Race, Class and Religion

Race, Racism, and the Middle Ages

Ripping Anti-Semitism Out by its Roots

Saturday, October 27, 2018 saw the deadliest anti-Semitic terrorist attack on US soil to date. We here at The Public Medievalist are horrified. Some of our staff, several of our contributors, and many of our readers are Jewish or of Jewish descent. And more, all of us have Jewish friends, neighbors, and colleagues. But even if we didn’t, we would still stand with them in this moment of shock, rage, and unspeakable grief.

In the wake of horrific atrocities like this, one of the natural human responses is to ask “why?” In some ways, there is no adequate answer; in other ways, we have too many answers.

The President of the United States and far too many leaders from his party have harnessed hate. They’ve fanned the flames of anti-Semitism through a litany of dog whistles aimed squarely at an anti-Semitic audience and a public embrace of “nationalism.” They rail against “globalism” and “globalists”—a common anti-Semitic dog whistle referring to the supposed “global Jewish conspiracy.”

This anti-Semitism must not be viewed in a vacuum. It is intimately tied to the white nationalism and racism that endangers not just Jews, but also Muslims, LGBTQ+ people, African Americans, Latinx people, refugees, immigrants, and so many other communities in America.

At The Public Medievalist, we understand that there is no one solution to fix this problem. But we do believe, just like Sam Seaborn said on The West Wing, that education is one of them; maybe the most important one. It’s why we do what we do.

Distinguished Professor of History Jeffrey Herf published a call to action in The Washington Post this week:

It is time for us all, including our political leaders, to spend some time studying where hatred for Jews comes from and how it can and must be defeated—yet again. The time is long past to end American cluelessness about the history, nature and contemporary danger of anti-Semitism.

We agree, and we are here to help.

A Brief Medieval History of Anti-Semitism

Jews burned alive for the alleged host desecration in Deggendorf, Bavaria, in 1338, and in Sternberg, Mecklenburg, 1492; a woodcut from the Nuremberg Chronicle (1493).

Our series on Race, Racism, and the Middle Ages featured several articles—a kind of series-within-a-series—on anti-Semitism. This is because anti-Semitism, as we know it today, was a deadly problem in medieval history, and many contemporary anti-Jewish stereotypes are rooted in the medieval past. If we are to uproot the anti-Semitism in our midst, it helps to understand how deep its roots go.

First off, if you’re wondering why we would cover anti-Semitism in a series on Race, Racism, and the Middle Ages, then start here: “Jews, Antisemitism, and the Middle Ages.” There is ambiguity—even within the Jewish community today—over whether Jews consider themselves to be a racial group, a religious group, or a mix of both. And even more, as I wrote then:

the Jewish experience in the Middle Ages—and the oppression that the Jews faced—was instrumental in the formulation of how race is understood today, not just for Jews, but for all races.

Matthew Chalmers also weighs the case for the use of the phrase anti-Semitism—rather than what “anti-Judiasm”—in “Anti-Semitism Before ‘Semites’: The Risks and Rewards of Anachronism.” A key part of this is that anti-Jewish and anti-Muslim bigotries have often been linked:

narrowing our view leaves out another piece of the puzzle: it threatens to obscure Islam from discussion, when European Christian identity formation cannot be understood without examining the ways that both Jews and Muslims were treated and imagined.

The Sack of Jerusalem from CE 70, as depicted on the Arch of Titus in Rome.
The Sack of Jerusalem from CE 70, as depicted on the Arch of Titus in Rome.

This link—and the further link with Latinx, migrant, and refugee “otherness”—can be seen in the propaganda used by the far right today. A right-wing conspiracy theory claimed, falsely, that George Soros, now the go-to right-wing stand-in for an alleged Jewish world conspiracy, is somehow funding the so-called “migrant caravan” proceeding from Honduras to the United States. Trump also claimed, falsely, that “criminals and unknown Middle Easterners are mixed in.” Anti-Semitism. Anti-Muslim Bigotry. Racism. Xenophobia. It goes round and round.

Deputy Editor of The Public Medievalist Amy S. Kaufman explores some of the deepest roots of anti-Semitic thought in “Anti-Semitism is Older than You Think,” where she explains that anti-Jewish thought predates Christianity. In fact, many of our anti-Semitic ideas originated from bigoted Roman writers. Tacitus, for instance, thought the Jews stood in the way of the dream of Roman world domination, and so he eviscerated them in his propaganda. As Kaufman writes:

Tacitus doesn’t just demonize the Jews for rejecting Roman religion; he also targets them as a “race” that is “hateful to the gods,” laying the groundwork for an anti-Semitism that consistently conflates race and faith. Moreover, his screed against the Jewish people resounds with some painfully familiar anti-Semitic stereotypes.

A depiction of Simon of Trent, the toddler whose death instigated a wave of anti-Semitic violence. Giovanni Pietro da Cemmo, San Simonino, Brescia, ca. 1475.

Bianca Lopez, Richard Utz, and Richard Cole explored three different medieval anti-Semitic episodes that erupted across Europe. In “Deggendorf, and the Long History of Its Destructive Myth,” Utz explores a local German anti-Semitic conspiracy theory and how easily the Nazis co-opted it for their own purposes. In “The Importance of Being Absent,” Richard Cole explores how easy it is to hate people who you don’t know by looking at the example of Scandinavia’s anti-Semitism—despite there being no Jews in medieval Scandinavia.

In “The Sainted Toddler Who Sparked a Pogrom,” Bianca Lopez describes the popular anti-Semitic fervor that exploded after a toddler’s death was incorrectly ascribed to the local Jewish community. But even more importantly, she showed a way out: courageous leadership on the part of the Doge of Venice stopped the violence. And she concludes with a powerful call to action:

We need to better recognize the signs of a template that might turn us against each other. Persecutions and pogroms do not come out of nowhere: politicians, religious leaders, and other hate-peddling zealots set the stage for persecutory violence through propaganda and cultural dog whistles. Unlike Trent’s Christians, we can say no to those who might provoke animosities by refusing to accept the project of hate. We must.

Part of recognizing the signs means knowing our own more-recent history and how it connects to the medieval past. In the Middle Ages, just as today, violence against Jews came from the same wellspring of hatred as violence against other religious and ethnic minorities.

Jeremy DeAngelo, for example, draws links between the massacres of Jews during the Crusades and the Black Lives Matter movement in “Perfect Victims: 1096 and 2017.” The victims of the Tree of Life Synagogue shooting were simply there to pray and enjoy their community. But the victims of hate crimes need not be “perfect” to deserve our compassion.

Several pundits have argued, wrongly, that the Pittsburgh shooting was the worst act of racially-motivated violence that America has ever seen. But in the same week as the massacre at the Tree of Life Synagogue, two Black Americans were murdered by a man whose goal was to massacre worshipers at First Baptist Church in Jefferstown, Kentucky—a predominantly Black church. As Kaufman writes, America has a long history of racist violence, violence inflamed and encouraged by politicians and demagogues.

Now more than ever, we must not whitewash the American past if we hope to understand and fight what is happening in the present.

How to Find Hope

An image from the magnificent Barcelona Hagaddah, held at the British Library. BL MS 14761, f26r.

One of the most pernicious anti-Semitic lies is that Jews have always been in conflict with their neighbors, ‘citizens of nowhere.’ Amy Kaufman, Robert Chazan, and I dispel this myth by illustrating the important role Jews played in medieval culture. Kaufman takes on the complex history of the Spanish Convivencia in “A Tale of Two Europes: Jews in the Medieval World.” As she writes:

Southern medieval Europe may have been more diverse, but mere diversity of a population didn’t prevent violence in the Middle Ages. Diversity alone won’t solve violence now. People have to be ready and willing to learn from one another, to exchange ideas. It is worrying that today, despite the broad access we have to a panoply of beliefs and perspectives, people seem increasingly inclined to self-segregate by retreating to homogeneous enclaves online and in the real world.

Division Of The Red Sea (Detail), From A Collection Of Texts In Hebrew Produced In Central Italy In 1273. MS. BL Additional 14763, F. 135.

Eminent Historian Robert Chazan traces the broad sweep of medieval Jewish life and finds there many centuries where Jewish people lived at peace with their neighbors and flourished. As he points out in his “The Arc of Jewish Life in the Middle Ages:”

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.

Finally, in my “Resisting the Anti-Semitic Crusade,” I seek to find the stories untold in the accounts of anti-Semitic pogroms: those of the heroic survivors, and of those who helped them survive. The attack on Saturday happened in Squirrel Hill, in Mr. Rogers’ neighborhood. Mr. Rogers famously said in an interview:

My mother used to say, a long time ago, whenever there would be any real catastrophe that was in the movies or on the air, she would say: “Always look for the helpers. There will always be helpers on the sidelines.”

In the Middle Ages, there were helpers who stood in the way of hatred and violence, who risked their lives to rescue those in need. Today, we call upon you to be one of those helpers—whether you are Jewish or not. Whether you are Muslim or not. Whether you are a person of color or not. Whether you are a woman or not. Whether you are an immigrant or not. Whether you are transgender or not. Whether or not you are a member of any of the communities under attack or not, it is more critical than ever for us to speak up, show up, and put ourselves on the line for each other in the face of the hatred we are experiencing.

If we learn nothing else from the Middle Ages, let us learn that.

So please read, think, share, and remember.


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Race, Racism, and the Middle Ages

Whose Middle Ages? Remembering Early African-American Efforts to Claim the Past

This is Part XLIII of The Public Medievalist’s special series: Race, Racism and the Middle Ages, by Matthew Vernon. You can find the rest of the series here.

To read more about ways in which African Americans strove to forge a more comprehensive, difficult, and ultimately positive conception of the medieval world, read Dr. Vernon’s new book The Black Middle Ages: Race and the Construction of the Middle Ages. It is available through Palgrave McMillan, or on Amazon.com now.


Ryan Coogler’s Black Panther was a cultural landmark. Countless articles have been written about its impact. But none have explored how medieval it is. Black Panther’s plot could well be taken from the genre of “medieval romance”—tales of medieval heroic adventure.

