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A non-homogeneous view of the Middle Ages

I've been thinking a lot about the role of medieval literature in our modern times. I recently read The Devil’s Historians: How Modern Extremists Abuse the Medieval Past by Amy S. Kaufman and Paul B. Sturtevant. This book explains how some people misuse their (false) ideas about the Middle Ages to support agendas of white supremacy and other power structures.

Defining the problem

So what is the problem? First, let’s think about history. As Kaufman and Sturtevant write, “History isn’t the same thing as the past. History is our way of rendering the past into stories. Our whole view of an event can shift depending on who becomes the main character of the story, which perspectives we decide to look through, or even which perspectives are available to us.” Based upon the lens we view the past through, we can shape that view into being whatever we want it to be, and that includes misusing ideas of the past, a past that didn’t actually exist as described, to support extremist views.

Take a moment and close your eyes. Think about the medieval period. What comes to mind? Knights in shining armor on horseback riding to the rescue of the damsel in distress? Or a muddy, stinky, disgusting world where life is nasty, brutish, and short? Usually it’s one extreme view or the other: a perfect world where everything is simple and in the “right” place or a savage world where mere survival is all anyone can focus on.

Neither picture is accurate. In reality, the period of time known as the Middle Ages had a wide range of people, attitudes, and ways of life. It was not as homogeneous as many people like to think. In fact, the white European world, which seems so centered in our imaginings, was not even the true center of the Middle Ages and was really just on the periphery. It is our modern world that has centered that white European view of the Middle Ages and ignored things that were going on outside that view (or even within it).

Why? Turning back to the book: “Even when historical bias isn’t quite this obvious, when history is unclear or incomplete, or when we have competing narratives of what happened, people tend to prefer stories that flatter their illusions about themselves or their ancestors.”

Examples: Witch trials and life expectancy

Let’s take the witch trials as an example. What do you know of the witch trials? People were so superstitious that there was a mass hysteria and many women (and some men) were killed by hanging or fire for being just slightly different. When did the vast majority of witch trials happen? If you said the Middle Ages, you’re wrong. Although there were people killed as witches during that time, the huge sweeping witch trials and the Inquisition happened after the Middle Ages. So why do we always think it was a medieval phenomenon? Back to the book: “If we believe witch trials are one of the defining features of the Middle Ages, we can imagine that ‘civilized’ cultures left torture and religious persecution behind in the Dark Ages. We can pretend that torture was a phenomenon cured by science and Enlightenment—completely ignoring the torture and executions still going on today.”

Continuing on with some of the negatives cast onto the medieval world, what about life expectancy? Surely you’ve heard that life expectancy was quite low at this time, somewhere around 45 years. I’ve heard people say that older people didn’t even exist in the Middle Ages. (!) What, people got to their 45th birthday and if they were still alive, they just dropped dead? That’s not at all true and misrepresents the statistic. Life expectancy is an average. That means there had to be people who lived to be much older than 45 in order to average out to that number. The biggest issue was infant and child mortality. Yes, that is an extremely sad reality. It was very likely that a woman would give birth to multiple children and only some of them would make it past childhood. But a child who made it past the age of 7 had a very good chance of living to age 70 or beyond.


What about the idea of white Europeans being the civilized society and everyone else, especially Muslims, being uncivilized? That also is untrue. In fact, the Muslim world during the Middle Ages was an extremely enlightened and sophisticated world. For example, they understood the world was spherical rather than flat and used trigonometry to measure the geography (because they needed to determine how far away and in what direction Mecca was). But Muslims are usually cast as infidels and unsophisticated and the ones the white Europeans needed to conquer with the Crusades. (Crusade history is a big topic and one I’m not going to get into here, but let’s just say that the Crusades are not as wonderful for white Christians as many of us have been led to believe. As the authors note, “The real medieval Crusades, however, were never about ‘bringing civilization’ to anyone, since by most accounts medieval Muslims were more culturally and technologically advanced than medieval Christians.”)

Why should we care?

So why should we care what really happened in the Middle Ages and whether or not we accurately portray the time period? Kaufman and Sturtevant explain: “The fantasy of a white, Christian medieval past is a dangerously antiquated myth that has more to do with what some white people want the Middle Ages to have been than what they actually were.”

