Monday, December 05, 2016

White Nationalism and the Ethics of Medieval Studies

A guest post by Sierra Lomuto

By now we probably all know about the National Policy Institute, an innocuously named white supremacist think tank that held their annual conference at the Ronald Reagan Building in Washington, DC on November 19th. The not-so-subtle yet still coded conference title “Become Who We Are" served as a call to white nationalists to come out from the shadows and proudly re-emerge under the authority of our country's new president-elect. With over 200 people in attendance and mass media coverage, it does appear that their public profile is indeed on the rise.

NPI President and Director Richard Spencer gave a lecture in which he declared, “The Trump movement was kind of a body without a head. The alt-right, as an intellectual vanguard, can complete Trump” (according to Dave Weigel at the Washington Post). With Trump's presidency and planned appointments, white nationalism is poised to take a position of open, unapologetic influence in the governance of our laws and policies. Spencer intends to harness this political endorsement as he becomes a public intellectual of the movement and legitimizes white supremacy within the cultural sphere. 

With the tagline “For our people, our culture, our future,” NPI's surface rhetoric belies the white supremacist ideology that the think tank espouses. Their mission statement reads: “NPI is an independent organization dedicated to the heritage, identity, and future of people of European descent in the United States, and around the world.” This language seems to present a positive message regarding the celebration of European heritage and even employs a rhetoric of inclusion through reference to a shared global identity. The absence of hate speech and racist language is strategic not only to deter those who oppose white nationalism, but also to recruit those who wouldn’t otherwise want to be associated with swastikas, the Ku Klux Klan, and other more recognizable forms of white supremacy.  The NPI also publishes articles which conceal their racist ideology by presenting it through the guise of research, a facade of scholarly character, and the credibility of academic degrees. Spencer received his BA in English and Music from the University of Virginia, and his MA in the Humanities from the University of Chicago, before leaving his doctoral program at Duke to pursue what we often refer to as an "alt-ac" career in the public humanities. 

On the "Become Who We Are" list of speakers was another well-educated intellectual, Kevin MacDonald, Professor Emeritus of Psychology at California State University--Long Beach. In addition to MacDonald's status among the academic elite, he is the editor of The Occidental Quarterly, a white nationalist journal that publishes content on "white identity, white interests, and the culture of the West," according to their online mission statement

As white nationalists leverage the most powerful seats in U.S. government to buttress the institutional legitimacy and intellectual justification of white supremacy, there should be no doubt that they will reach us in our bubble of academia. They will likely reach us medievalists first.

Over the same weekend as the NPI conference asserted the place of white supremacy within the mainstream of American intellectual culture, I attended a conference on medieval manuscripts where I witnessed its normalization within academia. But while most (hopefully all) of us in the conference room would readily rail against the racist ideologies being promoted by NPI and Spencer in DC, hardly anyone seemed to notice what was happening within our own local community of medievalists. 

One panel, whose aim was to highlight medieval and modern connections by way of material culture, included a presentation by a tattoo artist who translates Celtic iconography from medieval manuscripts, such as the Book of Kells, into body art. The panel's second speaker discussed how he drew from Anglo-Saxon history and illuminated medieval manuscripts to design his strategy card game, which was launched earlier this year. Both presentations promised to appeal to a medievalist audience eager to see how the distant past we study resonates with artistic communities in our contemporary world. As the panelists moved through their talks, however, a subtext of white nationalism became increasingly clear to me. 

The deep significance of Celtic iconography within the white nationalist community was never explicitly referenced during the first speaker's presentation nor during the Q & A, but it was unavoidably present. As the beautiful images of the artist's work were projected onto the overhead screen, I began to notice the consistency of canvas: every example was etched into white skin. When asked about her clients’ motivations by an audience member, the artist explained that her clients are white people looking for a heritage to celebrate during a time when "being white is bad." Her answer echoed the white supremacist rhetoric we find in places like Stormfront, a white nationalist online community whose tagline reads, "We are the voice of the new, embattled White minority" and whose emblem is the “sun-cross” version of the Celtic cross. In fact, on one of the site's message boards, the OP asks for tattoo ideas and our conference speaker’s name is suggested along with the advice that Celtic crosses work better for tattoos because they are not as obvious as a swastika. The OP expresses concern about being ostracized for his beliefs, fully aware of the negative perception of white nationalists, and his respondents offer him ways in which he might be more covert. A Celtic tattoo is one such suggestion.

