Race, Racism, and the Middle Ages

Race, Racism, and the Middle Ages

Were Medieval People Racist? IV: Race, Religion, and Travel

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Part XXXVII in our ongoing series on Race, Racism and the Middle Ages, by James Hill. You can find the rest of the special series here


In a temple, incense and music offered by astrologers (Bakashi) before an altar to a female idol for protection against bad weather. Li Livres du Graunt Caam, by Marco Polo. MS. Bodl. 264, pt. III, fol. 235r.

In my previous article, I discussed how unconcerned medieval European travel writers were with the skin colour of the people they encountered in other parts of the world. But there was one thing these travel writers described about virtually every tribe, individual, or kingdom they encountered: their religion. Faith was an object of intense fascination that permeated the medieval worldview in a way physical ‘racial’ differences do not appear to have done. It might seem surprising that physical differences appeared to be so unimportant to medieval writers, but it is probably less surprising that discrimination was not absent: in medieval travel writing, it often manifested as religious prejudice.

For travel writers like Marco Polo, John Mandeville, or William of Rubruck, there was a fairly standard way of introducing a new people in their texts: their name, their faith, and a couple of pertinent points about them—usually a cultural practice or an interesting anecdote. That’s not to say that these writers had much in-depth knowledge about the religious practices of any given area. Some writers, such as Mandeville, probably didn’t actually go anywhere and were dependent on other sources for their information. However, none of this stopped them from opining about other faiths.

You’ve Got To Have Faith

For these writers, the world fell into five broad categories. People were either:

  • Christian (even if they were ‘heretics’, they were still Christians),
  • Muslim,
  • Jewish,
  • ‘Pagan’, or
  • ‘Idolaters’.

The last two terms—‘pagan’ and ‘idolater’—are not always used consistently, and they can hold different meanings, even within these texts. But the general distinction is that shamanistic or animistic practices are described as ‘pagan’, while more organized faiths such as Buddhism or Hinduism are described as ‘idolatry’. This doesn’t hold true for other medieval texts, and polemicists were happy to pile terms on other faiths, but within travel writings, which were ostensibly aiming to be geographic works, the distinctions are comparatively consistent.

These European travellers were definitely interested in other faiths, and not always to blanketly condemn them. In some instances it was to understand them—if through a vastly imperfect lens, and from a generally assumed position of religious superiority. Descriptions of people’s religious sensibilities take up a huge amount of space in these works, and they are often tied to social and cultural curiosities. For example, Marco Polo reports that the whirling dervishes of Tibet are ‘wicked’ and ‘sorcerous’. But to him, the Buddhist monks of China are devout and praiseworthy for their discipline, charity, and learning.

In many cases, though, the narrators are intent on forming alliances and converting the people they encounter. The religious neutrality expressed by the Mongol khans is a source of frustration for friars like John of Plano Carpini and William of Rubruck (who I introduced in my previous article). These men, both missionaries and diplomats, initially misunderstand the khans’ invitations to Christian missionaries into their courts as encouragement, but are then disappointed when the khans decline to convert. John reports that he was assured by Christians in the emperor’s household that ‘they believed he was about to become Christian’, as he kept ‘Christian clerks, and he has always the chapel of Christians in front of his great tent, and they were allowed to chant publicly and openly’. This optimism does not appear to have borne any fruit though. William also hoped to convert the Mongols during his visit. He justifies his visit to the Golden Horde by saying,

We have heard say in the Holy Land that your Lord Sartach is a Christian, and greatly were the Christians rejoiced thereat… it is for this I wish to go to Sartach and carry to him letters of the lord king, in which he admononisheth him of the weal of all Christendom.

His mission hit rocky ground when he discovered that Sartaq (the son of the khan, Batu) was not in fact a Christian at all, even if he sometimes showed preference to them, but was a Mongol first and always. The tolerance of all faiths in the courts of the khans did provide an opportunity for substantial discussion about the superiority of Catholicism against other religions and strands of Christianity, however, and William takes pleasure in asserting the superiority of Latin learning (by his own account) over the local Nestorians. But ultimately, he fails to convert the Mongols, or anyone else, and seems to have not made much of an impression locally.

Of course, many of the non-Christian characters portrayed in these travelogues are said to be wicked. The friars describe many of the Mongols (‘Tartars’) as greedy, materialistic, and petty, insisting on gifts and robbing the Christian authors. Polo depicts Muslim leaders as avaricious; we are told that Ahmed, the minister of finance to Kublai Khan, was assassinated due to his great power, and his even-greater financial corruption. Polo also tells us that the last Caliph of Baghdad was killed by being locked in his (full) treasury by the Mongols until he starved because of his greed and poor rule in failing to defend his city with his great wealth. That this ever actually happened is, seemingly, immaterial (the Caliph was executed by the Mongols, but he was killed by being trampled with horses).

‘Idolaters’ are often portrayed as sexually promiscuous, and sometimes those descriptions are salacious, such as when they enter into shocking non-monogamous relationships or do not wear ‘enough’ clothes for the comfort of the writer’s sensibilities. Marco Polo recommends that any man between 16 and 24 should visit a small region of Southern China because of their peculiar marriage customs:

nothing on earth would induce a man to marry a virgin; for they say a woman is worthless unless she has been intimately acquainted with many men… This, then, is how they go about getting married. You may take my word for it that whenever foreigners pass through this region and pitch their tents to make camp, the old women from the villages and hamlets bring their daughters, twenty or forty at a time, and thrust them at the men, begging them to have their way with them and sleep with them. And the chosen girls stay with the travellers, and the rest ruefully return home. The men are free to take their pleasure with them as long as they remain, but are not allowed to carry them off anywhere else. And when they have had their fill and are ready to leave, it is customary for each to give a jewel or token to the women he slept with, so that she can prove she had a lover when she comes to marry. Custom dictates too that before a girl can think of marrying she needs to have more than twenty of these tokens around her neck as proof that she has had many lovers and slept with many men.

The story goes on, but you get the idea. There are many similar stories of sexual openness, prostitution, and other exoticising narratives of women in the East. Many, or perhaps even all of these narratives were fictional. But they signal a beginning to a very long trend of exoticisation, objectification, and sexualisation of southeast Asian women by European men.

Despite glaring examples like this, non-Christian people are not always described in negative terms. The yogis of India are praised for their simple way of life. The astronomers of China are lauded for their great wisdom. The khans are often portrayed as very generous and just. The technological and social advancement of Chinese society was a marvel for travellers. Additionally, many of the peoples of the world are merely identified, and not judged. In all cases though, the reader is keenly aware of the faith of these people, whether they were good, bad, or simply there. This shows what writers thought was important information for their audience: a people’s religious and cultural practices were much more important than their physical characteristics. Perhaps it is this privileging of the substance of a person over their appearance that led to the apparent belief by some medieval Europeans that a person’s physical characteristics could change. If a physical characteristic represented a part of the character of a person, it had to be able to change with religion or culture, and could not be as important as the internal thing it reflected.

Monsters in the Deep

Monstrous people attributed to Andaman (from the Bay of Bengal) by Marco Polo: dog-faced man, a cyclops, and wild men. Bodleian, MS. Bodl. 264, part III Marco Polo. Click to enlarge.

The one set of people whose appearance takes priority over all other factors is the ‘monstrous peoples’ that occupy the pages of stories like John Mandeville’s Travels. These monstrous people are identified by their physical characteristics alone: men with dog’s heads, people with their heads in their chests, a people with a single leg they used to shade themselves from the sun. It is easy to tell that these are pure fiction (not just because we know that they are not real) but because in these works, they never have any contextual information. There are no descriptions of their cultures or religious practices, just their appearances. They are nothing more than their bodies. Most humans seem to be the inverse: little more than their religion and culture.

More monstrous people from Marco Polo, one of whom is a unicorn. Bodleian, MS. Bodl. 264, pt. III. Click to enlarge.

These mythical people usually come tacked on to the end of a survey of the world. They are always in far-off lands that the narrator does not actually visit, and separate from descriptions of ‘real’ people. For example, the story of the one-footed people in Mandeville’s book is separated from a much-more-detailed description of the Nubians, the Ethiopians, and the other peoples of what was referred to as ‘Assyria’. Other examples contain ‘wild men with horns on their heads’, who ‘dwell in woods and do not speak’, ‘ugly folk without heads, who have eyes in each shoulder; their mouths are round, like a horseshoe, in the middle of their chest’, ‘people who have feet like horses, and run so swiftly they overtake wild animals and kill them for food’, or ‘giants, foul and horrible to look at, who have only one eye’.

Many of these stories come from older classical myths. For instance, the dog-headed tribe of Northeast Asia existed in two separate ancient stories: one Greek, and one Chinese. They are included in the travel narratives of John of Plano Carpini, William of Rubruck (who places them in northeast Asia like the Chinese legend does), Marco Polo (who places them in North India, following Pliny), and John Mandeville (who oddly places them in Indonesia). It seems that dog-headed people were an expected part of the genre. But none of these writers treat them in the same way they treat the humans they encounter. The writers never describe them in any further detail other than explaining that they are a people with dog’s heads instead of human ones.

We can only assume that ‘monstrous’ peoples were to be seen as geographically linked to, but not the same as, actual humans. A monstrous people’s religion is never described in these travel texts. Medieval travel texts do not assess the morality of monstrous peoples, and they are not explicitly linked to ‘human’ races. Mandeville has a single paragraph devoted to them (with the occasional sentence elsewhere), and it is purely descriptive. Polo and William of Rubruck are similarly terse. Human people, whose faiths are examined in depth, are rarely given much in the way of a physical description. Monstrous people have nothing else.

How much should we assume that the stories of these monstrous peoples were supposed to reflect the real world, or even the imaginative landscape? It is unclear whether a medieval audience was even supposed to be treating them as real; travellers, despite regularly populating the world with such monsters, never seemed concerned about bumping into them. No one ever claims to have seen or interacted with them. Perhaps their main purpose is to conjure exoticism, adding drama and mystery to an area that no one will go.

So, Were Medieval European Travel Writers Racist?

In modern terms, these medieval European writers did not appear to make the same assumptions about people that constitute textbook racism today. They do not link skin colour with moral worth. They do not connect physical or intellectual characteristics to ‘racial’ characteristics like skin, eye, or hair colour. These features all crop up here and there: sometimes in classical works, sometimes in high medieval ones, and quite regularly in early modern texts. But the late-medieval travel writer did not define race the way we do today. This was not simply a quirk of genre, either. Earlier geographic works, particularly classical ones, were very happy to speculate about skin colour and its meaning. The fact that medieval ones don’t suggests that something else is happening.

Given the disinterest in the physical manifestations of difference in these examples of medieval travel writing, it would be tempting to say that racism wasn’t a feature of medieval Europe. But this is only possible if you use a very narrow, very modern understanding of what ‘race’ is. Travel writers divided up the world and stereotyped just as much as anyone else. But their social priorities do not seem to map particularly closely to our own. To the medieval traveller, the divide between faiths seemed to eclipse, almost entirely, the physical differences between them and other people. Faith was, by far, the most important factor in describing the world and ascribing meaning to actions.

People in the Middle Ages were certainly not model egalitarians. They were completely capable of disgust at other cultures and vitriolic hatred of other faiths. That hatred was just based on somewhat different criteria. Many medieval Europeans were not very tolerant of religious, social, or cultural differences. This can be thought of as ‘racism’, but a racism organised across very different lines, or perhaps not especially organised at all.

But there is a glimmer of hope as well. When medieval Europeans left Europe (or even just imagined leaving Europe), they did not treat everyone they met with scorn. These writers frequently show the humble, intrepid, and inquisitive spirit that has been the hallmark of great travellers throughout time. They reveal the two faces of travel—that of imposing your own values upon other cultures that you instinctively define as ‘inferior’, or of approaching them as men and women who display all the various ways in which a life can be lived well.


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Race, Racism, and the Middle Ages

Race: the Original Sin of the Fantasy Genre

Unearthed Arcana header

Part XXXVI in our ongoing series on Race, Racism and the Middle Ages, by Paul B. Sturtevant. You can find the rest of the special series here

Paul’s upcoming book, The Middle Ages in Popular Imagination: Memory, Film, and Medievalismis available for preorder now.


But Hobbits have never, in fact, studied magic of any kind, and their elusiveness is due solely to a professional skill that heredity and practice, and a close friendship with the earth, have rendered inimitable by bigger and clumsier races.

-Prologue, The Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R. Tolkien

This is from the first page of Tolkien’s The Fellowship of the Ring. It is the first time he uses the word “race” in the book (though he did use it in The Hobbit as well). Considering Tolkien’s place as the godfather of the fantasy genre, it’s unsurprising that his conception of the “races” of Middle Earth have become more-or-less standard across the fantasy genre.

But Tolkien’s conception of “race” is a huge problem. His ideas have been bred into the core of the fantasy genre—not just literature, but films and games too. Contemporary authors  have had to work hard to free the genre from this original sin.

The core of the problem is that Tolkien conflates race, culture, and ability. Hobbits, he says, are a race, and based upon a combination their hereditary traits and cultural practices, are better at being stealthy than other races.

Tolkien does this throughout his novels, outlining the “racial” characteristics of men, of dwarves, of elves, of orcs, and those few of mixed ancestry (like Aragorn or the Uruk-Hai). As Helen Young, author of Race and Popular Fantasy Literature put it in a recent interview with the Pacific Standard:

In Middle Earth, unlike reality, race is objectively real rather than socially constructed.

