Mark Ormrod

From the University of York, some sad news (hat tip: Ilana Krug): 

Obituary: Professor Mark Ormrod

A prolific researcher and leading historian of the later Middle Ages.

Professor Mark Ormrod passed away on 2 August 2020, in St Leonard’s Hospice, after a long illness which had caused him to retire early from the University in 2017 but did not impede his research and publication.

Mark was a leading historian of the later Middle Ages in Britain. He completed his doctorate in 1984 at the University of Oxford and then held a number of positions at the Universities of Sheffield, Evansville (British Campus), Queens University Belfast and Cambridge. In 1990 he moved to a lectureship at the University of York and was promoted to Professor in 1995. His experience of what is now widely known as ‘precarity’ in this early phase of his career always informed his nurturing of students and early career colleagues, whose careers were at the forefront of his mind in the creation of the many funded research projects that he so successfully established.

Mark was Director of the Centre for Medieval Studies from 1998 to 2001 and 2002 to 2003, and Head of the Department of History in 2001 and from 2003 to 2007. He also struck up a very close working relationship with the Borthwick Institute for Archives. He was a natural choice as the first Dean of the newly created Faculty of Arts and Humanities at York in 2009, a position that he held until his retirement in 2017.

While taking up these leadership roles, research remained Mark’s chief joy: he is the author or co-author of at least nine books, fourteen edited collections and well over eighty book chapters and articles. These included the definitive 700-page biography of Edward III (Yale, 2011), an exceptionally complex project that had defeated several earlier scholars. His penultimate book, Women and Parliament in Later Medieval England, was published by Palgrave in July 2020 while his last book, Winner and Waster, was delivered to the publisher just 10 days before he died; a further major collection of essays is forthcoming from the British Academy later this month. Hallmarks of his scholarship included the combination of accessible narrative with major new interpretations of important topics based on scrupulously thorough archival research; a combination of insight and detail that is rarely mastered.

In addition to his own writing he also supervised twenty-eight PhD theses. He was the Principal Investigator on nineteen major externally-funded research projects that were worth over £4m and provided early career positions to many former students. In July 2020 a festschrift compiled by these former students and colleagues was presented to Mark at a tribute to that mentorship (Monarchy, State and Political Culture, ed. Craig Taylor and Gwilym Dodd).

Mark’s externally-funded projects centred on creating public access online to the extensive but often obscure records of medieval government from The National Archives and the Borthwick Institute for Archives. A particularly well-received project, England’s Immigrants 1350-1550, identified circa 70,000 immigrants living in 15th-century England. This last project led Mark into collaboration with the Historical Association and the Runnymede Trust, creating new teaching materials for schools, providing training for teachers and contributing to the content of a new national curriculum in History that focused on the long history of migration to Britain. One output of this work, ‘Our Migration Story’, won the Guardian award for Research Impact in 2019. Other new initiatives that flourished in York because of Mark’s leadership and support include the White Rose College of the Arts and Humanities (the AHRC-funded collaborative doctoral training centre), the Centre for Christianity and Culture, the Festival of Ideas, and the York Medieval Press (an internationally-acclaimed imprint of Boydell and Brewer); all projects that shared his commitment to making scholarship accessible and relevant to the widest possible range of audiences.

Students and colleagues alike remember him above all as a kind and generous man, someone who was always in your corner and wanted you to achieve your best. Underpinning all these achievements was Mark’s very happy home life with Richard, who joined Mark in supporting (and feeding) his extended academic family of students and colleagues. Mark’s professionalism at work was always combined with modesty, good humour, a ready smile, and a generous understanding of colleagues. He laughed a lot and enjoyed life to the full.

I second this. Mark was a brilliant and productive scholar, and a warm and kind person as well. He will be missed. 

Brian Tierney, 1922-2019

Brian Tierney, former Goldwin Smith Professor of Medieval History at Cornell University and the first Bowmar Professor of Humanistic Studies, has died at the age of 97. 

Wikipedia says that “his speciality was medieval church history, focusing on the structure of the medieval church and the medieval state, and the influences of the interaction between these on the development of Western institutions. He was widely recognized as a leading authority on medieval church law and political thought. His work in these fields also proved relevant to some of the modern debates about Roman Catholic ecclesiology. Tierney’s most recent book was Liberty and Law: The Idea of Permissive Natural Law, 1100-1800 (2014). He continued to work on medieval history until the time of his death.”

