Racism and medievalism
The recent swell of publicly expressed racism, xenophobia, misogyny, and other forms of prejudice in western democracies has led to redoubled calls for professional students of the Middle Ages to address the role medieval history has in supporting racist views of the world. That’s ‘medieval history’ both in the sense of professional research and in the sense of wider understandings of the medieval past. (I’m thinking of things like Sierra Lomuto’s ‘White Nationalism and the Ethics of Medieval Studies’, Donna Zuckerberg’s excellent ‘How to Be a Good Classicist Under a Bad Emperor’, Sarah J. Pierce’s ‘ “Both Sons of Spain”: Medieval Jews and Muslims in the Imagined Nation’, and a prominent more-heat-than-light Twitter spat about migration in late Antiquity. This post also owes a lot to the PhD research of Vicki Cooper at Leeds.)
If I have a contribution to make at this point, it’s to offer an autobiographical account of how neatly linked medievalism and racism can be. It’s easy to google our way to self-confessed fascists toting isolated bits of medieval culture in notional support of their inhuman politics. But as a professional Anglo-Saxonist, I’d like to sketch out some of my own ideological commitments at the soft end of the same spectrum. (And I do (so far) think it is the same spectrum.)
Here’s a (selective but meaningful) sketch of me and my relationship with medieval stuff at two points in my life: twenty-five years ago, and now. My relationship with medieval stuff has (I’m grateful to report and my colleagues will be grateful to hear) changed so much in between these points it’s in some ways bizarre to talk about the two together. Yet the relationship between twelve-year-old me and medieval stuff still feels intimately familiar to thirty-seven-year-old me today, and utterly recognisable in the public discourses around me. I’m not suggesting many medievalists got into their subjects as young as I did or in the same way. But I do hope that my autobiographical musing might be stimulating for other people as they size up their own implicit ideological commitments within medieval studies.
Me aged 12-14, in sub-rural Buckinghamshire (one of the wealthy counties in the London commuter belt)
If at this point in my life you’d given me a Cambridge University prospectus and said ‘which degree do you want to do?’ I’d have chosen Anglo-Saxon, Norse and Celtic — the degree I was lucky enough to do, and the subject from which I now make a living.
- I have to do a school project about a foreign country. I ask my teacher why I can’t do Britain; he explains it might be healthy to learn about somewhere else. I choose Norway — I’m not sure why, but at least it seems a clean, upstanding sort of place.
- I go to see Robin Hood, Prince of Thieves for my twelfth birthday (I think it’s great, but I take it for granted that Morgan Freeman is only in it for political correctness).
- I have to rank my preferences for what foreign language to study at school; I write a screed in and beyond the ‘any other comments’ box about how much I hate romance languages. German would be okay (although the accent is ugly). (But I don’t really like modern languages at all and really want to do Latin, the deadest language on offer.)
- I take myself for walks in the pretty countryside, wondering if it looked this way a thousand years ago.
- I read The Lord of the Rings.
- I try to read the Penguin translation of Beowulf, which is baffling, but I pretend it’s good anyway.*
- Although I know that living in the eleventh century would be rubbish, I can’t help thinking it would be kind of cool.
- I feel like I don’t have an accent or a particular identity. It doesn’t occur to me that, in a global context, my whiteness, Englishness, southernness, or even masculinity are actually quite distinctive. I think it might be cool to have an identity; Saxon yeoman would do fine.
- I have hardly any idea what a university is and no idea at all that you can get paid to teach at one, but that doesn’t stop me educating anyone I can get my hands on about medieval stuff.
The short version, then, is that I got into medieval studies (at least partly) as a small-n nationalist teenager because it offered me an alternative view of my identity while not raising any really serious challenges to me assuming that white men are the default variety of human. And in lots of ways, twelve-year-old me is still a companion to my older-and-wiser self a quarter of a century later.
Me aged 37, in Leeds (one of the wealthy cosmopolitan cities of northern England)
I know now that I have an accent! But there are still some significant continuities between my work now and my prior self.
- I have gone out with people from, and lived in, a few different countries; I enjoy trying to speak their languages; I now have close family on three continents. My partner’s a person of colour and articulate about the consequences that has. These people and experiences have made it obvious to me that I do have distinctive identities — intricate and mostly enjoyable variations on Southern English, British, European, and Citizen of the World. I have some idea that my whiteness is not just a blank normality, but is itself a distinctive identity (which also happens to afford me a lot of privileges).
