Heraldic Seal for Dartmouth – A Proposal

Earlier this summer I wrote a letter to the president of Dartmouth College, which I reproduce below, with added links. (No reply as of yet.)

***

Dear Sir,

When I was a student at Dartmouth in the early 1990s, some Indian figures remained in the official symbolism of the College, most notably on the Dartmouth seal, the Dartmouth shield, and the Baker Library weathervane. Two years ago, the College deprecated the shield in favor of the new “D-Pine” logo, and I heard the announcement this week that the Baker weathervane is to be taken down as soon as possible.

That leaves the seal:

Please know that I am not writing to defend it. There are, indeed, a number of problems with it. Like the Dartmouth shield, the seal depicts Native people being drawn out of the woods to receive the light of the Gospel, or at the very least a European-style education. Such a scene now strikes us as offensive, and in fact was all false propaganda to begin with, being an aspect of Eleazar Wheelock’s PR efforts to keep donations coming. Wheelock designed a seal of Dartmouth College that specifically references the seal of the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts, a missionary society founded in 1701 in London:

Similarities between the Dartmouth seal and the SPG seal include the natives on the one side, the larger European technology on the other, writing in the air, and an irradiated object over the whole thing.

The Dartmouth seal is also religious in other ways. One of the supporters carries a Christian cross:

And the Hebrew at the top reads “El Shaddai,” meaning “God Almighty”:

Note that it’s on a triangle, referencing the Christian concept of the Holy Trinity (as though to say: “We know Hebrew! But please don’t confuse us with the original Hebrews.”)

Such details are not appropriate for a secular college.

I do not know if there has been a movement on campus against the Dartmouth seal. Given recent trends I can certainly understand if people might want to devise a new seal that accurately reflects Dartmouth’s history and is more in accord with its current values. If it is to be changed, allow me to propose that Dartmouth adopt a seal featuring a properly heraldic coat of arms. An example might look like this:

When well-designed, a heraldic shield is simple and recognizable, and neatly encapsulates an organization’s identity. In this case, the coat of arms says “I am an academic foundation (building, books) named after the Earl of Dartmouth (stag’s head) and located in rural New Hampshire (also stag’s head)” – with no references to Natives or Christianity. Heraldry places a university in a long tradition stretching back to the thirteenth century and suggests that it is dignified and deserves to be taken seriously. One does not need to use a coat of arms on a daily basis to express one’s identity (the D-Pine logo, as far as I’m concerned, does this quite well), but it is nice to have a coat of arms should the need arise – for instance, on those occasions when all the Ivy League coats of arms are displayed together.

I repeat that I am unfamiliar with the campus climate. I do not know whether anyone has said anything about the seal. I can understand why people might want it changed, but I can also understand why they might want to retain it too, for historic or sentimental reasons. If it is to be deprecated, however, please consider replacing it with an appropriate, well-designed, and dignified coat of arms.

Sincerely,

Jonathan Good ’94

The Practice of History

A friend writes:

In practice it seems to have become a norm to say “historians agree,” when when that is not true, or sometimes just on the basis of some recent article or paperback, and which is popular with a certain crowd.

There is almost a tendency to present history as an activity in which some set “findings” have been made that have a fixed meaning.

Such a reality is not true even in many experimental social sciences which at least use statistical significance as a guide to reliability. It is even less the case with history where the nature of the profession precludes such statements. The very historians who do the most detailed archival, philological, and novel work are so often overwhelmed with that that they do not have a very good grasp of other areas of history, and even less the findings of social, psychological, and natural sciences. Whereas those who, because they come across well on camera, who speak most generally often simply do not have enough scholarly depth.

And for people on the left who really really feel that some piece of historiography has totally transformed historical understanding so that they know something that hoi polloi don’t, always keep in mind the sad case of Michael A. Bellesiles [link added].

My favorite example of this phenomenon is provided by Noel Ignatiev’s book, How the Irish Became White (1995). Ignatiev used “white” metaphorically to mean “part of the dominant group.” But since then it has become conventional wisdom that “the Irish weren’t even considered white in the nineteenth century!” One must use metaphors carefully. 

The Auto-Icon

One of the stranger items on display at University College London is the stuffed remains of its spiritual founder, utilitarian philosopher Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832), who believed that education should be free of church influence (unlike Oxford and Cambridge, which at the time were restricted to members of the Church of England). Bentham called this his “auto-icon” (i.e. “self-image”). The auto-icon:

was inscribed in the late philosopher’s will, which requested that a number of fixtures be put in place to preserve his remains, that they be dressed in the clothes he wore in life, and that they occasionally be brought into meetings involving his still-living friends, so that what’s left of Bentham might enjoy their company.

You might be inclined to think that this was an elaborate joke on Bentham’s part, but he doesn’t strike me as the joking type. The auto-icon, according to the linked article in Atlas Obscura, has found a new and much more public home at UCL: in a glass case in the student center. (Previously it was in a closet that was only opened on request.) 

