Anglo-Saxons, Again

Some recent commentary on the alleged racism of “Anglo-Saxon”:

Charlotte Allen in Quillette:

Higher Education’s Medievalist Moral Panic

On September 19, the International Society of Anglo-Saxonists (ISAS), a 36-year-old organization of academics specializing in the history, culture, and literature of England before the Norman Conquest, hastily voted to change its name. Indeed, the vote was so hasty that the organization had no idea what its new name ought to be (it is soliciting suggestions from members). Nonetheless, the majority of its 600-odd members were certain of one thing: they no longer wanted to be associated with the words “Anglo-Saxon.”

In the view of many of those members, that term had become tainted, appropriated by an assortment of white supremacists, white nationalists, and neo-Nazis that calls itself the “alt-right.” During the Charlottesville, Virginia melée of August 11–12, 2017, which included a supremacist’s murder of a woman by car attack, the white nationalists who marched had carried banners and standards incorporating iconography that, if not always precisely Anglo-Saxon in inspiration, was certainly medieval: Templar crosses, the double eagle of the Holy Roman Empire, and in one case, a Germanic rune beloved of neo-Nazis that was used during Anglo-Saxon times….

A statement from the ISAS’s advisory board accompanying its September 19 announcement of the planned name change read: “It has sometimes been used outside the field to describe those holding repugnant and racist views, and has contributed to a lack of diversity among those working on early medieval England and its intellectual and literary culture.” But there was something more at stake: During the run-up to the announcement the majority of the board and at least one of its officers had resigned, some of them very publicly, issuing statements excoriating the organization for failing to tackle issues such as “racism, sexism, inclusiveness, representation” and turning a blind eye to sexual abuse of female scholars in the field. The ISAS’s executive director, Robin Norris, also handed in her resignation, stating in an email: “We made you wait too long for change.” The term “Anglo-Saxon” had become an all-purpose grievance nexus for the academic Left—and also a nexus of professional embarrassment and self-doubt for scholars who like to think of themselves as tolerant liberals and feel vaguely ashamed that most of the people taking an interest in Anglo-Saxon studies happen to be white and that a lot of them are men….

[But] it is fair to say that England during the half-millennium before 1066 did have a culture that could be called distinctly Anglo-Saxon. The Angles and Saxons gave their names to territorial swathes of England that persist to this day: Essex, Sussex, East Anglia. Their Old English dialects replaced other spoken languages in all but the remotest corners. Medieval monks writing in Latin called that tongue Anglice. Specifically, the West Saxon dialect spoken in Wessex, the southwestern English territory of King Alfred the Great (ca. 847-899), became the preeminent literary language of pre-Conquest England. Nearly all extant Old English prose and poetry, including the famous narrative poem Beowulf, were written down in that West Saxon dialect. There was even a distinctive “Anglo-Saxon” script for those writings, distinguished by the long, pointed tails of many of its letters; it looked completely different from the scribes’ Latin scripts. Poetry in Old English used a complex alliterative metrical scheme common to northern languages but unlike anything to be found in Latin or the languages of continental Europe. It was understandable that from 1983 until fairly recently the words “Anglo-Saxonists” were generally unproblematic….

Perhaps the ISAS, in rushing through a vote to change its name just a week later, was simply atoning for its distinct, if admittedly slight, association with murderers who might have seen a mangled version of a Rudyard Kipling poem about “Saxons” on the Internet. But it seems as likely that relentless ideological pressure from a rump group of leftist scholars with agendas and bullying issues of their own led the Society to capitulate to a passing social-justice fad that sees racism and misogyny everywhere. One thing is certain, though: It’s no longer okay in academia these days to call yourself an “Anglo-Saxonist”—even if you do happen to studying long-dead people who called themselves Angles and Saxons.

The editorial board of The Times:

The Times view on banning ‘Anglo-Saxon’: Normative Conquest

Historians who want to banish the term ‘Anglo-Saxon’ should think again

The great battles of history may be second in ferocity only to the battles within history departments. The latest row to grip the academic discipline in Britain and America is whether it should drop the term “Anglo-Saxon.” Some scholars allege it has racist connotations and want to banish it. It comes hard on the heels of a similar debate on whether statues linked to colonialism and the slave trade should be removed from universities. Those familiar with the Old English poem Beowulf will be equipped with an appropriate phrase: “O flower of warriors, beware of that trap.”

