremacy is the same conclusion Dark Enlightenment ‘thinkers’ draw when they use the Middle Ages to make their case.

The Usual Suspects

“Menicius Moldbug” is the pseudonym under which Curtis Yarvin, a computer programmer, wrote the theoretical treatise that helped launch the DE movement. Moldbug considers Thomas Carlyle “superhuman,” in the same league as Shakespeare and Chaucer.

If you read posts by DE leaders like “Mencius Moldbug” or Nick Land, you would be forgiven for thinking that a Victorian social Darwinist has time-traveled into Silicon Valley. Like the Victorians before them, DEers fetishize the medieval West as the height of white greatness, a time when every race was in its proper geographical place, allowing white civilization to thrive in isolation. And like social Darwinists, they twist science, philosophy, and logic to rationalize what is, at its core, an emotional response: the fear of lost power and privilege in a globalizing, equalizing world.

Unsurprisingly, DE proponents also believe in biologically inevitable gender roles. As the DE subreddit claims:

“Recognition of HBD necessitates the rejection of the core progressive dogma of egalitarianism. Race and gender are not social constructs and everyone personally experiences that not all men or women are created equal. It is easier to believe in Leprechauns than to believe in egalitarianism.”

DE doesn’t limit itself to theorizing race: its members take the same “red pill” as MRAs to justify their belief in strict gender roles.

They share the “red pill” metaphor with the so-called Men’s Right’s movements as often as they share links to each other’s websites, and the Middle Ages do the heavy lifting for many of their gender theories. For instance Andrew Aglin, editor of the neo-Nazi news site Daily Stormer, made this statement on gender equality in 2015:

“My position on women, very explicitly, is that they should in the modern world remain in the exact same role they were in during the medieval period and I am unwilling to dance around or negotiate on that issue. Women should be honored, cherished and cared for, but they should not possess ‘rights.’”

‘Conventional’ white supremacists like Aglin butt heads with the Dark Enlightenment movement, and with the “alt right” in general. DE proponents did not begin as Nazis or fascists, and many still don’t want to be associated with them. DEers tend to be educated, well-off, technologically savvy atheists. They reject the Christian supremacy and Norse paganism typical in neo-Nazi circles.

DE is a favorite theory of the alt-right, and its proponents consider Richard Spencer one of their heroes.

Likewise, white supremacist groups often reject DE leaders even as they embrace their theories. Aglin, for instance, rejects DE as a movement because he claims white supremacists invented those ideas first—and, not incidentally, because one of DE’s founders is half-Jewish. (Side note: one of the really amusing things about all this infighting is the way that alt-righters and old school neo-Nazis accuse each other of being a Jewish conspiracy to make white supremacy look bad.) But none of these relatively minor disagreements change the fact that the “Dark Enlightenment” ideology is really just white supremacy dressed up in trendy glasses and a hoodie.

The Real History

DE’s grasp of medieval history is about as thin as its understanding of biology and geography. There was no such thing as the homogenous, insular medieval Europe they hope to resurrect. Al-Andalus, aka Muslim Spain, was right next to France. Parts of France were also England, and vice versa. The Vikings landed in all those places. Western European culture relied heavily on philosophical, literary, commercial, and scientific exchanges with people who were not white. And medieval women were scholars, religious authorities, healers, queens, merchants, and even military leaders and brewers.

But when a movement has so much online traction, especially among educated and highly-paid people, its “alternate facts” about the Middle Ages can’t be dismissed as sheer ignorance. Myths about the Middle Ages have a long history of being used to strip people of their rights: in the slaveholding American south, in 1930s Germany, and even now, under the neomedieval Islamic State. And this latest iteration of dangerous revisionist medievalism isn’t just popular in Silicon Valley: it may even have wormed its way into the White House.

No matter how rich, diverse, or interesting medievalists think the Middle Ages may have been, nobody wants our future to look like our past—especially if it’s the past that lives in the Dark Enlightenment imagination.

Continue to Part II: A Vile Love Affair: Right Wing Nationalism and the Middle Ages

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

Race, Racism, and the Middle Ages: Tearing Down the “Whites Only” Medieval World

Siege of Antioch

On January 2nd of this year, The Economist published an article titled “Medieval memes: The far right’s new fascination with the Middle Ages”. The most surprising part of that article was not that neo-fascist, neo-Nazi, white supremacist nationalists (i.e. the self-described “alt-right”) love the Middle Ages, but that The Economist is so late to this revelation. Right-wing white supremacists, both in Europe and in the US, have held a special place for in their hearts for the Middle Ages since at least the beginning of the nineteenth century.

