Popaganda: The Fight for the Middle Ages

On this episode of the show, we’ll be talking about the Middle Ages: that period in European history that most of us learned about through Game of Thrones and Robin Hood. We think of it as racially homogenous, rigidly gendered, and brutish, but scholars like the ones I talk to in today’s show have more nuanced interpretations. And yet, white supremacists within the alt right are attempting to claim the Middle Ages for their own political ends. What is the truth, and why does it matter?

First, you’ll hear from Dr. Tory Pearman on the lives and public perception of people with disabilities in Medieval Europe. Then, Dr. Dorothy Kim elaborates on the connections between the alt right and Medieval Studies and what scholars like her are doing to take back control over the field they love.


Image: Lucas Cranach the Elder and Workshop (German, Kronach 1472–1553 Weimar). Saint Maurice, ca. 1520–25. Oil on linden; 54 x 15 1/2 in. (137.2 x 39.4 cm). The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Bequest of Eva F. Kollsman, 2005 (2006.469)


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SOLEIL HO: This episode of Popaganda is sponsored by The Bechdel Cast, a podcast on the How Stuff Works network about the representation of women in movies. If you’re fond of the famous Bechdel Test, you’ll love listening to hosts Jamie and Caitlin examine popular movies and the representation of women each week with a special guest. From trash like Gigli to treasures like Hocus Pocus, nothing escapes The Bechdel Cast’s feminist lens. Listen and subscribe on Apple Podcasts or wherever you get your podcasts.

Hey there! You’re listening to Popaganda. This is Soleil Ho. Popaganda is produced by Bitch Media, a non-profit, independent, feminist media organization that is entirely funded by our community. If you love waking up to a new episode of Popaganda every other week, join hundreds of fellow listeners as a member of The Rage today to help Bitch reach our $85,000 fundraising goal by December 31st. As a member of The Rage, your monthly donation includes a subscription to Bitch magazine in print in digital, a special rage-inspired mug you’ll never wanna put down, exclusive access to a members-only texting group, and loads of other snazzy benefits. So, don’t wait. Become a member today at BitchMedia.org/rage.

Before we start, I should remind you that in December, we’ll be taking a little break. We’ll be back in January, but I’ll be popping in over at Backtalk during the hiatus. Yeah, yeah, I’ll miss you too.

[mellow period music on lutes]

So, on this episode of the show, we’ll be talking about the Middle Ages. No, this isn’t about how, when you turn 30, you start feeling tired all the time. Though that is true. This episode will cover that period in European history that most of us learned about through Game of Thrones and Robin Hood. We think of it as racially homogenous, rigidly gendered, and brutish, but scholars like the ones I talked to for today’s show have more nuanced interpretations. And yet, white supremacists within the alt right are attempting to claim the Middle Ages for their own political ends. What is the truth, and why does it matter? Find out all of this and more in a few minutes!

And by the way, if you have any ideas for future topics for Popaganda, we have a great new way for you to submit them. Text “idea” to 734-577-7711. No matter how strange or niche the idea, I love hearing from you! Again, text “idea” to 734-577-7711, and save the number in your address book so we can keep in touch.

[theme music fading into highly percussive, string instrument background music]]

The far right loves the Middle Ages. In Charlottesville, Virginia last year, many participants of the Unite the Right rally displayed medieval heraldic symbols and Norse runes on their signage. The French politician Marine Le Pen routinely appropriates the story of Jeanne d’Arc to give her own anti-immigrant vitriol historical legitimacy. After 9/11, hawkish American politicians used the Crusades as a metaphor for our military strikes against nations in the Middle East. And Adolf Hitler was rumored to have “proven” that his family tree included famous figures in Norse mythology. Time and time again, the idea of the Middle Ages has been used by fascists to prop up their own origin myths. Unsurprisingly, their version of Medieval Europe is populated solely by whites: it’s a time untouched by the modern ills of political correctness, racial equality, feminism, and class consciousness. But this is an intentional misdirection and allows them to hide their true agenda behind a veil of nostalgia.