If the panelist's comments on white heritage weren't enough to reveal the community to whom her business caters, her response in the Q & A that it would be stunning for a client to care about the distinction between Celtic and Anglo-Saxon iconography confirmed it for me. It is one thing for an Irish person to celebrate their ethnic heritage with a Celtic tattoo and quite another for a white person to use Celtic iconography to symbolize their racial whiteness despite their actual heritage. Race and ethnicity are not interchangeable categories of identity. To celebrate one's Irish, German, or Italian ethnicity is akin to celebrating one's Ethiopian, Chilean, or Thai ethnicity. There is no equation to be made between whiteness and ethnic heritage. Whiteness is a racial category of privileged dominance; it is a power structure upheld by the oppression and marginalization of non-whiteness. And I don't think I need to point out that it has never been "bad" to be white in America. 

The speaker had already triggered my racism-odometer when she made a joke during her talk: while explaining that Hawaiian tattoo artists don't like to connect the bands in tribal tattoos because of their belief system, she joked that it was more likely that they were too high to keep the needle straight. While the joke made me cringe, the eruption of laughter with which it was met alarmed me more than the joke itself, and I perked up to a much deeper problem: the utter lack of racial consciousness in our field of Medieval Studies. As a mixed-race Asian woman working on histories of racial structures in medieval European-Mongol relations, this lacuna in Medieval Studies is not news to me. I regularly read adjectives like “uncultured” and “barbaric” to describe Mongols in books published within the last decade. I still see "Oriental" used uncritically to refer to Asian peoples. And in scholarship on cross-cultural relations, I still see the case being made that curiosity for and openness toward difference—i.e., an ethos of multiculturalism—undermines the presence of racial hierarchies. 

Despite my awareness of the race problem in our field, this particular moment struck me with a new urgency for change. Still reeling from the election and constant news of hate harassment and crimes around the country, including at my own institution, I was unable to brush this moment and this panel under the rug. In the return to white nationalist centrality in our mainstream political and cultural spheres, we as medievalists need to be extra diligent about increasing our racial consciousness—in our classrooms, in our scholarship, at our conferences, in any place where we create or share knowledge about the Middle Ages.

The second panelist received a lot of pushback in the Q & A on his game's complete lack of diversity, and rightfully so. His team used medieval manuscript illuminations to design their visual materials, such as castles and knights on horseback. In creating their fantasy world, he explained that there were many instances where they had to adapt authentic medieval images to appeal to their modern audience, as was the case when they transformed a medieval castle to appear more Disney-like. Yet he and his team were entirely comfortable designing the game with zero racial diversity, despite its genre of fantasy and the very real presence of people of color in the Middle Ages. Clearly they didn't envision an audience of non-white gamers during their design meetings; perhaps they weren't interested in one. Whatever their motivations, they imagined the Middle Ages—as does much of our popular culture—as a space of whiteness. And while I cheered on my colleagues for taking him to task during the Q & A, I couldn't help but think that we are the ones to blame for this. 

The discussion on race in the Middle Ages has been fraught with controversy since medievalists began having one at the turn of this century. The conversation often stalled on the question of whether we could even talk about race because of a sensed threat of anachronism. In his 2015 postmedieval edition Making Race Matter in the Middle Ages, Cord Whitaker tried to end any lingering resistance to the topic by asserting that now is the time to move on, stop debating whether race is relevant to the medieval, and start thinking about how medieval race-thinking differs from and contributes to modern racism. Yet the debate continues, and the issue is often reduced to a quibble over terminology. This debate must end once and for all. When we refuse to see race in the Middle Ages, the stakes are much greater than etymology or linguistics; we are refusing to see how hierarchical structures of difference operate in all of their nuanced complexities, including within multicultural and transnational contexts. We are allowing the Middle Ages to be seen as a preracial space where whiteness can locate its ethnic heritage. And we end up convening conference panels that uncritically present the use of the medieval in perpetuating white supremacy. I keep returning to this idea that it would have been incredibly powerful, and leagues more significant, if the panel I attended had framed the discussion with a consideration of just how racialized the engagement is between modern pop culture and the medieval world. 

