Past and Present

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

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

Where Do the “White Middle Ages” Come From?

The Pilgrimage to Canterbury 1806-7 by Thomas Stothard 1755-1834

This is Part XI of The Public Medievalist’s continuing series on Race, Racism and the Middle Ages, by Dr. Helen Young. Her book Race and Popular Fantasy Literature: Habits of Whiteness, is available from Amazon and direct from Routledge.

Go back to the beginning of the series here.

As this series has been exploring, the idea of a “white, racially pure Middle Ages” has been used for political ends by right-wing extremists throughout the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. But it is not only extremists who believe in it. There is evidence to show that many (perhaps most) people get their ideas about the Middle Ages from popular culture rather than from school or books written by scholars – and popular cultural re-imaginings of the European Middle Ages almost exclusively feature characters who are white. Even in fantasy versions of the past like Game of Thrones or the Dragon Age video game series, the idea that there were no people of colour in Europe during the Middle Ages is used to explain away a lack of diverse representation.

But where does this notion come from? Where are those images of the medieval past from in the first place? How did the idea of the Middle Ages become so entangled with the idea of a white race? To answer this we need to look back to the era when our current ideas about race and about Middle Ages developed: the eighteenth century.

Making “Race”

Carl Linnaeus (1707-1778), one of the founding fathers of biology, and of scientific racism.

As Paul Sturtevant explored in “Is Race Real?”, the idea of “race” is a cultural invention which developed over time and which therefore has a history. Most contemporary histories of the concept of race, and of specific racial identities like “whiteness”, tend to focus on the intellectual circles and key thinkers where important developments originated.

The idea of a “white” race emerged during the Enlightenment in the eighteenth century. Carl Linnaeus first categorised humans into races in 1738 in his highly influential Systema Naturae, which sought to classify the entire natural world. By the tenth edition in 1758, he had expanded his original brief descriptions to include physical and sociological descriptions. Homo europaeus, as he called Europeans, were white-skinned, with societies organised by the rule of law. In the second half of the eighteenth-century his ideas were well-known, and arguments raged in the public sphere about the causes of the differences—both physical and cultural—across the spectrum of humanity.

It is probably not surprising that all the European thinkers who took part in these debates always placed themselves at the pinnacle of racial hierarchies.

Making “Race” Popular

Despite being disproven by at least sixty years of modern science, the power of race and racism have not been broken. Important social theorists of race, Michael Omi and Howard Winant, argue that intellectual and conceptual debates about race often have “dramatic” consequences that impact whole societies. It is therefore vital that we understand how the ideas of race and white superiority became wide-spread among everyday people.

Oliver Goldsmith, who is probably now best remembered as the author of the popular novel The Vicar of Wakefield, was just one of the figures who contributed to making whiteness popular in Britain and its former colonies with his A History of Earth and Animated Nature (1774). His work was a translation and adaptation of Linnaeus and other early biologists.

Goldsmith was not as convinced that races were as fundamentally different as many of his contemporaries. But he was still very clear that Europeans were supreme among humanity. He wrote:

They [those variations] are actual marks of degeneracy in the human form; and we may consider the European figure and colour as standards to which to refer all other varieties.

He also wrote that whiteness was the best skin tone in terms of beauty and its ability to show emotion, and that Europeans resembled God more closely than other people.

An image from the 1822 printing of Goldsmith’s A History of Earth and Animated Nature (vol II, p. 76), showing his typology of races.

Although Goldsmith was mostly translating others’ work and did not add much to others’ ideas about race, he is an important figure because he made those ideas accessible to a wide audience. A History of Earth and Animated Nature was one of many publications that helped popularise biological writings of and the idea of race. It was reprinted in 1790, and at least six times in the nineteenth century in the UK and in America. In one American edition the chapter on race was moved to the beginning of the volume. The publisher likely thought it was particularly important.

Hannah Arendt has argued that race, in English thought, “was born of the desire to extend the benefits of noble standards to all classes.” Democracy, liberty and equality were important political ideas in the eighteenth century as emblematized in the French and American Revolutions. Race allowed Europeans—and European settlers in America and elsewhere—to create a new system of hierarchies and see themselves as collectively superior.

Once “race” was popularised and adopted by western society, white people had a whole system of science justifying the idea that they were racially superior. This was a crucial moment as a powerful ideological and political tool was built into new national economies and global trade through systems like slavery, and white dispossession of indigenous peoples in settler colonies, and the plunder of resources from around the world by European powers.

Making “Race” Medieval

But what does all this have to do with the Middle Ages? The eighteenth-century idea that humanity was divided into separate racial groups with distinct physical, cultural and social features inherited from—and shared with—their ancestors meant that history had to be reassessed. European nations needed to create new stories about their national origins that worked within a racial framework.

Classical Greece and Rome had been viewed as the height of human achievement and civilisation. Powerful nations like England and France which could not trace their racial descent back to those places needed a new source for identity. They found it in the Middle Ages, among the very peoples who had, according to the thought of the day, destroyed Rome. We have never completely let go of the idea that the Middle Ages were barbaric, but since the 1760s western nations found things to take pride (often undeservedly) in the medieval period as well. Racial origins are among them.

There were hierarchies within the hierarchy that placed whites at the global peak of humanity. European nations vied with each other to expand their empires around the world, and argued over racial divisions within the broader category of homo europaeus as they looked to racial origins for justifications of the success and failure of their nations and their rivals’. It was in the debates about which nations shared a common ancestry and whose ancestors were superior that much of the intellectual and cultural work that went into creating modern concepts of whiteness was done.

Making “Race” Linguistic

Studies of the history of languages (philology) caused people who had not thought of themselves as being linked to other nations to begin to see kinships across national boundaries. Despite being inherently cultural, language thus became a marker of racial connection.

One of the results of the interest language as a marker of racial connection was a growing interest in the Middle Ages. Medieval manuscripts were often the oldest written records of a language and could serve as evidence in those debates. The medieval period was also the source of the earliest historical writings about, for example, English people by English people.

