Saturday, November 11, 2017

White Supremacy and Medieval Studies: A Lesson Plan

“This is a watershed moment that, if used productively, 
will make medieval studies home to an intellectual environment 
that is sustainable and innovative, promotes risk-taking, 
and leverages an ever greater number of experiences 
and scholarly lenses in order to build the most comprehensive body 
of knowledge about the Middle Ages possible”

Collective Statement by the Medievalists of Color

The Presentations


You work at the University of Virginia. Over the weekend, a collection of white supremacist groups (including the KKK, Neo-Nazis, and White Nationalists) hold a large scale demonstration at which various medieval symbols, weapons and armor, chivalric romances, slogans, stories and histories are presented in support of the claims of the demonstration. Significant public outcry, including investors and alumni of the university, demand a public response from the university. Key members of the university administration invite you and your cohort of scholars in as experts to advise them, specifically on the role of medieval history, literature, religion, and art in issues of race and white supremacy.


The head of your department has charged you to give a 15-minute presentation to the classroom of administrators in which you articulate an argument that answers the question, “what is the role of medieval studies in regards to white supremacy?” They have made it clear that “no role” is not an answer the university can give to the public or its big donors.


To make your point clear, you are advised to use every member of your group, each speaking for 2 minutes; although different experts may focus on a different part of the presentation.

Together you will present a clear argument which states what the problem is, how medieval studies may be used to answer the problem, and a clear rationale for how this may be done.

Resources and Course Engagement:

To legitimize and illustrate your position, you will use a total offour quotations taken from a stack of books your department head believes will be useful. As a fan of John Mandeville, the department head insists you use two quotations from his book of travels. The other two quotations must then be taken from one of the remaining books (The King of Tars: Introduction, The Aryan Myth, or selections from Arthurian Romances). While the administrators are educated and well read, you are told that they would benefit from these passages being clearly explained and their context in the text given. You have been warned that there may be skeptics and people unfamiliar with the issue, so your department head has insisted that you spend 5-7 minutes of your allotted time to engage the room of administrators in a wider discussion. The goal is to get people to think critically and passionately about the issue on the table and the proposed role of medieval studies in dealing with the stated problem. While you may take a variety of methods to spur discussion, you are advised to prompt dialog about how personal experiences affirm and inform the argument at hand or perhaps engage the room in a game or task which will make them think more critically about the topic at hand and see the value of the proposed position.



The Readings 

In preparation for the lesson, students will have read a variety of texts, drawn from historical, literary, and pedagogical studies, related to the long history of white supremacy. Uniting all of these divergent readings was the statement by the Medievalists of Color in response to how simmering white supremacist trends in Medieval Studies have been flaring up in recent months amidst a national rash of overt calls for white nationalism and historicism. This statement situated the importance of the exercise and seminar by relating course discussions to current and real conflicts in the professional world. While scholarship by medievalists of color informed the readings of the other texts on the syllabus, the statement presented a key example of the important perspectives and contributions of medievalists of color in the work of medieval studies and debates on/with white supremacy.

Some of these texts demonstrate how history has been constructed in ways that present a white supremacist narrative about how European/Aryan/Frank communities formed in response to threats from people that became marked by color (especially blackness). Framing these texts, an overview of the Crusades demonstrates the myriad of ways that a unified identity (white, Christian, Latin, Frankish) emerged out of a discordant collective of national and class interests in response to propaganda that identified the various Muslim states in the Middle East as a single "enemy" that demands a unified response in order to keep at bay and push back. Individual local accounts of alliances and peaceful relations between and within diverse religious communities before, during, and after the Crusades further complicates the problematic belief that the Crusades represent a single monolithic white Christianity in opposition to a single monolithic black Muslim force. Within the context of the Crusades, students begin to see how dialectic forces of conflict work to construct identity through the division and manipulation of history.

The King of Tars

Selections of medieval literature, including the King of Tars and Arthurian Chivalric Romances featuring the Knight Sir Palamedes, show how the construction of white Christian identity against the "black knights" of Islam in the late era of the Crusades was frought with contradictions and patterns of arbitrary and problematic associations. Students were struck by how the King of Tars tells the story of a growing non-Christian neighbor seeking to claim white Christian women and land but who are turned back and transformed by a conversion from black to white and Muslim to Christian. By close reading the text and the useful Introduction, students immediately began commenting how attributes that are overtly associated with blackness (non-Christian identity, deception, madness, hyper-sexuality, greed, violence and changeability) are all attributes that the white Christians exhibit throughout the Tale. They wondered if the text intentionally told one narrative through overt statements and another contradictory narrative through the subtle details, or if the text unintentionally tries to assert a racial and religious identity by arbitrarily dividing attributes which are otherwise ubiquitous across these supposedly essential differences. 

