This is Part XVI of The Public Medievalist’s continuing series onRace, Racism and the Middle Ages, continuing our interview with Chapurukha Kusimba, Professor of Anthropology at American University. You can find the first part of our interview here.
You can find the rest of our special series on Race, Racism and the Middle Ages here.
[dropcap type=”default”]W[/dropcap]hen we left off our conversation with Professor Kusimba, we were discussing how necessary it is for people looking at Africa to study early texts about the continent. Misconceptions about early Africa are rife in our culture. Many of these misconceptions are intellectual remnants of the colonial past, a past which states that Africa is a place unknown and unknowable, full of an exotic, primitive “other”. The dirty secret is that colonialists needed Africa to have been this way in order to justify their own superiority, which in turn justified both their own role in the colonial destruction of the continent, and their ancestors’ founding of the colonial system.
And the truth of the matter is that the colonial system in Africa did not come to an end that long ago. Kenya, for example, only achieved their independence from Britain in 1963—merely 54 years ago. It is therefore unsurprising that people—colonized and colonizer—continue to struggle with the legacy of this dark period. Part of this struggle involves rewriting the outdated, racist, colonialist narratives of history. Ridding ourselves of a colonialist mindset is hard, but necessary. (more…)
If I asked you to imagine medieval France, you could likely close your eyes and summon a reasonably detailed image. You could probably do the same for Italy, Spain, or Jerusalem. After reading the other articles in our series, Sicily might not be such a problem, and places like Hungary, Kiev, or Tunisia might even be in your repertoire. And even though they are not typically thought of as “medieval” (as Dr. O’Doherty explained in her “Where were the Middle Ages?”), you might at least have a few details about further flung places like India, China, or Mongolia.
But what about Africa—specifically, sub-Saharan Africa?
Even as a medievalist, I will confess to drawing a blank. Having played the Civilization series of games, I was familiar with the names Mansa Musa and Mvemba a Nzinga, but knew little else about them, or the rest of the continent and its peoples. And in the absence of knowledge, we begin to fall back on stereotypes—imagining the continent much the same way as the European colonizers did: full of tribal people in thatched huts holding spears.
This is a problem, and a core one for our current exploration of Race, Racism, and the Middle Ages. Even though sub-Saharan Africa is not typically labeled “medieval,” people from sub-Saharan Africa—either travelers or by ancestry—were very much a part of the medieval world. And as we learned from our essays on maps, medieval people—especially Islamic traders—had travelled there.
Much of the lack of popular knowledge is a product of racist, imperialist attitudes towards Africa—even among professional historians. Take, for example, an infamous statement by Oxford historian Hugh Trevor-Roper. He stated that Africans have no history because they have no documentary history, and that prior to European colonization, African history was no more than “the unedifying gyrations of barbarous tribes in picturesque but irrelevant corners of the globe.”
Trevor-Roper opined this in the 1960s. Thankfully, he is continually being proven wrong by the burgeoning fields of African history, anthropology and archaeology. But, as we have explored continually in this series, popular perceptions of the past are often slow to catch up, especially when they are fighting against a racist headwind—one that, in this case, says that Africa is either unknowable, or not worth knowing. This attitude claims that it is, and was, a place without culture, sophistication, or the agency to decide its own fate. But that could not be further from the truth.
Our conversation ranged widely across the continent, the misperceptions of Africa and Africans, and his life’s work. Below is the first part of our conversation—where Professor Kusimba reveals a medieval world very different from how we are accustomed to viewing it—when Asia, rather than Europe, was the world.
Professor Kusimba began by addressing how crucial it is that people study early Africa, as well as and the long-held prejudices that led to ignoring an entire continent:
Professor Kusimba: Without Africa there would be no humanity. Africa is the birthplace; we are all African in a sense. The notion of Africa as a place that lacks agency has been countered by many historians.
TPM: How did this idea that Africa has no agency come to be?
Kusimba: There are Judeo-Christian notions that explain away their agency. On the one hand, you have the “Hobbesian dilemma”: an idea that somehow promoted European exceptionalism vis a vis the ideas for justifying enslavement of African. The big question in our time is how could human beings do this to fellow human beings? I think the discussions of slavery and enslavement, ironically, has focused on only black versus white issues. In reality Europeans have a long history of enslaving each other!
TPM: If you look at the Roman Empire…
Kusimba: Greeks and later Romans sought slaves in central Europe; Persians too were equal opportunity enslavers. As were Ancient Africans of the Nile Valley. Today, some medieval scholars deny or only grudgingly accept the African identity of Egyptians. So, the justification of slavery—of Africans arising from their lack of agency and history—is often attributed to the work of German philosopher Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel. He saw Africa as a place that really didn’t merit anything worth talking about.
TPM: And as we know, Hegel was massively racist.
Kusimba: I think, for the most part, it was many 18th and 19th century European thinkers. In Africa, often we go back to the late colonial period in the 1960s, to Oxford Regius Professor of History Hugh Trevor-Roper. In writing and thinking about history, historians relied, as many still do, on written documents. With the exception of a few, historians were slow in utilizing anthropological sources in the writing of history. Oral traditions had not yet been incorporated into “history.” So, he rightly, in his time, declared that the only history visible in Africa were European activities. It was a world in which documentary evidence was preciously scarce and historians did not understand those documents written in African languages, like Geez, Hausa, or Swahili.
So, when you think about that period—the 1850s—when Europeans begin to venture into Africa, first as explorers and later as colonizers, there was little documentation. Europeans writing about colonial Africa had to rely on oral texts and, sometimes used Arabic texts where they existed. But even these texts were equally biased. Like Europeans, Arabs had their own prejudices. For them the world was composed of the people of the book, who included Jews, Christians, and Muslims—and everyone else: Kafirs.
So, Arab writers, even the most liberal of the time, they viewed Africans through their own lens. For example, even an uncritical reading of One Thousand and One Nights, ʾalf layla wa-layla, reveals a very racist document. Because the devil incarnate is usually this black creature; writings about representations of Africa through the Arabian Nights series are equally as racist.
TPM: So the denigration of Africa was pretty universal.
Kusimba: In Swahili, we say “An empty hand, a dry hand cannot be licked” ‘Mkono mtupu haulambwi. That is to say, when one is, poorer one has a lesser network. You are powerless. Everybody will feel they are justified to step on you as they forge ahead.
When Asia was the World
Professor Kusimba and I discussed the way that Western Europe’s central role in the Middle Ages has more to do with later scholars than historical realities. A truly accurate view of the world during the Middle Ages should focus on Asia as the proverbial center of an increasingly globalizing world:
Kusimba: I think many historians and economic historians now characterize the period from the Tang dynasty in the 8th century to the end of the Ming Dynasty in the 16th as the period when Asia was the world. In many ways Asian empires, including the Islamic Caliphates, China, and India, were economically and politically powerful. At the time, the world revolved around them. Much of the progress we now attribute to the Silk Road—maritime and overland trade—arose there.
That is the time when major transformations in science and technology, in commerce, in standardization of currency, banking, finance, all of these institutions come to bear. And in many of these empires, including the Mughals of India and the Safavids of Persia, had a huge impact in the entire “old-world” political economy. Commerce between the Mediterranean world and Southern Europe, North Africa, East Africa, South Asia, and East Asia was regular—the entire region was completely intertwined. People moved back and forth and settled temporarily—but mostly permanently—wherever their fortunes took them.