For over two centuries, American slaveholders, the Knights of the Ku Klux Klan, Nazi Germany, and today’s white supremacist self-styled “alt-right” have all promoted a twisted idea of the Middle Ages that props up their white-supremacist fantasies. And unfortunately, their view of the Middle Ages has trickled into the groundwater of the broader popular historical consciousness. Depictions of people of color in films, TV series, and video games about the Middle Ages are practically nonexistent. Those that do show people of color in the Middle Ages typically only reinforce this paradigm. For instance, the 2001 film Black Knight makes comedic hay out of the idea being black is at odds with being a knight. The Lord of the Rings films (and books) courted controversy by depicting people of color as dangerous outsiders fighting in thrall to the Dark Lord.

We can do better than this. Martin Lawrence from Black Knight (2001)

But the truth is, these Middle Ages are not the Middle Ages. The whites-only Middle Ages is vastly different from the medieval world that many scholars would recognize. And according to a study I conducted in 2008-2009, young people in the US and UK think of the Middle Ages as existing only in England, Britain, or Western Europe. Some even instinctively have trouble seeing medieval Muslims as “civilized,” even in the face of contradictory evidence such as the many advances in science and technology in the medieval Muslim world. But scholars know that the medieval world was not limited only to England or Western Europe. And even if it were limited to only Western Europe, it would still feature the stories of a number of people of color.

A New Public Medievalist Series

Over the past generation, a new crop of scholars have looked at questions of race in the Middle Ages much more carefully than before. They have found that, among many other things, medieval people understood ideas of “race” fundamentally differently than we do today. Over the course of the month of February, as a celebration of Black History month, The Public Medievalist will be publishing a series of essays on several facets of this topic, showcasing the newest work on this important subject. The goal of this series is to expose and tear down the white-supremacist-tainted version of the Middle Ages, and to lift up some of the stories of those medieval people of color you may not have heard of before.

But before we begin in earnest—a note about racism and white supremacy. This series is intended to challenge some deeply-held beliefs. Racist and white supremacist ideas about the past have lingered in our culture. They are not limited to dyed-in-the-wool racists or card-carrying members of the Klan. They can seem natural and normal. That makes them a fundamental part of institutionalized racism as it exists today, since the past forms and informs the foundations of the present.

None of us are fully immune to the ideas of the past we grew up with. We see the past the way it has been presented to us in school, in history books, and in popular culture. I am not immune; no one is. And new information can seem, at first, like an assault, not just on the past, but on our past, our values, or even ourselves. Our historical consciousness is always tainted by our prejudices, even—especially—our deep-seated ones. Reexamining our ideas about the past in light of cutting-edge scholarship can help us to shake off antiquated ideas that neither reflect historical realities nor who we are. Improving our understanding of the past can be difficult, but that makes it no less necessary to inoculate ourselves from those who would misuse the past to promote their hateful agendas in the present.

Continue to Part I: A Brief History Of A Terrible Idea: The “Dark Enlightenment”

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Past and PresentPolitics

Hot Take on a Hot Mess


At the National Prayer Breakfast this morning, President Trump promoted his typically dark vision of Middle Eastern politics:

We have seen peace loving Muslims brutalize, victimize, murdered and oppressed by ISIS killers. We have seen threats of extermination against the Jewish people. We have seen a campaign of ISIS and genocide against Christians, where they cut off heads. Not since the Middle Ages have we seen that. We haven’t seen that, the cutting off of heads. Now they cut off the heads, they drown people in steel cages. Haven’t seen this. I haven’t seen this. Nobody’s seen this for many, many years.

At the risk of seeming glib, Trump is clearly no historian. If he thinks that beheadings and torture have not been in use since the Middle Ages, I would kindly ask his advisers to point him towards literally every piece of history after the Middle Ages. Moreover, if he thinks torture by drowning is barbaric, I might remind him of his own campaign promises to bring back torture techniques like waterboarding.

