Past and Present

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

Were Medieval People Racist?


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

Go back to the beginning of the series here.

Dr. Dark Age’s previous article in this series, A Brief History of a Terrible Idea: The “Dark Enlightenment”, briefly touched upon a tricky question: were medieval people racist?

For those familiar with some of the more horrible parts of the Middle Ages, such as the mass murders and expulsions of the Jews, the Crusades, or the wars in the Baltics, the answer might seem obvious: of course they were. And these well-known events corroborate a commonly held misconception about medieval people: that they were, at their core, worse people than we are. Heaping racism onto the other false idiocies and barbarities that are too-often part of today’s definition of the “medieval” is not that far of an intellectual leap. The Middle Ages are used, as Eric Weiskott put it, as “the negative mirror image of secularist modernity.”

But the truth is, as always, more complicated. As it turns out, medieval people’s ideas about what “race” actually means are quite different from our contemporary ideas about race. As I discussed last week, “race” is a concept that is entirely invented and socially constructed. Therefore it is unsurprising that medieval ideas about race could be fundamentally different to our own.

As an example of how complicated and strange medieval views on race could be, let’s focus on a text notorious for its complex and contradictory portrayal of race: the story of Percival. The two best-known medieval versions of the story are the 12th century French version, Perceval, the Story of the Grail by Chrétien de Troyes, and the 13th century German version, Parzival by Wolfram von Eschenbach. Both of these stories tackle regionalism, hybridity, and racial and religious conflict in surprisingly different ways, considering their subject matter is, at its core, the same. But first, a little background on race in the medieval mind.

The Chicken and Egg Problem of Medieval Racism

Until recently, medievalists were reluctant to use modern terms like “racism” to discuss medieval texts at all for a variety of reasons. First of all, the word “race” did not exist for the majority of the Middle Ages. As the OED explains, “race” was first used with this meaning in English in 1547 (just after the end of the Middle Ages) and similar words in French, Spanish and Portuguese only arose about hundred years prior.

Secondly, the words they did use, like the Latin “gens”, “natio”, and “populus” (all meaning, roughly, “people”) bore a few interesting quirks. As Robert Bartlett explains:

For the majority of medieval writers, ethnicity was defined by and manifested in culture as much as, or more than, descent. The classic and much quoted definition of Regino of Prum (d. 915) asserts that ‘the various nations differ in descent, customs, language, and law’ […] Of the four criteria listed here, only one is biological.

Bartlett unintentionally makes an important point: racial and racist stereotypes—even ostensibly positive ones (such as “Asians are good at math”)—by definition, conflate and confuse biology and culture. As discussed in Part IV of this series, this is the defining problem of race and racism—the misattribution of cultural observations (or vile prejudices) to biological realities.

But despite the similarities in the way these racial constructs conflate biology and culture, the categories the medieval West used to define other people were far more complicated, and far more flexible, than our own.

Medieval writers who used terms like “gens”, “natio”, and “populus” also conflated biology and culture far more finely than people who discuss “race” today. For example, Bartlett cites 14th-century Scottish chronicler John of Fordun, who saw the Scottish Highlanders and Lowlanders as two different “gens.” And in typical racist fashion, Fordun assigns attributes to each of them:

The race of the sea coasts is domesticated, civilized, faithful, patient, cultivated, decently dressed, refined and peaceable, devout in church worship, yet always ready to withstand any harm done by its enemies. The island or mountain race, however, is wild, untamed, primitive, intractable, inclined to plunder, leisure-loving, quick to learn, skilful, handsome in appearance but vilely dressed, and continually fiercely opposed to the English people and language, but also to their own nation, on account of the difference of language.

Even more interestingly, many medieval writers seemed to think that a race’s characteristics could change over time. This could happen by that group either relocating to a different place (since both skin color and other racial attributes were thought to be a byproduct of climate and location), or seemingly for no reason at all.

This flies in the face of contemporary racist ideas; contemporary racists base their claims on the idea that racial characteristics are both inherent and eternal—that groups are good or bad inherently because they always have been. Many medieval people seem not to have thought this way at all.

Blood is as Thick as Gold

A people apart? A depiction of the Peasant’s Revolt of 1381. British Library Royal MS 18 E I f.175.

