Medievalism and the Alt-Right

From a Facebook friend:

Apparently, I’m the only academic historian who isn’t terrified of the “alt-right.” Every medieval studies thing seems to be consumed with a wave of fear… fear that somewhere in a basement somewhere, a white supremacist Trump-loving gun-toter is blogging about how great the early Middle Ages were.

And, as a result, witch-hunts and general tomfoolery have broken out among the “woke” medievalists. “Why does the Alt-Right love our period so much?” they cry. Why is there so much hatred out there?

I’ll ignore the second question for now (I don’t want to argue ad hominem), and not to be flip, but I think the question is being asked wrongly. It isn’t why do “they” love the Middle Ages, but why do “we” notice it and worry?

Many, many, many parts of the past are attractive to various agenda-driven nuts, not just the Middle Ages and not just the “alt-right.” Take a look at the historiography of the Israel/Palestine conflict and what that does; both sides have many “activists” working to erase the other group’s past (and to a vicious level). Look at various Celtic Studies, Irish or Scottish history, nineteenth century American history, almost any historical narrative of much of the past in the Balkans, Eastern Europe, the Aegean, South Asia, Korea, and on and on. Far right (often actual fascists) make sure that sources like Wikipedia are useless for topics like the early history of India, anything to do with Kurds or Armenians, and so on.

On the medieval world, yes some members of the alt-right fetishize certain aspects of the period, e.g. the Crusades or the Vikings or the myth of the Norman yoke, all of which are regular features of west European self-conceptions and all of which are hardly new inventions. Need we point out that there’s a straight line back to Walter Scott & Co. that connects Crusaders and Klansmen?

Or should we point out that those same now labelled “alt-right” fantasies have had pretty solid backing? Why is Louis IX the saintly king of France? What, after all, did the French military first do upon entry into Damascus? Crusades fantasies play into twentieth and twenty-first century European dealings with Muslims.

And in Muslim views of Europeans. Arab nationalists hold up the counter-crusade, and many of the more violent Islamist groups are heavily medievalist-driven to an extent almost no one else is. (There’s a self-proclaimed Almoravid army in North Africa, ISIS models itself – down to reinstating slavery! – on a close reading of seventh century texts, Salafis dress as though it were 632, and so on.)

One could go on; how many discussions of politics and conflicts are full of World War II mythohistory? How many US discussions are about a mythic eighteenth century?

Looking to the past for better models is, inherently, a conservative move. “The past was better” is basically conservatism in brief. So, of course conservatives are interested in history. And, with the breakdown of authoritative knowledge via the Internet (and some fashionable intellectual trends), those who are loudest get noticed – and they don’t need to be correct.

Where I teach, I know that I will run into people who are part of what has been termed the “ankh right” and there will be hoteps in my classroom in a few weeks when we cover ancient Egypt. I will aim to get them into thinking about ancient Egypt on its own terms and not through modern nationalist fantasies but the way to do that is not by saying “oh they are terrible and liars.” (Unfortunately, for me, because I actually engage in non-aggressive pedagogy with said hoteps, I was labelled in a job interview as too black for a well-known US school by a classicist!)

The past is the past. Looking to it for comforting myths (of any sort, left , right, north, south, white, black, whatever) is never going to do anything but create fiction. Getting upset about one group’s unwholesome influence makes me wonder: How is it possible you just noticed this?


Quite a bit of this is about “they were selling a symbol of Odinism at Leeds and that is sometimes used by far-right groups or individuals” (or Celtic crosses or terms like Anglo-Saxon and so on and so forth) “so any use of those is by definition tainted” and similar lines on other things.

The logic (and the panic) could have been scripted by Pamela Geller and Robert Spencer (and so on) if one were to substitute “shahadeh banner” for Thor’s hammer or anything else. Now, there are real world (as opposed to online only) far right Islamist activists; they actually control actual territory and they actually kill actual human beings, and they base their actions on their interpretations of early medieval texts (many of their leaders actually have advanced degrees in early medieval studies) but we have a word for people who would ban all symbols and activities and studies that those folks are involved in.

