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People of Color are not an anachronism
December 8, 2013 9:12 AM   Subscribe

The Tumblr blog People of Color in European Art History, or medievalpoc for short, has a simple mission: to showcase works of art from European history that feature People of Color. All too often, these works go unseen in museums, Art History classes, online galleries, and other venues because of retroactive whitewashing of Medieval Europe, Scandinavia, and Asia.

As well as posting beautiful images and their eye-opening backstories, usually multiple times per day, the blogger behind medievalpoc also includes fearsome lists of citations to books, papers and other resources. With the aim of broadening access to educational materials and art-historical discussion, the blog often features reader contributions and lively debates. These are sometimes pepped up with medieval reaction shots (NSFW image at the top of that page). Particularly terrible commenters may even receive the medieval butthole (NSFW).

Some of medievalpoc's greatest hits and best bits:

- Sir Morien, Black Knight of the Round Table
- The Sa’wkele, The Ku-Ku, The Boqta, The Henin: How the Mongol Occupation of Europe Changed European Women’s Fashion Forever
- Agostino Brunias's 18th century West Indian paintings
- The Portugal tag contains, as well as Portuguese artworks, a wealth of depictions of Portuguese traders by West African, Indian and Japanese artists
- In the books tag, you'll find many recommendations for historical fiction and high fantasy featuring people of color as characters

Themed weeks:

- 1800s Week
- Ancient Art Week
- Adorationpalooza, showing off the many many depictions of the black king, Balthazar, at the Adoration of the Magi

If all this has whetted your appetite, be sure to check out these other great historical tumblrs: Afro-Textured Art and Non-Western Historical Fashion.
posted by daisyk (107 comments total) 141 users marked this as a favorite

 
I was planning on posting this but you did a much better job
posted by The Whelk at 9:15 AM on December 8, 2013 [5 favorites]


That is so kind of you to say. Thank you!
posted by daisyk at 9:18 AM on December 8, 2013 [1 favorite]


I've been following this blog for a while and never fail to learn something new from it - or to appreciate how much the author puts up with in the name of education.
posted by northernish at 9:23 AM on December 8, 2013 [1 favorite]


This tumblr is one of the best tumblrs out there, IMO. It really uses the medium to the fullest, the writer is extremely smart and has great instincts for relevant scholarship, and the subject is just awesome on many levels, artistically, historically and politically.

I have always wanted to know more about those people of color who are mentioned in passing in historical accounts or novels - I figured that people got around a lot in the ancient world, so there must have been people of color in medieval/early renaissance Europe plus a lot of cross-influence from Asia and Africa, but it seemed to be hard to find accessible information - but then there was this tumblr!

Thanks for posting it - if there were ever a tumblr that deserves a giant audience, it is this one!
posted by Frowner at 9:24 AM on December 8, 2013 [2 favorites]


I love the blogger's work and I'm really glad to see this posted here. I've learned a lot from it and I have an MA in history (with emphasis on medieval legal history).

(And yeah, the author does put up with a lot in the name of education. You will see a lot of reblogs dealing with stupid, ignorant, and hateful commentary on the posts if you follow.)
posted by immlass at 9:27 AM on December 8, 2013


Darn cool post there.
These gray folks, though? not necessarily people of color.
They appear to be the resurrected dead, rising from their coffins.
posted by Trinity-Gehenna at 9:30 AM on December 8, 2013 [3 favorites]


I was planning on posting this but you did a much better job.

Ditto.
posted by MartinWisse at 9:31 AM on December 8, 2013 [1 favorite]


I'm sure the author has linked to it, but I also recommend the recent exhibit Revealing the African Presence, which includes some ancient examples but highlights more recent periods. I am always astounded when people assume the Roman Empire, which included North Africa (shout out to Septimius Severus) in addition to the Levant and parts of the Near East, was made up solely of white dudes.
posted by jetlagaddict at 9:33 AM on December 8, 2013 [6 favorites]


Pretty sweet find!
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 9:58 AM on December 8, 2013


All too often, these works go unseen in museums, Art History classes, online galleries, and other venues because of retroactive whitewashing of Medieval Europe, Scandinavia, and Asia.

Where's the evidence of this?

The ubiquity in modern media to display a fictitiously all-white Europe is often thoughtlessly and inaccurately justified by claims of “historical accuracy

Where's the evidence of this?

I find the art fascinating, but the idea that museums and art historians et al have undertaken a conspiracy to "whitewash Europe" (and Asia?? Huh??) can't just be asserted like this.
posted by ethnomethodologist at 10:32 AM on December 8, 2013 [3 favorites]


ethnomethodologist, maybe you should go read the linked blog. the blogger answers this question repeatedly, with plenty of evidence.
posted by Tesseractive at 10:42 AM on December 8, 2013 [23 favorites]


Where's the evidence of this?

http://medievalpoc.tumblr.com/search/resources
posted by Celsius1414 at 10:43 AM on December 8, 2013 [7 favorites]


I actually held off on posting this for a while, because I was so sure it must already have been linked on the blue!

And yeah, I agree with you guys about how much the blogger puts up with. It was eye-opening in a much less enjoyable way for me when I realised how many actual racists and white supremacists there are on Tumblr.
posted by daisyk at 11:06 AM on December 8, 2013 [1 favorite]


But if you want to see some direct, obvious whitewashing, go to the Agostino Brunias link in the original post.
posted by sukeban at 11:12 AM on December 8, 2013 [2 favorites]


This is fascinating, and it had never occurred to me before that some sub-Saharan Africans may have lived in Europe as early as these examples - even though it's obvious in retrospect, the trade routes date from antiquity, and it's inevitable that some people would've come along for the ride.

But, I do notice that "POC" seems like a bit of a redefinition in some cases - the contemporary authors calling attention to phenotypical differences of course but usually calling the people "Moors" or Andalusians or the like. I think even moderately well-educated people are aware that Semitic peoples colonized/ruled large parts of the (European) Mediterranean, almost until modern times and even today in the case of Malta.
posted by downing street memo at 11:13 AM on December 8, 2013


I find the art fascinating, but the idea that museums and art historians et al have undertaken a conspiracy to "whitewash Europe" (and Asia?? Huh??) can't just be asserted like this.

I can't speak for medieval academics, but that has certainly been my experience in the field of Classics. I have had multiple colleagues - and previously multiple professors - adopt unsupported hypotheses in order to assert that any developments of note originated in Greece and not in the Near East or North Africa. Even in cases where the physical records show an innovation by, say, the Libyans predating the adoption of the same innovation by the Mycenaeans, it will be blithely asserted that the Greeks invented it first, taught it to the Libyans, lost the knowledge in the Dark Age, and then re-learnt their own innovation from their eastern neighbours.

These people are not necessarily white supremacists looking to forward an agenda; however, they are working from such an ingrained "knowledge" that all markers of civilization originated with white people that they then tailor facts in the only way that make sense to them in order to maintain their worldview. To extend this to the art world, see also Classical art historians who have held that in scenes portraying figures with light and dark colouring the diversity of skin colour must be symbolic - the darker figures being men who worked outdoors and the lighter women who stayed indoors, or the darker being peasants and the lighter being nobility - rather than entertaining the existence of diverse populations, even in centres of trade where we know that people of multiple countries and continents met to do business.
posted by northernish at 11:17 AM on December 8, 2013 [23 favorites]


The ubiquity in modern media to display a fictitiously all-white Europe is often thoughtlessly and inaccurately justified by claims of “historical accuracy”

Looking at the comments on the blog and the blogger's rebuttals, this kind of argument about the gray-skinned people is very much the kind of claim that the blogger is objecting to. It appears that anyone who suggests that a painting is not intended to depict a person of color is also engaging in whitewashing. It's a shame, because these are fascinating images.
posted by Wordwoman at 11:20 AM on December 8, 2013


At least the two on the left look to me swarthy with black, curly-textured hair, others are ever so slightly lighter-skinned. Most images in the blog depict one or more POC, and the author includes people of Northern African descent in the POC category. So yeah, the author has a case.
posted by sukeban at 11:35 AM on December 8, 2013 [1 favorite]


I am kicking myself for not posting this, because I assumed that such an important blog would have been posted to the blue already. But then again, daisyk did an incredible job, much better than I would have.

