May 21, 2018

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Alt-Mid to Alt-Lib: The far right’s new fascination with the Middle Ages

The Economist recently published a piece on the renewed interest in the Middle Ages. Like “fakenews” and “anti-semitism” these are issues that have been alive and well for over two decades without the WMSNM paying much attention. Now that they can be attributed to the “far-right,” they’re back in vogue as “new.” The piece is intellectually as disturbing as its claims about the “right’s” fascination with the MA: it offers a flattened MA, tailored as a refutation of the tribal emotions so common among people back then.

The far right’s new fascination with the Middle Ages

Jan 2nd 2017, 12:05 BY S.N. | CLAREMONT, CALIFORNIA

UNTIL fairly recently, it was rare to find Americans who were passionate about both medieval history and contemporary politics.

Guess that makes me, who am writing a book subtitled A Medievalist’s Guide to the 21st Century, rare.

Barring the odd Christian conservative, medievalists tended to lean left: a Marxist grad student, say, mucking around in land ownership patterns to show how past inequalities gave birth to present ones,

NB: not to show how much past inequalities have been overcome, even though none of these Marxists would choose to live in the inequities of the Middle Ages.

or an environmentalist activist, perhaps, fascinated with vegetable-dyed handspun clothing.

I certainly don’t fit either “type,” despite having been accused of being “marxicisant” by Dominique Barthelemy because I thought peasants thought (demotic religiosity) and their actions, based on that thought, especially at the advent of apocalyptic dates, like 1000, was consequential.

My regret is that we have not seen more medievalists work on the rural and urban commune movement of the new millennium (11-13th centuries)… lay textual communities, laboratories of civil society, adumbrations of democracies to come.

But when Americans invoked historical events in politics, they tended to be more recent—the founding of the republic; the struggle against slavery and segregation; victory over Nazi Germany.

This has changed. Since the September 11th attacks, the American far right has developed a fascination with the Middle Ages and the Renaissance—in particular, with the idea of the West as a united civilisation that was fending off a challenge from the East.

Had the “mainstream” of the public sphere, alerted by honest information professionals, developed an interest in medieval apocalyptic beliefs and “holy war,” which might have made Al Qaeda and Hamas more understandable as apocalyptic global imperialists, radicals might have been embarrassed to be associated with the folly of seeing them as “resistance warriors” just like us.

We are Hamas London 2009

Anti-Israel Rally, London, January 2009

or carried signs of solidarity with a sadistic Jihadi, like this:

denver al sadr

Demonstrations at US Democratic Convention, Denver, 2008

The trend has been prodded along by the movement’s discovery of its European counterparts, which have used medieval and crusader imagery since the 19th century. This is troubling to many of those who study the Middle Ages for a living.

Of course there’s the equally troubling tendency to deliberately map modern PC language on the period, in order to get people to think about the present.

The emphatic assertion by “late antique” historians of the late 20th century to insist that the Roman Empire didn’t “fall,” that a “a process of immigration which became a successful integration” produced the “successor kingdoms,” is most decidedly linked to a PoMo insistence on embracing the other, and therefore avoiding any negative remarks about them. “The barbarian is an empty sign that can be filled by anyone,” insists the historian on the edge, and therefore we must “tear off the veil” of that empty sign, and certainly not fill it with anyone else, not even honor/shame-driven patriarchal barbarians.

What if there were clashes of civilizations? What if a tribal, belligerent male-driven honor/shame culture took over the area once part of the “Roman empire,” and overthrew its civilizational rules? What if that development entailed meant a huge cultural regression in the productivity and material well-being of the population? Is that not a civilizational “fall”?

What if, as has been true for the overwhelming majority of human history, whether one goes back 2 million or only 150,000 years, that “we” and “them” are even now in a zero-sum game? Do we ignore the evidence in order not to get involved in that (timeless?) zero-sum war? Do we empty the signifier in order not to see the face of the enemy, somehow imagining that we thereby enter into a Kantian world of perpetual peace where “war is not the answer”? Do only we get to declare war?

The danger of underestimating foes may be one of history’s most recurring lessons. Why would we so thoroughly mistake our enemies as being entirely the product of reacting to our actions? Have they no autonomous motivations?  Do we not run the risk of eventually capitulating to an aggressor whom we’ve refuse to identify as such?

The embrace of the medieval extends from the alt-right online forum culture that has exploded in the last few years to stodgier old-school racists. Helmeted crusaders cry out the Latin war-cry “Deus vult! [Deus le vult]” from memes circulated on Reddit and 4Chan. Images of Donald Trump, clad in mail with a cross embroidered on his chest, abound. Anti-Islam journals and websites name themselves after the Frankish king Charles Martel, who fought Muslim armies in the 8th century, or the (slightly post-medieval) Ottoman defeat at Vienna.

And PC reconstructions, swallowing whole the Myth of an Andalusian Paradise, argue that it might have been better for everyone (including women!) if the Muslims had won at Poitiers in 114/742.