But that’s not the point, is it. The Middle Ages have become history’s dumping ground—at least for that sector of the public who know the least about it. Everything awful, barbaric, and inhumane that humanity of capable of is shoved back into the Middle Ages, like the closet you shoved all your toys into when “cleaning your room” as a kid. The problem with that is that it absolves us from seeing the barbarity and inhumanity of those closer to us. Nobody wants to think of our great-great-grandparents as slave owners, or our grandparents as war criminals. So, barbarity like that is pushed back into our historical id. Doing so allows us to plug our ears, close our eyes, and not accept a simple fact: without institutions like the Geneva conventions that force us toward our better selves, that we are just as bad, if not worse, than those backward medievals that we turn our noses up at.

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FeminismPoliticsRace, Class and Religion

The Tenacity of Hate: Trump and the Pleasure of Prejudice


For many people all across the political spectra, the recent election has been shocking. Shocking not just because Donald Trump actually won, but because he violated so many norms along the way. Some of the most egregious violations were those that attacked the heart of social liberalism. He began his campaign calling Mexicans rapists. Along the way, he lashed out at people with disabilities. He attacked women, Muslims, African Americans. Practically every group that has been systematically disadvantaged or marginalized within American society, Trump set in his sights. And far from disqualifying him, each new attack seemed to draw him closer to the White House.

Liberal America was shocked. As an article recently published on Slate argued, “2016 Was the Year White Liberals Realized How Unjust, Racist, and Sexist America Is”. And they’re not wrong. A Saturday Night Live sketch about election night, skewered white liberals when one white character cried in shock: “oh my God… I think America is racist!”

For Dave Chapelle and Chris Rock in that sketch, and for many people of color across the country, the sick joke was that America never really stopped being racist. But for many, this was a rude awakening.

What made this so shocking to many was that this is 2016; we are supposed to be past all this. George Wallace is dead and buried. Barack Obama is a popular, accomplished president.  Racism, sexism, ableism, anti-Muslim and anti-LGBTQ bigotry definitely exist (despite what the pundits on Fox News—and even some Supreme Court Justices—might intone). But those retrograde forces were supposed to be losing. Naked prejudice was supposed to be a thing of the past, dying out. It was supposed to be consigned to back-woods Klan meetings or the vilest corners of the internet. The fight was supposed to be shifting from the overt to the institutional. Dr. King’s arc of the moral universe was supposed to be bending towards justice.

But clearly, it was not. Despite the fifty years since the beginning of the civil rights movement, and the strides made towards equality within our institutions, hatred and prejudice has been dormant, not dead.

The question is, why? What makes hate so tenacious?

Check out the Nerdwriter on Youtube. His videos are universally excellent.

Evan Puschak, who publishes video essays under the moniker “The Nerdwriter” offers an insight that no one else is talking about:

“The dirty secret about sexism, racism, homophobia, prejudice, is that it’s pleasurable. It’s pleasurable to assert your dominance within a hierarchy you create. It’s pleasurable in the same way that winning in a sporting event is pleasurable—the feeling of being a winner, of bettering someone.

So when we think about issues like this, we have to keep in mind that what we’re talking about is people’s pleasure. About taking it away from them—rightly so! It will come as no surprise that they’re as reluctant to let it go here as in any other instance of gratification.”

This lens clarifies things immensely. It begins to explain why prejudice can be so hard to shake off, even by people who may know, intellectually, that it’s wrong. Freud was the first to describe “The Pleasure Principle.” To him, humans are hard-wired to seek out pleasurable experiences, and to avoid pain. It’s our body’s way of telling us that we’re doing something right: eating energy-rich food, having sex, learning a new skill and surmounting a difficult challenge all activate the pleasure centers in our brains for very good reasons. They reward the things that encourage us to win, in an evolutionary sense: survive, thrive, and procreate.


But there is another side to this that Freud does not discuss. There are not just physical or intellectual pleasures, but social ones. Some of these—seeing friends, falling in love—are clearly positive. But the darker side of social pleasure is the pleasure derived from domination: not just defeating someone else, but the sadism of making them lose. And definitionally, it is sadistic to derive pleasure by causing someone else pain.

Sadism is fairly normalized in our society: from schoolyards, to sporting events, to boardrooms, to TVs across the country, we are encouraged to revel in our enemies’ losses. This is not merely schadenfreude—happiness at the misfortune of others—but happiness from causing someone else’s misfortune; when our team does not just win, but crushes, humiliates the other side.

