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
posted by MartinWisse (48 comments total) 126 users marked this as a favorite
 
So timely! I'm giving a lecture on medieval architecture on Friday. Only problem is how am I going to read all this, and prepare slides for the part I actually know about too.
posted by mumimor at 4:41 AM on March 15 [3 favorites]


alt-righters coming into Medieval Studies (and Classics) is something I learned about here - thanks for the great links on this
posted by thelonius at 4:45 AM on March 15 [3 favorites]




"Pure Anglo-Saxon" is a concept which boggles the mind. Do they not see the hyphen? Or know that they were Germanic invaders? Do they not like Celts? Do they not know that the Anglo-Saxons were predated by Roman Britons (swarthy latin folk)? And what do they have against Normans? They were Scandinavian, for Christ's Sake!

Just out of evens.
posted by leotrotsky at 5:41 AM on March 15 [32 favorites]


This is a great series. Thanks for sharing.
posted by saturday_morning at 5:46 AM on March 15


Excellent post. Thank you for sharing.
posted by Jpfed at 5:56 AM on March 15


"Pure Anglo-Saxon" is a concept which boggles the mind. Do they not see the hyphen? Or know that they were Germanic invaders? Do they not like Celts? Do they not know that the Anglo-Saxons were predated by Roman Britons (swarthy latin folk)? And what do they have against Normans? They were Scandinavian, for Christ's Sake!

Reactionary conservatives choose arbitrary yet self-serving point in past history as the times when things were "correct" or "following the natural order" which is conveniently just after their own worldview transitioned from then-radical to the norm; film at 11.
posted by tocts at 7:25 AM on March 15 [1 favorite]


Ignatius J. Reilly was ahead of his time. Today, he could have a popular blog and sit in on White House press briefings. He probably wouldn't even have to change clothes.
posted by Countess Elena at 7:33 AM on March 15 [12 favorites]


This is indeed fantastic. Thanks for posting it.

From the second piece:

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

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


This is where I give a shoutout to the female, feminist professors I was lucky enough to have in university - all of the medieval literature I studied was taught by them.

Also, next time you see some racist yob waving the flag of St. George just point at it and say "Woo! Shoutout to my Syrian peeps!"
posted by mandolin conspiracy at 7:49 AM on March 15 [11 favorites]


Also, next time you see some racist yob waving the flag of St. George just point at it and say "Woo! Shoutout to my Syrian peeps!"

It might be a coincidence, but there's been a steady rise in flags bearing ENGLAND across the horizontal bar. Just in case, you know, someone confuses them for a Catalonian or Genoan.
posted by mushhushshu at 7:59 AM on March 15 [1 favorite]


Back in the day a medievalist was all about the hard work of mastering Latin and German and Occitan, perusing dusty manuscripts and digging old ruins. Sturtevant seems to be about mining Hollywood. His PhD thesis is entirely based on English language sources and classics in translation, and page two of his first linked article has a citation from wikipedia, something unacceptable at my children's middle school.

If he has the chops, they're well hidden; he's basically a polemicist and his tone as tiresome as that of the people he's criticizing.
posted by IndigoJones at 8:03 AM on March 15 [3 favorites]


Also check out: Medieval POC, an art tumblr that posts medieval works featuring non-white people.

I'm only into the first article in the series, but holy crap this is excellent! I am, purposefuly, unaware of the shit that trends w white supremacists. (But maybe I shouldn't be? I didn't know about the whole 'milk' thing until reading an article about the milk scene from Get Out. )

The idea that the far-right are obsessed with the middle ages is..unsurprising, actually. I've seen a lot of critique from black tumblr/twitter about how whitewashed the media is, and it's not too hard to see it all as "might Europeans being mighty and white". While I was in the theater to see Get Out, I saw a preview for a movie that was basically "tragic soldier hero" turned into King Arthur. Very white, very saviory, very masculine.

