Habitability: Buridan on Dark-Skinned People


BnF français 25344, 128v, Gautier de Metz, Image du Monde

Today, my “Problems in Posthumanism” graduate seminar worked on Alexander and Dindimus, Montaigne on Cannibals, Petrarch on the Canary Islands (well, we at least read it), and chiefly Sylvia Wynter’s groundbreaking, monumental “1492: A New World View.” Given Wynter’s arguments about the cognitive disruption occasioned to the “Scholastic order of knowledge” by the full-scale European encounter of a globe fully inhabited by humans, I prepped by rereading Valerie Flint’s 1984 Viator article on the (uninhabitable) antipodes and the premodern community of monsters and men, encompassed within a homogeneous humanity; and by glancing at Aquinas on Aristotle’s Meteorology, where our Dumb Ox follows Augustine, Bede, and other luminaries by likewise asserting that most of the earth is unpeopled, eg,

Just as these places are uninhabitable on account of the excessive heat, so the regions under the constellation of the Bear [which is the part of the heaven always visible to us] are uninhabitable on account of the cold caused by the sun being far away. Hence that part of the earth in which we live is between the two circles, i.e., between the one that passes through the summer tropic and the one which bounds that part of the heaven always visible to us.

So far so good. But to complicate Wynter, I also reviewed the Book of John Mandeville, whose hundreds of manuscripts affirm a fully inhabited globe; consulted Higgins’ Mandeville to glance at the 1330 Directorium ad faciendum passagium transmarinum (translated soon thereafter into French by Jean de Vignay), in which a widely traveled Dominican asserts the general habitability of the world; and, at last, I skimmed the problem of the habitability of the Earth in Jean Buridan’s fourteenth-century Quaestiones super libris de caelo et mundo, which presents a wide range of options on this problem, even in the very Parisian center of the “Scholastic order of knowledge.”

I did this not to disprove Wynter (and indeed, in the course of prepping the class, I found ‘disproofs’ of Wynter that stumbled, badly, because of their ignorance of the Middle Ages). As my students observed, Wynter is enormously generative, and though she does make errors in (medieval) facts, so do Agamben and Foucault and other notables in “traveling theory”: few declare Agamben and Foucault useless because of this. One suspects that the withering corrections of Wynter are motivated by something other than scrupulous rigor.

Rather, I was doing my duty as a medievalist and to the Middle Ages: I presented a heterogeneous premodern, a Europe not dominated by a singular scholastic “Feudal” order of knowledge, but one that nonetheless would be profoundly altered by the European involvement in sub-Saharan Africa and the Americas.

And while reading Buridan, I found this:

And now we speak about the middle zone that is between the tropics within the equator. Immediately it appears that this is uninhabited because of too great heat, since coming up on the tropic of Cancer they [=travelers?] find so much heat that there the men are burned and black beyond the common measure of men, looking like those of India and Ethiopia. Therefore, it seems that beyond this heat that no man could live there. And this is confirmed, since if it was inhabited beyond this zone, some of us would have come to them, or they would have come to us; because none has been heard [to do so], as some say.

Et modo dicemus de zona media quae est inter tropicos sub aequinoctiali. Statim enim prima facie apparet quod illa propter nimium calorem sit inhabitabilis, quia procedentes usque ad tropicum Cancri inveniunt tantum calorem, quod ibi homines ultra communem modum hominum aduruntur et fiunt nigri, sicut apparet de Indis et Aethiopibus; ideo videtur quod ultra esset tanta caliditas quod non possent ibi homines habitare. Et hoc confirmatur, quia si essett ultra habitatio, aliqui nostrum venissent ad eos, vel illi venissent ad nos; quod non est auditum, ut aliqui dicunt. (quoted from Ernest A. Moody, “John Buridan on the Habitability of the Earth“) (also available here, p 156).

My Latin’s a bit rusty, so do correct me if I went astray. As as counterexample, Buridan next cites Avicenna, who believes that the equatorial zone is not only inhabited, but even graced by mild weather (and a very noble city!), since there the sun passes directly overhead, remaining so only for a short time, while elsewhere, the angle of the sun means it beats down on us for longer. Maybe so!

I’m particularly struck by Buridan’s “proof” on the basis of skin color. While this is a scholastic “proof,” and therefore offered more as a thought experiment than a certain description of reality, it still says something about what dark-skinned people are made to represent for Buridan. Even as a man from the “frozen North” (which is to say, Béthune, roughly between Arras and Dunkirk), he likely would have encountered dark-skinned people in his life, and certainly in art. However, Buridan’s proof at least implicitly asserted that such dark-skinned people were evidence that there could be no darker people. The darker the person, the more certain that the torrid zones were uninhabitable. Darkness tended towards impossibility, nonexistence, a life that could not be.

He notably has nothing similar to say about whiteness “beyond the common measure of man” as disproving the habitability of the far North. More directly to my point, and perhaps to Wynter’s, darkness is at once evidence of the limits of habitability and an intimation of uninhabitability: it was a visible sign of the limits of life, and therefore a kind of geographical memento mori. Or vacuum. Wynter argues that in the modern era the medieval habitable/uninhabitable mapping would be remapped onto the color line:

the color line had come to inscribe a premise parallel, if in different terms, to that which had been encoded in the feudal Christian order, by the line of caste that had been mapped onto the physical universe as well as onto the geography of the earth….[viz.] the white (unmixed people of Indo-European descent) and the black (peoples of wholly or of partly African descent) opposition, with the latter hereditary variation or phenotype coming to reoccupy the earlier signifying place of the earlier torrid and Western Hemisphere, within the logic of the contemporary globalized and purely secular variant of the Judaeo-Christian culture of the West. (39)

In other words, in the modern era, Black people come to signify, for the dominant White-identified genre of Man, the form of human life that is excluded from the human. They are a materialization of non-identity, of non-existence, of Human non-being. And perhaps we have here, in Buridan, a hint of the same, of what would metastasize into the full, horrendous form it took in the fifteenth century and onwards.

Divine Women: Respectability Politics and the Nun’s Priest’s Tale

Besser Chart

Chart from Besserman

If you teach Chaucer, you’re likely more than familiar with this bit from the Nun’s Priest’s Tale:

Wommennes conseils been ful ofte colde;
Wommannes counseil broghte us first to wo
And made Adam fro Paradys to go,
There as he was ful myrie and wel at ese.
But for I noot to whom it myght displese,
If I conseil of wommen wolde blame,
Passe over, for I seyde it in my game.
Rede auctours, where they trete of swich mateere,
And what they seyn of wommen ye may heere.
Thise been the cokkes words, and nat myne;
I kan noon harm of no womman divyne. (VII.2356-66; Riverside ed)

You may also know the double meaning of the last line, which depends on whether we read “divine” as a verb or as an adjective: “I am not able to guess any sin about woman” (divine as verb) or “I know no sin about divine women [i.e., women devoted to theology, i.e., a nun, like the Prioress]” (divine as adjective). In 1977, Lawrence L. Besserman charted the line’s various possibilities;[1] then in his Variorum edition, Derek Pearsall complained that Besserman, “overreliant on mechanical aids” (in this case, the Middle English Dictionary), generated an ambiguity entirely of his own making; then finally (?), Peter Travis’s Disseminal Chaucer demonstrated, quite keenly, that “Besserman’s systematic taxonomizing is absolutely consonant with a dominant methodology of a typical medieval liberal arts classroom” (63).

I think we can safely keep teaching the line as a pun.

Now, while Besserman took the line as a “veiled critique of the Prioress and her tale” (70; no pun intended?), I think we can take his reading further by understanding it as an instance of medieval respectability politics.

Here’s a succinct paragraph on the theme from Michelle Smith’s “Affect and Respectability Politics,” her contribution to the (sadly still) essential special issue of Theory and Event on Ferguson and “disposable lives”:

The signature of respectability politics is its disavowal of the legitimacy of black rage. By respectability politics, I refer to the first resort of marginalized classes. On the one hand, like all democratic politics, respectability politics seeks to realize collective aspirations whether grand (justice, equality, full participation) or pedestrian (balanced budget, community policing, bike paths). On the other, respectability politics evince a distinct worldview: marginalized classes will receive their share of political influence and social standing not because democratic values and law require it but because they demonstrate their compatibility with the “mainstream” or non-marginalized class. So, have you been discriminated against on the job market? Take off that hoodie and pull up your sagging pants! Rejected by the magnet school? “Nigga” is not a friendly greeting! Have the police thrown you against a wall againto search your pockets? Don’t stand on the street looking like you’re up to no good! Propriety breeds respect. Did your unarmed son/daughter/husband/wife/best friend/cousin die after the police applied the chokehold too vigorously? Cooler heads will prevail!