Most of the white-washing of the Middle Ages was done in those debates which focused within Europe rather than in writings about races on a global scale, at least it the early stages. An example is in the publications of Goldsmith’s close friend Thomas Percy. Percy believed very strongly that the English, the Scandinavians, and the Germans were descended from the same “Gothic” race, while the Irish, Scots, and French (among others) were descended from a “Celtic” race.

This image is from page xxiv of Percy’s 1770 Northern Antiquities. It shows his vision of the branches of Gothic language in the style of a family tree.

Although he is not much remembered now, his studies of the Middle Ages were very widely read and influential at the time. The first Five Pieces of Runic Verse Translated from the Islandic Language (1763) made strong claims about the close relationships of English, Scandinavian and Germany based mostly on language.

His best-known publication was the Reliques of Ancient English Poetry (1765) a three-volume collection of (purportedly) medieval ballads. Most were early modern not medieval as he claimed, and many were very heavily re-written by Percy to make them more appealing to his readers. Each volume contained a framing essay which presented its contents as the cultural heritage of the English race. Some of his theories were challenged but the volume was so popular that he was able to argue back in second edition in 1767. In that revised version he aimed to show that the Saxons, Vikings, and Normans were all ‘Gothic’ peoples, which meant that the modern English could think of themselves as racially pure.

Percy’s final medievalist publication was Northern Antiquities (1770) a translation of the work of Paul-Henri Mallet who had conflated the Celts and Goths (also called Teutons or Germanic people) in widely-read history of Denmark. Percy began his translation in the early 1760s and from that time was committed to showing the Goths and Celts were different races. In a letter in 1764 he wrote that Mallet’s was “a mistake which I shall endeavour to rectify in my translation.”  When his translation was eventually published he included many notes and an entire Preface dedicated to showing that they were racially different, drawing on historical, linguistic, and scientific discourses to support his claim.

All three of his medievalist publications aimed to make contemporary readers see themselves as connected to the Middle Ages because of racial descent. The examples of medieval poetry they contained gave readers something tangible to connect the idea of race and identity to.

Making “Race” Popular Cultural

Reliques was so popular that four editions were produced in Percy’s lifetime. The massively influential author Sir Walter Scott (of Ivanhoe and Waverly fame) called them “beloved volumes.” Under its influence the vastly popular English Romantic poets William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge rejected the elaborate forms and style of the eighteenth century for a simpler, ostensibly medieval, aesthetic. Key figures of the German Romantic movement were inspired by his ideas including Johann Gottfried von Herder, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, and the brothers Grimm—whose fairy tale collection was ultimately modelled on Percy’s ballad anthology.

The Reliques was re-printed throughout the nineteenth century and into the twentieth. They were printed in cheap mass-market editions, in luxury versions, and even in editions aimed at children. A nineteenth-century edition praised Percy for having “pointed out the essential difference between the Celtic and Teutonic races.”

Percy invested a decades’ worth of work in trying to show that those races were different, pointing to the Middle Ages as his the ultimate source of evidence. Percy engaged in what Omi and Winant call “making up people” and his publications presented (pseudo)medieval material as objects of national and “racial” pride for his English readers. In many ways, they reshaped English identity around a framework of race and medievalism. Other writers and antiquarians across Europe followed his model, either directly inspired by reading his public

Siege of Acre, by Dominique Papety (c. 1840). Art depicting the Crusades, such as this, became popular in the 19th century, and was steeped in racist imagery.

ations, or indirectly through the ideas of others. And thus, the Middle Ages were tied to the European concept of white racial identity.

But Percy and Goldsmith are just two of the hundreds of thinkers and authors who contributed to connecting whiteness to the Middle Ages.

The 1760s marked the beginning of an explosion of medievalism across Europe. Architecture, the arts, and literature took a medievalist turn. These medievalisms were often driven by, or at least participated in, ethno-nationalist ways of thinking.

Once the idea of race was widely accepted, European Middle Ages needed to be understood as ‘whites only’ territory for those ‘races’ to have the ‘pure’ origin they needed.  In fictional versions of the Middle Ages like Sir Walter Scott’s novels, people of colour only appear rarely. They are enemies and potential invaders in crusader tales, but are not part of the medieval Christian white societies of Europe.

The race-based nationalism of Scott and his literary descendants (J. R. R. Tolkien, for example, and many others) both relied on and helped create medieval Europe as the crucible of white European nations. As I argue in my recent book Race and Popular Fantasy Literature: Habits of Whiteness, the genre conventions created in the early years of mass popular culture have shaped western popular- cultural versions of the Middle Ages ever since.

Making “Race” Academic

It was not just fictional versions of the Middle Ages that worked to make them ‘whites only’ spaces in the modern imagination. Not only have academic disciplines  been twisted to racial ends (as James M. Harland wrote earlier in this series); in the case of language studies, academic disciplines were founded on ideas about race.

In the eighteenth century there were no English departments in universities. Amateur antiquarianism like Percy’s became an academic discipline in the nineteenth century. There is a racial dimension to the way they were structured, and how many remain structured today. When I began graduate studies in an English department it taught Old Norse and Old English (Germanic languages) alongside Middle English and literature, and of course modern literature. Old French was not taught—despite the profound influence of French on modern English which resulted from the Norman Conquest. Medieval Spanish, or Middle Arabic were not. Many departments are organized this way in the English-speaking world.

This reaches back to the philological theories like Percy’s which presented Old Norse as the cultural property of English speakers because of an imaginary shared Gothic racial ancestry. French and Spanish, from another family of languages (Romance), was not. Arabic certainly was not. The idea that English literature is separate to the literature of other languages as as field of study goes back to the race-based ideas that underpinned philology.

The Celts, Goths, and other peoples of Europe could collectively be thought of (by those invested in racial paradigms) as homo europaeus because they had a shared, unique Middle Ages. In order for their race to be distinct, their history needed to be made distinct. So, those features of the medieval period that we think of as distinctive and definitive (knights, castles, feudalism, etc.) were not thought to be found in the histories of cultures outside Europe. Any similar features that were found in other cultures were actively ignored or dismissed. This meant that for centuries ‘medieval’ was made to mean ‘white’.

Undoing the Damage

Idris Elba as Norse God Heimdall in the Thor series of films. Elba’s casting initially caused consternation among racists online.

