Skip to main content

How Can We Untangle White Supremacy From Medieval Studies?

A conversation with Australian scholar Helen Young.
A scene from the Bayeux Tapestry, depicting the Norman Invasion of 1066.

A scene from the Bayeux Tapestry, depicting the Norman Invasion of 1066. 

As we've been covering at Pacific Standard, white supremacists love the Middle Ages. From the murderer in Portland who loved Vikings, to the white supremacists in Charlottesville hoisting Templar and Holy Roman Imperial symbols, to the hate groups in Europe who participate in full-on medieval cosplay, the pattern is clear. But why? How did this happen? Why did these people adopt the Middle Ages, and fantasies about the Middle Ages in particular?

Helen Young says that the links between racism and the study of the Middle Ages date at least back to the 18th century. In that period, modern concepts of race began to have widespread currency, just as the notion of "medieval culture" as a field of study took hold. Medieval studies has not yet recovered from this unfortunate intertwining.

Young, a research associate at La Trobe University in Melbourne, Australia, didn't intend to become an expert in the links between white supremacy and medievalism. She received her Ph.D. from the University of Sydney after writing a dissertation on medieval English romance, then began to look at race and other forms of difference in fantasy literature as a postdoctoral fellow at the Australian Research Council in 2011. Seeking to examine the texts alongside their reception, Young started researching online fandom communities and found herself reading about neo-Nazi love of Tolkien. Once the postdoc was done, she shifted her scholarly attention fully to white supremacy.

Young is the author of numerous articles and editor of two collections on medievalism, as well as the author of a scholarly book on fantasy and race that appeared last year. Recently she's been following the newly visible manifestations of white supremacist medievalism and spoke about them with Pacific Standard over email.

How did you realize that you wanted to focus on white supremacy and the Middle Ages?

[During the postdoc] I stumbled very quickly into the white supremacist love of fantasy, Tolkien especially, specifically in the Stormfront chat forums. I really just fell down the rabbit hole from there.

I could see even in 2013–14 that medievalism had engaged really well with medieval studies' historical entanglements with nationalism, but had not done nearly so well in engaging with race. A fair amount of what had been done focused on either popular culture or historical racism—Nazism, etc. It seemed, to me, important to recognize what was going on in extremism now, and how it connected to very widely held beliefs about history and what it was like.

Why Tolkien, specifically?

In Middle Earth, unlike reality, race is objectively real rather than socially constructed. There are species (elves, men, dwarves, etc.), but within those species there are races that conform to 19th-century race theory, in that their physical attributes (hair color, etc.) are associated with non-physical attributes that are both personal and cultural. There is also an explicit racial hierarchy which is, again, real in the world of the story. Middle Earth is literally a racist's fantasy land.

It's also structured by colonialist assumptions: Gondor is an imperial power. It gave the Dunlendings' land to the Rohirrim, for example, and that is constructed as having been right and unproblematic. There is also the fairly obvious point that all the "good" species and races are constructed through references to European cultures (especially northwestern Europe), and the "bad" races are constructed through orientalist stereotypes. Mostly those constructions are based on medieval tropes—Saracen armies, etc.

There's also a very strong influence of 19th-century Anglo-Saxonism, which was a profoundly racist ideology used to justify British imperialism and American expansionism.

So was Tolkien explicitly a racist, or more just a "man of his time?"

Tolkien is often quoted as having condemned "that ruddy little ignoramus Adolf Hitler" in a 1941 letter to his son Michael. But the reason he gives for that condemnation in the same letter is: "ruining, perverting, misapplying , and making forever accursed, that noble northern spirit, a supreme contribution to Europe, which I have ever loved, and tried to preserve in its true light." The very idea of a "noble northern spirit" is fundamentally a racist one because it's predicated on the idea that the people of northern Europe were inherently different and better than anyone else.

[Tolkien's] statements against anti-semitism and Hitler give "cover." It's the idea that only something overtly abusive or violent is racist. People think that one can't be racist except deliberately, consciously, intentionally. Lord of the Rings and Middle Earth are structurally racist, but because Tolkien doesn't appear to have been personally an extremist, that racism is denied, ignored, and dismissed.

And that has an impact on the whole genre of fantasy.

Ultimately, the structural racism of Middle Earth got built into the conventions of High Fantasy; 19th-century race theory still circulates in contemporary popular culture as a result.

Wow, so are you saying that Tolkien is the (or at least a) vector between the scientific racism of the 19th century and the pervasive racism of so much modern fantasy?

Absolutely. I didn't want him to be—I love LoTR—but he is. It wasn't just Tolkien; Robert Howard, who created Conan the Barbarian, was much more personally racist, and it showed in his stories, but Tolkien was so influential.

What about the field of medieval studies? Presumably the racism there predates the 20th century by a lot. I've heard you mention a book from 1770 that lays or reveals a lot of the groundwork.

Thomas Percy's Northern Antiquities, or to give it the full title Northern antiquities: or, A Description of the Manners, Customs, Religion and Laws of the Ancient Danes, and Other Northern Nations; Including Those of Our Own Saxon Ancestors. With a Translation of the Edda, or System of Runic Mythology, and Other Pieces, From the Ancient Islandic Tongue [1770], [is] the the first book to wind the emerging scientific discourses of race into a discussion of existing ideas about language, literature, cultural inheritance, and identity.

Percy is one of the major figures of the turn toward medievalism in English—and European—culture in the second half of the 18th century. Northern Antiquities really established Old Norse literature, language, and mythology as part of English and Anglophone heritage and culture. Northern Antiquities was largely a translation of Paul Henri Mallet's L'histoire de Dannemarc, but added a preface to the first volume which was titled "Proofs That the Teutonic and Celtic Nations Were ab Origine Two Distinct Peoples"; that's where Percy uses scientific language. It was reprinted well into the 20th century.

So if white supremacy is embedded into the field (with Percy and the like) and into our medieval cultural creations (Tolkien et al.), what do we do now? Can medieval history be saved?

I do believe that medieval history can be saved. The view that white supremacists have of the Middle Ages is monocultural, mono-racial, and mono-religious; that simply doesn't reflect reality. That limited view was constructed in the first place, and it can be dismantled.

As for how: "Change it" is easier to say than to do. The past few months in medieval studies have shown just how hard that change will be, but it's also shown how many people are committed to it.

I don't think it was a coincidence that really widespread interest in the Middle Ages emerged in Europe at the same time that biological concepts of race took hold; colonial cultures needed to find a proud, worthy ancestral history to descend from to justify their imperial tendencies and assumptions of superiority over "Others." Emulating the Roman Empire could only go so far when the core construct of group identity revolved around descent.

The Middle Ages were made into a wellspring of identity for Europeans and hitched to a concept of race-as-biology that we now know is completely false.

We've mostly stopped talking about that discourse of race in classrooms and research, but changing—saving—medieval studies will take more than silence. We need to work at change; it doesn't happen by itself or without effort in medieval studies any more than it does anywhere else. Our core business—teaching, research, service—they are all places where we can work collectively and individually to make not just medieval studies more inclusive and more diverse.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.