If we are to look at Tolkien’s work with a modern scientific eye, we can try to come to some conclusions about what he may have meant. Elves, dwarves, men, hobbits, and orcs are all either different species of homo, or different subspecies of homo sapiens—likely the latter since, at least between elves and men (and orcs and men), they can have fertile children.

But Tolkien wasn’t writing through this sort of scientific lens. His world has a mythological sensibility drawn, in large part, from the Germanic tradition where dwarves and elves interact with the gods (though are never referred to as “races”). His world is a fantasy: it does not play by the same rules as our own (equally on matters of dragons or genetics). But in Middle Earth, both dragons and the pseudoscience behind race are treated as real.

Tolkien crafted his fantasy world intricately. He, for example, took great pains to calculate distances and accommodate for the speed of horse travel in order for his plot to work. I have to hope that, had he better understood what race is and what it isn’t, he would have been more careful in his descriptions of its peoples. But the fact remains that he created the blueprint for the troubling relationship between race and fantasy that would govern twentieth century fantasies.

Race(s) and Dungeons and Dragons

From the D&D website. Source: http://dnd.wizards.com/dungeons-and-dragons/what-is-dd/races

Perhaps we can excuse the scientific racism in Middle-Earth as being a product of its time. But if we do, it gets harder and harder to extend the same to the multitudes of Tolkien derivatives in the fantasy genre. And it is safe to say that there has been no more-influential Tolkien derivative than Dungeons and Dragons.

For those (likely few) of you who’ve never played D&D, it is a roleplaying game in which players take on the role of a character roughly derived from Tolkien’s work. Together with other players, you and your fellow players improvise an adventure. You are aided in this by a “dungeon master” who develops the world, runs the campaign, plays all the other characters in the story, and ensures everyone is playing by the rules.

To call it massively popular is a bit of an understatement.

And baked into the roots of D&D is the same scientific racism that you see in The Lord of the Rings. Take this telling quote from the preface of the first edition of the Advanced Dungeons and Dragons Player’s Handbook:

Races are given advantages or limits mainly because the whole character of the game would be drastically altered if it were otherwise.

Compounding the problems of Tolkien’s scientific racism, in Dungeons and Dragons, the relative strengths and weaknesses of the various “races” are given numerical values.

Any given character’s abilities are divided into six scores: Strength, Intelligence, Wisdom, Dexterity, Constitution, and Charisma. Leaving aside how reductive that is, each character’s ability score is then adjusted based upon their race. Dwarves are tough but gruff. So, they get +1 to Constitution and -1 to Charisma (in 1st Edition AD&D—the rules have changed over the years). Elves are dexterous but delicate. Halflings (roughly, Hobbits) are weak but dexterous. And so on. This gives the scientific racism of Tolkien’s world a veneer of mathematical, statistical verifiability.

And moreover, these inherent differences influence players’ decisions; a player is far more likely to play a tough dwarven fighter (due to the bonus to constitution) than a lesser-than-average dwarven bard. Thus, inherent “racial” characteristics give rise to cultural phenomena.

The game is currently 43 years old and in its 5th edition. It has been played by millions of people of all ages worldwide. Even so, Wizards of the Coast (the company that now owns and produces D&D), seems unwilling to decouple the racist connection between “race” and ability that is baked into the game’s core. As their current webpage on character races expounds:

Your choice of character race provides you with a basic set of advantages and special abilities. If you’re a fighter, are you a stubborn dwarf monster-slayer, a graceful elf blademaster, or a fierce dragonborn gladiator? If you’re a wizard, are you a brave human spell-for-hire or a devious tiefling conjurer? Your character race not only affects your ability scores and powers but also provides the first cues for building your character’s story.

There have been some improvements to D&D over the years. There have been admirable efforts to include people of color in their products’ artwork. And some of their products occasionally add a parenthetical “(species)” to their chapters on character races. But they have not torn the beating heart of racism from their game. And that is a huge problem, since it tells those children and adults who play it that racial difference equals differences in ability, and even morality. And D&D’s outsized influence has caused this numerical racism to be recapitulated in subsequent games, especially video games like the Dragon Age and The Elder Scrolls series.

The “Select a Race” screen in Dragon Age: Inquisition.

And never is D&D’s influence on the fantasy landscape more problematic than in the embarrassing, controversial case of the dark elves.

Drizzt Do’Urden: You are a Credit to Your Race

As Dungeons and Dragons grew and developed, it built upon the template laid down by Tolkien. One of D&D’s contributions to the canon of the fantasy genre is dark elves, or as they are called in D&D fiction: drow. The basic template—of black, underground elves—was established by a scant mention in the great 13th-century compendium of Norse mythology, the Prose Edda (which calls them svartálfar). But everything beyond this was determined by the creators of D&D.

The dark elves they invented are, in essence, bizarro-world elves. While other elves live in the forests, they live in a blighted world underground. While other elves live according to typical royal structures, dark elves are explicitly matriarchal and have a social structure modelled off of organized crime families. While other elves live in harmony with nature and are inherently good, dark elves are sadistic, worship spiders, and are inherently evil. And while other elves are fair-skinned, dark elves are black.

Tina Turner as Auntie Entity in Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome.

This cover art for one of the first AD&D products to feature the drow, “Queen of the Spiders” (above), seems modeled, as much as anything, from Tina Turner’s character Aunty Entity in Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome. Later illustrators of D&D products, perhaps more aware of the optics, have made them a purple-black or dusky-grey-black. But let’s be real. They have black skin. If you can’t see the problems with this, I can’t help you.

Making “races” like orcs and dark elves inherently evil does two things. First, it presents a world in which good and evil are so simplistic that an entire culture, race, or species can be inherently evil. If someone were to transpose that way of thinking onto cultures or races today, it could lead to the worst sort of prejudice.

Second, this smacks of the worst sort of colonial racisms, which sought to make American Indians, Africans, and other people of color not just seem less human, but inherently immoral. Making “evil races” (like the orcs and uruk-hai, as described in The Lord of the Rings, and dark elves, in D&D) dark-skinned creates fantasy worlds that are structured along racist lines—and mimicking those that plague us in the real world. It would be foolish to explain that away as mere coincidence. Whether the creators did it intentionally or not, their worlds are loaded with the idea at the core of white-supremacy: that having dark skin is bad.

Original cover art, by Larry Elmore, for The Crystal Shard by R. A. Salvatore. Drizzt Do’Urden is in the center.

Complicating this, in 1988 R. A. Salvatore wrote The Crystal Shard, a book set in the D&D “Forgotten Realms” universe. In this book, the author created an iconic fantasy character: Drizzt Do’Urden. Despite beginning as a secondary character, Drizzt became so popular that he has, to date, appeared in thirty more books by Salvatore. All of these books have made the New York Times Best Seller list. I read and re-read quite a few of them growing up.

Drizzt is a dark elf. But, as you may have surmised (since he is the protagonist in these books), he is not your typical dark elf. Unlike other dark elves, he is an unflinchingly good person: he has a conscience and adheres to a strict code of honor. Both of these traits lead him to flee his homeland and live among the people above ground. And as you might expect, some of his most dogged adversaries are the very dark elves that he escaped.

The character is popular for many of the reasons that similar characters are. He is a bit rogueish. He is unlike the rest of his family. He is sensitive, intelligent, and eloquent. He is a misunderstood outsider. But overall, he is a vastly badass and unerringly good hero. His sensitivity is on full display in a passage from Sea of Swords:

We are all dying, every moment that passes of every day. That is the inescapable truth of this existence. It is a truth that can paralyze us with fear, or one that can energize us with impatience, with the desire to explore and experience, with the hope- nay, the iron-will!- to find a memory in every action. To be alive, under sunshine, or starlight, in weather fair or stormy. To dance with every step, be they through gardens of flowers or through deep snows.

Some of Salvatore’s novels attempt to grapple with racism—particularly the racism leveled against Drizzt by other above-ground characters. For example, in one passage from The Crystal Shard one of the protagonists goes on a racist rant when it is proposed that Drizzt take him on as a student:

Wulfgar’s eyes widened in horror and disgust. “A dark elf!” he cried incredulously. “Sorcerous dog!” He turned on Bruenor as though he had been betrayed. “Surely you cannot ask this of me! I have no need nor desire to learn the magical deceits of his decrepit race!”

Eventually Wulfgar overcomes his racism, and comes to be counted among Drizzt’s closest friends. That said, he lives in a world where racism against drow is not really irrational—it is logical, if a bit narrow-minded. In another passage, one character chastises another for his racism against Drizzt:

You chastise him for the crimes of his race, yet have none of you ever considered that Drizzt Do’Urden walks among us because he has rejected the ways of his people?

Cover art, by Todd Lockwood, for The Orc King by R.A. Salvatore. Note how Drizzt’s skin hue has shifted slightly.

The fabric of the world is the problem. That even the egalitarian characters use language like “crimes of his race” shows the racism built into the fabric of this world.

As the passages above illustrate, this places Drizzt squarely into the racist popular-culture trope “You are a credit to your race” where people are seen to supersede the inherent flaws of their race.

All that having been said, R.A. Salvatore deserves credit for, over the course of his career, improving his ideas about race. He has come to recognize the racism built into the fantasy genre, and many of his more-recent books complicate the depictions of race in his world. In a 2014 interview, Salvatore discusses his struggles in grappling with the racism at the core of Tolkien/D&D-based fantasy when writing one of his short stories:

One of the things that intrigues me about fantasy is that it is racist […] You’re not talking about humans, so I guess you can get away with it. Orcs are supposed to be the embodiment of evil in fantasy. It started many years ago when I wrote the short story “Dark Mirror,” where Drizzt runs into a goblin. He finds out the goblin is an escaped slave. The goblin seems like a great guy, and Drizzt wants to believe that, because he isn’t what people expect from a dark elf.

And in another, he discusses how racism in fantasy mirrors the dehumanization of war:

in fantasy, you embody evil in a race, and then you disembody it with your sword, and that’s also what mankind has done through the centuries, right? By dehumanizing the enemy so you don’t feel bad about killing them. But that’s just blatantly immoral when you get right down to it, and yet I love fantasy. So that’s the paradox I had to deal with.

Some fantasy fans who are people of color have, understandably, bristled at the dark elves—and especially at cosplayers dressing in blackface, as aptly skewered on Community when Senor Chang cosplays as a drow:

A thoughtful 2014 blog post by the “Black Role-Players Organization” further explains the racial problematics with the drow specifically:

what you guys see is cool is constantly being portrayed with in the setting as an evil and despicable race. The Drow (no matter the setting) are prejudged to be evil due to the color of their skin. Even Drizzt has to deal with people distrusting him because of the actions of his people. But what you guys see as cool, we interpret as something that plays to close to what we as people of color have to live through.

On the other hand, Drizzt has been embraced by some people of color, who saw him as a rare example of a heroic person of color in fantasy literature. As Salvatore noted:

I’ve received many letters from people on this issue over the decades. Many from people of color or other minorities, and they’ve always said the same thing: “Thank you.”

As one Canadian fan of Drizzt noted in an online forum:

Those books were a way for me to cope with racism. I picked up the Icewind Dale trilogy when I was 11 or 12. I had just moved from the North West Territories to a place in Southern Ontario. I had to deal with a lot of bigotry up north and I had to deal with some more where I moved. This became even worse after 9/11. Funny enough, Drizzt helped me not hate myself for my skin colour.

Perhaps it is too simple to think of Salvatore’s novels as simply good or bad. One could see why some people of color would find the dark elves he wrote offensive. At the same time, others find strength in the story of an unflappable hero of color. It seems at the very least that Salvatore can be credited with inheriting a fundamentally flawed fantasy world and leaving it a more complex and less-racist place than he found it.

New Fantasies, New Worlds

Cover art for Who Fears Death by Nnedi Okorafor.

Ultimately no one owns the fantasy genre. Not J.R.R. Tolkien, not Gary Gygax, not Wizards of the Coast, not R.A. Salvatore. And wonderfully, contemporary fantasy authors have worked to undo the racist structures built into the foundations of the genre, not by changing them from within (as Salvatore has attempted), but by simply creating new fantasy worlds without the racist baggage of the past. The genre is changing, and for the better. HBO recently optioned an adaptation of Nnedi Okorafor’s excellent book Who Fears Death. N.K. Jemisin’s The Fifth Season is being turned into a TV series at TNT.

So if you create fantasy worlds, join in! Insist that people of color and non-European cultures are a vibrant and equal part of your invented world. If you want to keep the elf-dwarf-human-hobbit-orc lineup that Tolkien established, understand what it means to do so. Perhaps you could even use the paradigm to critique or deconstruct the racist structures of previous fantasy works. Whatever you do, you can work to subvert and dismantle the racist structures that are a deep part of the genre.

If you are a consumer, if you read fantasy literature or watch fantasy films and TV shows, choose worlds that are not built on the racist foundations of the past. Or if you do want to read them, at least do so with eyes open, understanding the problems inherent in the genre. Thankfully, there are more and more forward-looking fantasies to choose from every year that don’t play into the usual racist tropes. You can find some roundups of them here, here, and here—and please recommend your favorites in the comments section below!

As Drizzt Do’Urden would tell you: we are more than our origins. Just because this genre that we love has roots in racist thought does not mean that we are not allowed to enjoy it. But when we do, we should acknowledge its problems and work to fix them. We must ensure that the fantasies of the present and the future reflect our values, share our understanding of the world, and break truly new ground.