One of the major attractions of this period is that these Muslim and Buddhist empires were extremely trader-friendly. And I think that because the Muslim caliphates spread across this entire region, from North Africa, including parts of West Africa, North East Africa, going all the way to Central Asia, this means that as any Muslim, Jewish, Christian, Hindu, or even Zoroastrian merchant could travel the length of the world without risking molestation. The rules of doing commerce had become, essentially, standardized. Merchants, whatever their religious affiliations, were welcome in all these lands without risk of being enslaved. And so this 800-year period is when we can rightly talk about a period of early globalization.
TPM: Early globalization.
Kusimba: Exactly, this was the coming together of economic and political elites. There was always a tension among them. But this period is characterized by a rare rapprochement. So archaeologically, when you look at the period between at least 750, up to 1500, or even up to the present, you will recover at these port regions that were part of the Silk Road network–from Guangzhou [Canton] all the way to Mombasa and Zanzibar—find the same artifacts.
TPM: Trading the same things everywhere?
Kusimba: The same trade goods; very similar. The same elite tastes, people consuming the same things. I can show you some of the trade ceramics that we find, or Chinese silks, which were the fashion of elite work everywhere. Indian cloth was bought and sold across the region. As for jewelry, South Asian trade beads were popular from hunter-gatherers of the Kalahari to the elite men and women of Cairo. Beginning in the 1800s and 1900s we find Venetian beads beginning to venture into these markets. Today, an excavation of a Dutch settlement site in South Africa, a Native American village in New France (Illinois), or colonial fortress in Wisconsin will yield the same Venetian beads. So it speaks to the globalization that has been going on since the eighth century but also speaks to a tide that was turning in Europe’s favor.
In terms of my work, I study the period between the rise of Islam, from the death of Prophet Mohammad, to the European advent, following the Portuguese successful circumnavigation around Africa and in search for direct sea route to India. And then of course, Columbus’ discovery of the New World.
And so on the one hand, during the Tang Dynasty a unified imperial China rose to become a superpower. China’s investment—both imperial as well as private—in major industrial complexes resulted in their monopoly of probably 80% of the world’s demand of porcelain and silk. At the same time, we also see major investments in institutions of learning, the rise of Universities. People went to China, Baghdad, Isfahan, Cairo, Toledo, and so on for further education, as they do today in America. They studied many disciplines, from medicine, to mathematics, geometry, calligraphy, commerce, poetry and so on.
TPM: And you see this much more in China than in Europe?
Kusimba: Much more in China. You see the rise of Universities in Baghdad, In Damascus, Aleppo, many of these places. You see the development of what I call “Think Tanks”, much like the Brookings Institute that we see today. These think tanks were incredible because they attracted and welcomed diverse scholars who were united by their love of knowledge. At these universities, you would find Christian, Muslim, Jewish, and Buddhist students and faculty. They were all there, meeting and discussing the major topics of their time and writing about them. All this was supported and financed by the state. Some of the best poetry, developments in geometry, discoveries in medicine, investment in ceramic production were invented at this time. The father of modern medicine, Ibn Sina, an Uzbekistani, is from this period. So were poets like Rumi. Leo Africanus and Ibn Khaldun’s writings, among other scholars of the time, have left us rich archives to excavate.
TPM: Do you see these advances in your work?
We are now doing these elemental analyses of the ceramics that we get. And we know that these guys are thinking about ways to improve their products. These advances were not accidental. They arose from the deep desire to know and willingness of the state and economic elite to invest in scientific exploration. You can imagine that there is a huge kiln, supported and financed by the state. But you can also visualize chemists who are carrying out experiments and ensuring that they finesse the processes of making pottery. You can see these developments being made.
TPM: These research institutes, where did they exist? What were the names of the most well-known, prodigious, famous ones?
Kusimba: If you look at Isfahan [ed., in modern day Iran], Aleppo, Baghdad, Basra, and of course Alexandria, Cairo. There are all these centers of learning, from Mumbai to Spain, and many of these places, that are developing. And, in West Africa, you have Timbuktu. And then you have Buddhist Confucian schools, some of those Universities develop as temples. So many of these scholars moved from temple to temple, from mosque to mosque to learn. There was a huge network of scholars along with the vast networks of merchants. But there is a real belief in literacy. For Muslims, Jews, and Buddhists scholars, literacy was really a thing. They loved knowledge. And although many of the scholars were armchair scholars, they collaborated with merchants. They would ask them to bring back seeds of different plants from different parts of the world so they could experiment with them.
TPM: That’s fascinating.
Kusimba: But why is this important? This is important because even as archaeologists digging about in these remote places that no one has ever hard off or cares to know, it is really important that we engage with the writings of these early scholars. Because without engaging with the writings of these early scholars, we soon run into the same inventions and biases that we criticized.
Next week, I continue the interview where he reveals the Africa he knows—not lost in the mists, but powerful, sophisticated, and intimately connected with the rest of the world.
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This is Part VIII of The Public Medievalist’s continuing series onRace, Racism and the Middle Ages.
You can find the rest of our special series on Race, Racism and the Middle Ages here.
Everyone loves maps (or at least they should!). Most of us at least appreciate them for what they do (thank you, Google Maps, blessed among apps, for helping me get to work this morning). But you have to admit, from the humblest world map hanging in an elementary school classroom to the intricate and bizarre Waterman Butterfly, maps are not just functional. They help us better understand our world, inspire us to look beyond our limitations, and see ourselves as part of something bigger.
To be a good cartographer, especially in the eras before aerial photography and GPS, you had to be a mathematician, a geographer, and an artist rolled into one. One of the greatest mapmakers of all time added to that list scholar, traveller, and, in a manner of speaking, journalist. He was a Muslim. He was a refugee. And he was a genius. His work went unequalled for the better part of three hundred years. His full name was Abu ‘Abd Allah Muhammad ibn Muhammad ibn ‘Abd Allah ibn Idris al-‘Ala bi-Amr Alla. But we know him, simply, as al-Idrisi. His magnum opus is a book of maps called the Tabula Rogeriana or—as it is in Arabic, the Kitab Rujjar. He made it in Sicily in the twelfth century, and it depicts the world from Iceland to China, and many, many places in-between.
A Man on the Edge(s)
Al-Idrisi always seemed to live at the intersection of worlds. He was born at the turn of the 12th century (ca 1100 CE) in the North African city of Sabta (now Ceuta, Spain), right along the coasts of the straits of Gibraltar that divide Africa and Europe. He was then educated in Córdoba, the heart of Islamic Spain, and subsequently traveled extensively through North Africa, Asia Minor, and Europe—including trips through Christian Spain, France, and England.
But al-Idrisi had enemies due to his birthright. He had been born into the house of the nobles of the city of Málaga (in the map below, to the upper right). These nobles had a claim on the Caliphate that had, at least until recently, ruled the entirety of Muslim Spain. But the Caliphate had collapsed into infighting. Thus, al-Idrisi’s very existence as an heir to the Caliphate brought along with it some very powerful enemies in a country rocked by civil war.