Children encountering bullies are often told—by adults and by pop culture—“just ignore them”. But “just ignoring them”, in my experience, rarely works. This is because they do not just get their kicks from getting a rise out of you. It is because, as is also often said, they’re building themselves up—in their own minds and in their social groups—by putting others down. Bullies get pleasure from the act of bullying, from asserting themselves over others. They do this by building social hierarchies where they are the winners, or by latching onto those existing ones where they are already at the top.

The worst bullies are those who come to crave it, who become addicted to that sadistic pleasure like it were heroin. We do ourselves—our society—a disservice when we relegate these observations about bullying to the childhoods of our past.

Because prejudice and hate work exactly the same way. And classing prejudice and hate as a socially pleasurable—even addictive—experience helps reveal some ways to fight it.

Medieval Self-Help

St Francis knew how to party. Metropolitan Museum of Art 1994.516

Even as far back as the Middle Ages, people recognized the dangers that pleasurable experiences can pose. The ascetic tradition, the foundation of the monastic orders, is based on the idea that denying yourself pleasure is the path to Godliness. St. Francis of Assisi, founder of the Franciscan Order of monks, was perceptive in this regard. He commanded his followers not just that:

“We ought also to fast and to abstain from vices and sins and from superfluity of food and drink.”

But also that:

“We should never desire to be above others, but ought rather to be servants and subject ‘to every human creature for God’s sake.’ And the spirit of the Lord shall rest upon all those who do these things and who shall persevere to the end.”

The word ‘persevere’ is key. The rule of St. Francis, and that of the other ascetic orders, was hard. That was the point. But through gathering in like-minded communities, self-discipline and continual effort, they made for themselves a path away from the corrupting nature, not of the world, but of our own pleasure principles.

The mistake that some liberals made prior to the 2016 election was to assume that a world free from hatred and prejudice is natural, that the arc of the moral universe bends itself. But denying these pleasurable impulses is hard. It requires effort, vigilance, and self-discipline.

As with any other vice, your social group can motivate you towards discipline and virtue, or to slip. Some people only smoke or drink socially, others indulge in a racist joke now and again, or enjoy “locker-room talk.”

I am not advocating that liberals wall themselves off in monasteries (any more than our social media bubbles have done so already). But in the years to come, it is crucially important that we not slip, no matter which way the cultural winds may blow, and that we expand our bubbles and spread this message. The man entering the White House has a crippling addiction. He is addicted to the poisonous social pleasure of asserting dominance over others. He calls it “winning” (even if he began life on the finish line). We must not fall victim to the same intoxicating poison.

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Current EventsPast and PresentPolitics

Cuck: The Weird History of a Disgusting Word You’re Going to be Hearing a Lot More


From Chaucer to Fetish Porn to the White House

A vile new slur has taken root in American politics. If you read internet comments sections, the political subsections of Reddit, or are politically active on Twitter, you may have encountered it: “cuck”. The rise of Trump and the mainstreaming of the American alt-right fringes has injected this bizarre, antiquated word into the political discourse (along with a derivative portmanteau “cuckservative”). It is crucial for us to understand the coded language used by hate groups—and now those in the halls of power—to attack those around them in case you encounter it in the wild: on the street, in your classrooms, by your Breitbart-reading uncle, or on TV.

Rising from relative obscurity, “cuck” and its derivatives have become a favorite way for alt-righters to insult anyone who does not fall in line with their ultra-reactionary ideologies. But before it became a staple on the neo-Nazi edges of 4chan, Reddit and the comments sections of Breitbart, it was a medieval word, conveying a very medieval idea.

The Vile Origins

Cuck, as you might expect, come from the word cuckold, an insulting word for a man whose wife is cheating on him. The Oxford English Dictionary places its first attested use in the mid-thirteenth century Middle English poem “The Owl and the Nightingale”. The poem recounts a comic debate between an Owl and a Nightingale, and here the Owl is taking a remarkably forward-thinking stance on gender relations. He is discussing a common occurrence—a man loses interest in his wife, and pursues other women. He then begins to abuse his wife—in the original Middle English:

Al Þat heo deÞ him is unwille,
al Þat heo spekeÞ hit is him ille:
an oft hwan heo noʒt ne misdeÞ,
heo haueÞ the fust in hire teÞ.
Þ[er] is nan mon Þat ne mai ibringe
his wif amis mid swucche Þinge:
me hire mai so ofte misbeode,
Þat heo do wule hire ahene neode.
La, Godd hit wot! heo nah iweld,
Þa[h] heo hine makie kukeweld.

