White Nationalism and the Ethics of Medieval Studies
January 2, 2017 4:04 PM   Subscribe

Sierra Lomuto writes about resisting the fascist, neo-Nazi, and racist cooption of medieval history in "White Nationalism and the Ethics of Medieval Studies." (similar issues previously, in the classics context)

More from In The Middle:

a medievalist declaration of values:
"People want to be medievalists for a lot of different reasons. Some are drawn to the Middle Ages because it offers up a time of supposed ethnic purity, a lost ideal, a culture of sacred obedience, or an admirable ethos of warrior heroism. Our outlook for medieval studies resists all this. We welcome the weirdos, the obsessives, the lovers of the minute, the constitutionally uncertain. We welcome those drawn to the Middle Ages because it calls to them as a time forgotten and disdained by the demand that we be “up to date” and only “of the present.” Our medieval studies would not be possible without feminists, without queers, without posthumanists, without those who insist that the paired notions of a “white medieval Europe” and a “Christian Europe” are cruel anachronisms. Nor would it be possible without the joy of sharing our love in discoveries about, say, ascenders in late English script, or the trade in coconuts, or the transport of stories of holy greyhounds, in knowledge that maybe no one else values.

Our medieval studies is attentive, excited, empathic, at times sad, and above all careful, of itself and of its community."
calling out virulent misogyny within the ranks of medieval studies

some of the historical antecedents to Donald Trump's proud admission of sexual assault
posted by jedicus (28 comments total) 61 users marked this as a favorite
 
I wanted to be medievalists because I think castles (honest-to-goodness, proper defensive things with few rooms and no halls or windows) are cool. I also really like Wealden houses.

But my Latin wasn't great and demographic sources are poor for that period, and Church history bores me, so I moved to the 17th & 18th centuries.
posted by jb at 5:09 PM on January 2, 2017 [7 favorites]


Isn't that when the modern concepts of nationalism started to form anyway?
posted by Zalzidrax at 5:12 PM on January 2, 2017


Having gone through the process of acquiring a history degree in the last 6 years, I've come to feel pretty concerned about this phenomenon.

Particularly, I'm worried that leaders in the field don't realize how grassroots, in a sense, this co-option is. There is a disturbing segment of folks who sign up for history degrees that are either extremely vulnerable to modern far-right ideologies, or active proponents of them. My fear is that, through their focus and dedication to the cause, some of them might manage to usurp control over segments of historical study important to them (medieval, modern european, classical).

There are young fascists in these programs right now, soaking up knowledge so that they can disseminate warped narratives that borrow enough of their learning so at to sound credible. They're climbing the academic ranks and founding batshit journals to publish their garbage.
posted by constantinescharity at 5:33 PM on January 2, 2017 [35 favorites]


I was in Medieval Studies before moving to Classics (before leaving grad school track entirely), and I have to say, during my relatively brief academic non-career I witnessed a series of scares including:

1) the feminists are taking over History
2) the neo-Straussians are taking over political science (I did a Humanities MA at the University of Chicago where this was A Thing, for some reason)
3) the Late Antiquity folks are taking over Classics (there are a remarkable number of people in Classics and Medieval studies, or were then, who thought that Peter Brown was Destroying Everything)
4) the archaeologists are taking over History ("they're going to replace textual analysis with those damned shovels!")
5) fascists are taking over Arabic Studies (big during the Bush years)
5) the postmodernists are Taking Over Everything

My experience has been that turnover rates in academia are low and the sort of people who think that They Are Called To Glorious Battle For The Soul of America aren't going to wait a couple decades working their way up the ladder - or just squatting at the bottom as a lowly adjunct. It's easy enough to move over to a well-funded conservative think tank or get a agitprop job in Washington DC or hell, just start a blog. Which leaves the problem in the same place it has always been: how to prevent bad history being spammed all over the public discourse.
posted by AdamCSnider at 6:17 PM on January 2, 2017 [30 favorites]