Al-Idrisi found refuge in the court of Roger II, the greatest of the Norman kings of Sicily. Rewinding just a bit, in the two hundred years prior to al-Idrisi’s birth, Danish and Norse armies invaded and conquered the North of France. There, they quickly set up colonies that mixed the local population with settlers from their homelands and drew immigrants from the Danelaw (Danish-controlled North England). But these colonies quickly adopted local customs and languages, and, for all intents and purposes, integrated into the local populations. Thus, the Normans came into being—their name not taken from their origins in the North of France, but from places far north of that.
These Normans were clearly adept at conquest, and so, over the hundred years prior to al-Idrisi’s birth, they managed to sail from northern France, through the Mediterranean, to conquer the southern half of Italy. And thus, we are given a Sicilian King with French-Norse ancestry and the unlikely name of ‘Roger’, ruling over a kingdom largely populated with Byzantine Greeks and Muslim Arabs.
Thus—returning to al-Idrisi, when he came to the court of Roger II, he found himself somewhere extraordinary. Sicily was (and remains) sandwiched between the Latin-Christian world to the north and west, the Byzantine-Greek world to the north and east, and the Muslim world to the south. It is at the periphery of each, which places it at the very center of all. Norman Sicily was a vibrant hub of trade, travel, and commerce, and Roger II was wise enough to encourage this through a policy of religious tolerance that encouraged multicultural exchange—both literal and metaphorical.
Scholars disagree on Roger’s exact motivation for inviting al-Idrisi to his court; he may have initially simply wanted another bargaining chip in his efforts to gain control over more Muslim-held territory. But Roger quickly learned that al-Idrisi was no mere bargaining chip, but a man of extraordinary abilities. Roger commissioned al-Idrisi to create maps for him of the entire known world.
Making a World
Setting to work, al-Idrisi consulted all the books and travel reports he could find, synthesizing knowledge from Arabic, Latin and Classical sources on the subject. He extensively interviewed the travelers and traders who came to the island about the places they had come from and the places they had seen.
Al-Idrisi’s work fundamentally reveals the amount of cooperation and collaboration between people of different faiths, colors, and cultures present even in the twelfth century. Al-Idrisi reported the stories of people who had been to China, and which city produced the best silks (apparently, Quanzhou). He reported a tantalizing tale of a group of Muslim explorers who, blown vastly off-course, may have found themselves in the Americas, and who struggled to return (though from their confused reports they could have been several other places in the Atlantic). He met Norse traders who told him of the Northern Island colonies (Iceland or Greenland), and Africans who helped him map both the east and west coasts of that continent.
And though his maps were flat, he was very well aware that the Earth was a sphere, and calculated its circumference to within 10% of its real size.
Roger asked al-Idrisi to inscribe this map of the world onto a huge six-foot disc of solid silver to be displayed in his court. This, apparently, was accomplished—but as you might expect of a giant piece of precious metal, it did not survive the centuries. What we do have of al-Idrisi’s extraordinary works are several books of regional maps—Atlases—and extensive geographical commentaries in both Latin and Arabic. Scholars have subsequently combined these regional maps into a grand map of the world, seen here (click the image for an ultra-high resolution version).
For those unaccustomed to medieval maps (and even some who are), it may look a bit odd. On the left edge (west) you see the Iberian peninsula where it reaches towards North Africa; the Italian peninsula is to its right, on its side. Each brown dot represents a city; Italy and Sicily are covered in them. It is clear that this is a sea trading map, intimately familiar with, and interested in, cities along the coast. Great Britain is, perhaps appropriately, shaped a bit like a teapot above France at the top—you can see “Londra” labelled if you look carefully.
But as you look east, that is where things get interesting. The Persian Gulf is depicted, as is Sri Lanka and India. A staggering number of cities are labeled in central Asia, as are several islands off the Southeast Asian coasts. While the shapes may be distorted, this is not a mapmaker living in a particularly “dark” age.
…’Cause It’s Freaking Me Out
For those of you who are fans of The West Wing, there is a fun extra wrinkle. In Season 2, Episode 16 of the show, White House Press Secretary C.J. Cregg meets with the fictitious group “Cartographers for Social Equality”, who explain to her that the commonly known Mercator projection world map is both vastly inaccurate and reflective of imperialist values.
C.J.’s world is turned upside down when they show her how the world she has been shown on maps is not the world as it is. This is only exacerbated when the cartographers show her, in a piece de resistance, a map with south at the top; her worldview is literally turned upside-down.
The Cartographers for Social Equality would have been very pleased with al-Idrisi’s Tabula Rogeriana, not just because it was a work of extraordinary ability that reflected an encompassing worldview. They would have also appreciated it because al-Idrisi oriented all of his maps in that book, too, with South at the top. Thus, the proper way to view his work is like this.
A Wonder of the World
As we have discussed in three of the previous articles in this series, the white supremacist viewpoint argues—even requires—that the greatest works of humankind were, and are, produced by white people. And more, their views insist that multiculturalism has a debasing effect on a people, and that immigrants and refugees are a drain on society. Al-Idrisi’s map is a work of genius that was wrought not just within a multicultural society, but as a direct product of multiculturalism. It is one of the wonders of the multicultural world.
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For those familiar with some of the more horrible parts of the Middle Ages, such as the mass murders and expulsions of the Jews, the Crusades, or the wars in the Baltics, the answer might seem obvious: of course they were. And these well-known events corroborate a commonly held misconception about medieval people: that they were, at their core, worse people than we are. Heaping racism onto the other false idiocies and barbarities that are too-often part of today’s definition of the “medieval” is not that far of an intellectual leap. The Middle Ages are used, as Eric Weiskott put it, as “the negative mirror image of secularist modernity.”
But the truth is, as always, more complicated. As it turns out, medieval people’s ideas about what “race” actually means are quite different from our contemporary ideas about race. As I discussed last week, “race” is a concept that is entirely invented and socially constructed. Therefore it is unsurprising that medieval ideas about race could be fundamentally different to our own.
As an example of how complicated and strange medieval views on race could be, let’s focus on a text notorious for its complex and contradictory portrayal of race: the story of Percival. The two best-known medieval versions of the story are the 12th century French version, Perceval, the Story of the Grailby Chrétien de Troyes, and the 13th century German version, Parzivalby Wolfram von Eschenbach. Both of these stories tackle regionalism, hybridity, and racial and religious conflict in surprisingly different ways, considering their subject matter is, at its core, the same. But first, a little background on race in the medieval mind.
The Chicken and Egg Problem of Medieval Racism
Until recently, medievalists were reluctant to use modern terms like “racism” to discuss medieval texts at all for a variety of reasons. First of all, the word “race” did not exist for the majority of the Middle Ages. As the OED explains, “race” was first used with this meaning in English in 1547 (just after the end of the Middle Ages) and similar words in French, Spanish and Portuguese only arose about hundred years prior.
Secondly, the words they did use, like the Latin “gens”, “natio”, and “populus” (all meaning, roughly, “people”) bore a few interesting quirks. As Robert Bartlett explains:
For the majority of medieval writers, ethnicity was defined by and manifested in culture as much as, or more than, descent. The classic and much quoted definition of Regino of Prum (d. 915) asserts that ‘the various nations differ in descent, customs, language, and law’ […] Of the four criteria listed here, only one is biological.