There's also been a huge increase in interest of vikings, and I think they're related and it gives me the creeps.
posted by FirstMateKate at 8:03 AM on March 15 [11 favorites]


Oh, Medieval and Classical Studies are just the low-hanging fruit for this sort - they would eventually want to rewrite the Enlightenment, the Industrial Revolution, the 60's, 80's and yesterday, if they could. It's aggressive anti-intellectualism at it's finest.

Women should be honored, cherished and cared for, but they should not possess ‘rights.’”

Yes, yes .. Theodora would no doubt agree with you. Then with a quick dart of her eyes, and an almost imperceptible twitch of her brow, a message would be relayed to her 'staff' and you would later be throttled quietly in some back alley. I mean, seriously, do these people not read hist -- oh, yeah.
posted by eclectist at 8:12 AM on March 15 [18 favorites]


This is the same sort of revisionism that claims that the American founding fathers were all a bunch of devout fundamentalists who wanted to create an explicitly Christian nation.

Reality has *such* a liberal bias.
posted by rmd1023 at 8:18 AM on March 15 [2 favorites]


The alt-right's affection for Middle Ages is in fact simply the "Middle Ages as perceived by Victorians."

The Middle Ages of Northern Europe were precisely about the evolution of tribes reorienting themselves to understand how to rule over and be part of multi ethnic kingdoms. The early Middle Ages were explicitly about Germanic tribes viewing themselves as the successors to the Roman Empire. The Abbasid deposition of the Umayyads was explicitly about rebelling against a ruling class that was too focused on Arab ethnic insularity rather than dealing with the multi national makeup of their empire and religion.

If anything, the Middle Age mindset would explicitly reject the petty racial nationalisms of the alt-right.
posted by deanc at 8:27 AM on March 15 [17 favorites]


meanwhile during the Middle Ages in Japan women were inventing the novel and mastering improvisational poetry and the diary form, but hey

(not to derail really; it's hard to say whether alt-righters who are obsessed with Japan or obsessed with medieval Europe are worse)
posted by Countess Elena at 8:33 AM on March 15 [2 favorites]


Ignatius J. Reilly was ahead of his time. Today, he could have a popular blog and sit in on White House press briefings. He probably wouldn't even have to change clothes.
posted by Countess Elena at 7:33 AM on March 15 [3 favorites −] Favorite added! [!]


Flagged as sadly fantastic.
posted by schadenfrau at 8:33 AM on March 15 [2 favorites]


I mean, seriously, do these people not read hist -- oh, yeah.

Heh heh.

Also, Alisoun would show these bozos what "cuck" really means.
posted by mandolin conspiracy at 8:53 AM on March 15 [1 favorite]


I already shouted out Patrick Wyman's Fall of Rome podcast in another thread, but if anything it's more apt here, being as much a chronicle of the origin of the Middle Ages as it is a chronicle of the titular Fall of Rome.

In a very real sense, the darkness of the Middle Ages comes from the replacement of a well-integrated, multi-ethnic empire with a series of provincial petty kingdoms. Not to paint too rosy a picture of the Romans, of course, who obviously built their multi-ethnic empire on slavery and conquest, but the difference is nonetheless stark. When you divide up the world with wars and borders, you get massive declines in both population and material sophistication.
posted by tobascodagama at 8:57 AM on March 15 [3 favorites]


Except that medieval Europe seems to have been a very multicultural place, with tons of travel and cultural interaction as well as trade and of course a huge international organization (or two) providing a common language and education. Its complicated.

FWIW, although there were great new bits of knowledge, I was a bit disappointed with the series. The blogposts were closer to buzzfeed than to "essays" and IMO, the attempts at making the subject matter accessible outshouted the real knowledge in there. They may be good for mailing your alt-right cousin, though.
posted by mumimor at 9:07 AM on March 15 [3 favorites]


There's also been a huge increase in interest of vikings, and I think they're related and it gives me the creeps.