We medievalists need to build our racial consciousness. We need to understand that race is not synonymous with ethnicity or culture, nor does it exclusively belong to a scientific discourse that postdates our premodern period of study.  It does not begin and end with skin color or biological markers of difference.  Race is a structural mode of codifying difference into an ideological system. It is malleable because its constitutive parts are themselves malleable. To echo Cord Whitaker, we need to stop asking whether we can discuss race in medieval texts and contexts, and instead ask how it operates in these materials. We need to stop reading a text like The Book of John Mandeville as an example of medieval cross-cultural tolerance and a celebration of multicultural difference. If we acknowledge the antisemitic sentiment expressed in this text, which is the prevailing consensus, then we must immediately acknowledge the tolerance we do see (for example, with the Great Khan) as part of a more nuanced system of racial hierarchy. 

It is no coincidence that Medieval Studies has embraced the turn from the postcolonial to the global within our larger field designations. While the former was heavily resisted and spent more time justifying the pairing of the postcolonial with the medieval than it did producing medieval postcolonial theory, the Global Middle Ages is one of our hottest new fields. This is partly because the global seems to speak more readily to what we know was a medieval world engaged in intercultural exchange much different than the postcolonial world of the 20th century. But it is also because of our field's general resistance to the political, its discomfort with racial discourse, and its often self-imposed exile from critical theory (despite its capacity to travel and adapt across temporal origins). But to think of the global as a neutral mode of studying cross-cultural encounters, is to miss its point entirely. The global is and always will be inflected by perspective---when studying global histories we must always ask, from whose gaze is the world being seen, interpellated, and made legible? 

Without a racial consciousness, Global Medieval Studies will only serve to perpetuate white dominance as it will only foreground more marginalized histories and peoples insofar as they remain within the dominance of the white gaze. Without a racial consciousness, Medieval Studies in general will only continue to perpetuate a myth of white European supremacy that white nationalists can latch onto for justification and validation for their racist belief system.

When white nationalists turn to the Middle Ages to find a heritage for whiteness—to seek validation for their claims of white supremacy—and they do not find resistance from the scholars of that past; when this quest is celebrated and given space within our academic community, our complacency becomes complicity. We have an ethical responsibility to ensure that the knowledge we create and disseminate about the medieval past is not weaponized against people of color and marginalized communities in our own contemporary world. If white nationalists want to corrupt Celtic iconography with their white supremacist ideologies, or find solace in a game whose currency is a fantasy of whiteness, we can't stop them. But we can refuse to help them. We can build a racial consciousness and stop using words like "Oriental" and "uncultured" to refer to non-white peoples in the Middle Ages. We can stop saying "race" doesn't apply to the Middle Ages when what we mean is that later forms of racial codification don't apply; we can start asking, what forms of race do we see operating in the primary sources we study and teach? 

If we have a Richard Spencer in one of our classes, we can be sure he will not leave better equipped and more justified to spread his white supremacist hate. And our white students who likely wouldn't otherwise think about race, will leave our classes having at least learned that race is not something they can ignore because we—their professors whom they look up to and respect—both affirm its existence and the need to study it with care.  


Sierra Lomuto is a Ph.D. Candidate
at the University of Pennsylvania 







28 comments:

Ashby Kinch said...