“Anglo-Saxon” traditionally refers to tribes including Angles and Saxons who came to Britain from across the North Sea after the end of Roman rule and their descendants until the Norman Conquest. But in September the International Society of Anglo-Saxonists voted to remove “Anglo-Saxon” from its name, saying that it had led to a “lack of diversity” among those working on the subject.

The row intensified on Monday when the historian [sic] Mary Rambaran-Olm wrote that the term was pseudohistorical, claiming it only became popular in the 1700s and 1800s as historians sought to connect white people with their supposed origins. This was followed by a backlash from some British historians but endorsed by a Harvard academic, who tweeted that the term “gives aid” to white supremacists.

While efforts to prevent racism may be laudable, editing history is not the answer. The historian Tom Holland said that dropping the word would be “mad as a bag of ferrets.” He tweeted that “Anglo-Saxon” was historically accurate because it was used by the Anglo-Saxons themselves. Besides, even if the word emerged later for racist purposes, this should also be of interest to historians. The job of academia is not to obscure the truth by banning historical phrases. It is to ferret it out.

Michael Wood on History Extra:

There are storms buffeting the world of Anglo-Saxon studies. Like the narrator of the Old English poem The Seafarer, many scholars are feeling battered by “dire sea-surges” and “bitter breast cares”. And the waves are coming from across the Atlantic. In the United States the academic Anglo-Saxon studies establishment, white-dominated and long perceived as excluding of BAME scholars, is now facing a backlash. The first target is the International Society of Anglo-Saxonists (ISAS), a body predominantly concerned with Old English literature and culture, which over the last 35 years has done a great deal to further knowledge of the pre-Conquest period but which now stands accused of institutional racism. Recently, one of its vice presidents, a woman of colour, resigned describing the field as “rife with antiquated views – prestige, elitism, sexism, racism and bigotry – which have seen many good people leave the field”. On 19 September, after a torrent of recriminations on social media, ISAS announced that it will poll members on a change of name.

But the argument is about much more than a name. And it is by no means an issue confined to the US, though there it has gathered a particular intensity. American critics of ‘Anglo-Saxon studies’ feel the subject is by definition racist, that it has never escaped its roots in 18th and 19th-century colonialism when ‘Anglo-Saxonism’ in both the USA and Britain was used to endorse white supremacy. The slave-owning Thomas Jefferson, after all, founded the republic on imagined Anglo-Saxon roots, based on laws supposedly lost in 1066. This latter-day Anglo-Saxon commonwealth would come to be summed up in the acronym WASP – White, Anglo-Saxon and Protestant – a code for racial purity that white supremacists and neo-Nazis have embraced. And this situation, critics allege, is still implicitly underwritten by a white academic establishment that has failed to move with the times and embrace diversity, both in appointments and ideas.

All due respect to Michael Wood, but somehow I can’t see neo-Nazis embracing the term “WASP,” which in America connotes east-coast establishment types like the elder Bush. 

Has the time come to retire the term ‘Anglo-Saxon’? Is it a bar to understanding and communication, imprisoning us in the racist views of the past? We can’t answer these questions without acknowledging the fact that, contrary to what some people have been stating on social media, the Early English did use the term ‘Anglo-Saxons’ of themselves. On the continent in the eighth century, Paul the Deacon speaks of the “Anglisaxones”; Alfred and his successors used “King of the Anglo-Saxons” as a title for their new order. We may drop ‘Anglo-Saxonists’, then – we may prefer ‘Early English’ – but we cannot dispense entirely with ‘Anglo-Saxons’.

Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi

Thomas MacMaster writes, in reference to a recent death in Syria:

Am I the only one startled to see the lack of discussion over the death of a world famous scholar of the medieval world (BA, MA, & PhD as well as numerous publications) who probably did more to weaponize medieval studies in the past decade than anyone else?

We should also acknowledge his leadership of one of the largest medieval re-enactment groups (with a serious commitment to using the digital humanities for outreach).