Yeah. Loads of fun when you're descended from actual Vikings but can barely find decent writeups about it in English that are free of alt-right crap. My ancestors caught fish, dried it, and sold it to other people, or sometimes exchanged it for olive oil, mmkay. They've been doing it for centuries and you get places like Nice where they think estocaficada is from Nice with a Niçois name (always loads of fun watching their expressions change as they realize that cod isn't found in the Mediterranean), so it seems rather clear that the Norsepeople in question weren't going around slapping people with their dried cod while shouting "tørrfisk, Nice-man!!"

As I like to remind alt-right sorts here in France who go off about "French identity," the name Normandy comes from Norseman. Not to mention, before all this "French identity" talk started (merci Sarkozy – non en fait je te remercie pas), people talked a lot more about the diversity of France. There are several local languages and quite different cultural histories; not all parts of France have always been in France and few indeed have historically identified as "French".
posted by fraula at 9:10 AM on March 15 [13 favorites]


Back in the day a medievalist was all about the hard work of mastering Latin and German and Occitan, perusing dusty manuscripts and digging old ruins. Sturtevant seems to be about mining Hollywood. His PhD thesis is entirely based on English language sources and classics in translation, and page two of his first linked article has a citation from wikipedia, something unacceptable at my children's middle school.

Unless we're reading a peer-reviewed piece--which we're not--linking to the Wikipedia entry for vitiligo is perfectly acceptable. Do you have a specific complaint about the linked Wikipedia entry, or is the complaint just a grumble about the existence of Wikipedia and its use in writing for the internet? I feel bad for your kids if they can't refer to Wikipedia in their schoolwork. I often ask my grad students to edit Wikipedia entries when they see errors or gaps, and to bring it to my attention when they do.

And I don't understand your qualms with the thesis--it lays out its focus and scope right on the tin. "Popular understanding of history" is not "reading the classics."
posted by late afternoon dreaming hotel at 9:36 AM on March 15 [16 favorites]


There are several local languages and quite different cultural histories; not all parts of France have always been in France and few indeed have historically identified as "French".

And the process happened far more recently than people think! This book should be required reading for anyone who wants to make claims about the immutable historical character of France.
posted by asterix at 9:46 AM on March 15 [2 favorites]


One problem I have with this is to assert that the bad guys on the right, make up untruths about the middle ages. In fact, we in America (and I assume other nations) make up lies about our own past without being members of some far right group. What do we learn as kids about the Spanish, the English, the French in North and South America? genocide. land grabbing, slavery, etc. We here need not go back to the middle ages to get a more realistic view of our past...and present.
posted by Postroad at 10:06 AM on March 15 [1 favorite]


(and I assume other nations)
Everybody does it.
posted by mumimor at 10:45 AM on March 15


“My position on women, very explicitly, is that they should in the modern world remain in the exact same role they were in during the medieval period and I am unwilling to dance around or negotiate on that issue."

This doesn't even make sense. Women in the Middle Ages worked hard, and did many of the same jobs as men. I don't know much about medieval history but it's obvious from my limited, learned-it-in-high-school history that society would have been chaos if women couldn't/didn't farm, buy and sell goods, inherit money, run businesses, etc. etc.
posted by chainsofreedom at 10:50 AM on March 15 [6 favorites]


Like what do they think happened when men went off to war, total gridlock?
posted by chainsofreedom at 10:51 AM on March 15 [2 favorites]


Yes, the Viking housewives held the keys, as a symbol of their power within the household but also as a very real means of power. Some strains of Christianity tried to push back on strong women, including Luther himself (and as far as I know there is a story there, but I don't remember). But all they got was more powerful women.
posted by mumimor at 10:59 AM on March 15 [1 favorite]


Plus, does he know anything about Frankish queens because they could be brutal
posted by Countess Elena at 11:06 AM on March 15 [2 favorites]


Also, next time you see some racist yob waving the flag of St. George just point at it and say "Woo! Shoutout to my Syrian peeps!"