As for whitewashing, I see it a lot in the gaming areas, where people make pseudeuropean or pseudoroman settings that are completely white, and justify it on the basis that "Everybody knows there weren't any non-whites in Europe". I think this is linked to the notion that "nobody travelled more than ten miles from home"; take that to it's illogical conclusion, and it may seem reasonable that people of color wouldn't have traveled anywhere in Europe. In any case, given the influence on young people these games can have, countering the claims of an all-white Europe is important.

I also see the same argument used in criticizing the presence of blacks in semi-historical films; dies anybody remember the complaints about Robin Hood for including a Moor? (Admittedly, there was a lot to complain about in that film)

And actually, if people want examples if whitewashing, just hang around this thread long enough. I guarantee there will be people popping up to say "Oh those weren't REALLY People of Color"...
posted by happyroach at 11:43 AM on December 8, 2013 [4 favorites]


Wow, The Captive Slave is an astonishing piece of art/social criticism, even more so when you know the story of Ira Aldridge, the black Shakesperian actor who posed for it.

So fucking absurd that painting sat unseen for 180 years. Great post, daisyk.
posted by mediareport at 11:44 AM on December 8, 2013 [1 favorite]


It "sat unseen" because it was in a private collection.
posted by Wordwoman at 11:51 AM on December 8, 2013 [3 favorites]


and I find this criticism of the painting to be more interesting than any insinuations that the painting has been suppressed.
posted by Wordwoman at 11:54 AM on December 8, 2013


This is fuckin awesome. I had no idea, and I'm looking forward to continuing to wade through all this. I'm knee deep now, but I expect to be hip-deep soon!
posted by rmd1023 at 11:55 AM on December 8, 2013


At least the two on the left look to me swarthy with black, curly-textured hair, others are ever so slightly lighter-skinned. Most images in the blog depict one or more POC, and the author includes people of Northern African descent in the POC category. So yeah, the author has a case.

Right, I guess my thing is that it feels kind of historically inaccurate to import modern notions of racial categorization - whiteness, POCness, etc - to the medieval era. I agree that what we'd define as a black African would certainly have been seen as "other" by white Christendom, but I don't know if this is the case for Moors and other Semitic groups of North African and Levantine origin, which western Europe certainly would've come into contact with regularly via trade, the Crusades, etc.

And I suppose that's the whole point here - that Europe wasn't a sea of white faces, and more broadly that no place in the old world was a sea of any particular kind of faces (India had Jews and people with very European features like the Parsees, China had a somewhat substantial population of Jews in the Medieval era, etc). But by using modern binary terms like "white" and "POC" the author undermines this thesis a bit, I think.
posted by downing street memo at 11:58 AM on December 8, 2013 [4 favorites]


Not sure where you're getting the insinuation that The Captive Slave was deliberately suppressed, Wordwoman; that's nowhere in the post at medievalpoc or in my comment. My instinct is that the more boring/common standard devaluation of the work due to its subject matter is why it was never loaned out or offered for view until 2009.

Also, that criticism you link is interesting in its reminder that slaves were agents in their own right who rebelled in many ways, but ultimately falters for me in its insistence that a painting made in 1827 during the UK abolitionist struggle using a successful free black man of the day as its model is little more than art that "flatters its audience by appealing to their sense of benevolent superiority without threatening their power over the black subject by treating him as an agent of self-emancipation."

That's quite a pomo stretch and really rings hollow to me.
posted by mediareport at 12:06 PM on December 8, 2013 [5 favorites]


But by using modern binary terms like "white" and "POC" the author undermines this thesis a bit, I think.

I mean I think this is in part because this is a tumblr, which means the author also uses LOL WUT and memes; he or she is using them as shorthand to relate to a modern audience in part because the focus is on modern scholarship's use of these works and their reception today. I also have to say that I think you're overestimating most people's conceptualization of Europe as something other than "a sea of white faces"-- I wish it were otherwise but generally speaking trade routes and the normal migration of people in pre-modern times is not something a lot of basic history courses (grade school, college, etc.) appear to touch on.
posted by jetlagaddict at 12:12 PM on December 8, 2013 [1 favorite]


Right, I guess my thing is that it feels kind of historically inaccurate to import modern notions of racial categorization - whiteness, POCness, etc - to the medieval era. I agree that what we'd define as a black African would certainly have been seen as "other" by white Christendom, but I don't know if this is the case for Moors and other Semitic groups of North African and Levantine origin, which western Europe certainly would've come into contact with regularly via trade, the Crusades, etc.

There's some interesting stuff about race going on in Parzival. IIRC, Feirefiz is meant to be mixed race, which obviously meant he had black and white spots. Definitely the fact that Feirefiz isn't Christian is a big deal, but I haven't read enough of Parzival to know how closely perceptions of his race and religion are tied in the book.
posted by hoyland at 12:24 PM on December 8, 2013


downingstreetmemo: Yeah, the difference between modern and historical racial categorisations is something the blog has touched on a few times (and something I knew nothing about before I started reading it). This post is an interesting example. It seems to be the case that in the middle ages, religious differences were more notable than the racial differences we see now - a lot of the time, Muslims or Jews are marked out as 'other' (from a Christian standpoint), but people who may well have been of non-white race aren't unambiguously shown/described as such, to the modern viewer.

I think jetlagaddict is right about the terms being used to relate to a modern audience. I also remember reading a post saying that the combination of 'medieval' and 'POC' is intentionally provocative, because for a lot of the blog's intended audience they are totally incompatible.
posted by daisyk at 12:26 PM on December 8, 2013 [2 favorites]


Some of these examples seem interesting , some of them seem unconvincing or crazy overreaching. E.g. the blogger apparently identifies corpses ( with corpsey skin color) rising from their graves/coffins on Judgement Day as people of color.
posted by Bwithh at 12:31 PM on December 8, 2013 [1 favorite]


^You mean the guys who look Maghrebi. And you missed the two dark-skinned angels.
posted by sukeban at 12:38 PM on December 8, 2013 [4 favorites]


E.g. the blogger apparently identifies corpses ( with corpsey skin color) rising from their graves/coffins on Judgement Day as people of color.

Corpses with a variety of colors/textures of hair, similar to the hair seen on the darker-skinned living folks in the other parts of the picture that are highlighted.

People will tie themselves into pretzels to avoid having their preconceptions challenged, I swear.

It's not just suppression, either: in several cases the blogger identifies, there's evidence that there was literal whitewashing.
posted by kagredon at 12:43 PM on December 8, 2013 [9 favorites]


The problem is, when Europe does recognize traditions involving People of Color, you end up with Black Pete. (Best commentary on the subject here)
posted by oneswellfoop at 12:51 PM on December 8, 2013 [2 favorites]


It's so funny to me that some folks are focusing on the corpse image instead of being amazed at the blog's stunning richness of documentation of people of color in European mythology and art, like that fascinating post about the "black as a raven" knight Sir Morien, with its equally fascinating link to "Black Knights, Green Knights, Knights of Color All A-Round: Race and the Round Table," which discusses Arabic and African characters in the Arthurian legends (plus has amazing links of its own like the one about the probable African origins of the Lady of York skeleton).

I had no idea of any of that, and that's just one post. Quibbling about the skin color of zombies seems silly compared to exploring the clearly documented and just as clearly under-appreciated diversity of racial expression that's the blog's mission.
posted by mediareport at 1:01 PM on December 8, 2013 [12 favorites]


This is great. It reminded me of a show I watched last year about a skeleton and the science and historical search that led to it's eventual identification. The show talks about things that fit with what this tumbler is suggesting. I too had a similar 'well duh, of course POC were around, why wasn't it obvious before' moment when watching it. It's cool to see what else is out there.