He makes a good point…

Some Good Advice

From Chronicle Vitae (hat tip: Richard Utz): 

How Not to Be a Jackass at Your Next Academic Conference

If you’ve spent any time at an academic conference, you know the scene: A stage full of scholars have just finished presenting their papers. As the Q&A session begins, a woman rises from the audience and prefaces her remarks by saying, in so many words, that she hadn’t been invited to appear on the panel. But here, anyway, are the highlights of her paper—and her credentials and biography, too.

Or maybe a senior professor speaks up. He barks at a graduate student on the panel, embarrassing the student by ripping his paper to pieces. Another professor steps forward and asks the panelists a series of multipart questions she already seems to know the answers to.

Perhaps a guy raises his hand to comment and quotes verbatim from Jürgen Habermas’s The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere. Or he decides to show off his French by citing Frantz Fanon’s manifesto Les Damnés de la Terre, when he could have kept it simple by using the English title, The Wretched of the Earth.

Some of these moments may be byproducts of social awkwardness; others are signs of bad manners. Some might not even bother you. But they’re all fairly common. I witnessed several of them earlier this month—including the Habermas and Fanon name-checks—at the American Historical Association meeting.

Why do so many academics risk coming off like jackasses at conference Q&A sessions? Some scholars say it’s because those sessions are more about pageantry than conversation: Showing other scholars how much you know is often more important than actually listening and learning.

There’s another reason, too: Developing good conference manners—and social skills in general—just isn’t part of graduate school training. I gathered a list of behaviors, both comical and aggravating, from a few dozen academics. As I read through them, I wondered: What would Emily Post, the famous etiquette author, do?

I decided to call up someone who would know. Emily Post’s great-great granddaughter, Anna Post, keeps the flame alive, conducting business-etiquette seminars across the country as an etiquette guru at the Emily Post Institute. She carved out some time to chat with me about academic disorders and how to cure them. 

Click the link to read some excellent advice

Liberal Arts Degrees

Here is the text of my piece promised earlier this summer, which has appeared in Canton Family Life.

***

The engineering major asks “How does it work?”
The business major asks “How much will it cost?”
The liberal arts major asks “Do you want fries with that?”

I’ve heard some version of this joke many times, and it’s always annoying – in part because it’s somewhat true. The joke points to the dual purpose of higher education: does it exist to preserve “the best that has been thought and said” in our culture? To teach young people how to think and about what it means to be human? To open new vistas in human understanding?

Or does it exist to prepare people for paid employment?

At one point you could have both – a bachelor’s degree in any subject signaled that its holder was diligent and intelligent, and thus suitable for white-collar work.

Unfortunately, at some point in the twentieth century, politicians noticed that university graduates enjoyed a higher status and standard of income – so they figured that if everyone went to university, then everyone could enjoy a higher status and standard of income! They sponsored a vast expansion in higher education, both in terms of the number of university campuses built, and in the number of people who were able to attend through grants and loans to help cover their tuition bills.

Universities were happy to play along. In fact, it is a major reason why university tuition fees have risen at twice the rate of inflation for the past forty years or so. Universities are not charities, they are businesses, and even though they are not-for-profit, they hate leaving money on the table. If you get a student loan, the university will make sure that it gets every penny of that loan. Someone has to pay for the new football stadium!

Alas, for the graduates themselves, the law of diminishing returns kicked in. Once bachelor’s degrees became both more common and more expensive, it meant that students could not afford to spend their undergraduate years developing a personal life philosophy and still expect that their degree would be worth something on the job market. Instead, their degree had to start paying off immediately. Thus did technical or professional majors, which prepare graduates for specific fields like business management or information technology, really start to take off. Even people who were interested in the liberal arts felt they had to major in something “practical,” out of fear for their livelihood.

Now, it should be said that universities have not completely abandoned their other, cultural purpose. They will generally require students to take a few liberal arts courses in such subjects as history, English, philosophy, or religion for the sake of polish or breadth. People who actually want to major in these subjects, however, are regularly condescended to. One guest speaker at Reinhardt told us recently, “What’s the difference between a liberal arts major and a pizza? A pizza can feed a family of four!”

But I have taught and kept in touch with fifteen years’ worth of history majors, and I can safely say that this view is not accurate.

