Race, Racism, and the Middle Ages

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

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

Indy Tank

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Deconstructing Anglo-Saxon “Ethnicity”

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

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

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

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

Pulling the Rug Out

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

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

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

What Are We Left With?

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

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

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

Fashionable “Barbarians”

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

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

British Barbarians?

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

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

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

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

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

You’re Doing it Wrong.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Standard Bearer

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why Is It Back, and Why Now?

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Middle Ages in the Far Right-Wing Bubble

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Owning the Past

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

Hey, mine too, Fading Light!

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

Wait. What?

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

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

The Other Red Pill

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

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

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

  • Democracy leads to the zombie apocalypse.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Usual Suspects

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Real History

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

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

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

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

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

Race, Racism, and the Middle Ages: Tearing down the “whites only” medieval world

Siege of Antioch

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

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

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

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

A New Public Medievalist Series

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

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

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

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

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