Some medieval writers loaded their idea of race with aspects that today we might call intersectionality. For example, the medieval aristocratic class often viewed themselves as a breed apart from the people they ruled—believing they had more in common (due to shared bloodlines and status) with aristocrats in other kingdoms than the people of their own. This took on a shared identity, to which the nobility assigned traits that suited their purposes: knights were not only better warriors—inherently—than their peers, but they were also better looking. King Arthur is, of course, the best-known example of how a medieval man supposedly carried nobility, and with it special power, in his blood.

This is reflected in the Percival story. Percival was raised in the Welsh wilderness, but despite his humble upbringings, he is immediately recognized as one of their own by other knights. The reason is because he is just so very, very pretty:

The warriors eyed him closely. God’s skill lay in his creation, they saw […] no man’s appearance had ever turned out better since Adam’s time. Because of this his praise ranged far and wide in women’s mouths.

When he arrives at Arthur’s court for the first time,

They marked his complexion. That indeed was self-evident–never was lovelier fruit sired nor ladied. God was in a sweet mood for breeding when he wrought Parzival, who feared few terrors.

The knights of the court sometimes mock him for his backwardness, but they recognize him as one of their own by his skills in battle and his unparalleled beauty.

Descendants of this medieval idea of fine-grained race have been deployed in some of our most enduring popular culture, where special powers are passed through special families. The superpower-giving mutations of the X-Men are a classic example, which is why the comics and films often grapple allegorically with racial issues. The force-wielding power of Jedi Knights—midi-chlorian nonsense notwithstanding—is also passed within families. The question of Rey’s parentage that has consumed Star Wars fans since episode VII’s release has focused exclusively on Jedi. The Harry Potter series refreshingly breaks this paradigm, not just by introducing “muggle-born” wizards, but by framing one of its anti-racist narratives as pitting those who promote fine-grained bloodline racism versus those who are accepting of “muggle-born” and “half-blood” wizards.

Writing Racism

Racist discourses, where writers casually remark upon the positive or negative stereotypes of large groups of people—and where “race” and “culture” blend and are interchangeable—can be found commonly. But that is not to say that every medieval person, and that every medieval society, was uniformly racist; there is a silver lining to be found. In fact, it is relatively easy to find egalitarian portrayals of people of other races across medieval art and literature.

For example, the German version of the story, Parzifal, is broadly a reinterpretation of the story as it had been told by Chrétien, but interestingly, Wolfram’s German version includes a prequel that tells the story of Percival’s father, Gahmuret. Gahmuret was an adventurer-knight who, perhaps like Wolfram himself, had no particular issues with people of other races or faiths. On his adventures, he puts himself in the service of the king of Baghdad and fights alongside Saracens. He then travels to a legendary kingdom in Africa, where he marries its queen, Belcane. Together they have a son—Percival’s half-brother, Feirefiz—who is Percival’s equal in all aspects of knighthood—as a warrior, as a wealthy man, and as a lover. Wolfram writes:

He became a wood-waster—the jousts of his hands shattered many a spear, riddling shields with holes.

And Feirefiz was no aberration. One could also point to the other literal black knights in the Arthurian canon—not one “token”, but a cadre of four: Sir Morien, Sir Palamedes, Sir Safir, and Sir Segwarides. Or one could point to various positive depictions of Africans in medieval art, as catalogued on the popular Tumblr page People of Color in European Art History, or explored in the crucial book on the topic The Image of the Black in Western Art, Part II.

Race and Faith

It’s almost impossible to talk about medieval race without talking about religion. Today faith is often considered a category separate from race. This is a byproduct of the evangelical natures of Islam and Christianity, where the faithful are exhorted to convert those outside their community. Judaism is often cited as one of only a few modern-day counterexamples, where lineage and religion are more closely tied (though in no way exclusively, since there exists a long tradition of conversion to Judaism as well). However these notions of community, lineage, and religion were more closely bound together in the Middle Ages, as Bartlett explains:

Especially in a period like the Middle Ages, when religion meant membership of a community much more than adherence to a set of principles or beliefs, there was a sense in which one was born a Christian, a Muslim, or a Jew, just as one was born English or Persian.