SEMA 2019

This past weekend I was a participant in the annual conference of the Southeastern Medieval Association (SEMA), held this year on the campus of UNC-Greensboro. Despite living in the southeast I had never attended before, and I was glad that I did – it was fun like Kalamazoo, albeit on a smaller scale. As ever it is with conferences, it was good to see old friends and to make new ones, and to learn new and interesting things in the sessions. The two plenary speakers, Sonja Drimmer and Holly Crocker, were especially good. 

I have reproduced, from the conference program, notice of my session, which was held at 8:30 on Saturday morning. To my surprise, this session turned out to be somewhat controversial. The main criticisms, which started Friday afternoon on Twitter (i.e., before the panel had even been held), focussed on the identities of the participants. In a general sense, it was asserted, any discussion of Charlottesville ought to have included non-white panelists, and in a specific sense, some of the people on the panel were deemed bad people. I don’t know if I was included in this august group, but Richard Utz certainly was (for his defense of the idea that medieval studies doesn’t have to be explicitly political), and presider Dan Franke even more so. I had known about Franke’s open letter to the Medieval Academy last year, but what really upset people, I discover, was his defense of Rachel Fulton Brown back in 2017 (a stance he has since modified). It’s not that this action was in any sort of bad faith, it’s just that, according to one Tweeter, Franke’s essay “went to RFB’s blog, and from there to the white supremacist web in entirely predictable ways…. [Even] if Franke didn’t INTEND to support white supremacy, the IMPACT of his writing doesn’t change… We must take care how we use our academic authority – which does matter and have impact – towards justice or towards hate.” Another person even claimed that he would not attend a conference featuring such a panel. 

What to say about all this?

First off, I think that it’s somewhat rude to criticize a panel before it has even taken place. Why not attend the panel, hear what people have to say, and respond to that? Critiques based on identity leave me cold. I am a systematizer, not an empathizer, and it might be self-serving, but I believe that this is how academia ought to be arranged. You’ve heard it said before, and I agree, that “great minds discuss ideas, average minds discuss events, and small minds discuss people.” Among its many other problems, social media has encouraged a small-minded focus on people. We academics are supposed to be able to consider ideas independent of the identities of their sponsors, and I find these ad hominem attacks especially ironic given the regular denunciations of “prestige culture” one reads on Twitter. What is all this concern about who is cool and who is uncool, if not a form of prestige culture? 

As for people’s racial identities, all I can say is that every other speaker I heard at this conference was white, in a general reflection of the demographics of the field. Even white people have occasionally interesting things to say, and when it comes to denouncing white supremacy, it especially behooves white people to do so! And demanding creative control over a panel (especially from a distance!) is presumptuous. I would say that if anyone objects to Panel 45, they are always free to organize their own panels. 

Finally, I disagree with the notion that one must at all times watch what one says, lest the wrong people take solace from it. On the contrary, one should fearlessly speak the truth as one sees it! Preemptive self-censorship (“crimestop” in Newspeak) is not a habit that an academic should get into, I should think for obvious reasons. I’m old enough to remember Ari Fleisher’s admonition that “all Americans should watch what they say,” and how strenuously (and rightly) academics objected to this. As a colleague says, every historian’s motto should be “fiat historia ruat caelum.” 

(And anyway, unlike most of his critics, Dan Franke was actually at Charlottesville, as a counter-protester!)

I’m pleased to say that panel went well. To be clear: all the panelists, and the presider, took a firm stand against white nationalism. In turn:

• Richard Utz spoke about the value of deliberation in one’s activism. Since Charlottesville, some medievalists have slowed down, while others continue to demand instant change. Outrage has an essential place, but when the same energy is directed towards every little thing, it loses its legitimacy and its efficacy.

• Ilana Krug spoke about our role as teachers, because it is on campus that white nationalists are recruiting, and we need to equip our students with the means to resist their efforts. It is important to unmask such groups as Identity Evropa (now rebranded as the American Identity Movement) and Vanguard America, to challenge their claims head-on. Insofar as these groups idealize the Middle Ages in the service of their ideology, we medievalists must passionately defend the truth about them. 