I think about the stories that I’ve shared. Am I encouraging the view of the Middle Ages as a homogeneous, white Christian world where men are dominant and women are victims? That’s not how the medieval world was, and I want to make sure I share a wider range of stories and put stories into a larger context.

For example, I’ve not used the story of Palomides yet. Why? Well, Palomides was a Muslim knight and was one of Arthur’s knights of the Round Table. And yet, in Malory (one of the major medieval texts), Palomides is not truly accepted by Arthur’s court until he converts to Christianity. I didn’t like the idea that assimilation was necessary for a Muslim knight to belong to Arthur’s court, so I’ve just ignored the whole story. Instead, I should be sharing the story of this Muslim knight, putting it into context and explaining why the assimilation is problematic. (Also, it’s only Malory, who is a late 15th century storyteller, who adds in the assimilation. Older stories of Palomides don’t add that detail, and he is fully accepted into the Round Table as a Muslim.)

Gender roles

What about gender roles? Knights rescue damsels in distress, right? Well, that does happen, but there’s so much more to it than that. Often, knights are described as doing things that we think of as “feminine” traits: swooning and crying and, well, being in distress. And who rescues them? Women! (I remember writing a paper in grad school about these women, whom I called “quest maidens,” because it was amazing how often they had to come rescue knights.) I have shared several of these stories, such as when Lunete helps Gareth or when Yvain is saved by the woman who gives him her magical ring.

But medieval stories go even deeper than that. Did you know that there’s a story of a woman who becomes a knight, marries a princess, and conceives a child with this princess (an angel intervenes for this to happen)? Or the story of another woman who, in defiance of laws that disinherited women, becomes the best knight in all the realm (and in the process, there’s a personified discussion between nature, nurture and reason)? And those are just in the stories. In real life, there were also people who joined monasteries (as monks) or convents (as nuns) who were found to physically be the other gender upon their death—in other words, people who chose to live as a gender different from their physical body (aka trans).

Not a golden era

Those are the stories and the realities that need to be shared more often so we can all realize that the medieval world was not homogeneous and not white-centric. Some modern people are using the idea of the medieval world as this “golden era” in which white Christian men dominated everything and there were clear boundaries between nations and clear roles for men and women to fill, and that’s not how the medieval world was. So why should we care how people think of the Middle Ages today? I’m going to share several quotes from the Kaufman and Sturtevant book:

“Nationalists from the nineteenth century onward imagine that the medieval world not only had concrete, rigid geographical borders but firm ethnic borders as well. As you can see, this is complete nonsense. That’s not to say that there were no differences or conflicts between medieval kingdoms and countries—there were plenty. But medieval people lacked the sense of international enmity that seems to drive so many of our deepest conflicts today, both inside nations and between them.”

“Medievalism has a long and deadly history of being used in antisemitic and Islamophobic propaganda. White supremacists view the Middle Ages as a heroic and glorious time not in spite of horrors like the Crusades and the widespread violence against Jews, but because of them. They believe they are continuing a medieval struggle—whether that’s the so-called Aryan medieval hero’s struggle against the gods or the Christian crusaders’ holy wars. And their obsessions have inspired not only the violent killers we listed above but massive state-sponsored genocide, including in Nazi Germany.”

“The Klan used fantasies of an all-white medieval past to fuel its propaganda and to cloak its violence in false heroism.”

“They whitewashed their murder and enslavement of Africans by imagining it as neomedieval feudalism and themselves as benevolent neomedieval lords ruling over grateful serfs.”

“These neomedieval fantasies about protecting white female bodies led to an epidemic of violence against Black Americans.”

“According to Dark Enlightenment proponents, humanism, democracy, and the quest for equality are responsible for the decay of Western civilization. Dark Enlightenment fans contrast the diversity of modern times with a mythological view of the Middle Ages as the height of white greatness, a time when every race was in its ‘proper’ geographical place, allowing white civilization to thrive in supposedly glorious isolation. Suffice it to say, this is complete nonsense. As you’ve already read in these pages, there was no such thing as the homogeneous, insular medieval Europe they hope to resurrect. But realism is not their strong suit: some of them even argue that democracy will lead to a literal zombie apocalypse, and that the only way to prevent this is to return to medieval monarchy.”