The story of Black Panther revolves around princes and princesses, a hidden kingdom, the ethics of combat, and the responsibility of rule. And part of what made this movie surprising was how it illustrates how race functions in this type of story. Race is a critical difference through which those familiar story elements gained new meaning. The “commoner who learns that he is indeed a prince” is a very old story type. But as part of Black Panther’s central narrative, this is transformed into a story of the African Diaspora and the problems of retaining any sense of cultural identity.

King T’Challa: Medieval Hero.

Looking at Black Panther through a racial lens enables us to see African heroes in an otherwise overwhelmingly white genre. This looks very modern, but it is not new. In fact, African-American writers’ creative connection to medievalism is nearly as old as the United States itself.

African-Americans have long pushed back against the notion that whiteness, and “white medieval history,” are the full story of America’s foundation. African-Americans resisted and subverted the dominant myths of the nation. Looking at these acts of resistance can tell us a great deal about alternative—but equally valid—ways of perceiving American history.

White Medievalism in America

Medieval narratives have been used politically by white Americans since the foundation of the country. For example, Thomas Jefferson argued that “Anglo-Saxon law” was the basis for America’s government. He reasoned that this made the country distinct from England whose government, he claimed, was based on Norman law:

Are we not the better for what we have hitherto abolished of the feudal system? Has not every restitution of the antient [sic] Saxon laws had happy effects? Is it not better now that we return at once into that happy system of our ancestors, the wisest & most perfect ever yet devised by the wit of man, as it stood before the 8th century.

Jefferson wrote this in a 1776 letter; in that letter, he simultaneously argued for the rights of American colonists to break free from Great Britain and also for a continued military campaign against Native Americans. Jefferson entangles freedom and forceful subjugation.

And more, he does this by appealing to “Anglo-Saxonism.” Anglo-Saxonism is an ideology that used Anglo-Saxon language, culture, and genealogical heritage (real or imagined) as the spine around which the nation was imagined. In other words, he imagined himself, and his nation, the heroic ancestors of (what he imagined were) heroic 8th century Germanic tribes.

But this is no idle fantasy. Reginald Horsman, author of the groundbreaking book, Race and Manifest Destiny (1970), described the terrifying ends to the logics of Anglo-Saxonism:

the reign of world peace, order, and morality was to be established by the Anglo-Saxon-Teutonic Christians, and if necessary it was to be founded on the bodies of inferior races.

Anglo-Saxonism is one branch of a broader system of racist misappropriations of medieval iconography and language. These appropriations have haunted the United States since its inception, and been part of the rhetoric around national expansion, the Civil War, Reconstruction, and infused into all-too-familiar white supremacist groups like the Klu Klux Klan.

Frederick Douglass’ Medieval Freedom

A daguerreotype photograph of Frederick Douglass, taken in 1847. Click for the original at the Art Institute, Chicago.

African-American writers and intellectuals fought these currents of white supremacist ideology. During the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, they used the Middle Ages to reorient the ways in which they felt they belonged, and were seen by others to belong both within the United States and around the world.

The most famous example of this is Frederick Douglass. Though he is known as Frederick Douglass today, he did not always carry that name. He was born Frederick Augustus Washington Bailey. But upon escaping to the North, he changed his last name from Bailey to Douglass. He did this at the suggestion of his benefactor in New Bedford, Nathan Johnson. Johnson came across the name “Douglas” while reading Sir Walter Scott’s romance, The Lady of the Lake.

Not only did Douglass adopt the name, but when traveling to Britain to make his case for abolition, in an 1846 letter he compared himself with pride to a medieval Scottish chieftain, James Douglas, nicknamed “black Douglas”:

Frederick Douglass, the freeman, is a very different person from Frederick Bailey (my former name), the slave. I feel myself almost a new man—freedom has given me new life. I fancy you would scarcely know me. I think I have altered very much in my general appearance, and know I have in my manners. You remember when I used to meet you on the road to St. Michaels, or near Mr. Covey’s lane gate, I hardly dared to lift my head, and look up at you. If I should meet you now, amid the free hills of old Scotland, where the ancient “black Douglass” once met his foes, I presume I might summon sufficient fortitude to look you full in the face; and were you to attempt to make a slave of me, it is possible you might find me almost as disagreeable a subject as was the Douglass to whom I have just referred. Of one thing, I am certain – you would see a great change in me!

Douglass positions himself transnationally. He has freedom within the United States. But more broadly, he feels an unexpected transformation through his journey across the Atlantic.

Douglass rejects Jefferson’s “Anglo-Saxonist” logic, which saw white Americans empowered through their links to a medieval past. Instead, he suggests that an African-American could better understand freedom by escaping a fundamental American political structureslaveryand by seeking his own connections to medieval history in Britain.

Medievalism in Novels by African-Americans

Charles Chesnutt, in his novel The House Behind the Cedars (1900), goes a step further than Douglass in thinking about the relationship between the Middle Ages and African-Americans. The novel is broadly about a mixed-race woman attempting to pass as white in the South soon after the Civil War. In it, there is a mock-jousting scene in which “knights” arm themselves in cardboard and gilt paper. This ostensibly pokes fun at Southern notions of chivalry borrowed from Walter Scott’s wildly popular Ivanhoe. But Chesnutt does something quite surprising with the novel as a whole: he fashions his main character after Ivanhoe’s heroine. His heroine and Ivanhoe’s even share the same name: Rowena.

At the end of the novel, she dies while fleeing from a white man of “the proud Anglo-Saxon race” and an African-American man who both seek to marry her. Positioning Rowena as akin to the heroine of Ivanhoe heightens the tragedy of the novel’s conclusions; this virtuous woman is destroyed by the paradoxes of American racial ideologies. She is considered guilty of the “crime” of trying to pass as white and, when exposed, moves to the margins of society and suffers from the impermissible erotic desire of her white suitor.   Everyone suffers as a result.

The First Edition of Dark Princess, by W.E.B. Du Bois

Other African-Americans also used medieval narratives and tropes not only to make political points, but also to express a genuine love of the Middle Ages. W. E. B. Du Bois, in addition to his celebrated sociological work, also wrote a series of speculative fiction stories that borrow heavily from medieval ones. His novel Dark Princess (1928), which he calls a romance, fully inhabits the form of the medieval romance. This is not only reflected in the titular princess, but also in novel’s loose structure of vignettes that test the main character, Matthew. At one point in the novel, the princess even likens him to one of King Arthur’s knights, claiming that Matthew failed in a test to prove his live to her:

Like Galahad you would not ask the meaning of the sign. You would not name my name. how could I know, dearest, what I meant to you?

Throughout his career Du Bois used romance tropes in his writing, such as knights and questing. For Du Bois, the goal of using these tropes was to position the project of emancipation within a context that was much larger than that of the nation.

For example, there is a love story at the center of Dark Princess. In the novel, the protagonist Matthew is denied a career as an obstetrician because of his race. Devastated, he travels to Germany where he meets, and falls in love with, Princess Kautilya of Bwodpur, India. Their love story symbolizes his desire to imagine unity between all people of color across the globe. However, Du Bois also seemed to simply enjoy creating genre fiction that featured characters with whom he could identify. Many fans of Black Panther surely understand the appeal of such a simple change.

Recovering This History

Engraving of Dr. James McCune Smith.

African-American intellectuals also frequently critiqued the notion of “pure blood” deriving from the medieval period. They did this by pointing to the number of ethnic identities coexisting in medieval Britain. In 1859, the abolitionist and physician James McCune Smith argued that the meeting and cooperation of medieval peoples was a strength that contributed to Britain’s success:

[T]he frequent admixtures or amalgamation of variously endowed men which grew out of these repeated invasions, resulted in a composite intellect, greater in force, wider in grasp, more active in detail, than could have grown out of any one tribe or race, Cimbri or Celt, Angle or Norman, which ever dwelt on the British isle.

Smith’s account of British history has clear and pointed implications for a nation seeking to exclude a significant portion of its population on the basis of race and ethnicity. The nation’s continued rise would depend upon inclusion and learning from difference.

Many examples of African-Americans working on medieval topics are remembered out of context, if they are remembered at all. In 1884, Cordelia Ray wrote the poem “Dante”, which lingers over Dante’s exile and political alienation. It is easy to connect this focus on exile and alienation with the frustrations African-Americans had with a political system that had begun to abandon its promises of equal rights to all of its citizens.

For another example, look at the image at the top of this article. It is a painting by Robert S. Duncanson (1821–1872). Duncanson was once internationally-renowned landscape painter, but is now largely forgotten. Like Douglass, Duncanson gained the inspiration for this painting during a trip to Scotland—he chose to depict a site featured in Walter Scott’s The Lady of the Lake. This painting teeters between being merely an exercise in form (albeit an impressive one) and signifying an African-American interpretation of a text that has powerful connections to Scottish nationalism and independence movements. This painting reminds us how much of the context around this African-American work—and others like it—has been lost or ignored.

Other African-American artists, writers, and poets—such as the first generations trained in the humanities after the Civil War—touched upon medieval subjects for a variety of reasons. They used the Middle Ages in their work to demonstrate their erudition. They used it to situate contemporary racial problems within a long historical trajectory. They used the medieval to borrow from the readily accepted meanings that accompany medieval genres. They used it for all the reasons that artists, writers, and poets use the Middle Ages.

Decolonizing the American Mind

To return to where this article began, you can argue that Black Panther “decolonizes” its narrative by broadening the roster of voices working on and featured in superhero films. More importantly, the perspective the movie takes on the character of Black Panther has shifted from his early comic-book days as an exotic character to be wondered at, towards his current status as a popular character that challenges modes of storytelling familiar to Western audiences. This is particularly true in how it challenges the medieval romance.

In this way, Black Panther is part of a long tradition. Similarly, one might say that this reparative work—of creating an ever-expanding and inclusive Middle Ages—has been part of medieval studies since nearly the country’s founding. But this was not done by white people. It was done by African-American writers, poets, artists and intellectuals.