 Or, in Modern English:

Everything she does he objects to,
everything that she says irritates him,
and often, when she’s not doing anything wrong,
she gets a punch in the mouth.
There’s no man who can’t lead
his wife astray with this kind of behaviour;
she can be ill-treated so often
that she resolves to satisfy her own needs.
God knows, she can’t help it
if she makes him a cuckold.

In other words, if a woman is being abused by her philandering husband, it’s no surprise that she would cheat on him too. Seems reasonable. But, when this idea was viewed through the lens of the toxic, patriarchal masculinity of the Middle Ages, it took a dark turn.

The Conception of Alexander the Great
Not ideal. Conception of Alexander the Great, Les faize d’Alexandre (translation of Historiae Alexandri Magni of Quintus Curtius Rufus), Bruges ca. 1468-1475. British Library, Burney 169, fol. 14r

Men who were cuckolds may have only had themselves to blame (compounded by the medieval idea that women were more sexual than men). But he was shamed not because of his behavior, but because of hers. This generated intense anxiety in men, since one of the central aspects of being a man meant controlling the women in your life—an idea that had been enshrined into law. And court records show the results: as Derek Neal writes,

“fights, wife-beatings and even homicides could originate in men’s anxiety that their wives had made them cuckolds, or in the use of the word cuckold as an insult between men.”

This word cuckold and the idea of the shamed, cuckolded man, shows up in some of our most celebrated literature. From Chaucer’s Miller’s Tale:

This carpenter hadde wedded newe a wyf,
Which that he lovede moore than his lyf;
Of eighteteene yeer she was of age.
Jalous he was, and heeld hire narwe in cage,
For she was wylde and yong, and he was old
And demed hymself been lik a cokewold.

This carpenter had recently wedded a wife,
Whom he loved more than his life;
She was eighteen years of age.
Jealous he was, and held her narrowly in confinement,
For she was wild and young, and he was old
And believed himself likely to be a cuckold.

to the Morte D’Arthur, to nearly half of Shakespeare’s plays and poems, the anxiety about being cheated upon—and thus losing control of your woman—became pervasive. There is a gendered opposite, “cuckquean” first seen in 1546. But this did not catch on to nearly the same degree—women’s infidelities aroused anxiety; men’s infidelities elicited praise.

By the 20th century, the word had faded enough into obscurity that the word was often defined in the margins of editions of Shakespeare or Chaucer. Part of this was likely due to changing gender and sexual norms—while few people like being cheated on, the invention of reliable birth control meant that infidelity less often resulted in children. The rise of feminism and the sexual revolution meant that, among progressive households, men and women saw each other increasingly as equal partners rather than property. In the past two decades, with the LGBTQ rights movement has come an acceptance of sexual partnerships that relax or do away with monogamy entirely—the rise of polyamory and what Dan Savage has termed “monogamish” relationships.

But then, the backlash.


The word cuckold, like so many things do, saw its rebirth in porn. The last decade’s renaissance in free streaming video content online has resulted in an incredible diversification of the porn industry. The famous meme “rule 34 of the internet” states: “If it exists, there is porn of it—no exceptions“, and that holds true here; “cuckold porn” found a healthy niche market on the internet. Cuckold porn features, as you might expect, scenarios where a man is humiliated by his wife having sex with another man. And, putting America’s racist id fully on display, often the man she is having sex with is black—apparently the ultimate humiliation and outrage for some consumers.

It has been assumed by the news outlets reporting on the lurid history of the word “cuck” that those men who consume cuckold porn are sexually submissive, aroused by putting themselves in the shoes of the man being cuckolded. But in light of the way cuck has been appropriated by the alt-right, it is clear there is another audience still: those who, even literally, get off watching a man be humiliated. This lays bare the power dynamic that was always inherent in the use of the word—in order for a man to be dragged down by it, there has to be another who feels it lifts them up.

