Race, Racism, and the Middle Ages

Leaving “Medieval” Charlottesville

The Statue of Robert E. Lee in Charlottesville, Virginia, during the protests on August 12, 2017.

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Credit: Edu Bayer for the New York Times.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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