Bentham might have been an atheist, but it is interesting to note how the preservation of human remains is a custom that extends beyond religion. 

Books

Some of our books. This is the medieval section.

My wife and I, over the course of our careers as historians, have amassed over 4400 books (I catalogued them a few years ago). Our children are well on their way to replicating our habit with their own tastes in literature. We have 27 bookcases of various sizes lining the walls of six rooms of our house. I wouldn’t say that we are hoarders – we’re actually somewhat selective about what we acquire, and the shelves have their own pleasant aesthetic. But when you both have academic specialties, and teach a lot of topics through survey courses, and have any number of secondary interests – and there are a potentially unlimited number of books published on every topic under the sun, well, you end up acquiring a lot of books! In fact, our habit has become a bit compulsive, almost like an addiction. Like all addictions, it has enablers:

I hate shopping, but there are few things I enjoy more than visiting a used book store! Usually it doesn’t take much for me to find an excuse to buy something. Some possibilities:

• This looks interesting.

• I don’t have a book on this topic, and I might need one for a lecture some day.

• I have a book on this topic but this one is more recent/provides a different point of view.

• I have heard of this author and I should have some of his books.

• I have read something by this author and would like to read more.

• I have nearly all this author’s works; all I need is this one to complete my collection.

• It is important to support small bookshops.

And so on. So out we come with an armful. (I do have an Excel spreadsheet of our collection on my phone, so that we don’t end up buying the same books over again.)

Bookshops, however, at least provide you with plenty of books that you do not want to buy. Romance novels, self-help books, celebrity biographies… all so very much beneath the notice of this academic. You find the history section, and then the selection of books that you might want, and then choose the best ones among them. It’s a chase, a filtration process – the aspect of collecting that makes it addictive. The trouble comes when you’re spoiled for choice, like at the book exhibits at the annual meeting of the AHA, where just about every academic publisher operating in America shows up with every historical title they have currently in print. Then you realize just how pathetic your addiction is. My friend Scott claims he fell out of love with stamp collecting when he realized that there were companies out there from whom you could order just about any stamp ever printed. Where’s the fun in that? Similarly, why buy a book on ancient Greece that “looks interesting,” when there have been twenty such books published this year alone that are brimming with current scholarship and are not available in Barnes and Noble, i.e. they are the sort of books that actually command academic respect? Oh, the pain!

But I don’t get to the AHA much. Instead, the normal situation prevails when we visit McKay’s in Tennessee or 2nd & Charles on Barrett Parkway. Joseph Epstein once called such stores “the pool halls of academe” and lately I have come to believe that our habit is somewhat self-congratulatory and illustrates a lack of discipline – or at least a distraction from doing real work. Having walls full of books certainly signifies you as Educated and a Professional Academic, but it also represents what one friend called a “security blanket.” After all, when are you going to read them all? I will say that I do read – last year I read 42 books, most of which were in our collection. But this represents less than 1% of our holdings, and at this rate it will take a century to read everything we’ve got. I could say that they’re there for the sake of reference – “reading” in the academic sense of skimming for information, and then keeping the book on the shelf in case you need to return to it some day, which may be never, but at least it’s there. But I really don’t like reading books in this way (what one author called “book breaking“) – it shortchanges the author and encourages intellectual superficiality. 

“Have you never heard of libraries?” a friend once asked me, to which I replied, “I’ve gotten to the point where I don’t trust libraries.” And I guess I can say that this is a good reason to keep an extensive collection. It’s always convenient to have a book at home when you need it, rather than having to go to the library the next day, only to discover that it’s missing from the shelves, or that someone else has already checked it out. Having to order a book through interlibrary loan takes even longer, and there’s no guarantee that it will even arrive. And lately libraries are deaccessioning their codexes because “everything’s online anyway,” but I am suspicious of this movement, for a number of reasons:

• it remains (for me) more difficult to read longer works from a screen than from a page.

• you need computer equipment, an internet connection, and a power source to be able to read electronic documents. What if any of these is down? Sometimes they’re behind a paywall or require a subscription for added annoyance. 

• putting things online allows your reading habits to be tracked, and for changes to be made to texts without ever being acknowledged, in the mode of George Lucas monkeying with the original Star Wars trilogy. (Han shot first!) And don’t forget the books that somehow disappear without notice from your Kindle “library.” 

Reinhardt’s librarian Joel Langford once pointed out to me that with music or video recordings, you always need some sort of playback equipment, but with text, all you need is to know is how to read. Thus books will never quite go out of style, unlike CDs or VHS tapes – you don’t need any special equipment to read them, except for a light source. Furthermore, the tactility of books keeps them attractive over computer files. Malcolm Gladwell once wrote an essay about the persistence of paper. An excerpt:

Computer technology was supposed to replace paper. But that hasn’t happened…. This is generally taken as evidence of how hard it is to eradicate old, wasteful habits and of how stubbornly resistant we are to the efficiencies offered by computerization. A number of cognitive psychologists and ergonomics experts, however, don’t agree. Paper has persisted, they argue, for very good reasons: when it comes to performing certain kinds of cognitive tasks, paper has many advantages over computers. The dismay people feel at the sight of a messy desk—or the spectacle of air-traffic controllers tracking flights through notes scribbled on paper strips—arises from a fundamental confusion about the role that paper plays in our lives.