Correction: This article first indicated that Unearthed Arcana is a book in fifth edition Dungeons and Dragons. While it was a book for first and third-edition Dungeons and Dragons, that name is currently used for a blog section of the Dungeons and Dragons website. 


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Race, Racism, and the Middle Ages

Race in A Song of Ice and Fire: Medievalism Posing as Authenticity

game-of-thrones-illustrated-hed

Part XXXV in our ongoing series on Race, Racism and the Middle Ages, by Shiloh Carroll. You can find the rest of the special series here

Shiloh’s upcoming book, Medievalism in A Song of Ice and Fire and Game of  Thrones, is available for preorder now


The idea of the Middle Ages as a uniform white culture is probably one of the most entrenched misconceptions about the medieval period. This is especially true when it comes to fantasy literature.

Western medievalist fantasy literature relies heavily on European history and mythological traditions. When people of color do appear in classic fantasy texts, they are very often portrayed as an “Other.” They are The Enemy, or at least a group against which the reader is expected to compare the dominant, white culture.

Detail of a map of Middle Earth, annotated by J.R.R. Tolkien. Note Haradwaith in the south and Khand in the east. Bodleian, MS. Tolkien Drawings 132.

Helen Young, scholar of fantasy interpretations of the Middle Ages and author of Race and Popular Fantasy Literature, offers several examples of this in our most popular fantasy literature. She has pointed out that fantasy is built on a foundation of racist stereotyping in J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings and Robert E. Howard’s Conan the Barbarian. While neither of these are technically medievalist, being intended more as prehistoric fantastic histories than medieval fantasies, they have still had a profound influence on the way medievalist fantasy approaches race. For example, in The Lord of the Rings, you need look no further than to Tolkien’s treatment of Orcs, Uruk-hai, and Haradrim, all of whom are evil, and the only ones described as having dark skin. There was also a very clear geographical division between his “white” elves, humans, dwarves, and hobbits and the dark, evil lands of Orcs (Mordor) and Haradrim (Harad) in the south.

Illustration of the Calormenes by Pauline Baynes in The Horse and His Boy by C.S. Lewis.

C.S. Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia also does this. Lewis’ Calormenes, a pseduo-Middle Eastern culture, are the villains in The Horse and His Boy and The Last Battle.

These authors may not have intended for their work to be racist. If they were alive, they might be horrified at these allegations. But whether these authors intended for their work to be racist doesn’t really matter. The works of these authors began a tradition that has profoundly (though, one hopes, not irrevocably) shaped how race is treated in fantasy up to the present day. This has kept our fantasy literature’s treatment of race rooted in thinking from the 1930s, 40s, and 50s.

Tolkien’s portrayal of the “pseudo-medieval” world of Middle Earth strongly influenced subsequent fantasy literature. By proxy, this has had a significant impact on the broader public understanding of the Middle Ages. This is the beginning of what Young, in her studies of fantasy fandoms, has described as a “feedback loop.” In this feedback loop, readers are exposed to a medievalist version of the Middle Ages through fantasy. They then come to believe that this medievalist version is an “accurate” portrayal of the Middle Ages. Having done that, people then insist on this version of the Middle Ages in future literature because it is “accurate.” Round and round it goes. Eventually, all fantasy versions of the Middle Ages look more-or-less the same.

And few fantasy books are more a product of this self-reinforcing process than George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series.

A Song of White People and Fire

George R.R. Martin’s epic fantasy series A Song of Ice and Fire has been, more than nearly any other fantasy work in modern history, examined for its basis in real medieval history. Martin himself claimed that his novels are more-solidly based in history than any other fantasy work, even Tolkien. He told John Hodgeman in an interview:

I sort of had a problem with a lot of the fantasy I was reading, because it seemed to me that the middle ages or some version of the quasi middle ages was the preferred setting of a vast majority of the fantasy novels that I was reading by Tolkien imitators and other fantasists, yet they were getting it all wrong.

In a 1996 Publishers Weekly interview, Martin also said:

Tolkien had a great influence on me, but the other influence on A Song of Ice and Fire was historical fiction, which I don’t think is really true for a lot of the other fantasies that are coming out. Their historical background, the texture of their worlds, tends to be rather thin.

He frequently decries the “Tolkien-imitators” with their “Ren Faire Middle Ages,” because they include tendencies he sees as inaccurate: “peasants sassing princesses,” black-and-white morality, indestructible heroes, and an unwavering belief in, and adherence to, a code of chivalry.

Historical authenticity is the well he returns to time and again to explain issues in his construction of Westerosi culture. When fans have expressed disappointment that there aren’t more people of color in the books (or that those people of color—such as the Dornish—are cast as far whiter than they hoped in the show), he tries to explain it away. His explanation: in medieval England, France, and Scotland “there was the occasional person of color, but certainly not in any great numbers,” due to the difficulty of travel.

But Martin isn’t a very good medieval historian. While he has a clear fascination with history, his approach focuses on “juicy stuff”—big historical movements like the Hundred Years War and the Wars of the Roses—while avoiding “academic tomes about changing patterns of land use.” He readily admits, in interviews, to changing or “heightening” history to make it more interesting and fantastical. In other interviews, especially when challenged on the violence, rape, sexual assault, child marriage, and other disturbing elements in the novels, he falls back on their supposed historical authenticity.

He has a tendency to generalize, taking the culture of a specific place or time in the Middle Ages and using it as a marker for the entirety of the era. When he talks about history, he rarely gets more specific than “the Middle Ages” (he never says, for example, “the Tudor era”), and makes broad, general claims about the period, such as “It was very classist, dividing people into three classes. And they had strong ideas about the roles of women.” Therefore, while his arguments that travel and immigration were rare in the Middle Ages may be true of some places and times, it is not true (as this series has repeatedly shown) of all of the Middle Ages, either temporally or geographically.

Of course, Martin isn’t writing history, or even historical fiction. He isn’t required to be historically accurate. Fantasy is, by its nature, transformative and speculative. It allows us to create better worlds, to explore the lives of others, to strip away the banalities of everyday life and dive deep into our hopes, fears, dreams, psyches, pasts, and futures. Martin himself waxed poetic about the power of fantasy in Patti Parret’s The Faces of Fantasy, saying:

We read fantasy to find the colors again, I think. To taste strong spices and hear the song the sirens sang. There is something old and true in fantasy that speaks to something deep within us, to the child who dreamt that one day he would hunt the forests of the night, and feast beneath the hollow hills, and find a love to last forever somewhere south of Oz and north of Shangri-La.

In writing A Song of Ice and Fire, Martin did not choose to be bound to the Wars of the Roses; he chose to write a medievalist fantasy world. And his world doesn’t include a lot of mixing of races. That is the problem.

This has been disappointing for his fans, many of whom are people of color who would like to see themselves reflected in his world. And moreover, these fantasy fans of color would love to see more good characters of color in works as major and influential as A Song of Ice and Fire. But not including them is Martin’s prerogative.

 The problem truly arises when his fans believe (with his encouragement) that his neomedieval world is authentically medieval and use that belief to shape their idea of history rather than the other way around.

The problem is the feedback loop. Martin argues that a primarily white Middle Ages is historically accurate. This leads some of his readers to believe that Westeros is an accurate depiction of the Middle Ages (because Martin says it is). Thus, anything Martin writes is an accurate depiction of the Middle Ages. This is, of course, all based on what the reader “feels” the Middle Ages was like, and much of this “feeling” comes from reading medievalist fantasy. Of course, many readers push back against this, arguing for a more nuanced view of the Middle Ages, or (as I have here) that medievalist fantasy is not historical fiction. But reading critically and against the text can be very difficult, and often the loudest voices in the room are from those who refuse to interrogate their preconceived notions.

Game of White People

Dothraki in Westeros. Artist: Michał Sztuka. See more of his work at: https://pusiaty.deviantart.com/

In this way, of course, Martin’s issues with race are quite different from Tolkien’s. Tolkien, as I mentioned in the beginning of this article, runs into trouble with his simple white skin/black skin, good/evil dichotomy. Martin’s work suffers from somewhat-subtler issues, namely a lack of representation, and when he does choose to include people of color, he also includes some pretty ugly stereotypes about them.

These stereotypes are most evident in Daenerys Targaryen’s storyline. Her story begins with her wedding to a Dothraki horse lord—which, without “at least three deaths,” she is told, “would be a dull affair.” She winds up becoming a “white savior” for the enslaved peoples of Slavers Bay. Martin reacted to one question about the stereotypical portrayal of the Dothraki by arguing that he doesn’t have any Dothraki point-of-view characters, indicating that the Dothraki might look very different from the inside. But he also doesn’t express any intention of adding a Dothraki point-of-view character, or, presumably, a Meereenese one or Astapori one.

Not until A Feast for Crows, the fourth book in the series, do we get any person of color at all as a point-of-view character (Arianne Martell), though she is still technically Westerosi, being from Dorne. In fact, only one point-of-view character (Melisandre) is from outside Westeros, and not only does she have only one chapter so far, she’s white.

When it comes to portraying Martin’s fantasy world in the HBO TV series, the problems get even worse. When John Boyega (star of, among other things, the latest Star Wars films) mentioned how overwhelmingly white the cast of Game of Thrones is (along with The Lord of the Rings, and Star Wars), the comments section on fan site Winter is Coming descended into hostile, often nakedly racist, remarks.

They argued that the Middle Ages wasn’t diverse. They argued that attempting to “force” diversity is “politically correct nonsense” that panders to “snowflakes.” And they even accused Boyega of being a racist for bringing up this problem at all. In their minds, even discussing racial inequality is racist. By their warped logic, the only way not to be racist is to pretend race does not exist.

A similar issue occurred at another Game of Thrones fan-community website: Watchers on the Wall. When Lupita Nyong’o mentioned—in passing—that she’d like to cameo on Game of Thrones, one of the contributors wrote a thoughtful piece discussing the issues of representation in the show. These attitudes raised the question of how much of a viewer’s expectation for a white Westeros comes from a preconceived notion of a “white Middle Ages,” and how much is resistance to so-called “political correctness”—namely when people of color ask for a seat at the table. The comments section, while not as horrid as the Winter is Coming one, again leaned heavily on the “historical accuracy,” artistic freedom, and “not everything needs to be about race” arguments to dismiss said contributor’s concerns.

Racist Fantasies vs. Inclusive Histories

Westeros, of course, is a fantasy world. Like Tolkien’s Middle Earth, you can argue that it does not owe anything to any real, historical period on Earth. But it is the continuous insistence, on the part of Martin and many fans, that Westeros is a relatively accurate representation of the Middle Ages that makes this discussion necessary. You can’t have it both ways.

Many people get their ideas of what the Middle Ages were like from fantasy works like A Song of Ice and Fire. As such, it is important for medievalists to point out that the kind of historical accuracy that Martin strives for is ultimately impossible; works like Game of Thrones are, fundamentally, fantasies. This is especially true now, with the renewed attempt by white supremacists to co-opt the Middle Ages. The myth of a “whites-only Middle Ages” that is perpetuated through the fantasy genre in general (and through massively popular shows like Game of Thrones in particular), is indeed a myth. The past is much more complicated, and inclusive, than many give it credit for.


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Race, Racism, and the Middle Ages

The Birth of a National Disgrace: Medievalism and the KKK

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Part XXXIV in our ongoing series on Race, Racism and the Middle Ages, by Amy S. Kaufman. You can find the rest of the special series here


Medieval historians are deeply frustrated by white supremacist appropriation of the Middle Ages. In the face of an alarming rise in hate speech and violent acts that rely on medieval memes, medievalists have risen up to reclaim the past from racists in popular media, in their classrooms, and even in the academy.

But although the symbols embraced by the far right may seem medieval—from Ku Klux Klan titles like “Grand Dragon” to the pseudo-medieval shields carried by “alt-righters”—their version of the Middle Ages is often filtered through contemporary medievalism in film, television, fantasy fiction, and video games. Medievalism is different from an interest in medieval history: it’s the appropriation, and often revision, of the medieval past. Thus, scholars may be pushing back with facts, but medievalism’s practitioners are more likely to get their “history” from Game of Thrones or Lord of the Rings.

It’s easy to dismiss the random nature of white supremacist symbolism as ahistorical, lazy, or ignorant: after all they’re wearing polo shirts and carrying medieval heraldry in defense of Robert E. Lee and the First Amendment. (Wasn’t America supposed to be all about throwing off the royal European yoke?). But medievalism’s real currency is myth, not history. The men who shout “You will not replace us!” (and the anti-Semitic variant, “Jews will not replace us!”) brandish shields and medieval banners in American streets because medievalism has long soothed white male anxieties about their place in the world.

Today’s American far right is, in fact, carrying on a long historical tradition by embracing medievalism, just not the one that they think. Instead of replicating the Middle Ages, they’re replicating the medievalism of the Knights of the Ku Klux Klan.

Chivalric Fantasies

A black and white engraving of a group of men in robes with tall hoods surround another man in a suit on his knees.
A 1906 engraving of Klan costumes after an 1870 photograph. Held in the New York Public Library collections. Click for original.

We often imagine that racial progress in America has been linear, improving in an unbroken upward trajectory ever since Emancipation. But that simply isn’t true. The KKK itself was founded to roll back racial progress, and for many years, it was disturbingly effective.