Respectability politics burdens the marginalized with the obligation to make themselves right; they shift the blame from deadly systems to individuals and their habits; they absolve the status quo of its own guilt; the call for respectability erases the many marginalized who themselves are respectable, who are marching peacefully, who are responding to violence with as much calm as they can muster, and still being battered and killed for all that; and finally the call to respectability erases the illegitimacy of the system people are being required to live up to, and the real possibilities for justice that “disrespectable” behavior might manifest. Respectability politics is mostly bullshit.


For the Nun’s Priest to say, among other things, “I know no sin about divine women” is to divide women into two categories (at least): divine women or even godlike women; and all the others, the less respectable women, who fall somewhat short of the low mark of divinity itself. This line, heard in its second sense, allows the Nun’s Priest to maintain his clerical misogyny—“wommenes conseils been ful ofte colde”—while propping up the whole system that clerical misogyny justifies, and that sustains his own privilege. It allows him to gaslight us by denying that he himself holds, acts on, and benefits from the beliefs that are actually his own and those of the patriarchy that owns him.

After all, some of his best friends are women.

For trusteth wel, it is an impossible
That any clerk wol speke good of wyves,
But if it be of hooly seintes lyves (Wife of Bath’s Prologue, III.689-91)

We can imagine, now, some of the respectable women of the Canterbury Tales and what happens to them: Emelye, Custance, Griselda, Virginia. You might have your own list. And we can mark, quite neatly, just how far respectability gets these adherents to appropriate behavior.

And we can see, then, that respectability politics demands – to choose an example not at all at random – that black people be divine: to be better than white people; to be better than people; to be saints; to be gods. Respectability politics loves the crucified respectable saint; and it loves just as much to crucify those who can’t or won’t be saints. Respectability politics is bullshit.

[thanks to Alison Kinney for talking this through with me. Any errors, in politics or anything else, are probably my own]

[1] Lawrence L. Besserman, “Chaucerian Wordplay: The Nun’s Priest and His ‘Womman Divyne.'”  The Chaucer Review 12.1 (1977): 68-73

Talking Ferguson in a Medieval Classroom



Continue reading Mary Kate Hurley below, and join the conversation in the comments.

This evening’s master’s course was supposed to discuss Geraldine Heng, Richard Cole (on Jews in Old Norse Lit), and Jeffrey J Cohen. We were supposed to mop-up last week’s Mandeville class by returning to his geographic imagination and “spherical ethics,” with references to Walter of Metz (eg) and this fascinating medieval map from a Carthusian Mandeville epitome. But, as we’re a course on race and representation, I proposed that we start with 10 minutes close reading of Darren Wilson’s testimony, drawing out the connections we could make to other readings over the semester. I got the idea from David Perry, who, along with Rick Godden, developed an excellent and very welcome framework for discussing Ferguson.

Perry writes:

There are serious questions about the believability of [Wilson’s] testimony, but that’s not my expertise. I’m interested in language and power. Wilson uses the following words in his testimony, describing his perceptions of Brown. He calls him a “demon,” repeatedly emphasizes his size, compares himself to a “5-year-old” against “Hulk Hogan.” At one point, he uses “it” in a way that arguably refers to Brown. He claims that a third punch “could be fatal.” Throughout, he endows Brown with terrifying size, speed, and strength, charging, even after he had been shot the first time, unstoppable, superhuman.

I used this as my model, having in mind Godden’s comments on Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. I directed them to particular pages (212, 214, and 225). No surprise, 10 minutes turned into 45, easily, especially as students started supplying other passages from their own extracurricular reading of Wilson’s testimony (have I told you recently how great it is to teach at Brooklyn College?). I let the students run the discussion as much as I could, though I did observe that I’d seen what happens to a face when it’s punched at full force twice. This was when I was 16 and rescued from a mugging on a city bus. The rescuer smashed my mugger’s face, transforming it with two great blows from a face-shape into a quasisolid mass of mucous, blood, and spit. The brokenness and swelling endured for ages, long enough for me to spot him — a fellow student! — at my high school several days later. So let’s just say that in my experience Wilson’s face doesn’t look like the face of someone who was punched hard twice by a giant.

Students focused on the “demoniac” and animalized Muslims of the Song of Roland; they talked about how they mocked Gerald of Wales and Mandeville for their superstitions, and how they then found themselves gaping at Wilson’s comparison of Brown to a grunting “demon,” wondering what the future might say about 2014; brilliantly, they compared the 6’4″ Wilson’s grotesque self-infantalization to the Prioress’s own (But as a child of twelf month oold, or lesse, / That kan unnethes any word expresse), which we then connected to the “child” as a grotesque core form of the “normative body,” at once innocent, helpless, perfect, and useless, the opposite of the excessive giant body. In this body politics, we wondered where there could be space for an adult body, the full subject of rights and obligations all at once?

One student referenced the following passage from Heng:

Medieval time, on the wrong side of rupture, is thus shunted aside as the detritus of a pre-Symbolic era falling outside the signifying systems issued by modernity, and reduced to the role of a historical trace undergirding the recitation of modernity’s arrival.

Thus fictionalized as a politically unintelligible time, because it lacks the signifying apparatus expressive of, and witnessing, modernity, medieval time is then absolved of the errors and atrocities of the modern, while its own errors and atrocities are shunted aside as essentially non-significative, without modern meaning, because occurring outside the conditions structuring intelligible discourse on, and participation in, modernity and its cultures. (263)

Linking this to other comments about time and the medieval over the course of the semester, she observed that recently (even today?), she had been told she belonged “in the Middle Ages” because she wears a head-scarf. I then built this into the way that religion — a “racial” category in the Middle Ages — continues to be raced, with many people unable or unwilling or uninterested in distinguishing between Arabs and Muslims, as if they were one and the same. I remembered how I’ve heard some people render the title of my colleague Moustafa Bayoumi’s book as On Being Young and Muslim in America.

Perry writes:

One of my beliefs about public engagement is that the process of becoming an academic, as both a scholar and a teacher, creates habits of mind that we can bring to bear on topics far outside our subjects. Academe teaches us to be narrow, to state “that’s not my field” when questioned. That caution, while understandable, has contributed to the sense of isolation of academe from public discourse. In moments like the reaction to Brown’s death, we need more engagement, not less, and each of us has something to offer.

My students — many of them teachers themselves — jumped at the chance to talk about this in class. I know yours will too, and I can only hope the conversation goes as well. I made a point of thanking them for talking about it with me, and loved how this turned into an inadvertent, and melancholy, review of the course readings. Highly recommended.

Defaced: teaching notes on Imoinda’s beheading

Whitened Imoida

You probably know Behn’s Oroonoko better than I do. I’m reading/teaching (or that teaching/reading?) it for the first time.

Yesterday, we focused on this:

All that Love could say in such Cases, being ended, and all the intermitting Irresolutions being adjusted, the lovely, young and ador’d Victim lays herself down before the Sacrificer; while he, with a Hand resolved, and a Heart-breaking within, gave the fatal Stroke, first cutting her Throat, and then severing her yet smiling Face from that delicate Body, pregnant as it was with the Fruits of tenderest Love.

This is Oroonoko, the enslaved prince, killing Imoinda, his wife, to keep her from being “ravish’d by every Brute; expos’d first to their nasty Lusts, and then a shameful Death” after he revenges himself against the whites who wronged him. Behn, as I argued yesterday, faces an unsolvable problem: she has to have Oroonoko kill the pregnant Imoinda, and she has to have him do it out of love. She loads up the sentence with tender words — “lovely, young and ador’d,” “smiling,” “delicate,” and of course “tenderest” — and gives us an Oroonoko who is “adjusting” his “intermitting irresolutions” before he kills her. This is the act of a man of grace and honor, with none of the loathing, hatred, and bare desperation of Othello. As I told the class, while I thought Othello the greater work, and its emotions more frightening, I though Behn had done Shakespeare one better, on one key account, by politicizing the uxoricide: this is no private matter. This is political, a blow against the slavers, a call for abolition or, especially, a call by the Tory Behn to respect the rights of royals (for Oroonoko is, first of all, a prince).