In other words, I bet a lot of the people in the panic over evil Odinists would probably be up in arms over an attempt to ban sales of items that have symbols used by ISIS – and rightly so – even if one is threat is much more real.

The Academic Life

I used to subscribe to the American Scholar, a quarterly literary magazine sponsored by the Phi Beta Kappa Society, edited between 1974 and 1998 by the witty and literate Joseph Epstein, who always contributed an essay under the pseudonym “Aristides.” His last one, “I’m History,” was particularly good; two quotations that stayed with me over the years:

The truth was, I found much in current academic life either boring or crazy, and I didn’t want to devote much space to things in which I could not take any serious interest. I tended to view the occasional article that we ran on these strictly academic subjects as, in effect, opening the blinds to reveal the baboons at play, as if to say, “Betcha didn’t think their behinds were quite so purple as that.”


In academic argument… the radicals almost always win, even though they rarely constitute a majority. Conservatives, dependably a minority, usually don’t care enough to take a strong stand against them. Liberals, the poor darlings, though generally the majority, are terrified about seeming to be on the wrong side of things and so seek compromises that inevitably favor the radicals. The model here is the Russian Duma, with the minority of Bolsheviks cracking the moderation and ultimately the backs of the Mensheviks.

Slightly related, a Facebook friend notes the following, about the Chronicle piece on the Leeds Conference, with which I happen to agree:

Okay, so several weeks later, I’m still hung up on this:

“[Medieval studies] has been rather proud of its resistance to critical theory, which then just attracts even more people to the field who themselves want to be resistant to theory and see medieval studies as a safe place — a safe place to be elitist, a safe place to be white, a safe place to be Christian, Eurocentric, misogynist, etc.”

It’s really intellectually dishonest to equate skepticism about critical theory and being a Christian with being a neo-Nazi.

To say nothing about how we can easily turn this critique on its head: “American Studies has been especially welcome to critical theory, which then just attracts other people interested in critical theory to the field and turns it into a safe space for them, marginalizing everyone else interested in different approaches…” etc. No one seems to think that that’s a problem.

Also related: the accusation that the expression “Anglo-Saxon” is inherently racist. This essentially boils down to the fact that at one point it did not simply refer to a set of dialects spoken in early medieval England, but also described white people of English descent (as in “WASP”), sometimes approvingly. So in true wet-blanket, Debbie-Downer fashion, we have to throw out the baby with the bathwater. A certain Tom had something to say about this:

There’s been a lot of traffic in my little corner of the internet lately that suggests that the field of early medieval studies, and Anglo-Saxon studies in particular, has a problem. The problem, not to put too fine a point on it, is racism, with a side helping, it seems, of sexism. I don’t think I have any insights that can solve such serious problems, I am sorry to say, but I think I do have some observations to make that might help us understand where our discipline is now, how we have gotten here, and what we can—and cannot, or should not—do in the present moment.

The whole discipline, the claim has been made, is tainted by the way in which the very terms “Anglo-Saxon” and “Anglo-Saxonist” have been employed, from the nineteenth century to the present, in ways that explicitly or implicitly align with ideas of whiteness and white racial superiority. There can be no real argument with this point that the terms have been used by racists: it is true, and it has long been known. But the notion that these terms are now irrevocably tainted is one that I am not (yet?) persuaded of: different speech communities often use identical words with differing senses. Like even the worst characterizations of Anglo-Saxon studies, America, too, has a long history of both open and institutional racism, and yet I am not sure that we should wish to change the name of the country, just because the politics of some Americans includes white supremacist attitudes.

Also, whenever someone tells me that I need to steep myself in the “critical discourses that address systemic racism both explicit and implicit,” as does a “Collective Statement by Medievalists of Color” (none of whom actually has the courage to sign their names to it), I want to reply that wish that more medievalists would educate themselves on the dialectical materialist process that drives all of history, and from which everything else is a distraction. After all, both “systemic racism” and “dialectical materialism” are unfalsifiable Theories whose adherents essentially tell everyone “either you agree with me, or you’ve got false consciousness,” and who will thus inflate all data points in accord with their worldview into cosmic significance, while dismissing everything that isn’t as completely inconsequential. Whenever I hear that “systemic racism dictates that we are all entangled in its articulations and practices,” I can’t help but think of Ben Kenobi saying that The Force “surrounds us, it penetrates us, it binds the galaxy together.” This is fine for the Star Wars universe, but needlessly mystical when considering our own.