The first incarnation of the Klan formed just after the Civil War, during the Reconstruction period in which Congress attempted to give former slaves civil rights. In fact, when the original Ku Klux Klan first donned their hoods, over 2000 black men held political office. Women’s rights groups also became a formidable force in the nineteenth century, as women campaigned for suffrage and equality. Suddenly, white men who believed they had been born atop a hierarchical ladder of race and gender found themselves competing with black men in the workplace and politics, and having their authority challenged at home.

For such men, the myth of a white, patriarchal Middle Ages became a fantasy and a refuge. Southern men nursed on the chivalric tales of Sir Walter Scott and William Morris yearned to imagine themselves as knights and heroes. They believed their medieval “heritage” had been stolen from them by those agitating for civil rights and women’s rights, and they were determined to get their power back.

The Klan deployed violent terrorism, political maneuvering, and a cloak of “heroic” medievalism in its attempt to restore white supremacy to the South. Calling themselves “The Invisible Empire,” they considered themselves knights but dressed as ghosts to terrorize black citizens. Congress eventually passed laws to limit the Klan’s violence, and infighting led to disorganization, both of which contributed to the first Klan’s decline. But as the Southern Poverty Law Center explains,

The laws probably dampened the enthusiasm for the Ku Klux Klan, but they can hardly be credited with destroying the hooded order. By the mid-1870s, white Southerners didn’t need the Klan as much as before because they had by that time retaken control of most Southern state governments.

As Reconstruction came to an end, civil rights were snatched away through successive waves of voter suppression, intimidation, poll taxes, and Jim Crow laws. The first Klan didn’t go underground so much as it went mainstream: when they succeeded at seizing power, there was no need to hide behind their hoods.

Illustration by Arthur I. Keller from the first edition of The Clansmen by Thomas Dixon, p. 326a.

Most people are more familiar with the Klan’s second incarnation, which formed in the same early-twentieth-century white backlash that gave rise to America’s Confederate statues and monuments. Like the statues, the second Klan sprang into being based on myth rather than history: primarily, nostalgia for the first KKK “knights,” which, according to southern legend, had slain the twin dragons of racial equality and Reconstruction.

In 1905, novelist Thomas Dixon romanticized the terrorist actions of the first KKK as a story of “medieval” vengeance in his novel The Clansman. His book imagines Reconstruction as a kind of living hell for white people in which former slaves destroy the government, banks, and police force, driving the South into violent chaos. The last straw for the novel’s protagonist, Ben Cameron, is the rape of a young white woman by a freed slave.

Cameron, who will become the Klan’s fictional first Grand Dragon, uses the young woman’s rape and her resulting suicide to mobilize his fellow white men into creating an “Institution of Chivalry” inspired by their ancestors, the knights of “Old Scotland,” for the sole purpose of protecting white women’s virtue:

In a land of light and beauty and love our women are prisoners of danger and fear. While the heathen walks his native heath unharmed and unafraid, in this fair Christian Southland our sisters, wives, and daughters dare not stroll at twilight through the streets or step beyond the highway at noon.

Dixon medievalizes many aspects of the KKK, including the burning cross that would be a hallmark of white terrorism in the twentieth century. He calls it “The Fiery Cross of old Scotland’s hills.” His narrator also drones on about his heroes’ knightly appearances and their supposed ancestry as the descendants of medieval Scots:

The moon was now shining brightly, and its light shimmering on the silent horses and men with their tall spiked caps made a picture such as the world had not seen since the Knights of the Middle Ages rode on their Holy Crusades.

For Dixon, his heroes’ made-up medieval birthright validates their superiority and right to rule. His Ku Klux Klan launches a bloody campaign of violence, intimidation, and murder to restore white supremacy to the South. Not only does Dixon’s fantasy KKK destroy civil rights, but it also wipes out that pesky feminist movement as the women in the novel learn they must submit to white Southern men for their own protection.

Homegrown American Terrorism

Theatrical poster advertising The Birth of a Nation.

Dixon’s fantasy about the founding of the KKK might have faded into obscurity if it hadn’t been for D.W. Griffith, who turned The Clansman into a film that would shake the United States to its core: The Birth of a Nation. Thanks to Griffith’s influential connections—including President Woodrow Wilson, who had been friends with Dixon in college and screened The Birth of a Nation at the White House—Dixon’s dream of white masculinity run rampant went mainstream. And countless black American lives were sacrificed to his racist nostalgia.

The Birth of a Nation helped inspire the second Ku Klux Klan, which became both far more popular and more destructive than the first Klan. The second Klan committed decades of terrorism against black citizens. And by 1925, millions of Americans had joined the KKK.

The same nostalgic medievalism that drove Dixon’s novel also fueled the Klan’s recruiting power, from its regalia and heraldry to its rhetoric of white knighthood and faux chivalry.

For example, in 1921, the Charlottesville Klan advertised (right) for members by asking potential “knights”: “Can you take a MAN’S OATH?” An unpleasant preview of today’s white supremacist talking points, the ad calls for “law and order” and promises “protection for the good and needy, especially for women,” while announcing that the KKK is specifically seeking “native-born white Americans” who believe in “Christian religion,” “Free Speech,” “Liberty,” and “White Supremacy.”

The myth of white female frailty and white male chivalry not only obscured rampant existing white violence against black women, but neomedieval fantasies about protecting white female bodies also led to a new epidemic of violence against black Americans. Whites with delusions of heroism formed lynch mobs in Omaha, Nebraska, massacred families in Rosewood, Florida, and decimated an entire black business district in Tulsa, among many, many other tragedies. And this twisted “chivalric” white male anxiety over white female bodies is far from ancient history: in 2015, Dylann Roof declared, “You rape our women and you’re taking over our country. You have to go,” just before he murdered the black Americans who had welcomed him into their Wednesday night Bible study.

A Medievalism of Her Own

Although the second KKK relied on the myth that they were “protecting” white women to motivate its members, plenty of white women were complicit in Klan violence. The “Women of the Ku Klux Klan,” which formed just after white women won suffrage, had, at one point, over half a million members. Groups like the United Daughters of the Confederacy supported the Klan and sponsored the very Confederate monuments we’re still fighting about today. Their publication, The Southern Magazine, published screeds that called the Ku Klux Klan “the bravest and best men of the South” and tried to justify Klan violence as the protection of white womanhood:

The South was in the clutches of a veritable “Black Death,” for every morn, it seemed, brought news of another outrage upon white womanhood… What would you have done, men of the North? Would you have arisen, in spite of laws, in spite of Federal troops, in spite of impending imprisonment and possible death, in defense of a mother, a sister, a wife or a sweetheart? There can be but one answer, for manhood still lives, the blood is red, and the hearts are pure.

Racist white ladies also enjoyed imagining themselves as medieval warrior-women. The WKKK adopted Klan names and regalia for their own rituals and drew on medieval women like Joan of Arc for inspiration. In fact, the tradition continues to this day: as a recent exposé by Seward Darby reveals, the women of today’s new “alt-right” movement imagine themselves as “lionesses and shield maidens and Valkyries” who can “inspire men to fight political battles for the future of white civilization.”

FOAK This

Kyle Chapman (center), founder of the self-described “Fraternal Order of Alt-Knights” assaults a protester in Berkeley, CA. Chapman was later charged with five felonies. This image has become a meme used by the so-called “alt-Right” online.

Today, the Southern Poverty Law Center is tracking American hate groups with names like “Wolves of Vinland,” “Rebel Brigade Knights of the True Invisible Empire,” and “The Holy Nation of Odin” alongside the unfortunately enduring “Loyal White Knights of the Ku Klux Klan.” The Proud Boys, one of the alt-right groups that invaded the liberal bastion of Berkeley, California this spring, even formed its own pseudo-medieval militia: they call it “The Fraternal Order of Alt Knights” (FOAK).

No one who studies the history of medievalism will be surprised that an oversimplified, Eurocentric, patriarchal Middle Ages comforts men who are terrified of being “replaced.” In their fantasy world, they can pretend to be brothers, knights, and heroes serving a higher purpose. But their real battle is against reality.

The white supremacists who pretend to be knights crusading in defense of American history get both medieval history and American history wrong for a reason: because facing the truth means admitting that they are not different or special, not the chosen descendants of a past full of heroism and glory. It means facing the fact that they’re not carrying on noble, chivalric traditions, but are instead spreading the murderous revisionist history of monsters.

That might be a hard truth for them to swallow, but it’s one the rest of us have had to suffer under for far too long.

Further Reading

Susan Aronstein, Hollywood Knights: Arthurian Cinema and the Politics of Nostalgia, Palgrave, 2005.

Kelly J. Baker, The Gospel According to the Klan: The KKK’s Appeal to Protestant America, 1915-1930, University Press of Kansas, 2011.

Tison Pugh, Queer Chivalry: The Myth of White Masculinity in Southern Literature, University of Virginia Press, 2013.


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Race, Racism, and the Middle Ages

The View from the Road: Were Medieval People Racist? III

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Part XXXIII in our ongoing series on Race, Racism and the Middle Ages, by James Hill. You can find the rest of the special series here


The medieval European understanding of “race” was quite complicated. It certainly was not the same as the modern one. As we have explored previously, “race” is a complicated social construct that invovles far more than the colour of a person’s skin. That being said, skin colour has been one of the central components of the modern idea of racial difference. As Director of the Center for Race and Gender at Berkeley Evelyn Nakano Gleen wrote in her book Shades of Difference, Why Skin Color Matters, despite race and colour (and thus racism and what she terms “colorism” being distinct and different,

at the symbolic level, the meanings of skin color and race are inextricably linked.

So, in order to understand how medieval people understood the concept of race, it can be quite useful to see how they described people of color, and whether this link between colour and race existed then.

We have also explored some of the facets of the European understanding of the wider world and its people in previous articles in this series: skin colour was sometimes thought of as a manifestation of the soul in some texts; some authors certainly thought of skin color as mutable and able to change based on circumstance. Much of this thinking about race stems from the romance literature and theology of Northern Europe. But that is not where this story ends: there is a branch of medieval writing which deserves a greater exploration—particularly when considering what Europeans in the Middle Ages understood about “race”: the travelogue.

One of the biggest misconceptions about medieval Europe is that it was a static place, that most people would never leave their hometown or village. The reality is, as per usual, more complicated.

If someone wasn’t a serf bound to the land, travel was quite common. Even if you were a serf, movement was not unheard of. And merchants, churchmen, craftsmen, nobles, and students were all particularly mobile, and have left us quite a lot of writings documenting their journeys. Some are more famous than others. Some left little to mark their passing other than Islamic coins in Anglo-Saxon England, or Old Norse runes carved into the Hagia Sophia. But others have become household names; people like Marco Polo have left a legacy that survives to this day. Those who ventured out of Europe and experienced the rest of the world can give us a certain insight into how they understood other people, and how they reported that back to Europe.

John of Plano Carpini and William Rubruck: Only Skin Deep

The route of Guillaume de Rubrouck

One of the pieces of “evidence” used to support the inaccurate assumption that Europe was racially homogenous in the Middle Ages is that skin colour doesn’t crop up often in European medieval texts.

The problem with this line of thinking is that Europeans who travelled outside of Europe—amongst people who looked quite different from them, also did not talk about skin colour much. Nor did they talk much about any of the other physical characteristics that modern people point to to describe racial difference: facial features or hair colour, texture, or style. During the renaissance, Europeans obsessed on these details when depicting the ‘scary’ or ‘strange’ world they explored, conquered, and enslaved. Yet for medieval European writers, this does not appear to have been the case.

Audience de Möngke.jpeg
An audience with Möngke Khan. BNdF, Supplément persan 206, fol. 101.

Take, for example, John of Plano Carpini and William Rubruck. Both were friars, and both travelled—separately—over the north edge of the Black Sea, through Persia, and along the Asian interior. They even reached as far as Karakorum, in Mongolia, in the 1250s. Along the way both describe meeting many people, both those local to the regions they travelled through, and other travellers from all over Eurasia.

Both completely omit any mention of skin colour.

Benedict the Pole, who wrote a slightly more embroidered version of John of Plano Carpini’s journey, also failed to mention any variation in skin tones, even amongst the ambassadors of China and India (who John and William encountered several times). Both John and William also visited the courts of several lesser khans as well as the Great Khan in Karakorum. These courts were populated with men and women from all over the Asian continent. But never a mention of what we, today, would think of as physical signifiers of race.

This omission isn’t from a lack of physical descriptions of people, either. William in particular described people in great detail. He just didn’t mention any differences in skin or obvious features that would visually distinguish men from different parts of the world (the only exception being a single mention that the men of China had smaller eyes than he did). For example, he described Khan Batü, a fearsome Mongol warlord who conquered great swathes of the West Asian steppe, and devastated much of Eastern Europe, as ‘roughly the height of his lord John de Beaumont, and his face was covered in red spots at that time.’

Similarly, Möngke, the Great Khan—probably the most powerful man in the world at that time—was described as:

seated on a couch, and was dressed in a skin spotted and glossy, like a seal’s skin. He is a little man, of medium height, aged forty-five years, and a young wife sat beside him.

The steppe peoples of central Asia were also described, at several points, in great depth. He details the furs and clothes they wore, their riding habits, the layouts of their yurts, their hospitality customs, and their religious practices. Conspicuously absent is a physical description that sets them apart from anyone in Europe.