History Cold Case Ipswich Man
posted by Jalliah at 1:09 PM on December 8, 2013


It seems obvious that Europeans at the time of the crusades must have known lots of people of color, in both positive and negative functions, and at that time, it must have been obvious that the holy family were Semites.
But also before and after that: there has always been a lot of trade between North and South, East and West. Some of those tradesmen must have settled wherever they went - because of business or love or life. The most obvious place we find it is in Othello - Othello is special, but he is not exotic. If he were the only black person ever in the universe of the audience in the Globe Theatre, he would be exotic, but he is clearly not.
posted by mumimor at 1:22 PM on December 8, 2013 [4 favorites]


"retroactive whitewashing of (...) Scandinavia"

Evidence and examples on this "whitewashing" of Scandinavia, please.
posted by iviken at 1:43 PM on December 8, 2013 [1 favorite]


Evidence and examples on this "whitewashing" of Scandinavia, please.
How about this post? Or maybe try this one?

(And I'm not touching the discussion on Disney's Frozen with a 10 foot pole, but sheesh.)
posted by sukeban at 2:07 PM on December 8, 2013 [2 favorites]


I don't think that Last Judgment picture is a good argument for the casual inclusion of POC in classic art works: the saints are all white; the people being judged are all white; the newly-resurrected are greenish; the angels are ruddy; Jesus is ... hyper-white? Bluish?

The two devils, on the other hand, are very distinct caricatures of POC.
posted by Joe in Australia at 3:38 PM on December 8, 2013


Right, I guess my thing is that it feels kind of historically inaccurate to import modern notions of racial categorization - whiteness, POCness, etc - to the medieval era.

I think I see what you're saying, but I also think this might actually be part of the point of this blog - we have imported modern notions of racial categorization into our treatment of race in history, to the extent that people who might fall under the POC umbrella today were assumed to have been absent from e.g., medieval Europe.

I think it's also worth saying that this would be of more than academic interest; for example, people often object to the casting of POC in medieval/Renaissance/Elizabethan dramas, or those inspired by that kind of environment (e.g. a lot of fantasy). (Othello comes to mind as an exception but I think that's because Othello's race is foregrounded and the themes of the play can be treated in a way that is relevant to modern race relations.)
posted by en forme de poire at 4:06 PM on December 8, 2013 [5 favorites]


When Syrians, Algerians and Iraqis patrolled Hadrian's Wall and
Once upon a time, a little queen married a man from Palmyra at Hadrian's Wall.
posted by adamvasco at 4:28 PM on December 8, 2013 [5 favorites]


Regarding "whitewashing" of Scandinavia: photos of two objects, one possibly with roots from the Middle East, one object with Asian background, is not exactly proof of "whitewashing". It is and has been been well known in the Nordic countries for ages, that the Vikings were in contact with the Middle East and Central Asia. The Norwegian explorer Thor Heyerdahl, in his later years, looked into theories about possible roots for parts of Nordic mythology (Thor, Odin etc) in the area that today is Azerbajan. This is not new. But where is the "whitewashing"? A limited number of found objects does not mean that a significant number of "people of colour" lived in the Nordic countries some 1000 years ago, and that this "fact" somehow has been "whitewashed" out of history.
posted by iviken at 4:40 PM on December 8, 2013 [3 favorites]


did you actually read the part that explained what role the Buddha statues might have played in Viking culture, or the explanation of how the object "possibly with roots from the Middle East" was commissioned as a portrait of Jesus by a Harald Bluetooth, or was all of that too unimportant to assuring us all that the popular perception of ancient and medieval Scandinavia of 100% white dudes is definitely accurate
posted by kagredon at 4:53 PM on December 8, 2013 [2 favorites]


Even in cases where the physical records show an innovation by, say, the Libyans predating the adoption of the same innovation by the Mycenaeans, it will be blithely asserted that the Greeks invented it first, taught it to the Libyans, lost the knowledge in the Dark Age, and then re-learnt their own innovation from their eastern neighbours.

Do you have some examples? Not snarking, genuinely curious.
posted by IndigoJones at 5:19 PM on December 8, 2013 [1 favorite]


was all of that too unimportant to assuring us all that the popular perception of ancient and medieval Scandinavia of 100% white dudes is definitely accurate

what
posted by Wordwoman at 5:22 PM on December 8, 2013


Where was I unclear, Wordwoman?
posted by kagredon at 5:23 PM on December 8, 2013


Old Nordic history is actually quilted well documented, through Snorri Sturluson and others. DNA projects in Iceland and other Nordic countries have not found lost of "unexplained" DNA compared to historical records.

Wikipedia has a different take on the "Viking Buddha":
"The bucket is made from yew wood, held together with brass strips, and the handle is attached to two anthropomorphic figures compared to depictions of the Buddha in the lotus posture, although any connection is most uncertain. More relevant is the connection between the patterned enamel torso and similar human figures in the Gospel books of the Insular art of the British Isles, such as the Book of Durrow."
posted by iviken at 5:24 PM on December 8, 2013


...Wikipedia's "different take" does not contradict the blog post. Please read the blog post.
posted by kagredon at 5:24 PM on December 8, 2013


I... just don't think that iviken (who is from Norway, funnily enough) was trying to assure us of any such thing. Anyway. Historians and art historians are notably absent from this whole conversation. I'm bowing out until we actually hear from some. (Thanks to jetlagaddict for talking about Tumblr as the lens with which to view this. I clearly don't understand how LOL WUT has a place in these kinds of assertions. Not going to try. But I do think it's... strange? even ridiculous? to assert that these images, all taken from online sources, are examples of how "these works go unseen in museums, Art History classes, online galleries, and other venues because of retroactive whitewashing of Medieval Europe, Scandinavia, and Asia." And again, I freely admit that I don't get the Tumblr thing and how that's relevant to our understanding.)
posted by Wordwoman at 5:33 PM on December 8, 2013


kagredon, I'm not seeing the connection you are making. It is actually unclear. The Christ post says that Bluetooth learned about Christ when he was traveling and commissioned an image when he returned in the style that was common at the time. It's not obvious that drawing a picture of a brown skinned Jesus based on other pictures of brown skinned Jesus abroad says much about demographics.

The Buddha page says that the item and some religious ideas were gotten through trade. Exotic items and ideas often make it from far away through trade even from ancient times. I know Byzantine artifacts that were found in Gyeongju for instance, but it doesn't mean that Greeks personally delivered it there and lived on the Korean peninsula. Rather, it would have passed through many intermediaries on the trade routes.

Not that there couldn't have been darker skinned people in Scandinavia at the time (picked up during Viking expeditions maybe?), but the items here don't really show much either way.
posted by Winnemac at 5:43 PM on December 8, 2013 [2 favorites]


The stuff in the blog post on a possible role for Buddha in Norse religion is all speculation. It certainly isn't some refutation of anything ikiven wrote. I thought ikiven's key initial point is that there hasn't been a whitewashing because the trade ties with other parts of the world were fairly well known.
posted by Area Man at 5:44 PM on December 8, 2013 [5 favorites]


or was all of that too unimportant to assuring us all that the popular perception of ancient and medieval Scandinavia of 100% white dudes is definitely accurate

It is deeply, deeply shitty that the assertions in this tumblr - several of which, after doing a little googling around, turn out to be contrary to scholarly consensus in the relevant field(s) - can't be discussed without calling people racists.
posted by downing street memo at 5:45 PM on December 8, 2013 [5 favorites]


Which ones are contrary to scholarly consensus? They all seem very meticulously sourced out.
posted by gucci mane at 5:48 PM on December 8, 2013


The Vikings went all the way to Africa, and there's lots of Viking finds that are clearly inspired by things seen far away, cargo (and people) brought back to Scandinavia, and there are several places like Italy and Greece where you can find Viking graffiti. If you know a little bit about Vikings, you know this, it's not hidden.

