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Racism, Medievalism, and the White Supremacists of Charlottesville

The weekend's demonstrators were the latest in a long line of American racists to ally themselves with an imagined Middle Ages.

Matthew Heimbach, right, attended the white nationalist march in Charlottesville. PHOTOGRAPH BY JOHNNY MILANO

The appropriation of faux-medieval culture by modern racists happens everywhere. The Nazis did it when they used medieval-obsessed German Romanticism of the nineteenth century (Wagner, fairytale castles) as a template for a new national identity that was founded on the extermination of minority groups. White nationalists do it in Britain and France when they want to claim that the country “belongs” somehow to white people, looking back to an imaginary time of long-lost racial purity (a time that never existed, as Mary Beard patiently explained recently). White supremacist American murderers love Vikings.

Medieval studies scholars and cultural historians call this practice “medievalism” because it doesn’t actually refer to a real time or place in history: It’s all about fantasies, most of them set in an imaginary past that bears little resemblance to the real one. The white supremacists who gathered in Charlottesville this weekend wore their medievalism on their sleeves. Medieval studies scholars of my acquaintance have been noting particular far right tropes on Facebook and Twitter, pointing out how they like to design little “heraldic” crests for their organizations. They take symbols like the “fasces” of fascism and cross them like swords and paint them on shields like crusaders. In the photograph above, Matthew Heimbach carries a shield engraved with the bastardized “Celtic cross” that the Norwegian Nazis designed to look like the high crosses of early medieval Ireland and Britain. And the KKK, after all, has always had “white knights.” (The SLPC has compiled a helpful index of the far right symbols used over the weekend.)

For scholars of medieval studies, it can be tempting to “fact check” such appropriations, at least in part because white supremacy represents a grotesque abuse of something for which they care deeply. And in some examples, racist medievalism can be not just morally abhorrant, but also deliciously stupid. As the excellent Twitter account @medievalpoc pointed out, certain factions at Charlottesville have appropriated the Black Eagle of the Holy Roman Germanic Empire, which is strongly associated with its patron saint, Saint Maurice. Who was black.

But what medieval studies scholars like myself—the history of race in medieval art and literature was my doctoral field—are less aware of is the history of medieval appropriation in the race discourse of the United States. Since racialized medievalism draws upon an essentially imaginary category, it is extraordinarily flexible and easily adapted: the historical detail of America’s past is woven into the racist medievalism that we saw on the streets of Charlottesville.

Annie Abrams is an American Literature scholar with a special focus on medievalism in the conversation around race in nineteenth-century America. I asked her about the particular valence of “medieval” iconography in white supremacy today, in light of its history in America. “White Americans have long imagined themselves the heirs to some long medieval political tradition of freedom and superiority,” Abrams told me. She pointed me to an extraordinary piece of writing by John L. O’Sullivan, who coined the term Manifest Destiny, in support of the racist Mexican War in 1845:

In the case of California [resistance] is now impossible. The Anglo-Saxon foot is already on its borders. Already the advance guard of the irresistible army of Anglo-Saxon emigration has begun to pour down upon it, armed with the plough and the rifle, and marking its trail with schools and colleges, courts and representative halls, mills and meeting-houses. A population will soon be in actual occupation of California, over which it will be idle for Mexico to dream of dominion.

Abrams explained that, “Despite O’Sullivan’s own Irish ancestry and the nation’s complex demographics, he imagined American forces as united in a lineage beginning in Anglo-Saxon England, which ceased to exist during the Norman Conquest in 1066, and stretching west and into the Californian future.” If this rhetoric reminds you of anybody, don’t be surprised, says Abrams. Medievalism’s “elastic sense of historical narrative” allowed O’Sullivan, just like Trump, to allude “to some imaginary Edenic past to which we might return under an otherwise-controversial political agenda.” Abrams calls this kind of sloganeering “convenience over accuracy.”

So, the imbrication of American whiteness with an “imaginary Edenic past” associated with medieval Europe has a long, long tradition. “American whiteness is real and hard and institutionalized,” Abrams says, but “at the same time, medievalism reveals how it’s built on imaginary genealogy.” Medievalism, says Abrams, is “one attempt to try and unify an amorphous population by fixing it to a common historical record” amid the “illusory and difficult to parse” state of American whiteness. It leads Americans and their leaders into contradictions, as when Thomas Jefferson wanted to put the early medieval heroes Hengist and Horsa on the currency, and insisted on Anglo-Saxon being taught at UVA despite his own Welsh heritage.

If violent extremists can be relied upon for one thing, it is their ability to make hyper-visible the latent prejudices and assumptions taken for granted by the “moderate” general public. When Annie Abrams and I were in graduate school, the idea that medievalism and American whiteness would come to the attention of the mainstream press seemed like a very remote possibility indeed. But what once felt like a fringe research topic has become a site of violent, ugly conflict in America’s public forum, brought out from the cultural subconscious by an administration which has legitimized hate speech.

In countries where the Nazis set foot, laws concerning incitement to racial hatred govern public speech. But this is America, where the ACLU defends the rights of the KKK to express itself. Historians of medieval Europe and historians of America alike have a duty under these circumstances to intervene and to condemn, where misunderstood pasts are lending intolerable fringe groups a pseudo-genealogy. The past is always imagined; it is a country to which we cannot go. But we do not have to cede that territory to white supremacists.