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.