Viking history isn't whitewashed, however the image of the vikings has been used differently throughout the times to be fitted to cultural trends at the time. In the Victorian era, when the trend was to be patriotic, to reject the old greek culture and find history closer to home, and emphasis was put on natural things and skills, the Viking farmer history was emphasized. When the Nazi's marched through Europe, the Viking warrior history was made important and symbols famously used on nazi insignia. Actually, there's a really good exhibition at the Historiska Museet in Stockholm about the way Vikings have been romanticized through the times if you fancy.
posted by dabitch at 5:51 PM on December 8, 2013 [2 favorites]


It is ridiculously unlikely that no Viking trader or explorer or soldier ever brought back a wife, or some random orphan kids who looked like they might be strong enough to replace those oarsmen who died on the way out. It's basically impossible that there wouldn't have been Asian, Middle Eastern, African people in Scandanavia. Iviken gave a nod to this himself in his comment.

And yet this is seen as so impossible that people will pitch a fit about a single black Space Viking, and it'll be considered a topic that we all have to Sit Down and think Deeply on, because of course you can't have black Vikings (not even black Space Vikings). Because there were no black people in Scandanavia. The idea is so unrealistic that it even taints the great historical realism in place for a movie about a dimension-hopping Space Viking with good abs. And when someone dares to say "Well, actually, there was clearly a lot of cultural exchange going on, even though it's not talked about, and the not-talking-about-it itself is a really problematic thing," suddenly it becomes all about parsing the evidence of the cultural exchange to death.

And yes, you know what, I think that is racist. I think it is racist that when someone says "hey, medieval Europe was nowhere near as white as it's popularly perceived to be, and also it's kind of fucked up that people act that way," we get a thread full of people who can't be arsed to read links after they've been specially picked out by other commenters. Yes, I do think it's racist that saying "there were artifacts in Scandanavia that depicted nonwhite people and nonwhite cultures" is treated like saying "all of Scandanavia looked like a production of Carmen Jones" instead of a reasonable statement of historical fact. And yes, I do start side-eying people who come in, pull one or two lines from the OP introduction, and start demanding links, which they then don't respond to in a way that indicates they actually bothered reading them.
posted by kagredon at 5:52 PM on December 8, 2013 [21 favorites]


did you actually read the part that explained what role the Buddha statues might have played in Viking culture

According to the blog:
"The fact that they could have been worshipping an Asian god doesn’t really sound far off to me at all, and frankly it’s pretty exciting to think about.

What I think is most ironic of all is when people use vikings as a symbol for white sympremacy (yeah, yeah, I repeat this a lot, I know, but it’s something that I will fiercely protect until the day I die) when the vikings themselves were a really curious and multicultural people who (supposedly) took a lot of pride in traveling and trading with people who lived far away."


"Could have been" and "doesn’t really sound far off to me" are not exactly indications of history as science. History as science is about comparing sources and theories. These two objects are not new finds, and does not prove any "whitewashing" of Nordic history.

In his later years, the Norwegian explorer Thor Heyerdahl, was working on theories regarding possible sources of ancient Nordic mythology (Thor, Odin etc) from the area that today is Russia (Azov) and Azerbaijan. This received quilted a bit of publisity in Norway. Some critized his "Search for Odin"-project as "pseudoarcheology", but still: no "whitewashing" or repressing of novel historical theories.
posted by iviken at 5:54 PM on December 8, 2013 [2 favorites]


OTOH though--if iviken is from Norway, the historiography there might be different and less whitewashed, so apologies if that's the perspective he's talking from. Myself and I believe the Tumblr author are speaking from a USian perspective.
posted by kagredon at 5:54 PM on December 8, 2013


It isn't really meaningful to speak as Scandinavia as an entity in this context. Sweden and Denmark were colonial powers, while Island, Norway and Finland were colonized during most of modern history. And while Sweden was mostly concerned with regional power, eating into Denmark, colonizing Finland, and for a short while Norway, Denmark tried to participate in the global expansion, competing with the Netherlands and Britain for holdings in the Americas, Asia and Africa. This all leads to very difference understandings of history, and very different languages about "others".

When one speaks about "white-washing", the issue is how one interprets history, and has interpreted history. And as I see it, Denmark, a slave-dealing and slave-owning nation, definitely had a need for othering those enslaved people, even decades after that practice stopped. Denmark also, till fairly recently has needed explanations for why the people of Greenland couldn't have their own government.

On the other hand, in my experience, while Finland and Norway are wonderful countries, and I love going there, I am always a little embarrassed by the extreme nationalism, which is completely understandable, given the centuries of oppression, but which also seems a little out of touch with our reality today.
posted by mumimor at 6:01 PM on December 8, 2013 [1 favorite]


IndigoJones: Fine metalworking's a big one! The technology for things like small vessels made from precious metals, filigree and inlay work, and other delicate gold-crafting originated in North and West Africa and passed to mainland Greece through the Minoans. Writing is the other big one, although that first writing system was indeed lost in the Greek Dark Age, to be replaced by the later system based on the Phoenician alphabet. Off the top of my head, litters and parasols were Libyan imports, as well as certain architectural features such as cisterns or channels that caught or carried away water that fell from roofs, and the double-barrelled pipe instrument.
posted by northernish at 6:17 PM on December 8, 2013 [1 favorite]


I admit that I am not an art historian nor am I at all an expert, but I have taken a lot of art history classes and I spend a lot of time teaching various basic aspects of history, usually ancient. (The author of the blog also doesn't go into their scholastic background, is quite honest about their own mistakes, namely geography, nor are they staking out unquestionable positions, but I appreciate that they are a) citing their sources, and b) working in a lot of exterior resources as well as c) introducing more people to the notion of controversies in art history.)

I also think his or her overall argument does have merit, even as modern scholars and museums are now beginning to either recognize or highlight aspects of their field and/or collections that involve different races. I haven't read the majority of the tumblr and again a lot of it is out of my balliwick, but I think the discussions are really interesting. It is absolutely true that a lot of formative art history texts were often biased towards promoting an Euro-centric view of discoveries, art, and demographics, even in cases where this is not justified by the historical record. (Heck, there are art history pieces from the last fifteen or so years that make weird comments about the "nature" of the Italian people and how that shaped architecture so....)

I doubt most Americans, when asked to populate a medieval or a Rennaissance scene, would imagine the people as anything other than white-- because almost all of the art that gets used to illustrate those time periods looks like that. I am really not kidding when I say that most of the people I talk to have never considered that there were black Romans. That there were Africans in Greece, or ancient Britain. Or that slavery before more modern times was not always race-based (though there was definitely a sub-Saharan slave trade, along with gold dust.) And sure, in absolute numbers, pictures that show a homogenous landscape of people throughout history aren't really lying. Most people didn't really travel all that far. But a lot of people did, voluntarily or involuntarily, and I do think we should discuss their lives and their faces as seen in art. These are faces and works that used to go unseen and unpromoted and undiscussed; that the author is able to bring in a lot of online resources speaks more to the light that the digital age is bringing to collections, and not their availability in the past.

As for Tumblr, it's a new kind of medium, and it tends towards the informal. This is true even for the tumblrs of more formal institutions like libraries and museums (and there are some tremendous personal scholastic resources, like Caravaggista.) I think this blog is mediating the heavy content with funny pictures (shout-out to another tumblr art history favorite, Ugly Renaissance Babies) and that probably does help make it relatable to a wider audience.
posted by jetlagaddict at 6:21 PM on December 8, 2013 [10 favorites]


northernish-- I think you might be thinking of the Near East for the metalworking bit? (Brought to Europe in part through Etruscan trade routes as well.) Or is there earlier African work?
posted by jetlagaddict at 6:27 PM on December 8, 2013


No one's arguing with you about the extensive cultural exchange between the Vikings and groups in the New and Old Worlds, kagredon, nor are they disputing the possibility that Viking culture may have been significantly influenced by non-European cultures. What people are disputing is the rhetoric at work in the post. The author talks about the objects and alleges that they have somehow been hidden, and thus, the history of the Vikings "whitewashed". The author talks about the Vikings being used as a symbol of white supremacy - by who, exactly? Nazis and Klan members? (And in any case, white supremacists who've learned a little history are well aware that their ideal culture shares significant links with Asian cultures, Persian and subcontinental ones in particular. Look at the swastikas on the 'Buddha' in question.)

