When the medieval period (or “history” more broadly) is applied in vague sweeping terms to support white supremacist policies, is it being misapplied? Applied contrafactually? (Implying the facts go against it.) Applied afactually? (Implying the facts are not there to support it.) Whatever the most accurate method for describing statements, it seems wrong to give in to a paralysis of method. The medieval period is being used to support white supremacist statements and policies, and it’s wrong.
Today, I consider the tweet by Steve King, a representative from Iowa, who lended his support to the anti-EU faction in the then-upcoming elections in Netherlands. In response to a blond-haired political candidate (the Trump-like Geert Wilders) tweeting an image where he has his finger in a dike labeled Western Civilization, King said, “Wilders understands that culture and demographics are our destiny. We can’t restore our civilization with somebody else’s babies.” The popular coverage covers the immediate racism. I want to represent the imagined medieval period conjured up by statements like this, in order to point out the collaborative, networked, pluralistic vision earlier contexts can show us, ones we stand to learn from today.
First, note King’s assumptions. For candidates supporting white supremacism, it’s important to depict civilization as a singular quasi-proper noun that is in freefall. There are not multiple civilizations, as melting-pot historians might claim, or multiple working parts that are sometimes called “a civilization” out of convenience. Neither King nor Wilders have time for abstract platitudes: civilization is ours. Whose? The people who agree in “culture and demographics,” qualities called “our destiny.” The context supplies what they allude to: white culture, white people, white destiny. Europa universalis.
Does this civilization just include white people, or also allow for the many groups caught up in the history of European civilization: Mediterranean traders, African slaves, Amerindians, colonial India, migrating tribes from the steppes? It should. However, King doesn’t split hairs. This civilization is under attack, and it cannot be restored with “somebody else’s babies” – whose? Somebody else’s. The odd “somebody” may be an artifact of a strict character limit. It may be avoiding the more pointed identification of a specific group. It reminds me of myths that connect racial differences to the sons of Noah: is “somebody” Ham or Shem, the less favored sons who populated Asia and Africa? Do we need to go that far to conjure the body of the racial Other: the babies of another culture or race? They’re claiming that procreation by other races is a threat to their culture.
So for King, civilization is under attack. How do they restore it? It requires a form of racial cleansing that ensures that only “we” produce babies, or that primarily “we” produce babies. (I don’t identify with this “we.”) I personally think that’s distasteful even at a glance. Race here is the scapegoat for present problems with terrorism, with rust-belt economic woes, and with many other unnamed problems. It’s a scapegoat partly because our problems with terrorism often come from white people: domestic terrorist incidents are often perpetrated by desperate white men, as even the cursory list of incidents on Wikipedia shows. Referring only to “radical Islamic terrorism,” as Trump insisted on doing in his State of the Union address, misses a proportional threat that may be radical but isn’t Islamic or Islamist at all. (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Domestic_terrorism_in_the_United_States ) (Most recently, there’s the anti-Muslim white man who recently killed two men who interceded in his rant against a Muslim woman.) “We” pose some of our own problems.
