By virtue of its subject matter as constructed over its history, medieval studies has a legacy of fortifying structural racism and other engines to silence the marginalized.
Throughout the development of humanities curricula, the contributions of medieval disciplines have often undergirded white supremacy. Many historical fields and disciplines chose at earlier moments to re-examine their canons (sometimes participating in what we know as the “culture wars”).
Medieval studies — despite the the intervention of earlier critics who always wanted to see it become more open — continued for much of its past to provide justification for white Western anchors to narratives of literary, historical, and cultural greatness. Even when we studied non-Western objects and histories as medievalists, we tended to presuppose the primacy of whiteness in our modes of thought and analysis, too often unchallenged, in the field’s history, by engagement with critical discourses questioning that presupposition.
And as with all white supremacist projects, that supremacy hid itself in plain sight, shaping not only the field’s content but also, for non-white and white scholars alike, its professional culture, normalizing imbalances in access to visibility and voice.
As we increasingly call out – in all spheres of our lives – the realities of structural racism and other bias, medieval studies has experienced dramatic friction. Some medievalists are recognizing, or finally finding the voice to say, that the systemic bias on which the field has historically depended is one reason why we have never all participated in it freely or equally. Other medievalists corner themselves into denying the existence of systemic bias, or feigning incomprehension of it, in order to defend a curricular, research, and professional culture to which they are attached. […]
Medieval studies is the future because our field is old enough to be young. Let us then take up the charge of its brave early-career members.
They remind us that enduring patterns of harassment and racism make academic freedom a mere myth for some; they assert that positions of misogyny, ethnonationalism, xenophobia, homo- and transphobia, and other biases are not legitimate positions in any conversation because they make freedom for all within the conversation impossible.
Let our old field be the ideal home for those recognitions, one that rejuvenates their force.
My first time at the International Congress on Medieval Studies (ICMS), Kalamazoo, was bittersweet.
I had been told about the book exhibits and what to do to reserve the books I wanted. I had been told about the dance and how fun it would be.
I was told about the singing and drinking and of ducklings walking around campus, but I was not prepared for the racism.
I was not prepared to be constantly asked why I was at the conference, why I studied Icelandic literature when I was Puerto Rican. I was not prepared to tell a stranger that there was no need to congratulate me for being the first Puerto Rican medievalist because I was 100% sure I was not.
I was not prepared to be the only person of color in every single panel I attended. I remember recounting my experience to one of my professors and wondering out loud if I was meant to be a medievalist. It seemed to me that the attendees at ICMS were not convinced that I should. My professor gave me the best answer for me at that moment. “Fuck them and do what you want, you don’t owe them anything.”
It’s been over a decade since my first Kzoo, but the congress continues to be a hostile environment for marginalized academics. I would like to ask what many medievalists of color have been asking our colleagues and the institutions that represent us.
What has academia lost? What have we lost by allowing racism to hurt people of color? How many talented professionals in various fields have we lost because of racism, sexism, xenophobia, ableism, etc.? For one, we lose the scholarship of those who never return, as Dr. Mary Rambaran-Olm’s essay “Anglo-Saxon Studies, Academia and White Supremacy” demonstrates.
Imagine how many gifted but marginalized scholars have fallen to the wayside.
It has become very clear to many of us working in the field, especially over the past few years, that there is a strong and continuing strain of people who value the “Middle Ages” as a golden age of White European Christianity, and who turn to knowledge created by Medieval Studies to support their views.
Moreover it has become apparent that there are scholars who have a stake in promoting this view as well. Even medievalists who do not explicitly support this position have been tacitly complicit, creating the possibility of their own scholarship being misused in supporting such views. So now there is another battle over this field/discipline/concentration: its goal is to disprove any historical basis for viewing the Middle Ages as a White Supremacist Wet Dream, and it is also engaged in transforming the field so that it no longer supports the kind of scholarship that can be used, wittingly or unwittingly, as fodder for White Supremacist notions of the past.
This is an important battle that matters now more than ever. Even if we entered the field not expecting to fight them, even if we do not think of ourselves or our work as “political” or “engaged”—we must now. I have been inspired by some of the great writing that some are putting out there, in an effort to make a change and a difference. So why then am I saying that I’m leaving “medieval studies”?