The white-washing of the Middle Ages is now being challenged in popular culture and by scholars. Actors of colour are now sometimes cast in medievalist roles such as Angle Coulby as Gwen (Guinevere) in the TV show Merlin, and Idria Elba as the Norse God Heimdall in Marvel’s Thor movies. The “People of Colour in European Art History” tumblr seeks to break down the idea that ‘historically accurate’ means ‘whites only’ in representations of the Middle Ages. Scholars are exploring the Global Middle Ages in research and teaching. The legacies of linguistic ideas of race are losing power because of new approaches to multilingualism and national borders.

We have to continue this work, and demand that scholars and pop-culture creators offer us new visions of the Middle Ages that are not mired in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century racist thought. The Middle Ages were made white in the eighteenth century, but they do not have to stay that way.

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

The Poet of the Mediterranean: Ibn Hamdis


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

Go back to the beginning of the series here.

In 1059, Pope Nicholas II did something a bit odd: he crowned Robert Guiscard, a Northern French adventurer of Norse extraction, Count of Sicily, Apulia, and Calabria. However, Sicily was, at that time, under Arab control. It had been for over two centuries. The laborious process of conquest of the island by the Normans took almost thirty years; Palermo fell in 1072, as Trapani did in 1077, and Syracuse in 1086. The last Sicilian city to capitulate to the Normans was Noto; by 1089, the history of Siqilliyat—the Arabic word for Arab-ruled Sicily—had come to an end.

Sicily was under Arabic control for more than two centuries. At the height of Arabic Sicily in the early ninth century, Palermo was a prosperous city of about 100,000 souls, and the ruling emir maintained an elegant and learned court. By the end of Siqilliyat, Palermo became known as the city of five hundred mosques, and the Arabs had introduced cotton and citrus to the island. For those who enjoy Limoncello, you can thank the Arab rulers of Sicily.

The legacy of Arab rule would shape the island’s culture and identity for much longer than those two hundred. But, somewhat like ancient Sparta, Arabic Sicily appears like a ‘mirage’ which we can only see through the eyes of others—be they the Norman conquerors, or the diasporic daughters and sons of Siqilliyat who left after it had fallen into the hands of the Northern invaders.

The most famous of the wandering sons of Siqilliyat is the poet Ibn Hamdis. Ibn Hamdis is a man whose gorgeous, heartbreaking poetry has resonated throughout the ages, and stands as among the greatest poetry of his, or any, age. And more, his poetry resonates in distinct harmony with other poets of the Mediterranean, revealing to us a world far more linked than we have been led to believe.

A Poet of Exile

Ibn Hamdis was born either in Syracuse or Noto around 1055, a scion of an important house of the southeastern region of Sicily known as the Val di Noto. When he was still in his early twenties, Ibn Hamdis decided to leave Sicily with his wife, seeking a career as a court poet—particularly as a panegyrist, one who specializes in eulogies.

In Seville, Spain, he was welcomed at the court of the Abbadid prince Muhammad al-Muʿtamid, a man celebrated for his magnanimity and literary proclivities. But when Seville was taken by the Almoravids in 1091, Ibn Hamdis migrated to Africa. He then spent time at the Zirid court of Mahdiya, in present-day Tunisia, in Bijaya, the seat of the Algerian house of the Hammadids, and in Aghmat, Morocco. In the final years of his life, Ibn Hamdis lived in Majorca, where he died around 1133.

The main themes of the Diwan—the poetic corpus of work—of Ibn Hamdis are the virtues of his patrons and, most importantly, of Sicily: the lost glory of Muslim Siqilliyat and the joyful world of the poet’s youth.

In the following verses, the poet mourns the past valour of his homeland, remembering the glory days of the Muslim conquest:

Oh, Sicily! Destiny has deceived her

and she had protected the people of her time


How many are the eyes made sleepless by fear

that had been lulled to sleep by safety?


I see my nation—the Christians have imposed disgrace upon it

when once its glory was firmly established by my people


And the nation of infidels was once clothed in fear of her,

but now she is clad in the armor of fear of them


I no longer see the Arab lions among them

and in their hands you would see the unbelievers become prey


Oh my eye, you have not seen their like—squadrons

of war heroes in battle trampling their enemy.


How many a shining sword! You imagine them

radiant shooting stars in the thick of the night


Standing out among the sword-edges of the armored warriors

he cuts the helmets from the horsemen


I never imagined that the heat of fire might cool

when it falls upon the palm leaves in the arid heat of summer.

But Siqilliyat was not just the terrain for fierce battles. The island nostalgically remembered by Ibn Hamdis was also a veritable Paradise.

I remember Sicily, as agony

Stirs in my soul remembrances of her.


An abode for the pleasures of my youth, now vacated,

Once inhabited by the noblest of people.


For I have been banished from Paradise,

And I [long to] tell you its story.


Were it not for the saltiness of tears

I would imagine my tears as rivers.


I laughed at twenty out of youthful passion;

Now I cry at sixty for her crimes.


Do not exacerbate my faults on your own account,

Since God never ceases to forgive them.

The theme of al-hanın ila lawtan, nostalgia for one’s homeland, was a typical theme in pre-Islamic poetic style qasida (‘odes’). This was part of a wider repertoire of traditional motifs, themes, and images, which constituted the toolkit of the professional panegyrist of the Arabic Middle Ages. In this case, the poet is not mourning a lost person, but a lost place and time.

A Poet of a Changing World

Certainly, the Sicily described by the poet featured a number of stylized elements which were first and foremost intended to satisfy the literary fantasies of his audience. The eleventh century was a difficult one for many Muslim empires, as power shifted and fragmented. The literary echoes of the golden Age of Arabic culture and power was consoling and validating for many who found themselves within a world in conflict.

That being said, Ibn Hamdis’ meditations on war, nostalgia and exile, as well as on his own personal experiences, places him within a broader Mediterranean poetic tradition.

The central themes of Ibn Hamdis’ verses—war and nostalgia—are also the key ideas which inspired Homer’s, The Iliad and The Odyssey. Even more intriguingly, the literary persona of Ibn Hamdis, who defines himself by the woes of exile, and the longing for a homeland which has lost its power and dignity—bears extraordinary resemblances with some of great lyric poets of ancient Greece.

