Otto Rahn

Dan Franke asks: “You want a medieval studies Nazi Germany mystery? Look no further.” From Wikipedia:

Otto Wilhelm Rahn (18 February 1904 – 13 March 1939) was a German writer, medievalistAriosophist, and an officer of the SS and researcher into the Grail myths. He was born in Michelstadt, Germany, and died in Söll (KufsteinTyrol) in Austria. Speculation still surrounds Otto Rahn and his research.

From an early age, Rahn became interested in the legends of Parzival, the Holy GrailLohengrin and the Nibelungenlied. While attending the University of Giessen, he was inspired by his professor, Baron von Gall, to study the Albigensian (Catharism) movement and the massacre that occurred at Montségur.

In 1931, he travelled to the Pyrenees region of southern France where he conducted most of his research. Aided by the French mystic and historian Antonin Gadal, Rahn argued that there was a direct link between Wolfram von Eschenbach‘s Parzival and the Cathar Grail mystery. He believed that the Cathars held the answer to this sacred mystery and that the keys to their secrets lay somewhere beneath the mountain peak where the fortress of Montségur remains, the last Cathar fortress to fall during the Albigensian Crusade.

Rahn wrote two books linking Montségur and Cathars with the Holy Grail: Kreuzzug gegen den Gral (Crusade Against the Grail) in 1933 and Luzifers Hofgesind (Lucifer’s Court) in 1937. After the publication of his first book, Rahn’s work came to the attention of Heinrich Himmler, the head of the SS, who was fascinated by the occult and had already initiated research in the south of France. Rahn joined his staff as a junior non-commissioned officer and became a full member of the SS in 1936, achieving the rank of Obersturmführer.

It was an uneasy partnership for Otto Rahn; later, he explained his SS membership to friends in the following way: “A man has to eat. What was I supposed to do? Turn Himmler down?” Journeys for his second book led Rahn to places in Germany, France, Italy and Iceland. Openly homosexual, frequenting anti-Nazi circles, and having fallen out of favor with the Nazi leadership, Rahn was assigned guard duty at the Dachau concentration camp in 1937 as punishment for a drunken homosexual scrape. He resigned from the SS in 1939.

But the SS would not allow anyone to resign without consequences. Soon, Rahn found out the Gestapo was after him, and he was even offered the option of committing suicide. He vanished. On 13 March 1939, nearly on the anniversary of the fall of Montségur, Rahn was found frozen to death on a mountainside near Söll (KufsteinTyrol) in Austria. His death was officially ruled a suicide.

Crazy stuff! 

Medieval Reenactment

There is something quite fun about live-action reenactments of the illustrations that one finds in medieval manuscripts. (From Bored Panda, hat tip Lachlan Mead.) 

Those of us who went to college can remember the amazingly fun times we had with our coursemates. However, I doubt that, in our spare time, any of us did anything as weird as one band of students from the Czech Republic.

A group of Czech students has the weirdest understanding of leisure we’ve seen so far. They decided to recreate weird and bizarre scenes found in illustrations from medieval books. And we know how strangely artists from the Middle Ages saw the world around them.

Click the link to see them. 

King Arthur Flour

Shopping at Publix just now I noticed that King Arthur Flour, perhaps the most medievalist company in the United States,* has gotten a little less medieval. Here is what their logo looked like until July:

And here’s what it looks like now:

An article in Adweek (which features some great animation) indicates that the makeover is, in part:

“The image of a white knight astride a horse felt very masculine, European and old fashioned. Though intended to symbolize King Arthur, the figure actually felt more like a medieval crusader… The cross on the flag further emphasized this religious crusader symbol and would alienate many consumers.” In contrast, the new brand removes hints of militarism or religious affiliation, while retaining the connection to the company’s heritage and the name King Arthur.

Be that as it may, it’s a shame that they couldn’t have found something a little more Arthurian – a sword in the stone, a Round Table, or the Holy Grail all come to mind…

UPDATE: From Theresa Rupp at the Scholarly Dilettante: “The Flour of Chivalry: King Arthur Flour and American Medievalism

* As it happens Canada also has a medievalist brand of flour:


I assume that Robin Hood’s redistributive economic policies will ensure that his image does not go the way of King Arthur’s. 


I was asked to contribute to a blog post on how medievalists are doing in these troubled times. Here’s what I came up with:


Medievalists, particularly American medievalists, are usually starved for attention. They must work very hard to convince other people that their subject is relevant. So when the country is under coronavirus quarantine, they naturally bring up parallels with the Black Death of the fourteenth century, which can provide illuminating insights or at least comic relief. A friend claimed that he and his family were hunkered down, “telling a story a day to each other,” like the characters in Boccaccio’s Decameron. Another jokingly announced:

Hmm, just got a thing from a local church. They’re organizing a large group of Christians to publicly pray for mercy and strike themselves with belts and other things to show that they mean it. If it goes well locally, they plan on organizing a march of penance to other towns and cities.

But presumably this neo-Flagellant group is not going to proceed to a local Jewish neighborhood and beat up the inhabitants there, for allegedly poisoning the wells. Because, let’s be honest: a study of history often makes one very grateful to be living in the time and place that one does. We know that this pestilence is caused by a virus, and we know how it spreads; we can even come up with vaccines against it, which eventually we will. No more messing around with astrology, humorism, or aromatherapy, as the poor medievals did. We might study the Middle Ages, but I doubt any one of us actually wants to return to them.

Although, if there is one interesting parallel between Yersinia Pestis and SARS-CoV-2, it is how the spread of both microbes was abetted by international trade. The Black Death got to Europe over the Silk Road; our outsourcing of most manufacturing to China has given us lots of cheap stuff to buy, but it is also the means by which a local outbreak of a novel coronavirus in Wuhan became an international sensation. This is an unintended price of globalism – and a good reason to consider bringing home some of the things we’ve outsourced to China.

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.”

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…

Global Medievalisms

I was pleased to participate in the 34th international conference on medievalism this weekend at Georgia Tech. This conference was last held at Tech five years ago, right at the dawn of this blog. The Georgia Medievalists’ Group was a co-sponsor, and several GMG members participated, including your humble narrator (with a paper on the medievalism of the Gaelic Revival), Emory Law professor Sasha Volokh (who spoke about American rhetorical appeals to medieval law), and Reinhardt English professor Graham Johnson (who spoke about pragmatic speech in Game of Thrones).

Keith Kelly of Georgia Gwinnett College and Graham Johnson of Reinhardt University.

Medievalism is defined as the study of the “reception” of the Middle Ages in times after the Middle Ages, and it’s all around us. Medievalism-ists (for lack of a better word) uncover the medieval origins of things, and examine present-day appeals to the Middle Ages, for both noble and base reasons. I enjoyed the presentation of Ken Mondschein, who is an active member of the Historical European Martial Arts (HEMA), and who can fight while dressed in a full suit of plate armor.

HBO’s Game of Thrones television series was a very popular topic at this conference (six papers in total) – thus did I learn of the existence of a Bayeux-style Game of Thrones tapestry, currently on display at Bayeux

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.