And yet: “severing her yet smiling Face.” What is he doing here?

The students were as horrified as I was: was he actually carving Imoinda’s face from her head? Unlikely, I suggested; I think he cut her throat and then, perhaps to bring death fast, beheaded her. Behn can’t bring herself to say “beheaded,” though: maybe she’s remembering England’s regicide (which happened when she was 8 or 9) or maybe it’s just too ugly an act. So she solves the problem by giving us an image that’s, actually, far, far worse.

As I’ll suggest, this inadvertent “defacement” may be the truth of the matter: not just that Behn can’t find the right words to present the impossible: a husband killing his pregnant wife, but tenderly; and not just that she’s simultaneously preserved and destroyed as a person, dying as a tragic heroine but dying because she’s just a slave, just fungible, a body without a face of her own; but also that the murder really is an act compelled by the slavocracy of English Surinam. This act of horror is not his own. Sort of. He’s killing her to preserve his control over her body (his tender love vs. the nasty lusts) but he’s compelled to do this only because he’s bound to. Where is his agency here? Where is hers? Where is the face — the site of the human, of the individual — in all this?

[image from ArtStor: Illustration for Thomas SOUTHERNE’s dramatization of Aphra BEHN’s, Oroonoko , pl. I in Lowndes New English Theatre , vol. VI (London, 1776), p. 83: Mr. Savigny in the Character of Oroonoko]

[UPDATE – clearly this is all new to me. First correction: the spelling of Imoinda. Second: Here, I’ll stress that she does encourage Oronooko to kill her. For what that’s worth. THIRD and perhaps most importantly: an important and convincing strain of criticism reads this passage literally, as Oroonoko literally cutting his dead wife’s face off her body. It’s a memento, a cameo, a rendering of her body unfit for adultery (in the old, semi-legendary ‘punishment’ of the defacement of adulterous wives and mistresses), and preserving her for his in in absolute horror.]

Bad Heritage: The Vikings in America, Part 3 of 3.

The chairman of the CUNY Board of Trustees, Benno C. Schmidt, is the lead name on a Governance for a New Era: A Blueprint for Higher Education Trustees, who joins his 21 mostly aged signatories (all but 3 of whom are men, and nearly all of whom are white) to argue that Trustees “should take a more active role in reviewing and benchmarking the work of faculty and administrators and monitoring outcomes.” Maybe he wants more of this?

Early on, the report complains that “Substantial numbers of recent college graduates lack a fundamental understanding of their history and heritage.” It’s obvious to us, I hope, that America enjoys a vastly more diverse student body than it did when most of our signatories last attended college. Tediously, we must therefore answer the call for students to know “their history and heritage” by asking whose history, whose heritage? Schmidt and his colleagues sort of answer the question by calling for more “military history” and requiring such cutting-edge, future-facing topics as “coursework on the Founders, the American Revolution, and the Constitution.” The word “heritage” appears only the once, so it’s anyone’s guess where this might fit in.

I have my suspicions though, particularly when it’s used by old white men to dictate what’s worth knowing or doing. Call me traditional.

It’s that suspicion that’s led me to write against heritage for my contribution to a conference on “Heritage in Transcultural Contexts.” It’s a suspicion founded on, for example, the use made of the Norse by The Occidental Observer, a white supremacist website (no link), whose mostly anodyne, mostly gullible, article on Norse discoveries ends like this: “Would that Europeans and their descendants in the New World — inspired by their Norse ancestors — could reclaim their courageous ways and pioneer spirit.” Exclamation point implied.

The article’s many commentators argue about the ties between modern and ancient paganism, assert a couple times that “Caucasians” were, in fact, the first inhabitants of America, and also insist that “Stories like this remind me that Whites are both fiercely independent and yet capable of collective action. I am not aware of any other ethnicity that displays these talents to this degree.” That weirdness, even the impossibility of that odd relationship in white supremacy between independence and collective obligations — the independent spirit, obligated to be white and stay white — will be, as you’ll see, the final target of September’s big heritage talk.

The post below’s illustrated with photos of some of America’s many Leif Ericson statues: thank you, Geometry During Wartime, for the collection. And please, if you’d like something shorter, and more Canadian, please enjoy Janice Liedl’s excellent conference paper, “A Canadian Viking in the Governor-General’s Court: Medievalism in Pre-war Canada,” which features, among other things, an account of a VIKING and VIQUEEN fancy dress ball of 1896, and a link to a George Johnson’s Canada’s First Boy Baby (1900), whose title naturally reminds me not of the Founding Fathers but of this.

The previous two posts are here and here.




What Geraldine Barnes called the “nineteenth-century ‘theatre’ of Vinland” began in the 1830s with the publication of Carl Christian Rafn’s Antiquitates Americanae and reached its apogee in the 1890s as a kind of counter-programming to the celebration of Columbus’s landing. The mania offered its adherents two things, a white heritage and a specifically medieval, embattled white heritage, while also, as I’ll conclude, obligating them to protect their whiteness, making them prisoners of their own concocted identity.

Few Americans during this first period of Nordic mania could go without mentioning blue eyes and blond hair, which function here as distinctive signs of ethnic particularity. Ralph Waldo Emerson’s English Traits praised the “animal vigor” of the Norse “blonde race”; Longfellow’s “Skeleton in Armor” has his Norse exile love a “blue-eyed maid,” like John Greenleaf Whittier’s “The Norseman,” which speaks of the “wild, blue eye” of the Vikings; Sarah Orne Jewett’s historical survey, The Story of the Normans, often praises their “yellow hair,” and the shine of their “blue eyes,” while also blaming them for their inherent love of the sea and plunder, as they squandered the chance to a dominate an America she imagines as empty and otherwise wasted. We find a similar attentiveness to hair and eye color in George Johnson’s Canada’s First Boy Baby (a “flaxen-haired blue eyed youngster“), and in Ottilie A. Liljencrantz’s turn-of-the-century trilogy on the muscular Christianity of Nordic America, The Thrall of Leif the Lucky, The Vinland Champions, and Randvar the Songsmith: A Romance of Norumbega. Likewise in Maurice Hewlett’s Gudrid the Fair: A Tale of the Discovery of America, and, more recently, in the white supremacist furor over the casting of black-haired, brown-eyed Idris Elba as the norse God Heimdall in the film Thorwhich they thought of as nothing less than “a declar[ation] of war on Norse Mythology,” and, by extension, on what was called, by one scholar of race writing in the 1920s, “the Nordic ideal.”



Everybody who wanted a relic of Norse exploration seemed to be able to find at least one: ruins, a coin, an armored skeleton, New England place names, heard by amateur philologists as bastardized Norse instead of Algonquin or Iroquois, and especially several rune-carved rocks, in Oklahoma — including somediscovered” as late as the 1960s — and in Minnesota, all providing America with the “picturesque” “gloomy” “antiquity” Nathaniel Hawthorne argued were needed to write effective “historical romances.” In a North America whose native historical evidence was often destroyed, unrecognized, and thought of by white Americans as “prehistoric” rather than “historical,” fabricated Norse relics provided not just the grounds for historical romance, but for history proper.



Even more usefully, this was a history of failure. The Norse had come, and then, it seemed, they had gone. Or had been made to leave. White Americans could thereby imagine themselves victims, even during some of the worst periods of American white supremacy against African and Native Americas: this is a symptom of jealousy for medieval antiquity and indeed for the very suffering the whites themselves were causing. Their fantasy was that the Norse had been slaughtered by the Natives or, at best, that they had been absorbed into them, passing on with their “blood” whatever scraps of civilization they still possessed when the Europeans next arrived. Several nineteenth-century works, like a textbook used in South Carolina, dreamed up an epic of white America’s tragic past, in which a Nordic or even Irish civilization, having built its mounds, was then eradicated by an influx of Asian barbarians. Minnesota’s Kensington Runestone, the most famous of the false relics, is last witness to a massacre: “We were fishing one day. After we came home, found 10 men red from blood and dead. Ave Maria save from evil.” And readers of the so-called Vinland Sagas–the Saga of the Greenlanders and Eirik the Red’s Saga–took particular delight in the New World death of Thorvald at the hands of the natives, as his blood sanctified the earth, calling out for and justifying revenge. Predictably, in 1902, his tomb was turned up in New Hampshire. One last, recent example is the final scene from the Danish film Valhalla Rising, where its hero, a one-eyed Norse warrior, an avatar of the one-eyed Odin, lets himself be swarmed and killed by Native Americans to save the one, blond boy. With works like this, we are made to hear that white America had always belonged, that it has always been embattled, and that its expansion into North America was nothing but the return of what had, in a historical sense, always been here.





