History lesson: Scholars take aim at racist views of Middle Ages

From black military leader Saint Maurice to Arab influences in early Spain, the historical record is helping medieval scholars reclaim an era from a false narrative. Multicultural societies, they say, predate not only the civil rights era, but the Renaissance.

Neo-Nazis and other alt-right factions scuffled with counter-demonstrators in Charlottesville, Va., in August 2017. The runic character ‘odal’ on this banner of the neo-Nazi National Socialist Movement has its origins in early Germanic culture and historically signified ‘heritage’ or ‘inherited estate.’ Challenges by scholars of such appropriation are growing.

Albin Lohr-Jones/Sipa/AP

Growing up, Matthew Simmons remembers listening to his mother read him stories about King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table. But Mr. Simmons says he always felt a disconnect – he was black and the characters in these stories were depicted as white.

When he started college at the University of Houston-Downtown (UHD), he enrolled in a poetry course taught by Katharine Jager, professor of English. Dr. Jager’s classes included medieval writing – but she immediately complicated what most students had read about in fairy tales.

Jager presented historical evidence for people of African descent living in Europe during the Middle Ages and displayed images of the Man of Cheddar – whose remains from thousands of years ago suggest that early inhabitants of England likely had dark brown skin.

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For Simmons, this was a revelation. “It was a bit mind-blowing ... here Professor Jager was showing me proof that black people did live in Europe at that time and any one of the Knights of the Round Table could have been a black person,” he says.

Jager is part of a growing wave of medievalists who are rethinking race and representation within their field. Their motivation stems from a troubling trend in American politics: White supremacists, scholars have pointed out, seem enchanted with the Middle Ages. Last year, at the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Va., several self-described white nationalist organizations carried signs and shields decorated with Old English runes and flew flags with medieval military standards.

“We’re in a moment when a lot of departments are asking … to decolonize these spaces,” says Dorothy Kim, an English professor at Brandeis University in Waltham, Mass. “We’re not in an ivory tower off to the side … Charlottesville really kind of cemented viscerally that this is going on and the contested space is your college campus.”

The white supremacist fascination with the Middle Ages stems in part from the prevailing, though discredited, notion that Medieval Europe was an ethnically homogeneous white utopia, says Matthew Gabriele, professor of Religion and Culture at Virginia Tech University in Blacksburg.

“They’re very explicit about this,” he says. They believe that “the Middle Ages was a moment before the kind of European ... encounter with Africa, the Americas, and Asia and so it was kind of a pure, white space in which Europe developed the culture that would make the West great.”

Expanding the conversation

But discussions within the academy – particularly those on social media blazoned with #MedievalTwitter – have at times divided scholars over what responsibility they have to speak out against white supremacy.  

Some feel there should be a stronger separation between academia and politics and object to their colleagues’ more progressive efforts, says Richard Utz, professor of Literature, Media, and Communication at Georgia Tech in Atlanta.

But efforts to purge racial bias have been building momentum, Dr. Utz says, and despite the painful process, some medievalists see a sense of hope emerging.

An open letter sent this summer to the International Congress of Medieval Studies (ICMS) demanding more race-conscious workshops accrued more than 550 signatures – about 20 percent of average annual conference attendance. As a result, the ICMS announced in July that it would establish a working group to strengthen diversity and reconsider some of the workshops on race that were initially turned down.

Reshaping classroom dynamics

And for those intent on disrupting historical misperceptions and diversifying classrooms, says Dr. Kim, the key is inclusive teaching.

Aside from her presentations on race, Jager from UHD also connects multilingualism and variations of standard English in her teaching of Geoffrey Chaucer with her students who speak different dialects of English.

“I tell them, ‘If you speak Spanglish, you can learn to read Middle English with no difficulty,’ ” she says. “We talk about Chaucer's own multilingual experience and how he was fluent in French and probably Italian and English and could read Latin. And in many ways, their experience as multilingual speakers aligns them with Chaucer’s own literary production.”

Mark-Allan Donaldson, a PhD candidate in Comparative Literature at the CUNY Graduate Center in New York, is also invoking that inclusive mindset as he assembles his first syllabus. While teaching historical literature about Alexander the Great, Mr. Donaldson plans to take a detour from Europe and introduce his class to Sundiata, a powerful medieval prince from the Mali Empire in West Africa who emulated the ancient Greek figure.

“That hopefully will be a good way to show that … we have these same kind of journeys, we have these same kind of human experiences, during the medieval period but outside of Europe as well,” he says.

Similar curricular revisions have gained support elsewhere. Last winter, a number of scholars crowdsourced a public bibliography on race and the Middle Ages.

Cord Whitaker, professor of English at Wellesley College in Wellesley, Mass., delivered talks across the country this past school year on how the alt-right has reinterpreted medieval history. He’s seen a genuine interest in the issue – especially from undergraduate students.

“They were very engaged about how this vision of the Middle Ages has been propagated, how it’s been maintained, how best to deconstruct it,” he says.

The Medievalists of Color, a group that predates the Charlottesville rally and for which Whitaker and Kim serve on the steering committee, published a blog post in July that echoes the burgeoning optimism he and some of his colleagues feel.

“[I]t is the younger generation of medievalists ...,” the post says, “taking the greatest risks and making the deepest sacrifices to change the field.”