Race, Racism, and the Middle Ages

Leaving “Medieval” Charlottesville

The Statue of Robert E. Lee in Charlottesville, Virginia, during the protests on August 12, 2017.

Part XXIX in our ongoing series on Race, Racism and the Middle Ages, by Paul B. Sturtevant. You can find the rest of the special series here

At the beginning of this series, I cited an article in The Atlantic that exposed, for their readers, a link that medievalists have understood for years: white nationalists, white supremacists, anti-Semites, and neo-Nazis seem to love the Middle Ages. Or, more accurately, they love their race-fueled fantasies of the Middle Ages, which have nothing to do with the actual Middle Ages. Their version though does have something to do with the ways in which medievalists have studied the past and represented it to the public (with several medievalists recently arguing, with significant merit, that white supremacy is infused into the very bones of this academic discipline). But today, I want to focus on those of us—like me—who engage in medievalisms for fun in their spare time.

This is a call to action. It goes out to those who participate in re-enactment societies, in live-action role-playing games, or who play medieval games online. We know a love of the Middle Ages doesn’t inherently breed white supremacist sentiment, but we do know that they sometimes travel together. You have the opportunity to banish it from the circles in which you travel and the medievalisms you enjoy. You have a responsibility to ensure that the Middle Ages the white supremacists cling to is not the one you revel in.

White supremacists laying claim to the Middle Ages is a fantastical appropriation by a group desperately seeking an origin myth—and naturally, they found it in the period most often used for fantasies both benign and toxic.

In Charlottesville, white supremacists’ vile love affair with the Middle Ages was on full, horrifying display.

White supremacist groups carry flags and banners emblazoned with heraldic symbols and Old Norse runes in Charlottesville, VA. Credit: Charles Butler.

I don’t know where my own love for the Middle Ages came from. By elementary school I was building castles out of balsa wood and canisters of Crystal Light. For fun. As you do. In high school I joined the Society for Creative Anachronism for the first time. Since then, I sewed costumes in order to attend countless Renaissance Festivals in full regalia, participated in a wide range of Live Action Role Playing games to blow off steam, went to Medieval Times restaurants, read and re-read Tolkien and his descendents, and lost a fair bit of my life to World of Warcraft, Lord of the Rings Online, Crusader Kings II, Medieval: Total Warfare and many other video game medievalisms. My love affair with the Middle Ages has been lifelong.

I look at the faces of those people pictured at Charlottesville, and I wonder whether I’d met any of them. And I wonder how their love of the Middle Ages could manifest so disgustingly differently.

The second man from the left allegedly drove his car into counter-protesters, murdering one and injuring nineteen. Credit: Lidia Jean Kott

I wonder whether I did meet those charismatic bigots in my travels in medievalism. I probably did. The vast majority of the people I met, and the friends I made, were, like me, delightful nerds. But I remember more than one occasion around a campfire where someone made a racist joke. I know several people in these groups who had confederate flags on their trucks. I remember hearing that a couple of them had some weird politics, said with eye rolls and in hushed tones. I also remember how overwhelmingly white almost all of these activities were. The armor worn in Charlottesville looks ever so slightly familiar, the symbols on the shields ring a bell.

Credit: Edu Bayer for the New York Times.

I do not share these personal reflections to elicit compassion for the white supremacists, the white nationalists, the neo-Nazis. They deserve none.

I share this to speak to those of you in our audience who, like me, swim in the rich and joyful waters that playful medievalisms can offer. We know that white supremacists love the Middle Ages. It is now on us to understand this, recognize it at home, and banish it from our ranks, regardless of whether we are medievalists professionally or personally. This series has been about highlighting a different vision of the Middle Ages, one based in the best contemporary scholarship, that shows beyond a shadow of a doubt that a whites-only, white-supremacist Middle Ages is a ludicrous, childish fantasy on so many levels.

I would call upon you to encourage the adoption of this more-inclusive, more-historically accurate vision of the Middle Ages into even your playful medievalisms. As Wajahat Ali recently said, now is the time to “stand up and be the hero.”

Find ways of expanding your, and your group’s, repertoire and purview. Look beyond medieval England, and beyond medieval Europe. Be vigilant; look out for racist interpretations of the medieval past, and push back against them. Do not accept it if your compatriots push back; their sources and interpretations are undoubtedly incomplete, ridiculously out-of-date, or just bunk. They may call our Middle Ages “presentist”, or “revisionist history.” It is only “presentist” in that it is up-to date. It is only “revisionist” because it is cutting-edge. Accept the smears with a smile.

If you are in charge of one of these groups, or have voting rights within them, institute zero-tolerance policies for racism and racist abuse. I know several who already do. And don’t accept the usual excuse—that it’s just a “reflection of the Middle Ages.” It’s not. It’s modern, it’s toxic, and it doesn’t deserve a safe harbour in your community.