This is all a modern fantasy. We don’t know why the Norse abandoned the Americas, nor even if they ever did, entirely. It’s clear, however, that the populations of Iceland and especially Greenland were never large enough to spare enough people to establish a permanent colony, on the unlikely chance that the Greenlanders had ever intended to found one. Given some recent archaeological finds, it’s possible that the Norse continued contact with the Americas until late in the Middle Ages. If we insist on finding a tragic end to Norse presence, we might as well use the one in the Greenlander’s Saga, whose misogyny heaps blame on the murderous woman Freydis.

Furthermore, however the Norse thought of themselves, they didn’t think of themselves as “white,” nor did they think of race, if they thought of it at all, in terms of skin color. I say this against both modern racist appropriations of the Norse and against even well-meaning modern scholarship on Norse identity, particularly the scholarship on the Norse in America. This material tends to follow a predictable tract: it attempts to determine if there was a Scandinavian or even “Eurocentric” identity, and then tends to describe the ways that the Norse thought of the Skrælings as “the Other,” with the somber critical moves that typically follow from that. At its best, I am grateful for this scholarship’s critical acuity and archival depth. At its worst, it uses phrases like “pure Norse” and “pure Celt,” takes Tacitus’s description of German homogeneity as a straightforward truth, and, astonishingly, talk about the “distinctive genes” of Celts as “produc[ing] dark features.”

All these points, good and bad, should be challenged, which will require a brief summary of some of the most common ways in which medieval racial thinking differs from that of the moderns. First, I’ll stress that the dominant medieval scientific way of thinking about race was climatic. In this thought, inherited from classical thinkers, “race” was particular not to people but to regions: people living in the torrid, southern zones had darker skin, were weak, small, and cowardly, with high-pitched voices, while people in the frozen north had lighter skin, were strong and large, and fierce, with deep voices and big appetites. The people in the middle, wherever that was, were of course ideal. Note, however, that longitudinal travelers like Marco Polo or John Mandeville tended to admire the people and cultures they met. As Suzanne Conklin Akbari, Kim M. Phillips, and Shirin Khanmohamadi have all argued, the certainty that European travelers would automatically hierarchize other peoples and cultures in favor of Europe reflects post-medieval practices of the era of discovery and worldwide colonialism rather than medieval habits of thought. Finally, it is rare to find medieval texts that promote anything like the particular features of modern beliefs about race, namely, that race is inherently biological and ineradicably transmittable. The few examples tend to be directed at Jews: one twelfth-century Pope was lambasted by his enemies for his Jewish ancestry, while what looks like modern racism seems to have had its origin in fourteenth and especially fifteenth-century Iberia, during an era of massive, violent conversion of Jews to Christianity.

Newport News

Newport News

These latter racial notions would have been foreign to the Norse, especially during the period the New World sagas were being developed. Here’s what’s more typical: medieval texts, Norse and otherwise, often describe peasants or slaves as dark-skinned, cowardly, stupid, and ugly. For example, the Old Norse Rígsþula gives an account of the origins of farmers, warrior earls, and slaves, the latter of which are “swarthy” [svartan], “repulsive” [fúlligt], and “sun-burnt” [sólbrunnin], while calling the earls hvita, white. This language naturalizes not ethnic but class difference, to present class, not race, as fixed, lodged in the body, and heritable. Furthermore, arguing that the Norse were “Eurocentric” assumes a homogeneous European identity, not at all discernible in the two “new world” sagas. Eric the Red’s Saga has among its Norse a German explorer, and the Greenland Saga two Scots, identified, as in common in medieval texts, through culinary and cultural differences: the German knows grapes and wine, while the Scots, wearing what the texts think of as weird Scottish clothing, are fast runners, swifter than deer. The Norse, I’ll stress, come from a heterogeneous Europe, irreducible to whiteness.

Finally, on the Skrælings, which is what these and other texts called the people the Norse encountered in Greenland and Vinland: certainly, neither saga tends to think all that highly of them, but the fact that the Norse kill five because they think they’re “outlaws” at least implicitly recognizes that the Skrælings have a culture, even if it’s assumed to be a Nordic one. And by identifying the leader as “tall and handsome [vænn]” the sagas praise this Skræling with the same language of naturalized class used to praise any martial hero. The term Skræling itself probably refers to small stature, evidence, along with medieval cartography, that the word “was a direct Old Norse translation of Pygmæi or Pygmies,” discovered in the far North, where the Norse would have expected to find them. What happens in America is therefore not comprehensible as a racial encounter, not in any modern sense, but rather a typical encounter, common in medieval travel literature, between humans and monsters that may or may not be human. Notably, in Eirik the Red’s Saga, Thorvald dies from the arrow fired by a Uniped, a one-legged humanoid common to all medieval scholarly teratology.

St Paul

St Paul

The problems with Viking heritage run still deeper than this, in what will have to be my final point. The central paradox of the American myth of Nordic heritage concerns the problems of freedom, agency, and obligation. The champions of the Norse promote them as at once witness to the authentic historic past of America, the people whose arrival gave the Americans the imprimatur of a medieval foundation, and also as the people who opened America to the future. We can see this double deployment of past and future in the way that the champions of the Norse talked about their politics: they emphasized how the original Icelanders – not the Irish monks who had first people the island, but the Norse who arrived some time later – had fled Norway’s royal despotism and established the Thing, parliaments in which, it was imagined, the Icelanders managed their own government in freedom. Here Americans found the true ancestor of their own supposed love of liberty. Once identified with the Thing, the politics of America could be thought of as arising from antiquity, and therefore as having an authenticating foundation, and as opening up the future, as the true inheritance of mankind, now freed from the medieval tyranny of kings.

Despite the Green- and Icelanders’ own beliefs, and indeed despite the vigorous Catholicism of Eirik the Red’s Saga (and some of its champions), written to praise the ancestors of several Icelandic Bishops, the American Norse were upheld as free of the despotism of Catholicism, the enemy of liberty, of science, and of women. To put it simply, Catholics were thought of as lacking personal agency. They were in thrall to the Pope, to unthinking ritual, and the victims and promoters of the Inquisition. Columbus had to be pushed aside, or revealed as an inquisitor, or even as someone who found the Americas only because he had first visited Iceland’s sailors and learned the truth from them. The champions of the Norse thought the Catholics anachronisms, atavistic, a bad heritage, unable to become part of the present; theirs was a past that was too weighty, while the past of the actual American natives, analogously, was one that was too insubstantial. Both cases were closed to the future, and thus closed to agency, that quality whereby the simple chain of cause-and-effect can be broken open to bring something truly new into being.



Except, however, the championing of the Norse as the authentic Americans, as white, and as under threat, loaded the Norse and their presumptive descendants with the obligations of heritage. Like any heritage site, the muddle of their emergence disappears–hence the insistence in some texts on the “pure Nordic strain” — as does their future. To be rendered “authentic,” that prison house of culture, they must be frozen in time, paradoxically figures of perfect agency without the true agency that would let them change. They have become as stolid as their champions thought the Catholics, as ahistorical and unchanging as their champions thought the Native Americans.

And with that, the “cradle of white civilization in the Americas” became its coffin.

Facebook, White Supremacism, and Community

I’m one of several people who has been trying, for several months, to get Facebook to take down a page devoted to promoting the Ritual Murder Charge (661 likes). Originating, probably, in England in the mid 12th century, the ritual murder charge, in one of its common versions, holds that Jews annually kidnap a Christian child, torture it to death, and use its blood to make matzoh. The wikip page is good if you want more background. Of course it’s a horrendous lie, a key impetus for the murder of, well, millions of Jews (like Leo Frank, whose lynching the Facebook page celebrates).