Finally, from another Facebook friend, the following amusing observation:

I’m too tired to read sentences like: “Scientists create spaces of representation through graphemic concatenations that represent their epistemic traces as engravings, that is, generalized forms of ‘writing.'”

Chastity Belt

The iron maiden, the one-handed flail, the droit de seigneur, and now the chastity belt – all examples of the “weird Middle Ages” that never actually happened. From the ever interesting Atlas Obscura:

Everything You’ve Heard About Chastity Belts Is a Lie

Including their very existence.

WHAT WAS THE CHASTITY BELT? You can picture it; you’ve seen it in many movies and heard references to it across countless cultural forms. There’s even a Seattle band called Chastity Belt. In his 1969 book Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex (But Were Afraid to Ask), David R. Reuben describes it as an “armored bikini” with a “screen in front to allow urination and an inch of iron between the vagina and temptation.”

“The whole business was fastened with a large padlock,” he writes. With this device, medieval men going off to medieval wars could be assured that their medieval wives would not have sex with anyone else while they were far, far away, for years at a time. Yes, it sounds simultaneously ridiculous, barbarous, and extremely unhygienic, but … medieval men, you know? It was a different time.

This, at least, is the story that’s been told for hundreds of years. It’s simple, shocking, and, on some level, fun, in that it portrays past people as exceedingly backwards and us, by extension, as enlightened and just better. It’s also, mostly likely, very wrong.

“As a medievalist, one day I thought: I cannot stand this anymore,” says Albrecht Classen, a professor in the University of Arizona’s German Studies department. So he set out to reveal the true history of chastity belts. “It’s a concise enough research topic that I could cover everything that was ever written about it,” he says, “and in one swoop destroy this myth.”

Here is the truth: Chastity belts, made of metal and used to ensure female fidelity, never really existed.

When one considers the evidence for medieval chastity belts, as Classen did in his book The Medieval Chastity Belt: A Myth-Making Process, it becomes apparent pretty quickly that there’s not much of it. First of all, there aren’t actually all that many pictures or accounts of the use of chastity belts, and even fewer physical specimens. And the few book-length works on the topic rely heavily on each other, and all cite the same few examples.

“You have a bunch of literary representation, but very few historical references to a man trying to put a chastity belt on his wife,” says Classen. And any literary reference to a chastity belt is likely either allegorical or satirical.

References to chastity belts in European texts go back centuries, well into the first millennium A.D. But until the 1100s, those references are all couched in theology, as metaphors for the idea of fidelity and purity. For example: One Latin source admonishes the “honest virgin” to “hold the helmet of salvation on your front, the word of truth in the mouth … true love of God and your neighbor in the chest, the girdle of chastity in the body … .” Possibly virgins who took this advice went around wearing metal helmets and keeping some physical manifestation of the word “truth” in their cheeks, like a wad of tobacco, in additional to strapping on metal underwear. Or, possibly, none of this was meant to be taken literally.

More, including pictures, at the link.

Historical Debate

I quite liked Andrew Holt’s response to Matt Gabriele’s editorial in the Washington Post: “Islamphobes want to recreate the Crusades. But they don’t understand them at all.” Choice excerpt (emphasis added):

Professor Gabriele may well disagree with these historians [Riley-Smith, Madden, Frankopan, and Crawford, whom Holt quotes], and likely could make a compelling case in some instances. The crusades are complex, after all, and some issues can be approached in different ways. But one of the things I found most objectionable in his piece was the way he claimed to speak for “scholars of the crusades” when I think many of them, including some of the most influential and prominent, do not share his views. To the contrary, I think Gabriele’s seeming rejection of any defensive impetus to the birth of the crusading movement is, by far, the minority position. Although other issues are important to the birth of the crusading movement and sources must always be read critically, the primary emphasis of sources from the era, whether ecclesiastical or lay, highlight the defense of fellow Christians and Christian interests in the Holy Land as the main justification for the calling of the crusade.