Did you guys know about this? I had no idea. Here’s an article written by Jameelah Nasheed.
In the late 18th century, new economic opportunities and growth led to an increasein the free African and African-American populations of New Orleans. This was because some people of African descent were newly able to make money, buy their freedom, and subsequently increase the free Black population. And with that came an increase in interracial relationships, to the dismay of colonial authorities. As Ze Winters notes in The Mulatta Concubine: Terror, Intimacy, Freedom, and Desire in the Black Transatlantic, “Charles III of Spain demanded that the colonial governor of Louisiana ‘establish public order and proper standards of morality,’ with specific reference to a ‘large class of ‘mulattos’ and particularly “mulatto’ women.”
During this time, women of African descent were known to wear their hair in elaborate styles (yes, we’ve been fly for centuries). By incorporating feathers and jewels into their hairstyles, they showcased the full magic and glory of their gravity-defying strands, and appeared wealthier than they actually were. As a result, these enticing styles attracted the attention of men—including white men.
To address this “problem,” in 1786, Spanish colonial Governor Don Esteban Miró enacted the Edict of Good Government, also referred to as the Tignon Laws, which “prohibited Creole women of color from displaying ‘excessive attention to dress’ in the streets of New Orleans.” Instead, they were forced to wear a tignon (scarf or handkerchief) over their hair to show that they belonged to the slave class, whether they were enslaved or not. In The Devil’s Lane: Sex and Race in the Early South, historian Virginia M. Gould notes that Miró hoped the laws would control women “who had become too light skinned or who dressed too elegantly, or who competed too freely with white women for status and thus threatened the social order.”
In response to the laws, Creole women did cover their hair, but they did so with intricate fabrics and jewels (think Angela Bassett in American Horror Story as real-life New Orleans sorceress, Marie Laveau). As Baton Rouge curator Kathe Hambrick put it in a recent interview with The Advocate, “they owned it and made it a part of their fashion.” Instead of a cover-up, the wraps became a symbol style. And, of course, the women continued to attract men with their extravagant hairdos.
I recommend reading the whole article over there.
If you’d like to see what some of these amazing fashions looked like, I highly recommend checking out artist Agostino Brunias (one of his paintings is used to illustrate the article above):
“Diversity” has become a managerial directive for the twenty-first
century university in the United States. In its endless pursuit of
diversity, the contemporary academy has required faculty, staff, and
administrators to perform diversity work, marshaling the labor of
employees to undertake diversity initiatives, often in addition to their
stated job descriptions.
Participating in diversity work is a trap into
which those whose work is guided by an ethical commitment to
communities underrepresented in academia and those who belong to these
communities risk falling.
This phenomenon has a long history, reflecting
a tradition of activism performed by people of color, women, and LGBTQ
scholars who have demanded that the scholarship of their communities be
taken seriously as “academic.” Yet, the advent of social media has added
new dimensions to this labor.
This trend is not unique to digital humanities alone. It plays out in
departments, units, schools, and professional organizations across
higher education. This has been evident, for example, in the ample
social media conversations about the International Medieval Congress
(IMC) at the University of Leeds, which engendered racist backlash
against medievalists of color and their allies who critiqued the
whiteness of plenary sessions and panels discussing otherness
(Medievalists of Color, 2017).
For those in the Medievalists of Color
group, managing this situation required significant digital carework
around diversity. This included both the production of social media
texts in response to the affective challenges of IMC, as well as digital
carework provided to each other through social media to navigate the
negative affects that emerged. As the experiences of Medievalists of
Color suggest, this diversity-related digital carework reflects endless
demand for labor from communities that have already been othered across
fields and disciplines.
This essay is about how academics who are marginalized have an added burden on them, often magnified by demands at their institution, to perform “diversity work” in addition to the usual work required for their positions, and how this affects their lives and careers.
note: “affective labor” here means emotional labor
No one is surprised at this, not a bit.
