Racism and the Middle Ages

Updated: Oct 16, 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?

Where Do the “White Middle Ages” Come From? by Helen Young

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…

Miraculous Bleach and Giant Feet: Were Medieval People Racist? II by Amy S. Kaufman

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

The View from the Road: Were Medieval People Racist? III by James Hill

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

Were Medieval People Racist? IV: Race, Religion, and Travel by James Hill

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.

The Virgin Mary: Beautiful and Black? by Sarah Randles

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

A Wonder of the Multicultural Medieval World: The Tabula Rogeriana by Paul B. Sturtevant

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.

Finding Islamic Culture in a Christian Space by Clare Vernon

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

The Poet of the Mediterranean: Ibn Hamdis by Luca Asmonti

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

Recovering a “Lost” Medieval Africa: Interview with Chapurukha Kusimba, part I, by Paul B. Sturtevant

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.

East Africa: Five Million Years of History by Paul B. Sturtevant

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.

Uncovering the African Presence in Medieval Europe by Adam Simmons

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.

The Mystery of Stephen the African by Sihong Lin

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

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

Jews, Anti-Semitism and the Middle Ages by Paul B. Sturtevant

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

Anti-Semitism Is Older Than You Think by Amy S. Kaufman

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.

A Tale of Two Europes: Jews in the Medieval World by Amy S. Kaufman

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.

The Arc of Jewish Life in the Middle Ages by Robert Chazan

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.

The Importance of Being Absent by Richard Cole

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

“Bad Hombres”: How to Hate Someone You’ve Never Met by Richard Cole

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.

“Anti-Semitism” Before “Semites”: The Risks and Rewards of Anachronism by Matthew Chalmers

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?

The Sainted Toddler Who Sparked a Pogrom by Bianca Lopez

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

Resisting the Anti-Semitic Crusade by Paul B. Sturtevant

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

Perfect Victims: 1096 and 2017 by Jeremy DeAngelo

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.

Deggendorf, and the Long History of its Destructive Myth by Richard Utz

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

The Birth of a National Disgrace: Medievalism and the KKK by Amy S. Kaufman

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.

“Race” in the Trenches: Anglo-Saxons, Ethnicity, and the Misuse of the Medieval Past by James M. Harland

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.

A Vile Love Affair: Right Wing Nationalism and the Middle Ages by Andrew B. R. Elliott

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?

A Brief History of a Terrible Idea: The “Dark Enlightenment” by Amy S. Kaufman

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

“Pizzagate” and the Nocturnal Ritual Fantasy: Imaginary Cults, Fake News, and Real Violence by Michael Barbezat

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.

To Russia, With Love: Courting a New Crusade by Amy S. Kaufman 

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

Leaving “Medieval” Charlottesville by Paul B. Sturtevant

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.

Cupid at the Castle: Romance, Medievalism, and Race at Atlanta’s Rhodes Hall by Richard Utz

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.

Race: the Original Sin of the Fantasy Genre by Paul B. Sturtevant

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’ Racism Problem by Helen Young

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

Race in A Song of Ice and Fire: Medievalism Posing as Authenticity by Shiloh Carroll

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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