- Medievalism:From Nationalist and Colonial Past to Global Future
I know I was far from alone in experiencing a chill of horror when I saw 'Charles Martel' and 'Tours 732' handwritten on the semiautomatic shotgun allegedly used by a white Australian terrorist to slaughter Muslim people at prayer on 15 March of this year. Closer photographs of the weapon revealed a series of names and dates, many of them medieval, forming a cherry-picked genealogy of Christian 'victories' over Muslims—a genealogy culminating in recent terrorist attacks in Sweden, Italy, and Québec.
I was also one of many medievalists whose horror was mixed with a sense of depressed familiarity. It is no secret today to scholars of the Middle Ages, and perhaps most of all to scholars of medievalism, that the Middle Ages have of late proven repeatedly to be amenable to weaponization by promoters of white supremacist hatred. My attention was drawn to the alleged gunman's allusions to the Battle of Poitiers/Tours, where Martel's Frankish forces turned back the Umayyads, because my research since 2015 has focused on the medievalism underpinning right-wing populism in France,1 including that of Renaud Camus, who claims that it was the sight of a veiled North African woman living in a medieval French village that inspired his thesis that immigration is leading to the 'great replacement' in Europe of white Christians by non-white, non-Christian non-Europeans.2 Others pointed to the accused gunman's allusion to 'Acre 1189' as yet another of the multiplying instances of white supremacists using the Crusades to mandate threats and violence against Muslim populations across the west.
Medievalists have been united in their condemnation of these murderous weaponizations of the period to which we have devoted our scholarly lives. There has been less unity, however, especially on social media platforms, over what exactly is being condemned. Some have rejected populist distortions of historical facts in the service of an overt, and overtly violent, political agenda, arguing that it is an aberrant use of history that can be exposed as antithetical to the disinterested empiricism of responsible medieval scholarship. Others, and I count myself among them, argue that these recent medievalisms cannot be separated [End Page 179] from the longer tradition of ideologically privileged and institutional practices that have placed the Middle Ages in the service of nationalist and colonialist ideologies. Recognizing this does not mean that medieval scholars need to take responsibility for every rogue uptake of the period for nefarious ends, or that we abandon the distinction between scholarship and populism. But I do believe we have a collective duty to acknowledge the legacy we have inherited from our discipline's historical relationship to ideologies that have underpinned regrettable forms of social exclusion.
This call might have a new urgency, responding to the recent and ongoing international shift to the populist Right, but it is not new. In 2012 Kathleen Davis showed that the Enlightenment creation of a feudal and pre-secular Middle Ages forged periodizing distinctions that have privileged Western modernity, meanwhile relegating modern non-Western and colonized subjects to a benighted premodernity.3 Many others have explored how, in a converse but complementary move, romantic nationalist medievalisms from the eighteenth century on have rested on nostalgic and implicitly exclusionary invocations of continuous national, racial, and cultural identities rooted in localized medieval pasts. Work produced since the 1980s has revealed that nationalism, far from being the preserve of popular and creative medievalisms, undergirded the establishing of university Chairs, curricula, and studies. And Nadia Altschul, Michelle Warren and I (among others) have shown that these nationalist medievalisms were in turn imposed far beyond Europe via British and European settler colonialism.4 In these colonial contexts, assertions of continuity with European tradition at both popular and institutional levels were implicated in a wilful disavowal of the colonial spaces' deep Indigenous pasts, which were displaced by temporally shallower 'deep' European pasts. Each of these Eurocentric medievalisms has buttressed cultural, political, and juridical exclusions—many of them violent—of non-national and especially non-Western people.
Medievalists' attempts to address this legacy have not been limited to excavating medievalism...