This shouldn’t come as much of a surprise to anyone who’s followed here for more than a bit. It’s pretty ironic considering how much the devs were whining about how saying they’re responsible for their own creative choices is a “witch hunt”, and here’s their game totally unchanged and ridiculously all- white, just like they wanted. And here I am several years later, living in poverty and *still* being inundated with threats and harassment because I answered someone question about their kickstarter campaign FOUR YEARS AGO.
I think that what we are doing is really something no one
has done before, and we are really trying to do it as well as we can – a realistic, historically accurate depiction of medieval Europe with a mature story.
then we are called racist because there are no people of color in our
medieval Bohemia world, because there are biblical illuminations in our
country with Queen of Sheba (who happened to live in Africa 2000 years
before our game). And on top of that we were called sexist, because we
had a stretch goal to add playable female character into our game.
As if it was costless to write and implement a whole new questline into
the game. All this when the game is in an early stage of development,
and they don’t have a clue about the actual story. Do you think
that anyone would want to be involved in such absurd discussions during a
campaign on which his existence as a studio depends?
And they will never be happy. If you don’t have a
gay character in your game, you are homophobic, if you do have gay
character in your game, you are homophobic, because they don’t like the
character. If women in your game look good, you are sexist, if they look
bad, you are sexist, if you can fight with them, you are misogynistic,
if you can’t fight with them, you are using them as objects, if you
don’t have any women, because there is no correct way how to have them,
you are misogynistic.
It’s a witch hunt and it’s affecting my artistic freedom.
WHEN YOU CREATE SOMETHING, YOU ARE RESPONSIBLE FOR IT.
That’s not a controversial statement.
“Historical Accuracy” doesn’t absolve anyone from their OWN CREATIVE CHOICES.
Creating a fake, “all-white” version of medieval Europe is inaccurate, and it overtly serves a white supremacist agenda. It’s not an oversight, it is not neutral, AND IT IS NOT “HISTORICALLY ACCURATE”.
The fight against white supremacist misappropriation and misrepresentation of the European middle ages is happening RIGHT Now, and in the past year I’ve been working more closely with academic medievalists teaching right now (including traveling in person to try and help support professors of color being harassed by white supremacists over this), ameliorating the situation as much as I can, which is why I’ve been a bit more scarce on the tumblr blog. I’ve even started doing a few interviews again.
This series of articles form The Public Medievalist features various experts exploring just how much
the use and misuse of how we perceive the medieval past affects our
lives, worldviews, and ideologies.
by Dorothy Kim shows just how bad the problem is, and what we need to be doing about it.
Again, I’d like to reiterate that I offer my work freely to any and all people who can benefit from it, including its use in academic conferences on addressing the resurgence of white supremacy and the misuse of medieval art and symbolism to further its goals:
When this game got close to coming out, I had to close my ask box AND submissions, and they are still closed right now because I got tired of being spammed with crime scene photos, nazi slogans, racial slurs, and worse.
But I have no plans to stop sharing works from art history that show that any claims of an “all white” medieval past are nothing but bullshit.
Update: apparently people defending the game have decided to turn the clock back five years and try “Magic Racist Mountain Ranges” again as their justification for video games about medieval Europe containing nothing but white people
appropriation of the Middle Ages is a disturbing aspect of contemporary culture.
Among the most notorious recent examples are the use of medieval iconography
by white nationalists and related displays at (neo) Nazi rallies.
As a Chinese American
I’m acutely aware of the role that toxic forms of medievalism have played in a long
history of discrimination and violence. One particularly painful aspect of such history is
the era of Chinese exclusion: a decades-long
period when legislation denied Chinese immigrants in the US (and Canada)
full rights of citizenship, and anti-Chinese riots were enabled by a toxic mix
of nativist and xenophobic medievalism.
As Illustrating Chinese Exclusion reveals, dehumanizing caricatures of the unassimilable “Chinaman” with
slanted eyes and long “pigtail” were often contrasted with idealized exemplars of
(Christian) white masculinity; moreover, such propaganda gleefully exploited
“medieval” imagery to appeal to a popular audience (e.g., Thomas Nast’s
political cartoons “Pacific Chivalry” and “Martyrdom of St Crispin”).