• I spoke about the importance of getting things right. If it’s important to fight against white nationalism, and the misappropriation of the Middle Ages in the service of white nationalism, then it’s worth getting our facts straight. The truth will eventually come out, and if it is revealed that we have been in the habit of making things up, it will undo whatever good we have attempted to do. (I used St. Maurice’s black eagle as an example of a widespread but false misconception that spread in the wake of Charlottesville.) 

• Laura Morreale praised the work of medievalists of color. She acknowledged that she can’t understand racism at first hand, but only as a thought experiment. Structural inequities in the field are pervasive, however: many practicing medievalists are stuck in the adjunct pool, with no hope of ever receiving tenure or even stable employment and benefits. They’re forgotten, unseen, and “less than,” and if we don’t deal with this pervasive problem, other activism won’t amount to much.

The discussion afterwards was stimulating and fruitful. The room was packed, and everyone was on their best behavior (no insults, shouting, crying, storming out, etc.). I thought that Dan Franke was especially graceful. I was glad for this reaction on Twitter:

I just left that panel, which was productive and interesting (though the composition of the panel was an obvious problem). It concluded with pleas from many that we, as medievalists, all work together to combat the actions of white supremacists…

Alas, not everyone agreed:

Only Krug discussed racism and hers was the only paper about trying to prevent fascists from radicalizing students at predominantly white institutions. Utz & Good focused on countering “extremism” from scholars of color. Morreale talked about being an independent scholar.

No, as noted above, Utz countered unfocused, promiscuous outrage from everyone, and Good countered false narratives, as being counterproductive to real antiracist work. The correct response is: thanks, that’s absolutely right! But “countering extremism” has now become the party line, apparently:

I’m sorry… countering extremism from scholars of color? And people have the audacity to say that some of these people were being genuine. Having said that, Krug sounded like she had some good points.

The original Tweeter criticized me in particular:

It is disorientating to try to stay calm (so you aren’t labeled as hysterical or angry) and respond to what feels like an alternate reality where the objectionable part of Charlottesville is Medieval POC tweeting about St Maurice.

Well, I thank you for your self-control. I appreciate it! All I can say is that I write what I know, and I never claimed that the @MedievalPOC tweet about St. Maurice was the only objectionable part of the Unite the Right rally at Charlottesville (quite apart from any questions of “whataboutism” that people frequently denounce). 

I thought that was the end of it, but on Wednesday a strange comment on the SEMA Facebook page appeared:

after the panel… while I was updating some work in the hallway, I was distressed to overhear conversations among the panelists which were in no way civil; medievalists of color were repeatedly attacked, personally, and dismissed academically, and the nastiness of these hallway conversations was severe enough that I asked one group to please move along and eventually left the area altogether. I regret that I did not confront anyone directly. Obviously, I have no right to critique anyone’s personal conversations, but these were very public and such nastiness does not improve conditions for anyone in medieval studies, and they render calls for “civility” sadly ironic.

I state that this did not happen. I assume the author is referring to me, Krug, and Franke, who were discussing the panel and the state of the field in general. But we were not loud, we were not “repeatedly and personally” attacking anyone, and no one ever asked us to “move along.” This is practically libelous! And it represents a novel development for me: if there is nothing objectionable about the panel as such, you can move to criticizing private conversations in the hall afterwards. (I suppose that in the near future, at conferences, we’ll all have to wear body cameras that record all interactions, so that we can prove that we’ve stayed on the right side of the conference code of conduct.)

Anyway, I was pleased to read a recent opinion piece in Time by Matt Gabriele and Mary Rambaran-Olm, two of the wokest medievalists in the game. They warn that we must be “on guard against false narratives about the medieval period,” since:

Fascism thrives on false narratives, particularly those that involve misleading origin myths and manipulation of terminology and symbols to reinforce hate. That makes it essential that we get the past right, especially when false narratives are used to justify so much anti-democratic politics in today’s world.

Of course, it’s not just fascism that thrives on false narratives. Furthermore, one must always be on guard against tendentiously identifying opinions that one disagrees with as “false” and opinions that one agrees with as “true.” But I am actually glad to see the appearance of these words. It wasn’t too long ago that academics avoided them, on the principle that there is no such thing as truth, only competing narratives of power, which in practice often meant that you could just make things up, as long as your heart was in the right place. But no, you can’t just make things up! We need to get them right! Selah. 

