Day 6

Medieval history scholars are suddenly on the front lines in the fight against white supremacists

As the images from last month's white supremacist march in Charlottesville, Virginia, emerged, medieval scholar and journalist David M. Perry recognized the symbols many of them were using. Now, he and others in the field are fighting back.
White supremacists have adopted medieval imagery and medieval scholars are fighting back. (Michal Cizek/AFP/Getty and Chip Somodevilla/Getty)

by Brent Bambury

The torch-lit images of white supremacists marching and chanting in Charlottesville, Virginia, last month shocked the world. Young men, some with shields and helmets, others heavily-armed, hoisted flags of the Confederacy and the Third Reich. Ostensibly, the purpose of the march was to protest the removal of a statue, an historical grievance.

But historians who viewed the images saw things differently.

Medievalists, scholars of the centuries that followed the fall of the Roman Empire, are monitoring the use of medieval imagery and symbols by the far right. They say neo-Nazis are misinterpreting their field and presenting fantasy narratives as historical. A few days after Charlottesville, on The Medieval Academy Blog, those academics hit back against the protestors.

Riot police protect members of the Ku Klux Klan from counter-protesters as they arrive to rally in opposition to city proposals to remove or make changes to Confederate monuments in Charlottesville, Virginia, U.S. July 8, 2017. (Jonathan Ernst/Reuters)

"As scholars of the medieval world, we are disturbed by the use of a nostalgic but inaccurate myth of the Middle Ages by racist movements in the United States. By using imagined medieval symbols, or names drawn from medieval terminology, they create a fantasy of a pure, white Europe that bears no relationship to reality. This fantasy not only hurts people in the present, it also distorts the past."       


The Nazi classmate

David Perry is one of those scholars. He's a journalist, a professor and a senior academic advisor to the History Department at the University of Minnesota. He paid close attention to the regalia attached to the Charlottesville racists.

"I've been watching this for about a year now, if not longer," Perry told me on Day 6. "I was really ready to see men walking with Templar shields."

"Here's what I wasn't ready for, though. As people began pulling out the images of the tiki torch parade looking at individuals, identifying them, naming them, one of them was identified by classmates at the University of Nevada, Reno, and the students said: 'Oh my goodness. That's Peter. He's that creepy guy from my medieval history class who always says the weird things about race'."

White nationalists shelter behind shields, displaying the Southern Nationalist flag, after clashing with counter protesters at a rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, U.S., August 12, 2017. (Joshua Roberts/Reuters)

Neo-Nazis, no longer on the fringe, are finding their way into the classroom, so the burden on academics like Perry is increasing. It's not enough just to correct historical distortions, now there's the danger that a classroom becomes a point of indoctrination.

"I am wondering how many of my students have consumed these kinds of narratives about a pure-white, Western-European past that was in opposition to people who are different than themselves … and whether I've been doing enough to, kind of, counter that and make sure that I don't accidentally, just by being silent, enable the spread of white supremacy."             


The lure of a white Europe, the romance of the Crusades

The men in Charlottesville marching with Knights Templar crosses painted on plywood shields are imagining a medieval crusade that David Perry says didn't exist.

"There's this kind of heroic ideal that you can pick up on medieval fantasy as a way to identify yourself today as a brave knight defending Christendom and defend the West against the outsider."

Alt-right demonstrator Kyle 'Based Stickman' Chapman at a rally on June 4, 2017 in Portland, Oregon. (Natalie Behring/Getty Images)

Perry says that interpretation serves racist ideologues, but it's simplistic and it's not historical.

"The Middle Ages had moments of intense violence but it also had long periods of intercultural contact and communication and trade and exchange," he says.

"Certainly in terms of race, the Middle Ages was not a pure-white fantasy land — maybe in some places — and that shows up in the material culture, it shows up in art, it shows up in the literature."

Lisa Fagin Davis, a Yale-educated medieval scholar, illustrates this point. On NPR, she explains the origin of an eagle emblem brandished by a protestor in Charlottesville.

"There was one young man who was carrying a shield with a black spread eagle that was clearly co-opted from either the Holy Roman Empire or — there's actually a saint... " 

It's St. Maurice, from Egypt, historically portrayed as black.

"And I suspect the gentleman carrying the shield didn't realize that," says Davis.

The fantasies of a racially pure medieval era are contradicted by the historical record, and David Perry says that's obvious to scholars.

"You can't really spend time in the Middle Ages and imagine it as this isolated incubator of Western culture that will then burst onto the world in the 16th century."   

Polish and Danish knights fight in the 10 vs 10 competition in Medieval Combat World Championship at Malbork Castle on May 3, 2015. (Janek Skarzynski/AFP/Getty Images)

From academic to activist

David Perry believes the academic field of medieval studies needs to be more diverse to counter the onslaught of racist medievalism.

He highlights the work of Dorothy Kim, a Vassar professor, who calls for the overwhelmingly white professors in medieval studies to counter the weaponization of their field by the far right, and a Twitter account, @medievalpoc, that shows evidence of diversity in the art of the middle ages.

"I think that in the last few months, the academic community has really begun to show itself as engaged in this fight in really powerful and important ways," Perry says.

But he admits not all scholars are onside.

"There are fault lines. There's a medievalist who is a friend of Milo Yiannopoulos. So it's not unified, but in general I think the mainstream body of medieval scholars have joined the people who have been calling for this for years."

It's not a comfortable place to go. David Perry says he monitored far-right online discussions trying to understand how they use medieval tropes and imagery, and he's been active on social media, which attracted racist abuse.

"Right after the election of Donald Trump, a group of neo-Nazis discovered that I come from a Jewish background and I received weeks and weeks of pretty awful harassment of the worst kinds, of  'you should be put in the ovens, you should be expelled from the United States.' That was awful. And that was a new experience," Perry says.

Battle lines form between white nationalists, neo-Nazis and members of the "alt-right" and anti-fascist counter-protesters at the entrance to Emancipation Park during the "Unite the Right" rally August 12, 2017 in Charlottesville, Virginia. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

"But again, as a journalist I know that the kind of harassment I got during that month is just a drop compared to the deluge that my colleagues who are not white men get."

"And it can be really scary out there. And it's time for people who have more security to pick up as much of the burden as we can."

To hear the full interview with David Perry, download our podcast or click the 'Listen' button at the top of this page.