Bartlett unintentionally makes an important point: racial and racist stereotypes—even ostensibly positive ones (such as “Asians are good at math”)—by definition, conflate and confuse biology and culture. As discussed in Part IV of this series, this is the defining problem of race and racism—the misattribution of cultural observations (or vile prejudices) to biological realities.
But despite the similarities in the way these racial constructs conflate biology and culture, the categories the medieval West used to define other people were far more complicated, and far more flexible, than our own.
Medieval writers who used terms like “gens”, “natio”, and “populus” also conflated biology and culture far more finely than people who discuss “race” today. For example, Bartlett cites 14th-century Scottish chronicler John of Fordun, who saw the Scottish Highlanders and Lowlanders as two different “gens.” And in typical racist fashion, Fordun assigns attributes to each of them:
The race of the sea coasts is domesticated, civilized, faithful, patient, cultivated, decently dressed, refined and peaceable, devout in church worship, yet always ready to withstand any harm done by its enemies. The island or mountain race, however, is wild, untamed, primitive, intractable, inclined to plunder, leisure-loving, quick to learn, skilful, handsome in appearance but vilely dressed, and continually fiercely opposed to the English people and language, but also to their own nation, on account of the difference of language.
Even more interestingly, many medieval writers seemed to think that a race’s characteristics could change over time. This could happen by that group either relocating to a different place (since both skin color and other racial attributes were thought to be a byproduct of climate and location), or seemingly for no reason at all.
This flies in the face of contemporary racist ideas; contemporary racists base their claims on the idea that racial characteristics are both inherent and eternal—that groups are good or bad inherently because they always have been. Many medieval people seem not to have thought this way at all.
Blood is as Thick as Gold
Some medieval writers loaded their idea of race with aspects that today we might call intersectionality. For example, the medieval aristocratic class often viewed themselves as a breed apart from the people they ruled—believing they had more in common (due to shared bloodlines and status) with aristocrats in other kingdoms than the people of their own. This took on a shared identity, to which the nobility assigned traits that suited their purposes: knights were not only better warriors—inherently—than their peers, but they were also better looking. King Arthur is, of course, the best-known example of how a medieval man supposedly carried nobility, and with it special power, in his blood.
This is reflected in the Percival story. Percival was raised in the Welsh wilderness, but despite his humble upbringings, he is immediately recognized as one of their own by other knights. The reason is because he is just so very, very pretty:
The warriors eyed him closely. God’s skill lay in his creation, they saw […] no man’s appearance had ever turned out better since Adam’s time. Because of this his praise ranged far and wide in women’s mouths.
When he arrives at Arthur’s court for the first time,
They marked his complexion. That indeed was self-evident–never was lovelier fruit sired nor ladied. God was in a sweet mood for breeding when he wrought Parzival, who feared few terrors.
The knights of the court sometimes mock him for his backwardness, but they recognize him as one of their own by his skills in battle and his unparalleled beauty.
Descendants of this medieval idea of fine-grained race have been deployed in some of our most enduring popular culture, where special powers are passed through special families. The superpower-giving mutations of the X-Men are a classic example, which is why the comics and films often grapple allegorically with racial issues. The force-wielding power of Jedi Knights—midi-chlorian nonsense notwithstanding—is also passed within families. The question of Rey’s parentage that has consumed Star Wars fans since episode VII’s release has focused exclusively on Jedi. The Harry Potter series refreshingly breaks this paradigm, not just by introducing “muggle-born” wizards, but by framing one of its anti-racist narratives as pitting those who promote fine-grained bloodline racism versus those who are accepting of “muggle-born” and “half-blood” wizards.
Racist discourses, where writers casually remark upon the positive or negative stereotypes of large groups of people—and where “race” and “culture” blend and are interchangeable—can be found commonly. But that is not to say that every medieval person, and that every medieval society, was uniformly racist; there is a silver lining to be found. In fact, it is relatively easy to find egalitarian portrayals of people of other races across medieval art and literature.
For example, the German version of the story, Parzifal, is broadly a reinterpretation of the story as it had been told by Chrétien, but interestingly, Wolfram’s German version includes a prequel that tells the story of Percival’s father, Gahmuret. Gahmuret was an adventurer-knight who, perhaps like Wolfram himself, had no particular issues with people of other races or faiths. On his adventures, he puts himself in the service of the king of Baghdad and fights alongside Saracens. He then travels to a legendary kingdom in Africa, where he marries its queen, Belcane. Together they have a son—Percival’s half-brother, Feirefiz—who is Percival’s equal in all aspects of knighthood—as a warrior, as a wealthy man, and as a lover. Wolfram writes:
And Feirefiz was no aberration. One could also point to the other literal black knights in the Arthurian canon—not one “token”, but a cadre of four: Sir Morien, Sir Palamedes, Sir Safir, and Sir Segwarides. Or one could point to various positive depictions of Africans in medieval art, as catalogued on the popular Tumblr page People of Color in European Art History, or explored in the crucial book on the topic The Image of the Black in Western Art, Part II.
Race and Faith
It’s almost impossible to talk about medieval race without talking about religion. Today faith is often considered a category separate from race. This is a byproduct of the evangelical natures of Islam and Christianity, where the faithful are exhorted to convert those outside their community. Judaism is often cited as one of only a few modern-day counterexamples, where lineage and religion are more closely tied (though in no way exclusively, since there exists a long tradition of conversion to Judaism as well). However these notions of community, lineage, and religion were more closely bound together in the Middle Ages, as Bartlett explains:
Especially in a period like the Middle Ages, when religion meant membership of a community much more than adherence to a set of principles or beliefs, there was a sense in which one was born a Christian, a Muslim, or a Jew, just as one was born English or Persian.
This is evident in the curious condition of Feirefiz’s skin, which is mottled black and white:
Setting aside the abysmal medieval understanding of genetics—obviously biracial children do not have mottled skin (barring those with vitiligo)—the queen is partial to his white spots not because she prefers whiteness for the sake of whiteness, but because those represent Feirefiz’s father, and possibly, his father’s Christianity. And moreover, Wolfram characterizes his skin not in negative terms, but as one of God’s miracles.
Fascinatingly—and something that will be discussed in more depth in a later article in this series—in medieval literature there are even instances where a character’s skin changes with his conversion. Feirefiz, however, is not one of these characters.
Ultimately, Feirefiz decides to convert to Christianity. When he does, he immediately gains the ability to see the Holy Grail—something only Percival had been able to do. His life trajectory parallels Percival’s in many ways, each rising from the disadvantages of an absent father to find fame and glory through their heroism.
Looking to the Authors
Characters never exist in a vacuum. The characters of the X-Men, of Star Wars, and of Harry Potter tell us something about how their authors see the world. Similarly, Feirefiz, Percival, and Gahmuret reveal something about the author of Parzifal, Wolfram. Despite, seemingly, every opportunity to cast aspersions on people from Africa or the Middle East, Wolfram never does. Gahmuret pledges himself to the king of Baghdad because he is a good and generous overlord, plain and simple. Gahmuret falls in love with Belacane and her skin color is immaterial. Feirefiz’s skin is a curiosity, to be sure, but no impediment in any way. And, on several occasions, Wolfram states explicitly that those with black skin are no less able in everything that mattered to him (beauty, wealth, and prowess) than people with white skin.