Thank you, Sierra, for this timely post. I am wrapping up a seminar on Chaucer and since the election we have been talking with greater urgency about the problem of disrupting the white nationalist appropriation of the "medieval" as a locus of identity. We are unusually sensitive to this question here in Western Montana, where Mr. Spencer has relocated, on again, off again, for the last decade. We do not claim him. He is a bad agent, who has had the benefit of some of the best educational institutions in the country: he's from Dallas, and has spent his academic time in Virginia (B.A.), Chicago (M.A.) and Duke (started a PhD in History), before pulling up stakes and becoming a full-time race warrior based in Arlington, VA for many years. The Montana Human Rights Network has actively protested him and the NPI in the recent past (2014, especially), and lobbied to get the Whitefish City Council, where he lives, to pass a nondiscrimination ordinance like the one we have down here in Missoula. When these liberal enclaves in Montana act to support inclusive policies, there is almost always resistance from the dark recesses of the white nationalist movement, who howl in disapproval. The Love Lives Here movement has been effective at staving off these counter-protests, but it takes vigilance, and more so in the wake of Trump's election. In any event, I appreciate the way you contextualize people like Spencer, who indeed are casting about in the broader culture for places to anchor their hate. We must vigilantly resist their doing so in our field.

Jeffrey Cohen said...

Thanks so much for this important post, Sierra.

Your call to using the Middle Ages to reject white supremacy has some confirmed effectiveness in Derek Black (son of the founder of Stormfront) giving up on what supremacy as a result of a friend inviting him to Shabbat dinners ... and studying the Middle Ages at New College and finding "that Western Europe had begun not as a great society of genetically superior people but as a technologically backward place that lagged behind Islamic culture. He studied the 8th century to the 12th century, trying to trace back the modern concepts of race and whiteness, but he couldn’t find them anywhere. “We basically just invented it,” he concluded."

Schuyler E. Eastin said...


Sierra, thanks for this piece. As a medievalist and as a gamer, I'm particularly interested in both the conference and the folks who presented on their card game. The board gaming community and industry has been experiencing some interesting, and hopefully productive growing pains with regard to diversity. A lot of this has to do with gender exclusivity and pushing back against the long-held stereotype of the gamer guy, but with the proliferation of games in the last decade, gamers and publishers have become more discerning with regard to character depictions and thematic elements. It seems that a lot of publishers have become thankfully resistant to the bikini-clad female warrior but in the search for new themes have also raised the potential to enact and propagate problematic cultural representations that are far more subtle and even insidious. I'd be interested to know which game was being discussed in that panel since games with medieval themes tend to pique my interest. Incidentally, a game entitled Inis that employs Irish culture and mythology was recently released and is currently in my Wish List, but I have to wonder what kind of cultural text I would be purchasing.
In any case, thanks again for reminding us that we do not simply operate in a distant past; our field has never been more relevant and in need of self-reflection.

Emily said...

Sierra, this is an excellent post. Thank you for writing it.

TheWalkingKnight said...

Well put. Thank you.

Bryn Hammond said...

I am eager for your work on 'racial structures in medieval European-Mongol relations'. From my reading in Mongol history, I know the area is in dire need of racial consciousness.

Sierra Lomuto said...

I really appreciate this positive and encouraging feedback. Ashby Kinch, a friend who is also from Missoula was telling me similar stories of the active resistance against Spencer in Montana. These stories give me hope -- as do stories of medievalists who are also resisting. Thank you for your work! I'll be teaching Chaucer next semester (for the first time, actually) and I've been thinking a lot about how I will make sure I am doing so responsibly and attentively. As Jeffrey J. Cohen reminds us with the example of Derek Black, we have the power to disrupt white supremacy (the dark alternative being that we also have the power to perpetuate it if we're not attentive). I'm looking forward to more scholarship on medieval race -- I urgently crave it! I'm especially interested in constructions of whiteness in the Middle Ages, which some medievalists have already started writing about -- so important, really, because race is too often equated with blackness without a recognition of how whiteness invisibly functions in that same codified system. Thanks for reading and, JJC, for posting!

Lara Farina said...

Thanks for posting this, Sierra. On the relation of the "Celtic" and white supremacy movements, I strongly recommend an article by Euan Hague et al, "Whiteness, multiculturalism, and nationalist appropriation of Celtic culture" (Cultural Geographies 12.2). Written in 2005, it puts a finger on the recruitment of fantasized Celtic identity for white nationalism. I've assigned the article in a course I teach titled "The Celtic World." In past, the students always regarded the profiled speakers as fringe wackos. Now, those figures seem not so far removed from centers of power.