Take Theognis of Megara (from the sixth century BC). He also was a member of his city’s aristocracy, who also had to endure the humiliation of exile, and of a wandering life far from home. He wrote:

I have heard the shrill voice of the bird, son of Polypaus, which is come to tell mankind to plough in season; and it hath smitten my heart black to think that others possess my flowery fields, nor for me do the mules draw the yoke of the plough, by reason of this most hateful voyage.

Like the verses of Ibn Hamdis, Theognis’ art intertwines the passions and sorrows of exile with those of waning youth, and impending old age:

Love himself riseth in due season, when the earth swelleth and bloweth with the flowers of Spring; ay, then cometh Love from Cyprus’ beauteous isle with joy for man throughout the world.

A Poet of The Sicilian Heart

Mediterranean poets also had a distinctive way of writing about the finer things in life. Some of the most distinctive elements of Mediterranean culture are two environments: the banquet and the garden. These spaces were devoted to what the Romans called otium: leisure time devoted to conversation, friendship, and self-improvement.

In the Palatine Chapel of Palermo, there is an extraordinary example of this. The vaulted ceiling of this twelfth-century Norman Chapel was made in an Arabic style—a muqarnasthat is better seen than described:

The magnificent painted muqarnas ceiling of the Palatine Chapel in Palermo, Sicily.
Another view of the magnificent muqarnas ceiling of the Palatine Chapel, in Palermo, Sicily.
A detail of the magnificent muqarnas ceiling of the Palatine Chapel in Palermo, Sicily.
Arabic-styled figures enjoying wine in a detail from the muqarnas ceiling of the Palatine Chapel in Palermo, Sicily.

Painted onto this muqarnas are powerful images of this enchanted world of otium. Each tiny niche in the ceiling is populated by hunting princes, singing bards and, believe it or not, wine-drinking revelers. For wine is the flavor and essence of this refined Mediterranean world, as Ibn Hamdis knew very well:

A youth who has studied wine until he knows

The prime of the wines, and their vintage


He counts for any kind of wine you wish

Its age, and he knows the wine merchant.

Expanding on this, in a famous essay published in 1969, “Sicilia e sicilitudine” (“Sicily and Sicilitude”), Italian writer Leonardo Sciascia described the unique abilities of the best Sicilian authors. They are able to observe and describe the life of their homeland with such vigour and intensity that their stories become immediately relevant to a universal audience.

An arabic-styled woman musician, depicted in the ceiling of the Palatine Chapel in Palermo, Sicily.

Strategically placed at the heart of the Mediterranean, the history and identity of Sicily were defined by this centrality. The island thus attracted the appetites of ambitious outside powers, leaving it vulnerable and uncertain, as successive waves of foreign masters came and went. This was never as true as it was during the Middle Ages. And, this is why in order to understand the richness and complexity of those centuries, there is arguably no better place to start than Sicily. Ibn Hamdis, the Arabic poet who loved wine and the pleasures of life, is the perfect product of that land rich of surprises and contradictions.

A Poet of the Mediterranean

Thus, to fully appreciate the importance of Ibn Hamdis, we should change our perspective; we should see him as a Mediterranean poet rather than an Arabic one.  Adopting this Mediterranean perspective is essential—it dismantles the myth of the “Whites only” medieval world, and better captures the true complexity of those crucial centuries.

Reading Ibn Hamdis is important. It helps us to challenge the dominant view of the Mediterranean Sea as a spatial boundary between a North and a South, and between development and backwardness. It challenges the idea of the Middle Ages as a temporal hiatus between the classical age and the time of its rediscovery. Ibn Hamdis shows us the bonds among the cultures of the Mediterranean. He shows us the unity of a world which we tend to fragment with superimposed notions of North and South, East and West, Muslim and Christian.

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Finding Islamic Culture in a Christian Space


This is Part IX of The Public Medievalist’s continuing series on Race, Racism and the Middle Ages, by Dr. Clare Vernon.

Go back to the beginning of the series here.

This is the medieval church of St Nicholas, in the city of Bari in Southern Italy, which was built in the eleventh century to house the bones of St Nicholas (aka Father Christmas, aka Santa Claus).  From the outside, it looks exactly how you would expect a medieval church to look, right?  It looks old and Christian, and perhaps quintessentially European.  But inside, we find intriguing evidence showing how medieval culture was not exclusively Christian or European.

Discovering Islamic Culture in Christian Space

The Bishop’s throne at the Church of St. Nicholas, Bari, Italy. Photo by the Author.

Here is the most sacred part of the church: the area behind the main altar, where we find Bishop’s throne. The seat, as you can see, is held up by three men of different ethnicities.

The two men at the corners are modelled on ancient Roman images of slaves; they are wearing loincloths and grimacing under the weight of their marble, and Episcopal, burden.  They depict people of two different ethnicities: one has hair that coils into tight ringlets, and the other has hair that is coarse and wavy.  Between them, a third figure somewhat nonchalantly helps to support the Bishop’s seat.  Thanks to historian Rowan Dorin’s excellent research on how this figure is dressed, we know that he is a Muslim (the hat in particular is a dead giveaway).  Not only that, but the style of this sculpture is very similar to contemporary Islamic sculpture from Egypt. If we zoom out and look at the surroundings of the throne, we can see further evidence of Muslim culture.  The magnificent floor on which the throne stands is made up of small pieces of multi-coloured stone tessellated to form shapes and patterns.

Detail of the Bishop's throne showing men of several religions and ethnicities supporting the Bishop.
Detail of the Bishop’s throne showing men of several religions and ethnicities supporting the Bishop. Photo by the author.

Running along the wall behind the throne is a band of mosaic decoration made up of repeated Arabic letters. Perhaps this is not what you expected to see in a medieval church.


Mosaic with Arabic lettering, in the Church of St. Nicholas, Bari, Italy. Photo by the author.
Mosaic with Arabic lettering, in the Church of St. Nicholas, Bari, Italy. Photo by the author.

