The material in this book was used in my curriculum, and now I research it in-depth.
This book is written about the ways in which medieval history has been abused by people on the far-right of all religions and nationalities in order to advance their own political goals.
Amy S. Kaufman and Paul Sturtevant
Amy S. Kaufman is a former professor of classical and medieval literature. She left academia in order to focus on full-time writing. In this case, she collaborated with her husband, Paul Sturtevant, to write this book.
Paul Strutevant is the founder and editor-in-chief of the website The Public Medievalist, which is dedicated to expanding what has been written about in this book.
Medieval history has been used as justification for white supremacists to enact violence or impose their racist beliefs on the internet. This was especially the case when mass shooters have written manifestos citing the Crusaders as justification for their mass shootings. The Nazis have attempted to seek out proof of a pan-Aryan origin for European civilization, yet have found none that conformed to their propaganda.
There are also a lot of parallels between white supremacists, the Protestant Reformation defacing Catholic churches, and Muslim terrorists. One major theme that unites them together is their fixation on medieval history. What provides the greatest irony is that they claim to look back at the medieval past for their rationale in their retrospective beliefs, yet their views are themselves revisionists. Women were not completely under the control of husbands and societies were not 100% white.
Though it is not within the fringes of society that the medieval age gets abused, rather the highest office in the land is not susceptible to not using it. George W. Bush used the language of a crusade against terrorism in order to launch a war in the Middle East. Even more blatantly, Donald Trump identified the border wall as being appropriately medieval, since it supposedly worked at that time and it would supposedly always work–even though people can just build tunnels or cut through it. Just as well, Hindu nationalists have taken advantage of the supposed oppression of Hindus by Muslims in order to justify their Islamophobia; and Vladimir Putin has used medieval Russia to justify his far-right policies.
As for the supposed homogeneity in Europe, it is disproven because Europe had bustling metropolitan areas that attracted many nations–which was not different from Asia and Africa. Also, there were Roman soldiers from every part of the Roman Empire, such as the Middle East and Africa, who lived in Rome. Just as well, there were stories of Saracen knights told in Arthurian legend, including a black knight, so European people would have known what a Saracen or an African would have looked like.
It is rather unfortunate that a cookie-cutter method has been used in modern fantasy by such writers as J. R. R. Tolkien and George R. R. Martin, who employ very simplistic forms of resemblances to the medieval era. In Tolkien’s case, his form of fantasy was based on his own conservative view of medieval history that kings were responsible for absolute rule; while Martin believed that women were just perpetually victims.
What did make Asia and Africa different from Europe was that they were more technologically and economically advanced than the latter. In the case of the Mongol Empire, because it stretched across a wide expanse of land, it also allowed the safe travel of goods through multiple trading routes.
As for the treatment of Jews, either in Christian Europe or in the Islamic Middle East and North Africa, their fates were determined by whoever was in power. In mostly southern Europe, Jews enjoyed the same treatment as Christians and Muslims. However, if a king or a sultan came into power who did not take too kindly to the Jew’s handling of money as their only option of employment, they were persecuted, their properties were confiscated, they were heavily taxed, and/or they were expelled. Jews were expected to be money-lenders because usury was against Christian and Islamic law. As expected, this resulted in stereotypes being perpetuated about the greedy Jew who used the blood of Christian children as part of blood libel.
A missing detail that can be expanded upon is one that is briefly touched upon, which was that racism is taught by wealthy, powerful people. In spite of the complexities that come with medieval life, both authors do not really focus on the class aspect too much, especially considering how people were born into their own classes with little to no exceptions. This may sound class-reductionist, but it seems that problems faced by women and other groups in those times had mainly to do with class. Noble women had far more options and more protections than peasant women. This is amidst the contradictions that I noticed, though those contradictions do serve the purpose of providing complexity to the medieval ages.
What I found interesting was the way the Mongol Empire was regarded with some measure of complexity, since both authors explain that it brought trade and safety with them. My issue is that all of that came at a paradoxical price, i.e. constant warfare. Yuval Noah Harari’s book Sapiens notes this paradox by explaining how empires tend to have lucrative economies and diversity; but at the same time, it involved subjugating entire peoples within its periphery. Of course, Kaufman and Sturtevant would agree, since they note how the Roman Empire installed indigenous kings to rule each of the Gallic tribes they subjugated.
Also, as noted in a book about the Cornish saints, there was a man named Hugh of Lincoln who tried to stop a riotous mob from approaching a local Jewry, only to be martyred. This definitely plays into what both authors write about when it came to the fact that different religious groups learned from each other, even in the midst of persecution.
Also, an important point to note that James Q. Whitman did, is that the Nazis took direct inspiration for their own eugenics program from America. Hitler himself commended the United States for its genocide against the indigenous population, as well as the South’s use of segregation. However, they could not brazenly implement these eugenics laws, rather they had to provide some form of legitimacy, and a way to do that was to call into question whether a Jewish German could be considered a citizen.
Also, as mentioned by David Anthony in his study about the Indo-European society, one of the rationales that the Nazis used for their archaeological ventures was to prove that the Aryans gave birth to the Germanic “races.” In fact, countries during that time and before made such claims that their own country were direct descendants of the Aryans. It turned out, however, that the Indo-Europeans–specifically the Yamnaya culture–originated in the Pontic-Caspian region and did not conquer the other cultures, rather slowly made their way from that area to faraway lands such as Ireland and India. As for the “Aryans” of northern India, they were not described in those times in terms of race, rather in terms of how well they abided by the rituals of the time.
