White Supremacy and Medieval History: A Brief Overview

Sarah Luginbill is a doctoral candidate in medieval history at the University of Colorado Boulder. Her dissertation, “Portable Altars, Devotion, and Memory in Lower Saxony, 1050-1190 CE,” examines the patronage and use of medieval portable altars in German lands. Follow her on Twitter @salu1292 and learn more about her research at medievalportablealtars.wordpress.com.

Medieval Europe was never a homogenous place. Image from the Catalan Atlas, 1375 (Bibliothèque Nationale de France).

[Content warning: this post contains references to, and quotes of, antisemitism, Islamophobia, and racism]

In May 2017, a white supremacist attacked train passengers with a knife in Portland, claiming to do so on behalf of Vinland (the 10th-century Viking name for North America). A white supremacist at the 2017 Charlottesville rally was known for making racist statements in medieval history classes at the University of Reno, while other Charlottesville marchers “held symbols of the medieval Holy Roman Empire and of the Knights Templar.”[1] Former white nationalist Derek Black purposefully studied medieval European history in college.[2] In 2019, the Christchurch mosque shooter labelled his gun with medieval European names and dates, including that of Charles Martel, who allegedly defeated a Muslim army at Tours in 732.[3]

It’s no secret: white supremacists love medieval European history.[4]

For the last several years, neo-Nazis and hate groups across the globe have co-opted and twisted various aspects of the Middle Ages to serve their own agendas. At the core of this “history-based” white supremacist argument is the idea that Europe should return to its “medieval” origins as an all-white and all-Christian entity. But medieval Europe was never a homogenous place and acting like it was fuels modern violence done in pursuit of a fantasized and false “purity.”[5]

“There was never a time when Europe was exclusively white-populated and had no contact with other parts of the world.”[6] Indeed, people of color and non-Christians lived, integrated, and thrived throughout medieval Europe. There is an increasing amount of historical, archaeological, and biological scholarship that corroborates this.[7]

This isn’t “revisionist history.” It’s setting the record straight—a record that, until now, has been controlled by misogynistic, racist, colonialist, and heteronormative editing. The content that we teach in history classrooms, that fills coffee-table books and popular documentaries, is the product of 19th– and 20th-century individuals who crafted the Euro-centric narrative of “Western Civilization.”[8] Modern medievalists aren’t rewriting history to make a political statement: we’re uncovering the nuances and voices that have been silenced by the traditional canon and challenging the misuses of the medieval past.

White supremacists who believe medieval Europe was all-white cling to the notion of a pure “Anglo-Saxon” race: a (fantasized) masculine, warrior culture loosely based on the inhabitants of early medieval England.[9] The moniker “Anglo-Saxon” has become a dog whistle for white supremacists in North America, Australia, and Europe, leading several scholars of Old English and early medieval England to push for new terminology across academia. It’s a shift that needs to happen, as champions of a mythologized “Anglo-Saxon” past are vehemently anti-immigration and pro-white. On a post discussing the term “Anglo-Saxon,” one commenter stated, “The truth is that we didn’t need migrants to make us great and we still don’t… homogeneity is the best social strategy for social cohesion and survival.”[10] This type of rhetoric is used to justify racial and religious violence. It’s an idealized past for a fantasized future, both of which exclude minorities and non-Christians.

Pride in a “pure” medieval past overlaps with modern antisemitism, and white supremacists look to the periodic massacres of Jewish communities and the 1290 expulsion of Jews from England as a model for post-Brexit Britain.[11] One Twitter user, commenting on a post about early English brooches, declared that the current debate over the term “Anglo-Saxon” wouldn’t end “unless all Joos [sic] are kicked out. Find someone saying anti white propeganda [sic] & 8/10 times it’s a Joo [sic].”[12]

But medieval-based antisemitism isn’t restricted to England. The modern far-right Spanish group, Vox, uses the rhetoric of the Reconquista to argue for the removal of Jews and Muslims from Spain. Modern Islamophobia across the Americas and Europe pulls false narratives from the crusades to “justify” Western, Christian violence against Muslims. But some white supremacists go even further, using the language of the crusades as a rallying cry against anything deemed anti-Christian. As recently as January 2020, a teenager spray-painted the phrase “Deus Vult” (Latin for “God wills it”—the alleged cry of early crusaders) on a Planned Parenthood in Delaware, which he subsequently bombed.[13]

Some medievalists have attempted to address the distorted version of medieval Europe that appears in most fantasy books, movies, TV shows, and video games, but medieval studies itself presents part of the problem. Medieval studies has always been dominated by white scholars, and white supremacists believe that medieval European history is only for white scholars and send hate mail and death threats to medievalists of color. And while some white medievalists try to tackle the white supremacist appropriations of the medieval past, they do little to acknowledge the inherent racism of the field itself. Within academia, white scholars direct radicalized right-wingers to harass medievalists of color, openly mock medievalists of color on public platforms, and plagiarize their work and ideas.[14] White supremacists see their own ideals reflected in the very fabric of the scholarship they encounter.[15]

While historians may intend for their scholarship and teaching to be neutral, harmless, and non-political, we cannot control how white supremacists may (mis)appropriate our terminology, research, and outreach. History is not and has never been neutral. Don’t let things slide because they seem harmless. As Jonathan Hsy writes, “Toxic medievalism [devotion to medieval history] has real consequences (physical, financial, social, and psychological), and work on race and medievalism should center targets of toxic medievalism, not just examine white intentions (malicious or benevolent).”[16] We have to anticipate how our lectures, assignments, sources, blogposts, and Twitter threads might support the white supremacist agenda. And then we have to do something about it.

 

Bibliography & Further Reading:

Cachero, Paulina. “A man with white supremacist ties vandalized a Planned Parenthood with medieval memes — here’s why experts say that’s ‘terrifying’.” The Insider. January 8, 2020. https://www.insider.com/teen-accused-of-firebombing-planned-parenthood-allegedly-used-medieval-symbols-2020-1.

Chazan, Robert. “The Arc of Jewish Life in the Middle Ages.” The Public Medievalist (blog). September 26, 2017. https://www.publicmedievalist.com/arc-of-jewish-life/.

Dockray-Miller, Mary. “Old English Has a Serious Image Problem.” JSTOR Daily. May 3, 2017. https://daily.jstor.org/old-english-serious-image-problem/.

Elliott, Andrew B.R. “A Vile Love Affair: Right Wing Nationalism and the Middle Ages.” The Public Medievalist (blog). February 14, 2017. https://www.publicmedievalist.com/vile-love-affair/.

Gabriele, Matthew. “Islamophobes want to recreate the Crusades. But they don’t understand them at all.” The Washington Post. June 6, 2017. https://www.washingtonpost.com/posteverything/wp/2017/06/06/islamophobes-want-to-recreate-the-crusades-but-they-dont-understand-them-at-all.

Gabriele, Matthew and Mary Rambaran-Olm. “The Middle Ages Have Been Misused by the Far Right. Here’s Why It’s So Important to Get Medieval History Right.” Time. November 21, 2019. https://time.com/5734697/middle-ages-mistakes/.

Heng, Geraldine. The Invention of Race in the European Middle Ages. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2018.

Hsy, Jonathan. “Antiracist Medievalisms: Lessons from Chinese Exclusion.” In the Middle (blog). February 16, 2018. http://www.inthemedievalmiddle.com/2018/02/antiracist-medievalisms-lessons-from.html.

Kim, Dorothy. “The Question of Race in Beowulf.” JSTOR Daily. September 25, 2019. https://daily.jstor.org/the-question-of-race-in-beowulf.

Kim, Dorothy. “Teaching Medieval Studies in a Time of White Supremacy.” In the Middle (blog). August 28, 2017. http://www.inthemedievalmiddle.com/2017/08/teaching-medieval-studies-in-time-of.html.

Kim, Dorothy. “The Unbearable Whiteness of Medieval Studies.” In the Middle (blog). November 10, 2016. http://www.inthemedievalmiddle.com/2016/11/the-unbearable-whiteness-of-medieval.html.

Kim, Dorothy. “White Supremacists have Weaponized an Imaginary Viking Past. It’s Time to Reclaim the Real History.” Time. April 15, 2019. https://time.com/5569399/viking-history-white-nationalists/.

Little, Becky. “How Hate Groups are Hijacking Medieval Symbols While Ignoring the Facts Behind Them.” History.com. September 3, 2018. https://www.history.com/news/how-hate-groups-are-hijacking-medieval-symbols-while-ignoring-the-facts-behind-them.

Livingstone, Josephine. “Racism, Medievalism, and the White Supremacists of Charlottesville.” The New Republic. August 15, 2017. https://newrepublic.com/article/144320/racism-medievalism-white-supremacists-charlottesville.

Lomuto, Sierra. “Public Medievalism and the Rigor of Anti-Racist Critique.” In the Middle (blog). April 4, 2019. http://www.inthemedievalmiddle.com/2019/04/public-medievalism-and-rigor-of-anti.html.

Lomuto, Sierra. “White Nationalism and the Ethics of Medieval Studies.” In the Middle (blog). December 5, 2019. inthemedievalmiddle.com/2016/12/white-nationalism-and-ethics-of/.

Olusoga, David. “Black people have had a presence in our history for centuries. Get over it.” The Guardian. August 12, 2017. https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2017/aug/12/black-people-presence-in-british-history-for-centuries.

Perry, David. “How to Fight 8chan Medievalism – and Why We Must.” Pacific Standard. June 27, 2019. https://psmag.com/ideas/how-to-fight-8chan-medievalism-and-why-we-must-notre-dame-christchurch.

Perry, David. “What to Do When Nazis are Obsessed with Your Field.” Pacific Standard. September 6, 2017. https://psmag.com/education/nazis-love-taylor-swift-and-also-the-crusades.

Perry, David. “White supremacists love Vikings. But they’ve got history all wrong.” The Washington Post. May 31, 2017. https://www.washingtonpost.com/posteverything/wp/2017/05/31/white-supremacists-love-vikings-but-theyve-got-history-all-wrong/.

Rambaran-Olm, Mary. “Anglo-Saxon Studies [Early English Studies], Academia and White Supremacy.” Medium. June 27, 2018. https://medium.com/@mrambaranolm/anglo-saxon-studies-academia-and-white-supremacy-17c87b360bf3.

Saslow, Eli. “The White Flight of Derek Black.” The Washington Post. October 15, 2016. https://www.washingtonpost.com/national/the-white-flight-of-derek-black/2016/10/15/ed5f906a-8f3b-11e6-a6a3-d50061aa9fae_story.html.

Truitt, E.R. “Fantasy North.” Aeon. February 15, 2016. https://aeon.co/essays/what-lies-beneath-the-ice-of-our-fascination-with-the-north.

Whitaker, Cord J. “Game of Thrones’ Peasants are a Problem of White Supremacy – and It’s Victims, too.” In the Middle (blog). May 19, 2019. http://www.inthemedievalmiddle.com/2019/05/game-of-thrones-peasants-are-problem-of.html.

Whitaker, Cord J. “Race-ing the Dragon: the Middle Ages, race and trippin’ into the future.” postmedieval 6:1 (2015).

Young, Helen. “Re-making The Real Middle Ages (TM).” In the Middle (blog). August 21, 2014. http://www.inthemedievalmiddle.com/2014/08/re-making-real-middle-ages.html.

Young, Helen. “White Supremacists love the Middle Ages.” In the Middle (blog). August 16, 2017. http://www.inthemedievalmiddle.com/2017/08/white-supremacists-love-middle-ages.html.

Further Resources

Websites:

blackcentraleurope.com

globalmiddleages.org

medievalpoc.tumblr.com

medievalistsofcolor.com

publicmedievalist.com

A crowd-sourced bibliography on race and medieval studies: https://docs.google.com/document/d/18JClsma1BMKYCxvgeWqwPej3ZSCrQXlAlXbL0CdqWmE/edit?usp=sharing

Edited volumes/collections:

Literature Compass Special Issue: Critical Race and the Middle Ages. Volume 16, Issue 9-10 (September-October 2019).

postmedieval: The Ghosts of the Nineteenth Century and the Future of Medieval Studies. Volume 10, issue 2 (June 2019).

Whose Middle Ages? Teachable Moments for an Ill-Used Past, edited by Albin, Erler, O’Donnell, Paul, and Rowe (New York: Fordham University Press, 2019).


[1] David Perry, “What to Do When Nazis are Obsessed with Your Field,” Pacific Standard (September 6, 2017), https://psmag.com/education/nazis-love-taylor-swift-and-also-the-crusades. I would like to thank Dr. Mary Rambaran-Olm for her feedback on an early draft of this post.

[2] Dorothy Kim, “White Supremacists have Weaponized an Imaginary Viking Past. It’s Time to Reclaim the Real History,” Time (April 15, 2019), https://time.com/5569399/viking-history-white-nationalists/; David Perry, “White supremacists love Vikings. But they’ve got history all wrong,” The Washington Post (May 31, 2017), https://www.washingtonpost.com/posteverything/wp/2017/05/31/white-supremacists-love-vikings-but-theyve-got-history-all-wrong/; Eli Saslow, “The White Flight of Derek Black,” The Washington Post (October 15, 2016), https://www.washingtonpost.com/national/the-white-flight-of-derek-black/2016/10/15/ed5f906a-8f3b-11e6-a6a3-d50061aa9fae_story.html.

[3] As Megan Cassidy-Welch and others have pointed out, there was no actual Arab invasion, no “France” in 732, and no “Christendom” or “The West” for Charles Martel to defend (via Twitter, March 21, 2019).

