BROOKE GLADSTONE: While Taylor Swift remains silent in the face of neo-Nazi projections, others have taken a different tack. When the Unite the Right protest happened in Charlottesville earlier this summer, commentators were quick to note the theatrical props wielded by the protesters.
MALE CORRESPONDENT: In what’s become one of most searing images from this weekend's protests in Charlottesville, white nationalists carrying tiki torches as they march through the streets.
MALE CORRESPONDENT: Most had clubs, helmets and shields with white supremacist insignia.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: In fact, these icons were largely medieval in nature and oft seen in white supremacist events, ads and public statements.
MALE CORRESPONDENT: A village in Hungary which has introduced a bylaw and are making it difficult for Muslims and gay people to live there is being advertised in the UK as a place to move to in order to escape multiculturalism and Islam. The group advertising it is called Knights Templar International, which has links…
FEMALE CORRESPONDENT: I can clearly see from their imagery they’re really harking back to the Crusades when the official Knights Templar, an offshoot of the Catholic Church, fought Muslim armies for control of Jerusalem.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:: Yes, neo-Nazis and other alt-right adherents live in a Middle Ages of the mind. And that's awkward, indeed, for medievalists, academics and experts who study the Middle Ages. David M. Perry is a columnist for Pacific Standard and a former professor of Medieval History at Dominican University. Welcome to the show.
DAVID M. PERRY: Thanks so much for having me.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So how are we seeing this love of the Middle Ages playing out?
DAVID M. PERRY: There are really two different kinds of things going on, and one is explicit and really terrifying and one is more subtle, and we have to confront both of them. So the explicit one is people are literally dressing up in medieval costumes or putting Templar shields or a shield of the Holy Roman Empire or, in Europe, at anti-immigrant rallies, they’re actually donning full medieval gear. There are people pretending to be Vikings but preaching white supremacy.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: We saw marchers in Charlottesville holding up signs of the Holy Roman Empire and the Knights Templar. What’s the deal with the Knights Templar?
DAVID M. PERRY: The Nazis love the Crusades. They love this idea of the Crusades as a kind of lost cause, the idea that the Crusades were a romantic mission to save Christendom from the bad Muslims and that it lost but they could have won, and let’s sort of celebrate that.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: You also mention things that were more subtle.
DAVID M. PERRY: I’ve spent a lot of time looking at right-wing websites, just kind of tracking the way that they were talking about the Middle Ages. I came across one day a kind of pin board and a discussion thread of just hundreds of medieval castles, and they weren't within text that said, I'm a neo-Nazi and this is why I like castles. They were just saying castles are cool. They’re looking for cultural reinforcement of their ideology. And anytime, whether it's pictures of castles or the hobbit or, as you were talking about, Taylor Swift, that you set up a kind of empty space, they’re eager to project their ideology onto that space.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Okay, the empty space, what do you mean by that?
DAVID M. PERRY: If I just stick up images of castles or images of crusaders or, in general, just kind of teach the Middle Ages as a cool, kind of distant, maybe some precedent sort of form in history, and I don't explicitly, in my classroom, talk about white supremacist appropriation of the Middle Ages, this white supremacist idea that the Middle Ages were pure Christian, isolated, hostile to the other, as opposed to a Middle Ages that are messy and complicated and involve lots of conflict but lots of coexistence, if I just let it be this fantasy, if I don't directly counter it, then I'm allowing the Nazis to project.
And we kind of saw this in real time during the Charlottesville story. There was one young man from the University of Nevada Reno who was filmed shouting and holding a tiki torch, and when that picture went around, classmates of his on Twitter said, oh my God, it's that guy from my medieval history class. Then I'm thinking, how many guys in my medieval history class have been like him? Did I refute him? Did I prepare his classmates to refute him when he gets creepy about race after class and I don't even know about it?
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Holy cow, so now we can’t avoid what's going on in our streets, even in medieval history class.
