Along with mainstream white America, Medieval Studies has undergone a racial awakening over the last few years, as the Trump presidency has emboldened and even sanctioned a rise in openly avowed white nationalism. The recent massacre against a Muslim community in Christchurch, New Zealand—Ōtautahi, Aotearoa—is the latest devastating example of white terrorism, where the shooter praised the U.S. president and was nearly condoned by an Australian senator. And as we have seen the racist medievalism in the terrorist’s manifesto, those of us who work in Medieval Studies have once again found ourselves confronted with the sinister links between our work and white supremacy. As a scholar of medieval literature, I know it is my responsibility to think about these connections, something I have urged my colleagues to do as well. And as we do, we can’t ultimately look past how whiteness inheres within the very construct of the medieval, and how Medieval Studies as a thing in itself poses a problem for all of us who believe in social and racial justice.
“Medieval” refers specifically to the historical period between the fall of the Roman Empire and the Renaissance, a temporal construct that is inextricably tied to the spatial construct of Western Europe. And just as Western Europe has been constructed through (what bell hooks has so incisively named) the imperialist white-supremacist capitalist patriarchy, so too does the “medieval” carry this valence of power. It comes as no surprise, then, that for white supremacists, the “medieval” furnishes a heritage site for whiteness. Within their ideology, medieval imagery such as the Othala Rune, Tyr Rune, and Celtic Crosses serve as symbols that aim to transform that whiteness from an oppressive power structure into a cultural and ethnic heritage. They then assert this whiteness as a vulnerable identity under attack, one that needs protection from what they see as the genocidal threat of multiculturalism. For example, at the deadly Unite the Right rally in August 2017, where white supremacists converged in the name of protecting “white heritage” (specifically, to keep the Robert E. Lee statue from being taken down), the Othala Rune appeared prominently on many banners. This pan-Germanic runic letter means heritage and inheritance, particularly in relation to homeland. It has been appropriated as a white supremacist symbol since the 1930s, and it became the official symbol of the Prinz Eugen wing of the Nazi party in Croatia. Today, it is featured heavily within white supremacist circles. Not only did we see it at Charlottesville, but it is also a common tattoo and has even been commercialized.
One company sells numerous products branded with various white supremacist symbols, including medieval ones, such as shirts and buttons with the Othala rune, a Thor hammer with runes on it, and a shirt with a Celtic cross overlaid on the Confederate flag. The company’s tagline, “It’s not illegal to be white…yet,” reflects the myth of white genocide. At the same time, the accompanying logo is a white hand holding a noose, explicitly referencing the socially sanctioned extrajudicial killings of black people. We can see clearly how they present white violence as a justified necessity. These same ideologies motivated the Christchurch terrorist attack and informed the Australian senator’s tirade that seemed to endorse it.
This connection between the medieval and white supremacy is not new, and in fact the Christchurch terrorist cites inspiration from another white terrorist with racist medievalist fantasies. The events in Charlottesville, however, struck the loudest wake-up call for most academic medievalists. After Charlottesville, in what felt like an overnight turn, a field that had previously shunned discussions of race and racism became hungry for them. Over the last year and a half, we have seen an immense proliferation of conference sessions, symposia, think pieces, new dissertations, and new courses on both the whiteness of Medieval Studies and the racist appropriation of the “medieval” beyond academia. In a powerful essay about Anglo-Saxon Studies, in particular, Mary Rambaran-Olm describes the racism that has pushed many scholars of color out of the field, and academia in general.
There has also emerged a particular form of public medievalist discourse that focuses primarily on correcting racist misconceptions about the Middle Ages. While certainly useful, as it provides the public with an important education and demonstrates why studying the distant past still matters in the present, this work has largely been missing the rigor of anti-racist critique. Unfortunately, in one of the only published critiques of this work I’ve seen, a bravado of white masculinity prevented any chance of raising this issue for a productive public conversation. In fact, in the social media debate that followed Sam Fallon’s harsh Chronicle of Higher Ed article, it was difficult to see past all the mansplaining whiteness on both sides until Jenny Tan cut right through it in a brilliant twitter thread that named the problem for what it is: “white progressive self-importance that is really more about self-promotion than social or political principle.” Tan trenchantly elaborates on this point in another thread, where she describes precisely the kind of white ally-ship dominating public medievalist discourse.