Unknown said...

Ortus Regni

Stephen Wrenn said...

The game was Ortus Regni, and I had been under the impression that the game was historical based and not fantasy, set in Anglo-Saxon England. As a gamer, I can attest that the hobby is very heavily white male dominated, although this is changing. The depictions of women have been addressed in various media, and hopefully the scantily clado theme of the helpless damsel will change. A game Conan that just came out was blasted by one of the women with the company that released it, as it is based on the 1937 books with the heroic white male, the Picts basically Iroquois, and all the bad guys were non-white and the women barely clothed. This is much like with fantasy wargaming, with again barely clothes female warriors being relegated to support only roles. The Conan game was reviewed by an online reviewer, and he felt very uncomfortable with the artwork, to say nothing of his daughters' opinion of the game.

I remember being told several years ago that Italians and Spanish had been named "non-white" so that the medieval field could get in on multicultural studies, obviously without any reference to the Middle East or the Mongols. As has been stated, hopefully our field can realize that there are culures outside of white Europe worthy of study and that not everyone outside of Christian Europe was a barbarian, weather it is overt or subtle.

Sierra Lomuto said...

Thanks Lara Farina! I will definitely check that out!

Yes Schuyler Eastin and Stephen Wrenn, the game was Ortus Regni. It is historically based and also fantasy. Thanks for your insights into gaming culture and its problems, but also its forward thinking movement. I really appreciate hearing about how these concerns are being managed from the inside (I'm not a gamer myself). While it took some nudging from a couple of audience members, the conference presenter seemed to understand in the end the need for racial diversity (and not in a way that will, as you both highlight, reinscribe stereotypes) -- so that was certainly encouraging. Stephen, I couldn't agree more with your final point and I think that the Global MAs field is so exciting for this very reason. As long as it, as I say in my post, builds a racial consciousness and embraces the political, it will offer something really powerful not just to us medievalists, but to later fields as well.

Seeta Chaganti said...

Thank you, Sierra, for this helpful and perceptive post.

Seeta Chaganti said...

Thank you, Sierra, for this thoughtful and perceptive post.

Kamela said...

Thanks for this analysis. I'm not a medievalist (nor an academic, per se), and so I'm coming to this through a friend who is, and I was curious about one sentence that I can't seem to parse.

You say:

"And in scholarship on cross-cultural relations, I still see the case being made that curiosity for and openness toward difference—i.e., an ethos of multiculturalism—undermines the presence of racial hierarchies."

What exactly do you mean by this? This is not a challenge in any way - I just literally don't understand what is meant by "undermines the presence of racial hierarchies," and why doing so would be a bad thing.

Thanks!

Sierra Lomuto said...

Kamela, Thanks for this wonderful question. Of course the end goal is to dismantle racial hierarchies -- to do this is not a bad thing. But I think we too often assume that multiculturalism in itself achieves that aim (i.e. the false idea that a multicultural America that elects a Black president is post-racial). Curiosity and openness don’t automatically erase racist attitudes and structures. In the best case, they are the first step toward doing so; but in the worst case, they further entrench them. For example, academic Orientalists were very open to learning about Asian cultures and peoples, an interest that contributed to and perpetuated racist perspectives that are still very much felt today. Too often we think that racism exists only when we are trying to expel people or when we consciously discriminate against them; this misconception leads to our inability to see how racism operates in more invisible ways as well (like how some documented immigrants can endorse the deportation of undocumented immigrants without recognizing that the same xenophobia at play in the latter affects them too). In a multicultural society like the U.S., people sometimes think it's ok to, say, dress up in stereotypical Native American clothing for Halloween. When challenged, they might say they chose this costume not to be hateful, but to celebrate Native Americans -- they might even say they *love* Native Americans. Yet their perspective and actions are still racist and harmful. So while multiculturalism and diversity are deeply important for undermining racism (crucial, in fact), it’s not enough to stop there. So what I mean in this sentence is that I often see scholars point to a multicultural openness as evidence for anti-racism. But I think that perspective can actually be very dangerous because it can overlook the presence of racial hierarchies even in multicultural contexts.