This is evident in the curious condition of Feirefiz’s skin, which is mottled black and white:

The lady gave birth to a son, who was of two colors. By him God devised a miracle—both black and white was his appearance. The queen kissed him incessantly, very often on his white marks. […] his hair and his entire skin became, in hue, like that of a magpie.

Feirefiz and Parzifal duelling. Seems the illustrator may have missed one detail. Cod. Pal. germ. 339, I. Buch, Blatt 540v.

Setting aside the abysmal medieval understanding of genetics—obviously biracial children do not have mottled skin (barring those with vitiligo)—the queen is partial to his white spots not because she prefers whiteness for the sake of whiteness, but because those represent Feirefiz’s father, and possibly, his father’s Christianity. And moreover, Wolfram characterizes his skin not in negative terms, but as one of God’s miracles.

Fascinatingly—and something that will be discussed in more depth in a later article in this series—in medieval literature there are even instances where a character’s skin changes with his conversion. Feirefiz, however, is not one of these characters.

Ultimately, Feirefiz decides to convert to Christianity. When he does, he immediately gains the ability to see the Holy Grail—something only Percival had been able to do. His life trajectory parallels Percival’s in many ways, each rising from the disadvantages of an absent father to find fame and glory through their heroism.

 Looking to the Authors

Characters never exist in a vacuum. The characters of the X-Men, of Star Wars, and of Harry Potter tell us something about how their authors see the world. Similarly, Feirefiz, Percival, and Gahmuret reveal something about the author of Parzifal, Wolfram. Despite, seemingly, every opportunity to cast aspersions on people from Africa or the Middle East, Wolfram never does. Gahmuret pledges himself to the king of Baghdad because he is a good and generous overlord, plain and simple. Gahmuret falls in love with Belacane and her skin color is immaterial. Feirefiz’s skin is a curiosity, to be sure, but no impediment in any way. And, on several occasions, Wolfram states explicitly that those with black skin are no less able in everything that mattered to him (beauty, wealth, and prowess) than people with white skin.

But of course, not all medieval people were so unbiased. To find one, we need only look at the French version of Percival. This earlier version does not contain the Feirefiz subplot or the Gahmuret prequel story. Worse, its author Chrétien de Troyes injects vastly anti-Semitic language into his story, for example in a passing mention of Jesus’ Crucifixion:

This death was holy, for our Lord / both saved the living and restored / the dead from death to life again. / The traitor Jews, who should be slain / like dogs, established in their hate / our great good and their wretched state, / for when they raised Him on a cross, / they saved us and ensured their loss.

Blaming Jews for the death of Christ is among the oldest anti-Semitic slanders in the book. And interestingly—likely tellingly—despite the fact that Wolfram copied a significant amount from the earlier work by Chrétien, his anti-Semitism does not seem to have been transferred.

So that brings us squarely back to the initial question: “were medieval people racist?” Some medieval people definitely were. Even though their idea of what constitutes a “race” differed fundamentally, and they deployed different words to describe it, the fact remains that they did bear prejudiced ideas based upon superficial physical differences. But, like people today, many medieval people were not. People like Wolfram valued cosmopolitanism and multiculturalism, and showed ample respect for those different to them. And that basic respect was necessary for trade, and for learning, to exist. As Dr. DarkAge put it,

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.

To this list of more-cosmopolitan and multicultural societies, one can add Norman Sicily, the Byzantine Empire, the Vikings (who seemed ever-eager to adapt to and adopt new cultures), and others that we will explore as this series continues.

The easiest possible answer to the question is this: Medieval people were likely not significantly more racist than we are today (if such a thing could even be quantified). In both times, if you look to find racism, both personal, institutional, and structural, it can be readily found. And in both times, you can find those who reject it. What we can say is that medieval racism was very different. This should not offer us any comfort; nothing gives modern-day racism a pass. Racism is a problem that plagues most periods and cultures in humanity, but the most successful, innovative and just societies are those that can most effectively conquer it.

Continue to Part VII in our series: “Where Were the Middle Ages?

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Race, Racism, and the Middle Ages

To Russia, With Love: Courting a New Crusade


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

Go back to the beginning of the series here.