So how did Islamic culture find its way into this Christian space? And how would it have been perceived by the medieval people who built the church and worshipped within it?

Southern Italy and Diversity in the Mediterranean

Today, the Mediterranean Sea is encircled by nations predominantly made up of Muslims, Jews, and Christians. The current refugee crisis is a poignant illustration of how navigable—if treacherous—the sea is, and how connected the people who live on its shores can be.  In that respect, things were no different a thousand years ago (or indeed two thousand or five thousand years ago).  For a better understanding of this, let’s look in a bit more detail at the south of Italy at the time the church of St Nicholas was built.

In the early Middle Ages (roughly from the sixth to the eleventh century), the city of Bari and the surrounding area was ruled, at different times, by Muslims, Orthodox/Greek Christians and Catholic/Latin Christians. For about twenty years in the ninth century the city was under Muslim rule: a congregational mosque was built, and the Christian population lived under Islamic law. Later, the city was conquered by the Holy Roman Emperor Louis II and reverted to Christian rule.  For the rest of the Middle Ages, the region oscillated between being governed by representatives of the Byzantine Emperor in Constantinople (who were Greek-speaking, Orthodox Christians) and local Italian princes (Catholic Lombards originally from what is now northern Italy, who used Latin as their written and sacred language).  In the eleventh century, when the church of St Nicholas was built, the whole of southern Italy was conquered by Normans, who had arrived from northern France.

Throughout this period, the city of Bari had grown rich and famous through commerce. Businessmen from Bari travelled the length and breadth of the Mediterranean. Mainly they travelled to ports in the south and east of the Mediterranean, where they traded with Muslim and Byzantine merchants. They sold Italian staple products, such as timber, olive oil and wine, and purchased sought-after luxuries such as silk, spices, gold and ivory. Returning home, they sold these for significant profits, and then repeated the process.  As a consequence of all this repeated conquest and continuing trade, the city had a diverse population.  The majority of the citizens were Latin Catholics and Greek-speaking Orthodox Christians, as well as significant communities of Armenians and Jews. There may have also been a small, stable, community of Muslims in the city but there isn’t enough evidence for us to be sure.

Certainly, the merchants of Bari would have been on familiar terms with their Muslim business partners and with Islamic art. Exchange and dialogue with the Muslim world was crucial to the economic prosperity of the city.  The Arabic mosaic pavement in the church of St Nicholas was probably made by Christian artists copying from an object made in another part of the Mediterranean by Muslim artists—probably a textile or a piece of metalwork or ivory.

What is ‘European Culture’?

This is a tiny snapshot of the many thousands of interactions that took place between Muslim and Christian people in the Middle Ages.  In the first few months of 2017, bringing Islamic culture into Christian sacred space has been both topical and controversial.  In January, a Qur’an recitation in Glasgow cathedral sparked hostility. In February, an exhibition in Gloucester cathedral, which explores different faiths was vandalised. Last week, Channel 4 News broadcasted a piece on the neo-fascist self-styled “alt-right” in the UK. One of the participants stated that her objections to immigration stemmed from her belief that, “European culture [is] being snowed under”.

The sacred space in Bari, and other medieval churches, reminds us that when we hear statements such as these we need to question them, and push back against their assumptions and implications.  There is an underlying assumption in that statement that “European culture” is a homogenous, static and monolithic entity, and another that European culture can be diluted (or perhaps polluted?) by sustained contact with people who are thought to be part of a different culture. In reality, when we study the history of European culture, it reveals to us that Europe and its many cultures have been woven over centuries from thousands of diverse threads. It has never been a homogenous entity with clearly defined boundaries, and it never will be.

Further Reading

If you’d like to learn more about diversity in medieval Mediterranean art, these are some good places to start.

  1. Diversity by design’, Apollo: The International Art Magazine, June 2016, Volume CLXXXIII, No. 643, pp. 80–85.
  2. Museum With No Frontiers.
  3. Qantara.

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A Wonder of the Multicultural Medieval World: The Tabula Rogeriana


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

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

Relevant xkcd. Click to enlarge. Courtesy of

Everyone loves maps (or at least they should!). Most of us at least appreciate them for what they do (thank you, Google Maps, blessed among apps, for helping me get to work this morning). But you have to admit, from the humblest world map hanging in an elementary school classroom to the intricate and bizarre Waterman Butterfly, maps are not just functional. They help us better understand our world, inspire us to look beyond our limitations, and see ourselves as part of something bigger.

To be a good cartographer, especially in the eras before aerial photography and GPS, you had to be a mathematician, a geographer, and an artist rolled into one. One of the greatest mapmakers of all time added to that list scholar, traveller, and, in a manner of speaking, journalist. He was a Muslim. He was a refugee. And he was a genius. His work went unequalled for the better part of three hundred years. His full name was Abu ‘Abd Allah Muhammad ibn Muhammad ibn ‘Abd Allah ibn Idris al-‘Ala bi-Amr Alla. But we know him, simply, as al-Idrisi. His magnum opus is a book of maps called the Tabula Rogeriana or—as it is in Arabic, the Kitab Rujjar. He made it in Sicily in the twelfth century, and it depicts the world from Iceland to China, and many, many places in-between.

A Man on the Edge(s)

Al-Idrisi always seemed to live at the intersection of worlds. He was born at the turn of the 12th century (ca 1100 CE) in the North African city of Sabta (now Ceuta, Spain), right along the coasts of the straits of Gibraltar that divide Africa and Europe. He was then educated in Córdoba, the heart of Islamic Spain, and subsequently traveled extensively through North Africa, Asia Minor, and Europe—including trips through Christian Spain, France, and England.

But al-Idrisi had enemies due to his birthright. He had been born into the house of the nobles of the city of Málaga (in the map below, to the upper right). These nobles had a claim on the Caliphate that had, at least until recently, ruled the entirety of Muslim Spain.  But the Caliphate had collapsed into infighting. Thus, al-Idrisi’s very existence as an heir to the Caliphate brought along with it some very powerful enemies in a country rocked by civil war.