The most popular example of this kind of work is The Public Medievalist’s series “Race, Racism, and the Middle Ages.” The series seems to approach the racist appropriation of the medieval as an external problem out there that threatens an innocent love for the medieval past. In other words, the series aims to reclaim the medieval past from white supremacists—placing it back in the hands of academic medievalists and cosplayers who hold a non-racist love for the medieval. There’s nothing particularly wrong with this aim, and it is certainly understandable, as no decent person wants to be associated with the same things as white supremacists. But this approach can inadvertently lead to a protection of white innocence rather than an anti-racist intervention. Of course, not all of the essays in the series reflect this type of scaffolding: for example, essays by Helen Young, Matthew Vernon, and Eric Weiskott (and certainly others) clearly frame their analyses of racist medievalisms through a framework informed by critical race studies. On the whole, however, the series is too invested in the innocence of good white people to see its own limitations for productive anti-racist critique.
In one particular essay about how we can hold onto medieval symbols that have been misappropriated, the author (likely unwittingly) defends racism—at least, the accidental kind. He suggests that these symbols can be saved by both signaling their non-racist meaning and learning to identify when they are wielded with racist intent or not; or, in cases where you can’t tell, to offer the benefit of the doubt to the bearer of the symbol. This argument necessarily centers white viewers who have the luxury—the privilege—of caring about intent when it comes to racism. In a series explicitly about opposing racism, it seems astounding that we would find an essay so irresponsibly protecting accidental racists. But it becomes less surprising when we glimpse the contributor list and see that it is nearly all white, or when we view the poster that captures the overall tenor of the series. The poster is clearly not informed by critical race studies, and it even praises “melting pot” societies—a problematic concept that is not about inclusion, but rather the assimilation of non-white cultures into white dominance. I called out the problem with this language on Facebook, and they subsequently revised it to “multicultural societies” for the version they now sell on their website (without signaling the rationale for the change, and thus profiting off the constructive feedback of people of color without acknowledging our labor), and I do wonder about their critical awareness of multiculturalism as well. The “melting pot” is about erasure; so in a twisted sense, the poster captures precisely how this series can erase people of color—both our bodies and our intellectual output—from its discourse on race and racism, while congratulating itself for doing good anti-racist work.
Even though the series editors are not race scholars or activists, or even scholars of color with experiential knowledge about racism, many medievalists turn to them as expert sources on how to teach race in their classrooms. Why does Medieval Studies accept non-experts as its leaders in this work? As race and racism have become trendy topics among medievalists, white (and predominantly male) medievalists have jumped on the bandwagon, claiming expertise they have not earned, and too many in the field sanction them—but why? It seems too simplistic to point to the patriarchal whiteness of Medieval Studies itself for an answer, but that is where we can find it: white men have always held the most authority in our field; and so, it seems, the field turns to them for leadership even in conversations about race and racism. How different would this series have been if its editors recognized their own lack of expertise on the topic they sought to promote? Perhaps they would have built a platform where black feminist theories, queer of color critiques, and other methodologies generally absent in Medieval Studies could begin to inform our analyses of racist uses of the Middle Ages. Instead, The Public Medievalist and our field gives us more whiteness, more white feelings, and more white supremacy even as we are told these are the things they are fighting against.