Kamela said...

Gotcha - thank you so much for picking that apart! This makes perfect sense - the sentence might have read "...that curiosity and openness to multiculturalism among academics is all that is needed to counteract racism in this field of study."

I had another interpretation that was a bit roundabout, but I wonder what you think of it: my friend the medievalist is also an avid SCA member, and I have been to a few of their events only to be troubled by white people taking on non-white "personas" in their historical reenacting. While this is usually done with a great deal of research and sensitivity, it still always strikes me as odd. To counteract this somewhat, I have heard from some actual POC SCA members that they have researched the presence and roles of people closely matching their genetic makeup in these historical contexts, and that most white people would be surprised by how many people of color existed and lived among what we tend to think of as a very white culture.

So, with all of that in mind: my interpretation of your statement, initially, was that some academics were asserting that exploring multiculturalism in this historical context was the equivalent of, for lack of a better term, reverve whitewashing: the practice of including people of color in a historical context in which they were not previously known to exist, and that by doing that, they were undermining the idea of racial hierarchies that existed in the era under discussion - and therefore, potentially, essentially "Disneyfying" the period in question by pretending racism didn't exist then.

Convoluted, I know, but hopefully it makes some sense.

Sierra Lomuto said...

I see! I do think that some of what you interpreted is right (if I'm understanding you correctly). It's not that academics are saying ethnic and cultural differences didn't exist in the Middle Ages (medievalists know well that they did despite the idea of a white MAs in popular medievalism, such as in the SCA community you mentioned); but rather that those differences were not racial. A lot of ink has been spilled making the case against using the term race to describe difference in the MAs, and many reasons have been given. The one I was thinking of when I wrote that sentence is the idea that an attitude of openness means racial hierarchies can't be at play (this happens often in my particular subfield where I study 13th c. Mongol-European relations, which was very much a relationship of openness and curiosity--Mongols were admired). This is all to say that I think we need to see how multiculturalism =/= absence of racism both in the MAs AND today. I think we need to see both in order to dispel both -- our myth of the post-racial is intertwined with that of the pre-racial.

I hope I am not making things more convoluted. Tbh, this is precisely what I am thinking about in a dissertation chapter right now that I am struggling to write. So I am still grappling with how to parse out and articulate these issues.

Kamela said...

Thanks - no, this makes sense: it's not only about what types of racial hierarchies existed then, but what hierarchies exist now and are in play whenever someone from a particular perspective looks at that history. Openness and awareness helps, to be sure, but doens't eliminate the problem.

I wanted to clarify that the SCA as a group in general doesn't itself whitewash the Middle Ages; though the organization was almost certainly started by white folks seeking to reenact a medieval Europe, it has grown tremendously, and at Pennsic (a huge SCA event every summer), the camp I've stayed at a few times is very near Horde Hill (a large encampment, several hundred strong, of Mongol reenactors); there is a large Middle Eastern and Turkish contingent, there is a Japanese feudal community, there are people of color playing European nobles and white people playing medieval Turks...It's an interesting scene, all in all, with a lot of scholarship attached.

I did not know that medievalists were arguing that the Middle Ages were "pre-racial" - that's fascinating and odd. What was it, then, do they think? Like, if the concept of race didn't exist, then who the hell was Othello the Moor, or Shylock the Jew, for that matter? (I know, I know, Shakespeare is later, but his stories were drawn from older sources, often...) I mean, the concept of race in America is quite different to how it is elsewhere, to be sure, given our particular history of native genocide, followed by the cultural genocide and enslavement of black Africans and the subsequent fallout. But...Seriously, what are these people saying? What the hell were the Crusades about? Religion, sure, but skin color and perceived differences in humanity (i.e. the concept of race!) were definitely in play, no?

Thanks for this stimulating discussion.