Marco Polo and Race

People burning a shrouded corpse outside ‘Cyanglu’ (Chengdu, China), in a 14th century copy of Marco Polo’s “Li Livres du Graunt Caam”. MS. Bodl. 264, part III Marco Polo. 161C, 27.

Marco Polo spent about 25 years living outside of Europe. According to his autobiography, he travelled all over Asia, especially in China and India. Polo describes several hundred different kingdoms, tribes, and regions.

He mentions the skin colour of the people living there exactly 10 times.

Almost all of these mentions were in his travels in or near India. In one example, after having described the city of Kayal, the royal family, the city’s cultural practices, and the religious habits of the people, Marco describes a judicial trial-by-combat. It could be group combat, but if

the combat was man to man they will both be naked, just as they are normally, and each will have a knife. They are very skilled at defending themselves with these knives, for they are adept at paying a blow with them as well as attacking their opponents. This, then, is the procedure. As you may have gathered, they are a dark-skinned people. So one of them will draw a white circle wherever he chooses on the other’s body, saying to him “Know that I will strike you in this circle and nowhere else; defend yourself as best you can.” And the other will do the same to him.

The travel route of Marco Polo. Click to enlarge.

In this description, the mention about the colour of the combatant’s skin appears to exist solely to justify the colour of the circle drawn on them, rather than for any other purpose. In all, out of a 342-page translation, Marco off-handedly mentions the skin colour of people only ten times. That is a lot of people he did not do so for.

These mentions of skin colour don’t appear to be generalisations the reader is supposed to make about the other places nearby. All ten of these mentions are specific to that place and carry no suggestion that they apply to other places; the next place description sometimes also mentions skin colour, but often it does not.

Furthermore, they do not correlate skin colour to any moral or personal traits. One city in India where the population was described as ‘black’ is described as prosperous and civilised. Another tribe labelled ‘black’ was said to be wicked and deceitful. The only South-East Asian kingdom where the people were described as ‘brown’ were noted as ‘exceptionally beautiful and handsome’. The people of Japan are described as ‘white’, and ‘very polite’. But the vast majority of the time, there is simply no mention of skin colour.

John Mandeville’s Fantasies of Race

Portrait of “John Mandeville”. NYPL, Spencer Collection, Ms. 037.

Perhaps the European writer most interested in skin colour was also the most fanciful (and least trustworthy) of these authors: John Mandeville. John Mandeville wrote his Travels in the 1350s, detailing wild adventures around the world. But it is generally accepted by scholars that John never went anywhere, and his account of the globe is based almost entirely on other sources. ‘John’ may not have even technically existed; we have no record of anyone of that name aside from his travelogue, and many scholars believe that “John Mandeville” was a pen name, or a fictional travelling character, like Lemuel Gulliver, Phileas Fogg, or Dora.

“John” (whoever he was) was more interested in the skin colour of people than other writers, but even he did not mention it very much. And importantly, he did not mention it consistently, or ascribe character traits to it.

When he did talk about skin, much like Marco Polo, it did not correspond to any particular physical or intellectual trait, and he does not see it as lesser, or an indication of evil. One problematic thing that can be said is that he seems to assume that dark skin was less attractive than white skin.

Marco also seems to bear this prejudice (though not consistently—many of the people for whom he omitted a description of their skin colour he describes as beautiful, even if they would have had dark skin, and even some of the dark-skinned people he describes were praised for their beauty). But he does make a few cringeworthy comments about beauty and dark skin. For example, Marco says the people of Kashmir were ‘dark and slender, and the women are very beautiful, as dark women go.’

Mandeville makes it worse. For example, he describes the women of Chaldia (in Arabia), as ‘swarthy and ugly.’ Mandeville makes a number of other plenty of disparaging remarks on the appearance of foreign people. But it’s comparatively rare that these are tied to what we would consider racial features. For example, he suggests that the testicles of the men of India dangled so low (due to the heat, of course) that they had to be bound with tape to ensure their survival. Sweaty balls may be a curse, but they don’t seem to be tied to race in this case.

Overall, John’s book hints that Europeans’—or at least his—impressions of other skin colours weren’t particularly positive. But it also seems clear that it wasn’t important enough to draw regular attention to. These examples are very much the exception, not the rule, and the vast majority of the time physical descriptions carry no racial markings at all, or just aren’t even there.

 Race for the Medieval Traveller

So, in summary, the travellers out of Europe in the Middle Ages were—by comparison with modern people—surprisingly disinterested in the skin colour of most of the people they met. When they do refer to it, it is largely as a curiosity of appearance, rather than carrying any specific meanings, or placed within a racial framework similar to those present in today’s society. People described as ‘black’, ‘brown’, or ‘white’ seem to be described with about as many positive and as many negative traits as anyone else. ‘Black’ is not pejorative here; there was no link between skin colour and wickedness. Many of the ‘black’ people of Africa they were describing were Christian; the descriptions of their bodies are were not substantially different to any other ‘black’ people described in India or Africa.

The way their non-physical characteristics were described is very different indeed. But these had little to do with skin colour or other physical features, and much more to do with something medieval Europeans were obsessed with: their faith.

That’s a topic for another article. But it’s important to stress that medieval Europeans were quite able to demonstrate a wide range of prejudices. And it’s also important not to impose later-European ideas of race on the Middle Ages too much. For the authors here, who were some of the Europeans who had the most contact with other races, the physical markers of “race” were not very important. They barely get a mention. And when they do mention these physical features, it has no particular associations. And it particularly is not connected with worth in a moralizing way as it was centuries later, and, for many, remains so to this day.


Editor’s note: This article has been slightly revised from its original form. Originally it seemed to imply that skin colour was equated with race; that is neither true nor was it the intent of the author. The article has been revised to better reflect some of the complexities around this idea.


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Race, Racism, and the Middle Ages

The Arc of Jewish Life in the Middle Ages

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Part XXXII in our ongoing series on Race, Racism and the Middle Ages, by Robert Chazan. You can find the rest of the special series here

If you are interested in learning more, Prof. Chazan expands on these ideas in his 2010 book Reassessing Jewish Life in Medieval Europe.


The term “medieval,” when used in contemporary parlance, tends to be synonymous with “cruel and barbarous,” conjuring up imagery of religiously grounded hatred, persecution, and bloodshed. The Jews of medieval Christian Europe are often referenced as one of the central reasons why the period is projected this way: they purportedly suffered at the hands of Christian warriors during the crusades, Christian churchmen during the inquisition, and Christian rulers who confiscated their property and expelled them.

This vision of the Middle Ages in general, and of Jewish fate in particular, is the legacy of Enlightenment thinkers’ backlash against medieval European civilization. Like all such backlashes, this one is a combination of truth and fiction, and an oversimplification of a complex subject. This is the case for generalizations about medieval civilization overall as well as about the Jews in particular. In reality, neither medieval society, nor Jewish life within it, was always dire; there were many times and places in which medieval Jewish people and Jewish culture thrived.

A Balanced View of Jewish Life in the Middle Ages

A more-balanced perspective on the treatment of Jews during the Middle Ages must begin with a simple, but important awareness: The medieval world was much more than the Roman Catholic sectors of Europe. This is true both geographically and religiously.

The medieval period is generally defined as extending from roughly 500 to roughly 1500 (although some scholars now extend the Middle Ages down to the end of the eighteenth century, the point in time when Enlightenment ideals of social equality began to be actualized in the creation of new-style polities and societies). Over this period of a millennium or more, Jewish societies extended from Mesopotamia westward across Europe and North Africa. During the central centuries of the Middle Ages (roughly the ninth through twelfth centuries), the largest expanse of this vast area was ruled in the name of Islam; other sectors were ruled in the name of Greek Christianity; the smallest and weakest segment of this vast territory was ruled in the name of Roman Catholicism.

The Enlightenment’s rejection of medieval civilization took place in the Roman Catholic sectors of Europe. As a result, it reflected the realities of that area during the closing centuries of the Middle Ages. By that time, these territories had overcome their earlier weakness, had achieved leadership in the world, and had come to harbor the largest portion of worldwide Jewry. But the concentration of Jews in Roman Catholic Europe toward the end of the Middle Ages (to which we shall return) was by no means the norm throughout the medieval period. Jewish population distribution during the earlier centuries of the Middle Ages was quite different.

A map illustrating the many major Jewish communities and rabbinical academies in the Islamic medieval Middle East.
Map of Jewish communities and Rabbinical academies in the high medieval Middle East. Source: Judaism: History, Belief and Practice, by Dan Cohn-Sherbok. https://www.amazon.com/Judaism-History-Practice-Dan-Cohn-Sherbok/dp/0415236614

During the central period of the Middle Ages (c. 800–c. 1100) the vast majority of worldwide Jewry was found in the Islamic lands, which stretched from Mesopotamia westward across the eastern, southern, and western shores of the Mediterranean. The dominant Jewish community at the time was in Mesopotamia—it had a large Jewish population, a flourishing Jewish economy, and a vigorous Jewish intellectual life. The Jewish community in Palestine—once the center of the Jewish world but by then considerably reduced—was also part of the realm of Islam. But newer Jewish communities also sprang up across the southern and western shores of the Mediterranean Sea.

Medieval Jewish Life under Muslim Rule

A segment of Exodus, written in Hebrew using Arabic script, from 10th-century Palestine or Egypt. This simply indicates a degree of multiculturalism and religious integration within the medieval Islamic world.
A segment of Exodus, written in Hebrew using Arabic script, from 10th-century Palestine or Egypt. This simply indicates a degree of multiculturalism and religious integration within the medieval Islamic world. MS. BL Oriental 2540, ff. 18v-19. http://www.bl.uk/catalogues/illuminatedmanuscripts/ILLUMIN.ASP?Size=mid&IllID=49577

If “medieval” implies cruel and barbarous, then Jewish circumstances under Islamic rule were by no means medieval. Let us begin on the doctrinal level. The Islamic perspective on humanity divided the peoples of the world broadly into three groups: the realm of idolatry (defined as completely erroneous); the peoples of the book (namely Jews and Christians), who were viewed as the bearers of genuine, albeit incomplete, divine truth; and Islam, the final and full revelation of divine truth.

This was hardly a message of human equality; Islam was understood as the full truth and Muslims as the privileged bearers of that truth. Nonetheless, other monotheists—which meant, essentially, Jews and Christians—were honored for their reception of a significant level of divine truth. This translated into an Islamic policy of full protection of these alternative monotheisms and monotheists. Jews and Christians as private individuals were not to be persecuted for their beliefs and practices. The corporate institutions of Jews and Christians were likewise to be respected and protected.

Beyond this Islamic theory, there were social realities that positively affected Jewish life throughout the realm of Islam. In the first place, Jews were long-time residents of these vast areas. Their presence long predated the emergence of Islam—and indeed the emergence of Christianity as well. These Jewish inhabitants of Islamic territories were viewed by others and by themselves as simply a given part of the terrain. Moreover, the population of the Islamic realm was highly diverse racially, ethnically, and religiously. The relatively small Jewish minority was thus in no sense conspicuous. Indeed, of the two respected monotheisms, the Jews tended to be favored by the Muslim ruling class. In many areas (for example Spain and Italy), Christians had been in power, but had lost their power to Muslim conquerors. Thus, the local Christians were inherently suspected of harboring anti-Muslim aspirations. Nowhere was this true for Jews, who were generally deemed cooperative and trustworthy.

Thus the Jews of the realm of Islam in its heyday (c. 800–c. 1100) were by no means regular victims of mob violence, religious persecution, or exploitation by the ruling class. The Jews of the Islamic sphere grew in numbers, flourished economically, interacted vigorously with their creative non-Jewish milieu, fashioned major institutions of Jewish intellectual and spiritual activity, and produced great intellectual and spiritual leaders and works. These were aspects of Jewish life and achievement unknown to the Enlightenment thinkers for whom the Middle Ages as they knew it—i.e. medieval Roman Catholic Europe—constituted a period of unrelieved religious bigotry and a set of Jewish experiences that exemplified, and indeed highlighted, such bigotry.

The Rise of Catholic Europe and its Jews

Toward the end of the first millennium, a process of slow change began, which would result in a massive redistribution of power throughout the medieval world. Roman Catholic Europe—until then the weakest of the sectors of the medieval world—slowly began to develop in ways that would eventually transform it into the most powerful area on the scene.

A map of medieval Jewish migration. Note in particular the movement from Baghdad across Northern Africa, to the Iberian and Italian Penninsulas and then into Northern and Eastern Europe. Source: Judaism: History, Belief and Practice, by Dan Cohn-Sherbok. https://www.amazon.com/Judaism-History-Practice-Dan-Cohn-Sherbok/dp/0415236614

This slow but steady change involved, above all else, the maturation of northern Europe from a relatively backward hinterland into the dynamic center of medieval life and civilization. Arable lands in the north were extended; populations grew; cities expanded; trade and commerce matured; governance became increasingly effective; security improved; the Church became better organized; cultural institutions and creativity flourished. By the end of the fifteenth century, Roman Catholic Europe led the way in the discovery and exploitation of far-off areas of the globe, which served to enhance even further its newfound dominance. This dominance lasted well into modernity.

These changes had enormous implications for Jewish history. Up through the end of the first millennium, the Jewish population of Roman Catholic Europe was miniscule. There were minor Jewish enclaves across southern Europe—in northern Spain, southern France, and Italy. But there were hardly any Jews across backward northern Europe.  But as Roman Catholic Europe surged, its Jewish population began to grow.

