Last August, a door-to-door salesman visited our house selling really pricey vacuum cleaners. He was very nice, professional and eventually made the sale. He was also African-American. Which is why he suddenly became visibly nervous and afraid when he saw my shield that I use in medieval re-creationist events sitting in the corner of the living room.
It had only been a little over a week since the white supremacist riots in Charlottesville.
The shield I use for medieval fighting recreation, and seen in the corner of the living room
I noticed his unease and hastily explained, “Oh! We’re medieval recreationists. You know, kind of like renaissance festivals? I fight in tournaments and do demonstrations at schools in this stuff.” I showed him pictures on my phone like the one above, and others of me letting kids at a local elementary school handle my armor.
“Oh, thank goodness. I wasn’t going to say anything...” the salesman exhaled, while visibly relaxing. Still, the fact that he had this reaction at all was confirmation of my fears: that elements of our family’s innocent hobby are being co-opted by white nationalists, and that their cultural appropriation of medieval symbolism is being subconsciously absorbed by the public.
There is undoubtedly a concerted effort by white nationalists to use medieval (particularly Norse) images and themes to build up their brand. In Charlottesville, shields with obscure symbols (including a variation on the Norse “black sun” symbol) were omnipresent in national media imagery. Self-professed “Odinists” have twisted Norse religion and mythology to support acts of violence and terror.
White supremacists in Charlottesville with shields evoking medieval imagery
Not only are these efforts to use medieval imagery abhorrent, they’re often historically illiterate. For example, the “Black Eagle” of the Holy Roman Germanic Empire (seen at right in the pictures above) is strongly associated with its patron Saint, Maurice. Who was black.
The degree to which medieval culture was or was not racist, however, is a subject for much better scholars than I. What is important to me now is the growing perception that medieval studies, hobbies and interests are linked with vile belief systems. It doesn’t matter if people and culture in the middle ages were racist or not; modern people believe all sorts of things about history that are totally untrue, and often completely ridiculous. As long as there is the perception that medievalism is somehow linked with racism, it affects all of us in the hobby.
Simply put, if you look like what people think white supremacists look like, people will think you’re a white supremacist. This is why, in the wake of Charlottesville, I’ve heard several friends mention that their fight practices in the park got visits from the police. People see us playing with sticks and shields, then make assumptions. It also doesn’t help perceptions that 95 percent of the people in our organization are white.
I believe that pushing back against this association would be the first thing most medievalists would like to do. Somehow, though, the moral imperative of explicitly denouncing white supremacist ideology by medievalists has become controversial.
Dorothy Kim, who teaches medieval literature at Vassar College, rightly wrote in her blog that,
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 extremist groups who also frequently happen to be college students.
Kim also observed that medievalism is predominantly a field of white people. She also provided links to tools to help educators avoid empowering white nationalists.
Somehow these seemingly obvious findings were objectionable, however.
Dr. Rachel Fulton-Brown is an associate professor at the University of Chicago who posted a scathing blog in opposition to Kim. Fulton-Brown acknowledges that white supremacists are using medieval imagery in their protests in attempts to invoke a mythical, purely white medieval Europe. However, she believes that because this version of history is demonstrably false, no action is needed by medievalists to contradict white nationalist usurpation of history.
Fulton-Brown’s arguments are not plausible for two reasons. First, as already discussed, we know that people frequently believe historical narratives that are false to the point of being ridiculous. To assume that the American public would reject the white nationalist version of medieval history because they suddenly start reading peer-reviewed papers by medievalist scholars is laughable.
The other reason to reject Fulton-Brown’s argument is her dubious commitment to tolerance and equality in general. She wrote a lengthy defense of Milo Yiannopolous in Breitbart. Leaked emails later showed that Yiannopolous had been working hand in glove with leading white nationalists, including having his speaking tour bankrolled by a European white nationalist family.
At the end of the day though, I love my family’s weird little hobby. Like any other passion, we would love for other people from all walks of life to share it with us. The idea of it being weaponized into something completely antithetical to all our values sickens me. If we have any power to prevent our history from being twisted into something awful, we have a moral obligation to so.
The alternative to actively fighting false history and to keeping our hobby an accepting space, is finding guests in our homes reacting with fear and revulsion, and to the painted shield sitting in the corner.