With their groundbreaking work, these creative people tried to move the public imagination of the Middle Ages. They fought to shift it away from a model that assumes that European whiteness was the primary medieval identity categories. And more, they strove to forge a more comprehensive, difficult, and ultimately positive conception of the medieval world.


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Race, Racism, and the Middle Ages

The Medieval Problem with “Anglo-American” Sheriffs

Part XLIII in our ongoing series on Race, Racism and the Middle Ages, by Ken Mondschein.


A working knowledge of medieval history once again offers insight into the national news. On February 12th, United States Attorney General Jeff Sessions pointed to sheriffs as “a critical part of the Anglo-American heritage of law enforcement” at the National Sheriffs’ Association annual conference.

This statement was incredibly fraught. While Sessions may have been technically correct, the fact that he added “Anglo-American heritage” to his speech as an improvised line, especially at a conference of sheriffs, was widely interpreted as being a racist dog whistle. Many saw the statement as implying the superiority or centrality of “Anglo-American (read: white) heritage” in the contemporary United States.

Given Sessions’ history of racist comments as well as of instituting policies which disproportionately negatively affect people of color, his critics were quick to call him out. For instance, in a statement, the NAACP said that Sessions’ comment is “an unfortunate yet consistent aspect of the language coming out of the Department of Justice under his tenure” and that it “qualifies as the latest example of dog whistle politics.”

Whether he realized it or not, Sessions’ statement had two references to medieval history buried deep within it: the idea of the power of sheriffs, and the idea of “Anglo-American” law. In this we can read Sessions’ words as a part of a disturbing pattern, where pieces of the medieval past are used to justify white supremacy.

“You’re not wrong…”

Sessions can use history as a fig leaf to suggest his intentions were innocent. But his words can easily be seen as another example of a “Schrödinger’s Medievalism,” that is, a symbol that can, depending on context, be interpreted in a racist or a benign way. In this case, unlike the case explored by Paul Sturtevant in his article, we don’t have a flag or other physical object. Instead, we have a common legal concept with medieval roots being used in a manner that suggests the superiority of white “Anglo-Saxon” culture.

Let’s look at the history behind the words. Though the word “sheriff” invokes a spur-clattering gunslinger from the Old West, historically, the sheriff was in charge of the ordering and defense of a shire. A “shire” is not just a locality in The Hobbit, but was actually one of the administrative divisions of Anglo-Saxon England and, after the conquest of 1066, of Norman England.

The word itself is a contraction of “shire reeve” (a reeve being a “guardian” or “protector”). Though the Angles and the Saxons conquered England in the fifth century ce, as W.A. Morris wrote in his 1916 article “The Office of Sheriff in the Anglo-Saxon Period,” the office of sheriff per se only seems to have come into existence in the mid-tenth century after King Æthelstan unified the various Anglo-Saxon kingdoms. Later, the term “reeve” (such as the character of the reeve in Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales) came to mean the managers of individual manors, while sheriffs remained in charge of administering royal justice. The office was later brought to the New World; the first sheriff in the English colonies was Virginia’s Captain William Stone, who was appointed in 1634. So, sheriffs are indisputably part of both medieval English history and, by extension, American law.

A recent Slate article by Daniel Horwitz explained why Sessions’ statements at a conference of Sheriffs is particularly bad. He writes:

To many people of color, who are still disproportionately targeted by local law enforcement today—even for minor crimes like jaywalking and marijuana possession—the disturbing history of institutional racism in the “historic office” of sheriff may resonate to this day.

To today’s white nationalists, however, Sessions’ full-throated embrace of “the Anglo-American heritage” of local sheriffs would mean something else entirely. For decades, far-right extremists have seized upon the mantle of “posse comitatus”—a legal doctrine providing for substantial deference and authority to county sheriffs—as a basis for rejecting the federal government’s authority to enforce civil rights laws. The notion that sheriffs reign supreme over federal law enforcement officers is also a central claim of self-styled “sovereign citizens”—right-wing anarchists who “recognize the local sheriff’s department as the only legitimate government official.”

Medieval history can offer even deeper roots to Horwitz’s analysis; sheriffs’ troubled relationship with civil rights also has roots in the medieval past.

For example, as elected officials, modern sheriffs are ultimately responsible to the voters. This is rooted in history: As J. R. Maddicott showed, by the thirteenth century, sheriffs were commonly selected from the notables of a shire, rather than the king, which placed their base of power closer to the people.  As Richard Christopher Gorski wrote in his masterful PhD dissertation,

The fourteenth century therefore saw a gradual refinement of the qualifications that sheriffs and other officials were supposed to hold, and a consolidation of the gentry’s grip on local government.

In other words, medieval sheriffs had a vested interest in the status quo. This tradition was also carried over into the New World; William Stone, for instance, was a powerful landowner. While Stone was appointed, only twenty years later, in 1652, sheriffs began to be elected. Of course, considering, as the right to vote was limited only to white, male property-holders, early sheriffs tended to be men of property. This has meant that, over the years, some had a vested interest in both keeping the disenfranchised from voting, and in playing to the bigotry of the masses.

Since the Middle Ages, sheriffs also have had the right to summon the “posse comitatus”—which comes from medieval Latin for “power of the county.” A posse, for short, enabled a sheriff to conscript all available able-bodied, armed men to enforce the law. Posses are most often associated with the Old West, but they were not only used there. They were also responsible for numerous lynchings, such as the 1919 murder of 219 African-Americans in Arkansas.

Today, far-right activists have also seized on sheriffs as key to ensuring their particular idea of liberty. For instance, John Darash, a retired carpenter from New York and advocate of the “sovereign citizen” movement publishes material exhorting sheriffs to follow his ideas for disrupting the “unconstitutional” US government.

As in the Middle Ages, American sheriffs are also charged with executing warrants, ensuring public safety, and running local jails. But this authority often affords them considerable leeway, which has led to abuses like the infamous tent city jail run by Joe Arpaio of the Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office.

What about the idea of “Anglo-American law?” Like the office of sheriff, the United States’ legal system was modeled after the English system. “Anglo-American law,” thus, is actually a very common legal term. It is not typically racially charged. For instance, then-senator Barack Obama used the term “Anglo-American legal system” in a floor speech in 2006.

What makes these two systems relatively unique is that American law, like the English legal system it is derived from, is a common law system where the law is developed both from statues passed by the legislature and by judicial decisions made by courts. Our judiciary’s debates are over what the law is and how it should be interpreted—rather than what the law should be, which is the focus of a legislative body.

Harvard Law School’s copy of the medieval law book, Bracton’s De legibus et consuetudinibus Angliae. It was probably written around the year 1300. HLS MS 1.

This dates back to the thirteenth century, the customs of various places were being compiled by royal judges in volumes such as the Norman Très ancien coutumier (“Very Old Customary”) and the English jurist Bracton’s De Legibus et Consuetudinibus Angliae (“On the Laws and Customs of England”). These customals were early attempts to understand and catalogue the common law for royal judges; the first attempt to fully systematize this medieval common law on a national level was Edward Coke’s seventeenth-century Institutes of the Lawes of England.  Coke’s work is still relevant today; it has been cited in over 70 US Supreme Court decisions.

Conversely, continental Europe, and most of the rest of the world, uses a statutory law system based, ostensibly, on Roman law. Broadly speaking, in these systems the law is what it is, and the job of the court is to apply it, not interpret it. Of course, the United States has statutes, as well, which are passed by the legislature; however, the concept of separation of powers, first articulated in its modern form by the Enlightenment philosopher Montesquieu (1689–1755), gives the Supreme Court the ability to strike them down via judicial review. The reasoning used in these decisions is derived from the principles of common law.

Originally, customary law systems were common on continental Europe as well. Roman legal principles generally were the foundations only of legal fields like as matrimonial law that were originally the province of the Church. In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries however, and especially during the Napoleonic era, these were standardized into national law codes based on Roman principles. However, England retained its common law heritage, which it passed on to its colonies. Hence, “Anglo-American law.”

Words as Weapons

So, Sessions was factually correct. But, as Dorothy Kim has pointed out in another context, people should take care with how medieval history is deployed, since the past can so easily be “weaponized” as a tool of racism.

Sessions may have been careless, or he may have been intentional. And given Sessions’ reputation, he should have realized that this invocation of English history would be interpreted in the worst possible light. Whether he minds is another matter. His remark, to the lay observer, seems to be signaling that the “Anglo-American” origins of the legal system supports white supremacy.

Sessions likely did not realize the medieval context of his words. Whether he meant it as a medievalism or not, however, Sessions’ comments are part of a frustrating pattern where parts of our culture with medieval origins are weaponized to justify racist policies. It falls to each of us to remain vigilant, and to continue to push back against the use of the past to justify racism in the present.


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Race, Racism, and the Middle Ages

How The Last Jedi Outfoxes the Alt-Right

Part XLII in our ongoing series on Race, Racism and the Middle Ages, by Asa Mittman. Asa’s newest book, Sea Monsters: Things from the Sea, Volume 2, coauthored with Thea Tomaini, is available now, and his next book, Medieval Monsters: Terrors, Aliens, Wonders (coauthored with Sherry Lindquist) is coming out June 12, 2018 and available for pre-order now.

Spoiler alert: This article contains spoilers for the final scenes of  The Last Jedi. 


It does not take a card-carrying medievalist to spot the echoes of medieval narratives in the Star Wars franchise. The Jedi call themselves “knights,” are called “wizards,” and dress like monks. In The Force Awakens, we find Luke Skywalker has retreated to a planet portrayed by Skellig Michael, an island off the coast of Ireland that hosts a stunning eighth-century island monastery.

The alt-right hates The Last Jedi. Charles Mudede explained why on The Stranger:

The Last Jedi is critical of meat ideology, of male leadership and mansplaining, of casino culture of the one percent, racial uniformity, an un-examined commitment to religious ideas, and arms commerce. As if this were not enough, the film ends (not really a SPOILER) with the beginning of an interracial relationship that doesn’t involve a white person […] Of course, the alt-right sees all of this as an attack on white males, and is now claiming responsibility for the low audience score the film currently has on Rotten Tomatoes.