And more, implicit in the idea of “cuck” and cuckold porn is that the husband in this scenario, either willingly or because of his inherent weakness, is giving up that which is rightfully his to a person who should be the enemy. There is a homosexual implication here—that the cuckolded man secretly (or not-so-secretly) desires the cuckolder. And because the racial dynamics within much of cuckold porn calls back to the earliest days of the Ku Klux Klan, where central to their mythology was the fear that liberals were giving their white women over to black men. All of this leads to an image of degradation and weakness that is loaded not just with sex, but the worst homophobic and racist politics.

Mainstreaming Cuck as a Crypto-slur

The word cuckold was perfect for the alt-right. Its meaning is tantalizingly filthy, its sound abrasive, and its relative obscurity fits well in a world where language is coded and cryptic (both to establish the in-group from the out and as a method of obfuscation). They took the word, shortened it to cuck (easier to tweet), and deployed it as their insult du jour. Anti-feminists steeped in the toxic masculinities of Reddit’s /r/RedPill, 4chan’s /pol/, or GamerGate used it to shame the men they despised.

Louis CK was one of the first targets of this term. This is why friends don't let friends use 4chan.
Louis CK was one of the first targets of this term. This is why friends don’t let friends use 4chan.

During the 2016 presidential election, the term went mainstream. Those the alt-right found new purpose in their chosen candidate, Donald Trump—to them, he was the opposite of a cuck: masculine, authoritarian, extremist, and uncompromising. He flaunted his numerous sexual infidelities—always the cuckolder, never the cuck. The infamous Access Hollywood tape, where Trump bragged about his ability to sexually assault women with impunity, only solidified this in their eyes. Rush Limbaugh began using the term.

In July 2015, early in the campaign, the term mutated into “cuckservative”. The neologism, as The Washington Post reported:

“…burned up Twitter as fans of Donald Trump’s politicking warred with the movement conservatives who opposed it.”

Soon, any conservative who opposed Donald Trump, whether opponents like Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio, or mainstream conservative pundits and commentators, was tarred with the term. And it is easy to see how Trump could be seen in the cuck paradigm—he was not just beating his opponents, but humiliating them, sliming their wives and families. It did not matter that none of it was true. What matters is that he forced them to watch as he violated their families.

It was at this point that the word cuck metastasized and took on new meanings, as it became a catch-all insult for any man they despised. In some circles, it has become synonymous with “race traitor”, as the Southern Poverty Law Center describes:

“White supremacists have been more than happy to co-opt the terminology, even tailor its definition to further describe politicians who don’t fall in line with the white nationalist cause.”

The Anti-Defamation League has found it being used in anti-Semitic circles

“by white supremacists to describe a white Christian conservative who promotes the interests of Jews and non-whites over those of whites.”

Unsurprisingly, but tellingly, the term began being used on Steve Bannon’s website Breitbart (which I refuse to link to)—not just in the comments sections, but in headlines like “’Cuckservative’ is a Gloriously Effective Insult”, and “Don’t Be a Cuck, Zuck! Accept My Debate Challenge”.

It is easy for language such as this to go unnoticed by those who are not its target. If you find it used in your classrooms, your social circles, or by your political opponents, you now know what you are dealing with.

And, I will be frank. This literally medieval toxic masculinity will now occupy the White House—bringing with it the worst corners of the racist, anti-Semitic and xenophobic right wing. I will be the first to argue that comparisons to the Middle Ages are overused within political discourses. But in this case, the term, and those who use it, should be confined to the dustbin of history.

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Current EventsPolitics

Losing Home


Today, on The Public Medievalist, I’m going to get personal.

First, the news. Today, in the UK, the new Home Secretary Amber Rudd announced plans to crack down on overseas students and work visas, ostensibly as a way to limit immigration. This has been a long time coming; Theresa May—now Prime Minister—openly attacked foreign students during her tenure as Home Secretary. Now, in a post-Brexit vote world, where the UK is violently lurching towards racist isolationism, foreign students are once again within the government’s sights.

A bit about me. In 2003, I spent a semester abroad in London and got my first taste of living truly outside my cultural comfort zone. It was wonderful. It felt like home. So, in 2005, I went back. I didn’t really look anywhere but the UK for grad schools. I spent one of the best years of my life at the University of York, and another four at the University of Leeds. After that I spent two and a half years impoverished and underemployed there. I was unable to get a job in British academia due to a combination of the 2008 economic meltdown, the Tory scrambling of the ways that UK universities were funded, and no doubt because I had to declare my visa status with every application. But even during that time when everything was falling apart, it was home.