In part, this Jewish population growth was the result of accelerating Christian conquests of Muslim territories, especially on the Iberian peninsula. As the Christian re-conquest of Spain proceeded from north to south, towns with large Jewish communities were added to Christendom. The conquering Christian rulers were keen to keep these Jews in place rather than have them flee to other Muslim-controlled lands, in order to preserve the advanced level of their economies. Slowly, Jews from areas of the Mediterranean Basin that remained under Muslim control were attracted by the burgeoning opportunities in the southern areas of an expanded and vitalized Roman Catholic Europe, and so they migrated.

From the perspective of Jewish history, the truly monumental change involved northern Europe. An area that had never been home to a significant Jewish population slowly began to attract Jews from the southern lands. Only those Jews with the mobility provided by business and trade could make the move; these Jewish immigrants were strongly supported by the northern political authorities, who were anxious to bring to their domains new settlers that could introduce the more advanced economic techniques of the older and better-developed south.

A New Branch of the Jewish People

Nicholas of Lyra contrasts Jewish and Christian understandings of the table of the shewbread and the Menorah. Captions under the Menorah distinguish that drawn by “Rabbi Salomon” (Rashi) at left from that drawn “according to other learned men” at right. Nicholas of Lyra, Commentary on the Bible,
France, late 14th century, MS. Bodl. 251, 49v. http://bodleian.thejewishmuseum.org/?page_id=149

Slowly and fitfully, a new branch of the Jewish people was created across northern Europe. This new branch of world Jewry (now called Ashkenazi Jews)  eventually became the majority world Jewish population and created new patterns of Jewish material and spiritual life. This was the group that also saw the emergence of new forms of anti-Jewish thinking and behavior. The roots of the medieval anti-Jewish animus and persecution highlighted in Enlightenment rejection of the European Middle Ages lie in the origins and evolution of northern European Jewry during the High and Late Middle Ages.

The successful migration of Jews northward was fully supported by the political authorities, who were eager to utilize the Jewish economic skills and knowledge gained in the more-advanced southern sectors of Europe. The Church maintained what was, by that time, a well-established policy:  Church leaders insisted on the rights of Jews to live securely and peacefully in Christian society. They equally insisted on limiting any Jewish behaviors that they thought might impinge on Christians.

Despite the eagerness of the local rulers and official support of the Church, the populace of northern Europe resisted these Jewish newcomers for a number of reasons. The most prominent was the common human antipathy toward recent immigrants—a lamentable phenomenon observable in all human societies at all times. Exacerbating this normal tendency, Christian Europe was—unlike the realm of Islam—relatively homogenous religiously. Thus, those who saw themselves as the indigenous inhabitants of northern Europe viewed the new Jewish settlers as a religious disruption. These grounds of opposition activated a dormant prejudice: the negative portrayal of Jesus’ Jewish contemporaries and their purported responsibility for his crucifixion. The consequence of all this was the emergence of significant hostility towards the new Jewish settlers in the north by many of their neighbors.

As a result of the popular resistance in northern Europe, the new Jewish settlers were not able to create for themselves diversified economic outlets. Most of them had come with skills in business and trade. As the Church attempted during the twelfth century to prohibit Christians from taking interest on loans from other Christians—which it saw as the sin of usury—it opened the way for these Jewish businesspeople, who were not governed by the prohibition of taking interest from Christian borrowers, to specialize in moneylending.

Once again, the rulers of northern Europe were supportive. The rapid economic development of their domains required an ongoing smooth flow of capital, and they themselves found that borrowing money was often useful. But, once again, this created a potent source of popular animosity. Moneylenders—like newcomers—are never popular. Out of the combination of multi-faceted discontents with the new Jews of northern Europe emerged a series of slanders, prejudices, and hatreds that plagued Jewish life from the twelfth century until today.

Medieval Anti-Jewish Violence

As a result of the complex circumstances described, Jews did suffer deeply in medieval Roman Catholic Christendom during the latter centuries of the Middle Ages. Religious difference was surely a factor in this suffering. But there were—as we have seen—other and more complicated factors as well. Some of the Enlightenment imagery of Jewish suffering is accurate; some is not. Jews were attacked by Christian crusaders. But the anti-Jewish violence associated with crusading, as examined in previous articles in this series, was fairly limited in scope. Moreover, such violence was soundly repudiated by the ecclesiastical authorities that created and provided spiritual guidance for crusading. The impact of the inquisition on Europe’s Jews was similarly limited. In fact, the inquisition had no direct jurisdiction over Jews; it was a court system designed to eradicate heresy from Christian society, not Judaism. Since a major form of heresy involved formerly Jewish Christians suspected of returning to their prior Jewish faith, the inquisitorial courts often dealt with Jewish thinking and behaviors on the part of Christian defendants. But these defendants were formally defined as Christians. Fully professing Jews rarely appeared before the inquisition.  [ed. note: The question of these converts to Christianity (“Conversos,” in Spanish), is complex, not least because many had been forced to convert under threat of violence. We hope to address the complexities of their lives, violence in medieval Spain, and the inquisition more fully in a subsequent article.]

The most harmful suffering of Jews in Roman Catholic Christendom during the Middle Ages involved, first of all, the popular antipathy that arose as Jews migrated northward into new territory. This anti-Jewish hostility did not abate over the course of the medieval centuries; instead, it intensified markedly.

As a result, at points of intense stress, Jews became the scapegoats for broader societal malaise. During the mid-fourteenth century, for example, the world was suddenly struck by the devastating bubonic plague. As a result, many European Christians—utterly disoriented and terrified by the natural calamity—attacked Jews as the alleged source of the catastrophe. Similarly, during the late fourteenth century, when societal dislocation erupted throughout Spain, Jews again suffered popular violence. The same happened again in seventeenth-century Poland.

This popular anti-Jewish animus created a need for special support of the Jews on the part of the ruling class. Such supportive relations were characteristic of feudal Europe altogether, but Jewish dependence on Europe’s rulers was especially profound. During the early centuries of the second millennium, most of the northern-European political authorities provided the requisite support. Without that support, successful Jewish settlement could never have taken place. By the late twelfth century, however, the crucial support from the ruling classes became less certain. As the economy matured, the Jewish contribution to it became less crucial; rulers could weigh the advantages of expelling their Jews—which would provide economic resources through confiscation of Jewish property, ecclesiastical approval, and popular approbation. Expulsion of Jews from the more-advanced northwestern areas of Europe led the way to a new societal development destined for a long history—the expulsion of entire Jewish communities from European states.

A Balanced View of the European Jewish Experience

While some of the traditional targets of Enlightenment criticism of medieval European mistreatment of Jews—for example crusading and inquisition—are somewhat overblown, others—e.g. broad societal hostility, occasional eruption of widespread violence, and the novel phenomenon of group expulsion—are not. Looking at the overall history of the new, exposed, and often persecuted Jewry of northern Europe, however, one final observation is appropriate. Despite all the negativity in their circumstances, the northern-European Jews did proceed from the humblest of beginnings to become the largest branch of the Jewish people. In terms of their numbers, Northern-European Jewry reached parity with the older Jewries of the south by the early-modern centuries; subsequently they came to surpass decisively these older Jewries. Clearly, the negative aspects of Jewish experience in medieval Roman Catholic Europe, especially its northern sectors, were balanced by the stimulation provided by the rapidly developing and vigorous societies of Roman Catholic Europe.


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Race, Racism, and the Middle Ages

Deggendorf, and the Long History of Its Destructive Myth

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Part XXXI in our ongoing series on Race, Racism and the Middle Ages, by Richard Utz. You can find the rest of the special series here


A portrait, in black and white, of a man wearing a priest's collar and a black suit.
Joseph Ratzinger, professor at the University of Regensburg. Photo taken September 14, 1965. Ratzinger would go on to become Pope Benedict XVI. Click to enlarge.

In 1968, the Bishop of Regensburg, Rudolf Graber, made a momentous decision. He found himself in the position to shape the future of the College of Catholic Theology at the newly founded University of Regensburg, in southeastern Germany. As one of his decisions, he changed the plan to create a professorship in Judaic Studies; instead, he created one in Dogmatic Theology. The call to fill this professorship was accepted by a brilliant theologian from the University of Tübingen: Joseph Ratzinger. Ratzinger would then become first Prefect of the Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the successor to the Roman Inquisition, in 1982. And, of course, he would become Pope Benedict XVI in 2005. However, Graber’s decision to change the professorship’s focus from Judaic Studies to Dogmatic Theology may also have had another, less-well-known consequence.

One year after his strategic appointment of Ratzinger, an article in Der Spiegel exposed two things about Graber. First, that he had been a supporter of national socialist ideology and Hitler’s leadership.

Ratzinger (left) and Graber (right).

But the paper also pilloried his outspoken support for something called the “Deggendorfer Gnad” (“Deggendorf Grace”).

The Deggendorfer Gnad was an anti-Jewish pilgrimage tradition in the small city of Deggendorf (in Lower Bavaria), which originated in the first half of the fourteenth century.

Specifically, Graber objected to calls for the removal of a cycle of early eighteenth-century paintings in the small city’s Church of the Holy Sepulcher that memorialized a long disproven narrative about how the pilgrimage came about—as an anti-Jewish “miracle”.

A Massacre, an Exoneration Myth, and Opportunism

Images depicting origin of the “Deggendorfer Gnad”. The text and images are similar to the fourteen panels, which hung in the church from 1710-1969. Source: Bavarian State Library.

The 1710 paintings (the above print versions of them were published in 1749) tell a lurid story. The story goes something like this:

In 1337, the Jews of Deggendorf enticed a Christian woman to steal hosts (the bread that represents the body of Christ) during Holy Communion. They, according to this story, attempted to desecrate these hosts by driving nails into them, by cutting them, hammering them, and burning them. To their surprise, each attempt apparently made a youthful Jesus appear—who then soared over the host. Discouraged, the Jews then apparently tried to cover up their crime by throwing the hosts in a well. The Virgin Mary then appeared miraculously to the citizens, exposing the crime, and the citizens burned the Jews in their anger. Subsequently, the citizens walked in procession from the well to their church to place the saved hosts in a beautiful monstrance, where they were forever preserved in immaculate condition. The narrative ends by depicting additional miracles, making a claim that a papal bull approved the sacred nature of the site, and recording the beginnings of a tradition of pilgrims coming to the site.

The actual historical record offers a very different version of events. Scholars, especially church historian Manfred Eder’s publications on the topic, demonstrate that, in 1338, the citizens of Deggendorf settled an economic crisis, which had been caused by a series of catastrophic harvests, by murdering the town’s Jews and stealing their property. The myth about a pre-1338 Jewish desecration of the host was clearly invented to exonerate, after the fact, the city’s Christian citizens. Some of them might have felt guilt about killing their Jewish neighbors, or they might have come under criticism by their neighbors. This was a wholesale rewriting of their history.

The massacre in Deggendorf was widely known. It spurred similar murders of Jewish people in more than a dozen other towns in the region. One of those places, according to the 15th-century Nuremberg Martyrologium, was Braunau, the birthplace of Adolf Hitler.

From Murderous Myth to Moneymaker

An early modern engraving memorializing the Deggendorf host desecration myth.

If the medieval mass-murder and property theft had “solved” a short-term economic problem for the Deggendorf citizens, the miracle myth, and the pilgrimages that it inspired, became a major source of recurring and reliable income for the town in the early modern and modern eras. Soon after 1338, sources began to claim that a host desecration had preceded, and thus justified, the citizens’ massacre of the Jews. By 1710, when the paintings were commissioned for the pilgrimage church, several conflicting local legends were consolidated and edited into one official narrative. In 1721, as many as 40,000 visitors are said to have traveled to Deggendorf; numerous religious rituals (processions, indulgences, litanies) and cultural practices (poems, plays, prose narratives, paintings) were created, and succeeded in (re)memorializing various aspects of the alleged host miracle over the subsequent several centuries. These practices successfully adapted to various new historical contexts. But the miracles surrounding the saved and miraculously preserved hosts (which have been proven to have been replaced with new ones several times when they showed visible decay) remained connected with their alleged cause: the desecration of the hosts by medieval Jews.

The Nazis, who were otherwise keen on suppressing Catholic pilgrimage traditions, permitted and even supported the Deggendorf pilgrimage because it easily connected with their own anti-Semitic agenda. In the 1980s, the priest of the Holy Sepulcher parish made a final attempt at revivifying the gradually waning tradition with a well-funded marketing campaign. But, when he removed the references to the false medieval accusations against the Jews, he found that the remaining (mostly conservative) supporters of the pilgrimage showed little enthusiasm for a ‘cleansed’ narrative. And so, finally, a full three decades after the Second Vatican Council—which officially condemned “hatred and persecutions of Jews, whether they arose in former or in our own days”—all official religious rituals and practices related to the pilgrimage were finally discontinued by the Bishop of Regensburg in 1992.

Projective Inversion

The genesis and reception of the Deggendorfer Gnad (numerous similar examples exist) show that there is an undeniable continuity between medieval and modern attitudes and actions toward members of the Jewish people in Europe. Fabricated, false accusations against Jews in the Middle Ages (of host desecrations, ritual murder, well-poisoning, usury, etc.), were a defining feature medieval Christian identity. Although accounts of anti-Judaism and anti-Semitism (for example, if you can read French, see Léon Poliakov’s Histoire de l’antisémitisme, 4 vols, 1955-1977; rev. edn. 1991) claim that all this changed with the onset of scientific modernity, there is ample evidence to suggest that this is not true. For medieval Christians as well as for post-medieval Christians (and non-Christians), Jewish otherness offered an opportunity to accuse the Jewish people of falling back into pre-Christian or pre-modern stages of civilization.