Jihadists, meanwhile, use images of Muslim cavaliers from movies and videogames to illustrate their own war against a West they believe to be a reincarnated Byzantium. Indeed, much of the far right’s attraction to the Middle Ages seems to be driven by a grudging admiration for Islamic State’s fusion of medieval motivation and modern technology.

This “reactionary modernism” goes way back, and has a particular attraction to active cataclysmic millennialists, like the Nazis or the global Jihadis. Indeed, one might argue that frustrated triumphalist Muslims are the current masters of that grudging admiration in their fusion of modern technology and apocalyptic fantasies of world conquest, first extensively seen in Khoumeini’s use of modern technology to enforce a redemptive theocracy on Iran in  1400/1979, and most recently seen in ISIS’s savvy social media campaigns of recruitment for sacred mass murder.

In every case, even in the case of holy war, this question must be posed, is this excitement at war an oppressive masculine pathology – libido dominandi, imperialism for the joy of dominion – something civilized peoples the world over should resist at all costs? Or is it the normal response of any sane tribal entity to external threat?

Obviously all cases have a mixture, as in the French revolutionary response to war in its early years. But to assume all war is pathological and wrong, that war is never the answer, is to attempt to override human nature. When assaulted by an enemy, it is evolutionarily necessary to develop one’s own defenses, which, among other things, means emphasizing solidarity and belligerent resistance to invasion. To harshly deny “us” (distastefully “patriotic” and “tribal”) and a instead promote a promiscuous acceptance of “them” (embracing the other is redemptive), at a time when faced with an implacable other, is folly. The inability of a society to detect and mobilize against enmity, to imagine itself enemy-free, might be called a “cultural auto-immune deficiency.”

Unfortunately, in today’s cognitive disorientation, defending one’s civilization has become a “far right” obsession that will make us “like” the disgusting enemy we refuse to identify. As my German colleagues said to me in 2011: “We’re more afraid of our own fascist tendencies than those of the Muslims in our midst.”

For Americans who are indifferent to the Middle Ages, or think of it as an unpleasant plague-ridden prelude to the present,

inaccurate only the assumption of a prelude, rather than a continuation of that lamentable condition of helplessness that pre-modern cultures had in the face of nature for the preceding hundreds of millennia.

this might be of little consequence. But millions of others with mainstream or left-leaning beliefs are attracted to the medieval era

“Left-leaning” is an interesting formulation. What does it mean? People who treasure the creativity and intimacy that an egalitarian society allows? (In which case it’s plenty of people now identified/stigmatized as “right-wing”.)

—witness the popularity of Renaissance reenactments, or medieval-inspired fantasies like “Game of Thrones”. In popularising the Middle Ages, are medievalists feeding a reactionary impulse?

This is a deeply troubling formulation. What does “popularizing a reactionary impulse” mean? That even drawing attention to the MA so exacerbates the “right-wing,” that we should downplay this area of knowledge lest we “feed” their toxic excitement? The Middle Ages in this formulation becomes a fascist semiotic arouser, a red flag waved in front of the (inherently) “right-wing”? Is the American public too immature for Game of Thrones’ fantasy realism?

(Would that responsible left-leaning information professionals had exercised a fraction of these scruples when they disseminated the first blood libel of the new century/millennium in October 2000, a piece of lethal journalism that became a wildly successful icon of hatred for rallying global jihadis.)

Followers of the alt-right would perhaps nod. Humans are natural conservatives who ought to take pride in their history, they might say; ethnic homogeneity is appealing.

I think any sane person would say that. I doubt any “us” in the long history of mankind did not take pride in its history (if only for surviving to the present), even if it led them back to periods where they were slaves or fratricides.

In an essay that purported to explain the alt-right for readers of Breitbart News, Milo Yiannapoulis, one of its editors, described a good portion of the movement as fuelled by the “conservative instinct,” including a preference for a preference for “homogeneity over diversity.” 

Strictly speaking, there’s nothing wrong with any of this. Especially in times of danger, people want to be with people they know and trust. Not to be so moved, especially in times of danger, might be termed a pathology, even suicidal: if paranoia is the term for an irrational fear, then what’s the term for an irrational lack of fear? Anphobia?

Scholars who study the era have taken note. In a recent essay in the popular academic blog “In the Middle” Sierra Lomuto argued that medievalists had “an ethical responsibility to ensure that the knowledge we create and disseminate about the medieval past is not weaponised against people of colour and marginalised communities in our own contemporary world.

At what point does the “history of the Middle Ages” become weaponized in the service of a narrative that holds that embracing people of color and marginalized communities is the way (the left-leaning way) to a just society? Is it an ethical responsibility to support that presentist agenda, or to report honestly? Are medievalists above all social justice warriors?

Should we not disseminate knowledge about the Middle Ages that chronicle the struggles in human society and the attitudes they evince. Is it not the duty of the information professional to report accurately on past attitudes towards all those “not-us,” in a zero-sum “us-them” world and the mentalities involved. Is it our job to revise the narrative to present the medieval “other” as “peaceable,” to encourage the teaching that the marginalized deserve to be mainstreamed – even when a) the medieval (and so many “others” in history) are not peaceable, and b) mainstreaming some marginalized can be very dangerous? After all, what is this effort to write a social-justice version of the Middle Ages, if not an effort to keep “right-wing” hate-mongering marginalized and underrepresented?