For one, it does no one any good to major in a subject he hates. Better to pursue something that you’re really interested in and actually graduate, than to drop out on account of tedium.

For two, the skills acquired in the pursuit of a liberal arts degree are transferrable to a wide range of careers. Chief among these is the ability to pull information from a variety of sources, to synthesize it, and to present it in a coherent and eloquent manner. One of our history graduates, a project manager at Prosys Information Systems, says that his literacy and communication skills are “superior to almost everyone I work with,” and credits the history program for preparing him for his job. Another worked as a property analyst in Atlanta. His employers were glad to hear that he was a history major because they knew he could think through problems and analyze situations. As he says: “every day I craft proposals and analyses that need to be articulate and persuasive.”

Of course, success in the job market still depends on the exercise of certain amount of initiative. Holding an internship in a field you’d like to enter, developing contacts there, and marketing oneself through LinkedIn are all useful. Minoring in something technical can also be a good idea. And in fairness, I should point out that discretion is advised when choosing liberal arts courses, some of which, I am ashamed to admit, serve up great helpings of impenetrable, jargon-encrusted prose in the service of entirely predictable political positions.

But knowing how to think and knowing how to write will stand you in good stead wherever you end up – whether that’s in business, higher education, law enforcement, public administration, teaching, ministry, or health care, to name a few of the fields our graduates have found careers in. Long after this year’s hot programming language has been made obsolete, liberal arts graduates will still have the ability to “see around corners,” in the words of Kevin Reinhart, professor of religion at Dartmouth College. Blogger Joe Asch concurs, saying that “Over the years, whether in dealing with managers or lawyers or even architects and other professionals, I have found that folks with a liberal arts background understand larger issues which people with only technical training just can’t comprehend.”

It might take some effort to find your first job as a liberal arts major, but chances are you’ll end up performing very well in it!

History In and Out of the Classroom

From The Federalist:

Americans have a hunger to understand, explore, and connect with their history. Richly sourced, intellectually demanding accounts of the country’s defining moments and characters do more than break through the noise.

Indeed, historians are probably the scholars most celebrated outside the confines of the academy. They are among the few who shape our cultural landscape—from a place of learning. As though to prove the point, Chernow’s 832-page 2005 biography of Alexander Hamilton, also a New York Times best-seller, inspired the most talked-about Broadway musical in a generation. Only on the American college campus is American history on retreat.

How strange it is that U.S. colleges and universities are abandoning the study of American history and, at some institutions, the study of history altogether. The American Council of Trustees and Alumni evaluates the general education programs of more than 1,100 colleges and universities every year. The 2018–19 report found that only 17 percent of them required any kind of foundational course in American history or government. As of 2016, only four out of the top 25 national universities (as ranked by U.S. News and World Report) required a course in U.S. history in their history majors.

In this light, it is perhaps unsurprising that history programs in the United States are struggling to generate student interest. When the American Historical Association drew attention to cratering undergraduate degree production last year—the number of history degrees awarded annually has fallen almost 34 percent since 2011, more steeply than any other discipline in the liberal arts.

This is true even at my alma mater Dartmouth College, where I attended my 25th reunion last weekend.

Previous thoughts on the matter.

UPDATE: This is the 1000th post published on FFT since the blog’s inception in September 2014!

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. This is one reason why Dan Brown’s Da Vinci Code is so ridiculous. 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 scoring “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 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 notion 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.

Oh the Humanities

From BBC Capital:

Why ‘worthless’ humanities degrees may set you up for life

At university, when I told people I was studying for a history degree, the response was almost always the same: “You want to be a teacher?”. No, a journalist. “Oh. But you’re not majoring in communications?”

In the days when a university education was the purview of a privileged few, perhaps there wasn’t the assumption that a degree had to be a springboard directly into a career. Those days are long gone.

Today, a degree is all but a necessity for the job market, one that more than halves your chances of being unemployed. Still, that alone is no guarantee of a job – and yet we’re paying more and more for one. In the US, room, board and tuition at a private university costs an average of $48,510 a year; in the UK, tuition fees alone are £9,250 ($12,000) per year for home students; in Singapore, four years at a private university can cost up to SGD$69,336 (US$51,000).