Yesterday Facebook took down the page. Today, it’s back:


In fact, Facebook shelters a host of hate sites. Here’s the page for the Council of Conservative Citizens (446 members), which “believe[s] the United States is a European country and that Americans are part of the European people”; “Anti-Racist is a Code for Anti-White” (10,347 likes!), and “Races of Man” (6004 members), whose avowed goal is simply “to discuss racial origins and differences from every level to the gene up” [sic], with “pseudo-history” expressly forbidden: its banner, however, is an image of the spread of “Indo-European” languages, Capturewhich I might guess is being presented as a racial family tree; and its about page links to several classic texts of racist pseudo-science: here, here, here [on this 1974 book, see here], and here, whose pages on the “nordic ideal” provide grim confirmation of the book’s expected content.

A quick guess: Facebook has a simple filter to prevent obvious slurs and obvious hate speech from being used as page or community titles. There is no pro-rape page with the word “rape” in the title that I could find, for example, though there have been, and presumably still are, pro-rape pages. But the pages I’ve just listed slip past the filter. [An additional point, maybe comforting, maybe chilling: it’s not easy to find hate pages. I tried searches on Facebook for Palestine and Israel, and got nothing that was obviously hate speech. This suggests both that your average person, assuming that person’s not a misogynist racist, isn’t going to stumble across these pages accidentally, and, more chillingly, that these pages are populated by people who were alerted to them by their own communities, and so we are seeing, in these pages, real activist subnetworks of hate, deliberately generated and deliberately maintained.]

The problem is that Facebook wants clicks and visits, and clicks and visits have no content. Unless people leave Facebook en masse, it won’t care. The second, more general problem is that the Internet is open to anyone who has a connection. Speech can now reach its target directly, immediately, and a lot of this speech is hate speech. So, it’s not just that the Internet represents the community of humans as a whole. It represents, especially, the community of people with time to kill, and the loudest voices are the angriest, most unpleasant voices. Sometimes that’s good; but often it’s very, very bad.


The Lure of Vikings, The Lure of Home

Cross posted to In the Middle.

A couple of days ago, World News Daily gave us this: “USA: Viking Ship Discovered Near Mississippi River.” While they admit that “all news articles contained within worldnewsdailyreport.com are fiction, and presumably fake news,” there’s nothing in the article that smells of satire. It’s just a lie, or just Tabloid Journalism, without any of the winking that would make it a joke, illustrated with mislabeled images of an eleventh-century Danish longship, a sword from the Port an Eilean Mhòir ship burial, and, lending gravitas, a photo of Professor Nicolò Marchetti from the University of Bologna (billed here as the invented James Milbury of the University of Memphis). For what it’s worth, Marchetti is, in fact, an archaeologist, although not one much concerned with Nordic boats, imaginary or otherwise.

World News Daily’s “presumably fake news” is presumably just looking for web traffic. It’s succeeded, outrageously. When I last checked, the article reports 1402 retweets and 283,621 Facebook interactions. Assuming that’s true, that’s a lot, even for World Net News: by comparison, “Pakistan: Cannabis Discovered in Prehistoric Tomb” got only 201 retweets and 17,719 Facebook interactions. People love Vikings. The question is why?

Viking AgeSearching for quotations of the article gives one, obvious answer: I found the article reprinted on “occidentalenclave,” “a community for Ethnic Westerners,” on Stormfront, a (the?) preeminent white supremacist website, and on what, if Google translate may be trusted, is an anti-immigration, anti-gay rights blog from Sweden.

The comments on World News Daily itself give a more nuanced answer: the first praises Odin and trashes newfangled religions like “Christianity,” and unlike “Jews, Muslims, Hindus, [and] Buddhists.” Conversation heats up fast, with the community ensuring that our Odinist understand that Christianity predates Islam. Fair point, but they miss why the claim was made at all. One commentor below suggests why: “Well, being able to trace my ancestors back all the way to the Vikings, and knowing many others around here who can do the same, I can testify to the fact, there`s nothing we would like more then fight the muslims out of our country! They are the scourge of our time.”

What’s at stake is heritage: a sense of home, of belonging, of feeling the present isn’t enough in itself, and that the past offers a purity to cure the ills of the present. If the present is one where the left forces diversity on otherwise pure nations – or so goes the fear – then the white supremacist cure is to discover the originary, lost purity, before the imposition of a weak, Semitic faith and before mixture of any type (hence, perhaps, the praise of Viking rape in the deep comments: what’s so vulnerable as desire mixed with love instead of violence?). What they want is autonomy and the barbarian freedom that goes with it, while they bind themselves to race fantasies and their demand for purity and their nervousness about disorder. What they want, in America especially, this land thronged with immigrants, is to feel at home. And they want to feel that they got here on purpose. They want to feel that their home is under assault, which explains the love in these legends of Norse discovery for “Indian massacres” (like the one “recorded” on the Kensington Runestone, or “reported” in the World New Daily site). Vikings in America, rather than, say, the Vikings in the Orkneys, give these people the simultaneous mastery of violence and sense of victimhood that they crave, with results whose nasty effects we can witness, most recently, in Ferguson, Missouri.

Now, I’m not being entirely fair to all the commentators at World News Daily. The site is only accidentally, I think, in cahoots with the homesickness of the white supremacists; and some of its commentators thankfully point out that “we’re all from Africa. So wish what you may.” Nonetheless, the site’s picked up eagerly by the white supremacists and by people who may not be aware of their own alliances. My goal is to go deep into why, for an audience of nonmedievalists.

My secondary goal: Annette Kolodny and Geraldine Barnes have both produced very fine work on the cultural afterlife of the Norse in nineteenth- and early twentieth-century Anglophone writing. However, I find them both too optimistic. Towards the end of In Search of First Contact, Kolodny writes that “in contrast to the celebratory effusions of the nineteenth century, most Americans today read the sagas as the tacit preamble to a tragic and very American tale.” Meanwhile, the Viking missions to Mars displace “the old paradigm of race with a prideful image of national technological supremacy.” Barnes’ contribution to the “Medievalism of Nostalgia” special issue of postmedieval, “Nostalgia, Medievalism and the Vínland Voyages,” similarly observes that “the darker side of the story – the consequences of European expansionism…preoccupy contemporary writers” on the sagas.

I don’t doubt that that’s true, in that limited milieu in which the Viking Missions feel contemporary and for that group, comprising Thomas Pynchon, Jane Smiley, and William Vollmann, graced with the label of “contemporary writers.” They’re certainly better than, say, Ottilie Adeline Liljencrantz, but I’m not convinced that Liljencrantz is all that much better than the many, many fans of that World New Daily fraud. 283,621 Facebook interactions! We need to pay more attention, and as wonderful as queer asynchrony can be, and as foundational as asynchrony is to any considered experience of time, we need renewed attention to the desire to heal the sense of displacement.

With that in mind, here’s part two of my paper on Vikings and heritage, which is, confusedly, the paper’s very opening. Thank you, thank you a million times to Michael Collins for sharing Historic Newfoundland with me at Kalamazoo 2014:


Lure of NewfoundlandThe very first lines of Historic Newfoundland, a tourist brochure first printed in 1955, are “Come to Newfoundland! It is the cradle of white civilization in North America.” I quote from the second printing of its 1968 revised edition, published in 1969; still more recent printings exist, running into the late 1980s, though as yet I don’t know if they also begin this way. The brochure’s author has the unlikely name of Leo English, a former Newfoundland school inspector, deeply interested in the discoveries of Jon Cabot; from 1947 to 1960, he ran the Newfoundland museum. Writing in a Newfoundland that had been, in 1949, recently absorbed into Canada, English obviously aims to argue that Canadian history proper and indeed that of North America began in Canada’s newest acquisition. Come to the east, the brochure cries out; come east and meet your ancestors!

Or, rather, meet them in the middle, as they sail west. Here’s the brochure’s cover: a Viking ship, complete with a dragon-headed prow and warriors outfitted in horned helmets. Historic Newfoundland CoverAs soon as we pick it up, we’re in the world of fantasy, with the wrong helmets and the wrong boat, a warship instead of the mercantile knorr more likely used by Newfoundland’s Norse arrivals. Most charitably, this is just good marketing: Vikings are exciting. It’s the same logic that justifies calling a recent textbook on Old Norse Viking Language and decorating it with its own dragon ship.

But starting Historic Newfoundland this way also tells a story about where and how “history” starts: with the freedom of the open sea, and with a violence that can count as historical. We have been called upon to identify with the Norse not just as settlers or fishers, but as Vikings, which means identifying with them raiders, thieves, and killers, and then to erase these deeds as crimes by calling them the founding acts of “white civilization.” This is what Walter Benjamin’s “Critique of Violence” called a “constituting violence,” because this violence constitutes itself after the fact as legal. Law and civilization and history all start here, in a violence that retroactively erases its foundational illegitimacy.

