St. Maurice and the Eagle

This post comes almost two years too late, but this falsehood has shown a remarkable tenacity:

Background: the “Unite the Right” rally, held in Charlottesville, Virginia on August 12, 2017 really unnerved a lot of people. Whatever the facts about what happened, the narrative has been firmly established that Donald Trump’s election emboldened members of the far (or “alt-“) right to “come out,” and to start demonstrating in favor of racism, nativism, and xenophobia – and to kill a counter-protester by running her down with a car. Donald Trump then claimed “moral equivalence” between the two sides, thereby illustrating his fundamental awfulness.* Some of the participants in the rally made reference to things medieval, on the principle that the Middle Ages represent white Europe unsullied by mass non-white immigration. Such references seemingly implicated the discipline of Medieval Studies, and they provoked a huge reaction: the Medieval Academy, along with almost thirty other groups, unequivocally condemned “the appropriation of any item or idea or material in the service of white supremacy,” and continued:

As scholars of the medieval world we are disturbed by the use of a nostalgic but inaccurate myth of the Middle Ages by racist movements in the United States. By using imagined medieval symbols, or names drawn from medieval terminology, they create a fantasy of a pure, white Europe that bears no relationship to reality. This fantasy not only hurts people in the present, it also distorts the past. Medieval Europe was diverse religiously, culturally, and ethnically, and medieval Europe was not the entire medieval world. Scholars disagree about the motivations of the Crusades—or, indeed, whether the idea of “crusade” is a medieval one or came later—but it is clear that racial purity was not primary among them.

This impulse has animated some people ever since. They are not willing to ignore such things as being beyond their concern or control (people refer to the Middle Ages all the time for various reasons, and there’s nothing professional medievalists can do about it, because they don’t actually “own” that time period) or as just a small part of the overall imagery presented at the rally (Charlotte Allen counted “exactly two” medieval costumes, and as Tom MacMaster notes, the protestors made far more use of nineteenth and twentieth century imagery than they did medieval). Instead, it has become extremely important for some people to present the Middle Ages in such a way that “rescues” them from white nationalists. Now, I’m no white nationalist, but as I said before, I don’t care for truth-bending either, no matter how noble the cause.** It’s a bit of a stretch, for instance, to designate the Vikings as “multicultural and multiracial.” (No, you can’t cherry-pick the one former Arab slave who took a Danish wife and settled in Normandy. You need a proper population sample! Numbers are of the essence here. That Vikings ended up losing their identity wherever they settled is the opposite of multicultural.) And as Andrew Holt said about the Crusades:

I can understand Professor Gabriele not wanting to give ammunition to those on the political right with whom he disagrees, particularly when they make crass calls for medieval solutions to modern problems, but misrepresenting what scholars of the crusades think is not the way to do it, and will backfire in the end.

This brings us to the black eagle of St. Maurice, referenced in the tweet above. The story goes that St. Maurice was a third-century commander of the Theban Legion, a Roman unit recruited in Upper Egypt and composed entirely of Christians. Emperor Maximian ordered them to march into Gaul, where they were to be employed in putting down a rebellion. Ordered to sacrifice to pagan gods for the success of the mission, the Thebans refused, and were twice decimated as a punishment – with the survivors then massacred. This took place at Agaunum, now Saint-Maurice, in Switzerland. As the name change reveals, St. Maurice became the stand-in for all the other martyred Thebans, some 6600 of them, and a monastery was established there in his honor. St. Maurice subsequently became a popular medieval saint, a patron of Savoy, Lombardy, Burgundy, and Sardinia, a patron of soldiers (particularly the Pontifical Swiss Guard), and of weavers and dyers, and the namesake of many religious foundations, including twenty-two English churches. Most important, for our purposes, is his patronage of the Holy Roman Empire, which seems to date from the reign of Henry the Fowler (919-936). Henry granted the Swiss canton of Aargau to the Abbey of St. Maurice in return for Maurice’s lance, sword, and spurs, which became part of the regalia used at Imperial coronations. Henry also built Magdeburg Cathedral, dedicated to St. Maurice. Emperor Otto the Great translated the saint’s relics there in 961, and had himself entombed there upon his own death in 973.