The real trouble is, these preconceived notions are a part of a feedback loop with pop culture. It makes recruiting from fan communities really easy for the alt right. Take J.R.R. Tolkien’s Middle Earth series, for example, which includes The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit. In a Venn diagram with Tolkien fans on one side and white supremacists on the other, you’ll find the ideas of fixed racial categories and white makes right smack dab in the middle. Tolkien personally disavowed imperialist warfare while trading in incredibly racist imagery in his books. He himself compared his big-nosed, wealth-obsessed dwarves with Jews. And the only explicitly dark-skinned characters were all on the side of evil. The casting directors behind the series’ wildly popular films are also complicit in this, as comedian Wyatt Cenac would point out.

[recorded clip of Wyatt Cenac stand up plays]

WYATT CENAC: There’s a hobbit movie, and this happened when they were making the hobbit movie: they needed to cast some background actors, specifically background hobbits. And so, they had this open casting call, and this Indian woman, she showed up. She wanted to be one of these background hobbits, presumably ‘cause she was tiny with giant feet. [audience laughs] But she showed up to the casting call, and they turned her away. And they said, “No, you can’t be in this movie ‘cause you are too brown to be a hobbit.” [light laughter]

Now, I’m gonna repeat that for you. [much heavier laughter] Somebody told a real-life woman that her skin was too brown to play an IMAGINARY CREATURE! [laughter applause] That basically, in the whole fictional world of Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit where you had dragons and trolls and talking trees, where you draw the line, where imagination is kept out of the room… [laughter, big applause] is for a brown hobbit. Like fiery eyeball thing: no problem. No problem with that. No problem. [laughter] But don’t even try to imagine a Samoan elf. [laughter] That will blow your mind. [laughter]

SOLEIL: Contemporary medievalists like the ones I talked to for today’s show have been vocal about pushing back against a singular way of seeing Medieval history. First, you’ll hear from Dr. Tory Pearman on the lives and public perception of people with disabilities in Medieval Europe. Then, Dr. Dorothy Kim elaborates on the connections between the alt right and Medieval Studies and what scholars like her are doing to take back control over the field they love.

[Sarrada Medieval by Atman plays: a funk folk metal Celtic Rio-style samba fusion song with Brazilian Portuguese lyrics]

DR. TORY PEARMAN: I am Tory Pearman from Miami University Hamilton. I’m Associate Professor of English, an affiliate in Women’s Gender and Sexuality Studies, and affiliate in Disability Studies. And my pronouns are she and her.

SOLEIL: Thank you! And so, I really wanted to talk to you today about how Disability Studies intersects with Medieval Studies.

TORY: Right.

SOLEIL: Would you talk a little bit about what it means to bring in this sort of consciousness about disability to the Middle Ages?

TORY: Sure. The Medieval conception of disability is interesting because it’s actually a lot more nuanced than you might think. So, as you mentioned, kinda the pervasive idea is that Medieval equals cruel, and so a lot of people think well, people with disabilities were probably treated horribly. And unfortunately, there are a lot of studies that sort of gloss over the Middle Ages and just kind of say, “Oh, during that time period, people with disabilities were not cared for at all. They were made fun of, or they were seen as associated with evil or the devil, things like that.” But that just isn’t the case at all. Historian Irina Metzler has done a lot of work showing that the historical record actually presents that people with disabilities were loved, they were cared for by their families, they were accepted by their communities, or they just weren’t really regarded with any sort of evaluable kind of effect. But! That being said, there were social forces that did result in the stigmatization of people with disabilities, and because of that and kind of because we don’t really have, you know, there’s no Medieval-specific definition or conception of disability. So, scholars are really moving toward discussing disability in a way that looks at the relationship between the body and its environment. So, they’re looking at how religious, economic, gendered, cultural discourses work together to create different kinds of responses to people with disabilities.