Their obsessive hatred of The Last Jedi is also tied to white supremacists’ fascination with—even “love for—the Middle Ages. It was therefore delightfully unexpected to see a near-perfect echo of an obscure medieval story in one of the culminating scenes. And it was even better to see that story utterly transformed into a direct refutation of alt-right ideology.

In the final act of the film, the Resistance (our heroes) have fled the First Order’s mighty army. They hole up in a cave, behind a massive wall, with no apparent escape route. Enter, the film’s crystal fox, aka the “vulptex,” who saves the day.

The vulptex seems to be a reference to a 600-year-old story, perhaps signaled through its name (derived, as it is, from Latin). This may be an intentional medieval Easter egg, or it may be just an astonishing coincidence. But the film’s progressive intentions—its thorough and clearly intentional challenges to white supremacy, toxic masculinity, misused medievalism, and the rest of the fascist alt-right ideology—crystallize (pardon the pun) in the medievalesque scene with the vulptex in a fascinating way.

John Mandeville and the Knights of Ren

The medieval story that the Star Wars fox seems to be referencing appears in several texts, including The Book of John Mandeville. The Book of John Mandeville is a fourteenth-century travel narrative about the exploits of a likely fictional narrator:

John Mandeville, Knight, albeit I be not worthy, that was born in England, in the town of St. Albans, and passed the sea in the year of our Lord Jesu Christ, 1322 … and have seen and gone through many diverse lands, and many provinces and kingdoms and isles.

The Book of John Mandeville is not very well known today. But, it was the most popular secular book of the entire thousand years of the Middle Ages. It survives in over 300 manuscripts, and in the Middle Ages was translated into nine languages. For comparison, Beowulf survives in just one badly damaged manuscript.

The Book of John Mandeville was also massively culturally influential. Among other effects, Mandeville shaped Christopher Columbus’s expectations of what he might find in “India.” Though he was deeply mistaken about his location when he came ashore, Columbus saw the people he met through the lens of Mandeville’s ideas about India.

Alexander’s wall, depicted on the Psalter World Map, made around CE 1265. BL Add. MS 28681.

Mandeville’s popularity is concerning, since it is deeply racist in outlook. It sets up a European norm against which the rest of the world is judged. And worse, it bears particular venom for one small minority in particular.

Mandeville recounts a story about a dangerous group that Alexander the Great is chasing, trying to wipe from the earth. He traps them in a cave behind the largest gate in the world; they cannot escape. This story was so well known that this particular gate was included on many medieval maps of the world, appearing as a giant door in a massive rock wall.

A Middle English version of Mandeville is online here (read it out loud and it will be more or less clear). In updated English (slightly modified for clarity), The Book of Mandeville says:

And if you wish to know how they shall find their way out, I shall tell you what I have heard. In the time of anti-Christ, a fox shall make there his den, and dig a hole where King Alexander made the gates; and he will mine and pierce the earth until he shall pass through towards that folk. And when they see the fox, they will marvel greatly at him, because that they saw never such a beast. For of all other beasts they have enclosed amongst them, save only the fox. And then they shall chase him and pursue him so strait, until he comes to the same place that he came from. And then they shall dig and mine so strongly, until they find the huge gates that King Alexander made of great stones, well cemented and made strong. And those gates they shall break, and so go out.

An illustrated copy of Mandeville in the British Library shows Alexander outside the gate, and the tribe, heavily armed but still trapped within the cave. BL Harley MS 3954, 53r.

So, in other words, a fox dug a hole in the area near the gate and found the people. The people see the fox and are amazed because they have all other animals with them, but no foxes. So they chased it back to its den, and are able to break out of the cave by digging through the hole made by the fox.

That’s exactly the scene in The Last Jedi. Right down to the fox.

Rey rocks in The Last Jedi.

The Resistance is trapped in a cave behind a massive gate, outside of which lurks the Imperial army in all its might. As C3PO tells them, “BB8 has analyzed the mine’s schematics, and this is the only way in—or out.” There is no escape. But then, they notice a vulptex, and “pursue him” to a hole that is partially blocked with “great stones.” Ultimately, Rey is able to break them apart and free her compatriots through the power of the Force.

But here’s the kicker: in the original 14th-century text, the people described are the Jews.

“Funny, she doesn’t look Druish…”

The “folk” are, as Mandeville calls them in Middle English, “the Jewes.” The story of Alexander the Great was borrowed from ancient history by medieval artists and authors (like Mandeville) and transformed into a model of Christian kingship.

Here, Alexander is trying to imprison and destroy the Jews. Why? Because, as Mandeville (along with many other medieval stories) tells us, if they do not, those Jews will escape and destroy the world order. Mandeville says:

In the time of anti-Christ, … [the Jews] shall make great slaughter of Christian men … [and will] destroy the Christian people … [and] Christian men shall be under their subjection, as long as they have been in subjection under them.

They will end what these authors saw as the rightful hegemony of white, male, Christian Europe. Mandeville’s author (who may or may not actually be someone called John Mandeville), and the majority culture of medieval Europe thought this would be a bad thing.

Kylo offers Rey a place at his side in a Slightly Newer Order, in The Last Jedi.

That is, when the trapped Jews follow the fox to escape from the caves, they will then destroy the all-powerful, world-controlling empire that has tried and tried to eradicate them, and then will hold in subjugation those who once subjugated them. This is also, in essence, Kylo Ren’s offer to Rey. After their battle in Snoke’s throne room, he offers for them to join forces (recalling Vader’s offer to Luke) and replace the violent, intolerant, fascist (new) First Order (which replaced the violent, intolerant, fascist Empire) with yet another of violent, intolerant, fascist Slightly Newer Order.

Outfoxing the Alt-Right

There are two crucial differences between the old and new fox tales. First, in Mandeville, the territory-conquering ruler is the hero of the story. In this story, Alexander is as good a representative of prideful, conquering, violent, imperial patriarchy as one could ever want. This makes him heroic (if flawed) in medieval narratives.

A comparison of the “look” of General Hux (left) and a member of the alt-Right (right).

In The Last Jedi, these roles are reversed. The villains are the colonialist conquerors, here embodied in the patricidal Kylo Ren and his second in command (with an alt-right haircut), General Hux.

The second important difference is that The Last Jedi refuses the racist narrative that birth and lineage are destiny, a narrative that unfortunately plagued other installments of the franchise. The officers of the jackboot-wearing First Order are almost entirely white, male, human, and hell-bent on the domination and elimination of all otherness. If anything, the seemingly only woman in their ranks, Captain Phasma, is as much an exception that proves the rule. And similarly, one frosted-tipped darling of the real-world alt-right characterizes their movement as celebrating “homogeneity over diversity,” which, not coincidentally, is a fundamental element of how they imagine the Middle Ages to have been.

The Resistance is resplendent with color and diversity.

The Resistance, on the other hand, is gloriously filled with plurality and color. This fundamental difference is at the core of why the fascists hate them. The fascist aesthetic of the First Order—its shiny, polished boots, buttons, and floors—is a reflection of an ideology that sees difference as disorder, and disorder as a problem to be polished out of existence. The aesthetic of the Resistance, by contrast, shows how difference is strength. Not only are the Resistance fighters not all members of a tribe or sect, they are not even all members of the same species.

Star Wars: The Last Jedi transforms a toxic medieval story into a celebration of diversity. The medieval tale is a celebration of (and anxiety about) the power of the conquering empire to imprison and eliminate those who refuse to be assimilated. It is a meditation on those who refuse to submit to a society based on whiteness, uniformity, conformity, masculinity, and barely sublimated daddy issues.

The Last Jedi tells the same story, with all these same themes, but turns it into a spark of hope for a better, more-inclusive world. The film provides a model for how to engage with the compelling stories of the medieval past without repeating the errors of their authors. That’s a fox worth following.


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Race, Racism, and the Middle Ages

Not a Good Look: The SCA Swastika Incident

Part XLI in our ongoing series on Race, Racism and the Middle Ages, by Ken Mondschein. You can find his new book, Game of Thrones and the Medieval Art of War on Amazon here.

You can find the rest of the special series here

Content notice: as you might suspect considering the title, this article contains images of historical and historical reproduction garments with swastikas in the pattern.


A recent incident in the Society for Creative Anachronism (SCA) underscores the reason why public history is ground zero in the fight against alt-right appropriation of medieval imagery. Last month, two leading members of the organization had to answer for wearing fascist symbols as part of their costumes.

The SCA, estimated by the organization to be some 60,000 strong, is the world’s largest medieval living history organization. SCA members brew mead, cook feasts, fight in armor, and hold enormous camping events, creating an idealized image of the Middle Ages for their members to revel in. In some cases, their members also conduct historical research and reconstruction at high levels; SCA members have even presented at academic conferences on medieval studies.

On January 6, 2018, the “Kingdom of Caid” (a division of the SCA that encompasses primarily southern California and Nevada) held a “coronation” ceremony for its new king and queen—who go by the monikers Athanaric and Sigriðr within the Society. The group’s “kings” win their crowns in a fighting tournament. They and their preselected “queens” then “reign” for a fixed term—usually six months. There have been rare exceptions, such as when a woman won Crown Tournament in Texas in 1990 or when co-kings reigned in the American Midwest, but the interrelation of combat and rulership makes the system de facto patriarchal and hetero-normative.

During the ceremony, Athanaric and Sigriðr were seated on thrones on a stage in front of the population of the “kingdom” to be crowned. Afterwards, the “chivalry” (i.e. the top fighters who are also seen as role models) swore their loyalty to the new “royals”.

Such ceremonies are deeply meaningful to the participants. As scholar and Society member Michael A. Cramer wrote in his book Medieval Fantasy as Performance,

The effect of the SCA’s institutionalized ceremony and ritual… does more than simply build community. SCA ceremony, within the game of the SCA, exalts certain people and creates an almost cult-like atmosphere around the monarchs, which may be serious or tongue-in-cheek depending on who is playing the role.

But this is where the problem arose: during their coronation, the two SCA “royals” in question were photographed wearing costumes that included recreated 5th-century trim.