What I object to, though, is the idea that expressing caution about the Vikings-as-Buddha-worshippers theory is racist or something. It's an interesting theory to entertain, but it's just that, a theory. There are other Viking Buddhas, of actual Indian origin, and there's no way of knowing whether the object in the Oseborg ship was an object with religious significance, an imitation of actual subcontinental Buddhas the Vikings possessed, or an interesting coincidence. In the absence of evidence otherwise, it seems prudent to note that the Viking religion shares a number of similarities with that of other Germanic groups and indeed with the European religions of classical antiquity, and to conclude at a minimum that it's unlikely that Buddha played a major role in Viking religion.

I don't know. I love historical revisionism - I'm particularly fond of the theory that the Moorish conquest of Spain and southern France was aided by Semitic communities - descendants of Phoenician and Carthaginian colonists - who weren't too fond of their Celtic and Roman neighbors. It's a fun idea to discuss, but there's no archeological evidence of it, and no real evidence at all beyond some linguistic similarities that might be coincidences.

Basically history's pretty fucking complicated and we should be able to talk about it in good faith without the usual "ur a racist dudebro" stuff.
posted by downing street memo at 6:28 PM on December 8, 2013 [3 favorites]


Sorry, just noticed that the white supremacist bit comes from a quoted post, presumably from a nordic country (does quoting signify agreement on Tumblr? I'm so old). Still, I think we should be able to discuss this stuff without calling each other racists. We're all relatively knowledgeable and clearly participating in good faith.
posted by downing street memo at 6:34 PM on December 8, 2013 [1 favorite]


Harald Blåtands Crucified Christ in Interlace isn't really a shockingly new thing for anyone who knows anything about Vikings or runestones either. Blåtand (blue tooth) turned most of Scandinavia christian, and he himself was convinced by monks from England who knew medicine (and fixed his teeth-pain). It's about as basic as "the stones were painted in bright colors", and not just carved.
posted by dabitch at 7:18 PM on December 8, 2013


Regarding "whitewashing" of Scandinavia: photos of two objects, one possibly with roots from the Middle East, one object with Asian background, is not exactly proof of "whitewashing".

Yeah, the first post offered above by sukebon as evidence of "whitewashing" offers no support to that claim at all. As for the second...well, it shows depictions of people (Jesus, apparently) as non-white...but there's no evidence that any of these things were suppressed.

I don't have a dog in this fight. It wouldn't surprise me in any way if there had been whitewashing...but the evidence I've seen from the blog in question is pretty shoddy. It's really weird that so many people here are positively swooning over this blog. Maybe I'm just not seeing the really solid arguments...

But any suggestion that anyone here is being racist is nauseatingly irresponsible.
posted by Fists O'Fury at 7:48 PM on December 8, 2013 [3 favorites]


Well, kagredon brought up a good point with the kerfluffle over the casting in "Thor". One which I didn't bother even raising an eyebrow over because comic book fantasy world, and not a film made of the Norse sagas as some sort of Historical accurate documentary, so youknow have Heimdall played by whomever. In Danish animated films he's depicted as an overweight kluts. The gods aren't even human, anyway.
posted by dabitch at 7:59 PM on December 8, 2013


I found it puzzling that 'Scandinavia' was singled out, rather than seen as part of Medieval Europe in the original post.

The first black people in Norway we have records of - as far as I know - were five "blue men" who came to Konghelle (now Swedish Kungsälv) in 1242. They are mentioned in the Håkon Håkonsson saga.

There is a story some years back that they found Native American DNA on Iceland.
posted by magnusbe at 8:45 PM on December 8, 2013 [1 favorite]


Calling a line of thought or a certain reaction racist is not the same as calling a person racist. Everyone holds some amount of racist beliefs. It doesn't make you a bad person, but it shouldn't be excused, either.

I think any further participation by me here would wind up poisoning the well (more), but think about why it's so important to some of you to make sure no one ever calls out something you might think as being reflective of larger problematic trends in society.
posted by kagredon at 9:24 PM on December 8, 2013 [2 favorites]


I mean, if you think I'm wrong and that (a) the drive to question and nitpick apart any and every representation of POC in medieval Europe doesn't exist or (b) that that doesn't reflect something ugly in our culture, or that (c) the way that history and art from that period is popularly understood is way whiter than what the reality likely was and that (d) that reflects something ugly too, then argue that. Don't turn this in to "but you can't call stuff racist! That's rude!"
posted by kagredon at 9:33 PM on December 8, 2013 [9 favorites]


I am reminded of the whitewashing of the cowboy, in large part by Hollywood movies. As Wikipedia points out:

Because cowboys ranked low in the social structure of the period, there are no firm figures on the actual proportion of various races. One writer states that cowboys were "… of two classes—those recruited from Texas and other States on the eastern slope; and Mexicans, from the south-western region…" Census records suggest that about 15% of all cowboys were of African-American ancestry—ranging from about 25% on the trail drives out of Texas, to very few in the northwest. Similarly, cowboys of Mexican descent also averaged about 15% of the total, but were more common in Texas and the southwest. Other estimates suggest that in the late 19th century, one out of every three cowboys was a Mexican vaquero, and 20% may have been African-American.
posted by Celsius1414 at 9:51 PM on December 8, 2013 [3 favorites]


It seems to me the whitewashing is done in Hollywood, and not in the history books.
posted by dabitch at 9:52 PM on December 8, 2013 [1 favorite]


Other estimates suggest that in the late 19th century, one out of every three cowboys was a Mexican vaquero, and 20% may have been African-American.

The phrasing is still misleading. Mexicans were not cowboys. Its is Americans that became vaqueros. The origin of cowboys is Mexican vaqueros. This is in the Wikipedia article as well. It is where the strange term "cow-boy" comes from in the first place. Terms like lasso, rancho, rodeo, corral etc were all Spanish terms the Anglo newcomers picked up.
posted by vacapinta at 10:46 PM on December 8, 2013 [3 favorites]


And that now reminded me of this scene in Guns Germs and Steel (the show) on Spanish Jimeta Horsemanship, where Jared stands in one spot as the horseman dances around him with such skill it kinda gave me goosebumps. Oooh, what I wouldn't have given to stand cower in that spot because that looks a little scary....
posted by dabitch at 11:04 PM on December 8, 2013


Don't turn this in to "but you can't call stuff racist! That's rude!"

I had a long reply written up, but fuck it. No one has suggested that you can't call a racist thing racist. But not interpreting interesting speculation about an alleged role of Buddha in Viking religion as fact isn't racist.
posted by downing street memo at 11:08 PM on December 8, 2013 [2 favorites]


How fortunate that I never said it was, downing street memo.
posted by kagredon at 12:25 AM on December 9, 2013


Yeah, the first post offered above by sukebon as evidence of "whitewashing" offers no support to that claim at all.

Actually, the first post I made, about evidence of whitewashing (and the ONLY one when I mentioned whitewashing), went here. The Scandinavian ones were more in the vein of "here's a couple of the examples you were asking about".

TBH, I don't understand why you (general "you") are fixated on the ethnicity of the zombies in ONE particular post when there are *dozens* of posts about medieval depictions of St. Maurice, Sir Morien, King Balthazar (under the "adorationpalooza" tag) or the Queen of Sheba.
posted by sukeban at 1:17 AM on December 9, 2013


It's too bad that this (like so many MeFi discussions) degenerated so quickly into accusations of racism. Those accusations were unwarranted. (Such accusations are also much more serious than kagredon suggests; but let that go...)

I think that the question on the table is interesting. I'd like to see it discussed seriously. It wouldn't surprise me if the thesis of the Tumblr were true...it's not like racism is some rare phenomenon. However, the other side of the problem is that some people are currently very, very eager to accept virtually any accusation of racism or explanation that turns on racism. When I actually look at the blog in question, I see a lot of shoddy reasoning. People above pointed those things out, as one is entitled to do in such a discussion. They were pretty readily accused of racism.

Now, even if you think that being accused of racism just, gosh, isn't all that bad...something that simply isn't true so far as I can tell...that's only half the story. Fine. Ignore any moral overtones. The point is that the accusations are utterly irresponsible. If I make a point and you raise a cogent objection to it, I don't get to accuse you of being motivated by some hidden agenda. Focus on the soundness of the point, don't hypothesize about hidden motives of the reasoner. You don't get to hypothesize about the motives of the reasoner unless the point is bad, and bad beyond what can be accounted for by ordinary error. But the points weren't bad...