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. Those he criticizes, after all, can read the same books and articles I provide above.

Read the whole thing.

Rex inutilis

An interesting post on the OUP blog by Sophie Thérèse Ambler, courtesy my friend Bill Campbell:

What to do with a simple-minded ruler: a medieval solution

The thirteenth century saw the reigns of several rulers ill-equipped for the task of government, decried not as tyrants but incompetents. Sancho II of Portugal (1223–48), his critics said, let his kingdom fall to ruin on account of his “idleness,” “timidity of spirit,” and “simplicity”. The last term, simplex, could mean straightforward, but here it meant only simple-minded, foolish, stupid. The same term was used to describe the English king Henry III (1216–72), as well as John Balliol, the hapless king of Scotland (1292–96) appointed by England’s Edward I. As the elites of these kingdoms knew too well, it could happen on occasion that a man rose to officewhether he had been born to claim it, had won the right to hold it, or had found it thrust upon himwho did not have the intelligence to wield power.

Such a situation was dangerous, for subjects would suffer. In Portugal, it was claimed that Sancho’s inability to govern had allowed Church liberties to be attacked, women to be defiled, and the common folk to be oppressed. England’s Henry III had frittered away his resources, monies needed desperately to maintain his government; the result, it was claimed, was that Henry did not even have the cash to buy food and drink for his household and had turned to seizing victuals from his people, leaving them impoverished. The subjects of John Balliol had, perhaps, the most to fear from their king’s simplicity: John was incapable of standing up to Edward I, when a stand was needed urgently to defend his people from the bullying English king.

The people of Portugal, England, and Scotland knew of a potential solution to the problem of their simple-minded rulers: the rex inutilis theory (literally, “useless king”). This was a tenet of Church law that provided, when a bishop was too infirm to fulfill his duties, for the appointment of a coadjutor to exercise power on his behalf. The theory could be applied to lay rulers too, though it addressed here the problem of incompetence rather than infirmity.

It was the pope who held the power to pronounce a king rex inutilis. The papal court was like a medieval United Nations: its interests ranged from the making of peace between polities to the proper conduct of rulers, and the well-being of all those under the Church’s care. To this end, the pope had a mighty moral weapon in his arsenal: he could depose rulers and free subjects from their oaths of fealty or, as in the case of a rex inutilis, take effective power from his hands.

More at the link.

Exam Question

Both the Vikings (around the year 1000) and the Spanish (from 1492) were Europeans who set foot in the New World. But a majority of the people in the New World now speak Spanish as their native language, while virtually no one speaks Old Norse. What explains the Spanish success at colonization?

This question uses language as a gauge of colonial success, but does it deserve to be? A fuller picture involving law, religion, technology, music, clothing, and other folkways might be more useful. There may, after all, be something “recessive” about some languages. As we learned in class, everywhere the Vikings settled, whether northern England, Ireland, Normandy, or Russia, saw them lose their language within a generation – often without them losing their fighting spirit! The only place this did not occur was Iceland, where there was no local population to get absorbed into. If the settlement at L’Anse aux Meadows was not abandoned, it is entirely possible that John Cabot, when he arrived in Newfoundland in 1497, would have been surprised to meet blonde-haired Beothuks employing Viking technology. That might indicate some colonial success. Similarly, in Latin America, Spanish may have extinguished native languages, but many native customs continued unmolested.

Be that as it may, it is manifestly apparent that the Spanish colonial enterprise was more successful than the Viking by any number of metrics. L’Anse Aux Meadows was occupied for perhaps five years, and the two small Greenland settlements were abandoned in the fifteenth century, while much of the New World was “New Spain” from the sixteenth to the nineteenth centuries. What explains the difference?

One explanation might be simple geography. Greenland and Newfoundland, even in the medieval warm period, did not have as much to offer in terms of exploitable resources as Central America and the Caribbean. Similarly, the Aztec and Incan empires were already civilized, and all the Spanish needed to do was replace the rulers at the top to win the whole thing; the conquering had already been done for them. Such conditions did not prevail in the extreme northeast.

