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Racism and the Middle Ages

Updated: Oct 15, 2018

2017 was a year of many changes in the engagement with medieval culture, and the series of essays on Race, Racism, and the Middle Ages in the The Public Medievalist was among the most notable engagements:

Introduction: Race, Racism, and the Middle Ages: Tearing Down the “Whites Only” Medieval World by Paul B. Sturtevant: Introducing a new Public Medievalist series: taking on the white-supremacist ideas of the medieval past, and exploring the stories of people of color in the Middle Ages.

Thread 1: Key Questions

Is “Race” Real? by Paul B. Sturtevant

Spoiler Alert: no. Everything you’ve been taught about “race” is completely made up. Here’s how we know…

Where were the Middle Ages? by Marianne O’Doherty

A whites-only view of the Middle Ages needs a Europe-only Middle Ages to exist. Let’s pull that apart, shall we?

We have explored the vile effects of the “whites-only” Middle Ages, but how did the Middle Ages get linked with racism?

Thread 2: Were Medieval People Racist?

Were Medieval People Racist? by Paul B. Sturtevant

Were medieval people racist? You might think the answer is a simple “yes!”, but it’s far more complicated than that…

Monsters with no heads, grey aliens, and morphing babies can tell us a lot about medieval racism.

Medieval Europe’s greatest travellers wrote avidly about hundreds of cultures across the world. What did they say about race?

Medieval European travel writers like Marco Polo were not what we could call textbook racists. But they were endlessly fascinated by the other religions they found around the world.

There are quite a few medieval European depictions of the Virgin Mary with dark skin: the “Black Madonnas.” Did some medieval Christians think of the mother of Christ as a woman of color?

Thread 3: Southern Italy: A case study in medieval multiculturalism

The greatest map possibly ever created was made by an Arab Muslim refugee working for a French-Norse king of Sicily on a giant silver disc in the twelfth century. It is one of the multicultural wonders of the world.

When Christians and Muslims often lived side-by-side, their cultures and religions sometimes blended into one another, even in their houses of worship.

Ibn Hamdis was one of the great poets of the Mediterranean: a Arab-Sicilian whose haunting, enchanting verses show the interconnectedness of the human experience.

Thread 4: Sub-Saharan Africans during the Middle Ages

During the Middle Ages, Africa wasn’t in a “dark age”; it was linked to an emerging global world. Special interview with African Anthropologist Chapurukha Kusimba, part I.

Who Built Africa? by Paul B. Sturtevant

Racist colonialists needed African civilizations not to have been built by Africans to justify their plunder of the continent. Continuing our special interview with Professor Chapurukha Kusimba.

How can we learn more about the long, long history of Africa? And what might it have to teach us? The final part of our interview with Professor Chapurukha Kusimba.

No Africans in medieval Europe? Tell that to the King of Nubia, who at the beginning of the 13th century took the most epic pilgrimage possible.

How common was it for Africans to live in medieval Europe? Apparently, very!

Thread 5: Jews, Anti-Semitism and the Middle Ages 

Introducing a topical thread in our series on all aspects of medieval anti-Jewish prejudice and violence.

Anti-Jewish hate didn’t begin with the Nazis, the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, or even the Middle Ages. Its roots are nearly 2000 years old.

Anti-Semitism was disturbingly common in the Middle Ages. But there were some places in the Middle Ages where Jews not only survived, but thrived.

Jewish life in the medieval world was not always dire. In fact, it featured long periods of multicultural cooperation that helped both Jews and non-Jews flourish.

Medieval Scandinavia was riddled with anti-Semitic imagery. Odd thing though: no Jews ever lived there.

It’s always easier to hate someone you’ve never met. That’s as true for medieval antisemitism as it is for contemporary British and US politics.

Did you know that the word “anti-Semitism” didn’t exist before 1879? If that’s true, how can we talk about anti-Semitism in the Middle Ages at all?

Simon of Trent: a medieval object lesson in how rumors and propaganda can spread hate like wildfire.

The First Crusade saw a wave of vicious anti-Semitic attacks engulf Europe. But there were some who stood up and said no.

The victims of oppression do not need to be “perfect” in order to deserve empathy, rights, and justice. As true in 1096 as it is today.

One sleepy German town has a dark secret that links medieval Jews, the Nazis, and Pope Benedict: a deeply anti-Semitic Catholic ritual only abandoned in 1993.

Thread 6: Race, Medievalism and Right-Wing Nationalism

We’ve been discussing Race, Racism and the Middle Ages for 9 months. It’s time to address the elephant in the room: the “Knights” of the Ku Klux Klan.

Hitler had a crack archaeology unit. Racist nationalists have used medieval archaeology to prop up their worldview—but modern scholars are knocking out their supports.

Right wing nationalists since Hitler have had a love affair with the Middle Ages. Why is their twisted version of the past on the rise again?

White supremacists promote a bizarre theory: that the Enlightenment was the real “Dark Ages”.

The “Pizzagate” conspiracy wasn’t a flash in the pan. It is part of a tradition of “nocturnal ritual fantasies” that seek to create a fundamentally persecuting society, a tradition that had origins in the medieval persecutions of heretics, Jews and Templars.

How “civilizational conservatives” want Trump and Putin to start a new Crusade.

A call to action in the wake of Charlottesville to re-enactors, LARPers, and all who enjoy the Middle Ages casually.

Schrödinger’s Medievalisms by Paul B. Sturtevant

Is that Thor’s hammer a symbol of hate or not? What about that Celtic tattoo? Or that flag? In a world gone mad, how do you keep your cool?

Thread 7: Race, Racism, and Everyday Medievalisms

Feeling ‘British’ by Eric Weiskott

What does “British” mean? Who gets to call themselves “British”? This conflict has roots leading back to King Arthur, Merlin, and some of the earliest inhabitants of this sceptered isle.

In Atlanta, you can get married in a beautiful, fairytale castle: Rhodes Hall. But the backdrop of all those wedding photos holds a complex, racist history.

Outdated ideas about race are built into the very fabric of the fantasy genre, which have been recycled from Lord of the Rings to Dungeons and Dragons and beyond. But a new crop of creators are trying to change the way we dream about the past.

Game of Thrones doesn’t just have a “diversity problem,” it has a racism problem.

George R.R. Martin wants to have his cake and eat it too: he claims his breakout hit fantasy series is based on real history, but hand-waves away criticism of his approach to issues of race.



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