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,

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.