Monday, January 18, 2016

"Not back then they weren't": still more on medieval "whiteness"


EDIT: several days on. It's come to my attention that perhaps some people have not quite understood what this post is doing. Let me make my claims as clear as possible.
1. the transhistorical existence of a category called "white people" is a fiction
2. the invention of that fiction - roughly speaking, over the course of the seventeenth century - with all the legal and ideological support that accompanied and enabled it, also accompanied - not incidentally - the massive, systematic exposure of millions of Africans and African-descended people to rape by these "white people."
3. Therefore, any claim that "white people" are, for example, the heroes in the history of anti-rape advocacy is an appalling error.


I'd call this post White Skin, White Mask if the title hadn't already been taken many times. Before you go any further, if you haven't already, read Jonathan Hsy's MLA roundup, and also Eileen Joy's breathtaking farewell to ITM post.

We've posted often on racial fantasies here (a lot! here's a sample: here, here, here [from 2006], herehere, here, and here). And in one of my favorite writing experiences, Jeffrey and I co-wrote a review essay on several medieval books on cultural encounters, medievalism, and race.

And here I go again, probably not for the last time.

A couple years ago, while teaching Gerald of Wales’ History and Topography of Ireland, one of my students asked, “Why’s he so nasty about the Irish? Aren’t they the same race?” My reply: “Not back then they weren’t.” What a perfect hook that was for class discussion!

The student meant “white.” Any reader of this blog knows how much work we have done to resist the mistaken idea of a “white” Middle Ages. To be sure, many medieval writers found it useful to believe that dark skin was ugly, even diabolical. Some found it melancholic (as the word literally means “black bile”), a point you might read alongside Drew Daniel's book.

But not infrequently, they believed similarly negative things about light skin. Certainly, “white as snow” was one standard description of beautiful women, whether Saracen or Christian. Countering that, we can add "pale as a Jew": the early fifteenth-century Canarian, an inadvertently mock epic about the attempted conquest of the Canary Islands, includes a catechism for the Canary Islanders, explaining that Jews were distinguished by being “descoulourez” by fear: they were pale, in other words, excessively light-skinned. M. Lindsey Kaplan’s “The Jewish Body in Black and White in Medieval and Early Modern England” (Philological Quarterly 2013) observes that late medieval antisemitism quite often described Jews as melancholic, as “naturally timid” (44, quoting from a 14th-century Parisian quodlibet), and therefore as naturally “livid,” an uncertain color, like lead, that could be black, blue, or pale.

"first white woman": Icelandic theater photo.
Thanks Dan Remein for sending it to me.
And although modern racists since the later nineteenth century have made much of the supposed whiteness of the Norse in Vinland some thousand years ago, the Vinland sagas themselves don’t think of this encounter between the Norse and the “Skraelings” as an encounter of white and, say, “red.” As my students and I regularly discover, whatever so-called "white" America's interest in these sagas, they actually and primarily concern the thirteenth-century Icelandic difficulty with their own religious heritage: how is it possible to praise one's pagan ancestors? As for the “Skraelings,” one of the sagas describes a their leader as “tall and handsome [vænn],” which is precisely the same language the sagas as a whole use to describe any martial hero, Icelandic or otherwise. The Vinland sagas say that the rest of the "Skraelings" have tangled hair and enormous eyes and are – presumably apart from the leader – “ugly” [illiligir], and either “dark” (svartir) or “pale” (folleit), without, that is, any obvious singularly distinctive hair or skin color, though they are still marked as somehow different.

Furthermore, neither of the Vinland sagas offers a homogeneous ‘Eurocentric’ identity reducible to whiteness. Eric the Red’s Saga has among its Norse a German explorer, and the Greenland Saga two Scots, differentiated from the text’s norm, 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 strange Scottish clothing, are fast runners, swifter than deer.