That trim included recognizable swastikas and HH (“Heil Hitler”) elements.

The Outcry and Apology

The offending outfit.

The presence of the swastikas and HH symbols only became clear when photographic portraits were posted online a week later. According to posts on Facebook, due to the distance, relatively small size, and the way the embroidery caught the light, these elements were not noticed by many people at the event itself. Additionally, the two reportedly did not wear the offending garb for the fealty-swearing portion of the ceremony.

Upon the publication of the photos, there was an immediate outcry from both SCA members and non-members. In light of the outcry, the two “royals” in question issued a statement on January 25 which read:

Sometimes you get so exited about something you downplay or ignore the negatives. In this case we have done so and have hurt some members of the populace. We got very exited about a piece of very complex historical art and making an extremely accurate presentation and felt the differences to modern interpretations would be sufficient and that everyone would agree with us. We were wrong. For this we apologize. Know that no offense was intended, no hidden message to interpret, and no hate to be displayed. For any communities hurt we are sorry to have caused you pain. The art created will not be further displayed upon the throne.

Their apology hinges upon two things: first, that the reproduction is an accurate reproduction of historical art, and second, that they did not mean offense by wearing it.

The original band, from the Snartemo V archaeological dig. Currently housed at the University of Oslo.

The former is true. The design came from the baldric of a sword found in 1933 in an archaeological dig in southern Norway. Both the swastika and “HH” elements are documentable to the original. The Hs are the rune Hagall in the Elder Futhark alphabet (used in Scandinavia from the 2nd to the 8th centuries CE). Both symbols were later appropriated by the Nazis. The sword itself has a history with the Third Reich: the Nazis coveted it as an authentic piece of “Aryan” heritage. They even had reproductions made of it. But it was hidden by the Norwegians until after the war.

However, this “historical accuracy” argument does not ring true to many.

“There are many equally old, equally documentable weaving patterns that do not have the history of these motifs,” wrote Lisa Evans, a textile scholar and SCA member from Easthampton, Massachusetts. She continued,

Despite its historicity, swastikas for personal heraldry were banned within three years of the SCA’s founding. I could see someone studying tablet weaving making a small sample to test a theory or improve their skill, since this is a complicated pattern. I could also see entering a piece in a competition with appropriate historical and contextual notes. However, there are plenty of other motifs that can be worn in lieu of swastikas.

For other SCA members, historical accuracy is no excuse for wearing a symbol widely known to be deeply offensive. As Arik Mendelvitz, a member of the SCA from Chicago, wrote on Facebook,

I have personally sat with elder members of my own family and had every third person in photo albums pointed to and described as “killed by the Nazis”… Wearing such a symbol on your person, especially as the public face of an entire kingdom, is utterly repulsive and can in no way be excused by “historical accuracy.”

Others also questioned the second aspect of the defense: whether the royals were as ignorant of the connotations of these symbols as they claimed to be. One SCA member, who did not wish to be quoted in this article, claimed in a Facebook post that Sigriðr had allegedly worn swastikas before, at least five years prior—and had been confronted for it. She allegedly rejected the objections at the time. If true, such a revelation undermines her claims of innocence in the more recent incident.

Schrödinger’s Swastika?

A fuller view of a reproduction Snartemo V trim.

It is also debatable whether their intent actually matters. In an earlier article in this series, Paul B. Sturtevant calls objects like this trim “Schrödinger’s medievalisms.” A Schrödinger’s medievalism is a piece of medievalia—like a Thor’s hammer—that is ambiguous because it has been appropriated by the far-right as a hate symbol, but is also used in other contexts. This ambiguity makes them unnerving, since it’s difficult to tell whether the person in question is a white supremacist or a Thor enthusiast.

There is an open debate amongst academic medievalists of how to deal with these sorts of “Schrödinger’s medievalisms.” Some medievalists feel that the use of any symbol that is used by the far right is not acceptable because it creates a space in which Jews, people of color, the LGBTQ community, and other historically targeted groups feel unsafe

However, in his essay on the subject, Sturtevant makes the case that ambiguous representations should interpreted in their context if their intent is unclear. The alt-right used milk as a white supremacist symbol last year; that does not mean that the few remaining milkmen are peddlers of hate speech.

The counterargument is that this approach can lead to “white innocence” (a denial of complicity or guilt that safeguards privilege). In today’s world, it is incumbent on each individual—particularly white people—to take into account the effect their words and actions might have on vulnerable groups.

In this incident, the denial of wrongdoing falls into the category of white innocence—or, perhaps, if they are true, in light of the allegations of past wearing of swastikas by the people in question, “white willful ignorance.” The royals made use of symbols whose connection to the Nazis is universally acknowledged, but attempted to excuse their actions through their intent. The same can be said of those SCA members who have argued that this is “not a big deal.” In other words, they promoted the precedence of declared intent over action or outcome.

There can be no imaginable defense for repeatedly wearing motifs that have become identified with the Third Reich, let alone at such an important ritual as a Coronation. The swastika is rarely an ambiguous symbol today, despite its historical origin.

The Aftermath

The SCA’s Board of Directors also found the costume unacceptable. On January 27, the SCA issued an official press release stating that the organization:

strongly condemns hate speech in any form by any officers and participants of this organization. The SCA… strives to include and be respectful of all people, regardless of race, gender, disability, sexual orientation, and politics. All participants are reminded of and expected to hold to these principles in participating in this organization and interacting with other people in person and in all forums, regardless of media. The Board of Directors… is concerned about this matter and has tasked the President of the SCA to immediately investigate.

When emailed for comment, the organization’s president, John Fulton, added that the “The SCA Board will not tolerate or allow groups or individuals who practice, display, or encourage hate, racism, or discrimination to damage our organization and participants.”

In the wake of this continued pressure, Athanaric and Sigriðr issued a second apology on January 28 and, on the evening of the 30th, stepped down. Their resignation is almost unprecedented in the SCA, and some within the SCA have found it disturbing. When reached for comment on the incident, Michael A. Cramer explained why:

People in the SCA are extremely invested in the underlying concepts, highly idealized, of honor and chivalry…. One reason this is causing such a rupture in the Kingdom of Caid is because the romantic ideal has been destroyed by something that the SCA is designed specifically to resist: modern politics… Most feel that their rightful king and hero has been unjustly taken from them. They feel like the Britons at the death of Arthur, or Troy after the defeat of Hector… They will probably get over it, because realistically, nobody has actually died… But right now, the ones who buy into the “dream” are devastated.

In other words, for some, the Society’s culture requires approaching the “dream” of the Middle Ages with a sort of un-ironic innocence. However, in a post-Charlottesville world, such innocence—especially when it manifests as white innocence about hate symbols like swastikas—is not acceptable within the organization.

This incident has spurred an intense conversation within the SCA about the display of hate symbols like the swastika. Cramer emphasized that, overall, the SCA is a tolerant, open, and diverse place:

Of course there are racists in the SCA, as there are everywhere, but open racism will get you kicked out quickly. The SCA is, on the whole, non-judgmental about people’s background.

Let us hope that he is right, and that the result of the fierce conversation happening in the SCA leads it into becoming a better, more consciously inclusive place.


Addendum: After this story went to press, it came out that another member of SCA royalty from An Tir (the Pacific Northwest) received and, despite some misgivings, wore a robe with similar trim in the summer of 2017, pre-Charlottesville. In the following months, he wore it twice more—once covered with fur, one not. In no case did anyone call attention to the swastika designs. In statements on Facebook, both he and the fabric artist who created the piece apologized and pledged to never wear it again, though he also stated that he would not “destroy a masterwork of art created by a friend who spent hundreds of hours on it” and expressed regret for what happened to the royalty of Caid. Nonetheless, it is encouraging to see the SCA and its members beginning to grapple with these difficult questions.

Addendum 2: Regarding the allegations of previous wearing of swastikas, according to several sources the conversation in question centered on whether or not a pin or brooch worn by the individual constituted a swastika or not. The object in question was a replica of a historical brooch or pin in the form of four horseheads arranged as a pinwheel (similar to that in the image to the right). 


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Race, Racism, and the Middle Ages

Race, Racism and the Middle Ages: Looking Back, Looking Forward

Part XXXX 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


“The way to right wrongs is to turn the light of truth upon them.” —Ida B. Wells-Barnett

The Public Medievalist launched our series on Race, Racism, and the Middle Ages in February, as a celebration of Black History Month. It was originally intended to have six installments.

This is number forty.

In that first month, it quickly became clear just how much there is to say on the topic of Race, Racism and the Middle Ages—and how much medievalists are interested in doing so. It is a complex set of interconnected issues that raise difficult questions about our past, our present, and our future.

So, we expanded the scope of the series, and asked for contributions. And medievalists answered the call! Ultimately, we have featured contributions from twenty-one different scholars working in four different countries. These scholars range from leading professors in this field to up-and-coming PhD students, and includes work by those within the traditional boundaries of academia and those, like myself, outside them.  And ultimately, this series has been read over 300,000 times, and used by teachers in at least 60 classrooms.

This series became far more than we could have ever expected.

In light of all of this I personally felt it would be a good moment to pause and reflect on the series and where we go from here.

We Hold These Truths to Be Self-Evident

When launching this series, we hoped that maybe, just maybe, the articles might help to convince a white-nationalist or two of the error of their ways. I personally no longer think that’s entirely realistic (though if I’m wrong on that, feel free to say so in the comments below). But what all of us here at The Public Medievalist do hope is that we have helped. We hope that we have provided firm evidence that can counter the hate and misinformation that white supremacists spread. We hope that we have armed more people with the tools to counter white-nationalist narratives. We hope that we have shown how these narratives have wormed their way into our culture. And we hope that we have taken at least one small step in shifting the popular perceptions of the Middle Ages for the better.

To do that, we have provided repeated evidence of a handful of simple truths about the Middle Ages—truths that are important enough for everyone to burn into their retinas.

We at The Public Medievalist aim to make the latest-and-greatest research in medieval studies accessible to everyone. But none of these particular core truths are new. None are especially controversial among most scholars; medievalists have known them for decades. But they are still not very well known outside of academia.