It’s hard to write the history of the period between 500-1500 without acknowledging the politics of marginalization, the deadly hostility between various groups, especially religious. Do you want to emphasize how far we’ve come? Fine. Do you want to argue that current intersectional power structures in the West replicate this medieval power politics, that we too (symbolically of course), treat religious dissent the way the Inquisition did? Do you add that we should therefore not be so racist as to accuse other cultures and religions of having the medieval mentality in which “of course we humiliate and crush our enemies, especially the religious ones”? Then I respectfully suggest you are willy-nilly serving the war goals of the enemy you will not recognize.

Academics are placing a new emphasis on the ways in which medieval societies differed from the homogeneous world imagined by the alt-right.

Is this emphasis to illuminate a problem – i.e., relations between varying medieval political, religious, and ethnic communities – or is it a propaganda campaign designed to say, things were just fine then (Rome didn’t fall), as they could be now (Europe won’t fall), if we’d just embrace people of colour and marginalised communities.

Art historians document the appearances of dark-skinned migrants in northern Europe to show that medieval populations, if not quite as mobile as today, were still pretty mobile.

A pretty superficial argument, largely irrelevant to the issues raised by these (rare) depictions. “Pretty mobile?” And so the vastly higher rates of mobility today pose no problems other than the right-wing reaction to those problems? Just because a 5% or even a 20% increase in positive-sum diversity is good for a culture, does that mean there are no higher rates at which it may become toxic, especially if the influx comes from hard-zero-sum cultures?

Others focus on the multiethnic Kingdom of Sicily, where Norman kings employed Arab and Jewish administrators,

in their colonial-imperial project of occupying and exploiting the local population, itself the product of strata of conquest and imposition…

or Christine de Pizan, who wrote treatises on military science in the 15th century, when the field was even more male-dominated than today.

interesting to think in this sense of an even later development in the history of modernity, the contributions to military “science” made by Jewish generals after the Holocaust: strategies and techniques for sparing as many lives as possible, not only of one’s own men, but even enemy lives.

Progressives and reactionaries may both be drawn to the Middle Ages out of an affinity for “tradition,” says Shirin Khanmohamadi, a professor of literature at San Francisco State University who teaches a course called the Multicultural Middle Ages. But progressives would find it most interesting to explore “the premodern contribution to ‘multiculturalism’ and to other modes taken for granted as modern.”

Curious. This is precisely what I argue in my medieval work: that on the Peace of God at the turn of the millennium (the millennial generations) set in motion the demotic social and cultural dynamics that lead to modernity (and that, therefore, the (now just past) millennium should be seen as a two-part development towards “modernity,” with a religious phase and a secular phase. But few, even the French, who are the hero of that tale of millennium’s turn, seemed interested. (Ironically, they may be among the principle Western villains of the second millennium’s turn.)

Academia’s presentation of a nuanced view

really an un-nuanced counter view, in some senses even more one-dimensional than the view they seek to undermine…

of the Middle Ages may reach more bookish white supremacists: Derek Black, son of the founder of the website Stormfront, has written about how he broke with his father’s racial separatist vision while pursuing a graduate degree in medieval history.

fascinating tale, in which shabbat table conversation played a critical role in the process of reconsideration, and not so much one of “look how well people got on with marginalized groups” but that it was a cultural not a racist movement which took us from economic backwardness to a great civilization.

It is unlikely to reach those whose view of the era is mostly filtered through movies and videogames. But in pop culture as well, a deromanticised view of the medieval world exists, emphasising the grittiness, riotousness and bawdiness of the medieval city. “

Game of Thrones depicts a world in which power and violence intermingle pervasively, and in that, it serves as an important corrective to our positive-sum cognitive egocentrism that looks back and sees the Romans and Germans as positive-sum allies in the creation of kingdoms successor to Rome.

Game of Thrones” follows the adventurers of


dwarves, eunuchs and other outsiders in lands plunged into ruin by a nobility intent on fighting a dynastic conflict based on the Wars of the Roses; its religious affairs are modelled not on the Crusades but on the internal turmoil in Christendom that preceded the Reformation.

it’s  an interesting take on the subject of demotic vs. hierarchical religiosity. A pretty grim one.

The more popular medieval history becomes, the more it may come to be seen not as an endorsement of homogeneity but a refutation, a world in which non-conformity was not debilitating deviance but a desire to strive for something better.

Back to the agenda-driven manipulation of data: this image of the Middle Ages that “we” good scholars, who understand the ethical demands of our profession, create (sometimes of near-whole cloth) a paradigmatic view of the period as a “refutation” of one we deem unethical (i.e., having potentially unethical impact on immature readers). In the end we become privy to a systematic obfuscation of a real world, in order to promote a current, “inclusive” agenda.

Those who have worked in the service of this agenda, whether for or against the forces of order, have failed in their commitments as information professionals, that is, those who claim to be the (sharp) eyes and ears of civil polities. We do not fight the progressive battle against libido dominandi by obsessing on our own and denying its place among our enemies.

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