Sierra Lomuto said...

Pennsic does sound really interesting! I'm curious about how the scholarship is woven into the experience.

The debate over medieval race has been a really interesting one and I can't do it justice here. But this is an old ITM blog post by Jeffrey Jerome Cohen (from 2006) that really helped me pin down the various issues while also validating the importance of seeing a racial MAs. The people in the field who work on race have taken us beyond this debate since 2006, but oddly people still remain resistant. At a presentation just a few months ago, race was never stated outright but rather with quotations. How can we theorize race if we put it in quotations? Doesn't that just send the message that it doesn't actually have a place here? I think it speaks to a larger discomfort with racial discourse that isn't limited to the field, but nonetheless impacts it a great deal.

Thanks very much for this discussion! Here is the link to JJC's post: http://www.inthemedievalmiddle.com/2006/08/on-medieval-race.html

Unknown said...

Just a quick response to Kamela: interestingly the characters you point to, Shylock and Othello, are MODERN characters in fiction of the English Early Modern period, and not examples of medieval viewpoints at all. The sources for Othello are a) a 1569 novel and b) Leo Africanus, a Berber author of the 16th century. The sources for Merchant are likely Medieval, but the Jew in the source material is again a religious rather than racial category. Moor in Othello originally meant someone from Mauritania and comes to mean simply Muslim regardless of race or ethnicity, and so a religious category originally again. Crusades likewise were not about "let's conquer Arabs" but rather against the occupation of the Holy Land (holy to Christians is the important thing here) by Muslims (who span Arab, Egyptian, Berber, Turk, Persian, Indian, Ethiopian, etc).

So the issues are there, but for the medieval mind more based on religion than race.

Karl Steel said...

Kamela,
And I can add - the key thing with studying race is to assume it has only a cultural reality. Race has no scientific validity. Racial divisions have no scientific validity. Race cannot be reduced to questions of visual difference, because what visual differences count, and for whom, are themselves culturally determined. This is not to say that race doesn't "exist." Cultural things have real consequences. But the notion that 'real' race is a matter of, say, skin color, or that race that be divided neatly from religious difference, is itself a cultural move. Basically, one effect of the critical study of race is to realize that most dominant ways of talking about race don't adequately recognize the cultural work that went into forming these supposedly 'natural' divisions

Kamela said...

Unknown - thanks for the placement of the sources on that. I think it's disingenuous, though, as Sierra's post makes clear, to suggest that race had nothing to do with these conflicts: while the Muslim part was perhaps more important overall, I would note that the commonality between the different ethnicities (a different category still from race) you mentioned is that they're all darker-skinned people. I find it hard to believe that the medieval mind didn't differentiate between the physical characteristics of their enemies and judge them inferior on that basis.

Karl Steel - thanks for this, and I'm aware - race is totally a cultural construct, with unfortunately very wide-ranging actual consequences, as you say. I'm only suggesting - as I have in the above paragraph - that it's hard to imagine that the medieval mind didn't notice and judge people who looked different from them and were solely, or even primarily, concerned with religious differences.

Karl Steel said...

I've written a bit more about it here and here, and Jeffrey and I have written something together here.

In re: notice and judge - definitely, people did. I would just say that the question of what counts as 'looking different' differed, as did the notion of the separability of religion from what someone looked like (one of my pieces above talks about the way that late medieval English Christians sometimes held that Jews were either darker or lighter than "usual"). basically, compared to the modern era, skin color was not THE key mode of making difference. Here's one more interesting cite from a ninth-century Syrian scholar

"et ideo fiunt virtutes animae imprimis imperfectiores et debiliores in mulieribus, et similer fit in gentibus, in quarum complexione vincit calor et frigus propter proprinquitatem earum ad solem vel earum longituidenm ab eo, ut sunt Aethiopes et solani et eorum consimiles“
Qusta ibn Luqa (in Latin, Costa ben Luca) The Book of Differences of Souls and Spirits, translated by John of Spain
"and therefore it happens that the virtues of the soul are imprinted less perfectly and more weakly in women, and similarly with people in which heat and cold bind/defeat their complexion [a technical term meaning the "balance of the qualities of hot, wet, cold, and dry" ] because of their closeness to the sun or their distance from it, as with Ethiopians and 'solani' and suchlike people." [in a better manuscript, instead of 'solani,' it reads "longe distare a sole uel uicinare ... ut sclavi et mauri” [a long distance from the sun or close to it ... like Slavs and Moors] [sorry! I don't have the manuscript handy!]