As in many accounts of America, what this violence erases is nothing, as the erasure has happened already by the time the brochure’s opened. Notably, its second section, not its first, concerns the Newfoundlanders already present when the Norse showed up. English describes these people, perhaps the Beothuk, as “strange,” “remain[ing] in their primitive barbarism,” that is, without any possibility of entering historical time, and as decorated in “trinkets,” worthless trash, abased rather than beautified by their culture. The Beothuk are in Newfoundland only because they have been “pursued [there] by other warlike hordes across the American plains.” Losers as soon as we meet them, having run as far as they could, Newfoundland is their end, just as it is the beginning of North American white civilization. Out of time, the Beothuk “vanish,” victims to famine, to Mohawks, disease, and the “white man,” whose arrival seals what English calls their “fate.” Fate, you’ll remember, is one of the most distinguishing concepts of the Norse sagas: characters feel their doom coming, and know there is nothing they can do to avoid it, as if they were conscious of being bound into a story bound to be told repeatedly. In Historic Newfoundland, though, fate is what the first Americans suffer, while the Vikings, their first European enemies, the masters of fate, full of life and warrior vigor, inaugurate history.

This is one way that heritage starts. According to English and his ilk, when the Norse arrive in Newfoundland, they bring with them a heritage worth the name. The brochure tries to stir up attachment to a place and to a race, inviting Canada to return to its “cradle” to find what it really is. Like all heritage sites, this one’s embattled – a baby is a fragile thing, after all – and connected to the present, since the child, as the cliché goes, is the father of the man, still present in the father so long as the father – “white civilization,” in this case – still lives and still keeps up his family obligations. What Historic Newfoundland offers, then, is attachment, whiteness, and, with its Vikings, freedom, three points I’ll consider in turn for my contribution to this conference on “heritage.”

Bad Heritage, Immediacy, and Vikings

Mort aux Juifs - Cassini Map 47, AuxerreCross-posted on In The Middle. Go there to leave comments, if you want.

Maybe you saw an article recently about renewed attempts to change the unpleasant name of a clutch of two houses and a farm in the Loire Valley: here in French, and here in English. The name? “La mort aux juifs,” that is, “Death to the Jews.” The mayor of Courtemaux, to whose jurisdiction La mort aux Juifs belongs, refuses, saying that it was already tried 20 years ago (“Un conseil municipal précédent, il y a au moins vingt ans, avait déjà refusé de débaptiser ce lieu-dit”), and, anyway, the name has aura of heritage:

C’est ridicule, ce nom a toujours existé. Personne n’en veut aux juifs, bien sûr….Pourquoi changer un nom qui remonte au Moyen Age, ou à plus loin encore ? Il faut respecter ces vieux noms.

It’s ridiculous! This name has always existed. No one has anything against the Jews, of course ….Why change a name that dates back to the Middle Ages, or even further? We have to respect these old names.

One of these claims may be true: for what it’s worth, the name does appear on an eighteenth-century Cassini map (pictured), and it’s recorded as early as the seventeenth century. The hunch that Jean le Bon may be responsible for the name strikes me as probably correct.

The story caught my eye because of the matter of heritage. Next month, I’ll be speaking at a symposium on Heritage in Transcultural Contexts. I’ll be talking about the North American afterlife of the Norse encounter with the Americas. I’ve read (Brooklyn College alum!) Annette Kolodny’s In Search of First Contact, and some other good work (Frakes; Mancini; and our own Jonathan Hsy’s Kzoo14 paper on disability and the sagas).

Why the love for these people, generally, and disturbingly, called “Vikings” (despite their being on what was, clearly, a trading rather than raiding mission)? Why the frequent references to them as “blue-eyed” (here or here or here or here) or “yellow-haired” (here)? Why the emphasis on the Nordic freedom in the democratic Thing, and why the argument that the Norse were free of the despotism of Catholicism? Why the sense that North American history, proper, begins with the arrival of the Northmen? And why the emphasis on Leif Erikson, far from the most important figure in the Icelandic family sagas?

The answers may all be obvious, but remember that I’m speaking to a crowd of nonmedievalists. My interest will be in the more negative aspects of “heritage,” in part my own (given my own family roots in midwest Scandinaviana: whatever the other lines, my mother tended to identify as Swedish, and my father Norwegian), and in part that of White America, especially in the North. I’ll be complicating questions of time, belonging, and, I hope, whose violence gets to count as “historical,” and who gets to count as a victim.

With that, here are my initial efforts to frame the question:

The only unarguably authentic archaeological remains of the Norse in the Americas is on a Northern tip of Newfoundland, at L’anse aux Meadows, discovered in 1960, and now designated as one of 1007 UNESCO World Heritage Sites (but also see). It is one of 17 in Canada, 7 of which, including this one, memorialize a specifically human activity or culture. UNESCO’s designation guidelines explain how heritage officially works: primarily, items must have an “outstanding universal value,” “so exceptional as to transcend national boundaries and to be of common importance for present and future generations of all humanity.” I am, however, interested in the local rather than the universal qualities of heritage. While heritage sites may need to claim a universal interest, a heritage designation requires a choice and a boundary, a separation from universal generality: heritage sites exist and indeed justify themselves first only through particularity. I’ll offer four working proposals on this point.

First, marking a particular moment and location as having heritage at least implicitly excludes inauthentic elements that might contaminate that heritage. Heritage identification therefore requires purification. A heritage requires identifying some groups or development as invasive, whether invasive species or bad migrants or nonnative architecture. I’ll just note here the irony of a heritage designation for the Norse, the great invaders, and perhaps the most fearsome of Northern Europe’s “bad migrants.”

Second, heritage identifies a particular segment in time as the antique moment worth preservation. Generally, antiqueness provides its own justification. What counts as “antique” depends on the historical consciousness of the defenders or even the generators of heritage. It may be sufficient that the site or practice seems “old,” and that it be thought to have just emerged organically or communally, without any particular choice being made to get it started.

Here’s two examples of how this works, selected as representative, universal examples rather than for their particularity. The first is from a case in Florida of a mother accused of kidnapping her own daughter: she’s a neo-Confederate and gun nut, fond of taking pictures of her two-year-old with boxes of ammunition. When a Family Court judge challenged her on this, she explained “We have a heritage; we haveheritage not hate a tradition.” The language comes from images like these (FLAG IMAGE), which I poached from, of all places, americanheritagecommittee.com.

To say something has heritage is to place it outside argument. It can’t be reasoned with; it must be respected. Its existence is its own argument. And its existence is an existence across time that erases time as a succession of differences.

Second example: recently, in the Loire valley, efforts are being made again to change the name of a clutch of two houses and a farm to something less objectionable than La Mort aux Juifs, “Kill the Jews.” The responsible party, the mayor of Courtemaux, refuses, saying that it was already tried 20 years ago, and, anyway, the name has the aura of heritage: “It’s ridiculous! This name has always existed. No one has anything against the Jews, of course ….Why change a name that dates back to the Middle Ages, or even further? We have to respect these old names.” So far as the mayor’s concerned, no one can be responsible; rather, the blame is laid on the Middle Ages, which is to say, the case has been passed on to another judge, that of Time Immemorial, and Time Immemorial has judged the case as one might expect.

I’ll propose that few times are more Immemorial than the medieval. This era, whenever it was, tends to function as paradoxically older than both the modern and classical eras, since, at least for Western Europe, it’s the oldest time that could conceivably still be attached to the present. Other times might be forgotten, but the Middle Ages still offers a connection. The Middle Ages, after all, is where the moderns like to imagine their national, religious, and linguistic boundaries arose (here; here; and, without any endorsement, here). And, at least to nonmedievalists, it’s a time that is less known than both the modern and the classical eras: who knows what people were up to in those dark ages? Generated in particular sites, without the universal claims of the classics and the moderns, the medieval tends to stand for low rather than high culture, local rather than international tastes, organic rather than cultivated habits, tradition rather than choice, and at once as a point of origin and a sign of a forgotten foundations. And it’s all the more sure for that, as the forgotten origin has the ontological reality of things that are “just there.” It’s where people, some people, find their roots.