Of course, it must be said that, in common with many early martyrs, there is no historical evidence that St. Maurice or the Theban Legion ever existed. The earliest sources attesting to them date from 150 years after their alleged executions, although it is entirely possible that some Christians really were put to death in the area, from which an elaborate story was later spun. According to an article in Greenwich Time, St. Maurice wasn’t depicted as black until the thirteenth century. Why this particular attribute? It’s logical that someone whose origins were so far up the Nile should acquire a sub-Saharan phenotype, and I wouldn’t be surprised if the etymological similarity of “Maurice” to “Moor” had something to do with it. Why this shift should have happened in the thirteenth century I do not know, although it does point to medieval European knowledge of non-white Christians, perhaps inspired by contact with Ethiopians during the Crusades (Ethiopians maintained a presence in the Church of the Holy Sepulcher), or as the result of an Ethiopian embassy to the pope in the late fourteenth century. Just as the Three Kings, from the twelfth century, could be depicted as European, African, and Asian, one for each of the three known continents, so also does a black St. Maurice point to the universality of Christianity. In this sense, the medievalists are right: medieval Europeans clearly were not “racist,” but only because they were deeply Christian, and truly believed that every person on Earth was a potential member of the faith. (An artistically black St. Maurice says nothing about the presence of phenotypically sub-Saharan Africans in Europe.)

Lucas Cranach the Elder & Workshop, Saint Maurice, ca. 1522-25.

But the tweet above was about another emblem: a black eagle borne by one young man on a shield at Charlottesville, and by St. Maurice on a banner in a painting dating to the sixteenth century, judging by the style of the armor. Why does St. Maurice carry such a banner? The image tweeted seems to be a preliminary sketch or an elaboration of a painting of St. Maurice by Lucas Cranach the Elder (1472-1553). It originally formed part of an altarpiece, commissioned by Cardinal Albrecht of Brandenburg, for a church in the Saxon city of Halle. Saxony, of course, was within the Holy Roman Empire, and the banner that St. Maurice holds is actually the banner of the arms of the Holy Roman Empire – a black eagle displayed on a gold field.

“Shield and Coat of Arms of the Holy Roman Emperor, drawn in the style the late medieval period. Also used as shield of arms (generic) by the King of the Romans.” Wikipedia.

One finds other Imperial representations of St. Maurice bearing this shield.

Apparently from the Church of St. Antony, Bitterfield-Wolfen, c. 1499.

Design for Reliquary bust of St. Maurice. Heiltumsbuch, fol. 228v., 1525-1527. Aschaffenburg Hofbibliothek.

In other words, the eagle is associated with the Holy Roman Empire, and St. Maurice is one of the patrons of the Empire; thus does he bear the shield of the Empire. It’s not actually “his,” or it’s only his at second hand. We see this with other saints – sometimes St. George, a patron of England, is shown bearing the three lions of the kings of England, and sometimes St. Michael, a patron of France, is shown bearing the fleur de lys of the kings of France. It might be somewhat egotistical for a votary to assign his own attribute to his patron saint (rather than for a votary to bear his patron saint’s attribute as an act of devotion), but it did happen from time to time.

St. Maurice, therefore, is by no means the “original” bearer of this standard. The reason eagles are associated with the Holy Roman Empire is because the Romans themselves employed eagles as identifying devices, particularly of their legions, and when heraldry developed in the twelfth century it was only natural that the Holy Roman Emperors should have chosen an eagle as an identifying device. Eagles were also used by other successor empires to ancient Rome, including the Byzantines (specifically, the Palaiologos dynasty that ruled it from the eleventh century), the Tsars of Russia, and Napoleon as the Emperor of the French. You could say that Maurice, as the commander of a legion, has a natural right to an eagle as his own attribute, but it would make far more sense for this to be in the form of a Roman aquila (a three dimensional sculpture of an eagle atop a pole), and you would need to find actual artistic evidence of him doing so prior to the twelfth century and the elaboration of heraldry. In other words, the succession seems to be Eagle -> Empire -> St. Maurice, not Eagle -> St. Maurice –> Empire.