TORY: Yeah. Some of these responses were disabling. So, we do see in some Medieval literature, a link between sin and disability, so especially in Biblical and religious discourse. And then we see that kind of play out in literature that depicts some disabilities or disabling illnesses, so like leprosy or blindness, as a punishment for some kind of moral or spiritual error. But the negative responses were not universally applied or accepted. So, there was also sort of a contradictory narrative about the ways in which disability could indicate a spiritual singularity. So, if we look at something like Medieval saints, they are admired for their care of the sick during their lives, and then they’re also admired for after their deaths, miraculously curing the sick and the disabled as well. And for the lives of people in the Middle Ages, people with disabilities played an important role in a Christian spiritual economy that is based on charity and caregiving. So, they were an important way that lay people could demonstrate their spiritual natures.


TORY: So, it’s really a more kind of complex, nuanced response to disability than what you might think. To reference Irina Metzler again, she just recently had a book come out where she talks about disability in terms of liminality. And I really like that term because she notes that in the Middle Ages, you really see disability as this state between fixed borders. So, it’s really between health and illness. It’s between life and death. And I like that because I think it more accurately captures that nuance of disability that we see in the Medieval West.

SOLEIL: So, OK. It’s interesting that you point out the more positive depictions of disability have the people with disabilities as sort of, I guess to say it uncharitably, but as objects to be acted upon, as a demonstration of an abled person’s noblesse oblige or sense of charity. Are there any sources or media or literature that are from people with disabilities in that era?

TORY: I haven’t studied any of those. The only kind of first-person account that I have looked at is the account of the mystic Margery Kempe. And she was a really interesting figure from Kingsland in England, and she lived in the kind of late 14th Century, early-to-mid 15th Century. And what’s interesting about her is that she embarks upon her spiritual life after an event. So, it’s after the birth of her first child, she suffers a condition that has psychologically and physically disabling symptoms. And she’s really unable to do any sort of work in her home, she’s unable to take care of her child, and then during this time, she has a vision of Christ where Christ comes to her and sees her. And soon after that vision, she recovers. And after kind of trying to embark on a few business ventures, she ultimately decides to start down a spiritual path. And throughout her life, she has multiple visions or interactions with Christ, and what’s really interesting about that with her is that she experiences them through her body.


TORY: So, when she sees Christ, she would erupt into weeping and roars and cries, and she would thrash her body around very violently. And so, she would have these very spiritual experiences in a material way that became kind of public spectacle because of that. So, it would happen when she’d be in church. She would think about the crucifixion of Christ, and she would have this sort of very physical reaction. So, those reactions were both physically disabling but also socially disabling because as you can maybe guess, her community wasn’t too excited about having a woman react in these very excessive ways.

SOLEIL: [chuckles]

TORY: So, they tried to explain it away. They’d tell her she must be drunk, she’s having seizures, maybe she’s possessed by the devil. They try to explain the source of the cries, but as she says, they are caused by thinking on or having visitations with Christ. So, what I really love about her— So, this kind of goes along with you had asked me the question about who was my story of a person from Medieval history that I’m fascinated by, and this is her. I’m really fascinated by her because what she ends up doing is taking the very sort of fleshly female body and its actions and its effluvia like tears, that sort of thing and positioning it as a way to have a more spiritual life. So, it’s kind of through the excess of her body that enables her to demonstrate her spirituality.

SOLEIL: So, OK. For your students—your contemporary students—who find inspiration in a person like her, what is the appeal? And I guess what is the resonance and importance of a story like that to our contemporary age?

TORY: Well, I think a lot of them who really kind of connect to her see that she uses the body, or her body, that is framed in so many ways as being excessive or even abnormal or inferior. And she, instead of doing something different to kind of meet the status quo, she just kind of turns up the volume in a way, right? I mean she really becomes sort of more of herself as opposed to eschewing the self. And she sees her suffering, she casts her suffering during her story as the same as the suffering that Christ endures. So, in her visions, Christ tells her, “It’s OK. We want these people to slander you. All of the ways in which your community or people that you meet along the way, if they treat you poorly and they say mean things to you, that actually makes you more important to me in my eyes. Because you are undergoing the same kind of suffering that I had to undergo.” So, she kind of casts that experience as empowering instead of disempowering.