This is partly because this expansive view of the Middle Ages is not always taught—whether at the elementary, pre-collegiate, or collegiate level. It is also partly because the version of the Middle Ages that is most often presented in popular culture typically falls afoul of one or many of these truths.

And this is because of the legacies of racism. It’s easy to see those legacies in the torch-wielding mob in Charlottesville, or the self-described “alt-right” trolls. But many of the first great enthusiasts of the Middle Ages studied it with a mindset of proving the greatness of their nation or their race. Many of the first great medievalists conducted their foundational research in that vein as well. That history has echoes that can be heard today.

So, it is unsurprising that the incorrect ideologies of western European superiority, or even white superiority, are entwined in the public perception of the medieval past. It will take time, and work, to dislodge them fully.

The Public Medievalist is glad to be part of that effort.

So What Happens Now?

Aristotle, contemplative. BL Or.2784, f. 96r

This series is not over. In the coming months, we will be focusing on our new series Gender, Sexism and the Middle Ages (which, as you might expect, has a multitude of intersections with the subject of race). But we will publish new articles on the topic of Race, Racism and the Middle Ages as we receive them—so if you have an article you’d like to pitch, please do so.

There is still much more to be explored on the topic of Race, Racism and the Middle Ages. We did not have any contributions that addressed Byzantine history, or Constantinople as one of the great cultural melting-pot cities of the world. Speaking personally, I would love to see more articles on the medieval Muslim world (and I anticipate several will come in our new series). I crave more profiles of extraordinary medieval people who lived outside of Europe. Ibn Rushd. Al-Zahrawi. Maimonides. Mansa Musa Keita I. Al-Biruni. Arwa al-Sulayhi. The list goes on.

I need to see an article on the Cairo Geniza. Give me more articles on sub-Saharan Africa during the Middle Ages, and of the mounting archaeological evidence for contact between medieval Europe and the Islamic, Buddhist, and Mongol power centers. I would be absolutely thrilled to know more about the medieval skeletons of people from Africa that are being found in various corners of Europe (though in the meantime, I’ll content myself with reading everything Caitlin Green has ever written).

And, as has happened many times this year, I would love for an author to write an article on something I previously knew nothing at all about.

So in short, we here at TPM will continue to welcome articles on Race, Racism, and the Middle Ages, even if it is no longer our primary focus. We will keep publishing if you keep reading.

Thanks

I never expected this series to become what it has. Thank you to everyone who has read, shared, commented, and written. This site’s audience has grown by orders of magnitude since this series began, and it is all thanks to you sharing it with your friends, family, colleagues, and social media networks. Thank you.

Special thanks as well to those who have assigned us to their students. I know that teachers at over 60 universities have assigned The Public Medievalist articles for their courses—everywhere from the Universities of Oxford and Cambridge to small community colleges. And I know from our reader survey data and from personal anecdotes that our work is being used in high school and middle school classrooms as well. Thank you for sharing this series with your students. We hope they found it interesting, enlightening, and/or inspiring.

Thanks additionally go to our Deputy Editor, the no-longer-incognito Amy Kaufman (previously aka Dr. Dark Age), and to our newest editors Rob Houghton and Victoria Cooper, and editorial consultant Arielle Gingold. And double thanks to all of the contributors to the series, without whom it would not have become what it now is. I encourage you to check out all of their writing, both here and elsewhere on the internet.

I’ll see you in the New Year. Onward!


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Race, Racism, and the Middle Ages

Schrödinger’s Medievalisms

Part XXXIX 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


Sometimes it starts with a flag on the beach.

But first, a little context. This September, I took a vacation in Ocean City, Maryland. There was a lot to get away from. In addition to the general chaos and madness that has populated the news all year, three weeks prior had been the Charlottesville rally, where neo-Nazi medieval cosplayers murdered Heather Heyer and were subsequently called “very fine people”. A few weeks after Charlottesville, a medievalist at the University of Chicago crossed a major line by calling on her friend, Milo Yiannopoulos, to help target a medievalist of color who criticized her. Predictably, Milo’s army of followers began a major harassment campaign.

There have been a number of similar incidents too; medievalists have been grappling—sometimes with each other—with the racism that many of them see, both at the roots of this field, and also in the way the Middle Ages show up in so many racist incidents. When we launched the Race, Racism and the Middle Ages series here at The Public Medievalist, I certainly didn’t expect that events linking racism and medievalism would be splayed across the national news seemingly every week.

So if your medievalist colleague, teacher, friend, or spouse has been a bit more haggard than usual of late, this might explain it. It was a stressful summer.

Which might explain why, when I saw the flag on the beach, I nearly lost my damn mind.

Why We Can’t Have Nice Things

The flag in question.

Ocean City is a strange place. Most of its vacationing visitors come from the heavily diverse Washington DC, Baltimore, and Philadelphia areas. And Maryland fought for the Union in the Civil War—despite being a slave-holding state. But just by looking around, you can see how some locals have embraced a “Dixie” heritage that they never had. The tchotchke shops that line the beach have shelves upon shelves of items that bear the Battle Flag of the Army of Northern Virginia (often incorrectly called the “Confederate Flag”).

As a stark reminder, it’s just down the road from Cambridge, Maryland, a heavily segregated city that saw violent clashes between its white and black residents during the civil rights movement. It is a place very much on the border.

On the boardwalk in Ocean City, Maryland, there is a shop that sells, primarily, flags and kites. And like most boardwalk shops, they had set out a display—this time on the beach—of their wares: a line of flags from Britain, Romania, Lithuania, Serbia, Ukraine.

Then a flag at the end of the display caught my eye—a green field, with a Nordic cross in black. I flicked through my mental vexillological rolodex (built up from a youth wasted playing Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego?), and couldn’t place it. It was clearly a Scandinavian flag, but it wasn’t a flag of any of the Scandinavian countries I knew.

With some Googling, I found the answer, and that set my medievalist spidey-sense tingling.

Vinland, Vinland, Vinland, the Country Where I Want to Be

That is the “Vinnland flag”.

The “Vinnland flag.”

For those unaware, “Vinland” is the name given to North America by the Vikings who visited it. The name is first reported in Adam of Bremen’s eleventh century text Descriptio insularum Aquilonis, where, in a conversation with King Sweyn II of Denmark, Adam relates:

He spoke of yet another island of the many found in that ocean. It is called Vinland because vines producing excellent wine grow wild there. [note: this etymology is probably incorrect] That unsown crops also abound on that island we have ascertained not from fabulous reports but from the trustworthy relation of the Danes.

But the Viking colony in North America was not to last. Scholars found a Viking village at L’Anse aux Meadows, Newfoundland, dating to around CE 1000. But it was not occupied for very long.

And they certainly didn’t make a flag.

So where did this come from?

The band Type O Negative in concert in Berlin in 2007. Note the flags flanking the stage.

The Vinnland flag was designed in the 1990s by Peter Steele, bassist and singer for the popular goth metal band Type O Negative. This was apparently a fusion of the band’s colors (all of their album covers are black and green), and a representation of the singer’s interests in his Nordic heritage, environmentalism, and socialism.

This isn’t completely out of character for metal bands of that era. Several bands from this era fashioned new Viking mantles for themselves, because they considered the Vikings the ultimate bad-boys of medieval Europe. Simon Trafford and Aleks Pluskowski traced the origins and permutations of the “Viking metal” scene in their article “Antichrist Superstars: The Vikings in Hard Rock and Heavy Metal.” Several metal bands, especially (though not exclusively) ones originating in Scandinavia, appropriated Viking imagery and mythos through an hypermedieval, hypermasculine, misanthropically anti-Christian, anti-establishment lens.

So I’m sure you can see where this is going: this hypermasculine anti-establishment form of heritage often crossed the line into racist far-right nationalism. This closely echoes Nazi Germany’s own attempts to appropriate Viking symbols and mythologies, as Julian Richards explains:

In Germany under the Nazis a more sinister interpretation of Vikings developed […] When they came to power in 1933 they began a crusade against modern ‘decadent’ culture, systematically replacing it with their own version of Aryan culture, based on Vikings, Old Norse mythology, Wagner, and German peasant culture. The Vikings became part of the fair-haired, blue-eyed, clean-living ideal of the National Socialist Party.

But, as Trafford and Pluskowski explain, it’s important not to paint all metal bands with the brush of neo-Nazism:

an undercurrent of racism, nationalism and anti-Semitism continues to permeate many parts of the black metal scene. On the other hand there are a number of bands who are merely extremely interested in the Vikings, and Norse mythology in particular […] There are perhaps as many definitions of what constitutes Viking Metal as there are fans.

The metal band Manowar. Did I really need to include this image? No. But here we are. Photo by Fin Costello/Redferns

Type O Negative wasn’t an out-and-out Viking metal band like Enslaved or even Manowar. They only very occasionally used Viking imagery; the clearest connection to an imagined Viking past was in the Vinnland flag. Like the Vikings themselves, Type O Negative was open for interpretation by their fans, some of whom were (or are) white-nationalists. For example, ‘Vinnland’ has had a (deeply odd) website since 2007, the very end of the band’s career. It seems to be fan-created—though it is unclear exactly who wrote the site or why. It espouses a bizarre mythological origin story for the band:

For over 300 years the peoples of Vinnland have been suppressed by their corrupted rulers. Their history eradicated, their culture trampled under the boot of American capitalism and imperialism. Many were driven westward and put in “reserves”. Others were made to abandon their old practices and forcefully integrate into the society of the capitalist oppressor. Futhermore they were violently forced to convert to Christianity, abandoning their believes in the Æsirs, and forced to believe a monotheistic lie.

But the Vinnland blood strain, pale skinned, black haired people are spread throughout the lands of America.

They live unnoticed among us and wait for the day they can reclaim the country which is legally theirs and which they love so much. Under the leadership of the fearless Peter Steele the United Vinnland Peoples Front (disguised as the band Type O Negative) spreads its message of paganism, love for nature and socialist political ideals to the indigenous population of Vinnland.