As for the other eagle, that appears to be a commercial product of an outfit called West Wolf Renaissance:


From the website:

VIKING BLACK EAGLE SHIELD WITH FORGED IRON BOSS

This is a beautiful handmade and hand-painted wooden Viking shield featuring a Black Eagle design inspired by Viking and Norse shields of old. This shield features a solid oak body which measures about 30 inches across and is 1/2 inches thick…. Because this shield is made of real wood, please note that the wood-grain background shown in the pictures may vary slightly from the shield you receive (this is simply due to the nature of the wood). The front of the shield has also been applied with several coats of topcoat/varnish to protect it through the centuries. So whether for the wall or the battlefield, this shield is well balanced and ready to serve.

Note that the design is “inspired by” Norse shields – it is not necessarily a reproduction of an actual shield. It looks to me like it was taken from Wikipedia’s rendition of the Raven Banner:

Other shields offered for sale by West Wolf Renaissance feature medieval, classical, Mayan, and even cinematic designs (e.g. the emblem of the Galactic Empire from Star Wars, or the houses from Game of Thrones). The company also offers reproduction/fantasy jewelry, clothing, and weapons. Who buys this stuff I do not know, but presumably there are LARPers or “fandoms” out there who enjoy playing medieval dress-up, without scrupulous attention to historic detail.*** It might be possible, therefore, that the company helped itself to the shield of the Holy Roman Empire and reimagined it in a Viking style, but my hunch is that the two shields actually have nothing to do with each other. To show an eagle “displayed” (i.e. spread out) is a logical way to show it, black is a common enough color to show it in, and the background hue is coincidental – the HRE shield is formally gold, whereas the Viking shield is just natural wood. (Actually, if the shield is based on a real Norse model, then it would have priority over the shield of the HRE, since the Vikings were active before the development of true heraldry, and we could accuse the HRE and St. Maurice of bearing a stolen Viking shield! Furthermore, it might not even be an eagle: note that it’s in the style of the Raven Banner, and one of the words in the URL is “raven.” It would certainly make sense for the bird to be a raven, given that it’s an attribute of the Norse god Odin.)

Any symbol can have a variety of referents. As the lion is the king of the beasts, so also is the eagle the king of the birds, and like all emblems has been used at various times and various places, by various people, to reference various things. (Actually, in a Christian context, an eagle is most likely to be associated with St. John the Evangelist.) Even a black eagle “displayed” on a lighter-colored background is not the exclusive property of any one group, and you simply cannot take two superficially similar things and juxtapose them in the service of “proving” anything. James Frazer’s oeuvre was largely based on such attempts at analysis, and it’s a big reason why he’s out of fashion now. No, you actually need to establish a chain of transmission, and you would think that art and cultural historians would understand that.† I mean, St. Maurice can also be shown wearing a red cross – does this mean that the “true, original” bearer of this device is St. Maurice, not St. George, St. Ambrose, or the Diocese of Trier?

Medieval Milanetc.

But what do you expect from Twitter? The place is a sewer, the “crystal meth” of social media, and it seems to encourage people in their worst habits of mind. Not only is there the 140-character limit, which prevents the elaboration of complex ideas, there is also a great premium on winning social status through “sick burns” or at least by acquiring lots of followers. Thus our tweeter’s assertion that “Nazis aren’t happy” about her juxtaposition. Who are these people, and are they really all “Nazis”? Or is this all just an imaginary setup to prove to her claque how brave a fighter she is?

Alas, memes can be powerful things, and this one has firmly lodged itself in the medievalist consciousness. Even the executive director of the Medieval Academy went in for it (from All Things Considered, September 2017):

LISA FAGIN DAVIS: There was one young man who was carrying a shield with a black spread eagle that was clearly co-opted from either the Holy Roman Empire or – there’s actually a saint. And it’s kind of ironic. He’s an African saint who carries that standard. And I suspect the gentleman carrying the shield didn’t realize that.

ULABY: That was St. Maurice, revered during the medieval period. He came from Egypt.

It was relayed on History.com in December 2017:

One man carried a round shield decorated with a black eagle. It was a curious choice, considering the eagle image is strongly associated with a Saint Maurice, a Roman general of African descent who became a saint in the early Middle Ages

The white supremacist in Charlottesville carrying that image was probably unaware that it’s strongly associated with a black Catholic saint, and this disconnect illustrates a larger trend. Hate groups that adopt medieval iconography as symbols of white supremacy usually have misconceptions about that historical era. One of the most common? That Europe in the Middle Ages was unvaryingly white.

