Introductory Talk for event at Philadelphia Free Library: Race and Racism Roundtable

When I was still a grad student, I got my blogging start at In the Middle, in 2006, as a guest at what had started as Jeffrey Jerome Cohen’s blog. Since then, especially as social media monocultures largely took over the conversational space that academic blogging used to occupy, In the Middle increasingly became a site for guest posts. Many of those posts have been related to race, racialization, and medieval studies.

On the basis of this work, several of the bloggers at ITM were asked to contribute to an event at the Philadelphia Free Library on Jan 19 at 6:30pm. Mary Kate Hurley, Jonathan Hsy, Cord Whitaker — who was the chief organizer — and me, whose brief remarks will be followed by more substantial talks by Nahir I Otaño-Gracia and Sierra Lomuto. By the time you see this post, the event will probably already have passed. But here’s the information. And here’s my contribution:

I’m going to finish our brief talks by talking about what’s at stake in the Middle Ages. Why should this historical period — whatever it is, precisely — be so attractive to white supremacy? Why not, for example, the 18th century, the so-called Age of Reason, when capitalism and easy access to oceans and transatlantic slavery all combined to make Europe the tremendously rich, worldwide power it remains to this day? Likely because the Middle Ages offers to its fans — to some of them anyway — a past that feels ethnically homogeneous, and a culture that, to the degree it feels more folkloric than civilized, also feels more demotic, more authentic, and thus more natural than our overcivilized, domestic present. It’s not just its purported homogeneity then: it’s also the Middle Age’s slightly barbaric cast in popular culture that offers itself up to ethnic nationalists as a kind of ancestral homeland.

It’s that story that we professional medievalists of course ought to resist. We can do that, first of all, by using our expertise to point out how these bad fans get things wrong. At least since the late 19th century, various white supremacists, organized and otherwise, have seen in the Vikings the originary form of white people: a free and self-reliant warrior band, blue-eyed and blond, unconstrained by Christianity and any other authority.[1]I have published on this as “Bad Heritage: The American Viking Fantasy, from the Nineteenth Century to Now,” in DEcolonial Heritage: Natures, Cultures, and the Asymmetries of Memory, ed. Aníbal … Continue reading It’s simple enough to tell another story to counter all this: archaeology tells us that the ethnic claims of early medieval people were not biologically preordained, but rather political choices. People claimed as their own the ethnic claims of whatever warlord they served. And ancient cultural practices, in Scandinavia as elsewhere, were heterogeneous, always shifting in interchange with neighboring cultures. Nordic runes, for example, have their origins in the imitation of Roman writing, which means that their origins, via Phoenician script, are ultimately Semitic. The Norse sagas are themselves nostalgic writing, and not at all pan-Scandinavian, as they were produced at a time when Icelandic political independence was collapsing under Norwegian hegemony. It’s easy enough to keep going.

But knocking down the bad arguments of bad actors feels like a game of whack-a-mole: they just keep coming, we keep beating them back, and it’s hard to imagine anything new coming out of all this. Knocking down those bad stories, however, also requires better tellings of the story of the Middle Ages. We discover how a period that white nationalists hold up as an era of cultural purity was anything but: culture traveled; people traveled. The hagiographic narrative of Barlaam and Josephat, general throughout Europe, is in effect a Christianized version of the life of the Buddha. In 1306, Ethiopian ambassadors visited Rome, asking their Christian brethren for help against encroaching Muslim armies. About a century later, Rome likewise sent ambassadors to Ethiopia, for the same purpose. Arabic lyrics were the key source for lyric poetry in Romance languages, and thus at the heart of what we now know as romantic love. In the early fourteenth century, Moses ben Joshua of Narbonne translated ibn Tufayl’s philosophical story of a boy raised in isolation on a desert island from Arabic into Hebrew; the same work, eventually translated into Latin, helped inspire Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe. The efflorescence of biblical commentary in the twelfth century offers records of theological conversations — not just disputes — between Christian and Jewish scholars in Northern France.[2]See for example these works by Beryl Smalley: “A Commentary on the Hebraica by Herbert of Bosham,” Recherches de théologie ancienne et médiévale [RTAM] 18 (1951): 29-65; “Ralph of Flaix on … Continue reading And so on.

It was not, of course, that the Middle Ages was a time of irenic syncretism. But neither was it a time of purity, nor one of isolation, no more so than our own era. Our job as medieval scholars should be to tell these complicated stories, because the complicated story is, in fact, the correct one. We should use the material we already have on hand to make room to describe the variety of experience that’s already there, and by doing so, to help make room too for the variety of people in our field, in our classrooms, in our world.

And now to turn things over to our featured speakers….

References

1 I have published on this as “Bad Heritage: The American Viking Fantasy, from the Nineteenth Century to Now,” in DEcolonial Heritage: Natures, Cultures, and the Asymmetries of Memory, ed. Aníbal Arregui, Gesa Mackenthun, Stephanie Wodianka (Waxmann, 2018), 75-94, but many other medievalists have written on this topic, including Clare Downham, Elly Truitt, and, most recently, Tom Birkett.
2 See for example these works by Beryl Smalley: “A Commentary on the Hebraica by Herbert of Bosham,” Recherches de théologie ancienne et médiévale [RTAM] 18 (1951): 29-65; “Ralph of Flaix on Leviticus.” RTAM 35 (1968): 35-82, and “William of Auvergne, John of La Rochelle, and St. Thomas Aquinas on the Old Law,” in St. Thomas Aquinas: Commemorative Studies. 2 vols. Ed. Etienne Gilson? Toronto, 1974. 2: 11-71
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