The paragraph above, and the last sentences of the previous one, come from my article “Bad Heritage: The American Viking Fantasy, from the Nineteenth Century to Now,” intended for a non-medievalist audience, and, knock on wood, coming out later this year. I’ll quote one more paragraph as a teaser, and as a rebuke of this eminent University of Chicago medieval historian:
Modern fans of the Vikings speak of them as representing the “organic unity of a race” (Else Christiansen, qtd in Gardell, “Wolf Age Pagans” 386) and offer up “Scandinavians and the Scandinavian culture as ancient and therefore pure” (Blaagaard 11). But without a single pre-Christian Norse religion (indeed, without a pre-Christian Norse religion entirely free of Christian influences), there is no “pure” and ancient “folkway” that can be contrasted with Christianity, modernity, cosmopolitanism, and all the other presumptive faults of modernity. No single origin is available. While the medieval Norse were no less free of racist taxonomies and anxieties than any other medieval group, their chief concerns were not with the modern category of whiteness, not least of all because they did not think of skin color as the primary racial determiner (for example). Claims of “ancestral roots” purport to be historical claims, but they lack the appreciation for heterogeneity and constantly shifting, interacting cultures, riven by internal disputes and negotiations, necessary for any truly historical analysis. Fascination with the seafaring exploits of Vikings, when attached exclusively to the Vikings, remain provincial: from the North Sea to the Indian Ocean, Norse, Croat, Swahili, Persian, and Chinese sailors all found new success in the ninth century (Sindbaek). In short, the love of Vikings [or for that matter “white people”] is obviously a love of a fantasized past rather than a love of history. In its more and less benign forms, modern amateur Viking enthusiasm should collapse when it encounters these facts. Yet it persists, of course, which means, finally, we must examine what the Viking fantasy does for its adherents.

EDIT: a couple hours later, I need to address one more point. The post I linked to above makes claims about the centrality of medieval "white" people, and especially "white men," to anti-rape advocacy and anti-rape legislation, without discussing, say, the approval of the rape of peasant women in Andrew the Chaplain's De arte honeste amandi (often translated as The Art of Courtly Love):
And if you should, by some chance, fall in love with some of their women [i.e., peasant women], be careful to puff them up with lots of praise and then, when you find a convenient place, do not hesitate to take what you seek and to embrace them by force (Perry trans., 150)
The key term in the title is honeste, a word of perhaps uncertain meaning, but which might be read with reference to this; do not ignore the real limits of Andrew's arguments.

But we can also think of this argument in the context of America, one of whose founding crimes is its profiting from the systematic, massive rape of enslaved people from Africa or of African ancestry. Any account of anti-rape advocacy in America must have, for example, Ida B. Wells at its center; it should read  Saidiya Hartman's "Venus in Two Acts," or the helpless horror about witnessing rape in Olaudah Equiano's Interesting Narrative. It should understand that Virginia profited enormously from the sale of enslaved children down south, which meant, of course, that so-called white men were selling their own children. Any account of anti-slave advocacy that seeks to racialize that history should read as much, if not more of, Thomas Thistlewood's diary as can be stood.

So-called white people do have a central role in the history of anti-rape advocacy, and that role has been, since the invention of white people, by and large, the enemy.


Jonathan Hsy said...

@Karl: Thanks for this -- very timely, given that it's MLK Day and also given that some intense and important conversations have been happening this week about *medievalist* (scholarly) retroactive fantasies of whiteness and the medieval past. (There may very well be more about that whole thing on ITM as well!) I'd say that Annette Kolody's work on indigenous and Anglo-American (white) receptions of the "Viking" legacy is also quite important here, as is Carolyn Dinshaw's "Pale Faces" Chaucer Lecture (from NCS London in 2000). Seems very fitting that Jeffrey's "Pale Faces" session at London in 2016 will revisit fantasies of whiteness as it informs our scholarly practice and community. It's about time.

Karl Steel said...

and thank you! Kolody's book (Brooklyn College alumna!!) is so essential to my Vikings article, yes. What I'm doing is adding to her work (and to work by Geraldine Barnes) is looking at the 20th-century popular engagement with Vikings, particularly among "Odinist" revivalists (which includes white supremacists, but not every Odinist is a racist). Basically, I find Kolodny and Barnes too optimistic, but overall, their work is wonderful.