Earlier this year I heard a speaker who repeated the idea that the Viking eagle of Charlottesville was really the eagle of a black saint, and just recently another friend just recently posted this to Facebook, from one of her students’ exams:

Historians have the difficult job of interpreting sources in the context they were intended. With white supremacy, gender equality, and current social classes, it is nearly impossible to see the past through an unbiased scope uninfluenced by these current issues. In Charlottesville many protesters used a medieval symbol as a symbol of racial hatred, when truthfully the symbol was worn by a black saint.

So it looks like this will be with us for some time to come…

Once again, I state that I am not in favor of white supremacy – although I confess that, apart from the car crash, I didn’t find the Unite the Right rally to be any more shocking than what Antifa routinely gets up to at its demonstrations. But in general I am in favor of proper historical analysis, developed with as much detail as necessary, and not superficial Twitter-zingers, even in the service of things we dearly want to believe.

In brief:

• The arms of the Holy Roman Empire date from the twelfth century and are a reference to the Roman eagle.

• St. Maurice, as a patron of the HRE, bears the arms of the HRE in some depictions, but it’s not a symbol of St. Maurice as such.

• St. Maurice, as an Egyptian, only began to be portrayed as black starting in the thirteenth century.

• The West Wolf Renaissance shield is either a reproduction of a Viking design, or an imagined one (they did not answer my email enquiry).

• If it is a reproduction, it predates the shield of the HRE, and is probably better seen as Odin’s raven; either way, its connection to the shield of the HRE is almost certainly coincidental.

• Truth exists, and it’s more important than feelings.

• Academics should get off Twitter.

* Joe Biden recently launched his presidential campaign in Charlottesville, pledging to stand against whatever forces manifested themselves at the Unite the Right rally. John Derbyshire had something to say about it:

[Joe Biden’s] video didn’t lean on the Charlottesville events so much as on the narrative of them constructed and broadcast by Cultural Marxist media outlets, then re-broadcast and re-re-broadcast in a determined and successful effort to smother any account of what really took place….

The Cultural Marxist narrative of Charlottesville is triumphant in major media and probably among the public at large. That narrative has only collapsed among the tiny sliver of the population who have read all 207 pages of the Heaphy Report…. Certainly Joe Biden had no qualms about retailing the dominant narrative in all its brazen mendacity.

[Clip:  And that’s when we heard the words of the President of the United States that stunned the world and shocked the conscience of this nation. He said there were, quote, “some very fine people on both sides.”

Very fine people on both sides? With those words, the President of the United States assigned a moral equivalence between those spreading hate and those with the courage to stand against it.]

I don’t myself buy the “moral equivalence” argument. One side in the Charlottesville fracas had the sole intention to hold a legally-permitted rally in defense of a historic statue; the other side had the intention to disrupt that rally violently. Local politicians and law-enforcement encouraged and assisted the latter faction. Moral equivalence? I don’t see it.

What did the President actually have in mind when he spoke the words Joe Biden’s quoting? Here’s what Trump said:

[Clip:  And you had people — and I’m not talking about the neo-Nazis and the white nationalists, because they should be condemned totally — but you had many people in that group other than neo-Nazis and white nationalists, okay? And the press has treated them absolutely unfairly.

Now, in the other group also you had some fine people; but you also had trouble-makers. And you see them come with the black outfits and with the helmets and with the baseball bats … You had a lot of bad people in the other group.]

Plainly what was in the President’s mind there was the idea that there were some Nazi nutcases mixed in with the defenders of that statue; and there were some anarchist nutcases mixed in with the clergymen and cat ladies who initiated the violence. The fact remains that the first group, Nazis and all, had lawful permits to be where they were and do what they were doing, and the second group didn’t, but the authorities let that second group attack the first anyway.

See Ann Coulter’s column also.