But differences in time are probably more significant. The five-hundred year gap between Leif Erikson and Hernán Cortés saw the advent of a number of technological and cultural changes that gave an impressive advantage to the Spanish in their colonial endeavors. The medieval silk road that flourished under the Mongols gave Europeans a taste for Asian luxury goods, and the advent of the Ottoman Empire, which impeded this traffic, impelled Europeans to find alternate routes to Asia. Various technologies borrowed from the Arabs and/or developed through Mediterranean commerce allowed Europeans to sail longer distances out of sight of land, such as lateen sails and fixed rudders (allowing ships to tack against the wind, and obviating the need for galley crews), the astrolabe (for determining latitude), the magnetic compass (for determining cardinal directions when the sun or stars are occluded), or the traverse board (for plotting distance traveled). Such technologies allowed for a transatlantic voyage, something the Vikings were not capable of. That it was the Spanish who discovered the New World is also no accident – the union of Castile and Aragon, and its 1492 defeat of Grenada, completing the reconquista, gave it an overweening sense of self-confidence. God was on their side! The fact that Portugal was establishing a route to Asia down the coast of Africa make the Spanish fearful, and willing to gamble on a trans-Oceanic route. This is another difference between 1000 and 1500 – states were simply more powerful, and in competition with each other.

But perhaps the most significant event to occur in Europe between 1000 and 1500 was the Black Death. Europeans alive in 1500 were the descendants of people who had survived the plague (and other diseases like smallpox and swine influenza). They could still die from these diseases, of course, but they had a much greater chance of surviving them than did the native Americans, whose bodies were more evolved to counter parasites than microbes. This biological weapon (coupled with other weapons like firearms and steel swords, the other points of Jared Diamond’s triad, and domesticated fauna like attack dogs and ridable horses), gave the Spanish, and eventually other Europeans, an overwhelming advantage at conquest and colonization.

Angel Roofs

From my friend Tim Emmett, pastor of the Waleska UMC, an interesting gallery on BBC Travel of photographs of angel roofs, which were a regular feature of late medieval English church architecture. The first caption reads:

Think of medieval England’s finest gems, and castles probably come to mind first. But the country has another type of treasure that few people know about: angel roofs. Built between 1395 and the English Reformation of the mid-1500s, these roofs are decorated with intricately carved wooden angels. Only 170 survive today. Because so little of the art from England’s medieval churches survived the Reformation, that still makes these cherubim “the largest surviving body of major English medieval wood sculpture”, writes photographer and expert Michael Rimmer in his book The Angel Roofs of East Anglia: Unseen Masterpieces of the Middle Ages.

Click the link to see a collection of Rimmer’s photographs. I had no idea these were a thing, nor that the Reformation had such a problem with them (after all, angels were biblical – unlike saints!).

The Queer Middle Ages

From my friend Bill Campbell on Facebook:

Today’s bit of “you couldn’t make this up” medieval weirdness: The Fourth Lateran Council (1215) ruled that “All the faithful of both sexes, having reached the age of discretion, must confess to their own priest at least once per year.” But “own priest” seemed to rule out confessing to a friar, and this caused lots of problems. In 1379, one enterprising English Dominican, Richard Helmslay, tried to cut this Gordian knot by arguing that the law really only applied to hermaphrodites – that is, the faithful of “both sexes”. (The bishop was not amused.)

The Green Knight

From the anonymous fourteenth-century poem Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (Fit I, lines 136-150, trans. Bernard O’Donoghue):

a monstrous apparition strode in the door,
one of the tallest creatures in the whole of the earth.
So square and powerful from neck to waist,
his thighs and his forearms so muscly and long
you’d think that he was some kind of half-giant.
But I think what he was was the hugest of men,
the most pleased with his size of anyone living.
For, though his back and his chest were incredibly big,
his stomach and waist were fashionable trim,
and all his features in proportion, given his size, exactly right.
They were shocked by his colour though,
apparent at first glance;
what was most uncanny was
he was green from head to toe!