There’s much more at the link. Gladwell is talking about the use of paper in offices, but some of what he says applies to books as well – holding them in one’s hand, marking pages with sticky notes, scribbling in the margins, shelving them by topic – these things actually help us to remember what’s in the book. (This is a drawback of literacy, of course – we have outsourced remembering to the text, so anything that allows us more efficient access to that information is to be cherished.)

While we’re on the subject of tactility, it is good to remember that some books, as objects, are better than others. One is not supposed to judge a book by its cover (or, presumably, other physical attributes), but you really can’t help it. Some of the qualities I appreciate:

• The paper should be smooth to the touch, strong (not disintegrative), and should not yellow with age.

• The pages should be well laid out with spacious margins. Fonts should be attractive and appropriate, with competent leading, kerning, justification and characters per line. The ink should be solid in tone and color, and the letters well defined. 

• The illustrations and graphical flourishes should be attractive and appropriate, and not clash with the typeface.

• Whether hard or soft cover, the binding should not crack or come apart yet should be supple enough to handle with ease. (I don’t particularly care for Folio Society-style leather bindings and gilded page edges, though – that is a step too far.)

• Softcover books should be made so that the cover doesn’t curl up in the slightest humidity, and the cover shouldn’t easily retain and display the grease stains from one’s fingers. Also, it’s nice when that thin film of cellophane that covers some softcover books doesn’t bubble and start peeling off.

• Last but not least, there is that lovely scent. One of the appeals of a book store is the smell of all the old books! A book should certainly not reek of the oil used to print it. 

So I’m not about to get rid of all my books any time soon. I’m certainly not going to adopt the habits of a person I read about in the Chronicle once, who prided himself on keeping no books. If he was working on something, he would get whatever books he needed from the library or interlibrary loan, and after he was done he would return them, and put the topic out of his mind as he moved on to his next project. To my mind this is somewhat anti-intellectual, but it’s likely more conducive to academic success.

Still, a good cull is probably in order….

Happy New Year

To start the new year, a Facebook friend makes a resolution, with which I heartily agree:

Many years ago I took a course on Late Antiquity and we read a book by scholar A and then one by Scholar B. Scholar B totally opened by mocking the outrageous claims of Scholar A except here’s the thing: Scholar A never made those claims. Scholar B set up what is known as a strawman to attack and make his position seem less questionable. I took this to heart and have found myself saying “Don’t be a [Scholar B]!” before I think about re-sharing or reacting.

A lot of times on social media I see people share posts about how “so many people with belief X are posting this awful sentiment” and internally I’m like, “that’s weird – I haven’t seen anything that sounds like that or I saw one comment.” And here’s the thing: they aren’t or it’s one person but articles are written as if a whole group rose up and said one thing.

There are many outlets (media and otherwise) who want you to think that they other side is so outrageous that it isn’t worth doing your due diligence – but it’s always worth doing due diligence. And don’t let one comment replace the thoughts of many.

I fail at this a lot – it’s super easy to be Scholar B. It’s comfortable to be Scholar B. But we shouldn’t be. In 2020, let’s all agree to be skeptical when something seems too outrageous to believe and let’s also ask ourselves who benefits when we do believe it?

And then weigh that before we share an article or comment or post.

Related, from Vox.com:

Intellectual humility: the importance of knowing you might be wrong

Why it’s so hard to see our own ignorance, and what to do about it.

I’ve come to appreciate what a crucial tool it is for learning, especially in an increasingly interconnected and complicated world. As technology makes it easier to lie and spread false information incredibly quickly, we need intellectually humble, curious people.

I’ve also realized how difficult it is to foster intellectual humility. In my reporting on this, I’ve learned there are three main challenges on the path to humility:

  1. In order for us to acquire more intellectual humility, we all, even the smartest among us, need to better appreciate our cognitive blind spots. Our minds are more imperfect and imprecise than we’d often like to admit. Our ignorance can be invisible.
  2. Even when we overcome that immense challenge and figure out our errors, we need to remember we won’t necessarily be punished for saying, “I was wrong.” And we need to be braver about saying it. We need a culture that celebrates those words.
  3. We’ll never achieve perfect intellectual humility. So we need to choose our convictions thoughtfully.

This is all to say: Intellectual humility isn’t easy. But damn, it’s a virtue worth striving for, and failing for, in this new year.

Read the whole thing. All I would like to add is that opponents to Trump, not just Trump himself, can fall victim to false and unearned confidence…

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 income level – so they figured that if everyone went to university, then everyone could enjoy a higher status and income level! 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, plus what it would have charged in the first place. Someone has to pay for the president’s new office suite!

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. The idea is 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.

* 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.