Medievalists are often more focused on days gone by than current events. But with white supremacists employing the rhetoric of the Round Table, some scholars are laying siege to these problematic appropriations of the Middle Ages.
“To see these racist, ignorant idiots taking what I love and mutilating it for a morally corrupt purpose, I have been personally offended,” said Lesley Professor Mary Dockray-Miller. But this tendency is nothing new: her latest book, “Public Medievalists, Racism, and Suffrage in the American Women’s College,” examines the use and misuse of medievalism in the 19th century.
In January, Dockray-Miller moderated a panel at Mahindra Humanities Center of Harvard University on a similar topic, titled “The Faking of the Middle Ages.” The panel of medieval scholars shared its observations of the alt-right’s use of ancient symbols and culture to promote white dominance — from shields adorned with Roman insignia to praise for feudalism.
“There are these horrible people who are trying to appropriate this subject in really insidious ways. We, as consumers of that, need to become aware of it,” Dockray-Miller said after the panel.
Middle Ages for the new millennium
Among the problems with their view of the Middle Ages, said panel member and Wellesley College Assistant Professor Cord Whitaker, is that white supremacists want to hold up an “inflexible hierarchy” bereft of social mobility: serfs are happy to remain in lowly service and royalty reign. Of course, these supremacists unfailingly view themselves as members of the ruling class, with minorities the stand-ins for serfs.
The alt-right also misappropriates black and white imagery in ancient texts as a contrast between sinfulness and purity. The conjecture, said Whitaker, is that “white people bear within themselves the supposed innocence of the age.”
That’s not such an easy dichotomy to parse in medieval texts or culture, he explained.
While many stories uphold the imagery of a dark or black character as evil, the tropes are sometimes reversed “to produce in the Western European reader a sense of guilt.” A supposedly pure white character is shown to be corrupt while the black character is revealed as morally superior. Many texts also depict the three magi as black. And while not a happy character, John Lydgate’s Chaucer-inspired “Black Knight” is pitiable but not evil.
Another panelist, Princeton Professor Patrick Geary, noted that the current perspective on medievalism isn’t merely problematic: it can “literally be a matter of life and death,” with faulty views of the Middle Ages leading to violence at home and abroad.
In Europe, Geary said a “favorite trope” is to link the Barbarian invasions with the refugee crisis, viewing “the other” as a marauding enemy. Also problematic are progressives who want to promote the Middle Ages as an idealistic period of multicultural harmony and collaboration.
“The medieval past was not, and should not be, a blueprint for the future,” warned Geary.
Much of these ideas have their origins in the way medievalism was taught in the colleges and universities of the 1800s – romanticizing the myths of knights and ladies, fostering a doctrine of male primacy and promoting the idea of a superior race descended from northern European lineage.
The examples are more subtle than white supremacists’ carrying shields at the Charlottesville rally. Following the discussion at Harvard, Dockray-Miller offered the example of “Beowulf.”
“There were a lot of articles and editions of ‘Beowulf,’ for example, that celebrated its Germanic (white) heritage, and we can figure that implicit racism made its way into classroom lectures but [we] don't know that for sure.”
Yet the 19th century view of medievalism wasn’t all bad. In her new book, Dockray-Miller discusses how the women’s suffrage movement made Joan of Arc its icon.
An article in the New York Times even called her “the original suffragette.”
“That kind of more positive appropriation of the Middle Ages has not happened in this culture and this climate and the world of Charlottesville,” Dockray-Miller said.
When possible, she broaches the subject of the real Middle Ages with her students, trying to dig beneath an idealized King Arthur to other aspects of medieval history and literature. She also has an active Twitter feed.
“Even in this sort of hyper social media space, we’re still only talking to the people who already agree with us,” said Dockray-Miller.
She acknowledged that it’s difficult to find a space to engage with those who keep faking the Middle Ages, though she and other medievalists will keep trying.
“How do we engage in dialog and not talk at people who disagree with us in a civil and productive manner? If we could answer that question, we could solve a lot of problems.”