Later on in the poem it is revealed that this Green Knight is in fact Lord Bertilak, Gawain’s host, transformed through the magic of Morgan le Fay.

Thus I believe that I have discovered the origins of Marvel’s Incredible Hulk. The Hulk is also entirely green, the monstrous alter ego of a regular human and, when transformed, has a much broader chest than waist (the Hulk’s shirts would always rip off, but never his pants).


The icon (from Greek εἰκών, meaning “image”) is a distinctive feature of Orthodox Christianity (Greek, Russian, Serbian, etc.). The classic icon is a frontal portrait of Jesus, Mary, or some other saint, although icons illustrating a scene are also common. You know them when you see them: the style is unmistakable. They tend to be flat and richly ornamented, giving a deliberately otherworldly appearance to their subjects. There are also many rules that one must follow in the making [sic – not “painting”] of an icon. Bishops hold a bible in their left hand and give a blessing with their right. Jesus wears a red tunic and a blue cloak, and his halo has a cross on it. And so on. Here are two examples from my collection:


The original image of St. George, as a young, beardless man with tightly curled hair, in armor and carrying a shield and lance.


St. George “the trophy-bearer” in action – riding a white horse and spearing the dragon through its mouth.

Why the particular style? Why are they so important to Orthodox worship? One must realize that these are not just pictures for the edification of the faithful, of the sort that might appear in The Bible Story, The Watchtower, or the Book of Mormon. Orthodox icons have power. You could pray to a saint near his image, and he would be much more likely to hear your petition. Particular icons are even thaumaturgic, such as the icons of the Virgin Mary on Mount Athos in Greece – one of which is formally appointed the abbot of a monastery, and has two feast days. In other words, in the east, icons function like saints’ relics. (I like the theory that it is on account of relics that icons acquired their special purpose. No one is going to keep the bone of a saint just lying around, but is going to house it in a nice reliquary. A picture of the saint on the top of the reliquary would tell you whose relic it was; as long as you made an accurate copy of the picture, the miraculous qualities of the relic would be transferred to the new image.)

But there’s a problem here, isn’t there? Christian practice evolves, of course, but seldom to the point where it is completely at odds with an important dictum from scripture, in this case the Second Commandment:

You shall not make for yourself an image in the form of anything in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the waters below. You shall not bow down to them or worship them.

Now, only the most eccentric Christians would interpret this to mean that all representational art, or even just religious art, should be forbidden (Martin Luther: “If it is not a sin but good to have the image of Christ in my heart, why should it be a sin to have it in my eyes?”) And given that this rule is found in the Old Testament, has it not been trumped by the New, and to be cast aside like kashrut or the prohibition against sowing different crops in the same field? Perhaps – but surely of all that we find in the Old Testament, the Ten Commandments are still binding. And praying to (a saint through) an icon sure looks like “bowing down” and “worshiping” an image, doesn’t it, thereby violating the real spirit of this law?

Thus did Byzantine Emperor Leo III, in the 720s, order the removal and destruction of icons from the lands under his control. Was this spurred by a genuine religious feeling, prompted by recent natural disasters and military losses? Or was there something more political to it? (The theory I’ve heard is that the monasteries that produced icons were growing too powerful, and Leo wanted to undercut them – apparently there may have been a “class struggle” aspect to it as well). This iconoclastic movement survived Leo and did not fully end until 842, at which time Theodora, regent for the young Michael III, called it off. Ever since then the first Sunday in Lent is designated the Feast of Orthodoxy and celebrates the return of icons to their rightful place in Orthodox worship. At the time, though, all it succeeded in doing was driving the Greek and Roman Christianity further apart and may have had a role to play in the pope’s consecration of Charlemagne as Emperor of the West in AD 800. The Catholic Church did not venerate icons as such, but they were fully behind religious images and were appalled at how the Byzantines had apparently gone insane. As far as they were concerned, Jesus himself invalidated the Second Commandment – when he came to Earth, he became an “image” of something in heaven. Thus to reject images is to reject the Incarnation.