Al-Idrisi found refuge in the court of Roger II, the greatest of the Norman kings of Sicily. Rewinding just a bit, in the two hundred years prior to al-Idrisi’s birth, Danish and Norse armies invaded and conquered the North of France. There, they quickly set up colonies that mixed the local population with settlers from their homelands and drew immigrants from the Danelaw (Danish-controlled North England). But these colonies quickly adopted local customs and languages, and, for all intents and purposes, integrated into the local populations.  Thus, the Normans came into being—their name not taken from their origins in the North of France, but from places far north of that.

These Normans were clearly adept at conquest, and so, over the hundred years prior to al-Idrisi’s birth, they managed to sail from northern France, through the Mediterranean, to conquer the southern half of Italy. And thus, we are given a Sicilian King with French-Norse ancestry and the unlikely name of ‘Roger’, ruling over a kingdom largely populated with Byzantine Greeks and Muslim Arabs.

Thus—returning to al-Idrisi, when he came to the court of Roger II, he found himself somewhere extraordinary. Sicily was (and remains) sandwiched between the Latin-Christian world to the north and west, the Byzantine-Greek world to the north and east, and the Muslim world to the south. It is at the periphery of each, which places it at the very center of all. Norman Sicily was a vibrant hub of trade, travel, and commerce, and Roger II was wise enough to encourage this through a policy of religious tolerance that encouraged multicultural exchange—both literal and metaphorical.

Scholars disagree on Roger’s exact motivation for inviting al-Idrisi to his court; he may have initially simply wanted another bargaining chip in his efforts to gain control over more Muslim-held territory. But Roger quickly learned that al-Idrisi was no mere bargaining chip, but a man of extraordinary abilities. Roger commissioned al-Idrisi to create maps for him of the entire known world.

Making a World

Setting to work, al-Idrisi consulted all the books and travel reports he could find, synthesizing knowledge from Arabic, Latin and Classical sources on the subject. He extensively interviewed the travelers and traders who came to the island about the places they had come from and the places they had seen.

Al-Idrisi’s work fundamentally reveals the amount of cooperation and collaboration between people of different faiths, colors, and cultures present even in the twelfth century. Al-Idrisi reported the stories of people who had been to China, and which city produced the best silks (apparently, Quanzhou). He reported a tantalizing tale of a group of Muslim explorers who, blown vastly off-course, may have found themselves in the Americas, and who struggled to return (though from their confused reports they could have been several other places in the Atlantic). He met Norse traders who told him of the Northern Island colonies (Iceland or Greenland), and Africans who helped him map both the east and west coasts of that continent.

And though his maps were flat, he was very well aware that the Earth was a sphere, and calculated its circumference to within 10% of its real size.

Roger asked al-Idrisi to inscribe this map of the world onto a huge six-foot disc of solid silver to be displayed in his court. This, apparently, was accomplished—but as you might expect of a giant piece of precious metal, it did not survive the centuries. What we do have of al-Idrisi’s extraordinary works are several books of regional maps—Atlases—and extensive geographical commentaries in both Latin and Arabic. Scholars have subsequently combined these regional maps into a grand map of the world, seen here (click the image for an ultra-high resolution version).

The Tabula Rogeriana of al-Idrisi. Modern copy, with the complete world reassembled by modern scholars from the individual pages of al-Idrisi’s atlas.

For those unaccustomed to medieval maps (and even some who are), it may look a bit odd. On the left edge (west) you see the Iberian peninsula where it reaches towards North Africa; the Italian peninsula is to its right, on its side. Each brown dot represents a city; Italy and Sicily are covered in them. It is clear that this is a sea trading map, intimately familiar with, and interested in, cities along the coast. Great Britain is, perhaps appropriately, shaped a bit like a teapot above France at the top—you can see “Londra” labelled if you look carefully.

But as you look east, that is where things get interesting. The Persian Gulf is depicted, as is Sri Lanka and India. A staggering number of cities are labeled in central Asia, as are several islands off the Southeast Asian coasts. While the shapes may be distorted, this is not a mapmaker living in a particularly “dark” age.

…’Cause It’s Freaking Me Out

For those of you who are fans of The West Wing, there is a fun extra wrinkle. In Season 2, Episode 16 of the show, White House Press Secretary C.J. Cregg meets with the fictitious group “Cartographers for Social Equality”, who explain to her that the commonly known Mercator projection world map is both vastly inaccurate and reflective of imperialist values.

C.J.’s world is turned upside down when they show her how the world she has been shown on maps is not the world as it is. This is only exacerbated when the cartographers show her, in a piece de resistance, a map with south at the top; her worldview is literally turned upside-down.

The Cartographers for Social Equality would have been very pleased with al-Idrisi’s Tabula Rogeriana, not just because it was a work of extraordinary ability that reflected an encompassing worldview. They would have also appreciated it because al-Idrisi oriented all of his maps in that book, too, with South at the top. Thus, the proper way to view his work is like this.

The Tabula Rogeriana, right-side up. See the original at the Library of Congress website.

A Wonder of the World

As we have discussed in three of the previous articles in this series, the white supremacist viewpoint argues—even requires—that the greatest works of humankind were, and are, produced by white people. And more, their views insist that multiculturalism has a debasing effect on a people, and that immigrants and refugees are a drain on society. Al-Idrisi’s map is a work of genius that was wrought not just within a multicultural society, but as a direct product of multiculturalism. It is one of the wonders of the multicultural world.

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Race, Racism, and the Middle Ages

Where Were the Middle Ages?


This is Part VII of The Public Medievalist’s continuing series on Race, Racism and the Middle Ages, by Marianne O’Doherty. You can buy her award-winning book The Indies and the Medieval West: Thought, Report, Imagination at or from Brepols Publishers.

Go back to the beginning of the series here.

The image conjured up in your mind by the term ‘Middle Ages’ is probably determined by where you were born, were educated, and live. If you are English, you likely think of the English Middle Ages; if you are French, likely the French version (and so forth). Paul Sturtevant’s research has explored the ways many young people from the US and UK intuitively think of the Middle Ages. Largely, they see it, at its broadest, as a western European phenomenon—and some even as a time period that only ever happened in England. Hollywood films and other fictional medievalisms (both historical and fantastical) in the Anglo-American world nurtures this belief, with endless iterations of the medieval set in the English landscape. But if you grew up in France, visiting Carcassone (or playing Carcassone) you would certainly think of the Middle Ages as continental European. If you grew up in Eastern Europe, your mental image of the period might well have been shaped by the art and architecture of Prague’s Golden Age under the Holy Roman Emperor Charles/Karel IV. And so on.