But of course, not all medieval people were so unbiased. To find one, we need only look at the French version of Percival. This earlier version does not contain the Feirefiz subplot or the Gahmuret prequel story. Worse, its author Chrétien de Troyes injects vastly anti-Semitic language into his story, for example in a passing mention of Jesus’ Crucifixion:
This death was holy, for our Lord / both saved the living and restored / the dead from death to life again. / The traitor Jews, who should be slain / like dogs, established in their hate / our great good and their wretched state, / for when they raised Him on a cross, / they saved us and ensured their loss.
Blaming Jews for the death of Christ is among the oldest anti-Semitic slanders in the book. And interestingly—likely tellingly—despite the fact that Wolfram copied a significant amount from the earlier work by Chrétien, his anti-Semitism does not seem to have been transferred.
So that brings us squarely back to the initial question: “were medieval people racist?” Some medieval people definitely were. Even though their idea of what constitutes a “race” differed fundamentally, and they deployed different words to describe it, the fact remains that they did bear prejudiced ideas based upon superficial physical differences. But, like people today, many medieval people were not. People like Wolfram valued cosmopolitanism and multiculturalism, and showed ample respect for those different to them. And that basic respect was necessary for trade, and for learning, to exist. As Dr. DarkAge put it,
Al-Andalus, aka Muslim Spain, was right next to France. Parts of France were also England, and vice versa. The Vikings landed in all those places. Western European culture relied heavily on philosophical, literary, commercial, and scientific exchanges with people who were not white.
To this list of more-cosmopolitan and multicultural societies, one can add Norman Sicily, the Byzantine Empire, the Vikings (who seemed ever-eager to adapt to and adopt new cultures), and others that we will explore as this series continues.
The easiest possible answer to the question is this: Medieval people were likely not significantly more racist than we are today (if such a thing could even be quantified). In both times, if you look to find racism, both personal, institutional, and structural, it can be readily found. And in both times, you can find those who reject it. What we can say is that medieval racism was very different. This should not offer us any comfort; nothing gives modern-day racism a pass. Racism is a problem that plagues most periods and cultures in humanity, but the most successful, innovative and just societies are those that can most effectively conquer it.
This is Part IV of The Public Medievalist’s continuing series on Race, Racism and the Middle Ages.
Read the Introduction to the our series here, Part I, here, Part II here, and Part III here.
The prior articles in this series by Dr DarkAge and James Harland revealed a question that we have yet to address but which needs to be asked: what does “race” actually mean? What is “race”?
Many people today think of race (and its cousin “ethnicity”) in quite simplistic terms; people have different attributes (skin color, eye shape, hair color and texture, ancestral origin etc.) that leads to being divided into broad categories. Those broad categories roughly correspond with an imagined ancestral homeland. But while those categories may seem natural or normal, they are fundamentally arbitrary. Drawing stark lines between peoples is impossible; the shades and shapes of humanity form a spectrum of variance. Race, simply put, is not real.
The idea of race is so powerful within our culture that calling it a myth may seem insane. But those who study human diversity the most have known this simple truth for over sixty years. As Robert Wald Sussman puts it in his bookThe Myth of Race: The Troubling Persistence of an Unscientific Idea:
In 1950, UNESCO issued a statement asserting that all humans belong to the same species and that “race” is not a biological reality but a myth. This was a summary of the findings of an international panel of anthropologists, geneticists, sociologists, and psychologists. A great deal of evidence had been accumulated by that time to support this conclusion, and the scientists involved were those who were conducting research and were most knowledgeable about the topic of human variation. Since that time […] an enormous amount of modern scientific data has been gathered to justify this conclusion. Today the vast majority of those involved in research on human variation would agree that biological races do not exist among humans. Among those who study the subject, who use and accept modern scientific techniques and logic, this scientific fact is as valid and true as the fact that the earth is round and revolves around the sun.
Basically, racists are little better than flat-earthers.
But let’s step back a moment. Of course there are genetic differences between people and among groups. These can have serious consequences on your life, even your health. But, as Carol C. Mukhopadhyay writes in her book How Real is Race? A Sourcebook on Race, Culture, and Biology, things are not so simple as we have been led to believe:
Anthropologists aren’t arguing that there is no biological component in U.S. racial categories. Biology has played a role in the cultural invention of what we call race […] And race, or rather, one’s racial designation, socially, can have enormous biological consequences, including on one’s health status. But most of what we believe or have been taught about race as biology, as valid subdivisions of the human species, and an important part of human biological variation is a myth.
We can send away a cheek swab to test our genetic makeup, and receive a report tracing markers originating in different parts of the world. We can see differences between ourselves and our peers, and note their height or hair or skin. But what—if anything—do those differences mean?
All the problems arise when meaning is made from these superficial genetic differences. It’s a fairly short leap to the incorrect conclusion that peoples, in addition to their similar surface-level physical attributes, might have different psychological, physical, or intellectual attributes. It’s such a pervasive, simple idea that it can lead us to believe that it’s actually true, normal, or natural. It’s a powerful idea, one that, in many ways, we have structured our society around. This is so true that after sixty years of scholarship saying it simply isn’t true, thus simple idea may still be surprising for you.
“Race” and Racist Inductive Reasoning
The logic of race may seem sound at first glance. For example, runners from sub-Saharan Africa often dominate track categories in the Olympics, and African Americans dominate the NBA and NFL. By inductive reasoning, therefore, black people must naturally make better athletes. And since white people dominate business, academia, and politics in the U.S. and Europe, surely that is because they have some innate abilities in those arenas. But inductive reasoning like this is flatly incorrect; when you begin to examine the idea of race—and the meanings that are made from it more closely, the whole thing quickly unravels.
Scientists, sociologist and psychologists have found that there are no behavioral or intellectual differences whatsoever between peoples based on race or ethnicity that cannot be attributed to other—typically social—factors, or good old individual variation. Africans dominate running in the Olympics because of cultural factors, not biological ones. Chief among the factors that determine people’s circumstances are those affected by social, institutional and structural racism—which explains why white people dominate business, academia, and politics in the U.S. and Europe. Sussman continues:
Racism is a part of our everyday lives. Where you live, where you go to school, your job, your profession, who you interact with, how people interact with you, your treatment in the healthcare and justice systems are all affected by your race.
Dr. DarkAge discussed previously that the white-supremacist self-described “alt-right” argues that it is simply engaging in “racialism”—neutrally describing the differences among races—rather than “racism”. But racialism and racism are simply the same. Mukhopadhyay puts it simply:
It [the idea of “race”] emerged in a context of unequal power relations, as an ideology to legitimize the dominance of certain groups. Race, then, is fundamentally part of a system of stratification and inequality.