This month, Trump is on the warpath over the media’s exposure of his administration’s ties to Russia. Many Americans find themselves confused: why would a Republican administration that wants to “Make America Great Again” be so interested in cozying up to an undemocratic world power? And why are so many Republican legislators unwilling to investigate Trump’s glaring foreign conflicts of interest?

The obvious financial ties between Russia and the Trump administration may be one explanation for Trump’s strange bedfellows, but these don’t explain why, as the Washington Post reports, “Vladimir Putin’s popularity is soaring among Republicans.” The truth—deeper and far more disturbing than economic corruption—is that some people on the American right hope to partner with Russia in a neomedieval crusade against Islam.

The Link between Russia and White Terrorism

This Crusader meme was shared enthusiastically on conservative websites, including Fox News commentator Stacey Dash’s blog.

 In November 2016, anti-terrorist intelligence specialist Malcolm Nance warned that the Trump administration’s embrace of Russia was linked to white nationalism and possible plans for war in the Middle East:

“What we’re seeing is an alignment where people believe that they have to align the United States and Russia as an axis of Christendom against Islam, in a clash of civilizations that Osama bin Laden dreamed about.”

Nance even predicted that we would see an “Americanization” of terrorist acts committed by white supremacist neo-Crusaders like Anders Breivik in Norway. Breivik, who believed he was a Knight Templar, murdered seventy-seven people in what his own manifesto called a pre-emptive strike on behalf of a “pan-European Crusader Movement.”

Unfortunately, Nance has turned out to be exactly right. For example, the same anti-Muslim, white nationalist propaganda that caused Breivik to think he was reviving the Crusades drove Alexander Bissonnette to murder six people at a mosque in Quebec last month. Like Breivik, Bissonnette imagined himself as a neomedieval warrior, even posting this image on his Facebook page:

Image from the Facebook page of Quebec terrorist Alexandre Bissonnette.

Last week, two Indian engineers were murdered in Kansas by a man who thought they were Middle Eastern Muslims. It didn’t matter to the shooter where his victims were actually from: his white nationalism and his anti-Muslim “crusade” ensured that the only important factor when he chose his victims would be the color of their skin. For him, and for many others on the violent far right, race and religion are interchangeable.

But why would Nance tie white terrorism to Russia in particular? First of all, contemporary white nationalist terrorists get much of their motivation from the Internet, particularly from Reddit, Twitter, and 4chan, where paid Russian commenters actively promote far-right nationalism and anti-Islamic bigotry. Secondly, and more importantly, this cocktail of Islamophobia and white nationalism is being raised in a toast to one particular, neomedieval leader: Vladimir Putin.

The Great White Hope

Many of the alt-right’s pro-Putin memes are also anti-Obama. This one reimagines Putin as a violent, sociopathic billionaire with delusions of self-righteousness.

 Shirtless on horseback, singing a charming song, and (literally) throwing down on Russia’s national Judo team with his “manly” martial arts prowess, Putin was the darling of media outlets like Fox News and Breitbart throughout the latter half of Obama’s presidency. Putin has long promoted this cult of personality, peddling himself as a leader who can reclaim the power that whites, men, and Christians believe they have somehow lost to “political correctness” and “social justice”.

Putin uses this myth of lost power to fuel his merciless persecution of LGBTQ people, his crackdown on feminism, and his elevation of the Orthodox Church in Russia. But his methods are brutal: he has outlawed “homosexual propaganda,” inspired mob violence against gays, and even endorsed the abuse of women by officially decriminalizing domestic violence.

Needless to say, American white supremacists are big fans. They laud Putin’s attempt to raise the white birth rate in his country. They praise the fact that his regime is causing Jews to leave Russia. And they glorify Putin as an “alpha” who, one American blogger argues, is teaching Russian men to “harness their testosterone.” Those to want to “preserve the privileged place of whiteness in Western civilization” and combat “anti-Christian degeneracy” see Putin as their “ideal ruler,” even “the leader of the free world.” The white supremacists over at Daily Stormer even say that “in the culture war for mankind’s future”, Putin is “one of us.”