I'd be more than willing to participate in a thread somewhere that went through the blog's claims in detail. I'd be interested in knowing the truth here. I could be wrong--I've been wrong about a million times in my life, and am like to be wrong about a million more. But thus far, I'm skeptical about the thing. (Not that some whitewashing exists. How could it not? But I suspect the problem is being exaggerated.)

Incidentally, I find on Reddit that the image of the Jelling stone on the blog cited above, that makes the representation of Jesus look black, is extremely misleading; it's a copy. Here is I'm told, an image of the actual Jelling stone, which is, well, stone-colored...
posted by Fists O'Fury at 5:42 AM on December 9, 2013


The Scandinavian ones were more in the vein of "here's a couple of the examples you were asking about".

Right, but 'the examples you were asking about' were examples of whitewashing in Scandinavia. You're technically correct that you didn't use the word whitewashing in that comment (outside of a quotation, anyway), but I think you'd be hard pressed to actually argue you weren't talking about whitewashing of Scandinavia.

TBH, I don't understand why you (general "you") are fixated on the ethnicity of the zombies in ONE particular post when there are *dozens* of posts about medieval depictions of St. Maurice, Sir Morien, King Balthazar (under the "adorationpalooza" tag) or the Queen of Sheba.

I think the thing that's irritating is that the sort of mefite who's going to click on a link to a blog full of medieval (or not) art is also the sort of mefite who's going having enough of a knowledge of European history to realise that the casting of Vampires of Venice or whatever wasn't ridiculous. I mean, pictures of some well known medieval person of colour aren't that interesting to me because I know those people existed. I would be interested to see depictions of such people changing over time (making the whitewashing obvious). I'd also be interested to see depictions of normal non-famous/non-fictional people of colour, which we generally don't see. I'm interested in depictions of Feirefiz because people don't have spots. I'm going to roll my eyes at that painting from the 1700s you linked to because the URL has the word 'medieval' in it.
posted by hoyland at 5:49 AM on December 9, 2013 [1 favorite]


If I understood correctly, the point of Viking Jesus wasn't the polychromy but that his hair (which you can see better in the painted version but is also present on the original) looks a lot like the very African looking people depicted in Coptic images that were conveniently included in the same post, too.
posted by sukeban at 5:51 AM on December 9, 2013


I think the thing that's irritating is that the sort of mefite who's going to click on a link to a blog full of medieval (or not) art is also the sort of mefite who's going having enough of a knowledge of European history to realise that the casting of Vampires of Venice or whatever wasn't ridiculous. I mean, pictures of some well known medieval person of colour aren't that interesting to me because I know those people existed. I would be interested to see depictions of such people changing over time (making the whitewashing obvious). I'd also be interested to see depictions of normal non-famous/non-fictional people of colour, which we generally don't see. I'm interested in depictions of Feirefiz because people don't have spots. I'm going to roll my eyes at that painting from the 1700s you linked to because the URL has the word 'medieval' in it.

Cool. You've got the entire internet for that. Now go looking for that information and please share with us, because it sure looks interesting.
posted by sukeban at 5:53 AM on December 9, 2013


Cool. You've got the entire internet for that. Now go looking for that information and please share with us, because it sure looks interesting.

Well, I'm going in the shower right now, but perhaps I will. Excuse me for saying what I think would improve the blog.
posted by hoyland at 5:57 AM on December 9, 2013


I think the thing that's irritating is that the sort of mefite who's going to click on a link to a blog full of medieval (or not) art is also the sort of mefite who's going having enough of a knowledge of European history to realise that the casting of Vampires of Venice or whatever wasn't ridiculous.

I beg to differ!

And this is why I have no trouble accepting the "whitewashing" argument - even though clearly there isn't an official Cabal of Medieval History Whitewashers.

I grew up with an interest in the Middle Ages and read such books as were available to me as a child and a young teen. The only medieval person of color I encountered was in The Sword In The Stone - Sir Palomides, who I'd also later encounter in the Robertson Davies novel about the opera production of Mallory. I assumed that Sir Palomides was sort of like the occasional "alien sidekick" in pop SF cartoons - not actually reflecting the presence of Africans in Britain.

As a child, I never encountered material about Rome which suggested that Rome was multiracial - obviously, African campaigns and travel were mentioned, but always framed as a "Rome was white people who sometimes went to Africa" narrative. I might have been able to infer some African presence in Rome from the available materials - if I had known it existed in the first place.

As a child, I never saw pop material about Roman, Medieval or Renaissance Europe which included the presence of people of color, either in school or in my own reading. This is obviously going to be totally different for kids today, since all that with Lancelot and so on - but it was not characteristic of how I grew up.

Until I sought it out, I never encountered any material that focused on people of color in Europe in the Middle Ages and Renaissance. It has only been in the past few years - and I'm a grown adult, reasonably familiar with scholarly resources, with a long-standing interest in (for instance) science fiction and fantasy by writers of color - that I have read about a lot of this stuff.

Popular narratives of the past are oversimplifying and frustrating and sexist and racist - and this is a product of the use those narratives were put to during colonialism, I think.

Things I never heard of until I was a grown adult, and only then heard of because I was already interested in the topic: Aphra Behn; the entire Afro-British abolition movement; Toussaint L'Ouverture (who I would never have encountered except that for my French minor I took a class where we read some Fanon); the multiracial nature of whaling crews as it appears in Moby Dick...oh geez, the list goes on. And had I not had some curiosity about those things, I could easily have ignored them, unlike many other aspects of European history which were reiterated constantly in class and popular culture.

Now, I'm not saying that this was everyone's experience; I'm just saying that you could get a "good" education in the nineties and read a lot on your own and still not encounter any of this stuff.
posted by Frowner at 7:00 AM on December 9, 2013 [23 favorites]


Well said, Frowner, thanks.
posted by mediareport at 7:15 AM on December 9, 2013


Yes, what Frowner said. As someone who does have some post-graduate work under her belt in a related area (medieval English law doesn't touch specifically on race and we're past the era of personality of law by the time of the Norman conquest), I find people who haven't studied history much to be remarkably ignorant about the roles/existence of women and POC in European history, because their sense of history was shaped by pop material--both pop history and popular historical entertainment--that downplays women and POC in European history. It's one of the reasons why entertainment that claims to be "historically accurate" or have period feel or whatever grinds my gears so much. (I'm looking at you, Game of Thrones.)

Related: one of the really fascinating pop history/mythology bits of medievalia that has absolutely fascinated me as an adult is the inclusion of "the Moor" as an archetype in the canon of the Robin Hood outlaws. He doesn't appear until the 80s or 90s (frex he's absolutely not present in the Errol Flynn version in the 30s) and suddenly is a lot of places after he appeared in one movie/TV show. It's folk culture moving in real time to increase inclusivity and it's cool to watch.
posted by immlass at 7:53 AM on December 9, 2013 [2 favorites]


"It is ridiculously unlikely that no Viking trader or explorer or soldier ever brought back a wife, or some random orphan kids who looked like they might be strong enough to replace those oarsmen who died on the way out. It's basically impossible that there wouldn't have been Asian, Middle Eastern, African people in Scandanavia. Iviken gave a nod to this himself in his comment."

It's very unlikely that the Nordic countries some 1000 years ago had any significant population with ethnic background from Asia, the Middle East or Africa.

1: Recorded history exist (Snorri Sturluson etc), and does not support this theory.

Some records of "people of colour" in the Nordics do exist, such as the five "blue men" in the Håkon Håkonsson saga, mentioned by magnusbe. But this was highly unusual.

Also from recorded history (1432), the Pietro Querini shipwreck. According to Norwegian folklore, some people at the island of Røst may have some Italian genes... Meetings like this were unusual in this time period, but certainly not hidden from history.