The Medieval Context of “Race”
Because of the fact that “race” is an invented socio-cultural construct, it is perhaps unsurprising that medieval people had a fundamentally different understanding of “race”. We will be exploring this in more detail over the course of this series. But as we do, it is important to remember that unlike the germ theory of disease or the theories of relativity, the difference between medieval and modern conceptions of race exist not because humanity is reaching towards a better understanding of reality. It is because we have built for ourselves a convenient mythology that serves to justify the state of the world, and to relabel injustice as the natural order of things.
So, when thinking about the idea of race in the Middle Ages, it is critical to remember that we are discussing a mythology no more real than fairies. As James Harland wrote last week, it is a “situational construct”: even though it is imagined, it is not imaginary. Because people imbue this imagined construct with meaning (and codify it into law, religion, and all facets of life), it has profound real-world effects. The idea of race is like an evil version of Tinkerbell; it is only real because people believe in it—but because they do, it makes everyone’s lives hell.
For Further Reading
Don’t believe me? Don’t take my word for it. If you want to learn more about the myth of race, read any of these excellent books on the topic:
On January 2nd of this year, The Economist published an article titled “Medieval memes: The far right’s new fascination with the Middle Ages”. The most surprising part of that article was not that neo-fascist, neo-Nazi, white supremacist nationalists (i.e. the self-described “alt-right”) love the Middle Ages, but that The Economist is so late to this revelation. Right-wing white supremacists, both in Europe and in the US, have held a special place for in their hearts for the Middle Ages since at least the beginning of the nineteenth century.
For over two centuries, American slaveholders, the Knights of the Ku Klux Klan, Nazi Germany, and today’s white supremacist self-styled “alt-right” have all promoted a twisted idea of the Middle Ages that props up their white-supremacist fantasies. And unfortunately, their view of the Middle Ages has trickled into the groundwater of the broader popular historical consciousness. Depictions of people of color in films, TV series, and video games about the Middle Ages are practically nonexistent. Those that do show people of color in the Middle Ages typically only reinforce this paradigm. For instance, the 2001 film Black Knight makes comedic hay out of the idea being black is at odds with being a knight. The Lord of the Rings films (and books) courted controversy by depicting people of color as dangerous outsiders fighting in thrall to the Dark Lord.
But the truth is, these Middle Ages are not the Middle Ages. The whites-only Middle Ages is vastly different from the medieval world that many scholars would recognize. And according to a study I conducted in 2008-2009, young people in the US and UK think of the Middle Ages as existing only in England, Britain, or Western Europe. Some even instinctively have trouble seeing medieval Muslims as “civilized,” even in the face of contradictory evidence such as the many advances in science and technology in the medieval Muslim world. But scholars know that the medieval world was not limited only to England or Western Europe. And even if it were limited to only Western Europe, it would still feature the stories of a number of people of color.
A New Public Medievalist Series
Over the past generation, a new crop of scholars have looked at questions of race in the Middle Ages much more carefully than before. They have found that, among many other things, medieval people understood ideas of “race” fundamentally differently than we do today. Over the course of the month of February, as a celebration of Black History month, The Public Medievalist will be publishing a series of essays on several facets of this topic, showcasing the newest work on this important subject. The goal of this series is to expose and tear down the white-supremacist-tainted version of the Middle Ages, and to lift up some of the stories of those medieval people of color you may not have heard of before.
But before we begin in earnest—a note about racism and white supremacy. This series is intended to challenge some deeply-held beliefs. Racist and white supremacist ideas about the past have lingered in our culture. They are not limited to dyed-in-the-wool racists or card-carrying members of the Klan. They can seem natural and normal. That makes them a fundamental part of institutionalized racism as it exists today, since the past forms and informs the foundations of the present.
None of us are fully immune to the ideas of the past we grew up with. We see the past the way it has been presented to us in school, in history books, and in popular culture. I am not immune; no one is. And new information can seem, at first, like an assault, not just on the past, but on our past, our values, or even ourselves. Our historical consciousness is always tainted by our prejudices, even—especially—our deep-seated ones. Reexamining our ideas about the past in light of cutting-edge scholarship can help us to shake off antiquated ideas that neither reflect historical realities nor who we are. Improving our understanding of the past can be difficult, but that makes it no less necessary to inoculate ourselves from those who would misuse the past to promote their hateful agendas in the present.
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We have seen peace loving Muslims brutalize, victimize, murdered and oppressed by ISIS killers. We have seen threats of extermination against the Jewish people. We have seen a campaign of ISIS and genocide against Christians, where they cut off heads. Not since the Middle Ages have we seen that. We haven’t seen that, the cutting off of heads. Now they cut off the heads, they drown people in steel cages. Haven’t seen this. I haven’t seen this. Nobody’s seen this for many, many years.
At the risk of seeming glib, Trump is clearly no historian. If he thinks that beheadings and torture have not been in use since the Middle Ages, I would kindly ask his advisers to point him towards literally every piece of history after the Middle Ages. Moreover, if he thinks torture by drowning is barbaric, I might remind him of his own campaign promises to bring back torture techniques like waterboarding.
But that’s not the point, is it. The Middle Ages have become history’s dumping ground—at least for that sector of the public who know the least about it. Everything awful, barbaric, and inhumane that humanity of capable of is shoved back into the Middle Ages, like the closet you shoved all your toys into when “cleaning your room” as a kid. The problem with that is that it absolves us from seeing the barbarity and inhumanity of those closer to us. Nobody wants to think of our great-great-grandparents as slave owners, or our grandparents as war criminals. So, barbarity like that is pushed back into our historical id. Doing so allows us to plug our ears, close our eyes, and not accept a simple fact: without institutions like the Geneva conventions that force us toward our better selves, that we are just as bad, if not worse, than those backward medievals that we turn our noses up at.
For many people all across the political spectra, the recent election has been shocking. Shocking not just because Donald Trump actually won, but because he violated so many norms along the way. Some of the most egregious violations were those that attacked the heart of social liberalism. He began his campaign calling Mexicans rapists. Along the way, he lashed out at people with disabilities. He attacked women, Muslims, African Americans. Practically every group that has been systematically disadvantaged or marginalized within American society, Trump set in his sights. And far from disqualifying him, each new attack seemed to draw him closer to the White House.
Liberal America was shocked. As an article recently published on Slate argued, “2016 Was the Year White Liberals Realized How Unjust, Racist, and Sexist America Is”. And they’re not wrong. A Saturday Night Live sketch about election night, skewered white liberals when one white character cried in shock: “oh my God… I think America is racist!”
For Dave Chapelle and Chris Rock in that sketch, and for many people of color across the country, the sick joke was that America never really stopped being racist. But for many, this was a rude awakening.
What made this so shocking to many was that this is 2016; we are supposed to be past all this. George Wallace is dead and buried. Barack Obama is a popular, accomplished president. Racism, sexism, ableism, anti-Muslim and anti-LGBTQ bigotry definitely exist (despite what the pundits on Fox News—and even some Supreme Court Justices—might intone). But those retrograde forces were supposed to be losing. Naked prejudice was supposed to be a thing of the past, dying out. It was supposed to be consigned to back-woods Klan meetings or the vilest corners of the internet. The fight was supposed to be shifting from the overt to the institutional. Dr. King’s arc of the moral universe was supposed to be bending towards justice.
But clearly, it was not. Despite the fifty years since the beginning of the civil rights movement, and the strides made towards equality within our institutions, hatred and prejudice has been dormant, not dead.