Take this more-inclusive, more-accurate vision of the Middle Ages into your heart as well. Read the stories of people who you might not before have read—read A Thousand and One Nights, read the story of Ser Morien, pick up a biography of Maimonides or Mansa Musa. Imagine yourself, empathetically, in their story. Realize that their history is your history too, that you do not need to have the same skin color as them to see their past as yours.

We know that white supremacists love the Middle Ages—at least, their toxic misinterpretation of the Middle Ages. And the fantastical Middle Ages have provided an ample breeding ground for white supremacists. It is on us now to take the medieval world back from those who use it to support their hate, their violence. It is on us to ensure that the people in our groups, who play our games, or who craft garb alongside us don’t become tomorrow’s torch-wielding bigots.

The Public Medievalist does not pay to promote these articles, so we would love it if you shared this with your history-loving friends! Click to share with your friends on Facebook, or on Twitter

Print Friendly, PDF & Email
Paul B. Sturtevant

The author Paul B. Sturtevant

Paul B. Sturtevant is Editor-in-Chief of The Public Medievalist. He is a researcher and historian for the Smithsonian Institution, where he helps the institution better understand its visitors and itself. He is an author, a medievalist, and a consultant, and has completed research projects as diverse as exploring the Caliphates of Muslim Spain, the history of American health care reform, and the peculiarities of American-style barbecue. He is unabashedly passionate about the place history has in current conversations.


  1. “I have in this War a burning private grudge—which would probably make me a better soldier at 49 than I was at 22: against that ruddy little ignoramus Adolf Hitler… Ruining, perverting, misapplying, and making for ever accursed, that noble northern spirit, a supreme contribution to Europe, which I have ever loved, and tried to present in its true light.”

    ― J.R.R. Tolkien, letter to his son. 1941

  2. I’ve been in the SCA for over 40 years, and I’ve been lucky to mostly be in Caid, where we had a much greater tolerance for cultural and racial diversity. We’d had Moorish and Arab kings and queens, Japanese and Chinese personae, Hindu and Muslim folks, Greeks, some various Romans, and the random assortment of Europeans. I’m not saying there was NO discrimination, but it was sufficiently insignificant that I was never confronted by it.

    The best part for me was that I got to prepare and serve all manner of food from different cultures!

    Being confined to a wheelchair now, I don’t get to events nearly as much, but I do love them. It HAS been interesting, over the decades, to see how the Society’s knowledge of cultures has grown.

    1. I live in Meridies, one of the Southeast kingdoms. Our membership tends
      to be overwhelmingly white. I like to think it’s not because of any
      deliberate exclusion. But .. one of the kingdom badges — one that I
      won’t wear — is clearly based on that shitty CSA battle emblem. We can do better.

    2. I’ve been in the SCA just shy of 40, and I noticed SCA shield wall tactics in the videos. I’m from what is now Ealdormere, and, although it was predominantly white, it was always inclusive and many folks explored non-European personas. i am severely POed that these ahistorical creeps walk among us, but sadly, not surprised.

  3. interesting…while I agree with your opinion, I would like to point out that I do not feel that it is the entirety of the medieval era that the Nazi supremacists are culturally appropriating. They think they are modern day Vikings…that’s it…nothing more. I remember that brief period of SCA history in the early 90’s that with the release of Braveheart and Rob Roy in movie theaters, everybody and their dog was Scottish-ish…now, it’s all about Vikings and early Anglo-Saxon culture due to popular programs that showcase that visual element. Give it a few more years, and introduce another medieval culture through the magic medium of television and everyone in the reenactment circles will be jumping on board that bandwagon also. Supremacists think they are modern day Vikings, and they have culturally misappropriated the iconography of a race of explorers, traders, raiders, and merchants that oft intermingled with other races. I find that sad, and a bit hypocritical of supremacists to adopt Viking symbology into their horrid little movements…if they are going to be dumbass Nazi’s, then they need to own that shit with their own symbology and accept the consequences of their poor life decisions, instead of pretending to be something they are not….

  4. Thank you, Paul. When I saw the videos from Charlottesville, including the cowardly criminal gang-assault on Deandre Harris, a young black man, it made me sick in a particular way because, when I saw men carrying homemade shields and wielding sticks, I automatically thought of my beloved SCA, where I’ve been a heavy fighter for 36 years. (One of the Nazi punks attacking Mr. Harris had a heater shield. Give me 54 inches of stout rattan and ten seconds …)

    An online forum I used to frequent, the Armour Archive, sports numerous semiliterate racists and at least one actual Hitler apologist (who, irritatingly, is also a legitimate expert on maille). I learned to avoid the political subforum, because it was like talking to a wall. A really bigoted wall.

Comments are closed.