Once in a while – actually, nowadays, on a daily basis – you read something that actually makes you dumber (hat tip: JK). This is one of these things:
Each May, some 3,000 people descend on Kalamazoo, Mich., for the International Congress on Medieval Studies, which brings together academics and enthusiasts for four days of scholarly panels, performances and after-hours mead drinking.
But in recent years, the gathering affectionately known as “K’zoo” — and the field of medieval studies itself — has been shadowed by conflicts right out of the 21st century.
Since the 2016 presidential election, scholars have hotly debated the best way to counter the “weaponization” of the Middle Ages by a rising tide of far-right extremists, whether it’s white nationalist marchers in Charlottesville, Va., displaying medieval symbols or the white terrorist who murdered 50 people at two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand, using weapons inscribed with references to the Crusades.
And hanging over it all is an even more fraught question: Does medieval studies have a white supremacy problem of its own?
To some scholars, the answer is yes, and not just because the field is overwhelmingly white. Scholarship on the Middle Ages, they argue, helped create the idea of white European superiority, and still bolsters it today. There have been calls to “decolonize” medieval studies by confronting the structural racism that has kept both nonwhite scholars and nonwhite perspectives outside its gates.
On the other side are those who see the field as under siege by activists seeking to replace scholarship with ritualistic denunciations of white male privilege, pursued with a with-us-or-against-us zeal.
As the saying goes, the past is a foreign country. You simply cannot look at it through the prism of contemporary values, knowledge or realities. It serves no purpose except to paint history unrelentingly dark and thus accumulate more victimhood and oppression points redeemable in today’s social justice and historical justice SJW sweepstakes.
Medieval Europe, as difficult it might be to believe, was full of Europeans, who happen to be white. There are many people who have throughout history objected to white people making their homes in other parts of the world that did not belong to them, but it’s a bit of a stretch to suggest that there is something wrong about white people actually being where they come from. Whether or not the concept of race and therefore racism existed in any meaningful sense a thousand years ago, the medieval Europeans were a pretty bigoted and xenophobic bunch by any definition. Spaniards hated the Moors and southern Slavs and Greeks hated Turks – and vice versa – but French and English hated each other too, as did Germans and Slavs. Christians hated pagans, Catholics hated the Orthodox, each hated assorted heretics, and everyone hated the Jews. The ignorance, distrust and dislike of “the other” outside the bounds of your family, clan or people is neither new nor exclusive to Europe; it’s one of the basic human traits of any society known to us. Contemporary Muslims considered Christians and Jews to be inferior, but not as much as the non-Abrahamic pagans. On the other side of Eurasia, the Chinese thought of everyone outside the boundaries of the Middle Kingdom as barbarians. Different groups tended not to mix except by conquest and colonisation, slavery or trade. Large scale migrations were invasions.
Medieval life should not be idolised, idealised or whitewashed. It tended to be quintessentially Hobbesian – nasty, brutish and short. Illness, hunger, poverty and violence were endemic, as was general ignorance. Concepts such as freedoms and rights were for all practical purposes virtually non-existent. Gothic cathedrals are beautiful but no one in their right mind would swap life in the 21st century for one in the 14th.
It’s also true that Europe of the Dark Ages and the high Middle Ages was arguably a poorer and less exciting place to live than the Islamic ummah, India or China. A contemporary observer enjoying a truly global view would have been unlikely to guess that European civilisation, stuck at the far edges of the Eurasian landmass, would come to dominate the globe in future centuries. But dominate it did, like many other marginal cultures, which make up for their initially unpromising circumstances through better organisation and higher drive. World history is littered with examples of more materially advanced cultures conquered by the determined and hardened barbarians from the poorer periphery, which is how Europeans would have appeared to the rest of the world towards the end of the Middle Ages. Ancient Mesopotamia kept being taken by the waves of nomads from upriver, western Roman empire fell to barbarians as the eastern one eventually did to Turks, Arabs from the deserts conquered half the known world and Mongols managed to take over China. Europeans were not exceptional but for the fact that over time they evolved to produce scientific and industrial revolutions, Enlightenment, democracy and the whole of what we now call modernity.
The past is generally not a nice place to live by today’s standards, regardless of the precise location or time, although there are of course grades of terrible. But there is a difference between being realistic about history and using it as a battlefield to fight today’s ideological wars. While the Social Justice Warriors want to condemn the past so as to further condemn the present, normal people should instead want to learn from it, and one lesson that the European past can teach us is how unexceptional it is in its realities as well as its sins. Someone has once said that human nature has no history – meaning it does not change – but it is equally true that it has no geography. Stupidity, on the other hand…