Who knew that ye olde Middle Ages now figure into today’s culture wars?
The days of yore – of King Arthur, the Crusades, and Hagar the Horrible – have become the new field of battle between Euro-Caucasians and People of Color. At stake is whose spin on history will survive.
As near as I can understand the issue, which made the front page of the NY Times today (“Symbols of Past Used by Right Upset Scholars”), the romantic image of the Medieval period as well as its serious academic study are no longer deemed the exclusive right of White people. For too long that interval in European history, between the fall of the Roman Empire and the Renaissance, has been monopolized by Western scholars. Worse, it has become a touchstone for Euro-American racism – a bygone era supposedly devoid of non-Whites.
Think of it this way: the years AD 500 through the 1400s conjure up knights, nobles, monks, and fair maidens. It wasn’t an accident that the Ku Klux Klan appropriated Medieval garb to accentuate its “noble” racist mission. Nor is it surprising that the Crusades to free the Holy Land became immortalized in our culture as a heroic quest. This epoch is the gold standard of chivalry and Christianity, the essence of European self-identity. (In contrast, ISIS uses “Crusaders” as a derogatory description of us.)
Both the Roman Empire and the Renaissance also figured into to our collective European heritage but those times are not on the chopping block…yet. The Romans have been so thoroughly debased in Jewish and Christian history that no sane People of Color want a part of that era. Meanwhile, the Renaissance has been distilled down to a few European geniuses with little room for outsiders. But the Middles Ages saw the heyday of Islam and new connections with Africa, India, and the Far East. Thus, excluding these peoples in our history and legends is suspect.
The romantic notion of Viking warriors, Knights of the Roundtable, King Richard the Lion Hearted, and all the associated legends provide inspiration to the new nationalist movements in Europe and America. The now-infamous 2017 Charlottesville street clash featured rightists carrying knightly shields and banners with medieval Anglo-Saxon symbols, apparently a spiritual evocation of a time of racial purity.
But just as some Euro-Caucasians have sanctified the gritty Middle Ages – despite those years of recurring plagues, religious intolerance, grinding serfdom, and endless violence – People of Color who demand historical participation may not want the baggage that comes with it.
Every continent had its “good old days.” In fact, India still practices racial and religious exclusion dating from ancient times with its endemic caste system and Hindu superiority. The Han Chinese are the past masters of clannish behavior dating back to Confucius (500 BC). Muslims never justify their Medieval invasion of Spain and the forced conversions of Christians.
Today’s political correctness is being surgically applied to history – exorcising European propaganda and bandaging the sins of all others. We see it in the Indigenous peoples movement where human sacrifice is not part of the “national conversation” on Columbus Day. We see it in African slave narratives that minimize Black-on-Black and Arab-on-Black enslavement. Any open dialogue on what Arab slavers did to Africans from the 9th Century through the 19th Century would relegate our antebellum South to a footnote in history. Muslim slave raids on European coasts, including Italy, need more coverage in school textbooks, if medieval studies are to open up.
Much is written about the benign occupation (AD 711 – 1492) of Moorish Spain, where Muslims, Christians, and Jews lived in complete harmony. One feature of that “harmony” was a punitivel tax on Christians – an incentive to convert. (King Ferdinand and Queen Isabel expelled the Jews ostensibly for collaborating in Muslim rule.) The famous Battle of Tours in France that stopped further Muslim expansion happened 363 years before the first Crusader landed on Muslim soil. Muslims were invading Europe and killing Christians, well into the 17th Century.
It is becoming too common that Western history is torn apart looking for crimes while other cultures sit smugly on their pasts. –JLM