From newer recorded history, a man of African background lived and worked in Norway in the 1600s, Mr. Christian Hansen Ernst (links are in Norwegian, try Google translate):
"In spite his very Danish name, Christian Hansen Ernst was of African descent, brought to Denmark as a little boy, as a gift to Ulrik Christian Gyldenløve (son of the Danish king Fredrik III, born out of wedlock, thus the name Gyldenløve, it was given to all the sons of Danish kings born out of wedlock). First Christian was a servant at Charlottenberg Castle, before Gyldenløve became the Governor in Norway from 1664 to 1699. Gyldenløve was especially fond of Christian Hansen Ernst, and appointed him postmaster in Kragerø, Norway in 1694 and he became the first “black” senior civil servant in Norway. Ernst was stabbed to death in an alley in 1695, allegedly because he was too fond of women..."

To some degree, the story of Christian Hansen Ernst is based on disputed facts, but it was not hidden or "whitewashed".

There are also historical records of various ethnic groups in the Nordics, including but not limited to the indigienous Sami population. Since the 1200s, Russian traders, hunters and fishermen were in contact with people in the northern part of Norway and Finland. During the Hanseatic era, a significant number of Germans lived in towns like Bergen, Norway, and later many Germans lived and worked in Nordic mining towns like Røros.

If a number of people of Asian, Middle Eastern or African ethnic background actually lived in the Nordics during this time period, records should have existed. The lack of such records does not mean that 1000 years of Nordic history has been falsified and "whitewashed".

2: DNA analysis from Iceland and other Nordic countries does not support this theory:

"The results confirm previous deCODE work that used genetics to test the history of Iceland as recorded in the sagas. These studies demonstrated that the country seems to have been settled by men from Scandinavia – the vikings – but that the majority of the original female inhabitants were from the coastal regions of Scotland and Ireland, areas that regularly suffered raids by vikings in the years around the settlement of Iceland 1100 years ago.
The current study further shows that the gene pool of contemporary Icelanders appears to have evolved rapidly over the intervening thousand years. As a result, the original female settlers are genetically less closely related to present-day Icelanders, and instead more closely related to the present day populations of Scotland, Ireland and Scandinavia, as well as those of northwestern and southwestern Europe."
posted by iviken at 8:04 AM on December 9, 2013 [5 favorites]


I think its worth thinking about whitewashing in a variety of contexts.

So to use the Viking example, contacts with other parts of the world and even a limited number of darker-skinned people coming to Scandinavia (like the five men recorded in the Håkon Håkonsson saga mentioned by magnusbe above or native americans who may have been brought back from Vineland) seem to be well known to academics and interested lay people. So, in those circles it does not seem to be accurate to claim there has been whitewashing. However, popular understandings based on depictions in popular culture and popular history are more limited. To further complicate things, people in Nordic countries may, not surprisingly, have a better understanding of Viking history than folks in other parts of the world.

For other periods and areas, there may be varying degrees to which contacts with and the presence of people of color have been ignored or actively written out in the academic and popular spheres. And, of course, the number of people of color and the nature and extent of contacts with non-European parts of the world varied by era and location. There is more to whitewash in some times and places. For instance, I would guess that during the late middle ages Venice and Genoa both had a fair number of darker-skinned people. That may not be the case in other places that were further away from Africa and Asia and had fewer regular contacts.
posted by Area Man at 8:12 AM on December 9, 2013


I can't say that my education was great, I feel it skipped over a lot in history, but I did notice that I and other Scandinavians (Norwegians? Swedes?) are well aware of the Viking past, which more or less translates to "travelled a lot" so we're not unaware of the fact that people and cargo came back. Vikings were barbarians compared to southern Europe. Snorris Sturlusson was a christian when he wrote down a lot of the sagas, and with that he may have added an extra christian touch to them, still the sagas are our historical records.

As for the Jellingestone in color, it's not so much a big bright afro he has as it is a halo. This is also well known if you have more than a passing interest in Viking art/history. He is painted all red, as is his pointy (bearded) face.

I do recommend that exhibition at Historiska museet, as it shows the phenomenon of Vikings depicted differently in popular culture through the filter of what the culture at the time wanted to see. It does a good job of showing how societies filter tweaks history to fit the consensus at the time.

As for spanish moors, having lived in Amsterdam and celebrated Sinterklaas.. well as oneswellfoop pointed out upthread, including Zwarte Piet in culture isn't cool either. But we know there was Spanish moors, we were taught that in school.
posted by dabitch at 8:20 AM on December 9, 2013


Something that's getting overlooked here is that it's not super important whether each individual instance is accurate*; what's important is that the vast majority of the time, in any material not produced for a specialist audience, Europe has been inaccurately portrayed as virtually exclusively white - and this whiteness has been mobilized for all kinds of unsavory political purposes. It's like, if there were lots of historical fantasy shows and movies and books where people of color were present as major character, it wouldn't matter whether Arthur had characters of color because it would be just one show. Similarly, if we routinely talked about a multiracial European history, it would be completely neutral to focus on the exact number of people of color in Scandinavia - this would just be one historical fact among many. As it is, because we don't routinely talk about a multiracial European history, when we spend all our time responding to this tumblr by arguing about whether it really is "whitewashing" or just "accidentally not talking about this stuff that much" and focusing on two or three equivocal instances in the whole tumblr, that is not the most productive thing to get all het up about.



*I mean, it's important to establish accuracy when we're writing "People of Color In Scandinavia: The Book" - I'm not saying that we can just make up whatever history we like, but I'm saying that what we choose to focus on at a given moment is important.
posted by Frowner at 8:23 AM on December 9, 2013 [8 favorites]


The question you need to ask is where has Europe been shown as exclusively white? The answer is probably "popular culture", so like that exhibition I keep mentioning, an exhibition showing how different times are romanticized in other times would be an interesting one no matter what period and place you concentrate on. Anyone from a museum reading this?

The literal whitewashing where POC were "cropped" out of paintings are the most interesting, I've seen paintings like these non-cropped both in books and museums, and chalked that up to having studied art history. I'm surprised that these would be cropped in any book because that would lose most of the artwork and frankly make it useless as a teaching tool, adn I have never seen it myself (remember, art student, my books were expensive so perhaps cropped images appear in high school books, I don't know). That the child was painted over in this portrait "sometime during the 19th century" is something such an exhibition could explain. Why was that done, when the painting had the true colors from the start? Was this a common occurrence for paintings of that era (to be repainted) etc. Who ordered it (was it the family, literally whitewashing their past?)
posted by dabitch at 8:38 AM on December 9, 2013


Maybe I missed it, but I don't see Heironymus Bosch metioned in the thread.

Adoration of the Magi
Of course, there are tons of dark-skinned King Balthaszars depicted in Med art.

The Garden of Earthly Delights
These are all in the panel depicting paradise. I think there are some Africans in the Infernal Concert panel as well. While these do not exactly depict scenes of everyday life in Med Europe, I think the figures are pretty unambiguous: no "grey zombies" here.

The Garden of Earthly Delights detail 1
The Garden of Earthly Delights detail 2
The Garden of Earthly Delights detail 3
The Garden of Earthly Delights detail 4
The Garden of Earthly Delights detail 5

 
posted by Herodios at 8:42 AM on December 9, 2013


The facts matter because the actual history of "people of color" in Europe is nuanced. This isn't a choice between "all Europe was 100% white with no significant contacts with other parts of the world during these periods" and "all medieval Europe looked like a Benetton ad". Toledo is not Bergen. Sicily is not Iceland.
posted by Area Man at 8:52 AM on December 9, 2013 [1 favorite]


So when I was a child, I loved history so much, I bought the schoolbooks at a country market out of my pocket money. Thus, I still have them, and now have spent some time reading the chapters on the Romans in both "Looking at History. From Cavemen to the Present Day" and "The Story of Britain", both by R.J. Unstead. They have pictures, and every single image of a "Roman", a "Briton" and a "slave" in both books looks like a fifties' filmstar in a toga. There is one person looking like a Middle Eastern scribe in a "busy street scene", though.
Emperor Hadrian's background and upbringing is described in detail, as is his and Julius Caesar's personalities. Emperor Severus arrives out of the blue and leaves again with no further mention. He gets three lines, and there is no mention of the troops he brought with him or their families.