Many radical eschatological Christians believe that Putin will help unite all of Christendom for a new crusade in the Middle East.

But it isn’t just extreme white supremacists writing love letters to Putin. Some American evangelicals also admire the Russian leader as “the lion of Christianity,” a heroic champion of the Christian faith in a ‘pagan’ world. Putin cultivates this neomedieval image. He even erected a giant statue to his medieval namesake Prince Vladimir the Great—the “founder of eastern Slavic Orthodox civilization.” In fact, he used this particular segment of medieval history to argue for his annexation of Crimea.

You would think religious Americans might be less eager to sacrifice their principles, and their Constitution, to partner with a world leader who silences the free press, jails and kills his political rivals, and who has shut down democracy to ensure that he’ll be president for life. But for those lost in a racist, Islamophobic fever dream, liberty and democracy are no longer the point. Instead, many of them believe the West needs to sacrifice these unrealistically lofty ideals to arm itself for a global war against Islam.

The New Crusade

Crudely photoshopped “alt-right” memes fuse crusader imagery, inside jokes and crypto-langauge to put a playful veneer on their hateful ideology.

Peter Beinart, writing for The Atlantic, identifies the segment of the right wing willing to cast aside democracy to ensure Christian supremacy as “civilizational conservatives.” Allied with the so-called “alt-right,” this splinter group believes that a “civilizational struggle” between Christianity and Islam is immanent. Unlike more tolerant, mainstream “ideological conservatives,” civilizational conservatives do not distinguish between radical Islam and the vast majority of ordinary, peaceful Muslims. Instead, they believe a new crusade between Islam and Christianity is inevitable, and that everyone must choose a side.

Unfortunately for peace-loving Americans of any religious affiliation, these civilizational conservatives are now in our White House and directing our foreign policy. Steve Bannon is the most infamous example. Bannon, Trump’s chief strategist and a member of his National Security Council, has warned of “a global war against Islamic fascism.” Bannon believes Christians are “already in” this war, and, in a 2014 speech at the Vatican alarmingly pointed to the medieval Crusades as a model for action:

“If you look back at the long history of the Judeo-Christian West’s struggle against Islam, I believe that our forefathers kept their stance, and I think they did the right thing. I think they kept it out of the world, whether it was at Vienna, or Tours, or other places… It bequeathed to us the great institution that is the church of the West.”

Bannon’s convoluted speeches are augmented by his filmmaking career, which includes a bizarre “documentary” called Torchbearer starring Duck Dynasty’s Phil Robertson. The duck-call-patriarch-turned-prophet believes that “the Roman Empire’s bloody debauchery, Robespierre’s French Terror, the Nazi genocide, the Khmer Rouge, Boko Haram, the ISIS terror army, and America’s embrace of abortion…are the predictable results of cutting God out of entire societies”; for Robertson, forming a “Judeo-Christian republic” is the only way to fight the forces of godless evil and save our civilization.

But despite his supposed championship of “Judeo-Christian” ideals, Bannon is the same man who allegedly did not want his daughters going to school with Jews. His recent CPAC speech was full of dog-whistles to white supremacists, including bashing the “corporatist, global media” (which translates as “Jews” in the “alt-right” ear). He declared that America was “Not an economy just in some global marketplace with open borders, but we are a nation with a culture and a reason for being.” To Bannon, Robertson, and white supremacists everywhere, this means America is a white Christian nation. Its existential mission is to defend against the “Islamic fascism” he warned about in 2014.

Alas, Bannon is not the only “civilizational conservative” in the White House. He was recently joined by Sebastian Gorka, deputy assistant to the president. Gorka argues that the Qur’an “predisposes” Muslims to acts of terror, has declared that a “Christian Holocaust” is underway in the Middle East, and persuades his lecture audiences to cheer at the sight of dead Muslim bodies. Unsurprisingly, Gorka’s hatred of Islam pairs with his ties to anti-Semitic groups.