For example, from 1213 to 1215, the Catholic Church held a council of much of its entire leadership to decide many of the rules that remain part of Catholic orthodoxy today. One of these was the doctrine of transubstantiation, claiming that the bread and wine of communion literally become Christ’s flesh and blood during mass. However, after this, medieval Christians began to project their own fears about falling back into archaic forms of sacrificial anthropophagism—consuming Christ’s actual flesh and blood—onto the Jews, accusing them of ritual murder and desecration of the host. It is classic psychological projection: taking what you fear most about yourself and projecting it onto a scapegoat, which you can then hate and persecute freely.

Modern Christians continued to believe in the deceptively timeless nature of anti-Semitic myths with medieval origins because they were sustained by powerful narratives and rituals like the ones that sustained the Deggendorf Gnad. Their continued beliefs were then easily coopted and exploited by other individuals and groups in need of political scapegoats during times of increased insecurity and fear. In many of these cases, public health officials, butchers, and animal protectionists played a role. For example, numerous participants of the International Congress on the Protection of Animals in Vienna, in 1929, condemned the traditional Jewish slaughtering of animals in accordance with the Kosher laws (without stunning or anesthetizing the animal first) as a regression into premodern cruelty and unhygienic filth. These toxic views entered into easy alliances with Christian prejudice.

The politically motivated ritual murder accusations of Jewish people like Tisza Eszlár (in Hungary in 1883) and Mendel Beilis (in Kiev, Russia, in 1913) reveal exactly this kind of scapegoating of Jewish beliefs and practices. So do the opportunistic hate campaigns seen during the Third Reich, which featured ritual murder narratives in Nazi newspaper Der Stürmer. So too did the Hungarian nationalist “Jobbik” party’s anti-Semitic slogans, which claimed, as recently as 2008, that the Jews had “desecrated our [country’s] Holy Crown, [and] ridiculed the [medieval Catholic relic] Holy Right Hand.”

Complicity, and Resistance to Change

Had Bishop Graber appointed a chair in Judaic Studies at the University of Regensburg, the Deggendorfer Gnad would very probably have lost the official support of the Catholic Church as early as the 1960s. A chair in Judaic Studies, together with the strong movement to finally reform the Church’s medievalist teachings about the Jewish people—which was codified in the Second Vatican Council—would have led much earlier to the good scholarship on regional Jewish-Christian relations that emerged in the early 1990s. It was this scholarship that provided the overwhelming documentary evidence that exonerated the Jews and forced the hands of the religious authorities.

With hindsight, Graber’s decision now seems to be an active attempt by him at slowing down, or even thwarting entirely, the Council’s far-reaching decision to accept responsibility for the Church’s role in the suffering and eventual destruction of the European Jewry that began in medieval times and helped enable the Holocaust during the Third Reich.

Graber’s own national-socialist sympathies provide a plausible explanation for his anti-Jewish thoughts and actions. But his successors’ decision to keep the pilgrimage in place until after Graber’s death is different. It must be seen as another way in which far too many Catholic dignitaries have been resisting any criticism of the church, its practices, and its leaders, through the lens of history. History, after all, reveals traditions and rituals as grown, constructed, and time-bound. History thus challenges many religious beliefs, which claim a timeless bridge between, let’s say, Christ’s supper and every remembrance and reenactment of that supper.

We should remind ourselves that the stigmatization, demonization, and killing of Jews cannot be linked to any of Christ’s actions or views in the Biblical texts. It is the responsibility of those humans who claim to act in his name years and centuries later. Their actions, including the ones of church leaders, can and should be exposed for what they are, not cloaked as religious or cultural practices.

Deggendorf, Post-pilgrimage

If your travels lead you anywhere close to the region where Austria, Germany, and the Czech Republic meet, a visit to Deggendorf (situated along the Autobahn A3 between Regensburg and Passau) is a good investment. The city that has managed to transform its historical past—from the Middle Ages through the modern era—into a thoughtful learning experience. The Stadtmuseum Deggendorf, and its permanent exhibit on the Deggendorfer Gnad (opened in 1993), is a great way to see some of the texts and artwork that was created to celebrate and sustain the pilgrimage. The printed guide offered there was authored by Manfred Eder, a scholar whose doctoral dissertation provided the final incentive to discontinue the religious pilgrimage. Sadly, it is currently only available in print.

Another public sign of change is the plaque added to the outside of the Holy Sepulcher Church, seen above. It reads:

Lord have mercy.

In the year 1338 the Jews of Deggendorf were murdered. A decade later, to justify this crime, a legend was created in which the Jews desecrated the host, which is false.

Over the centuries, the slander continued to damage not only the memory of the Jews of the Middle Ages, but also to create a caricature that damaged the name of their descendants all the way into the recent past.

We ask the Jews, “our older bretheren” per Pope John Paul II, for forgiveness for the injustice done to them.

Deggendorf, in Advent 1993

It is only by publicly accepting the wrongs of the past, asking forgiveness, and making amends for them, that we may truly be able to surmount the injustices of our ancestors.

Coda: There and Back Again

The Heiligenblut pilgrimage, based on a Jewish host desecration myth, resuscitated in 2005.

Deggendorf has successfully engaged with its gruesome heritage. But the myth of Jewish host desecration has reared its ugly head again elsewhere. In the Bavarian diocese of Eichstätt, the “Heiligenblut” pilgrimage, also based on an alleged desecration of the host, made a comeback in 2005, when the diocese attempted to increase tourism to its places of worship. In its official communication on the reawakened event the diocesan leaders simply hush up the tradition’s troubling origins.

We must do better.


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Race, Racism, and the Middle Ages

Perfect Victims: 1096 and 2017

Nuremburg Chronicle Jews Burning

Part XXX in our ongoing series on Race, Racism and the Middle Ages, by Jeremy DeAngelo. You can find the rest of the special series here


The horrific events in Charlottesville began as a dispute over the interpretation of history. The dispute itself began over what, exactly, monuments to Confederate leaders mean, what lessons they convey, and what their presence in our public spaces tell us about today.

The “story” told of the Civil War—at least that which rests in much of the public’s imagination—is, as Ta-Nehisi Coates rightly argued in The Atlantic, a sanitized version of history. That story struggles to erase slavery; it is designed to benefit certain Americans’ views of themselves and to justify Jim Crow and its legal and social descendants.

The call to remove Confederate statues is part of an effort to repeal that toxic narrative.

History, in all of its details, can rarely support simple interpretations—and given all we have seen in the past weeks, we can see how misinterpretations of the past can lead to—and prop up—bigotry, hatred, and violence.

By way of demonstrating how important it is to complicate the narrative, I want to look more closely at the historical event discussed in one of The Public Medievalist’s recent installments: the massacres of Jews in the Rhineland in 1096. My introduction as an undergraduate to the texts recording these events led to some self-reflection that I believe is useful in our current time. Yes, this essay is about a white guy learning a lesson from the suffering of others. But clearly, as we can see, white guys still have lessons they—we—need to learn.

Narratives: Historical and Modern

It is easy, as human beings in the present, to create moral narratives out of past events. This is especially true when all we know about a historical event is from a simplified account in a textbook, a summary in a secondary source, or—increasingly—a movie, a TV show, or another piece of media. Such bare-bones accounts usually present conflicts as simple binaries, with easily identifiable villains and heroes. This allows us, or even requires us, to fill in the gaps with our own assumptions about the past and its people. A common quality of these narratives, consequently, is a kind of condescension toward the past. They promote the belief that we modern people are better than those who came before—more moral, more ethical, less prejudiced. “Oh, can you believe what used to be acceptable back then? Such a shame that bigotry and superstition held such sway. Thank goodness we know better!” This attitude is so common that I have found it to be many people’s default attitude when confronted by the past.

Such certainty evaporates when we face today’s controversies, however. If we were to encounter a rash of officer-involved shootings in the historical record, for example, we would likely not hesitate to diagnose it as an abuse of authority, or an imbalance between security and freedom in American society. I sincerely hope that people fifty years from now can smugly say of us: “Can you believe what used to be acceptable back then?”

Likewise, knowing the identities of those lost—Michael Brown, Tamir Rice, Philando Castile, and others—we would likely conclude that race, including personal as well as structural and institutional racisms, is a significant factor. (“Such a shame that bigotry and superstition held such sway. Thank goodness we know better!”) In reality, of course, these conclusions are frequently deeply politicized and disputed. If the old aphorism, that “journalism is the first rough draft of history” is true, the New York Times and Breitbart are drafting entirely different histories. The disparity between the two accounts crafted by these outlets is due, in part, to outlets like Breitbart telling a story that is more easily digestible for those drawn to simple narratives of good and evil in such circumstances—assumptions which are frequently self-serving. Identifying racism as the cause behind contemporary events casts blame upon a portion of the population—the police specifically, or white people more generally—and many are not willing to accept that explanation. Despite its obvious truth, they will go to great pains to reject it.

As a professor of medieval literature and culture it is my job to bring the past and present together. I do it in order to help us bridge this gap; to better understand our own prejudices by examining those of the past. It is even possible for us to better understand incidents of racial injustice today by looking at medieval examples. One of my profoundest moments of this sort of epiphany was when reading about the events of 1096.

The First Pogroms

The events of the Rhineland Massacres have already been recounted in this series, so I will only give some basic facts. On November 27, 1095, Pope Urban II gave a speech at the Council of Claremont which inspired the First Crusade. Caught up in the furor of reclaiming Jerusalem from the infidel, groups of armed pilgrims made their way to the Holy Land. Several of those traveling through the Rhineland attacked Jews in multiple German cities. Many were killed, many martyred themselves, and many others were forced to convert or die.

The most detailed accounts of these attacks come from Jewish writers, such as the anonymous author of The Narrative of the Old Persecutions (also known as the Mainz Anonymous) and the author (or authors) of the Chronicle of Solomon bar Simson. Christian accounts of the First Crusade, if they mention the events in Germany at all, do so briefly. And they are not typically sympathetic to the Jews.

The attacks spread along the route of the advancing armies, hitting the cities of Speyer, Worms, and Mainz. In both Worms and Mainz, the bishops gave the Jews shelter within their own buildings. But in both cases, their protection proved ineffective: the attackers gained access and slaughtered those inside. The perpetrators of the massacres—or at least those among them who were Crusaders and not local agitators—never made it to Jerusalem, and never even joined bulk of the Crusading army. As they travelled east, they continued to attack Jewish communities in Regensburg, and in Prague. But when they got to the Kingdom of Hungary, they found their way barred. The authorities were prepared for them, and clearly had no desire for the Crusaders to bring their chaos within Hungarian borders. The bands were compelled to pillage for supplies, and when local forces mustered a defense, the Crusaders were defeated and dispersed.

“Difficult” Victims

This broad sketch of the massacres offers a straightforward story of good and evil. While many people may not be familiar with this specific moment in history, its telling conforms to an expected pattern of evil oppressors and noble victims. But when reading the primary sources, we encounter details that may trouble our expectations. What do we do when the actors in our historical dramas refuse to play their roles? And seeing this, how do we understand them as people, rather than one-dimensional characters?

This was the dilemma I faced as an undergraduate when I first read the primary sources that describe the massacres of 1096. I was prepared, when I started my reading for a history class, to encounter a simple narrative that reinforced my assumptions about the past, about the nature of prejudice, about the conduct of persecuted minorities. I did not expect to be intellectually challenged. Instead, once I finished reading the Jewish accounts of the massacres, I was unsettled. This was because the people who I instinctively labelled “heroes” in these stories were not acting the way I expected.

One of the troubling aspects of the massacres was, for me, the willingness of the Jews to kill themselves pre-emptively. In this, these narratives differ from Christian accounts of martyrdom, which do not encourage suicide—quite the opposite. In stories of Christian martyrdom, the atrocities committed against the saint’s body and their willingness to endure them are typically the longest and most graphically detailed portions of those works. In contrast, many of the assaulted Jews in 1096 killed themselves instead of allowing the Crusaders to murder or convert them. Some of those unwilling or unable to do so, such as children, were killed by their family or community members. The acts are understandable. They were efforts by the Jews to retain control over their fates rather than relinquish it to their persecutors, as well as to save their souls from forced conversion. It was also part of a long tradition of Jewish martyrdom that goes at least as far back as the siege of Masada in the first century CE. Nevertheless, it is one thing to accept something intellectually and another not to react viscerally to passages such as this one from Anonymous of Mainz:

There was a notable lady, Rachel the daughter of R. Isaac ben R. Asher. She said to her companions: “I have four children. On them as well have no mercy, lest these uncircumcised come and seize them and they remain in their pseudo-faith. With them as well you must sanctify the holy Name.”[…] She took Isaac her small son—indeed he was very lovely—and slaughtered him. She…said to her companions: “Wait! Do not slaughter Isaac before Aaron.” But the lad Aaron, when he saw that his brother had been slaughtered, cried out, “Mother, Mother, do not slaughter me!” He then went and hid himself under a bureau. She took her two daughters, Bella and Matrona, and sacrificed them to the Lord God of Hosts, who commanded us not to abandon pure awe of him and to remain loyal to him. When the saintly one finished sacrificing her three children before our Creator, she then lifted her voice and called out to her son: “Aaron, Aaron, where are you? I shall not have pity or mercy on you either.” She pulled him by the leg from under the bureau, where he had hidden, and sacrificed him before the sublime and exalted God. She then put them under her two sleeves, two on one side and two on the other, near her heart. They convulsed near her, until the Crusaders seized the chamber.