The relationship between the study of history and awful conservative politics is a recurrent problem, think of Victor Davis Hanson leveraging a genuinely interesting insight into the warfare in Ancient Greece into a career of being a racist shithead. That said how you study a time before race as a concept existed, when Europe had, at the periphery, diverse energetic cultures like Muslim Spain, and when you see the messy, colonialism like process of stamping out local differences and creating the common European culture (to the extent that was done) and come out a white nationalist is beyond me. The example of Celtic art is telling, Celtic culture was definitely not the culture of everyone who would be white today and studying that history would seem to expose the idea of a unified Europe for white people in the Middle Ages as as sham.

the Late Antiquity folks are taking over Classics (there are a remarkable number of people in Classics and Medieval studies, or were then, who thought that Peter Brown was Destroying Everything)

I like Late Antiquity (and Peter Brown specifically was really interesting when I was in school), but yeah, I can totally see how they seemed like they were taking over.
posted by Bulgaroktonos at 6:40 PM on January 2, 2017 [8 favorites]


Oh and vaguely on the subject, as someone who knew of him at the University of Chicago, the transformation of Daniel Larison from Byzantinist with quirky opinions about the Glorious Revolution to foreign policy commentator is deeply weird. He occupies a different niche than the alt right, but it's a similar dynamic.
posted by Bulgaroktonos at 6:55 PM on January 2, 2017 [3 favorites]


Having gone through the process of acquiring a history degree in the last 6 years, I've come to feel pretty concerned about this phenomenon.

Particularly, I'm worried that leaders in the field don't realize how grassroots, in a sense, this co-option is. There is a disturbing segment of folks who sign up for history degrees that are either extremely vulnerable to modern far-right ideologies, or active proponents of them. My fear is that, through their focus and dedication to the cause, some of them might manage to usurp control over segments of historical study important to them (medieval, modern european, classical).

There are young fascists in these programs right now, soaking up knowledge so that they can disseminate warped narratives that borrow enough of their learning so at to sound credible. They're climbing the academic ranks and founding batshit journals to publish their garbage.
posted by constantinescharity at 5:33 PM on January 2 [8 favorites +] [!]
Is this phenomenon bigger than the study of history? It seems that a lot of academia could be vulnerable to woo.

I know someone who is a nurse who likes to post on Facebook about her doubts about the safety of vaccines (although she doesn't refuse to administer them). I know a girl studying geology who plans to write a term paper on the geology of Atlantis. A recent applicant at a certain college's nursing department says "I don't believe in Western medicine."

It seems possible that the same "filter bubble" phenomenon that allows people to consume only the political information they want to hear--and thereby reinforces extremist politics--might also be fostering communities with their own sets of "facts" on a variety of subjects. If enough of these communities grow enough, the "facts" might become more generally accepted even in academia regardless of their validity.

(Or is it just that there have always been people believing crazy things, and there's no bigger pattern here?)
posted by Sleeper at 7:14 PM on January 2, 2017 [1 favorite]


I'm curious whether there's a chicken and egg relationship between this and Paradox's successful Crusader Kings and Europa Universalis feudalism/imperialism simulators. While I greatly enjoy both of those games, they really do elide over the greater nastiness of medieval Europe.
posted by LeRoienJaune at 7:38 PM on January 2, 2017 [1 favorite]


What's weird to me is the notion that Europe* was even the most interesting thing going on in the world during medieval times. It really wasn't. On the other hand, maybe I shouldn't encourage the alt-right to read up on, say, Genghis Khan.

*And I kind of like reading about the middle ages. I'm an atheist, but I enjoy weird church history and I know more Latin than is strictly necessary.
posted by thivaia at 8:01 PM on January 2, 2017 [12 favorites]


Metafilter: more Latin than is strictly necessary.
posted by oheso at 8:15 PM on January 2, 2017 [10 favorites]


It's really weird how history attracts right-wing weirdos. I mean, yeah, military history makes sense in a way, but it's just odd to me how many people who are history buffs with pretty deep knowledge are raving kooks. Whenever I see an interesting question about history on a site like Quora, for instance, I just know there's going to be several well thought out, informed, and interesting answers that can barely conceal their admiration of the Hitlerjugend or just how GOOD Nazi Germany was at training people to be military or whatever.
posted by Joakim Ziegler at 8:33 PM on January 2, 2017 [9 favorites]


Isn't that when the modern concepts of nationalism started to form anyway?

I'm not a trained historian, and periodization is inherently a handwavey post hoc imposition of distinctions on a historical record which inevitably defies easy description, but my understanding is that something that looks like a modern conception of nationalism is part of (some of) the definitions of the transition from the medieval into the early modern.

In fact, I think that this pre-nationalism world-view is, indirectly, part of what draws racists to the medieval period. For their world-view to make sense, there must be some mystical past in which the races were separate, because if there have always been just random groups of people mingling genetics, languages, and cultures, then the whole idea of distinct races is holed below the waterline. And the fact that medieval people didn't think in terms of modern racial, national and ethnic ideas makes it really easy to project that past on to them. No one mentions any non-white people (because they don't really have the idea of white vs. non-white) so they must not have been any people who wouldn't fit our modern definition of white around, right?

Or to put it another way, imagine that a few hundred years from now, society decides that people with hazel colored eyes are really terrible. And they develop a whole ideology around this, complete with complicated rules about which people with which shades of eye color count as hazel, as opposed to our very vague sense of what hazel-colored eyes mean. If those people try to do history about our time period, they're going to make a lot of assumptions about who was a Hazel and who wasn't, based on very little evidence. And they're probably going to assume that we lived in some pre-Hazel paradise, just because we didn't think it was relevant information to mention eye color every time we described someone.
posted by firechicago at 8:34 PM on January 2, 2017 [25 favorites]


So there was a post here a while ago about the uptick in interest in historical European martial arts...

"The Scholarship isn't Divorced from the Practice."

I remember watching that documentary and being bothered that everybody was skirting around the inherently nationalistic/revisionistic aspects of trying to revive a dead martial art that happens to belong to (some approximation of) your own ancestors. The euphemistic appeals to European heritage are sure to attract white nationalists, and the problem isn't going to go away if you ignore it.
posted by hyperbolic at 9:00 PM on January 2, 2017 [3 favorites]


It's really weird how history attracts right-wing weirdos. I mean, yeah, military history makes sense in a way, but it's just odd to me how many people who are history buffs with pretty deep knowledge are raving kooks.

Yeah, but it's not just history or the right-wing. Anthropologists who spend their lives working with an Amazonian tribe or something can easily slip into projecting any number of their own issues or viewpoints onto their ostensible study subjects, and there's a broader cultural market for that sort of thing as well (whether "nasty, brutish and short" or "Noble Savage"). I think most people find it really easy to utilize other cultures and societies, past and present, primarily as a lense through which to view the presumed deficiencies of their own. Hell, some people do it with animals. I knew a guy at U of Chicago who genuinely believed the human race's best chance for survival was to copy the social structure of the ants he was studying.
posted by AdamCSnider at 10:25 PM on January 2, 2017 [10 favorites]


Medieval people were, of course, people of perfectly modern morality in harsh circumstances and funny dress.

I love you all, but the fact of otherness is something you seem to struggle with. It's really hard to argue with others when you can't perceive otherness. Of course they are joking.

The best response is a steady hand, not a compensation. And embrace your newness.
posted by pfh at 1:05 AM on January 3, 2017 [1 favorite]


Didn't something similar happen to the medieval reenactors (the SCA and such) some decades ago, with a group founded by passionate geeks facing an influx of conservative Christians who saw in it a contrast to a fallen society?
posted by acb at 1:41 AM on January 3, 2017


Yeah it's not just history. I've studied everything from mythology to medieval literature through to contemporary, including dashes of anthropology and psychology, and really, it boils down to our very human capacity of projection. It's been around forever and will be around forever. Like anything, it is healthy in balance – projection means we assume other humans are human like us; it helps us see babies not just as squirming eaters and producers of bodily fluids but as future, developed individuals; so on and so forth – but taken too far, it gets bad. It is why it's so important to have teachers of critical thinking. People able to show us how to go beyond our ego that likes to see itself mirrored in others "like me/us" up to the point where it dislikes seeing parts of itself that it then projects onto othered-others "not like us". I could give literary examples from every single period that literature (whether oral or written) has existed. It is our humanity.