This has all the hallmarks of the worst excesses of the Viking metal scene: a mythos created around anti-establishment and anti-Christian narratives that quickly pivots into a racist mythology about superior blood lines. But further resisting simple readings, it’s possible that this was all a half-baked joke. As a profile of Peter Steele, the band’s frontman, in The Atlantic upon his death in 2010 states:

Steele took nothing and everything seriously. Upon moving record labels in 2005, the band released a tombstone image on its Web site faking Steele’s death. Indeed, no one was ever sure if Steele was joking when he created a false, quasi-Nordic nation Republic of Vinnland, including a flag. Though he grew up in Bensonhurst and was close with Jewish bandmate Josh Silver, Steele’s half-baked deconstruction of American social welfare policy “Der Untermensch,” may not have been the best choice of language and topic for a song. The “Nazi sympathizer” tag followed Steele throughout his life.

A Riddle, Wrapped in a Mystery, Inside an Enigma

A protester wearing a “Kekistan” flag popular with the so-called “alt-right” in Portland, Oregon, U.S. June 4, 2017. Photo credit: Newsweek.

It’s easy to see then how Type O Negative might appeal to neo-Nazis who, rightly or wrongly, saw their ideology reflected in the band’s music and mythos. And so, those neo-Nazis appropriated their symbol; when you Google “Vinland Flag”, the first result is an entry from the Anti-Defamation League’s Hate Symbols Database. As the ADL writes:

In the early 2000s, white supremacists (most notably, the Vinlanders Social Club, a racist skinhead gang) began to appropriate the flag as a white supremacist symbol. Common variants involve adding one or more other hate symbols to the flag.

Despite its increasingly common use by white supremacists, many non-racists (including fans of Steele and Type O Negative) also use or display this symbol, so it should always be judged carefully in its context.

Having discovered all of this, while staring at the odd flag waving in the summer breeze, my eye started to twitch.

I was suddenly confronted with two equally likely possibilities:

  1. on the one hand, the Vinnland flag waving at me could be yet-another appropriation of the medieval (or in this case, a medievalism) by white-supremacists in order to push their hateful agenda;
  2. on the other hand stood the possibility that someone in the shop was not a neo-Nazi at all but simply a fan of Type O Negative, or mistook the flag for one of a real country.

Was it a racist dog whistle? Or was it simply a band flag?

Following the ADL’s advice of judging carefully in its context didn’t help either; the shop was an innocent-seeming place, full of flags and toys and kites and no obvious signs of white supremacy. On the other hand, one of the flags they flew outside was the “Thin Blue Line” flag. This flag was originally created to honor the sacrifices of police officers, but, you guessed it, the flag has subsequently been appropriated by those advocating that “Blue Lives Matter” in opposition of the Black Lives Matter movement.

So was this flag a white supremacist appropriation of the Middle Ages? I don’t know. And without more information about the person who chose and raised that flag, I can’t know.

That’s why I call it a Schrödinger’s Medievalism.

Quantum Medievalism

In the famous “Schrödinger’s cat” thought experiment, Erwin Schrödinger said (entirely theoretically) that because of quantum mechanics, if you put a cat in sealed box with a flask of poison and a radioactive trigger, you cannot tell what state the cat is in—whether it is alive or dead—without opening the box. So, without more information, the cat can, weirdly, be considered both alive and dead at the same time.

So, that Vinnland flag was a “Schrödinger’s medievalism.”

A Schrödinger’s Medievalism, in the flesh.

To my mind, a Schrödinger’s medievalism is a piece of medieval culture found in the wild that you know has been appropriated as a symbol by right-wing nationalists or racists. But, that piece of culture also has a broader, potentially benign, meaning. You can’t tell which is it until you get more information—and sometimes doing so is impossible. So, sometimes you are left in the uncomfortable position of having to treat it as both benign and hostile at the same time.

Another example of a Schrödinger’s medievalism involves something that Sierra Lomuto discussed in an excellent essay at In the Middle. Lomuto relates how she encountered a tattoo artist—who specializes at translating Celtic imagery from medieval manuscripts into body art—at a conference. There is nothing inherently racist about getting a Book of Kells inspired tattoo. But, as Lomuto explains, things took a turn in the Q&A session:

When asked about her clients’ motivations by an audience member, the artist explained that her clients are white people looking for a heritage to celebrate during a time when “being white is bad.”

She further explains:

It is one thing for an Irish person to celebrate their ethnic heritage with a Celtic tattoo and quite another for a white person to use Celtic iconography to symbolize their racial whiteness despite their actual heritage. Race and ethnicity are not interchangeable categories of identity. To celebrate one’s Irish, German, or Italian ethnicity is akin to celebrating one’s Ethiopian, Chilean, or Thai ethnicity. There is no equation to be made between whiteness and ethnic heritage. Whiteness is a racial category of privileged dominance; it is a power structure upheld by the oppression and marginalization of non-whiteness.

And Lomuto was not speaking from theory here; the conference presenter’s name was fêted on the neo-Nazi website Stormfront as someone who could provide racist body art that could fly under the radar:

the OP [Original Poster] asks for tattoo ideas and our conference speaker’s name is suggested along with the advice that Celtic crosses work better for tattoos because they are not as obvious as a swastika. The OP expresses concern about being ostracized for his beliefs, fully aware of the negative perception of white nationalists, and his respondents offer him ways in which he might be more covert. A Celtic tattoo is one such suggestion.

The Celtic tattoo is thus also a Schrödinger’s medievalism; if you spot someone wearing one, it is not immediately obvious whether the person sporting it is doing so for toxic reasons. And naturally, not knowing this can be anxiety-inducing.

Another example: I attended the Maryland Renaissance Festival this year, and in the crowd I noted a small group of four young people. They were all cosplaying, and all wearing replica amulets of Thor’s hammer. Thor’s hammer amulets are complicated; the ADL Hate Symbols Database has an entry for it.

Idris Elba as Heimdall leads a diverse group of Asgardians in Thor: Ragnarok.

For some white-nationalists, Thor is an icon of white Aryan warrior masculinity. But Marvel’s Thor comic books and films have been reimagining the Norse mythological tradition in a way that is more inclusive than ever. And notably, three of the four cosplayers I saw were people of color. For them, it seemed that Viking religion was simply cool, and the amulets were part of a fun costume.

White supremacists try to appropriate these sort of symbols precisely for this reason: it’s easy for them to hide in plain sight, allowing them to slip under our radar. And even more insidiously, when it comes to light that these are sometimes used as symbols of hate, it can make white supremacists’ numbers seem greater than they really are. To extend the metaphor, it floods our radar with false positives, causing us to see white supremacy everywhere, even in places where it is not.

Having written about the white supremacist attempts to appropriate the Middle Ages this year, I now see Schrödinger’s medievalisms all the time. And in the light of the very real white supremacy splayed across our politics and our news every day, it’s very difficult not to get freaked out.

On What Hills Do We Die?

This leads us to the final question: what do we do about it? This is a critical question for anyone who loves the Middle Ages in a time of resurgent blatant racism. Broadly speaking, there seem to be two options: we can cede the territory, labeling these symbols entirely problematic and banning them outright. Or we can fight for them.

The answer is not quite as simple as it might seem—there are benefits to the former. If we cede the territory, that makes our radar clearer; if we make it clear that the Vinland flag should today be always considered a racist symbol, then we know what it means when someone flies it. It makes the world a little less ambiguous, a little less scary.

But that has drawbacks, too, because it is ceding the medieval history we love and study to those who would twist it for their aims. Of course, some symbols have definitely been compromised to such a degree that they are likely unrecoverable; unless you follow Hinduism, Buddhism, or Jainism, the swastika is not for you.

But there is value in fighting for our more-ambiguous historical symbols. It shows that, as people who love the Middle Ages, we are not willing to leave it to be twisted by those who would use it to promote a hateful agenda. It shows that the Middle Ages itself is not what those who abuse it say it is; it is broader, more complex, and more inclusive than they would ever imagine.

There is absolutely no reason that those cosplayers shouldn’t have worn Thor’s hammer to the renaissance fair. Though it is used as a racist symbol by some, it doesn’t belong to white supremacists. And even a supposed “historical accuracy” argument doesn’t hold water; we have found evidence that suggests that a few people of color may have worn them during the Viking Age!

Yes, the Nazis used (and neo-Nazis still use) Viking symbols. But let us not forget, as Lars Lönnroth reminds us in his chapter of The Oxford Illustrated History of the Vikings, that these also offered strength to those fighting the Nazis:

As a matter of fact, Viking symbols were also used by the Resistance movement in its underground war against the German occupation. One legendary Resistance group in southern Denmark, for example, was named Holger Danske after a famous Old Norse saga hero. Its members mainly consisted of farmer who had grown up in the Grundtvigian folk high school tradition and therefore found it quite natural to be inspired by Norse mythology in their struggle against the German enemy.

This is, in essence, what we have been trying to do with the The Public Medievalist’s Race, Racism and the Middle Ages series: fighting for the idea that the Middle Ages is not territory that we are willing to cede, and showing that  the Middle Ages are also full of stories that can offer us strength and hope today. So if white supremacists want it, they are going to have to go through us.


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Race, Racism, and the Middle Ages

The Virgin Mary: Beautiful and Black?

Part XXXVIII in our ongoing series on Race, Racism and the Middle Ages, by Sarah Randles. You can find the rest of the special series here


Medieval Christians did not care what race the Virgin Mary was.

That comes from the blog of Professor Rachel Fulton Brown, medievalist at the University of Chicago. While we here at The Public Medievalist try not to weigh in too heavily on active academic debates, this time, we’ll make an exception. The reason is that her article was snarkily titled ‘How to Signal you are not a White Supremacist’. Professor Fulton Brown appeared to be arguing that the Middle Ages could not be used to support modern white supremacism, because medieval people were not racist.

We here at The Public Medievalist have taken some rather great pains in the past nine months to uncover the answer of the deceptively simple question ‘Were medieval people racist?’ The answer has been, as they almost always are with deceptively simple questions like this, ‘it’s complicated’. But in that complexity, the answer is certainly not a simple ‘no’.