The question is, why? What makes hate so tenacious?
“The dirty secret about sexism, racism, homophobia, prejudice, is that it’s pleasurable. It’s pleasurable to assert your dominance within a hierarchy you create. It’s pleasurable in the same way that winning in a sporting event is pleasurable—the feeling of being a winner, of bettering someone.
So when we think about issues like this, we have to keep in mind that what we’re talking about is people’s pleasure. About taking it away from them—rightly so! It will come as no surprise that they’re as reluctant to let it go here as in any other instance of gratification.”
This lens clarifies things immensely. It begins to explain why prejudice can be so hard to shake off, even by people who may know, intellectually, that it’s wrong. Freud was the first to describe “The Pleasure Principle.” To him, humans are hard-wired to seek out pleasurable experiences, and to avoid pain. It’s our body’s way of telling us that we’re doing something right: eating energy-rich food, having sex, learning a new skill and surmounting a difficult challenge all activate the pleasure centers in our brains for very good reasons. They reward the things that encourage us to win, in an evolutionary sense: survive, thrive, and procreate.
But there is another side to this that Freud does not discuss. There are not just physical or intellectual pleasures, but social ones. Some of these—seeing friends, falling in love—are clearly positive. But the darker side of social pleasure is the pleasure derived from domination: not just defeating someone else, but the sadism of making them lose. And definitionally, it is sadistic to derive pleasure by causing someone else pain.
Sadism is fairly normalized in our society: from schoolyards, to sporting events, to boardrooms, to TVs across the country, we are encouraged to revel in our enemies’ losses. This is not merely schadenfreude—happiness at the misfortune of others—but happiness from causing someone else’s misfortune; when our team does not just win, but crushes, humiliates the other side.
Children encountering bullies are often told—by adults and by pop culture—“just ignore them”. But “just ignoring them”, in my experience, rarely works. This is because they do not just get their kicks from getting a rise out of you. It is because, as is also often said, they’re building themselves up—in their own minds and in their social groups—by putting others down. Bullies get pleasure from the act of bullying, from asserting themselves over others. They do this by building social hierarchies where they are the winners, or by latching onto those existing ones where they are already at the top.
The worst bullies are those who come to crave it, who become addicted to that sadistic pleasure like it were heroin. We do ourselves—our society—a disservice when we relegate these observations about bullying to the childhoods of our past.
Because prejudice and hate work exactly the same way. And classing prejudice and hate as a socially pleasurable—even addictive—experience helps reveal some ways to fight it.
Even as far back as the Middle Ages, people recognized the dangers that pleasurable experiences can pose. The ascetic tradition, the foundation of the monastic orders, is based on the idea that denying yourself pleasure is the path to Godliness. St. Francis of Assisi, founder of the Franciscan Order of monks, was perceptive in this regard. He commanded his followers not just that:
“We ought also to fast and to abstain from vices and sins and from superfluity of food and drink.”
But also that:
“We should never desire to be above others, but ought rather to be servants and subject ‘to every human creature for God’s sake.’ And the spirit of the Lord shall rest upon all those who do these things and who shall persevere to the end.”
The word ‘persevere’ is key. The rule of St. Francis, and that of the other ascetic orders, was hard. That was the point. But through gathering in like-minded communities, self-discipline and continual effort, they made for themselves a path away from the corrupting nature, not of the world, but of our own pleasure principles.
The mistake that some liberals made prior to the 2016 election was to assume that a world free from hatred and prejudice is natural, that the arc of the moral universe bends itself. But denying these pleasurable impulses is hard. It requires effort, vigilance, and self-discipline.
As with any other vice, your social group can motivate you towards discipline and virtue, or to slip. Some people only smoke or drink socially, others indulge in a racist joke now and again, or enjoy “locker-room talk.”
I am not advocating that liberals wall themselves off in monasteries (any more than our social media bubbles have done so already). But in the years to come, it is crucially important that we not slip, no matter which way the cultural winds may blow, and that we expand our bubbles and spread this message. The man entering the White House has a crippling addiction. He is addicted to the poisonous social pleasure of asserting dominance over others. He calls it “winning” (even if he began life on the finish line). We must not fall victim to the same intoxicating poison.
Back in May I published an article here about the one-handed military flail that got a little bit of attention. And by “a little bit of attention”, I mean that it got about 200,000 unique page views. It wasn’t Kim-Kardashian’s-butt level of breaking the internet, but it sure broke me a little.
And obviously this brought a lot of commenters as well, some with thoughtful, incisive criticisms (though to be expected, some… not so much). I took the good-faith comments into consideration and set about improving my ideas, and turning over other rocks looking for the real origins of the one-handed military flail. For example, it helped me realize that the real issue isn’t that the weapon is impractical to the point of nonsense (though it sure is), the issue is that the only ones that existare a scant few very-late medieval manuscript images and a few museum pieces that were either never meant for the battlefield or nineteenth-century fakes. Whether or not the weapon might have worked is irrelevant when faced with the fact that there’s no proof that it was ever actually a thing.
But, I’ve found one possible origin story for the weapon. I’ll give you a spoiler—while it was certainly a weapon that never existed in the forms we are most familiar with today, there is an answer to be found on the steppes of Eastern Europe, Russia, and Mongolia.
And thanks to the good people over at Medieval Warfare Magazine, I’ve had another crack at it. Check out my article—“The medieval weapon that never existed: The military flail” in their latest issue. It’s also chock full of articles on (in-no-way-relevant-to-today) subjects like the violent popular uprisings of the 16th century by none other than Kelly DeVries. Go check it out!
Importantly, I want to thank Nickolas Dupras of Northern Michigan University for his help analyzing the extant flails, and Zsuzsanna Reed Papp and Andrei Octavian Fărcaș, both of Central European University, for introducing me to the Eastern European context for these weapons! And thanks, finally, to all those who read, shared, and commented on the original article. It makes me incredibly excited to see that there is so much interest in uncovering the mysteries of the medieval world!
A vile new slur has taken root in American politics. If you read internet comments sections, the political subsections of Reddit, or are politically active on Twitter, you may have encountered it: “cuck”. The rise of Trump and the mainstreaming of the American alt-right fringes has injected this bizarre, antiquated word into the political discourse (along with a derivative portmanteau “cuckservative”). It is crucial for us to understand the coded language used by hate groups—and now those in the halls of power—to attack those around them in case you encounter it in the wild: on the street, in your classrooms, by your Breitbart-reading uncle, or on TV.
Rising from relative obscurity, “cuck” and its derivatives have become a favorite way for alt-righters to insult anyone who does not fall in line with their ultra-reactionary ideologies. But before it became a staple on the neo-Nazi edges of 4chan, Reddit and the comments sections of Breitbart, it was a medieval word, conveying a very medieval idea.