Typical. Another Middle Eastern immigrant stealing dragon-slaying jobs from good Englishmen.
posted by Sangermaine at 11:07 AM on March 15 [7 favorites]


I thought it was common knowledge that the Arabic world kept the flame of science burning through the middle ages. You only have to look at the number of English words of Arabic origin to see the impact of that.
posted by Acey at 11:20 AM on March 15 [4 favorites]


That's just what the liberal media and fake historians want you to believe. [fake but not really that fake]

More seriously: Yes, right-wingers intentionally elide the fact that the Renaissance was only possible due to reestablished contact with the Islamic world.
posted by tobascodagama at 11:30 AM on March 15 [2 favorites]


Back in the day a medievalist was all about the hard work of mastering Latin and German and Occitan, perusing dusty manuscripts and digging old ruins.

As someone who has repeatedly shown an overall poor grasp on ancient and medieval history, and a disturbing devotion to outdated and/or Eurocentric sources on same, I'm not sure you're a good or balanced source on this.
posted by zombieflanders at 11:53 AM on March 15 [2 favorites]


That map in the last link, oh wow.

It's fun to try to find an interesting looking town and find it in the real world. My eyes went immediately to the coffee cup ring near the center of the right half, which a German annotation says is the Mauer of Bukhara. Does that really mean the walls of the Ark of Bukhara, exaggerated extremely? Going west, why are there big islands in the Caspian?

There's a feeling like the opposite of a frisson, like, "argh there's too much to know I will never know it alllll".
posted by fleacircus at 12:01 PM on March 15


asterix: "And the process happened far more recently than people think! This book should be required reading for anyone who wants to make claims about the immutable historical character of France."

This one is good, too.
posted by Chrysostom at 12:48 PM on March 15


Plus, does he know anything about Frankish queens because they could be brutal

If you open that on a mobile device, the first thing you see is an engraving of Fredegund slamming someone's head in a trunk, and I would just like to point out that this extremely similar to how we meet Bullet Tooth Tony in the movie Snatch. The rest of the article did not dispel that similarity in any way.
posted by chainsofreedom at 2:30 PM on March 15 [3 favorites]


FirstMateKate: “There's also been a huge increase in interest of vikings, and I think they're related and it gives me the creeps.”
I could have sworn there's been an FPP about it, but I didn't find it in my searches. There's a whole white-supremicist "folk religion" thing associated with Vikings that's been gaining followers for the last couple of decades. I was very unhappy to see friends — especially my friend who emigrated to Iceland — showing interest in creepy, Viking-related pages on Facebook.
posted by ob1quixote at 3:03 PM on March 15 [1 favorite]


This book should be required reading for anyone who wants to make claims about the immutable historical character of France.
posted by asterix


Eponystérix.
posted by Pallas Athena at 3:27 PM on March 15 [15 favorites]


Somewhat related: this symposium last week at the University of Chicago Medieval Studies Workshop on "Teaching & Researching the Medieval Past in the Face of Present Crisis: Why and How Medieval Studies *Now*?". Live tweets from the workshop are storified here.
posted by ArbitraryAndCapricious at 5:55 PM on March 15


> the Norsepeople in question weren't going around slapping people with their dried cod while shouting "tørrfisk, Nice-man!!"

And now I'm sad.

If punching Nazis is not okay, can we at least slap them with dried cod? Please?
posted by rtha at 6:33 PM on March 15


I was hoping to enjoy these more than I did. I liked the bits that were about medieval history, or the historiography, much better than the stuff that was about the current internet, politics, or how race is a social construct. There was way more of the latter and (in my not very charitable opinion) those bits were at best serviceable entries in the genre.

If the series continues, more about Pietro Rombulo of Messina, cultural sources of shifting burial patterns in Britain, and what medieval people meant when they thought about gens would be good. Fewer Trump and Putin references.
posted by mark k at 8:24 PM on March 15 [2 favorites]


There's a whole white-supremicist "folk religion" thing associated with Vikings that's been gaining followers for the last couple of decades.

Some call themselves "Odinists" which pisses me off, since my Old Man's not the racist sort; others go for "The Folk" in true Nazi fashion. This is of course, muddied by the Nazi's taking actual runes and symptoms of prosperity and turning them into hateful images; the shape of the SS logo and the swastika both come from Viking/Norse culture.