As you can see, civilizational conservatism isn’t just about Islamophobia. It’s about white Christian supremacy. Any pro-Israel sentiments or pro-Jewish rhetoric only exist because they mistakenly see Jews as ‘natural’ allies against Muslims or, worse yet, because they are deep believers in the Christian prophecy that Jews in Israel will convert before the end times during a civilizational war in the Middle East. Like some of the medieval crusaders who believed that whiteness was a mark of Christian purity, these self-styled neomedieval warriors choose their enemies just by looking at the color of their skin. After all, when your strategy is to “bomb the hell” out of the Middle East and ban immigration from seven entire countries, including America’s wartime allies, your philosophy is, for all intents and purposes, Caedite eos. Novit enim Dominus qui sunt eius: “Kill them all. For the Lord knows those that are His own.

Not coincidentally, that is just the kind of bombing campaign that Putin inflicted on Syria. To civilizational conservatives who long for white global power, Putin—baring his glorious white chest astride his horse, making Russian Christianity great again, and smiting “social justice warriors” at home and Middle Eastern civilians abroad—is just the role model they’ve been longing for.

The Real Bad Hombres

What’s most ironic about the civilizational conservative movement is how eager its members are to become the very thing they claim to hate. Those who accuse ISIS of medieval barbarity are bloodthirsty for their own war in the Middle East. The same men who rail against Muslim “sexism” are pro-patriarchy themselves. Alexandre Bissonnette, the Quebec shooter, didn’t just denigrate Muslims in his Facebook posts—he also targeted feminists. White neo-Crusaders use the same rhetoric as the ISIS members they claim to be fighting. On inauguration night, Sebastian Gorka said he had a message for America’s troops in the Middle East: “The alpha males are back.” This rallying cry to the red-pill-swallowing “alt-right”, much like ISIS propaganda, uses the promise of heroic masculinity to recruit young men into their own bloody reenactment of the Crusades.

The fanatics who are so eager to preserve “Western Civilization” by any means necessary are likely to be the very same people who end up destroying it. And now that both ISIS and this radical American regime seem to be pushing an apocalyptic neomedieval global war, the rest of us need to fight even harder to keep from being dragged into a new crusade. True patriots on the left and right need to join together, unpack the rhetoric, tune out the lies, and determine, to borrow Trump’s own words, just “what the hell is going on.”

Continue to Part VI of our Series: Were Medieval People Racist?

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

Is “Race” Real?


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

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

The prior articles in this series by Dr DarkAge and James Harland revealed a question that we have yet to address but which needs to be asked: what does “race” actually mean? What is “race”?

Many people today think of race (and its cousin “ethnicity”) in quite simplistic terms; people have different attributes (skin color, eye shape, hair color and texture, ancestral origin etc.) that leads to being divided into broad categories. Those broad categories roughly correspond with an imagined ancestral homeland. But while those categories may seem natural or normal, they are fundamentally arbitrary. Drawing stark lines between peoples is impossible; the shades and shapes of humanity form a spectrum of variance. Race, simply put, is not real.

Wait, What?

The idea of race is so powerful within our culture that calling it a myth may seem insane. But those who study human diversity the most have known this simple truth for over sixty years.  As Robert Wald Sussman puts it in his book The Myth of Race: The Troubling Persistence of an Unscientific Idea:

In 1950, UNESCO issued a statement asserting that all humans belong to the same species and that “race” is not a biological reality but a myth. This was a summary of the findings of an international panel of anthropologists, geneticists, sociologists, and psychologists. A great deal of evidence had been accumulated by that time to support this conclusion, and the scientists involved were those who were conducting research and were most knowledgeable about the topic of human variation. Since that time […] an enormous amount of modern scientific data has been gathered to justify this conclusion. Today the vast majority of those involved in research on human variation would agree that biological races do not exist among humans. Among those who study the subject, who use and accept modern scientific techniques and logic, this scientific fact is as valid and true as the fact that the earth is round and revolves around the sun.

Basically, racists are little better than flat-earthers.

But let’s step back a moment. Of course there are genetic differences between people and among groups. These can have serious consequences on your life, even your health. But, as Carol C. Mukhopadhyay writes in her book How Real is Race? A Sourcebook on Race, Culture, and Biology, things are not so simple as we have been led to believe:

Anthropologists aren’t arguing that there is no biological component in U.S. racial categories. Biology has played a role in the cultural invention of what we call race […] And race, or rather, one’s racial designation, socially, can have enormous biological consequences, including on one’s health status. But most of what we believe or have been taught about race as biology, as valid subdivisions of the human species, and an important part of human biological variation is a myth.