** But… quod est veritas? This is an interminable debate, which might go back to the conflict between realists and nominalists in medieval universities, or to Livy and Pollio, if Robert Graves is to be believed. Postmodern historians are fond of saying that there’s no such thing as truth, only competing narratives, and that all history writing is essentially fiction. No, there is no such thing as an omniscient and unbiased historian – we all come to the table with our perspectives and areas of strength (and weakness). But there is a big difference between people who acknowledge this and still hold up the idea that events actually happened in the past, and we can get at them through studying sources that have come down to us from those events, and people who believe that since truth is so elusive, we might as well not even try, and we can say anything we want about the past, because why not?

I cannot abide this position. Any respect that historians get is utterly dependent on people trusting us to deal honestly with the past. They know we are liberal, but they still think that we know some facts that others don’t. However, when we say whatever we want because it is in accord with our politics, that is a problem.

*** I am of two minds about this. In general, just as I favor a search for Truth in historical scholarship, I am also in favor of getting the details right in any sort of historic recreation. But I am also fully aware that such concerns can border on pedantry and wet-blanketness. If the goal is to have fun, then why not go for an overall effect, rather than get bogged down in all the details?

† No, I am not prepared to accept any arguments based on “serendipity” or “synchronicity” or any other such mumbo-jumbo.

The Academic Sandbox

The always-entertaining Charlotte Allen weighs in on the recent kerfuffles in medieval studies, in First Things. A choce excerpt:

Until recently, academic medieval studies seemed to be immune from the mix of identity politics, impenetrable postmodernist jargon, and social-­justice witch-hunting that has taken over most of the humanities and social sciences. It’s not that most professors of medieval history and literature aren’t political liberals. It’s that medieval studies used to be so technically and linguistically demanding (deciphering Latin manuscripts, for example) that scholars didn’t need to worry about being called out for not being sufficiently alert to critical race theory and other progressive obsessions. As one medievalist professor, who requested anonymity, told me in an email: “People who do Near Eastern languages, Classics, Slavic languages, Asian languages, Byzantine history and, until recently, Medieval history have been protected from the worst of the SJW ­idiocy, because SJW idiots aren’t smart enough to get a foothold in those fields.”

All of this is changing fast. Perhaps because of pressure from university administrators to shorten degree programs to churn out doctorates, perhaps because secondary and even post-secondary education these days fails to train would-be medievalists in the rudimentary skills they need (what public high school teaches Latin?), standards have fallen, especially with respect to languages, but also with respect to technical skills such as paleography, which ­graduate students even at elite universities often must learn on their own, if at all. The standards have fallen fastest in university English departments, where graduate programs function in part as catchment areas for warm bodies to teach mandatory freshman composition for rock-bottom pay. It was no accident that the majority of the medievalist academics who gathered at George Washington in October 2017 to censure Rachel Fulton Brown hailed from postmodernism-soaked English departments.

The field of medieval history, in contrast to ­medieval literature, has been somewhat resistant to this trend, partly because historians still generally believe that they can shed light on what actually happened in the past, not just on the socially constructed narratives that literary theorists might find. Nonetheless, postmodernist politicization has made inroads even into history departments. Progressive academics have picked apart the field of medieval studies itself as a social construct: a narrative invention by self-glorifying scholars of European descent.

“How serious is this whole thing?” a colleague asks. In honesty I have to reply that, given the numbers of people involved, it’s not all that serious. Medievalists might not be “monkish” but, from what I can gather, most of them don’t even know about the Brown-Kim feud, and cannot muster the interest to care when they are apprised of it. It seems to be one of those things that becomes all-consuming if you’re a social media junkie. People with actual lives and real research agendas tend to have different priorities.

Alas, you might not be interested in war, but war is interested in you. So-called “woke” medievalists, the “SJWs” of the discipline, while numbering perhaps 100 at most, are influential beyond their numbers, for the reasons that Joseph Epstein noticed. Some of them have infiltrated the higher reaches of the Medieval Academy, where they bend it to their will by instituting a risible Professional Behavior Policy, sending around an email asking the membership to “thoughtfully consider” a statement by the Medievalists of Color essentially accusing the entire field of being racist, or giving free lifetime membership to Dorothy Kim on account of the alleged harassment she received from fans of Milo Yiannopoulous. And if no one pushes back against this sort of thing, it will eventually become the new normal, and given the online behavior of its proponents they will end up ruthlessly excluding anyone holding contrary views from the Medieval Academy. This is not an exaggeration – they truly believe they are in an apocalyptic struggle against the forces of evil, and anything done to further their cause is morally justified. This is not even a conflict between the “left” and the “right,” it is between emotionally secure adults who have an expansive attitude toward other opinions, knowing that they themselves might not have all the answers, and people who believe, e.g., that refusing to ban Rachel Brown from attending a session at the Kalamazoo conference “allowed a false conception of academic freedom to undermine true academic freedom” (cf. Joseph Stalin on “true freedom“), or who say things like this:

Code of Behavior

The Medieval Academy of America, following a survey of the membership taken last year, released a Professional Conduct Policy on January 2. I quite liked this coverage of it, on the College Fix. Excerpt:

According to the document, it is meant primarily for the protection of “those in vulnerable positions” from other medievalist members, who could potentially “assert a relationship of power” over them.

What actions does the policy define as troublesome? While it is highly specific as to what constitutes sexual harassment, all of the other potential violations in the categories of “harassment,” “microaggressions,” “bullying” and “social media” are very general.

“Harassment includes demeaning, humiliating, and threatening actions, comments, jokes, other forms of verbal and/or written communication, body language, and physical contact,” the policy states.

This generality has been taken by some to be problematic; despite the academy saying it “will not take breaches of professional or ethical behavior lightly,” what exactly constitutes a breach in its judgement appears to be lightly outlined, if at all.

Much of what is written about is based upon an individual’s personal judgement or feelings. For example, the academy strictly prohibits harassment in the form of “demeaning” or “humiliating … body language,” but does not state what types of online actions are considered violations of either. It also says that bullying “may include refusal to recognize … personal constructions of work,” which, as the word “personal” implies, differs from one professional to another.

Under the category of “microaggressions,” instead of detailing in the policy what types of behavior are restricted, it links to a Tumblr blog titled “Microaggressions.” The blog’s last post was from over a year ago, and in the FAQ section in response to the question “What makes you an authority on microaggressions,” its authors admit that they “aren’t.” They do, however, define the term as “the subtle ways in which body and verbal language convey oppressive ideology about power or privilege against marginalized identities.”

Rachel Fulton Brown comments that:

If feelings are going to be the way in which we determine whether or not people belong in the conversation, then… it’s a change in the character of the professional body, from one of mutual interest to social belonging, and that will change its effectiveness.

For my part, I was amused by this nugget from the policy:

Harassment is a form of discrimination and misconduct by which the harasser asserts a relationship of power over the harassed through behavior that causes feelings of fear or distress.

Apparently every single meeting with one of my grad-school professors was “harassment.” 🙂

DK Responds

Apparently “both-sides-ism” is now a thing – a bad thing, because in a battle between truth and falsehood, there can be no neutrality or even critical distance. But to my mind, it goes without saying that the other side might have something to say, and that you might not be 100% correct. Even someone as firmly convicted as Oliver Cromwell enjoined his supporters to “think it possible you may be mistaken.” So, in the interests of giving equal time to “both sides” of the Brown-Kim feud, here is a link to a recent article on Inside Higher Ed by the latter of those parties. I present this excerpt without comment.

One way to measure a field’s commitment to safeguarding BIWOC (black, indigenous, women of color) scholars is to look toward its conferences. This last year has shown that organizers of prominent Medieval studies conferences are often not prepared to keep their participants safe. At various events, Fulton Brown deployed another tactic from the alt-right playbook: intimidation at speaking events, such as the Medieval Academy of America in Atlanta in April and the International Congress for Medieval Studies in Kalamazoo, Mich., in May. Her actions can be interpreted as harassment and a bid to create a hostile environment for medievalists of color discussing diversity and inclusion.

At Kalamazoo, I requested security for the Whiteness in Medieval Studies 2.0 workshop that I was scheduled to lead. According to Seeta Chaganti, a professor of English at the University of California, Davis, and the session organizer, ICMS leadership cited “academic and intellectual freedom” to explain why they would not ask Rachel Fulton Brown not to attend the session. Chaganti wrote in a subsequent post how “academic freedom,” like “free speech,” has been weaponized for white supremacy.

