Fearful Symmetries

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11 October, 2019

The Unbearable Whiteness of Medieval Europe

Last month the UW-Madison Center for Humanities held a panel discussion entitled "Race, Religion, and Revisionism: Why the Middle Ages Matter Now". The discussion would address how the Middle Ages were being misused "to justify attacks against vulnerable groups in the 21st century". The event's webpage features a photo of white nationalist types bearing shields so one knew going in where the focus would lay.

Although I enjoy learning about the Middle Ages, I am not an academic. Ergo I have no first-hand knowledge of how the academy at-large is responding to the issue of medieval history being misappropriated by white nationalists/white supremacists in this country. From my layman's perspective, it seems to be at least a moderately big deal. It's not uncommon to find articles about race in the Middle Ages at Medievalists.net or The Public Medievalist. Indeed, the latter has a whole series on the subject called "Race, Racism and the Middle Ages". If you look at the program for this year's International Congress on Medieval Studies you find amongst the panel discussions on medieval textiles and exegeses on various tales from that era that there are sessions like "Race and Racism in Hagiography" and "Tolkien and Medieval Constructions of Race" plus lots of talks about Saracens.

The issue of race is in the air and it's not unexpected that it should be addressed by any and all university departments.

Tangentially, one of the photos on the Congress' landing page is of William Chester Jordan, a historian who happens to be black. He was here in Madison about a week ago and gave an interesting talk about the Jewish response to the First Crusade.

So why do the Middle Ages matter now?

The discussion featured six academics and was moderated by Rabbi Laurie Zimmerman. Each panelist took a little time to give their thoughts on the issue before questions were taken from the audience. Professor Brenda Plummer (History) led things off and noted the ambiguity of race in the Middle Ages. For instance, blackness symbolized death and chaos, ye there are also realistic portrayals of Africans from that time. Her main point was that race, at least for much of the Middle Ages, wasn't as important as religion. Africans who were baptized became "white".

Martin Foys, a professor of English, spoke next. As his specialty was Anglo-Saxon studies, a term he thought needed to go the way of the dodo, it was unsurprising that he spoke about J.R.R. Tolkien. Tolkien's work forms the basis of popular medieval fantasy – stories, books, movies – and so, according to Foys, the genre was problematic because of its whiteness. He pointed to the novels of Marlon James as one antidote to the paleness of the genre.

Ph.D. student Ahmed Abdelazim's are of expertise is in Islamic and Middle Eastern visual & material cultures. He began by showing us a photograph of the 1529 painting "The Battle of Alexander at Issus" by Albrecht Altdorfer. He noted how Alexander's army looked like contemporary Europeans while the Darius and his fellow Persians were portrayed as Ottomans. A 500 year-old example of the past being manipulated to suit contemporary concerns/views. Abdelazim then put a photograph of the assault rifle belonging to Brenton Tarrant, the Christchurch mosque shooter, on display. It had the dates of various medieval battles between Christians and Muslims painted on it. He then noted that ISIS uses medieval imagery – their clothes, names, methods of execution, etc. – to portray themselves as embodying pure Islamic culture.

Abdelazim's academic advisor, Jennifer Pruitt followed her advisee. She spoke about the Middle Ages as being the golden age of Islam, highlighting scientific innovation and multicultural tolerance. Moving forward to the present day, Ms. Pruitt brought up the "Ground Zero" mosque, a proposed Islamic community center and mosque to be built a couple blocks away from where the World Trade Center once stood. When the proposal emerged in 2009, it was to be called the Cordoba House. Pruitt contrasted the connotations engendered by the Andalusian city. For Muslims Cordoba was a symbol of tolerance white for right-wingers it was a symbol of Muslim dominance of Christian lands.