Later on, the Vikings have horns on their helmets..

It is fascinating now to read how the author clearly identifies the Roman Empire with the British Empire. And struggles a bit with heroic resistance from Brits against the Romans, like the story of Queen Boadicea (it seems her rebellion was caused by some bad apples among the Roman management, who were overtaxing the people. Not representative of Rome at all…). In the primary school history book, Looking at History, the Roman rule ends with these words:

After they had been here for 400 years, the Romans went away. Their homes in Italy were being attacked by fierce tribes and every soldier was needed.
The Britons were sad when they went, for they had no soldiers of their own to protect them from the sea-raiders, who wrere growing bolder in their attacks upon the coast.
(Written in 1955, right after WW2, and the loss of the empire)

I don't believe mr. Unstead was part of a secret cabal, or under some government pressure to whitewash British history. I just think he was conditioned by his entire upbringing to select the sources in a way that made sense to him.

To me, the tumblr is fascinating, and because she is so ready to acknowledge she may be a bit quick to throw ideas out on it, she also leaves it up to us to judge which of her cases are valid and which are not.
posted by mumimor at 8:52 AM on December 9, 2013 [1 favorite]


Something that's getting overlooked here is that it's not super important whether each individual instance is accurate*

I guess this is just where me and social justice theory part ways. If you're going to claim that something is fact, and it supports some thesis you have, you need to both clearly state the thesis, and show that the fact is indeed true. The author does neither of these things.

I'm glad I poked around a bit, because lmao. (tl;dr, Beethoven was black, and you're a racist if you even think that's debatable). Never mind the fact that multiple portraits of Beethoven exist, from boyhood to old age, all depicting a stereotypical European-looking dude. A death mask and a low-detail engraving settle this issue, apparently.
posted by downing street memo at 8:57 AM on December 9, 2013 [2 favorites]


There's a much more beautiful, well-researched alternative to this Tumblr, with less rants and crazy assertions: The Image of the Black in Western Art. The Tumblr pretty much cribs from it repeatedly.

Sir Morien forms the cover of Volume II.
posted by vacapinta at 9:49 AM on December 9, 2013 [6 favorites]


One also has to take into account what people were used to seeing. Lots of Vikings are named "red", lots of Germans are named Schwartz, and hair color would be why. In Sweden today, we have at least ten words for "blond", and what I'd call mousy or brunette, people in the US would call blond or dark blond. Put things in context of time, place, and cultural trends. This seems to be trying to answer another trend.
posted by dabitch at 9:49 AM on December 9, 2013 [1 favorite]


That is a misreading of that post about Beethoven. The author doesn't even say whether they actually think Beethoven was black or not (or even support the idea other than to say questions like it are still debatable). It is merely commenting on the questioner's anecdote and how it relates to the overall TOPIC of the blog. That is, does "mainstream" non-specialist education (and popular media) tend to depict Europe as more white than it was? And obviously it does otherwise the specialists wouldn't be all claiming this tumblr isn't saying anything new while all the non-specialists wouldn't be saying "woah I had no idea!"

So here's my summary of this thread: to focus on the handful of cases where you think the tumblr author stretches or misinterprets a fact appears to those of us who know less to be trying to debunk the overall claim (that Europe was less white than most think) which, given the many other examples, seems absurd. It is obvious to anyone with more than a passing familiarity with European history that the level of education many have about it allows them to think, e.g., there weren't any black folks in Europe until after the slave trade to the Americas started. That's why, curiously, you'll have people insisting the addition of a black character to the Robin Hood story is unhistorical - because of course there weren't black people in England in that era!

This tumblr is attempting to correct profound ignorance people have about European history and, while correctness matters, I'm not that worried if a couple obscure examples are a bit off (whose education was 100% true?) Moreover, the tumblr author engages with the subject in a way that encourages people being critical about the evidence which actually helps people be more skeptical on those questionable cases.
posted by R343L at 9:51 AM on December 9, 2013 [9 favorites]


Of further interest is Woman's History Review 2001
The sultana and her sisters: black women in the British Isles before 1530.
downloadable pdf.
posted by adamvasco at 10:06 AM on December 9, 2013 [2 favorites]


Forget Beethoven: William Shakespare was an Arab Muslim from Basra in present day Iraq, real name Shaykh Zubayr.
Source: Muammar Quadhafi and others.

From the first link:
"Various authors cite “evidence” including Shakespeare’s full lips and “Islamic” beard in the supposedly "un-English" Chandos portrait (above); his many treatments of mistaken or doubtful identity; and his allegedly unflattering views of Jews, Turks, and the British (supposedly clear in The Merchant of Venice, Othello, and the history plays). Who but an Arab could harbor unfavorable views of precisely these three groups?"
posted by iviken at 10:09 AM on December 9, 2013


Oh, that is just plainly ridiculous. Now you'll tell me that Alexandre Dumas or Alexander Pushkin had Black ancestors! Rubbish!

seriously, guys
posted by sukeban at 10:16 AM on December 9, 2013 [3 favorites]


It's not "If you don't agree Beethoven was black, you're a racist!", it's "If you automatically dismiss the notion that Beethoven could *possibly* have been black, because there were no black people in Germany, can PoC PLEASE stop trying to take credit for the achievements of white people then... yeah. Probably racist."
posted by insufficient data at 10:25 AM on December 9, 2013 [4 favorites]


That Pushkin and Dumas had Black ancestors is fairly well known. isn't it?
posted by magnusbe at 10:27 AM on December 9, 2013 [2 favorites]


Pushkin's ancestry is pretty interesting, but if isn't some obscure fact. During my semester in Moscow I was told about it repeatedly by Russians. Pushkin himself wrote a story about his great-grandfather and I believe it is regularly included in collections of his writings. I read it in one such volume as a student of Russian.

If people in the U.S. don't know about Pushkin's ancestry, its mostly because they don't know much or anything about Pushkin.
posted by Area Man at 10:27 AM on December 9, 2013 [3 favorites]


magnusbe , maybe it isn't? I knew it, I thought everyone knew that. It's not a hidden gem in history. Seriously, who has this profound ignorance of European history? Is it the Europeans? In this thread, it seems not, and I don't think any of us are scholars (I only studied some art history to get a design degree).
posted by dabitch at 10:30 AM on December 9, 2013


That Pushkin and Dumas had Black ancestors is fairly well known. isn't it?

You haven't seen the French Dumas biopic in which he's played by Gerard Depardieu in tan makeup.

(Actually, the Tom Reiss biography of Thomas-Alexandre Dumas is a fantastic reading, not just about him but also about slavery in Sainte Domingue and the status of Black people in revolutionary France. The Chevalier de Saint-George also appears for a bit part)
posted by sukeban at 10:32 AM on December 9, 2013 [2 favorites]


That choice of casting "sparked a racism row" as the BBC put it. A bit like the previously mentioned Heimdall casting, but in reverse.
posted by dabitch at 11:53 AM on December 9, 2013


That Pushkin and Dumas had Black ancestors is fairly well known. isn't it?

I'm relatively well-educated and would guess I'm better read than the average American and I had no idea both Pushkin and Dumas had African blood until just a couple of years ago.
posted by mediareport at 1:20 PM on December 9, 2013 [2 favorites]


"I might not know much about art, but I know what I like". The Feast in the House of Levi, got Paolo Veronese in trouble with the Inquisition who asked him to remove the dog and the Germans from the painting. Those were the things that really stood out in 1573, and the buffoon with a parrot on his wrist.
posted by dabitch at 3:32 PM on December 9, 2013 [1 favorite]


Man, I don't know how I missed this when it was first appeared on the blue, but I am super grateful it was referenced in an FPP today! So much to see and learn -- and to have at my disposal when I hear, for the umpteeth time, about how "unrealistic" it is to put PoC into vaguely European fantasy settings. Thanks for putting this most excellent post together, daisyk!
posted by lord_wolf at 11:29 AM on January 6 [1 favorite]


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