None of us are fully immune to the ideas of the past we grew up with
March 15, 2017 4:39 AM Subscribe
For over two centuries, American slaveholders, the Knights of the Ku Klux Klan, Nazi Germany, and today’s white supremacist self-styled “alt-right” have all promoted a twisted idea of the Middle Ages that props up their white-supremacist fantasies. And unfortunately, their view of the Middle Ages has trickled into the groundwater of the broader popular historical consciousness.
But the truth is, these Middle Ages are not the Middle Ages
: in response to fascist abuse of Medieval history, The Public Medievalist
has published a series of essays explaining the real Middle Ages and their ideas about race.
“Dark Enlightenment” (DE) is a theory dreamed up by self-styled Internet philosophers who claim to trace modern-day problems to the end of the Middle Ages. According to DE proponents, the Enlightenment’s humanism, democracy, and quest for equality are responsible for the decay of Western civilization. DE gurus write long, self-aggrandizing online screeds that dabble in just enough science, philosophy, and political philosophy to be dangerous.
Dr. Dark Age: A Brief History of a Terrible Idea: The “Dark Enlightenment”
The real trick, for both Hitler and his successors, was to employ the Middle Ages as a seemingly benign mode of nostalgia. In a tense climate of economic depression, widespread misinformation, wounded national pride, and knee-jerk racism, each successive movement promoted a return to the past. The past they invoked was a putatively shared national identity—shared by those whom they considered racially ‘pure’—that allowed for a nostalgic use of the past. Such ideas are designed to make extremist ideologies more palatable, more mainstream, and more inclusive.
Andrew B.R. Elliott: A Vile Love Affair: Right Wing Nationalism and the Middle Ages
There are few of us in medieval studies more keenly aware of these potential uses than those who work on early medieval archaeology. The reason for this is simple: our field, in its earlier iterations, was misused to help ideologically bolster Nazism.
James M. Harland: “Race” in the Trenches: Anglo-Saxons, Ethnicity, and the Misuse of the Medieval Past
But as we do, it is important to remember that unlike the germ theory of disease or the theories of relativity, the difference between medieval and modern conceptions of race exist not because humanity is reaching towards a better understanding of reality. It is because we have built for ourselves a convenient mythology that serves to justify the state of the world, and to relabel injustice as the natural order of things.
Paul B. Sturtevant: Is “Race” Real?
Shirtless on horseback, singing a charming song, and (literally) throwing down on Russia’s national Judo team with his “manly” martial arts prowess, Putin was the darling of media outlets like Fox News and Breitbart throughout the latter half of Obama’s presidency. Putin has long promoted this cult of personality, peddling himself as a leader who can reclaim the power that whites, men, and Christians believe they have somehow lost to “political correctness” and “social justice”.
Dr. Dark Age: To Russia, With Love: Courting a New Crusade
The easiest possible answer to the question is this: Medieval people were likely not significantly more racist than we are today (if such a thing could even be quantified). In both times, if you look to find racism, both personal, institutional, and structural, it can be readily found. And in both times, you can find those who reject it. What we can say is that medieval racism was very different. This should not offer us any comfort; nothing gives modern-day racism a pass.
Paul B. Sturtevant: Were Medieval People Racist?
So, in a sense, we might say that if ‘the Middle Ages’ did end up being associated more strongly with Northern Europe (broadly understood) than other places, that might be because renaissance thinkers put them there—and later people believed them. It turns out that muddling up space with time is an old habit, as is racializing thinking about temporal difference and attributing aspects of our own culture that we don’t like to other peoples, who, we then insist, rightfully belong to those other spaces and other times.
Marianne O'Doherty: Where were the Middle Ages?
He was a Muslim. He was a refugee. And he was a genius. His work went unequalled for the better part of three hundred years. His full name was Abu ‘Abd Allah Muhammad ibn Muhammad ibn ‘Abd Allah ibn Idris al-‘Ala bi-Amr Alla. But we know him, simply, as al-Idrisi. His magnum opus is a book of maps called the Tabula Rogeriana or—as it is in Arabic, the Kitab Rujjar. He made it in Sicily in the twelfth century, and it depicts the world from Iceland to China, and many, many places in-between.
Paul B. Sturtevant: A Wonder of the Multicultural Medieval World: The Tabula Rogeriana