Nathaniel M. Campbell said...

It seems to me that your critique of Brown's post (i.e. exploding the myth of Nordic racial purity) misses what I took to be the key point of Brown's post, i.e. that moral character is (or at least can be) independent of skin color and gender. You seem to take the opposite point of view at the end of your post, suggesting that to be white and male (however so-defined) is a priori to be pro-rape (or however one might construe the double negative of being an enemy of anti-rape advocacy).

It is troubling that this is somehow to be celebrated as a contribution to the remembrance of the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., whose great dream was that we judge each other on the content of our character and not on the color of our skin. If it's wrong (and it is wrong) to say, "He's black so he must be stupid," or "She's a woman so she must be weak," then it is also wrong to say, "He's white so he must be racist," or "He's a man so he must be sexist."

This is what frustrates many conservatives the most. We can readily recognize and denounce the hateful misogyny deployed by the likes of Frantzen or other MRA's; or the latent racism in Republican rhetoric denouncing the President. But where you lose us is when you take the extra, unwarranted step of declaring that men are therefore a priori misogynists, or white people are a priori racists.

Have the integrity to judge each person by their own moral virtues or failings, rather than by their skin color or gender! Are some white men misogynistic and racist? Yes. Are some white men not? Yes. We blind ourselves to the complexity of human character when we prejudicially make assumptions about that character based on superficial qualities of skin color or gender.

Karl Steel said...

Brown's argument was a historical argument; so was mine. I'm not saying that white people are a priori racists or pro-rape, but rather that historically, since the invention of white people (in its modern form, sometime in the 17th century), white people have by and large been perpetrators of one of the most systematic, widespread program of rape, and that any argument that seeks to racialize the history of rape and anti-rape advocacy - which is how I took Brown's post - particularly when written in an American context, particularly when written in same month when a white supremacist terrorist shot up a black church, needs to confront that.

I get your point, and I have no doubt of your decency. However, I do think the tendency to get hung up on King's wish that people will be judged as individuals is one that leaps over the real work of dealing with the burden of history, and the moral burden that falls, in particular, on those who have benefited the most from monstrous systems of inequality. It's not bad individual judgments that are preventing the end of racism; it's white supremacy. And one way to end white supremacy may be to change individual minds, but in the meantime, we need better laws and better accounts of history, because white supremacy is not a matter of individuals, but of systems in which individuals are, for the most part, mere effects.

See in particular page 6 in this MLK speech ("The American Dream") that he gave in Brooklyn in 1963.

Karl Steel said...

Make that page eight, sorry, beginning with "And while it is true that morality cannot be legislated..."

Nathaniel M. Campbell said...

Karl, I owe you an apology, I think, because when I wrote my comment I hadn't fully read your first one above, in reply to Jonathan. In that comment, you display precisely the nuance that I was calling for, in your parenthetical, "(which includes white supremacists, but not every Odinist is a racist)." You show that same nuance in your reply to me just now.

It is a subtle difference between recognizing structural racism and sexism (and other inequalities as well) and making the a priori assumption that to be white and male is to be racist and sexist. Unfortunately, that subtle distinction is all too often lost, especially in the passion that such discussion inevitably evokes.

Karl Steel said...

no worries, and all best!

Elegant Axe Handle said...

Where and how can I find your article "Bad Heritage..." which I hope has been published? In the course of pursuing my hobbies I am constantly faced with people performing ahistorical Viking pseudo-reenactment, and would truly appreciate some help in pointing out to them the icky underpinnings of what they're doing. I am tired of hearing that their picking and choosing which parts of "Viking culture" they choose to reenact is not another round of cultural appropriation, simply because they're white and/or have Scandinavian ancestry.

Karl Steel said...

Nowhere yet! It's lost in publishing limbo - but it's available for download here.