Some of them are trying to use Forn Sed or Asatru as names, though my understanding is organizations around both names are explicitly and vehemently anti-racist. Racists still join in, sadly; I knew one who was very put out when I disagreed with him. Asatru tends to be more conservative than a lot of Neopagan resurgences, which probably explains a lot of the racist and sexist intrusions.
posted by Deoridhe at 11:29 PM on March 15 [2 favorites]


the shape of the SS logo and the swastika both come from Viking/Norse culture

The swastika only comes from the Norse in the sense that they believed the proto-Viking people who populated Scandinavia were the only true descendants of the Aryans, who were Indo-Persian. The swastika had already been used by a wide variety of groups all across Europe and southern Asia for millennia.
posted by zombieflanders at 6:01 AM on March 16 [2 favorites]


I could have sworn there's been an FPP about it, but I didn't find it in my searches. There's a whole white-supremicist "folk religion" thing associated with Vikings that's been gaining followers for the last couple of decades

This subgroup also appears to be really into powerlifting, which is how I accidentally bought some straps a few years ago from a company I now think might be kind of Nazi-ish, in the Wodan/Odin/Norse fetish sense. So that was a bummer.

But yeah, everything old is new again. The thing that always strikes me about these ahistorical history / mythology fetishes is how incredibly childish they are. Really? You're going to lean on an ahistorical interpretation of a dead religion to validate your feeling that you should, in some way, be superior to everyone else? And then you're going to spend inordinate amounts of time on your symbols and code words and regalia?

Just get a fucking club house, hang a sign outside that says "No Homers," and leave the rest of us alone. You fucking children.
posted by schadenfrau at 7:58 AM on March 16 [7 favorites]


meanwhile during the Middle Ages in Japan women were inventing the novel and mastering improvisational poetry and the diary form, but hey

(not to derail really; it's hard to say whether alt-righters who are obsessed with Japan or obsessed with medieval Europe are worse)


i just so happen to be taking a seminar on the tale of genji and was just taking a break from doing some secondary readings! unfortunately, while women in heian japan were totally doing rad af things and showing up men in terms of aesthetic and intellectual achievements, this didn't necessarily do anything to help guarantee them bodily autonomy... throughout the Genji you see women renouncing the world and becoming nuns; this more often than not seems a strategy to escape men. some see the Genji as a text about women attempting to resist a male-dominated society in which rape is the norm and women, if not disposable, are, at least, replaceable, and their value lies primarily in the power they can bring to their father.
not to mention that, on the matter of skin-colour, they were essentially white-supremacists. and they practiced polygamy in a pretty unequal way (while in theory women could also have multiple husbands, in practice men's possessiveness and jealousy generally foreclosed this from working). i'm sure to some this may be not a fair, or even a bad/inaccurate, assessment, but. what i'm getting at is that i can well imagine heian japan being more in line with dark-enlightenment red-pillers' fantasies than medieval europe
posted by LeviQayin at 8:30 AM on March 16 [4 favorites]


I can't wait to read all of these essays, thank you!
posted by desuetude at 11:25 AM on March 16


You're going to lean on an ahistorical interpretation of a dead religion to validate your feeling that you should, in some way, be superior to everyone else?

Hey! We're not dead anymore, just ....really small. /Asatruar derail
posted by Deoridhe at 12:37 AM on March 17


fwiw...
  • White supremacism is not nationalism - "American rightists have always seemed to me like part of an international, borderless white supremacist movement - a sort of global white-ist Ummah. They always seem to have much more allegiance to their co-racialists in other countries than they do to their own non-white countrymen."
  • A Professor meets the Alt-Right - "Thomas Main, Professor in the School of Public Affairs at Baruch College, is working on a book about the Alt-Right, to be published by Brookings. Below you can listen to a conversation between Main and prominent Alt-Right figure Mike Enoch (pseudonym). It's an interesting encounter between academic political theory and a new political movement that (so far) exists mostly on the internet."
posted by kliuless at 1:11 AM on March 19 [1 favorite]


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