And I just think a lot of students, particularly at my university, where I teach at a regional university. We have a lot of, we have a mix of non-traditional and traditional students. We’re in an area of Ohio that isn’t necessarily economically privileged, and so I think many of our students kind of feel a kinship to her, being the one that’s down and out but able to—I don’t know—able to succeed in the end, if that makes any sense.

SOLEIL: Because our conception of the Medieval is so absent of stories like that, at least on the pop culture level, I wonder about how different it would be if a story like hers was at the forefront, you know? Why do you think we have such an emphasis on stories that are not like hers, stories that are more about what you were saying earlier about disability being satanic or sinful or what have you? Why are those so persistent?

TORY: I mean that’s a really hard question. I ask it all the time! Sort of my first lesson to my students is the Middle Ages is not the Dark Ages. So, I think first of all, that sort of idea: we have set up in past studies of the Middle Ages into the Renaissance—even the word Renaissance, which means “rebirth” positions that as a time period that is like a shining light out of the darkness—and students have been taught that. They’re taught that in their History classes, or it’s just again, kind of the pervasive stereotypical idea that they have about the Middle Ages. So, the first thing I try to say is the Middle Ages are not the Dark Ages, and I hope that in this class, you’re going to see that. That people were really thinking about complex ideas. Yeah, there was bad stuff. There’s bad stuff in every part of history. But in addition to that, there were also a lot of people who were questioning just kind of the standard notions about gender, about class, about all of these kinds of things, and about religion, right? There were a lot of people who were questioning the corruption that they could see in the church.

So, they’re not just kind of a group of people that were just kind of following the order of things because it was the order of things. They were questioning the order of things too.

[chill music break]

SOLEIL: Dr. Dorothy Kim, who teaches Medieval literature at Brandeis University, is one of the more vocal scholars who has come out against the alt right’s hijacking of the period’s narratives and iconography. In an open letter to fellow Medievalists that she wrote last year, Dr. Kim entreated her colleagues to wake up. She wrote, “What are you doing, medievalists, in your classrooms? Because you are the authorities teaching medieval subjects in the classroom, you are, in fact, ideological arms dealers. So, are you going to be apathetic weapons dealers not caring how your material and tools will be used? Do you care who your buyers are in the classroom? Choose a side.”

SOLEIL: OK. So, there’s a lot of misinformation out there that these people seem to be capitalizing upon, and it sounds like they’re rewriting that history for their own ends. What is the place of a scholar like you in this? Do you feel like you have enough space to fight back against this?

DR. DOROTHY KIM: I think there are two things going on. It’s one, that I think myself and others are trying to be more vocal in the public arena to try to fight back against this. I think the things is what has happened, or what I’ve seen, is that in fact, the people who’ve already been fighting the white supremacists, particularly online, are the Black, Indigenous people of color online. That they themselves, the public, there is a public that has actually been fighting back against this online who are not necessarily professional Medievalists or academics. And this is sort of people like @medievalpoc who has that really great Tumblr. It’s just people in sort of people of color fan communities who’ve been fighting back particularly in relationship to video games and other fantasy literature and things like that. So, there has been pushback in the public, and I think really the thing I imagine that medievalists can do—who are academic medievalists and study this—is to help those people with more information to help them fight back, to be more public about what we see as this problem of inaccuracy, but also this problem of rhetoric.

And then I think the second thing is that we also have to think about how this all came to be, and that actually has a lot to do with the sort of history of Medieval Studies, the historiography of Medieval Studies, which is all about the 18th Century Enlightenment and the 19th Century that sort of wants to set up this field partly as a way to tell a kind of anthropological progress narrative about, oh look! The Medieval past in Europe. Look at when we were barbarians and heathens and things like that. This is just like what’s going on in our empires with these barbarians and heathens, right? So, there’s this sort of progress narrative that Medieval Studies has helped sort of frame out that a lot of the scholars of that era actually did write about in these ways. And so, this idea of the white Medieval past is not just something that has come out of nothing, if that makes sense, from the white supremacists. It has had a longer scholarly history. It has also had a longer political history.