Third, a “heritage site” is a site it is at once distant, as a foundational moment in the past, and also here, in the present, identifiably connected with this past point to such an extent that it can barely be separated from it. This is the key temporal paradox of “heritage”: not only that the heritage point has to be selected arbitrarily — frozen, purified, and walled off — but also that the heritage has to have existed at some point in the past, but that it still has to be here, having repeated itself with minimal change across time and space. A heritage site offers immediacy. Connection. A heritage site offers an origin without a difference, or even an origin without an origin. If an origin requires a break, it requires some relation to what had been there before, which in turn might be offered up just as legitimately as a heritage site. The ideal heritage must emerge without this marked break, organically, naturally, and inevitably. What had been there before must just vanish or give way, like the Native Americans before the white man, while the heritage itself is, again, ideally, not so much selected as just felt.

My final point in this abstract tour of the problem of “heritage” is that a heritage site offers immediate and authentic access to the uniquenesss of a particular heritage. That is, a heritage site is a non-reproducible, originary site, distinct from the mass-produced simulacra of transnational capitalism. The heritage site, being singular, cannot be exchanged. A heritage designation protects ways of life against lifestyles, enjoyment against exploitation. Visitors to a heritage site are able, for a time, to actually be somewhere by being in a place and time that cannot be found anywhere else, one that the modern world has “passed by.” By getting out of sync with the present, visitors to a heritage site can feel more connected. In this sense, heritage is about marketing, scarcity, and nostalgia, and also about the preservation or generation of community in the face of the increasing obsolescence of small communities.

Consider the Kensington Runestone, discovered in 1898, a hoax (for example) witnessing to Nordic, Christian exploration of Minnesota in 1362, and to the massacre these Norsemen suffered at the hands of the natives, a point whose obvious implications I’ll come around to in more detail later. I can briefly mention the equally obvious matters of ethnic pride: the stone was turned up, and maybe produced, by a Swedish stonemason during a period of particularly intense Scandinavian immigration into the American Midwest, so the stone’s discovery is a kind of beacon to Scandinavians that they, more than any American immigrant group, belong in the Midwest and by extension to America. The continued pride — or performance of pride — gives the small Minnesota towns associated with the runestone a continued reason for existence in an era of intensified small-town poverty (cf 1; 2): thus Kensington Minnesota, population 292, features an Our Lady of the Runestone Catholic Church, located on Runestone Drive, while nearby Alexandria, Minnesota, population 11,000, devotes a museum to the runestone itself, and greets visitors with Big Ole, an outsized statue of a Viking.

[so! roadmap: what happens before this is discussion of a Newfoundland Tourist brochure that calls Newfoundland the “cradle of white civilization in the Americas.” The brochure, produced shortly after Newfoundland was absorbed into Canada, and printed at least into the late 1960s, makes a claim that Canadian civilization proper begins in Newfoundland. This leads to the question of heritage. What follows the above is a discussion of how the Ice/Greenlanders in Eric the Red’s Saga and the Greenland Saga would have thought of themselves (spoiler: not as “white”!), and then, finally, a discussion of the weird time of Viking Heritage, which is at once an obligation to foster “white America” and also a promise of liberty, freedom, and openness to the future. This point will finally intersect with the weird question of “agency.” My enemy here, and I’ll make this as obvious as possible, is white supremacism. Current reading? Dinshaw How Soon is Now. About 60 pages in.]

Race and the Medieval Language of Class

Cross posted to In the Middle. If you want to comment, do so over there, or comment at fb if you want more instant gratification.

Among the topics of David Nirenberg‘s Neighboring Faiths: Christianity, Islam, and Judaism in the Middle Ages and Today (U of Chicago, 2014) is the development of ideas–or, perhaps better, practices–of race and racism in 14th and especially 15th-century Iberia. He writes:

The period after 1449 saw an explosion of treatises that drew upon sciences as diverse as medicine, metallurgy, animal breeding, etcetera, in order to provide Israel with a natural history capable of explaining why the attributes of its children were unchangeable by God (via baptism) or king (through ennoblement). Within a generation or two, the Iberian body politic had produced a thick hedge of inquisition and genealogy in order to protect itself from penetration by the “Jewish race” and its cultural attributes. (139)

Nirenberg argues that the forced mass conversion of Jews in the late fourteenth century lead to this explosion of racism, as this influx of Jewish converts “raised, for the first time, systemic doubt about who was a Christian and who was a Jew” (149). Iberian Christians, who had defined themselves for centuries as “not Jewish,” suddenly lost a key support to their identities; but not only Christians (182, for example). During this panicked period, Nirenberg finds a host of writers in this period, both Christian and Jewish, worrying over this issue, writing passages like the following:

if a person is of pure blood and has a noble lineage, he will give birth to a son like himself, and he who is ugly and stained [of blood?] will give birth to a son who is similar to him, for gold will give birth to gold and silver will give birth to silver and copper to copper, and if you find some rare instances that from lesser people sprang out greater ones, nevertheless in most cases what I have said is correct, and as you know, a science is not built on exceptions. (280 n56)

That’s Rabbi Shem Tov ben Joseph ibn Shem Tov in the 1480s, here sounding identical to the Christian Alfonso Martínez de Toledo in 1438, certain that “the son of an ass must bray” (Nirenberg’s paraphrase, 138). In this period, Christians and Jews both wrote in defense of a fundamental belief in natural hierarchies. They both worried about the flux of Christian and Jewish identities. And they both sought to find some new way to assure themselves of some fundamental difference in identity. That said, whatever these similarities, the most weaponized use of these beliefs, of course, was by self-identified Christians against Jews and those they identified as Jews.

_MG_3494 copy cropped for page smaller


Now, Nirenberg sees this naturalized language of hierarchy as a key moment in the emergence of modern racism. I’m convinced by his data, but, having often taught chivalric literature and, for that matter, Chaucer, I hear in this naturalization not so much race as class.

So far as I can determine, that word, in its meaning as “social class,” appears not once in Neighboring Faiths. Neither do the medieval variants I might expect, for example, “order” or “ordo.” I’m not saying this to wish Nirenberg had written another book, nor to grouse at the one he did write: his book is enormously important and will deserve every accolade it receives. Still I’ll suggest here a point Nirenberg either ignored or, more likely, chose not to discuss: that in Iberia in the 1430s, the old language of medieval class was ported over to describe or even establish a fundamental and ineradicable Christian/Jewish difference. That is, the long history of medieval naturalized class provides one–not all, but one–of the foundations of modern racism.

The key point: some of the key ideas of race and racism–that social difference is bodily, fixed, hierarchical, and heritable–appear in this old language of class.

This idea, what my tweet cheekily dubs “brilliant,” may have already appeared in print elsewhere. It may even have appeared brilliantly in print already. I can’t know for sure, as I’m only now getting up to speed on the medieval history of race, racism, and ethnicity, or whatever you think it should be called; but I don’t think this point shows up in the now classic Journal of Medieval and Early Modern Studies special issue on “Race and Ethnicity in the Middle Ages.” It might show up in Cord Whitaker’s upcoming special issue of postmedieval, “Making Race Matter in the Middle Ages.” I haven’t yet looked at The Origins of Racism in the West (Cambridge UP, 2009; paperback (!) 2013), on its way to me right now. It might well have appeared in some form in Jeffrey Cohen’s many pieces about race (for example, here, here, and here). It’s probably appeared in some form in some of the vast number of works on the history of race and racism that I haven’t read it. I’m sure of it. All this is to say that I don’t expect I’m being original here, but I do believe–I hope more modestly–that I’m offering Nirenberg or his readers a helpful supplement.

