Monday, May 30, 2022

Race Wars in Medieval Studies

The Queen of Sheba, from a 16th-Century Manuscript

It is hard to find a stranger expression of the contemporary culture wars than the frequent blow-ups over race in medieval studies. Medieval Europe was, after all, overwhelmingly white, perhaps 98%, perhaps more. The continent was diverse in other ways, such as religion, but there just isn't much in the way of race to write about. In fact much of Europe was so ethnically homogenous that people invented wholly imaginary races, like the Cagots, to have someone to oppress. Not to mention that "race" as a concept hadn't even been invented yet. 

There is a web site called Black Central Europe that collects evidence for black people in the German-speaking lands before the twentieth century. They have many sources for the period after 1700, when Europe was opening to the world. For 1000-1500 they have exactly twenty, half of which are questionable. Two are about demons. Five concern an exotic knight who joins the Round Table in Parzifal, whose dark skin (not "black") is mentioned in an extended passage that portrays him as the strangest and most foreign person ever seen at Arthur's court. One is a letter from Prester John, another bit of medieval exotica about the other side of the world. Three relate to Frederick II's court in Italy. As for actual black people in Central Europe, I am not sure there have documented a single one.

But despite the complete lack of racial diversity in medieval Europe, people still manage to write about it. Like the scholar mentioned in this NY Times essay whose specialty is "race and early medieval England." I strongly suspect that I could count on my fingers the known non-white inhabitants of early medieval England. The main thing I can find out about this scholar's work is that she has waged a campaign against using the label "Anglo-Saxon," which many think has been tainted by its use in pseudo-scientific racism.

To some people the absence of racial diversity in Europe is the problem; some of the grief is about whether we should invest any energy at all into the study of all-white societies. Some people are calling for "medieval" history to expand its focus and take in Africa, the Middle East, Asia, even the Americas. So instead of Medieval Europe we should have courses on "The World between 500 and 1500 AD" or some such. If I put on my rationalist hat and ask about the expenditure of public funds to teach various things, I do see the point; why should Americans care about the doings of small, weak European kingdoms that were mostly irrelevant to world affairs? Most medieval courses these days do bring in some Middle Eastern history, and readings from the Koran are fairly standard. But, still; wasn't Tang Dynasty China about a thousand times more important than Anglo-Saxon –sorry, Early Medieval– England?

Of course the one group of Americans that really loves medieval Europe is white supremacists. Back when I used to post a Castle of the Week I discovered that by far the best collection of castle photographs on the web was at Stormfront. This somewhat unfortunate fact drives another facet of the medievalist culture wars, about whether medievalists are doing enough to fight the appropriation of their work by neo-Nazis. Have you written a sentence implying that Vikings were tougher or more creative than other people, which might appear in a white supremacist blog post? Better revise. Consider this professorial screed:

Today, medievalists have to understand that the public and our students will see us as potential white supremacists or white supremacist sympathizers because we are medievalists. The medieval western European Christian past is being weaponized by white supremacist/white nationalist/KKK/Nazi extremist groups who also frequently happen to be college students. Don’t think western European medieval studies is exceptional. As Catherine Cox recently presented at MLA, ISIS/ISIL also weaponizes the idea of the pure medieval Islamic past in their recruiting rhetoric for young male Muslims. If the medieval past (globally) is being weaponized for the aims of extreme, violent supremacist groups, what are you doing, medievalists, in your classrooms? Because you are the authorities teaching medieval subjects in the classroom, you are, in fact, ideological arms dealers. 

So, this is the question I pose to our community of scholars: “Are you, as medievalists, emboldening white nationalists?” The range of white supremacy and medieval studies’ complicity in it include the following: denying the problem exists (or even that there are medievalists who are white supremacists); labeling the backlash and protestations of medievalists of color as alarmist; imagining there are two sides; deciding that you want to give sympathy to the pain of white supremacists; declaring that medieval spaces (IRL or digital) are above contemporary geopolitics; stating that conversations about white supremacy and race are ancillary and “spam”. None of these fix the problem of white supremacy in medieval studies nor make our classrooms an inclusive space for the bodies targeted by the white nationalists—your students who are BIPOC, LGBTQIA, differently abled, Muslim, Jewish, and women. 

My skin scrawls whenever anyone attacks "denying the problem exists," because of the awful history of this formulation. In some times and places, denying that witches were problem could get you sent to the witch hunters' interrogation chamber; during the Terror, denying that the Revolution was under attack by royalists could get you guillotined. You also have to love the way women and gay people are slipped into a discussion about race, as if there weren't female and gay white supremacists.

But my main objection to this essay is its fuzziness. What would it mean to teach medieval history in an inclusive, anti-racist way? I have been thinking about this, and after all teaching medieval history is something I know a fair amount about. But for the life of me I can't figure out how I would do this. I would certainly have to skip the Vikings, since they were 100 percent white and undeniably badass. How would I deal with the crusades? 

I suppose the easiest way to teach medieval history in an anti-racist way would be to focus on the failures of the epoch. You could take the tone that the closing off on northern Europe from the world led to economic stagnation, political fragmentation, intellectual poverty, and so on, the whole Dark Ages schtick. My problem would be that 1) I don't think this is really true, and 2) it's boring. You could spend a semester on stuff like the struggles of hungry peasants, but who would take such a course? How can you teach medieval history and say nothing about the glorious architecture, the huge economic expansion, or the development of representative institutions? Bleah.