UPDATE: And Milo responds to that.

UPDATE: Peter Wood weighs in.

Medieval Academy

Device of the 93rd annual meeting of the Medieval Academy of America (2018), at Emory University.

The springtime meeting of the Georgia Medievalists’ Group was folded into something much grander: the 2018 annual meeting of the Medieval Academy of America, held this past weekend at Emory University (specifically, the Emory Conference Center Hotel – what you can do with Coke money!). This one was my third, after Minneapolis (2003) and Phoenix (2011). Phoenix, as I remember, was controversial – Arizona had recently passed an anti-illegal-immigrant law, and there was tremendous pressure on the Academy not to hold the meeting there. They went ahead with it anyway, largely for financial reasons, although they changed the theme, especially welcoming presentations dealing with medieval immigration and xenophobia. (My paper, on the Flemish weaving community of fourteenth-century London, which was decimated during the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381, fit with this theme very nicely.)

This conference was not quite as controversial, although it threatened to be. Unbeknownst to most people, there has been some conflict in the medievalist world of late, with some people claiming that the entire field is inherently racist, and others objecting to this identification. This conflict has taken place largely over the Internet, with all the hyperbolic self-righteousness that such interaction usually entails. To address the issue, the conference organizers arranged for a plenary session of Medievalists of Color, whose presentations were actually pretty good and did not descend to the level of an Internet comment thread, despite occasional references to “white fragility”* or the notion that “research is violence.” They also avoided calling out their opponents by name, which was a nice gesture. (As much as I would love to see a revival of medieval-style academic debate, the topic here is so sensitive that the bad consequences would surely outweigh the good, if people who don’t believe that the field of Medieval Studies needs “decolonizing” were to be given equal time.)

As ever, it was good to see old friends and to make new ones, and most of the papers were pretty good. My favorite presentation was the final plenary, by Michael McCormick, of the Initiative for the Science of the Human Past at Harvard. Apparently researchers at SoHP can now deduce the atmospheric content of the past from the ice cores of Greenland or Antarctica without even melting them, and with a much finer granularity than previously (gleaning two million data points for a period twenty thousand years, for example). Thus have they determined that human metallurgy has been putting pollutants into the air for a very long time; it’s not just a function of the Industrial Revolution. Even more interesting is a partnership between the SoHP and the Max Planck Institute in Germany called Archaeoscience of the Ancient Mediterranean, which aims to reconstruct the human settlement patterns around the Mediterranean going back to the late Bronze Age. I was amazed to learn that teeth contain evidence of one’s diet up to age twelve or so. Pulp in the molars of corpses contains evidence of disease-causing bacteria; what researchers are now able to determine is how the DNA of a disease mutated over time (specifically, the Yersinia pestis bacteria of the plagues of Justinian in AD 541-42), which allows them to plot exactly where it appeared and when, and thus to reconstruct ancient trade routes. Fascinating stuff!

Other highlights of the conference included the facsimile of the Bayeux Tapestry, on loan from the University of North Georgia (with many copies of the pamphlet explaining it, by yours truly). The conference program was the most edifying I’ve ever seen: in addition to maps, the schedule, and the list of participants, it also featured short articles on the founding of Emory, Emory’s campus architecture, noted medievalists Kemp Malone, Stephen White, Thomas Lyman, and George Cuttino, the Candler School of Theology, the Pitts Theology Library, the Carlos and High Museums, and other things of local or medieval interest. Finally, I would be remiss if I did not point out the excellent heraldry of this conference! The Medieval Academy’s coat of arms is a wonderful thing, featuring a splendid rose-en-soleil. 

The Academy’s journal is Speculum, and its device features a hand holding a mirror – a punning coat of arms, since speculum is mirror in Latin (it has a different meaning now, of course).

Both of these coats of arms, I understand, were designed by Pierre de Chaignon la Rose, who also came up with Harvard’s heraldic system in the 1930s.

Emory University itself uses a fine, simple coat of arms, featuring a crossed trumpet and torch. It is based on the university seal, which dates from 1915.

* Thesis: anyone who interprets opinions he disagrees with as “violence against bodies of color” does not get to talk about white fragility.