DAVID M. PERRY: And honestly, we never could. Many people would like to believe that it's so distant from modern events, can’t we just not talk about it, in this case. And, and the answer is, really no.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: You wrote that white supremacists explicitly celebrate Europe and the Middle Ages because they imagine it was a pure white Christian place, organized wholesomely around military resistance to outside nonwhite, non-Christian [LAUGHS] forces.
DAVID M. PERRY: They have been working on this narrative, in some sense, since the Middle Ages. There has been a vision of a Christian past as pure and barbaric and resilient and masculine, ready to explode on the world in a kind of precursor to what we might think of as manifest destiny.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So you're suggesting that the field has left itself open to this kind of appropriation.
DAVID M. PERRY: I think it has, though I want to say that the field is really coming around very quickly and very powerfully, particularly since Charlottesville. The Medieval Academy of America wrote a very powerful statement focusing not only on the appropriation but on the problems within our own field. And some people have been working on this for years. People have written dissertations on it, people who maintain social websites, in particular. Medievalists of color have been working very hard to make this argument. @medievalpoc maintains a Twitter and a Tumblr account, and all that she does, really, is share images of people of color in Medieval and Renaissance art and say, hey, it was not the pure white dream that you thought it was. And she gets an enormous amount of harassment just for saying there were people of color in the Middle Ages because that challenges this idea of a pure white past.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Haven't the fascists, through the 20th century, fetishized the Middle Ages? Couldn't you have seen this coming?
DAVID M. PERRY: We did see it coming. Hitler also loved the Middle Ages. But I think those of us who weren't working on things that were explicitly about race, if we didn't study anti-Jewish polemic or the Crusades or other places in which the contemporary relevancies are explicit, it was easy to forget. And what's been happening in white supremacist circles, at least as near as I can tell, is that like all other subgroups they have found each other through the internet. They have intensified their narratives, they have collected and shared their ideas in ways that might not have happened before, so that that one lone white supremacist sitting in the University of Nevada classroom is in contact across America and across the world. The profession has been slow to catch up to that.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Is there any risk in taking a stand against the neo-Nazi appropriation of the Middle Ages? I mean, it can't hurt your prospects for tenure to tell fascists to take a hike, can it?
DAVID M. PERRY: You can come out against Nazis pretty comfortably but then when you start expanding it to talk about racism more generally, you can very quickly find yourself in troubled waters. We have seen lots of adjunct professors and part-timers and untenured professors be targeted. I guess what I really want to say is that the people who are tenured and the people who are secure need to do a lot of the heavy lifting here.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So what should we take away from the Middle Ages?
DAVID M. PERRY: I would like people to see a world in which we never are truly isolated. Stuff moves and ideas move. If we just let history be more messy and try not to graft any ideology, even positive ones, even the idea that history is always moving in the direction of progress or liberal democracy, I think we’ll do a lot better.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Youi know, when you said we’re never isolated, it made me think a little bit of that unified theory of time that we’re not isolated from all others on this planet but we’re also, theoretically, not isolated from other eras. Maybe none of these eras ever really goes away.
DAVID M. PERRY: I'm a little more comfortable with literature than with general theories of time, [LAUGHS] and so let's think about Faulkner, right, saying, “The past is never dead. It's not even past.” I think that we’re in a moment in which the power of the past to shape how we understand the world around us, it’s very visible in this moment of extremes, extremes in political narratives, new explosions of violence, in the movements of peoples and even the movement of wind and weather and fire, that we have long forces of human, and otherwise, acting on us at all times.
One of the roles of the historian is to make sure that the past stays with us and that we understand that it's messy and we understand that it shapes what we do. And I think in America there has often been an attempt to pretend that wasn't true, to pretend that the past is not with us or only the good past, that we can just keep the parts of the past we like. And it never really works that way.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: David, thank you very much.
DAVID M. PERRY: It has been such a pleasure talking to you.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: David M. Perry is a columnist for Pacific Standard and a former professor of Medieval History at Dominican University.
TAYLOR SWIFT SINGING “BLANK SPACE”:
Don't say I didn't say I didn't warn ya…
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BROOKE GLADSTONE: Coming up, how does boredom sound to you? Yeah, me too. But, you know, we could be wrong about that. This is On the Media.