So, yeah, if you really want anti-racist history teaching, the right approach is probably to stop focusing on Europe altogether. And I suspect that will happen, if only because this generation of young people seems a lot more interested in multi-culturalism than Vikings. (My youngest son's favorite part of any historical book is the description of 17th-century Mexico City in 1493, which portrays it as the first "global city.") As history's part of the curriculum shrinks, it makes more sense to focus on more recent periods with more "relevance."

But I think it is flat out silly to teach a course focusing on the whitest period in history while pretending to do it in an anti-racist way. As various wise people have observed, actions speak louder than words.


G. Verloren said...

There is a web site called Black Central Europe that collects evidence for black people in the German-speaking lands before the twentieth century. They have many sources for the period after 1700, when Europe was opening to the world. For 1000-1500 they have exactly twenty, half of which are questionable. ... As for actual black people in Central Europe, I am not sure there have documented a single one.

What about the limited nature of surviving documents? And what about the selection bias of a society whose record-keepers were concerned almost wholly with the minority elite?

Sure, it's doubtful that there were ever a large numbers in Europe, especially in Central Europe. But surely there could have been substantial numbers in Southern Europe, and yet they went unrecorded in the same way most people in Europe went unrecorded because they were commoners?

How many African sailors and merchants must have been present in the Mediterranean - not just North African Arabs, Berbers, etc, but even some number of sub-saharan individuals? Gold and other goods came north from Mali; slaves came up the Nile and along the Red Sea - surely not all of that wealth changed hands into the possession of Middle Eastern or North African middlemen first?

If at least some number of Vikings were sailing all the way around Western Europe or down the river-roads of the Kievan 'Rus to bring their wares to Byzantium personally, why couldn't or wouldn't some Malian merchants similarly cross the Sahara and then take a relatively leisurely boat trip east from Oran, or Bejaia, or Madhia, or Tripoli to Constantinople (or dozens of other major trade destinations in Europe), accompanying their own goods the entire way to cut out the middle men and make a greater profit?

Would anyone have any great reason to create historical records about such people? If a boatload of Malian gold docked in Lisbon or Valencia or Marseille, would anyone bother to write about the black skinned sailors manning it? And even if they did, would they not be extremely likely to just describe them as "moors" and leave it at that? Those sailors must have gotten shore leave, must have spent their pay in the local markets and brothels, must have contributed their genetics to at least a portion of the local populace, no?

To return to my earlier comparison, we surely can't find 20 reliable historical references to individually named Norsemen in Byzantium, but we still can infer that some decent number of them were present there, not just as Varangian Guards but also as common merchants, sailors, etc. Just because it wasn't recorded doesn't mean they weren't there, as you would logically expect given the trade links between the two parts of the world. You're an archaeologist - you know full well that written records alone tell us relatively little about the past, particularly before the invention of the printing press, and almost exclusively focus on elites.

None of this is to make any actual claim as to how many people of which ethnicities were in Europe, of course - it just to note the possibility, and that we don't actually know. Of course, the same argument can even be made in reverse - who knows how many white Europeans there were in sub-saharan Africa? Not many, surely, and almost certainly not recorded by name, if even at all - but it seems within reason to think that you could find a Spanish trader in Timbuktu, or a Venetian sailor in Aden, depending on when you looked.

John said...

@G-Sure, there could have been many more black people in southern Europe than are recorded in our sources. But in a course for undergraduates, how much attention should you devote to something that no one bothered to record? My courses were always based on readings of sources, including all discussions; without a source, there's nothing to discuss.

David said...

I think it depends on how you define "race," and what you're looking for. If you're interested (one is tempted to say "only" or "merely") in a US-oriented black v. white distinction, you probably won't find much on that in, say, 13th-century Saxony. But you'll find scads of references to Slavs in Germany, to nomadic Asians in a place like Hungary, and to Muslims and Jews almost everywhere (whether the Muslims or Jews were physically present or not)--all of these considered very much "other" in a quasi-racial way (the religious distinctions were not only religious, as is clear from the suspicion and name-calling directed toward converts, at least in Spain, which later, of course, issues in articulated ideas about identity transmitted in the blood).

There are certainly plenty of Spanish references to blacks, starting at least with the Almohad ruler's bodyguard of chained-together blacks at Las Navas de Tolosa (I'm sure there's a debate about who these guys "really" were, whether they were chained, etc.; but I think the concept is clear). There's a "guild of black Christians" in Barcelona; I don't know what this was about or precisely when it dates to, but I'd be surprised if the designation wasn't, so to speak, phenotypical. And there's the famous image of Mansa Musa on the Cresques map. In general, Spanish art from I think the late twelfth century starts depicting Muslims as different in appearance, with hooked noses and dark (often strangely bluish) skin.

John said...

@David - My serious impression is what you alluded to, that for most medieval Europeans skin color was one indication of "otherness," not necessarily the most important. Some of them knew that Egyptians and Tatars looked different from Europeans. But I don't think there was much focus on race as the main distinction until the Portuguese voyages to black Africa. And therefore, I would say, it doesn't make much sense to talk about "race."

BG said...

Are the Stormfront types trying to claim the 18th century as well? I'd rather not look there to find out.

Katya said...

My Ukrainian mother did her DNA test awhile back. it came back as highly predictable—except for the 2% North African. In all those generations prior to 1908, I find it all too believable that those genes would have made it up the rivers to the hinterlands of Lviv.