This episode is written to create a dramatic and emotional narrative of Jewish martyrdom. And it is not alone: that parents killed their children to spare them from the Crusaders was widely reported in these chronicles. In the context of these chronicles, for these medieval Jewish people (and many other medieval societies) the integrity of one’s faith and the faith of their children—even at the cost of their lives—was paramount. And they may have feared that their fates at the hands of the Crusaders would have been much worse, that death in this manner was merciful. Such actions which to us at first might seem heartless—possibly even fanatical—make perfect sense in the context of their time, and the horror of the moment.

Another aspect of the martyrdom stories that caught me off guard was much less lurid. Probably it is because I was both Catholic and familiar with medieval Christian texts; I was accustomed to a particular type of rhetoric surrounding descriptions of the Christian faith—almost always complimentary. In contrast, The Narrative of the Old Persecutions and the Chronicle of Solomon bar Simson are defiantly anti-Christian texts. You can see, in the passage above, where the author describes Christianity as a “pseudo-faith.” Elsewhere, Christ is referred to as “a bastard and a product of sin and menstruation,” and that he is not a god and so “cannot profit and cannot save for he is worthless.”

My initial reaction to this was something that deserves introspective examination. I was prepared for the violence and anti-Semitism that I found in the texts; they fit a narrative that I was prepared to accept. But I was not prepared to have my own identity attacked. I had assumed, with no reason to do so, that medieval religious minorities would respect the beliefs of the majority—even when dying at the hand of sectarian violence. But why should they? But even upon thinking through that, I remained disturbed at the anti-Christian words in these Chronicles—which disturbed me anew.

Bringing the Past to Today

As a (white, Christian, straight, male, cisgender) undergraduate in the early 2000s I did not have this terminology at the time, but it is clear to me now that I was reading from a place of privilege. Even while reading about people whose beliefs and lives were attacked in ways that mine never would be, I was offended at even the smallest expression of disapproval on their part. I was upset that they were not living up to my expectations of how the targets of persecution conduct themselves. I was shocked by their anger.

Even then, I knew that this expectation was deeply unfair. But I didn’t know what to do with that knowledge. I knew I was foolish to expect anything else from historical texts that detail oppression. And medieval Jews, of course, would not (and do not) believe in Christ. Furthermore, these particular Jewish writers were recounting Christian mass-murders, inspired by Christianity, upon their community, their loved ones, and their religion. To expect anything other than rage and scorn for Christianity is a monstrous double-standard, an attitude which perpetuates injustice as much then as it does today.

It is a position of privilege, as well, that allows us to take a step back and think critically about accounts of other people’s suffering. My introduction to the massacres—and the way I initially reacted to them—has never been far from my mind. This is likely why I have applied it to my own understanding of public reaction to prejudice today—particularly in the case of the police shootings of African-Americans. It may seem awkward to transition from medieval anti-Semitism to the rights of African-Americans today, but in truth prejudices against both these groups have often intertwined. Now, 2017 is not 1096; but, we bring our expectations of today to our reading of the past. Many of the expectations we have for minorities are the same both for then and now.

Two photos of Michael Brown, who was killed by police in 2014. Media outlets, especially conservative media outlets, came under criticism by activists for portraying Brown with the image on the right, rather than the one on the left. The media doing so fed into a narrative that painted Brown as a “thug,” and therefore less deserving of sympathy.

When, in 2014, the killing of young black men began to bring more open scrutiny to policing standards, the persistence of racism in America, and the role of governmental institutions in perpetuating it, many sought to pre-empt criticism by attacking the characters of those who had been killed. Conservative commentators argued that they didn’t dress right; that they had criminal records; that they were “no angels.” The implication was that these individuals did not deserve sympathy, and, by extension, rights. This of course goes against the principle of equal protection under the law; we do not need to find someone sympathetic for them to be eligible for human rights. But it remains a constant tactic to describe someone at the center of an incident like these as someone who is, or is not, a good person. Our ability to identify with them becomes the standard by which we decide whether we should care.

Respectability Politics

This has been one of the key strengths of nonviolent resistance. During the Civil Rights Movement, for example, the optics of peaceful protest were considered extremely important for bringing public opinion over to the side of African-Americans. As Richard Cohen of the Southern Poverty Law Center explains,

The violence was being perpetrated by the oppressors, not the oppressed and that was an incredibly powerful message and an incredibly important tool during the movement.

They presented people on the fence with images of peaceful protesters who were less-easily dismissed as violent, uncivilized troublemakers. The attempt to smear present-day targets of racism and brutality is a mirror image of this tactic—instead of presenting a picture of someone with whom the general public can sympathize, they provide them with a person they can despise and fear.

We see in this the trap of respectability politics. The American public, as a whole, has developed an archetype of the deserving victim: their suffering is silent, and noble, and they are manifestly better people than those who persecute them. Our images of great civil rights leaders of the past conform to these expectations, even when reality was much more complicated—and this is why threats to undermine these images are seen as effective countermeasures. Any deviation from the expectation of respectability is grounds for the rescinding of sympathy. But this is a trap: if rights are contingent upon being sympathetic, they are not rights. And I fell into this trap. That is why, when I encountered the Jews of 1096 in my class texts, I responded how I did. They were not conforming to my unfair expectations.

Such an attitude becomes a mockery, however, when faced with the insurmountable cruelty, violence, and outrage of the massacres. Clearly, many of the Jews of the Rhineland were deeply angry at the way they had been treated. They hated the religion of the people that persecuted them and were not afraid to write it. And some believed so strongly in their faith that they were willing to destroy their lives and those of their children rather than give it up. Such sentiments might appear outrageous to us today, at least when we see them put into practice. But the price paid by the Jews was far too high to let our squeamishness stand in the way of recognizing where the real wrong lies in this event.

Difficult Histories for a Difficult Present

This is the value of historical study. It is one of the reasons that professors like me present difficult texts to our students—so that they might come to grips with the actuality of the past, rather than our popular narratives. Being able to confront one’s unexamined assumptions in the classroom, as I did, with an event safely in the past, empowers us to do the riskier and more necessary work of confronting them in our present. After all, if we cannot be brave enough to interpret the past fairly, what hope can there be for the present?

Nearly every historical text has some surprise in it for the uninitiated. It is this surprise that I try to include in all of my syllabi and class discussions today. Didn’t the women of the past “know their place” and acquiesce to their husbands? Meet Margery Kempe. Were the people of the Middle Ages completely in awe of the Catholic Church and dare not criticize it? Read The Pardoner’s Prologue (or numerous other portions of The Canterbury Tales). Was the Middle Ages a period in which people of racial, religious, or national difference were completely segregated? What do you think? Confronting all of these contradictions to our lazy assumptions about the past teaches us how infrequently gross generalizations about groups of people prove to be true. And it is a principle which should be carried over into our conduct today. How often do we read things from the perspective of someone unlike us in the present day? It has the potential to be as unfamiliar as anything written far in the past, and it carries the same lessons.

Critiquing prejudice today is hard. It is especially hard because it involves critiquing yourself. Yet it takes quite a bit of lying to yourself to see a world of clear-cut heroes and villains in most of our world today. Those sinned against almost always have messy, complicated lives, and have made mistakes; no one should expect that their persecutors have no redeeming qualities. This is precisely what we find when we examine nearly all of the incidents of racism, police brutality, or institutional blindness raised by the Black Lives Matter movement. We want heroes, we want villains, but what we get are people. A too-easy reading of history can lead us to believe that this is something we can expect. But the Jews of the Rhineland put the lie to that narrative. They may not meet our expectations. But they deserve our sympathy nonetheless. And if we can identify this problem in the past, we should be able to apply the lesson to the present. We only need be courageous enough to act.


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Race, Racism, and the Middle Ages

Leaving “Medieval” Charlottesville

598f2fbe766a1.image

Part XXIX in our ongoing series on Race, Racism and the Middle Ages, by Paul B. Sturtevant. You can find the rest of the special series here


At the beginning of this series, I cited an article in The Atlantic that exposed, for their readers, a link that medievalists have understood for years: white nationalists, white supremacists, anti-Semites, and neo-Nazis seem to love the Middle Ages. Or, more accurately, they love their race-fueled fantasies of the Middle Ages, which have nothing to do with the actual Middle Ages. Their version though does have something to do with the ways in which medievalists have studied the past and represented it to the public (with several medievalists recently arguing, with significant merit, that white supremacy is infused into the very bones of this academic discipline). But today, I want to focus on those of us—like me—who engage in medievalisms for fun in their spare time.

This is a call to action. It goes out to those who participate in re-enactment societies, in live-action role-playing games, or who play medieval games online. We know a love of the Middle Ages doesn’t inherently breed white supremacist sentiment, but we do know that they sometimes travel together. You have the opportunity to banish it from the circles in which you travel and the medievalisms you enjoy. You have a responsibility to ensure that the Middle Ages the white supremacists cling to is not the one you revel in.

White supremacists laying claim to the Middle Ages is a fantastical appropriation by a group desperately seeking an origin myth—and naturally, they found it in the period most often used for fantasies both benign and toxic.

In Charlottesville, white supremacists’ vile love affair with the Middle Ages was on full, horrifying display.

White supremacist groups carry flags and banners emblazoned with heraldic symbols and Old Norse runes in Charlottesville, VA. Credit: Charles Butler.

I don’t know where my own love for the Middle Ages came from. By elementary school I was building castles out of balsa wood and canisters of Crystal Light. For fun. As you do. In high school I joined the Society for Creative Anachronism for the first time. Since then, I sewed costumes in order to attend countless Renaissance Festivals in full regalia, participated in a wide range of Live Action Role Playing games to blow off steam, went to Medieval Times restaurants, read and re-read Tolkien and his descendents, and lost a fair bit of my life to World of Warcraft, Lord of the Rings Online, Crusader Kings II, Medieval: Total Warfare and many other video game medievalisms. My love affair with the Middle Ages has been lifelong.

I look at the faces of those people pictured at Charlottesville, and I wonder whether I’d met any of them. And I wonder how their love of the Middle Ages could manifest so disgustingly differently.

The second man from the left allegedly drove his car into counter-protesters, murdering one and injuring nineteen. Credit: Lidia Jean Kott

I wonder whether I did meet those charismatic bigots in my travels in medievalism. I probably did. The vast majority of the people I met, and the friends I made, were, like me, delightful nerds. But I remember more than one occasion around a campfire where someone made a racist joke. I know several people in these groups who had confederate flags on their trucks. I remember hearing that a couple of them had some weird politics, said with eye rolls and in hushed tones. I also remember how overwhelmingly white almost all of these activities were. The armor worn in Charlottesville looks ever so slightly familiar, the symbols on the shields ring a bell.

Credit: Edu Bayer for the New York Times.

I do not share these personal reflections to elicit compassion for the white supremacists, the white nationalists, the neo-Nazis. They deserve none.

I share this to speak to those of you in our audience who, like me, swim in the rich and joyful waters that playful medievalisms can offer. We know that white supremacists love the Middle Ages. It is now on us to understand this, recognize it at home, and banish it from our ranks, regardless of whether we are medievalists professionally or personally. This series has been about highlighting a different vision of the Middle Ages, one based in the best contemporary scholarship, that shows beyond a shadow of a doubt that a whites-only, white-supremacist Middle Ages is a ludicrous, childish fantasy on so many levels.

I would call upon you to encourage the adoption of this more-inclusive, more-historically accurate vision of the Middle Ages into even your playful medievalisms. As Wajahat Ali recently said, now is the time to “stand up and be the hero.”

Find ways of expanding your, and your group’s, repertoire and purview. Look beyond medieval England, and beyond medieval Europe. Be vigilant; look out for racist interpretations of the medieval past, and push back against them. Do not accept it if your compatriots push back; their sources and interpretations are undoubtedly incomplete, ridiculously out-of-date, or just bunk. They may call our Middle Ages “presentist”, or “revisionist history.” It is only “presentist” in that it is up-to date. It is only “revisionist” because it is cutting-edge. Accept the smears with a smile.

If you are in charge of one of these groups, or have voting rights within them, institute zero-tolerance policies for racism and racist abuse. I know several who already do. And don’t accept the usual excuse—that it’s just a “reflection of the Middle Ages.” It’s not. It’s modern, it’s toxic, and it doesn’t deserve a safe harbour in your community.

Take this more-inclusive, more-accurate vision of the Middle Ages into your heart as well. Read the stories of people who you might not before have read—read A Thousand and One Nights, read the story of Ser Morien, pick up a biography of Maimonides or Mansa Musa. Imagine yourself, empathetically, in their story. Realize that their history is your history too, that you do not need to have the same skin color as them to see their past as yours.

We know that white supremacists love the Middle Ages—at least, their toxic misinterpretation of the Middle Ages. And the fantastical Middle Ages have provided an ample breeding ground for white supremacists. It is on us now to take the medieval world back from those who use it to support their hate, their violence. It is on us to ensure that the people in our groups, who play our games, or who craft garb alongside us don’t become tomorrow’s torch-wielding bigots.


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