The global dominance of Anglo-American film, television, and historical-fantasy fiction might be homogenizing these multiple Middle Ages. But the fact remains that the Middle Ages were multiple. To some extent, they still are perceived differently depending on where you are standing. This means that you cannot necessarily designate all sorts of moments and phenomena across the globe ‘medieval’ as long as they happened around the same time. Which brings us to a question that my husband asked me when he saw the title of this piece:

Don’t You Mean “When Were the Middle Ages?” …or, “What Were the Middle Ages?”

The temporal idea of the Middle Ages is connected to geography in a fundamental (if awkward) way. The Middle Ages is a relative term, not an absolute one. This period is conventionally placed between two other (perceived) eras; the beginning of the Middle Ages is at the end of Antiquity, which is conventionally, if arbitrarily, marked by the sack of Rome in 410 and the subsequent fall of the Western Roman Empire. The end of the Middle Ages is bookended by a European renaissance that thought of itself as returning to classical ideals.

Interior of the Church of St Denis, Paris. Generally acknowledged to be the first Gothic building (dedicated 1144).

Renaissance thinkers first coined an idea of a ‘Middle Age’, and defined themselves against their medieval forebears. But from very early on, this way of looking at the past was given not just temporal boundaries, but spatial and racial ones as well. For example, Giorgio Vasari’s 1550 work Lives of the Artists characterised renaissance visual aesthetics as an Italian, specifically Florentine, phenomenon. Vasari contrasted these aesthetics with what he saw as the grotesquery of much post-Roman, pre-Renaissance art and architecture. Many of his strongest criticisms were reserved for what he called German style, a style he called “monstruous and barbaric,” in which elements “lack” order so completely “that it would be better called disorder or confusion.”

The origins of the German style were, in Vasari’s mind, Northern European. Their presence in his homeland represented alien intrusion to the Italian urban landscapes in which they had been offensively placed. He felt that those responsible for them were of another race: the gotti–the Goths.

Vasari’s history of architectural aesthetics is total nonsense. But it is fascinating nonsense, and defined many of our ideas about the Middle Ages. Vasari conflated together the standard late-medieval architectural style (that, thanks to Vasari, we now know as Gothic) with a specific gens (a tribe or race), the Goths. By doing so, he created a non-logical but powerfully emotive connection between this style and the gens responsible for the sack of Rome in 410. All sorts of implicit consequences flow from this emotive connection: the medieval is foreign; to exile the medieval is not just to become modern, but to return to our true selves.

So, in a sense, we might say that if ‘the Middle Ages’ did end up being associated more strongly with Northern Europe (broadly understood) than other places, that might be because renaissance thinkers put them there—and later people believed them. It turns out that muddling up space with time is an old habit, as is racializing thinking about temporal difference and attributing aspects of our own culture that we don’t like to other peoples, who, we then insist, rightfully belong to those other spaces and other times.

Drawing the Borders of the Middle Ages

Since we inherit our understanding of what—and where—the Middle Ages were from renaissance thinkers, what they thought matters. This is because, knowingly or otherwise, we have inherited some of their preconceptions and prejudices. The first of these is that the end of the Western Roman Empire is an epoch-defining event. But what are the implications of this for using the terms ‘Middle Ages’ and ‘medieval’ to talk about the people and places that come after that (maybe) epoch-defining event? Should we apply the terms only to places which were, at some point, conquered by the Empire?

The Western Roman Empire at its greatest extent ca. AD 395.

Certainly not, since that would mean we would not be able to talk about ‘medieval Ireland’ at all—even when discussing its conquest and colonisation by ‘medieval England’. And what would we say about areas at some point under the control Eastern Roman Empire, which endured until 1453 as what we know as the Byzantine Empire?

In practice, scholars tend to use the terms ‘Middle Ages’ and ‘medieval’ more as time-concepts than space-concepts. We tend to use the term to talk about a period broadly between 400 and 1500 AD. At the same time, we avoid talking too much about the problem that this produces: assuming that a supposedly epoch-defining event in Western Europe has equivalent significance elsewhere.

Across much of Europe, the period of the fall of the Western Roman Empire can very broadly be associated with some significant social and political changes. Similarly, around 1500, major cultural, theological, technological, and political upheavals (the reformation, the popularisation of print, encounters in the Americas) can, rightly or wrongly, be used as markers of significant change. But none of these matter at all in China, Japan, Ethiopia, Tabriz, Samarkand, Delhi, or the Americas.

This leads those historians (such as myself) who work on cultural interactions in particular into a difficult double-bind. We might like to think of ourselves as inclusive. We like to consider these other places to be part of ‘the medieval world’ or a ‘global Middle Ages’. But we need to be alert to the non-medievalness of such places in their own terms. Attempting to draw the whole world, and all of its peoples, into one’s own flawed historical periodization system is massively arrogant. 

Let’s Go to the Map

Final plate of the Catalan Atlas, Bibliothèque nationale de France, Département des manuscrits, Espagnol 30. The image shows the Antichrist deceiving the people with false Miracles and, in the far North East, Isaiah’s prophecy.

So, we’ve opened our eyes to a wider temporal and geographical world in which the ‘medieval’ sits. But where does this alertness take us? To my mind, it opens up a couple of important questions.

  1. What did that wider world look like to medieval travellers who went to all sorts of places and interacted with all sorts of peoples?
  2. How did these interactions disrupt medieval people’s sense of their spatial and temporal space in the world? And,
  3. How do they disrupt our spatial and temporal sense of the Middle Ages?

First, we need to recognise that medieval peoples’ senses of their own space and time was different to our sense (whatever that sense is) of the Middle Ages. But, like the renaissance thinking that came after it, much medieval thought divided the world up into ages, and related these to particular historical moments and places.