So, for instance, you have, for instance, in America the whole idea of manifest destiny really wrapped up in ideas of Anglo-Saxon-ness, which is being pulled to basically talk about white manifest destiny and white supremacy as the thing that allows, in the 19th Century—especially the mid-19th Century—Americans of what they imagine as Anglo-Saxon descent, say, “Oh, yes. We should take over the entire continent,” etc. So, this kind of rhetoric has been going on for a while. There is a reason why, for instance, the KKK has had a history where they have talked in the early 20th Century about being knights and things like that. So, it’s not as if some of these genealogies of the various alt right groups haven’t sort of been thinking about this period in this way for a while.

SOLEIL: Obviously, there are so many reasons why white supremacists historically and just the whole white men thing have been so attracted to studying the Medieval era, because they project a lot onto it. Can you talk a little bit about what brought you to it? What do you find appealing about this field?

DOROTHY: Oh, that’s so interesting. It’s really interesting ‘cause I think people imagine that you’re interested because you, as a child I don’t know, played knights and dragons, or you know—

SOLEIL: [laughs] Sure, yeah.

DOROTHY: —castles or something like that. And I was never like that. So, I actually got interested in college. I took a class, and then I took another class, [laughing] and then I took another class. And it was mostly because the period, particularly the literature, was just so experimental. I think one of the things that people maybe don’t realize is that the Medieval past in terms of a lot of its cultural forms, they had no rules, and they were really interested in just experimenting on everything. There were no genre rules, there were no rules about how you had to do this or that, and so they tried everything and would see if— It was literally like they would throw spaghetti on the wall, and people would actually stay and go, “Did we like that? Should we try again?”

SOLEIL: [laughs]

DOROTHY: So, it’s actually the kind of energy of experimentation that really attracted me to the field. The fact that there were no rules, that there were no sort of like, “You can’t do this, or you can’t do that.” They were sort of, “No, we can do this. What do you mean we can’t write multi-lingual macaronic poetry and scribble it on the side, on the margin of a manuscript or something and not think of it as literary,” you know. There was a lot of kind of energy, and that’s actually what attracted me to the field.

SOLEIL: It must be so frustrating for you to encounter these sorts of perspectives about the Middle Ages that calcify it because your take on it is so different in that it’s a really adaptive period, a really experimental period. And these folks, a lot of people actually including me honestly, kind of cast it as this stagnant period. And like people on the alt right think of it as a period when men were men, and women were women, and there was no diversity and the rules were very clear. And as fascists like to, as they prefer, they’re very much top-down and authoritarian and all of this stuff. But that must be so frustrating to reconcile.

DOROTHY: It is, and it’s also, the thing is, right, this frame of the Middle Ages has been really calcified also by the help of certain kinds of popular culture, right? There is this problem with fantasy that I think a lot of Black Indigenous people of color fans have called out. But also, the first encounter that most of the public have with the Middle Ages is through video games, and video games is of course, the epicenter of some of the early alt right eruptions with Gamergate. And so, it is frustrating at times and often really hard to figure out what to do about that.

SOLEIL: One example of a game totally botching depictions of Medieval life is Kingdom Come: Deliverance. Advertised by its developers as historically accurate and authentic, the game depicts a flat world defined by ethnic and intellectual homogeneity. Your enemies are incomprehensible barbarians from the East, and whatever women exist in the game are there to be used and abused. As it turns out, the game’s director himself is aligned heavily with the regressive Gamergate movement. His notion of historical accuracy is clearly informed by his politics. Dr. Kim’s upcoming book, Digital Whiteness & Medieval Studies, is all about these kinds of links.

DOROTHY: So, basically, I wrote it to frame out what I saw as the use of the Medieval past by the alt right. So, it’s basically trying to map out the ecosystem of the alt right and then how they’re using or sort of pulling different Medieval images, rhetoric, textual things in their push for various kinds of white ethno-nationalism and white supremacist worldview. And then I talk a little bit in it about video games, and then I spend some time thinking about academia and also white nationalism and white supremacy in academic.