- I teach in a country with the lowest or nearly lowest social mobility in the OECD, whose education system functions primarily to replicate the social hierarchy (though of course I’m honoured to have taught people who were exceptions): I am, mostly, paid by my already well educated students to polish them up a bit more and help them keep competition from further down the social ladder at bay. I am the biggest earner in my household, which is in the UK’s 93rd percentile by income (much lower by wealth, but on the way up). I now have no desire whatsoever to live in the eleventh century. But would this be true if I was still living with frustrations and limitations comparable those I had as a teenager?
- My main claim to fame (apart from the Old Norse Magic Sheet!) is a book about Anglo-Saxon elves. It’s really scholarly and I’m proud of it, but it’s perhaps not coincidentally also on a topic twelve-year-old me would have approved of. Quite a lot of people have bought it, some because they’re neo-pagans seeking an authentic English identity through nostalgic invented religion (which is okay as far as it goes — live and let live). Some of them also think that England has too many migrants, that it should be reserved for white people, and/or that Islam is an inherently dangerous religion (all of which is very much contrary to a live and let live philosophy, so I find it alarming that my research has for some people been a brick in the wall for these attitudes). I spend a lot of time explaining to my students that writers don’t determine what readers make of their texts … But I am aware that twelve-year-old me would have read the book through a white nationalist prism — perhaps the acorn didn’t fall far from the oak.
- My top dinner party introduction is that I teach Icelandic for a living. I am proud to get to promote a language with only 300,000 speakers. But I’m aware that Icelandic is probably the best supported and most thriving language of its size in the world — indeed, it’s much better supported than many far bigger languages. At least 6,000 languages — 85% — are both smaller and worse served. So why am I devoting so much effort to Icelandic? The main reasons are: (a) Leeds’s institutional commitment to the subject, dating back to the 1920s; (b) the fact that my younger self chose to invest time learning Old Norse rather than, say, Konkani; and (c) current students’ enthusiasm for learning about the land of Björk and the Vikings. The students are often unsure why they want to study Iceland, but it seems a clean, upstanding sort of place.
So for all my right-on politics, my work as a medievalist is embedded in much deeper, conservative and often xenophobic ideological structures, both in my own biography and in the biographies of my institution and my students, which lock me into political projects far beyond my immediate control. My twelve-year-old self remains oddly influential, or at least still feels at home.
Which is not the end of the world…
I’m not saying this to beat myself up (much) or to suggest that twelve-year-old me should already have been a fully rounded human being or to imply there’s no point trying to change things. Rather, I’d like to see more colleagues and students reflecting deeply on their ideological commitments to the medieval in order to change things. Some of us can I’m sure conclude that we’ve come to the subject without any significant baggage. But it’d be wise to check, and perhaps revealing!
Happily, by facing these ideologies head on, I make my subject more interesting for me and my students (whatever our politics might be). Here are a few examples:
- It’s traditional to teach Old English and its literature alone (or perhaps alongside Old Norse and/or Middle English). I’m now teaching it with extensive reference to the multilingual, multi-ethnic culture in which it was spoken — which also makes for a richer palette of primary texts to draw on. (As the populist and perhaps heavy-handed tone of this module description suggests, this is still a small step, but it’s a start.)
- Our field has never really got on top of the post-modern crisis in historiography (which posits that the past is all just stories — a proposition that suggests that ultimately you can tell any story about the past you like). I haven’t cracked this problem, but I should always discuss it with my students now. The key political challenge of our day is right there at the centre of my subject.
- Sierra Lomuto emphasises that globalising your scope without addressing the politics of your subject doesn’t do any good for a progressive political agenda. But globalising your scope while also addressing politics opens up exciting possibilities on lots of fronts. One (with hindsight) obvious point for me is that lots of early medieval north-west European verse has really interesting contemporaneous comparisons in the Arabic-speaking world. Surely the only reason no-one’s ever worked on this is the old Eurocentricity of medieval studies, that tacitly defines today’s Europe as modern by giving it a medieval past, and defines the borders of today’s Europe by excluding the Islamic world from participating in that medieval past. I’m not going to become a proper Arabist any time soon. But by stretching my teaching, I might inspire some students to.
* It IS good. It’s amazing! But it was later in life that I come to this conclusion with any confidence, and for different reasons…