[4] I’m not the first person to notice or write on this. See: Andrew B.R. Elliott, “A Vile Love Affair: Right Wing Nationalism and the Middle Ages,” The Public Medievalist (February 14, 2017), https://www.publicmedievalist.com/vile-love-affair/; Matthew Gabriele and Mary Rambaran-Olm, “The Middle Ages Have Been Misused by the Far Right. Here’s Why It’s So Important to Get Medieval History Right,” Time (November 21, 2019), https://time.com/5734697/middle-ages-mistakes/; and Becky Little, “How Hate Groups are Hijacking Medieval Symbols While Ignoring the Facts Behind Them,” History.com (September 3, 2018), https://www.history.com/news/how-hate-groups-are-hijacking-medieval-symbols-while-ignoring-the-facts-behind-them.

[5] It’s important to note that this post offers the briefest foray into the modern misappropriations of medieval history by looking at the issues of race and religion, but this is just the tip of the iceberg. Lots of current homophobia, transphobia, exclusionism, and hate-rhetoric are embedded in a fantasized Middle Ages.

[6] medievalpoc.tumblr.com

[7] See https://blackcentraleurope.com and https://medievalpoc.tumblr.com. Also, David Olusoga, “Black people have had a presence in our history for centuries. Get over it,” The Guardian (August 12, 2017), https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2017/aug/12/black-people-presence-in-british-history-for-centuries.

[8] For more on how medieval history has been constructed alongside nationalist agendas, see Carol Symes. “Medievalism, White Supremacy, and the Historian’s Craft,” AHA Today (November 2, 2017), https://www.historians.org/publications-and-directories/perspectives-on-history/november-2017/medievalism-white-supremacy-and-the-historians-craft.

[9] The phrase “Anglo-Saxon” is present throughout early American racist writings Mary Dockray-Miller, “Old English Has a Serious Image Problem.” JSTOR Daily. May 3, 2017. https://daily.jstor.org/old-english-serious-image-problem/.

[10] Screenshot taken by Mary Rambaran-Olm, October 17, 2019.

[11] For more on modern antisemitism and its medieval precedents, see: Robert Chazan, “The Arc of Jewish Life in the Middle Ages,” The Public Medievalist (September 26, 2017), https://www.publicmedievalist.com/arc-of-jewish-life/; and Geraldine Heng, The Invention of Race in the European Middle Ages (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2018).

[12] Screenshot taken by Erik Wade, Oct. 22, 2019. Another individual, under the moniker “Valkyrie Hildr,” commented on a live Youtube stream about the Anglo-Saxon terminology, “This people, treacherous hybrids and jeows have to be dealt with asap” (screenshot taken by Erik Wade, Oct. 29, 2019).

[13] Paulina Cachero, “A man with white supremacist ties vandalized a Planned Parenthood with medieval memes — here’s why experts say that’s ‘terrifying’,” The Insider (January 8, 2020), https://www.insider.com/teen-accused-of-firebombing-planned-parenthood-allegedly-used-medieval-symbols-2020-1. See also Matthew Gabriele, “Islamophobes want to recreate the Crusades. But they don’t understand them at all,” The Washington Post (June 6, 2017), https://www.washingtonpost.com/posteverything/wp/2017/06/06/islamophobes-want-to-recreate-the-crusades-but-they-dont-understand-them-at-all.

[14] Recent upheavals in the field of medieval history have received media attention, but these reports usually suffer from both-sideism and do nothing to address the real issues at stake. I have, therefore, chosen not to link such blogs or pseudo-journalistic takes. There is no place for pettiness, deflection, or personal vendettas when it comes to discussing anti-racist behavior and pedagogy.

[15] “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” Sierra Lomuto, “Public Medievalism and the Rigor of Anti-Racist Critique,” In the Middle (April 4, 2019), http://www.inthemedievalmiddle.com/2019/04/public-medievalism-and-rigor-of-anti.html. See also Dorothy Kim, “The Unbearable Whiteness of Medieval Studies,” In the Middle (November 10, 2016), http://www.inthemedievalmiddle.com/2016/11/the-unbearable-whiteness-of-medieval.html; and Mary Rambaran-Olm, “Anglo-Saxon Studies [Early English Studies], Academia and White Supremacy,” Medium (June 27, 2018), https://medium.com/@mrambaranolm/anglo-saxon-studies-academia-and-white-supremacy-17c87b360bf3.

[16] Jonathan Hsy, “Antiracist Medievalisms: Lessons from Chinese Exclusion,” In the Middle (February 16, 2018), http://www.inthemedievalmiddle.com/2018/02/antiracist-medievalisms-lessons-from.html. “What will you do to make sure that students don’t imagine that if they take a medieval studies class it will be a lesson in the centrality of white nationalism?” Dorothy Kim, “The Unbearable Whiteness of Medieval Studies,” In the Middle (November 10, 2016), http://www.inthemedievalmiddle.com/2016/11/the-unbearable-whiteness-of-medieval.html.

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