UPDATE: Dan Franke comments at his blog. He also writes, regarding his alleged abetting of white supremacy: “I don’t have any records of my AHA post being shared beyond Rachel’s blog and a few shares on Facebook. Unless I missed something, it was never shared on 4chan or 8chan. It was shared on Reddit where it got no traction. I can’t remember whether Milo shared it on his blog or not, but I have this sense that if so it didn’t gain much traction because Milo’s followers were generally not interested in the kind of conversation that Carol Symes and I were having. So I’ve never understood this line of attack, on evidentiary grounds.”

UPDATE: Another friend writes: “I would say that what was perceived as offensive (principally by those who did not attend and who did not do any work to put the panel or conference together) was the loss of control over the terms of the discussion. If one were to really answer the question, “Medieval Studies 2 years after Charlottesville: Where are we now?” the answer would be that the parameters of the discussion have been firmly delineated; that is, who is allowed talk about it, and how we are allowed to talk about it.”

Utz’s Reply

Richard Utz addresses his critics:

Several medievalists took to social media to state that their own practices and lives most certainly bore no resemblance with the derogatory shadings “monkish” invokes, namely (according to the Oxford English Dictionary) “corruption, pedantry, or other disagreeable characteristics, features, or tendencies attributed to medieval monasticism.” Some brought up the likes of Marc Bloch, the hero-historian who, after a distinguished academic career as medievalist, fought and died for the French Résistance against the Nazis, as evidence against claims of monkish tendencies among medievalists. Others stated that for those historically underrepresented in the field political activism wasn’t really a choice, but a way to survive. Again others mentioned that the abuse of medievalist symbols during the 2017 “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Virginia had made it impossible for medievalists not to be activists. Hence, they declared the field free from retrograde monkish tendrils.

As a historian of medieval studies, I can name 99 monkish medievalists for every ‘Mark Bloch’. And a quick look at single author books (Isidore of Seville would point out that “monograph” and “monk” share the same etymology) reviewed in the Medieval Review since January 1, 2019, includes not a single overtly political title. Think: H. Antonsson, Damnation and Salvation in Old Norse Literature; S. Lynch, Medieval Pedagogical Writings: An Epitome; H. Bamford, Cultures of the Fragment: Uses of the Iberian Manuscript, 1100-1600; etc. The same is true for the dozens of books reviewed in issue 1 of volume 94 (2019) of Speculum: The Journal of the Medieval Academy of America. A single volume, V. Blud’s The Unspeakable, Gender and Sexuality in Medieval Literature, is indebted to a gender studies approach, but makes no attempt at relating it to anything beyond medieval culture; typical entries include: L. Cleaver, Education in Twelfth-Century Art and Architecture; J. Hollmann, The Religious Concordance: Nicholas of Cusa and Christian-Muslim Dialogue; and N. Tonelli, Fisiologia della passione: Poesia d’amore e medicina da Cavalcanti a Boccaccio.

Although this is little more than a slice of medievalist productivity, these observations would indicate that most medievalists continue to write studies that seem to be based, even from the perspectives of other colleagues in the humanities, on “monkish techniques of preservation of knowledge” (Louise Fradenburg), bookish philological “slog” performed by “dull stodges” (Tom Shippey), and an “intractable penchant for pedantry” and a “fascination with the difficult, the obscure, and the esoteric” (Lee Patterson). Said differently, it may well be the specific kind of training (for example in: codicology, paleography, diplomatics, historical linguistics, editing) that makes medieval studies more forbidding, separate, and removed from quotidian matters than contemporary fields. A cool blog called “sexy codicology” hints at just how hard some of us try to extricate ourselves from being deemed pedants, stodges, and monks. Ditto for courses trying to ‘make’ new medievalists via a class on Game of Thrones.

More at the link.

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:


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 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.

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.

Arthurianism in Early Plantagenet England

My friend Chris Berard is interviewed for Boydell’s Medieval Herald about his new book:

What would you most like readers to take from your book? 

I want my readers to see that the legend of King Arthur, as written by Geoffrey of Monmouth, encapsulates the ‘medieval cultural synthesis’ of the Judeo-Christian, Greco-Roman, and Celtic-Teutonic traditions. I describe Arthur in my book as a composite figure, a “best of” kings compilation. In Arthur one finds dimensions of King David, Alexander the Great, King Æthelstan, King Canute, Charlemagne, and the early Norman kings of England. Geoffrey’s Arthur can be understood as a patriotic resistance fighter and as a champion of established institutional authority. Geoffrey’s History of the Kings of Britain was to the post-Conquest kings of England what Virgil’s Aeneid was to Caesar Augustus. In the History of the Kings of Britain, we find a divinely-ordained, manifest destiny of imperial attainment; recurrent patterns of history that provide an intoxicating blend of mystery and meaning to the past, present and future; instruction on good kingship and good vassalage; and hope for an idyllic future, which can be described as a more perfect version of an already idealized past. The breadth of sources and traditions that Geoffrey drew upon when constructing Arthur combined with his tailoring of the figure to appeal to the particular imperial ambitions of England’s monarchs was the key to Arthur’s enduring appeal. Arthur is a king for all seasons. I seek to situate the medieval Arthurian tradition within the broader context and patterns of Western Civilization, and my hope is that my work will contribute to the recognition of Geoffrey of Monmouth’s History of the Kings of Britain as an integral part of the western canon.

More at the link.

Code of Behavior

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rachel Fulton Brown comments that:

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

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

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

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

George Rigg, 1937-2019

From the Centre for Medieval Studies at the University of Toronto:

We acknowledge with deep sadness the death of Professor A.G. Rigg on Monday, January 7. George, as he was known universally to friends, colleagues, and generations of admiring and grateful students, died peacefully at home after a period of declining health.

George was born on 17 February 1937 at Wigan, Lancashire, where he received his secondary education at Wigan Grammar School, which was known for its strong reputation in Classics. As an undergraduate he attended Pembroke College, Oxford from 1955 to 1959 leading to a B.A. in the English School. He wrote his D.Phil thesis, under the supervision of Norman Davis, on Trinity College, Cambridge MS O.9.38, leading to his publication of A Glastonbury Miscellany of the Fifteenth Century in 1968. Concurrently with his doctoral work he taught at Merton College, Oxford as well later at Balliol College. From 1966 to 1968 he held a Visiting Assistant Professorship in the Department of English at Stanford University. In 1968 he took of the position of Assistant Professor in the newly formed Centre for Medieval Studies and the Department of English at the University of Toronto, where he taught until his reluctant retirement (still mandated by law at 65) in 2002. As an emeritus, his generous and energetic mentorship of graduate students continued for many years thereafter.

His exacting philological standards secured his international reputation as a scholar of medieval Latin as well as of Middle English. His editions included the poems of Walter of Wimborne (1978), his controversial edition of the Z-Text of Piers Plowman (1983, with Charlotte Brewer) and a glossed epitome of Geoffrey of Monmouth, A Book of British Kings (2000). The latter was published as volume 30 of the Toronto Medieval Latin Texts, a series that George established and for which he served as general editor for its first thirty volumes. His many articles included a signal series of codicological studies of medieval Latin poetic anthologies which appeared in Mediaeval Studies. Medieval Latin: An Introduction and Bibliographical Guide, co-edited with Frank Mantello, remains an invaluable resource for students of the field, while his magisterial survey, Anglo-Latin Literature, 1066-1422, published in 1992, will remain the definitive reference work for decades to come.

His passionate advocacy for reading competence in medieval Latin as a central feature of serious advanced training in medieval studies led to the creation of the Committee for Medieval Latin Studies, which he chaired from its inception until his retirement, and to the system of examinations that remains a hallmark of a Toronto training in the field. It was his tireless and exacting but endlessly patient encouragement of students in their pursuit of a notoriously rigorous standard that exposed the greatest number of Toronto graduate students to his teaching over the years. Those who took his seminars, and above all those who benefitted from his kindness, enthusiasm, and bonhomie as their doctoral supervisor experienced even more abundantly his rare combination of extraordinary erudition, good humour, genuine humility, and quiet empathy.

We are all of us the poorer for the loss of this kind, good, and brilliant man.

I second this. Prof. Rigg’s Latin course (which I took as a master’s student in 1994-95) was a very valuable experience for me.