Some examples follow:

  • Yvain‘s Wild Herdsman, this big forest peasant, who “resambloit mor” (286; resembled a Moor), so evoking the animalistic Moors of chivalric narrative, such as those of the Chanson de Roland: those of Ociant, who “braient e henissent” (bray and whinny; 3526); those of Arguille, who “si cume chen i glatissent” (yelp like dogs; 3527); and those of Micenes, who are “seient ensement cume porc” (hairy just like pigs; 3523).
  • The political prophecy of John Ergome or Erghome, which records a belief that Edward II’s inept reign can be blamed on his true peasant background, for, as the story goes, when a pig mauled Edward in his cradle, his nurse swapped out the royal infant for the unmauled son of an auriga (a groom or swineherd), who, as a “false prince,” naturally governed the realm poorly (in fact, in the 1360s, Peter the Cruel‘s rivals spread the rumor that he was also such a “cuckoo” (Nirenberg 101), albeit with a Jewish rather than peasant substitution).
  • The chivalric romance Octavian, whose “recurring fascination with capital, class mutability, and the possibility of absolute value” (63) Jeffrey writes about in Medieval Identity Machines. In Octavian, a lost, chivalric child, raised by merchants and rechristened Florent (like a modern kid aspirationally named ‘Dollar’), recurrently frustrates his parents by showing his true, chivalric value, for example, by trading a couple oxen for a falcon, and by haggling a horse trader up to ensure he pays full price for a glorious, white steed.
  • And, finally, of course, there’s Chaucer’s Arcite (like Boccaccio’s Arcita), who, in the Knight’s Tale, returns from his Theban exile to Athens and rises “naturally” from his disguise as a lowly manual laborer to end up as Theseus’s squire.
  • Further afield, there’s the Old Norse Rígsthula, whose account of the origins of slaves, farmers (Carls!), and warrior earls, may be one of the earlier versions of these ideas of naturalized class (written down c. 1350, it shows Irish influence, as ríg comes from the Old Irish word for “king”; Andy Orchard 337).

By looking at this language of naturalized class as a root of modern racism we help free our investigations from duplicating, more or less accidentally, modern racism’s tendency to naturalize race. To be sure, skin color and “national” origin–the twin pillars of modern racial thinking–were often marked and linked by medieval thinkers; for example, they took from the ancients the notion that the sun in the warmer regions “burnt” the skin, making it darker. They sometimes even hierarchized this belief, by arguing that this same heat enervated those unfortunate enough to live in whatever part of the globe the medievals thought especially warm (for changing climatic notions, see Suzanne Conklin’s Akbari’s Idols in the East: European Representations of Islam and the Orient, 1100-1450, praised by Jeffrey here).

But if we want to get get a sense of why racial thinking is so often hierarchized, we might look at the old medieval language of naturalized class. By no means am I arguing that class trumps race. Rather, I’m attempting to find a medieval language of difference that is far more resistant to flux and conversion than what may be the usual culprits in attempts to find the roots of racism, namely, medieval climatic theory or conceptions of religious difference. Medieval climatic theory sometimes admitted that people who lived in one climate would change if they moved to another; medieval Christian belief in conversion generally (but not always) thought that converts to Christianity became true Christians.

Medieval defenses of social class, by contrast, argued that class was fixed, lodged in the body, and heritable. We might have the roots of racism right here. And if we look here, we’ll find why racism is so often powered by anti-animal humanist beliefs. We’ll find too that racial thinking is culture all the way down, regardless of its “biological,” genealogical pretensions, because none of us now, I hope, believe that class is anything but a social position. And, especially, by looking at this language of naturalized class, we’ll mark how racial thinking is used to naturalize nasty hierarchical differences within already existing human groups, a point I’m cribbing from one of Barbara Jeanne Fields’ classic articles.  If we start with this medieval language of naturalized class, we might better realize how the language of race is overwhelmingly not about the people over there, but about the people right here and social injustices right here rather than some wholly mythological history of significant difference.

Got called out. A response.

Here’s the tweet in question:

And here’s the fb post that set me off: Screenshot from 2014-06-27 09:40:15My hasty, late night responses resulted in a FdB writing a blog post that called me a tenured (! really? that was easy), hipster coward or some such and called for people to write me and tell me off. Ok. My basic problem, apart from reading poorly and tweeting in annoyance late at night, is that I took FdB’s fb and blog posts personally.

EDIT – and you might want to read this response by FdB first, as I think it better represents where he’s coming from than his last couple posts. I really don’t want this to turn into some miniature version of the Jacobin wars, the Daily Kos piewars, or whatever intraleft fight scarred you most severely. Okay? If we want to continue talking, let’s do it less personally. I’ll apologize publicly for my bad reading of FdB. I still stand by what I’m writing below, but my initial tweet definitely mischaracterized his blogpost. I regret that.

I like to think of myself as a leftist (I’m on the exec board of the local chapter on my union, etc), and I live, and work, in Brooklyn. I’m from a working class background, and I’ve largely escaped it, though my father’s death late last year — and the labor of being the executor of an estate some hundreds of thousands of dollars in debt — has reminded me, again, of how inherited property perpetuates white dominance, and how I just don’t have it; and how, nonetheless, I do, even without any inherited family wealth but the 5K I got when my mom died1 (which saved me from having to temp one grad school summer) and, then, a troll doll, a pillow, and some photos (seriously). I teach at a public college, and I suspect my students are on average far poorer and less white than the average for American MA-granting institutions. They’re great to teach and they face problems I never did, partially because working class America is a hell of a lot worse off now than it was when I was an undergrad, and partially or perhaps mainly because they don’t have the white privilege that accrues even to the poorest among the whites.

Those are my bona fides and that’s why my first thought was hey, he’s talking about me. Here, by the way, is my very next tweet:

I remember high school: being picked up for trespassing in a graveyard, losing my license for reckless driving, being pulled over in a car that was probably filled with pot smoke. And the cops never took me in, never beat me or charged me with something more severe, and, so far as I know, didn’t kill me. This wasn’t because I lived in some small town where everyone knew everyone. Tacoma was a large (for Washington), racially diverse blue-collar city, and this was roughly 1986-1989,  during the crack epidemic, during a time when the cops must have been especially fucking with every black person they could get their hands on; I have to know for a fact that the cops treated me well primarily because of my whiteness. And, by extension, it’s because of my whiteness that I parlayed my anti-authoritarian fuckupery into the job I have now, where being oppositional is a bonus.

But, again, that’s just demographic me, and that’s just the me that talks about white poverty with his friends often, at least so long as they come from the same background as mine, and so long as I’m sure they’re not going to cop to being something they’re not. Still, the problem is that I took FdB’s piece as being about me. It’s not. It’s about, well, “left-wing publishing,” or “left-wing thought,” or “Marxist and socialist journals,” or “a particular social and cultural group,” or the “young left/[ies],” or “white lefties,” or the “we” of the “we’ve tried to fight racism by being nice about race, by not saying bad words,” whoever “we” is. It’s about one or all of these groups, some of which overlap with the others, and only some of which I belong to. And, I suppose, he primarily means well-off white or whitish leftists with inherited cultural capital and all the connections that go with that, which isn’t me by any stretch.

As for the argument itself, the implicit charge of racism against his targets strikes me as unfair and unnecessarily inflammatory (“Though they [=those young leftists who “grew up in economic security or affluence and went to elite colleges”?] direct apathy at best towards the white poor and concern for poor people of color, ultimately they belittle both, in that their lack of concern for white poverty implies that they think white people deserve it while black and Hispanic people can’t be expected to do better. It’s the soft bigotry of low expectations for people of color and high expectations for white people”). This next point is just incorrect unless we (whoever we are) interpret “we” very narrowly: “we’ve tried to fight racism by being nice about race, by not saying bad words.” And I’ll leave it to others to conduct a search of their copies of Jacobin or The Nation or whatever to see if a specifically white poverty isn’t being talked about. Maybe it’s not, on average.

For what it’s worth, I don’t speak much publicly about white poverty because I find it narcissistic, because I know, anecdotally, that being a poor white is a disadvantage that can be surpassed, and because, for example, of this:

Less inherited wealth results in low homeownership rates and high deficits among African Americans: While a college-educated white American has an average net worth of $75,000, a college-educated black American has a net worth of less than $17,500.

I’m also convinced that the struggle for racial justice in America is the struggle for class justice. Could be wrong though.

(edit 25 minutes on, for a good piece, implicitly, on white poverty, see the Times today in two pieces (here, here) on Clay County Kentucky (94% white), “which by several measures is the hardest place in America to live,” and which puts my union-job childhood in some perspective.)

It’s possible that my own success and the success of a few–but by no means not all–members of my family means that I don’t take white poverty seriously. Guilty, I guess, though for different reasons than those driving FdB’s post. But even if I hadn’t been lucky enough to land a fancy PhD and a TT job in a city I love, I’d like to think I’d still be doing more to get outside my own experience.

And here’s the beginning of a series of tweets that FdB might engage with more productively:

If you’re still reading, you might find this old post useful:

and this too:


1 You want to talk about gender and class? My father didn’t steal that 5K from my brother and me. He did, so far as we can tell, steal it from my sister.