We can send away a cheek swab to test our genetic makeup, and receive a report tracing markers originating in different parts of the world. We can see differences between ourselves and our peers, and note their height or hair or skin. But what—if anything—do those differences mean?

All the problems arise when meaning is made from these superficial genetic differences. It’s a fairly short leap to the incorrect conclusion that peoples, in addition to their similar surface-level physical attributes, might have different psychological, physical, or intellectual attributes. It’s such a pervasive, simple idea that it can lead us to believe that it’s actually true, normal, or natural. It’s a powerful idea, one that, in many ways, we have structured our society around. This is so true that after sixty years of scholarship which says over, and over, and over that it is not true, this simple idea may still be shocking.

“Race” and Racist Inductive Reasoning

The logic of race may seem sound at first glance. For example, runners from sub-Saharan Africa often dominate track categories in the Olympics, and African Americans dominate the NBA and NFL. By inductive reasoning, therefore, black people must naturally make better athletes. And since white people dominate business, academia, and politics in the U.S. and Europe, surely that is because they have some innate abilities in those arenas. But inductive reasoning like this is flatly incorrect; when you begin to examine the idea of race—and the meanings that are made from it more closely, the whole thing quickly unravels.

Scientists, sociologist and psychologists have found that there are no behavioral or intellectual differences whatsoever between peoples based on race or ethnicity that cannot be attributed to other—typically social—factors, or good old individual variation. Africans dominate running in the Olympics because of cultural factors, not biological ones. Chief among the factors that determine people’s circumstances are those affected by social, institutional and structural racism—which explains why white people dominate business, academia, and politics in the U.S. and Europe. Sussman continues:

Racism is a part of our everyday lives. Where you live, where you go to school, your job, your profession, who you interact with, how people interact with you, your treatment in the healthcare and justice systems are all affected by your race.

Dr. DarkAge discussed previously that the white-supremacist self-described “alt-right” argues that it is simply engaging in “racialism”—neutrally describing the differences among races—rather than “racism”. But racialism and racism are simply the same. Mukhopadhyay puts it simply:

It [the idea of “race”] emerged in a context of unequal power relations, as an ideology to legitimize the dominance of certain groups. Race, then, is fundamentally part of a system of stratification and inequality.

The Medieval Context of “Race”

Because of the fact that “race” is an invented socio-cultural construct, it is perhaps unsurprising that medieval people had a fundamentally different understanding of “race”. We will be exploring this in more detail over the course of this series. But as we do, it is important to remember that unlike the germ theory of disease or the theories of relativity, the difference between medieval and modern conceptions of race exist not because humanity is reaching towards a better understanding of reality. It is because we have built for ourselves a convenient mythology that serves to justify the state of the world, and to relabel injustice as the natural order of things.

Total racist.

So, when thinking about the idea of race in the Middle Ages, it is critical to remember that we are discussing a mythology no more real than fairies. As James Harland wrote last week, it is a “situational construct”: even though it is imagined, it is not imaginary. Because people imbue this imagined construct with meaning (and codify it into law, religion, and all facets of life), it has profound real-world effects. The idea of race is like an evil version of Tinkerbell; it is only real because people believe in it—but because they do, it makes everyone’s lives hell.

For Further Reading

Don’t believe me? Don’t take my word for it. If you want to learn more about the myth of race, read any of these excellent books on the topic:

How Real Is Race?: A Sourcebook on Race, Culture, and Biology, by Carol C. Mukhopadhyay, Rosemary Henze, Yolanda T. Moses

The Myth of Race: The Troubling Persistence of an Unscientific Idea,  by Robert Wald Sussman

The Nature of Race: How Scientists Think and Teach about Human Difference, by Ann Morning

Race?: Debunking a Scientific Myth, by Ian Tattersall, Rob DeSalle

The Race Myth: Why We Pretend Race Exists in America, by Joseph L. Graves

Continue to Part V of our Series: To Russia, With Love: Courting A New Crusade

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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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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

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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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