Dog-whistles are definitely used by white supremacists, as noted in this book. Ian Haney Lopez gets in-depth with explaining how these dog-whistles are used, and what types are used. In this book’s case, the dog-whistles mainly focus on anti-Semitism and Islamophobia, with words like globalist. Considering how dog-whistles are used by political figures in order to achieve power, it should be of note what exactly people are talking about when they use words like this. And Kaufman and Sturtevant get into detail about the real-world consequences of the Trump administration that have been the direct result of the radical Christian agenda being implemented in the minds of voters.
As for modern people’s personal attachment to medieval history, it really is not all that different from how Americans who are Irish, Italian, Jewish, Black, or any other ethnicity would view their own immigrant family’s history that Jacobson noted. They develop a sort of attachment that is unlike any other, for it involves complete attention. It involves complete reanalyzing of oneself and one’s own place in society. Of course, while Kaufman and Sturtevant remain hopeful in the epilogue that people who appeal to their medievalness would do so responsibly, Jacobson would not give an easy answer, since identity can easily be subverted by political and corporate forces.
Game of Thrones, both the book series and the television adaptation, provides an example of medieval history being used in order to make a profit. This parallels many films featuring Italian-Americans (such as the Godfather and the Rocky series) and Jewish-Americans, as explained by Matthew Frye Jacobson. Ethnic identity was a way to make sure people came to the box office in a post-Roots marketplace.
Also, William Morris is mentioned as looking upon the medieval time period as a way to combat the inequality that has been created during the Industrial Revolution. Specifically, when Morris advocated for craftsmanship and individual artistry, inspired by medieval craft guilds. Yet, Kaufman and Sturtevant concurrently note that J. R. R. Tolkien’s conservativism, as shown with the Rohirrim, inspires radical Catholics’ idea of chivalry. It is important to note that Tolkien was inspired by Morris’ descriptions of the Icelandic landscape during his travels there. So, there is that interconnection that cannot be ignored.
Although the tone of the overall writing is professional, it does maintain a form of legibility that can be understood. They do also engage in dry sarcasm every once in a while.
Kaufman and Sturtevant make it perfectly clear that the term Dark Ages is inaccurate in describing that stretch of time between Odoacer’s abdication of the Western Roman Empire and the Renaissance. There were plenty of universities and education to provide, as well as the fact that kingdoms tended to act autonomously from the Catholic Church.
The word medieval has itself become corrupted in order to explain a person or place that is deemed barbarian and uncivilized. It is not just used by far-right figures when justifying their hatred, rather it is used by people in opposition to them. Chuck Schumer played into that by describing Trump’s border wall as medieval.
The problem with trying to dispel these racist myths in order to win over racists comes from Aesop who remarked that a tyrant will always find an excuse for his tyranny. These people are best avoided if they cannot be won over. It is the people who are on the fence, who feel disenfranchised, lost, and scared, who need to be won over. They are the ones who should be appealed to, that need to be informed that the world is so much more complicated than what Fox News or Newsmax will tell them.
As for fantasy itself, it is important to note that every writer has a love-hate relationship with their literary inspirations. While Tolkien himself had conservative, monarchical views, modern audiences would ignore that and only focus on the element of escapism in Middle Earth. Definitely, there is not a lot of depth to the Rohirrim, and I do find it troubling looking in retrospect at Game of Thrones and how almost every man was depicted as greedy, violent, sex-hungry pigs; and almost all of the good men like Jon Snow and Tyrion Lannister get taken advantage of by women. I would hope that fantasy becomes as nuanced and as complicated as the medieval history that it claims to represent.
Kaufman and Sturtevant end the book with a focus on the Society of Creative Anachronism, which seeks to recreate the medieval times, though in a peaceful way that serves the purpose of building community. Indeed, this can definitely be the best possible way to appeal to the one’s medievalness, since it does so in a cooperative way, rather than a divisive way. It can be hoped that such organizations continue to exist.
Recommend This To…
- Anyone interested in medieval history, but only received the typical, narrow view of it. This book serves the purpose of showing how deeply complicated the medieval world really was.
- Anyone who is a fan of Tolkien and Martin. What you have read and/or watched provides a narrow view of medieval history. This book will challenge everything that you may believe, or what Martin himself said in interviews.
- Amy S. Kaufman.
- Anthony, David W. The Horse, The Wheel, and Language: How Bronze-Age Riders from the Eurasian Steppes shaped the Modern World. Princeton University Press. 2007.
- Burns, Marjorie. “Perilous Realms: Celtic and Norse in Tolkien’s Middle-Earth.” 3rd Edition. University of Toronto Press. 2018.
- Jacobson, Matthew Frye. “Roots Too: White Ethnic Revival in Post–Civil Rights America.” Harvard University Press. 2009.
- John, Catherine Rachel. The Saints of Cornwall: 1500 Years of Christian Landscape. Tabb House. 2001.
- Kaufman, Amy S. and Paul B. Sturtevant. “The Devil’s Historian: How Modern Extremists Abuse The Medieval Past.” University of Toronto Press. 2020.
- Lopez, Ian Haney. “Dog Whistle Politics.” Oxford University Press. 2014.
- Public Medievalist.
- Whitman, James Q. “Hitler’s American Model.” Princeton University Press. 2017