You've got Hesiod writing a story about how men were created by gods but women are annoying objects who need to STFU. You've got anthropologists who interview men but not women because "who cares" basically (and they say so in so many words). You've got archaeologists who determine sex by what's in graves, thus meaning weapons = men, so for a while no one noticed that, actually, when you analyze the bones, there are also women buried with weapons. You've got modern-day students studying those anthropologists and archaeologists and saying "X didn't care so I don't either, and really who knows for the graves" in so many words. Bring up exceptions and they're shot down with all the ammo anyone can find, even if it's flawed. We want people like us to be good! And people not like us to be bad and ridiculous and worthless!

There are also examples of people and groups of people trying to live in balance. What comes through in their literature is how to overcome the immaturity that means it's easier to say "it's everyone else being mean and bad!" Whether it's women being "weak" and "unimportant," group X being "radical" and "violent," group Y being "terrorists" or "uncivilized," group Z being "backwards"... we have to take responsibility for ourselves too. We have to accept that we are not superior, we are not perfect, we're not "better than", we're just as human as the person next to us. For instance, a really pedestrian example: people like to say "it's easy to get over an impossible crush – just imagine them on the toilet." Why, you're not on the toilet several times a day? You're not just as disgusting as every other human? ("Oh my god she's calling us disgusting!" No, you are. You think it's disgusting, or you wouldn't call it disgusting. You can either accept that's part of you too, or keep thinking the rest of humanity is worse than your shining not-peed-on snowflake example. Really, we have to start by accepting the worst of ourselves, which doesn't mean condoning, it means recognizing as true.) It is not easy, it is not clear-cut, there is no clear path. That's why people go for systemic oppression: it's easy. It's clear-cut. "Other people are gross and ridiculous. Not me or my friends. Look! History says so!" Of course it does. It's filled with humans.
posted by fraula at 2:56 AM on January 3, 2017 [16 favorites]


The deep significance of Celtic iconography within the white nationalist community was never explicitly referenced during the first speaker's presentation nor during the Q & A, but it was unavoidably present. As the beautiful images of the artist's work were projected onto the overhead screen, I began to notice the consistency of canvas: every example was etched into white skin.

OTOH, if one were descended from people who were enslaved by Scotch-Irish slave owners in the South, I can imagine how the idea of getting Celtic motifs tattooed into one's skin could have some baggage.
posted by acb at 3:28 AM on January 3, 2017


Medievalist Alaric Hall wrote about this in December in a blogpost called Why am I a medievalist? It's about how he got interested in medieval England as a culturally myopic twelve year old and how it influenced him. Excerpt:
So for all my right-on politics, my work as a medievalist is embedded in much deeper, conservative and often xenophobic ideological structures, both in my own biography and in the biographies of my institution and my students, which lock me into political projects far beyond my immediate control. My twelve-year-old self remains oddly influential, or at least still feels at home.
Note: In the UK, "right-on politics" means leftist politics.
posted by Kattullus at 6:12 AM on January 3, 2017 [2 favorites]


It's about how he got interested in medieval England as a culturally myopic twelve year old and how it influenced him.

It's funny to think about how these interest start when you're young, even when they're not connected to anything overly pernicious. I studied medieval history in college (didn't do grad school on account of my Latin being atrocious, my commitment to studying poor, and my love of receiving paychecks overwhelming) , but I was at least 1/3 there because I liked D&D. I mean sure, by the time I got to college I had separated the two, but that was the origin. Or maybe I liked D&D because I liked castle Lego sets; who knows how far back it went. In college, I regularly had two classmates who (I strongly suspect) were there because they loved Scandinavian metal music. One went on to become a successful metal drummer* the other studies history, but seemingly works mostly on late antique Gaul which isn't exactly the subject of much Icelandic death metal (I assume).