Racism is about the structural ways in which people of color, and particularly black and indigenous peoples, have been disenfranchised by various forms of violence and oppression. Anti-racist strategies for correcting racist appropriations must necessarily address structural change within the institutions that have facilitated not only racist appropriations, but also the conditions that produce white terrorism in the first place. Andrew Elliott has argued that “as medievalists we ought to refocus our attention away from the direct referent of a given medievalism, and onto the context in which it is used as well as the mechanism by which that medievalism is disseminated” (3). The historical accuracy of the referent isn’t what matters: what matters are the conditions and contexts surrounding the referent in our own time. Disrupting the narrative of a white Middle Ages protects Medieval Studies from accusations of racism, but it does little to address racism itself. In other words, as we assert that medievalists don’t only study and promote the histories of white people, we also overlook how we do promote whiteness through the disciplinary construct of the “medieval.”
Seeta Chaganti’s essays for Public Books about both the Trump administration and the Confederate monuments, Jonathan Hsy’s essay about antiracist medievalism and the Chinese Exclusion Act, as well as Peter Baker’s reflections post-Charlottesville on the Medievalists of Color blog, give us excellent examples of public medievalist scholarship that does serve anti-racism. These pieces not only center people of color in their discussions (a bare minimum expectation), but also recognize the complexity of our experiences with race and racism, as well as accurately identify white supremacy as a power structure that doesn’t merely reside within the hearts and minds of individuals, but within oppressive institutions that thrive on everyday, insidious racial violence.
Significant strides have been made toward institutional equity over the past few years, notably in the Medieval Academy of America, which instituted a Diversity & Inclusivity Committee last year. Their recent annual conference took the theme “The Global Turn,” deliberately breaking away from its more traditional program, which has been known for its emphasis on Western European and Christian history. Yet, strikingly absent from their line-up of keynote speakers, new fellow inductions, and prestigious award winners were scholars of color. A name most glaringly absent from these lists was Geraldine Heng, an early founder of Global Medieval Studies whose voice in the field has also provided necessary critiques regarding its political implications. But of course progress takes time and we can’t expect overnight change. The field has shown a genuine concern about its link to white nationalist movements, and even a central institution like the MAA is mobilizing toward solutions.
Medieval Studies is investing energy and resources into inclusivity initiatives, and it is certainly about time. But we must not confuse the institutionalization of diversity work with anti-racist or decolonizing work. The former protects the institution—in this case, Medieval Studies—whereas the latter would tear it down.
The overwhelming whiteness of the field and the public appropriation of the medieval by white supremacists are undoubtedly related to how the field has been formulated. Sometimes too much focus is put on distinguishing ourselves from them out there so that we can allow white supremacy to be seen as something existing outside of ourselves, as if white supremacy were not something we uphold in the institutions we serve. Describing this dynamic, Sara Ahmed has written, “The reduction of racism to the figure of ‘the racist’ allows structural or institutional forms of racism to recede from view, by projecting racism onto a figure that is easily discarded (not only as someone who is ‘not me’ but also as someone who is ‘not us,’ who does not represent a cultural or institutional norm)” (150). It may be that a field like Medieval Studies as such needs to be dismantled and something else in its stead built up from the ground. Geraldine Heng, as a founder of the concept and someone who has thought about the “global medieval” for decades, has suggested we move toward “early globalities” as an alternative, thereby shedding a restrictive Eurocentric term when studying an interconnected past. And, as Adam Miyashiro has explained—it really is about time that scholars stop using the blatantly white supremacist settler colonial terms "Anglo-Saxon" and "Anglo-Saxonist" to describe themselves and their work.
If we want to be anti-racist, we need to start thinking more radically about how we can reformulate our field in our teaching, graduate training, and public outreach. These priorities will necessarily require institutional change, and may even mean leaving behind this thing we currently call Medieval Studies.
Thanks to Leila K. Norako, the other editors and co-bloggers of In the Middle, Mary Rambaran-Olm, and Adam Miyashiro for their excellent feedback on this essay.
|Sierra Lomuto is an Assistant Professor of English at Macalester College, where she also currently holds a Consortium for Faculty Diversity Postdoctoral Fellowship. She earned her PhD in 2018 from the University of Pennsylvania.|