There’s also a broader historical basis for resisting King’s claims. Statements like King’s often assume that civilization was built exclusively by white men, that European and American history are histories of white people. Medieval history is time and again marshalled in support of this statement. King may imagine a dark time where white innovators like Michelangelo and Dante clawed us out from the precipice, through the birth canal of the Renaissance, and into the light of the Enlightenment to build “our civilization.” Some holes are easy to point out, including the idea that our racial discourse would have been foreign to the medieval people we identify as our progenitors. English dramatists at the turn of the 17th century didn’t regard Italians (like Michelangelo and Dante) as white-like-us, but as a foreign, attractive but potentially decadent other. In Shakespeare’s Othello, Iago can use Desdemona’s status as a Venetian woman to sow suspicion in Othello’s mind. As the stereotype goes, she may be duplicitous:
I know our country disposition well;
In Venice they do let heaven see the pranks
They dare not show their husbands; their best conscience
Is not to leave’t undone, but keep’t unknown. (3.3.201–04) (see also: https://www.bl.uk/shakespeare/articles/shakespeare-and-italy)
Desdemona may confess her infidelity, Iago implies, but only to her priest and not to her husband. Similarly, the title of John Webster’s play The White Devil signals that its pale Italian heroine (Vittoria Corombona, “the famous Venetian Curtezan”) is suspect partly because of her ethnic status. In other words, a so-called seat of civilization would have been regarded with ambivalence during the period people call the English Renaissance. https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/en/a/a1/White_devil_title_page.jpg
The geography of medieval Europe did not draw its borders as strictly as anti-EU politicians like Wilders or King might want to assume. There was not a Christian, Catholic medieval Europe innovating in spite of the barbarous East. Rather, even England and France depended on an exchange of goods and information that connected in the Mediterranean. These Mediterranean networks were vital drivers of innovation and prosperity, as much integrated into North Africa and the Middle East as they were into the Greek, Italian, or Hispanic peninsulas. Medieval romances written after the twelfth century tapped into these networks as settings for their fantastic adventures. Sir Bevis of Hamtoun (Hampton) travels in Egypt and Armenia after being sold by pirates to a king of those parts (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bevis_of_Hampton). Custance in Chaucer’s “Man of Law’s Tale” travels from Rome to Syria, travels adrift from Syria to Northumberland (!), and travels from there to Spain and back again to Italy. Arthur conquers Rome and fights kings from North Africa in Le Morte Darthur, while meanwhile fighting alongside “Saracen” knights like Sir Palamedes and Sir Safir. One can hardly read a romance without encountering a Sultan in Spain, a king from North Africa or Egypt, a Byzantine emperor, or a ruler from near Jerusalem. They were part of the same world and the same networks of influence.
These narrative threads reflect a world that views North Africa with ambivalence similar to that afforded to early modern Italians. Christianity and Islam were rival religions, and kingdoms within and beyond these religions were often rivals themselves. That said, trade goods like spices and fine clothes kept moving throughout the medieval timespan, and in places like Spain one could find Christian, Jewish, and Islamic courtiers and thinkers coexisting. That’s one reason why Ibn Rushd (ʾAbū l-Walīd Muḥammad Ibn ʾAḥmad Ibn Rushd, Latinized as “Averroes”) would wind up cited by Thomas Aquinas as a great commentator on Aristotle’s writings, “The Commentator” to Aristotle’s nickname “The Philosopher.” He directly grew the scientific knowledge and methods of Catholic theologians.
The Mediterranean trade also imported a more robust form of algebra. Algebra is the medieval product of many cultural contacts. Persian contributions are particularly significant: Al-Khwarizmi and “reduction” to solve equations; Omar Khayyam and geometric applications to algebra; Sharaf al-Dīn al-Tūsī and the idea of a function. Indian, Chinese, and other people also contributed to algebra (for example, the number “zero” as an additive identity) before Fibonacci revived Italian interest in the art. Even after these frequent points of contact in the medieval period, it’s easy to find rich mathematical exchanges and developments between people from various cultures. For instant, Seki Kowa from Japan would come up with the concept of the determinant, applied independently a decade later by one of the parents of calculus, Gottfried Leibniz.
It’s impossible to know what our fields of knowledge would look like without these inventors’ contributions. For King, these people aren’t a part of the “we.” They’re “somebody else’s babies,” people who deserve to be isolated by Trump’s immigration ban. Yet, if we’re going to make such comparisons, it’s worth repeating that the scientific revolution may have never happened if it weren’t for these exchanges of people, ideas, and goods. England wouldn’t be England without the many influxes of new people – the Angles, Saxons, Jutes, Normans, Moors, Dutch, Indians, and on and on. Even today, the impact of Steve Jobs (child to Syrian parents) may be quantified; the local impact of immigrant doctors working in Appalachia is considerable but tougher to define. Racial thinking can’t bear these particulars, so they have to rely on a version of medieval history that is necessarily partial: romances and knights without the obvious Mediterranean context, kings and Church without the trade of spice, Aristotelian physics without the Islamic and Jewish philosophers who further developed and applied it. The modern stories they support also end up partial, focusing on the needs of an imagined, restricted “us.”
“Our civilization” doesn’t thrive by counting up the contributions of one demographic group and considering them superior. If history can bear a generalization, it’s that we (collectively now, no quotes or “somebody else” in opposition) need each other – as individuals, as groups, as overlapping “civilizations” – to define who we are and to address our current problems.