To briefly summarize her argument: Fulton Brown’s chief evidence is the stained glass window above, known as the Belle Verrière, at Chartres Cathedral. Fulton Brown interprets the figure at the centre as a dark-skinned Virgin Mary. She implies that this means medieval people understood the Virgin Mary as a dark-skinned Jewish woman. And thus, they cannot be racist.

This is not true; in that particular image Mary does not have dark skin, medieval European Christians did not generally think of her as dark-skinned, and many medieval people were racist (though race and racism were very different then).

There is a bigger question, however. Did medieval European Christians think of biblical characters—especially figures like the Virgin—as Jewish or dark-skinned? And what does that mean about their perception of race?

A Look at the Evidence

Face of Notre-Dame de la Belle Verrière, after cleaning © Stuart Whatling.

Thankfully, Marian at Mostly Medieval has already shown that the face of the Virgin in the Belle-Verrière was not originally intended to be dark. But I can show you why: the ‘close up’ photo of the Virgin’s face that Fulton Brown posted is from a Wikimedia photo taken by Hans Bernhard in 1964. After 1964, Belle Verrière underwent both restoration and cleaning; the glass had its patina of age removed, and its cracks were fixed. As you might guess, the Virgin’s face is now much lighter, as noted by Marian in her blog post. You can see the results in this detailed photograph by Dr. Stuart Watling (right).

So, this Virgin Mary in Chartres wasn’t dark-skinned, just dirty.

And moreover, she’s not even medieval. As Marian noted, a restoration was undertaken in 1906, which replaced the previous glass—which was itself a restoration of unknown date! The brown mottling still evident on the panel as it has been restored today suggests either that it underwent the same browning corrosion which affected the medieval glass, in a process which accelerated in the twentieth century, or that the 1906 restorer attempted to replicate the damage already evident in other medieval glass in the cathedral.

Cult of the Carts, Miracles of the Virgin Window, Chartres Cathedral © Stuart Whatling

Marian has also pointed out that the Virgin’s face, in its current state, is no darker than many of the other faces in the medieval stained glass at Chartres.  To this I’d add that there are many figures at Chartres with a brown skin tone where there is no biblical precedent to suggest they might have been intended to represent Jewish or sub-Saharan African people.  Even a scene from the “Miracles of the Virgin” window (believed to depict the parishioners of Chartres pulling carts to assist in the rebuilding of the Cathedral), shows people with a range of different skin tones, including some which are as dark as the cleaned version of the Virgin’s face in the Belle Verrière.

Simply put, we can’t know the original colour of the Virgin’s face in the Belle Verrière, but there is no evidence that she was ever intended to be depicted as having dark skin.  Judging by the colour of her face in the many thirteenth-century windows at Chartres, it seems it would have been exceptional if she had been.

However, Mary was associated with an Old Testament text from the Song of Songs which reads:

I am black, but beautiful.*

[Nigra sum, sed formosa. Song of Songs 1:5]

These lyrics were commonly sung as a short refrain (called an ‘antiphon‘) in the feasts of the Virgin. But despite the association of the Mary with the ‘nigra sed formosa’ woman of the Song of Songs in Liturgy, I do not know of any depiction of the Virgin Mary as dark skinned in stained glass, or, for that matter, in any manuscript illuminations, wall paintings or embroidery.

In only two media in medieval art does the Virgin appear, at least on the face of it, to have been depicted with dark skin: wooden statues common in Western Europe, especially in France from the twelfth century onwards, and later, icon-like paintings to the east.

“La Moreneta” (the Virgin of Montserrat), housed at the monastery of Santa Maria de Montserrat, Spain. Likely 12th century, and also likely not originally with such a dark skin tone. Photograph From Wikimedia Commons.

Hundreds of medieval black Madonna statues have been found in Western Europe, many of them venerated as cult objects at various times during the Middle Ages and beyond.  However, it remains a subject of debate as to whether individual statues were originally intended to be black, or whether they have become so over time (by either being painted or losing their paint). For example, the famous black Virgin of Montserrat (right), and the Notre-Dame du Pilier statue at Chartres have recently been shown to have originally had much lighter skin tone.

The blackness of these statues and images became an essential part of why and how they were used in worship. However, this does not necessarily mean that that the blackness of the statues was ever clearly associated with the idea of dark skin or that the people who venerated them thought that the Virgin Mary herself had dark skin.

Was Mary Jewish?

So if she was not depicted as dark-skinned, was the Virgin Mary depicted as Jewish?  This is a more difficult question to answer.  In medieval Christian art, Jewish men are usually denoted by the Judenhut (Jewish hat), sometimes by long beards, and frequently by anti-Semitic caricatures. But there is no standard way that medieval Europeans depicted Jewish women.  Often they were portrayed in a way that does not mark them as different from Christian women—including showing no difference in skin tone. When they are depicted with negative stereotypes, they are depicted as sexually promiscuous. Obviously the Virgin Mary isn’t going to be depicted that way.

There are a few pieces of medieval art where Mary is shown unequivocally as Jewish. Those typically depict the Presentation of the Virgin to the Temple, an event which takes place in Mary’s childhood (but only in the apocryphal Protoevangelium of James—which was, essentially, a New Testament prequel).

In these images Mary’s Jewishness is implied by the context, rather than in her dress or body.  In fact, Jewishness was rarely associated with dark skin in medieval Christian art–it is likely that medieval Christian artists, especially those in Northern and Western Europe, were familiar with Jewish people in their own communities who likely did not necessarily have darker skin.

While medieval Christians, including artists, understood intellectually that Christ and Mary were both Jewish and from the Middle East, this was of not something that was generally emphasised in medieval art. And in the case of the Virgin, at least, there was no visual language of difference that could indicate that she was Jewish.

People of Colour in Medieval European Art

Detail of the Verduner altarpiece in Klosterneuburg, Austria by Nicholas of Verdun, c. 1181. Photograph by Hans A. Rosbach/CC-BY-SA 3.0.

Even though the Virgin was not depicted as a person of colour, many people of colour are depicted in medieval images—if you want to explore some, see the excellent series The Image of the Black in Western Art, or the popular Tumblr site People of Color in European Art History.

It is clear that over the course of the Middle Ages, there was a developing tradition of depicting blackness in medieval European art. But why, if the Virgin Mary was associated with the ‘nigra sum sed formosa’ text, did medieval artists not depict her as a sub-Saharan African woman?  Was it because dark-skinned people were unknown to the artists?

In twelfth-century Western Europe when the Chartres windows were made, images of sub-Saharan African people were rare. But they become more common in the later Middle Ages, reflecting increased contact between people of different cultures.  While the ‘nigra sum sed formosa’ text was used in medieval liturgies which celebrated the Virgin Mary, it was also associated with the Queen of Sheba, who is depicted as dark-skinned in some medieval works of art from the twelfth century onwards.

Detail of Hans Vintler, Die Pluemen der Tugent (Tirol 1411), Österreichische Nationalbibliothek Cod.13567 fol.6r. Photograph by Jeff Bowersox, under a Creative Commons 4.0 International Licence.

However, in other works, the Queen of Sheba is depicted with light skin, as in one late-twelfth-century window at Canterbury Cathedral. In one fifteenth-century manuscript (right) she was originally depicted as light skinned, with blonde hair, but her skin was overpainted by a later illuminator, suggesting that the later artist was aware of conflicting models for depicting the Old Testament queen.

It seems, then, that in spite of being familiar with the use in liturgy of the ‘nigra sum sed formosa’ text that associated the Virgin Mary with the ‘black but beautiful’ woman of the Song of Songs, medieval artists actively chose to depict her with light skin—at least in the vast majority of Western European medieval images.

Medieval Whitewashing?

Should this then be interpreted as evidence for medieval racism?  Were medieval Christian artists deliberately whitewashing a woman they believed to have dark skin in order to recreate her in their own image?

For the most part, medieval artists depicted the Virgin and other biblical characters in clothing and settings which mirrored their own—although that changed a bit in the later Middle Ages, when some artists attempted to historicise biblical depictions. But this does not mean that the practice of depicting Mary as a medieval European light-skinned woman was intended to remove an existing understanding of Mary as a person of colour from the visual record.

Medieval artists did not inherit a tradition of depicting the Virgin with dark skin. The ‘nigra sum sed formosa’ text from the Song of Songs was not necessarily understood literally. Like other Old Testament texts, it was interpreted typologically—as prefiguring the New Testament—and may never have been understood as meaning that the Virgin had dark skin.  Although some of the black Madonna statues have been inscribed with the text from the Song of Songs, more research needs to be done to determine whether the inscriptions were made at the same time as the statues, or whether they were added later (perhaps to explain the colour that the statues had become over time).

Moreover, dark skin did not always have negative connotations for medieval Christians. The black magus at the Nativity and St. Maurice were understood to be sub-Saharan African people, and they were revered figures in the later Middle Ages. But as other contributors have explored in their articles in this series, some medieval European thinkers did equate blackness with evil. Like I said at the beginning of this article: it’s complicated. Not all medieval Europeans believed the same things.

Nonetheless, in creating the Virgin and Christ in their own image, medieval Christian artists, perhaps unwittingly, produced a visual world where people of colour were clearly framed as other.  In doing so, they may not have been racist in the modern sense, but the legacy of their imagery was centuries in which the Virgin and Christ were made white.

For Further Reading

Chantal Bouchon, ‘Un vitrail emblématique: Notre-Dame de Belle-Verrière’, in La Grâce d’une Cathédrale: Chartres, ed. Michel Pansard et al. (Strassbourg: Nuée Bluee, 2013), 217–21.


* Editor’s Note: The original translation of the ‘Nigra sum sed formosa’ text is considered by many scholars to actually be a mistranslation into Latin from the original Hebrew, which should more-accurately (and less-pejoratively) read ‘Nigra sum et formosa’, or, ‘I am black and beautiful’. That being said, it does seem as though the medieval church used the original ‘sed’ mistranslation. For more on how this one word can change the entire meaning, have a look at Kate Lowe‘s article on the topic here.


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Race, Racism, and the Middle Ages

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

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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