The video game part was kind of interesting to write about ‘cause there’s so many things one can write about. I tried to actually just do a kind of case study and think about a couple of video games out of one particular video game developer to sort of think through some issues and things like that about why video game developers are so interested in wanting to frame out Medieval video games as a sort of history of whiteness in some way and how that gets sort of worked out.

And then actually trying to map out the alt right was really interesting and really complicated in some ways because you’re always so surprised at what sort of pops up or why people wanna use x or y. One of the things I recently was looking at, for instance, is that so, someone has gotten a hold of the Discord chats from the Charlottesville planning, from the various groups of white supremacists and the alt right. And if you actually punch in the term “Medieval,” 1,000 hits show up in that.


DOROTHY: Yeah. And I think it’s Unicorn Riot who organized it into a database so you could actually get the big files and have to read everything, which is also a little depressing. But you could also do it, so they’ve organized it so you can actually do searches, and they will sort of pull up the information. But one of the things I was actually looking at I also looked at the term “shield.” So much interesting discussion. And the fact that a lot of this was not something that was haphazard or happenstance but very deliberately planned down to like what kinds of things they should wear, why they should use this shield versus that that shield. There’s this whole planning process. And I think that’s one of the things I kind of want to talk about: that this—in the book as well—that in fact, using the Medieval past is not just because they might be in the same demographic as Medieval video game fans or Medieval cosplay fans, etc. There are other Medieval video game fans and cosplay fans who are also not white supremacists. But in fact, that this is very deliberate deployment of this area for their particular cause and aim.

And so, the last chapter, I’m really kind of trying to, I’m grappling, I’m basically sort of asking the question why Milo Yiannopoulos was trying to reboot his media empire by writing this huge 13,000+ piece about Medieval Studies. Why make that the opening gambit into trying to get back into the good graces of the more mainstream alt right since he’s been sort of sidelined because of the controversies around the pedophilia.

SOLEIL: Mmhmm. So, in this sort of battle, I suppose, over the soul of Medieval Studies especially in the public eye, what are the sorts of ways in which people are pushing back against these guys? You mentioned Black Indigenous people of color on social media, for instance, or just online pushing back. What’s the state of the struggle in your mind? How are things going?

DOROTHY: I think we keep pushing. I think there are more professional medievalists who’ve decided to step up in terms of writing or doing more things publicly. I think there’s a lot of discussion of what we’re doing in our classrooms because that is where we can absolutely interact with a certain segment of the public in a sort of regular way. I think you know, I don’t know. I think we’re still, we’re not sure where it will go, if that makes sense. I think this is also a problem that Medieval Studies has— This is a problem that Medieval Studies has, but it’s also a problem that’s, for instance, the field of Classics has as well: we don’t know which way it will go. So, we’re still in the middle of trying to push this back and change the narratives, if that makes sense. And I think we’ll have to see what happens.

I’m hoping that the narratives will change. I am hoping that there will be a sort of wider discussion. I think the field is having a wider discussion about this, and it has actually opened up larger conversations about race in the Medieval past, which has been really interesting. But I think I don’t know. I don’t know what will happen. I think that’s the really, the sort of difficult thing about this: we just don’t know what will happen. I’m just hoping there will be more people ready to sort of step up and push back.

[chill music break]

SOLEIL: Thanks to Drs. Tory Pearman and Dorothy Kim for speaking with me for today’s show. And thanks to you for listening. This episode was produced by Alex Ward. Our jingle is by Mucks & Owen Wuerker. Thanks to Atman for their track, Sarrada Medieval. Additional music was provided by Blue Dot Sessions. If you have thoughts or feelings or feedback on the show, please feel encouraged to send me an email to soleil@b-word.org. Or as always, you can review us on iTunes. See ya next year!

[theme music]


by Soleil Ho
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Soleil cooks for a living and writes sometimes. When she was in kindergarten, she reviewed a book for Reading Rainbow that she didn’t actually read. She cohosts Racist Sandwich, a podcast on food, race, class, and gender.

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