For example, for much of the later Middle Ages, people across Europe considered their own moment to be nearing the ‘end.’ There were, though, many different ways of thinking about this. The German chronicler Otto of Freising, writing in the heartlands of the twelfth-century Holy Roman Empire, divided the world up into a sequence of Empires. He considered himself to be living in the final days of the Roman Empire (about 700 years after historians today date the end of the Empire), which was the last of these. For Otto, the Empire had gradually moved from the East westward to the German lands, where, declining and debased, it would eventually be succeeded by the coming of the Antichrist and the end of the world.

Later in the Middle Ages, the Franciscan and Dominican monastic orders created missionary orders which sought to spread Christianity to far-flung places. At the same time, there was significant Latin Christian missionary activity in Asia. As a result of both, medieval people began looking at medieval Europe’s place in time and space quite differently.

The Catalan Atlas, probably produced by the Majorcan-Jewish mapmaker Cresques Abraham in 1375, shows a much more up-to-date vision of the world than the vast majority of surviving world maps produced before it (for an amazing exception, see the works of Arab cartographer and geographer al-Idrisi, produced for the Court of Roger II of Sicily). The Catalan Atlas also seems to suggest that the world was heading towards an end. The Antichrist, whose arrival, according to the Book of Revelation, will usher in the second coming of Christ and the last judgement, is shown deceiving the faithful with false miracles. A legend at the very edge of the depicted world, in the far north east, predicts the conversion of all the world’s peoples to Christianity before the end comes.

According to the Prophet Isiah “I shall send those who are saved to the peoples of the sea, to Africa and Lydia” and “I will send to the isles far off, that have not heard my fame, neither have seen my glory; and they shall declare my glory among the Gentiles.” What we see here is a belief that the whole world, as far as the seas beyond China, is moving steadily towards a form of universal Christian empire. Once that is achieved, the multiple lands, islands and peoples that the Atlas represents will all belong to one world, and the end of the world can begin.

Imposing Yourself on the World, and Vice Versa

Like the renaissance thinkers that followed them, and like scholars today, then, medieval people tried to impose order upon the temporally and geographically disparate worlds around them. But travelling in that wider world, encountering and interacting with the real humans inhabiting it, had a tendency to disrupt these orderly visions of time and space—in particular the notion that the whole world was on a trajectory towards universal Christendom. When Popes Innocent IV and Louis IX sent envoys to the Mongol Khans in the thirteenth century, they discovered that these Eastern rulers, believing in their own ‘divine mandate to conquer the world’ expected the submission of the West.

Fantasies of the westwards movement of Empire across the world—where world dominance was thought to have begun in the East, then moved to Rome, then Byzantium, then Western Europe—were bluntly challenged by Venetian traveller Marco Polo in the 1290s. It was very clear to Polo that the Mongol Khan Kublai was not only the greatest emperor of the world at that time, but the greatest lord that the world had ever known. After travelling in the Indian Ocean in the early fourteenth century, Dominican missionary William Adam recognised the daunting scale of the task before those trying to convert all the peoples of the world in preparation for its end: “we, who are the true Christians, are not the tenth, no, not the twentieth of all men” (quoted in Larner, Marco Polo and the discovery of the World, p. 121).

The ‘ruc’ in an early sixteenth-century manuscript of Marco Polo. Marco describes the bird as like a giant eagle, large enough to pick up an elephant. However, he also calls it a ‘grifon’, and it is here pictured as a gryphon: part bird, part lion. Bibliothèque de lArsenal, Ms-5219, fol. 152v.

Attention to interactions across the world in the period we call the Middle Ages also disrupts scholars of the Middle Ages; it does—and should—make us all uncomfortable about the assumptions that underlie our understandings of the Middle Ages and scholarly terminology. For example, I am a scholar of texts and maps that witness cultural contact— from Marco Polo’s Divisament dou Monde (Description of the World), to Franciscan and Dominican missionary narratives, to maps like the Catalan Atlas shown here. I have lost count of the number of times it has become necessary to reach across religious traditions, languages, and cultures to understand something about a text.

Fabulous creatures such as Marco Polo’s ruc, or gryphon, a giant bird that he locates on Madagascar, belong to Arabic travellers tales and fables, from which they pass into many traditions, including the European. Sharon Kinoshita has argued that we should see Marco’s Book, which we tend to think of as European, as much a product of a Mongol literary culture as medieval European.

And then there is the almost incredible story of Pietro Rombulo of Messina, an Italian who spent most of his life in Ethiopia in the early fifteenth century, a period that one scholar has dubbed the Ethiopian Age of exploration. Rombulo spent more than a decade in the diplomatic service of the great Ethiopian king Zara Yaqob. He travelled widely in the Ethiopian’s service—seeking alliances for the kings of India, Sri Lanka, and China. Rombulo finally returned to Sicily in 1450 as Zara Yaqub’s ambassador to King Alfonso of Sicily and Aragon. Pietro’s story, captured almost accidentally in the chronicle of a humanist scholar whom he met in Naples and then buried for over four hundred years in his unread work, reminds us how much we don’t know. It shows how much has been lost of the contacts and exchanges between Western European lands and wider worlds between 500 and 1500. But it also reminds us that those white, European, Middle Ages that still often seem so central in scholarship and in popular culture are on the periphery of other important and wonderful stories.

Does the Medieval World Have Borders?

The uncomfortable truth is that, as a place-concept that involves both space and time, the ‘medieval world’ doesn’t have borders that can be drawn on a modern map. However, we can be certain that the medieval world is not a mono-cultural, white space; far from it. In the world I study, the post-Roman, Islamic regions of the Middle East and North Africa belong to the same networks of material and cultural exchange as Al-Andalus and Christian Spain, as France, Italy, England and Ireland, Greece, and so on. When medieval people viewed their world, they envisaged it as stretching from the ‘land of Darkness’ (as Marco Polo calls it) of northern Asia, to Madagascar and Sumatra in the south, and as far east as Japan. Our horizons, when we think about the Middle Ages, need to stretch across these distances and cultures too.

Continue to Part VIII: A Wonder Of The Multicultural Medieval World: The Tabula Rogeriana

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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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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” 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 Kossinna, 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 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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