The penultimate panelist to speak was Samuel England, an associate professor of Arabic and African Cultural studies. With all due apologies to Mr. England, my notes on his commentary are pretty sparse. He showed us this patch:

England asked us to consider how to interpret it. How seriously should we take it? Is it a joke? He then referred to the famous "I'm gonna get medieval on your ass" line from Pulp Fiction. Perhaps I tuned out a bit here because I am not a Quentin Tarantino fan but England went on to discuss how the director plays with history.

The final panelist to speak was Elizabeth Lapina, a medieval historian who focuses on the Crusades. She began by noting that the mascot of Edgewood High School here in Madison (a Catholic institution) is the Crusader. She opined that the medieval past has been weaponized. Continuing, she noted that the stereotype of the stout, brave man as glorious Crusader belies the fact that the Crusades and medieval warfare generally were pure hell. Countless innocents were slaughtered, Crusaders suffered from disease and famine, etc. Furthermore, women had a lot more power during the Middle Ages than is popularly imagined. About a fifth of all Crusaders were women. Finally, she noted that the medieval world was global and diverse. Simplistic narratives just don't work.

We then moved onto the Q&A portion of the evening. The first question seemed odd to me at first but, the more I thought about it, the more reasonable it seemed. The audience member said that we here in 21st century America live in a diverse society. Given this, to what extent do white supremacists harken back to medieval Europe because of a lack of diversity there? We had just sat through 45 or so minutes of six learned people trying to explain, albeit with brevity, why popular conceptions of Europe during the Middle Ages as all-white are wrong and there was diversity and this person does a 180 and says there was a lack of it.

The question highlighted, for me, a lack of specifics from the panelists. While they collectively made a good case for a Middle Ages in Europe that was not completely white, they didn't specify just how colored it was. And where, for that matter. Just how many people of color were white Europeans likely to encounter? I can see how a medieval Spaniard would have encountered more non-whites with al-Andalus to the south. But what if you lived in Norway or Lithuania? I suppose there was an unspoken assumption that the panel was about Western Europe as that seems to be the area that provides the most influence on popular culture and white supremacists.

And how about the Mongols who ran roughshod over Eastern Europe? How were they viewed in terms of their physical characteristics? Lastly, just when are talking about? If the Middle Ages lasted from 500-1500, did the racial views of whites/Western Europeans change over the course of a millennium?

Getting back to the question that was posed, Prof. Plummer answered first and began by referring to a Powerpoint slide of this:

It's an early 15th century illustration of The Queen of Sheba. The combination of dark skin and blond hair demonstrated that medieval ideas of race were not fixed and that there was a time when Christian = white did not apply. Mr. Foys followed up by saying that the notion of Northern Europe being all white dates from the 18th and 19th centuries. By way of example, he noted that a "racist" conflict in early medieval England was the Danes vs. the Britons.

The most important and perhaps most telling part of the Q&A section happened when a young woman who was an undergrad asked how to talk to conservative people outside of the liberal university bubble. There was an uncomfortable silence at this point with no panelist being particular eager to weigh in. Finally one did and I believe it was Ms. Lapina. She said that the more history you know, the more complex it gets so be sure to use specific examples. I think the example she gave was of a Crusader – can't recall who exactly – grew up in a diverse city and spoke Arabic. One could use this person to illustrate that there was more to the Crusades than simply anti-Muslim sentiment.

It was a bit disheartening to hear these six people tell us in the audience how important it was for medieval history not to be used to justify racial animosity yet have very little in the way of suggestions for overturning the entrenched and false notions about the Middle Ages that pervade popular culture. If you feel the subject of your discipline is being misused for nefarious purposes and that this is a pressing matter, then something is deeply wrong when a question about trying to turn the tide is greeted with silence.

I see that Ms. Lapina is writing a book called Depicting the Holy War: Crusader Imagery in Programs of Mural Paintings in France and England in the Twelfth and Thirteenth Centuries. With a title like that, I cannot doubt that the intended audience is other academics. Not a problem. But mix that up with works intended for a lay audience. If medieval historians want to push a counter-narrative, then they'll have to do better and find ways to reach us.
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