That's really how in depth study should work, it should deepen and change your interests and change you; if I had been abandoning my classes on medieval history to play Baldur's Gate II that would have reflected a failure of education,** same as if you first start studying medieval history to learn about the glorious history of white people and come out the same way after you're done.

*Despite the best efforts of his teachers to stop his incessant and uncontrollable drumming
**I did this once and it was a science class I left right before it started, not a history class.
posted by Bulgaroktonos at 7:16 AM on January 3, 2017 [4 favorites]


I remember watching that documentary and being bothered that everybody was skirting around the inherently nationalistic/revisionistic aspects of trying to revive a dead martial art that happens to belong to (some approximation of) your own ancestors.

Racism and the attraction of HEMA to white supremacists is an acknowledged problem within HEMA, and there are those who are actively opposing it. The Black History of Historical European Martial Arts gives an intro to the history; Fighters Against Racism is a group that does what it says on the tin; there is a HEMA racism tracker on tumblr (though it obscures names, so may be difficult to notice who these people are). Is that enough? Nope. But the problem is not ignored.
posted by Vortisaur at 10:43 AM on January 3, 2017 [2 favorites]


I worked with a man who was a genuine source of information about ancient Greece and the Mediterranean; loved it. He parlayed that into a virulent anti-muslim bias that caused me to shun his company. Lovely man, but everything always led to how the Muslims should be castigated and brought down.

"Good tea"
"Yeah, but those Muslims are terrible"

When confronted on it he was genuinely shocked that anyone could take offense at his "good-natured" ribbing of Muslims.

He was a strong academic, but given the breadth of history; he had decided that the Moors and by extension the Muslims were the reason for the fall of society.
posted by NiteMayr at 12:08 PM on January 3, 2017 [1 favorite]


...but I was at least 1/3 there because I liked D&D.

Medieval Studies MA here. I went through my program with two folks who were there due to D&D, so that's not particularly surprising. What, specifically, did I study, you ask? Muslim-Christian intellectual exchange.

The last ten-years-and-change have been interesting, to say the least.
posted by eclectist at 1:28 PM on January 3, 2017 [5 favorites]


3/4 of the medievalists I've ever met were medievalists because of D&D or Tolkien (or both); it's nothing to be ashamed of.

But to get back to the race issue: the big irony is that racism and conceiving of the world racially (as opposed to dividing the world into Christian and non) is totally a product of the early modern period. I'm not saying medieval Europe wasn't prejudiced, but it saved its hate for heretics and Jews, and had no problem with non-white people so long as they were Christian. Ethiopian and Chinese Christians were well respected in medieval Europe.
posted by jb at 9:28 PM on January 3, 2017 [2 favorites]


Oh I wasn't ashamed at all, just reflecting.

Anyway, I'm glad the medievalists have gotten around the one thing they can all agree on: the early modern period is the real villain here.
posted by Bulgaroktonos at 6:36 AM on January 4, 2017 [6 favorites]


Anyway, I'm glad the medievalists have gotten around the one thing they can all agree on: the early modern period is the real villain here.

Yes! If you're looking for an absolutely packed-to-the-gills parade of nightmares and horrors,which set the show for an epic catalog of cataclysms to come, allow me to direct you to the 17th century! It's a real winner. (It's also kind of my favorite, but I never said I was a good person).
posted by thivaia at 7:44 AM on January 4, 2017 [7 favorites]


Let's not forget that the early modern period isn't just horrific - it's also 100% bonkers.
posted by The Gaffer at 10:15 AM on January 4, 2017 [2 favorites]


but it has such nice rich sources! lots of things written on strong rag paper - but not too much that you're overwhelmed.
posted by jb at 10:58 PM on January 5, 2017 [1 favorite]


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