“Restrictive gender roles are a big enough problem. But the theory that two, interdependent, complementary genders are somehow historically natural also erases LGBTQ + people completely, indoctrinating children into unnatural, ahistorical gender roles alongside heterosexism and self-loathing. Sometimes the anti-LGBTQ+ effects of this kind of medievalism are latent and ignorant, but sometimes, they’re intentional. Gender ‘purists’ use their warped view of the Middle Ages to rigidly police gender and sexuality and to enforce roles and relationships which, if they were as natural as these people claim, would not need to be enforced at all.”

All this is not to say that the medieval world was without serious issues, including racism. Far from it. But that’s exactly the point: the medieval world was much more varied and less insular than many people imagine.

The ideal of whiteness

Yet even so, there were decidedly things that are extremely problematic with regard to issues such as race. For example, “whiteness was often used as a metaphor for spiritual purity in aristocratic heroines.” And having very light skin was seen as a sign of nobility (there’s a whole issue about noble blood that was spread throughout the Middle Ages; one of my colleagues in grad school was actually focused on looking into this noble blood idea). These ideas continue to be held and have an even deeper meaning, favoring people who have lighter skin and rejecting those with darker skin.

It’s to that point where I am making the first change for Round Table Yarns. Malory’s use of the term “a fair lady” to describe Igraine was intended to show her inherent nobility by her extreme beauty. And although fairness (aka whiteness) may not have had overtly racist undertones for Malory, it is an idea that is in play throughout other times and into today. So I am renaming my colorway from “A fair lady and passing wise” to “A passing wise lady.” (The Fair Unknown, a self-striping colorway, will also be renamed if I start dyeing self-striping again.)

Shift our focus

I want to be clear. There’s nothing “wrong” with the Middle Ages. It’s all about focus. There’s so much medieval literature and history have to offer us; we just need to look beyond the usual images/stories and see that rich history. From the book: “The Middle Ages has just as much to offer those who want to make the world more inclusive, more forward-looking, and a more humane place as it does to those who would do otherwise. And the medieval past has plenty of inspiration for progressive projects: powerful women who fight their own battles; men who spin their love for other men into beautiful poetry; and thriving cultural centers where Christians, Muslims, and Jews share ideas about philosophy, science, and faith. We can tell stories out of Africa, Persia, and China as well as Europe. We can find people committed to the cause of peace and harmony, and heroic figures for a vast diversity of people to look up to. And most of all, we can have a laugh at the things that bind us all together, like fart jokes and bad sex.” (Yup, read Chaucer and you’ll find lots of those last two items, and he wasn’t the only one!)

The key to all of this is something Kaufman and Sturtevant explain: “This kind of medievalism [which focuses on the white-centric, male-dominated world] is revisionist history used to advance regressive goals. It is not based on any real interest in or knowledge of the Middle Ages.” And so it is my goal to make sure that those who are actually interested in the Middle Ages get a more accurate picture of what it was actually like and all the varieties and differences of this medieval time period, both positives and negatives. I don’t want the idea of a homogeneous, insular fantasy to be what people have in their minds for what the Middle Ages was like. And so as I choose stories to share in the future, I will make sure to vary the types of stories and/or put the stories into context (such as with Palomides) to help explore the realities of the medieval world and not just an inaccurate fantasy version of it.

Modern-day recommendations

Here are some of the modern-day books and movies the authors mention that explore other parts of the Middle Ages (and as they say, “Thanks to all of these brilliant creators, no fantasy fan has to be stuck in a sexist, homophobic, all-white medieval Europe anymore.”):

  • Saladin Ahmed’s Throne of the Crescent Moon (medieval Middle East)
  • S.A. Chakraborty’s Daevabad Trilogy (medieval Middle East)
  • Kingdom (on Netflix, set in medieval Korea)
  • Rudhramadevi (movie from Indian director Gunasekhar, based on a thirteenth-century medieval ruler who disguised herself as a man to rule as a monarch)
  • Evan Winter’s Rage of Dragons (combines traditional fantasy with African influences)
  • R.F. Kuang’s The Poppy War (fantasy version of China)
  • Naomi Novik’s Spinning Silver (medieval fairy tale with a Jewish main character; I’ve read this one and really enjoyed it)

I’d also like to add to the list the Legacy of Orisha series by Tomi Adeyemi. I greatly enjoyed the first two books and am eagerly awaiting release of the third.

~Karen Robinson, June 28, 2020

For more information and resources about these issues, see the resources page on the website for The Devil’s Historians.

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