Me on the right, 2011. What $100,000 and four years of blood, sweat, and tears buys you.
Me on the right, 2011. What $100,000 and four years of blood, sweat, and tears buys you.

But there were cracks showing. Cabbies who’d spent the past fifteen minutes railing against immigrants pivoted immediately when declaring myself to be one. I was “one of the good ones.” Of course I was; I was educated. I was white. I had money – or at least enough to scrape by.

I had, in fact, sacrificed quite a bit to be there. I took loan after loan – the British Pound was strong back then – and wrote checks totaling about $100,000 to two British Universities. I worked the scant jobs I was permitted to; office assistant here, temporary lecturer there. I contributed. I gave public lectures and interviews for the BBC. I made friends and became a part of the community. I baked, goddammit.

And when I had to leave because my time had run out, I came back to the US with my tail between my legs. Between bouts of incredible homesickness, I wondered what had happened – how I had failed. And over the years since, I have watched the UK lurch, shambling, towards lashing out at immigrants. I kept – I keep – wondering why some of the most intelligent, well-educated people in the world can be so utterly small. Why the same nation who had welcomed me with open arms into their small, idiosyncratic homes—and lives—could also be the one that would look at others like me and sneer. I could see my boss at my admin job—the same one who baked me lemon drizzle cake on my birthday—reading right-wing websites on her breaks.

My story is common. There are 167,000 new overseas students per year in the UK. We constitute a massive part of the UK economy, and its international prestige. We contribute immeasurably to British society in ways less quantifiable or mercenary than that. We become a part of Britain, and Britain becomes a part of us.

But in light of today’s announcement by the Home Secretary, which touts a commission they will be setting up to slash the number of foreign students, it has become clear to me that I never was “one of the good ones.” Sure, my skin color, my (loan) money, my good English may have set me above the rest—according to the Home Office at least. But really, I was just another foreigner threatening to take a British job. That became immediately apparent every time I applied for a job for which I was uniquely qualified and didn’t even get a “no thank you”, let alone an interview. Or when I heard that even the University from which I graduated had two piles of applications—one British, one foreign. I began the process with two strikes against me.

Contrast this with study, after study, after study that shows that immigrants—even less-skilled ones—have a net-positive effect on the economy. We don’t take jobs, we help make them. And contrast this with the qualitative evidence that shows how immigrants make a country a more vibrant, more exciting, more interesting place to live. And contrast that with just basic human decency which whispers—in a very small voice—that people are happier when they can choose their home.

The academic community is supposed to welcome everyone who wants to better themselves. The research community is made immeasurably poorer when we throw up barriers. And  keeping foreign students who want to learn out is tantamount to hoarding riches. The British government may see itself as Smaug, a powerful dragon jealously guarding a sea of untold riches from a hoard of thieves. But this policy makes it more like Gollum, burying itself in a cave to protect its precious—pathetic, sniveling, alone.

I have no answers for this. I do not know how those in the UK can fix this, since today’s announcement is the beginning of the horror rather than the end. But I would urge every Briton I know to fight this government’s policies in any way that they can. Because I can’t anymore. It’s not my home.

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Fantasy vs. RealityPast and PresentWhat is History For?

This Conspiracy will Put Medievalists Out of a Job! (No, it won’t…)


Engaging with the public directly puts you in contact with a lot of interesting people. In the public lectures and museum work that I’ve done, I have met a large number of really compelling people, most of whom are more knowledgeable and passionate about history than the professoriate would fear.

But, as any public historian will tell you, occasionally you encounter a fun one.

One of mine occurred during the Q&A section of a public lecture I gave several years ago on the depiction of Robin Hood in film and television. In the back of the room, a perfectly normal-seeming man stood up and, with a twinkle in his eye that I couldn’t quite place, asked me a question that I won’t soon forget:

“What if it’s all a lie?”

I’ll admit, I didn’t quite know what to do with that question.

He then launched into a monologue describing a bizarre theory—one which I have come to find out is not just his own—that concludes simply: the Early Middle Ages did not exist.

This man was describing to me (and a group of increasingly confused audience members) the Phantom Time Hypothesis. In short, the Phantom Time Hypothesis, developed and promoted by journalist Heribert Illig and historian Dr. Hans-Ulrich Niemitz, posits that the historical period between 600AD and 900AD simply didn’t exist.

It’s a fascinating load of crap.

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