Basic point is to suspend our modern notions of significant difference to look more closely at the various ways difference was constructed and worked back then.

Jeb said...


It can't just be a case of suspending our modern notions but working out exactly what they are.

Research on the relationship between prejudice, race and social class categorizations for example.

"their professors whom they look up to"

I think this is something to consider and think about very carefully in any argument here.

Conception of class bias is based on the notion that individuals prefer to interact with others of equal or higher status. Looking up or down is a standard means of sterotyping here.

The role and relationship between class prejudice, personal attitudes and stereotyping recieves far less attention than the subject deserves.


Anonymous said...

We need to first ask "from whose gaze is the world being seen?" Is the question not already clear from your periodization - "Global Medieval Studies"? How in the world is Medieval Studies global? The periodization would itself form an oxymoron. You trap yourself by discussing a subject from the vantage of a European bowl into which you have already jumped. And I gaze upon you from the broader perspective above, shaking my head: "Serves her right, but she meant well nonetheless!"

Anonymous said...

Oops, my bad. Sorry about the silly 'bowl' metaphor: it makes me sound like I'm having breakfast, and you're the cereal. That's just weird, and I admit that.

And now I've done the preliminary digging that I should have done before I left my comment, and, what do you know, the modifier 'medieval' is commonly used by scholars for a number of regions outside Europe! I guess I should have checked this or this or this. Oops!

Dot Porter said...

Sierra, thanks so much for this piece, which I'm only reading now. I am the organizer of the medieval manuscript conference in which the tattoo artist and the game designer presented, and I will admit that I was surprised by some of what came up in that panel: I didn't know that Celtic tattoos are popular in white supremacist circles (that was a disappointing shock), and although I've played Ortus Regni I hadn't noticed the whiteness and maleness of the game (I just thought, "cool, medieval!") I was glad for the discussion, because I certainly learned some important truths, and if I could do it again I may have invited different speakers. I may have said something during Q&A myself, I don't know. I'll certainly be more thoughtful in the future. The entire session and the Q&A period following was actually recorded, and I note that the videos aren't public yet but will be made public soon. This isn't something I want to shy away from, certainly. ANYWAY, I agree that it's vital for us as medievalists to push back against the white supremacist fetishization of the medieval period, and I am sorry that I contributed to it.

Sierra Lomuto said...

Hi Dot, thanks for reading the piece and for your thoughtful comment. The connection between the medieval and white supremacy is a harsh reality for medievalists, myself included, because it means that we have to not only work against fueling that connection outside of academia, but also ensure that those misconceptions are not brought back in where they can negatively impact our own community where we want to foster a culture of inclusion for students and colleagues of color. I'm really appreciative of the library's video record and your willingness to share it online. I went back and watched it just now and this time (with some emotional distance) I was able to better appreciate just how much pushback the game designer received from two of our colleagues. It's that kind of pushback (immediate and insistent) that effects change on these kinds of problems. It was just unfortunate that it had to be two medievalists of color to do it.

I also really appreciated Bruce Holsinger's follow-up question to the tattoo artist, which, watching it again, I caught just how forceful and precise he was with his question. He asked her, quite explicitly, whether she had white nationalist clients. Of course she said no (through some dissembling), but she also said she didn't care if she did and proceeded to defend the European reclamation of the swastika. It's too bad that there was no follow up to Holsinger's act of allyship for both the people of color in the room and the field in general. But these kinds of changes happen over time and we can't expect them to materialize overnight. I think the wide reach that this post has had since December speaks very clearly that we are moving in the right direction and we are taking these issues seriously. In a Trump America, there's really no other option.