Learning for the sake of learning is a beautiful thing. But given those costs, it’s no wonder that most of us need our degrees to pay off in a more concrete way. Broadly, they already do: in the US, for example, a bachelor’s degree holder earns $461 more each week than someone who never attended a university.

But most of us want to maximise that investment – and that can lead to a plug-and-play type of approach to higher education. Want to be a journalist? Study journalism, we’re told. A lawyer? Pursue pre-law. Not totally sure? Go into Stem (science, technology, engineering and maths) – that way, you can become an engineer or IT specialist. And no matter what you do, forget the liberal arts – non-vocational degrees that include natural and social sciences, mathematics and the humanities, such as history, philosophy and languages.

This has been echoed by statements and policies around the world. In the US, politicians from Senator Marco Rubio to former President Barack Obama have made the humanities a punch line. (Obama later apologised). In China, the government has unveiled plans to turn 42 universities into “world class” institutions of science and technology. In the UK, government focus on Stem has led to a nearly 20% drop in students taking A-levels in English and a 15% decline in the arts.

But there’s a problem with this approach. And it’s not just that we’re losing out on crucial ways to understand and improve both the world and ourselves – including enhancing personal wellbeing, sparking innovation and helping create tolerance, among other values.

It’s also that our assumptions about the market value of certain degrees – and the “worthlessness” of others – might be off. At best, that could be making some students unnecessarily stressed. At worst? Pushing people onto paths that set them up for less fulfilling lives. It also perpetuates the stereotype of liberal arts graduates, in particular, as an elite caste – something that can discourage underprivileged students, and anyone else who needs an immediate return on their university investment, from pursuing potentially rewarding disciplines.

I couldn’t agree more, and said as much in a piece that will be appearing later this summer (stay tuned).

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:

Medieval Studies in the New York Times!

And on the front page no less. The article, which arrives on the eve of the annual Kalamazoo conference, has been getting a lot of attention from my medievalist colleagues on Facebook and Twitter. A lot of people have taken issue with Richard Utz’s assertion that “People don’t become medievalists because they want to be political… Most are monkish creatures who just want to live in their cells and write their manuscripts.” Thus do we now have (of course!) the Twitter hashtag #notamonk, and the repeated assertion that nothing is apolitical, that if you ignore the problem, then you’re part of the problem. They are also upset about opinions they disagree with getting such a prominent “platform.”

But I don’t want to live in a world where everything is political – and definitely not one where a political position is a compulsory badge of membership in an institution. And as a general principle of journalism, I believe that all sides deserve a fair hearing. It used to be that adults understood this intuitively.

As for “platforms,” it’s curious to note how putative outsiders are so finely attuned to questions of status (that is, they complain about the “prestige economy,” but they don’t actually object to its existence, just that their current slice isn’t as big as they’d like). The New York Times can publish whatever it wants, and demanding creative control over the product on account of its “prestige” is somewhat like making a public issue about Harvard’s admissions policies. No one has a right to attend Harvard, and no one has a right to constant validation from daddy either.

So I’m happy to note that Milo Yiannopoulos’s 16000-word  essay “Middle Rages: Why the Battle for Medieval Studies Matters for America” has been published as an ebook. It’s available at Arkhaven Comics and Amazon (for now!). I like that it features an introduction by Mark Bauerlein. Excerpt:

To any objective observer of higher education over the last thirty or so years it is now clear that the multiculturalist project announced in pleasing, benign term of “diversity” and “opening up the canon” and “recovering lost voices” was no such thing. Multiculturalists spoke warmly of honoring the Other and welcoming historically-disadvantaged groups, but now that the diversiphiles have changed the curriculum for good and altered hiring practices – for instance, by adding to job interviews litmus-test questions such as, “How will you enhance diversity at our school after we hire you?” – they aren’t happy and they aren’t satisfied.

Read the whole thing.

Reinhardt in the GHQ

Congratulations to Ken Wheeler and the students of his IDS 317: Town and Gown course in the fall of 2017, whose research on the racial integration of Reinhardt College in the late 1960s has been published in the most recent number of the Georgia Historical Quarterly, and which provided the cover illustration to boot: