I was as disturbed as anyone tracking the reports of the “Unite the Right” demonstrations in Charlottesville, VA over the weekend. Disturbed by the shouted slogans, the violence, the anger, the typically disturbing imagery of swastikas, confederate flags, and automatic weapons displayed alongside American flags. All that was sickening enough.
But then I noticed something else about the images; something equally–if not more–horrifying. It began as an uncanny sensation; the way it feels to stand in a creepy, abandoned house and still recognize, on some level, the traces of very familiar daily life that remain.
It took a little while for the reality to hit me: I was seeing images and concepts pulled from the area of study to which I’ve dedicated my professional life: the history and culture of the Middle Ages in Europe. The uncanny sensation came from the fact that, for me, encountering symbolism from the Middle Ages is what I do for a living every day, so I was literally reading those symbols in my knee-jerk fashtion as though they were appearing in the contexts in which they normally appear for me, familiar symbols with familiar meanings and connotations, encountered in the course of historical and literary study. The images had become so “normal” to me that the unusual context didn’t register at first, leaving me with a strange “something is off here” sensation that I could not, initially, put my finger on.
Then it hit me: I was reading those medieval images in my usual way, such that they were barely on my radar at first. It had to dawn on me that these were neo-Nazi thugs using these images and symbols in the service of their abhorrent ideology. The awareness of what they were doing grew on me through the course of the weekend, as I continued to study the images, and listened to what many of my fellow medievalist scholars were saying: This is what I study. None of these images and concepts have anything to do with the realities of medieval European history and culture. They are hijacking the Middle Ages.
Then came the next thought:
Oh. No. You. Don’t.
I don’t know how effective I’d be as a counter-protester on the streets of Charlottesville. I’m not a politician. Honestly, I’m pretty much an introvert. But this? This is something I can deal with. If this is a hijacking, it’s one for which I–along with my fellow medievalists–am well equipped to help mount a rescue.
Before I show you a few examples of what I’ve been noticing, as a medievalist, in the Charlottesville images, let me make one point of supreme importance:
The basic idea behind the neo-Nazi appropriation of the European Middle Ages appears to be the appeal to the idea of a “pure white race.” That is, the (entirely false) notion that Europeans in the Middle Ages were white people, that the Middle Ages in Europe represent a kind of “purer” time in which other perceived racial groups had yet to corrupt that purity.
Here’s the key point: There was no such thing as “White People” in the Middle Ages.
The concepts of “whiteness” and “blackness, ” in the ways in which we understand those terms in our present time, place, and culture, simply were not present in the Middle Ages. (This is not to say that the cultural processes by which later forms of racism developed were not underway in the Middle Ages, or that people in the Middle Ages didn’t have other, perfectly effective ways of creating difference and killing one another for it; but it is to say that those terms did not have the associations they do now.) To talk about “white” culture in Medieval Europe is no less anachronistic than it would be to talk about “fourteenth-century Flemish smartphones,” or “the space stations of Carolingian France.” This alone renders the alt-right idea of a purely “white” medieval Europe absurd from the get-go. Were that not enough, we know from many varieties of evidence (literary, documentary, archaeological) that one traveling through Europe in the Middle Ages would have experienced a wide variety of skin tones, and a wide variety of ancestries from all over the known (at the time) world, including the Mediterranean, Middle East, and North Africa.
So, white supremacist misappropriations of images and ideas of medieval Europe are precisely that: misappropriations. They have nothing whatever to do with the historical and cultural realities.
Take a look at the following images from the Charlottesville demonstrations. I’ll try to unpack some of the salient features of each:
This particular image has been reproduced and discussed quite a bit. Note the shield, the form of which is reminiscent of Germanic (Norse, Saxon) design. You might have seen Vikings carrying shields like these. The symbol on the shield is called a “Black Eagle.” Traditionally, it’s the symbol of the Holy Roman Empire. Presumably, these white supremacists are thinking of the symbol as something connected with the idea of a “white” pan-European power. However, as several commentators, including Joseph Livingstone at the New Republic have pointed out, and as just about any scholar of the Middle Ages will tell you, this appropriation is more than a little ironic: the symbol was originally that of St. Maurice, an early Christian, and also a soldier in the 3rd Roman Legion, who was martyred for refusing the Emperor’s command to harass a community of Christians. The kicker is that Maurice was Egyptian, and looked like this:
Notice the left-hand shield in this image:
The shape is based on that of the Roman Scutum, the design favored by the Empire’s legions. These groups, apparently, also have a thing about the Roman Empire, seeing it, too, as somehow nostalgic of a purer whiteness. Again, this is odd, since the Empire covered a very great deal of territory, and even most natives of Rome would hardly have been fair-complected. While Caucasian-looking skin was not unheard of in Rome, it was at lease sufficiently unusual that a shipment of fair-skinned slaves from Northern England caught the attention of the 6th century Pope Gregory I. The medieval historian Bede relates that Gregory, upon hearing that the slaves were called Angles (Angli in Latin), remarked that they were “Non Angli, sed Angeli.” Not Angles, but Angels. Clearly fair faces were not the norm in most of the Empire.
The symbol on the shield is even more interesting. It’s a character from a runic alphabet known as the Elder Futharc, a writing system used in Scandinavia in the 2nd-8th centuries or so, and which became the basis for a number of later runic scripts. It’s called an odal or othala rune. Phonetically, it sounds like the English letter “O.” Symbolically, it means something like “heritage” or “inheritance.” A version of the symbol was adopted by a unit of the Nazi SS in World War II, and has been appropriated by the present-day American National Socialist movement, mainly as a sort of less-recognizable (to outsiders) replacement for the swastika, in a sort of euphemistic re-branding. Of course, no ancient Norse person would have had any awareness of him/herself as “white,” and the ideas of heritage and inheritance had much more to do with the idea of the transmission of privileges and property within a family than anything having to do with “heritage” in its (thoroughly modern) nationalistic sense.
This last image is one that’s particularly upsetting to me as a specialist in Scottish history and culture:
The sigil on the two (again, Roman-influenced) left-hand shields is known as the “Black Saltire,” and is the sigil of the Southern Nationalist movement, including, most notably, the League of the South, a group that advocates a second Southern “secession” and the establishment of a new state dominated by what they call an “Anglo-Celtic elite.”
The saltire image is telling. The saltire is also known as the Cross of St. Andrew (one of the original Disciples of Jesus, and the brother of St. Peter). Andrew is, among other things, the patron saint of Scotland, and a white-on-blue saltire is still the national Flag of Scotland. Already there’s some irony here, as both Peter and Andrew, as natives of Bethsaida, in Galilee–and professional fishermen who spent most of their time on the open water–would have had swarthy Middle Eastern (and sun-darkened) complexions.
The shield on the right may be significant as well. While some media outlets have noted that other organizations that use the image of a lion, such as the Detroit Lions, have already denounced the use of the image, both present-day Scots, and anyone with a passion for Scottish history, should be even more horrified. The symbol of the “Rampant Lion” is another important Scottish symbol, none other than the Royal Banner of the Royal Arms of Scotland. In Britain, the use of the image of the Rampant Lion is so
important that its use is highly regulated, by the Court of the Lord Lyon, the body governing the use of heraldry in Scotland, where such a use of the image would be considered illegal (in addition to being simply offensive). It’s been the traditional symbol of Scots royalty since the early 13th century, and, as such representative of a host of ideas, none of which is that of “whiteness.” Its misuse in this context is nothing less than nauseating.
It gets worse.
The Scots, as I’ve discovered, are of special importance to American white supremacists. The basic idea stems from a group known as the “Christian Identity” movement, which itself is a derivative of the idea of “British Israelism.” To make a long, tortured story short, the CI movement believes that medieval Celts are, in fact, one of the lost tribes of Israel. According to these groups, present-day Jews and Israelis are essentially impostors, and “Scots-Irish” descendants, in America, of medieval Celts, are really God’s Chosen People, the heirs of the promises made by God to Abraham, and the descendants of those they see as the last “pure white” race.
Of course, this has nothing whatever to do with what we know from the documentary and archaeological records of where the Scots came from. And we most certainly know that even medieval Scots were a very ethnically mixed group, with influences ranging from Celtic and Norse, to Norman, to African (thanks to occupying Roman legions). In fact, for much of the Middle Ages, not even those living in Scotland could agree on who was really a “Scot,” and, especially in the late Middle Ages, the definition often hinged on political allegiances more than anything. The fourteenth-century poet John Barbour, in his poem The Bruce (about the life of King Robert I, 1274-1329), seems to think of Scottishness as exclusively a matter of allegiance to King Robert: Barbour even describes native-born Scots loyal to the English Edward I as “Englis,” and only when they, and even their English-born counterparts, swear allegiance to Robert does Barbour label them”Scottis men,” no matter where they came from.
As both a scholar of medieval Scottish history, literature, and culture–and as an American of Scottish ancestry–I ashamed to see these images and ideas abused in this way, appropriated to stand for things they never, ever meant.
For me (and for just about any medievalist), the Middle Ages don’t appear monolithic in any way, least of all monolithically “white” (as we, in the here and now, understand the term). Medieval Europe was a highly diverse time and place, much more connected to other parts of the world than, I think, most people are aware. One of the reasons for my own interest in the British Isles is that the population thereof in the Middle Ages was one of the most diverse I’ve ever encountered, a complex and vibrant mingling of languages, ethnicities, cultures, conflicts, and ideas. It is out of that diversity, because of that diversity, that the works of literature I love and study emerged.
I’m not sure precisely what combating the evil appropriation of the Middle Ages of the so-called “alt-right” is going to wind up looking like. There have already been some promising statements, such as this one, from groups of scholars of the Middle Ages. But certainly, one strand of our response has to be to find ways to make sure these appropriations fall on the least-fertile ground possible, on the ears of a public sufficiently well-educated about the realities of the Middle Ages to spot the deception. That’s a challenge I’m ready take up.