The Vile Origins
Cuck, as you might expect, come from the word cuckold, an insulting word for a man whose wife is cheating on him. The Oxford English Dictionary places its first attested use in the mid-thirteenth century Middle English poem “The Owl and the Nightingale”. The poem recounts a comic debate between an Owl and a Nightingale, and here the Owl is taking a remarkably forward-thinking stance on gender relations. He is discussing a common occurrence—a man loses interest in his wife, and pursues other women. He then begins to abuse his wife—in the original Middle English:
Al Þat heo deÞ him is unwille, al Þat heo spekeÞ hit is him ille: an oft hwan heo noʒt ne misdeÞ, heo haueÞ the fust in hire teÞ. Þ[er] is nan mon Þat ne mai ibringe his wif amis mid swucche Þinge: me hire mai so ofte misbeode, Þat heo do wule hire ahene neode. La, Godd hit wot! heo nah iweld, Þa[h] heo hine makie kukeweld.
Everything she does he objects to,
everything that she says irritates him,
and often, when she’s not doing anything wrong,
she gets a punch in the mouth.
There’s no man who can’t lead
his wife astray with this kind of behaviour;
she can be ill-treated so often
that she resolves to satisfy her own needs.
God knows, she can’t help it
if she makes him a cuckold.
In other words, if a woman is being abused by her philandering husband, it’s no surprise that she would cheat on him too. Seems reasonable. But, when this idea was viewed through the lens of the toxic, patriarchal masculinity of the Middle Ages, it took a dark turn.
Men who were cuckolds may have only had themselves to blame (compounded by the medieval idea that women were more sexual than men). But he was shamed not because of his behavior, but because of hers. This generated intense anxiety in men, since one of the central aspects of being a man meant controlling the women in your life—an idea that had been enshrined into law. And court records show the results: as Derek Neal writes,
“fights, wife-beatings and even homicides could originate in men’s anxiety that their wives had made them cuckolds, or in the use of the word cuckold as an insult between men.”
This word cuckold and the idea of the shamed, cuckolded man, shows up in some of our most celebrated literature. From Chaucer’s Miller’s Tale:
This carpenter hadde wedded newe a wyf, Which that he lovede moore than his lyf; Of eighteteene yeer she was of age. Jalous he was, and heeld hire narwe in cage, For she was wylde and yong, and he was old And demed hymself been lik a cokewold.
This carpenter had recently wedded a wife,
Whom he loved more than his life;
She was eighteen years of age.
Jealous he was, and held her narrowly in confinement,
For she was wild and young, and he was old
And believed himself likely to be a cuckold.
to the Morte D’Arthur, to nearly half of Shakespeare’s plays and poems, the anxiety about being cheated upon—and thus losing control of your woman—became pervasive. There is a gendered opposite, “cuckquean” first seen in 1546. But this did not catch on to nearly the same degree—women’s infidelities aroused anxiety; men’s infidelities elicited praise.
By the 20th century, the word had faded enough into obscurity that the word was often defined in the margins of editions of Shakespeare or Chaucer. Part of this was likely due to changing gender and sexual norms—while few people like being cheated on, the invention of reliable birth control meant that infidelity less often resulted in children. The rise of feminism and the sexual revolution meant that, among progressive households, men and women saw each other increasingly as equal partners rather than property. In the past two decades, with the LGBTQ rights movement has come an acceptance of sexual partnerships that relax or do away with monogamy entirely—the rise of polyamory and what Dan Savage has termed “monogamish” relationships.
But then, the backlash.
The word cuckold, like so many things do, saw its rebirth in porn. The last decade’s renaissance in free streaming video content online has resulted in an incredible diversification of the porn industry. The famous meme “rule 34 of the internet” states: “If it exists, there is porn of it—no exceptions“, and that holds true here; “cuckold porn” found a healthy niche market on the internet. Cuckold porn features, as you might expect, scenarios where a man is humiliated by his wife having sex with another man. And, putting America’s racist id fully on display, often the man she is having sex with is black—apparently the ultimate humiliation and outrage for some consumers.
It has been assumed by the news outlets reporting on the lurid history of the word “cuck” that those men who consume cuckold porn are sexually submissive, aroused by putting themselves in the shoes of the man being cuckolded. But in light of the way cuck has been appropriated by the alt-right, it is clear there is another audience still: those who, even literally, get off watching a man be humiliated. This lays bare the power dynamic that was always inherent in the use of the word—in order for a man to be dragged down by it, there has to be another who feels it lifts them up.
And more, implicit in the idea of “cuck” and cuckold porn is that the husband in this scenario, either willingly or because of his inherent weakness, is giving up that which is rightfully his to a person who should be the enemy. There is a homosexual implication here—that the cuckolded man secretly (or not-so-secretly) desires the cuckolder. And because the racial dynamics within much of cuckold porn calls back to the earliest days of the Ku Klux Klan, where central to their mythology was the fear that liberals were giving their white women over to black men. All of this leads to an image of degradation and weakness that is loaded not just with sex, but the worst homophobic and racist politics.
Mainstreaming Cuck as a Crypto-slur
The word cuckold was perfect for the alt-right. Its meaning is tantalizingly filthy, its sound abrasive, and its relative obscurity fits well in a world where language is coded and cryptic (both to establish the in-group from the out and as a method of obfuscation). They took the word, shortened it to cuck (easier to tweet), and deployed it as their insult du jour. Anti-feminists steeped in the toxic masculinities of Reddit’s /r/RedPill, 4chan’s /pol/, or GamerGate used it to shame the men they despised.
During the 2016 presidential election, the term went mainstream. Those the alt-right found new purpose in their chosen candidate, Donald Trump—to them, he was the opposite of a cuck: masculine, authoritarian, extremist, and uncompromising. He flaunted his numerous sexual infidelities—always the cuckolder, never the cuck. The infamous Access Hollywood tape, where Trump bragged about his ability to sexually assault women with impunity, only solidified this in their eyes. Rush Limbaugh began using the term.
“…burned up Twitter as fans of Donald Trump’s politicking warred with the movement conservatives who opposed it.”
Soon, any conservative who opposed Donald Trump, whether opponents like Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio, or mainstream conservative pundits and commentators, was tarred with the term. And it is easy to see how Trump could be seen in the cuck paradigm—he was not just beating his opponents, but humiliating them, sliming their wives and families. It did not matter that none of it was true. What matters is that he forced them to watch as he violated their families.
It was at this point that the word cuck metastasized and took on new meanings, as it became a catch-all insult for any man they despised. In some circles, it has become synonymous with “race traitor”, as the Southern Poverty Law Center describes:
“White supremacists have been more than happy to co-opt the terminology, even tailor its definition to further describe politicians who don’t fall in line with the white nationalist cause.”
“by white supremacists to describe a white Christian conservative who promotes the interests of Jews and non-whites over those of whites.”
Unsurprisingly, but tellingly, the term began being used on Steve Bannon’s website Breitbart (which I refuse to link to)—not just in the comments sections, but in headlines like “’Cuckservative’ is a Gloriously Effective Insult”, and “Don’t Be a Cuck, Zuck! Accept My Debate Challenge”.
It is easy for language such as this to go unnoticed by those who are not its target. If you find it used in your classrooms, your social circles, or by your political opponents, you now know what you are dealing with.
And, I will be frank. This literally medieval toxic masculinity will now occupy the White House—bringing with it the worst corners of the racist, anti-Semitic and xenophobic right wing. I will be the first to argue that comparisons to the Middle Ages are overused within political discourses. But in this case, the term, and those who use it, should be confined to the dustbin of history.