Sir Palamedes

By reading the earliest account of Sir Palamedes, students begin to see how the "Saracen" is defined as a point of contrast for the white Christian knight, Sir Tristan. Not only do the two knights find themselves often in literal battle, but Palamedes primarily functions in the early texts as competition in the pursuit of Lady Iseult. As such, white identity becomes defined as a defense of white Christian women from the over-sexualized threat by black men. Interestingly, almost immediately after the creation of Sir Palamedes as a non-Christian character in the Arthurian mythos, a storyteller develops a tale of Palamedes conversion to Christianity. Despite this anxiety about Palamede's faith identity, later authors tended to focus on the Saracen knight as a non-Christian. An example of how Palamedes was more interesting to medieval authors as a foil to the white Christian knight, Tristan, occurs in the Death of Arthur, where the white and black knights engage in a game of exchanging clothing. Throughout a tournament, Tristan and Palamedes change the colors of their armors, therefore swapping identities several times, confusing expectations. The effect of these exchanges is that readers have their associations between color, race, and faith identity undermined. Like the drag ball performances we would later watch in Paris is Burning, this shell-game of clothing demonstrate how the associations that contribute to racial and faith identities are culture constructs with contradicting histories and trajectories.

The Aryan Myth by Leon Poliakov

The Aryan Myth is one such historical investigation that demonstrates the many successive attempts by historians to locate an origin for white nationalism, often competing with other cultures and histories for who get to claim authentic "whiteness," contrasting the Franks and the Gallic people, the Anglo-Saxons and the Normans. The author, Leon Poliakov, demonstrates through the waves of historicism how the writing of history changed alongside political and national identities currently under construction in ascendant politics. At certain moments, the Frankish identity was hailed as the root of white civilization amidst a savage Gaul. Other years, Gallic identity rose as a rallying point for nativistic nationalism that resisted Roman and later Frankish foreign conquest. The meta-narrative of these "Myths of Origin" goes further than mere play of thesis and antithesis to push towards a synthesis that discredits the goal of discovering a single white national heritage by acknowledging the arbitrariness of the features identified as constituting these peoples as racially distinct as well as the inability to full distinguish one people from another amidst a region that was always already intermixed and interconnected.

The Book of John Mandeville

Trying all these texts together, because students were also reading the Book of John Mandeville during the week of presentations, the travels of this imagined pilgrim seemed to respond to and weave together many of their themes. Overall, students seemed to interpret Mandeville either as a positive counter-example, citing the many places that the author seems to praise non-Christians, or as a synthetic compromise, focusing on sections where the author insists on his Christian construction of identity yet also acknowledges that these peoples he visits may also have perspectives of their own that undermine the stability that either position is the absolute objective truth. In particular, students tended to quote the selection of the Book where Mandeville observes that for these non-Christians, blackness is not evil but good because as people of color they do not regard their comparatively dark complexion as a negative. Indeed, Mandeville notes, from such a perspective angels would be black and devils would be white. Of course, what does not occur to Mandeville in this section is that non-Christians might not be engaging in the same racializing rhetoric as them that emphasizes color in order to assert divisions. He assumes the game of color and racial difference are a common agreed upon conflict.



The Outcomes

Every class has its own dynamics, leading to a variety of outcomes from this lesson plan. Following recent white supremacist events, students began the semester shaken and less than confident in their ability to discuss issues of racism. Questions posed in class would frequently be responded to with equivocation, as epitomized by the statement, "I don't want to say the wrong thing." Over time, students became more comfortable talking with me as the mediator in a conversation which would pop-corn/ping-pong back and forth. Yet they remained taciturn towards each other. Even in small groups, there was a tension between randomly assigned sets. Going into this lesson plan, a central goal was to get the students comfortable with teaching each other and listening to each other. Overall, the lesson plan follows the "reverse-classroom" format of teaching that does just this. The stated outcomes of the lesson was then focused on engagement: everyone's voice being heard, argumentative stances being taken, active listening to and responding to other groups, and an evidentiary approach to the topic which grounds these encounters within the wider parameters of the course and the specific section on the role of medieval studies in dealing with the new and old traditions of white supremacy.

In the case of my seminar, the lesson plan was effective at prompting engagement. Voices were given center stage that had been silent for most the semester. In a seminar on race and white supremacy, there can be tensions in the classroom between students that can lead to white men doing more of the talking and women of color doing more of the listening. For our class, the lesson shook up many of the class's dynamics. Furthermore, students were pushed to take an ethical stance and get over their instinct to "not say anything wrong." This reflected on how students had grown more connected to the subject, breaking some out of an expressed apathy on the subject matter. When challenged to find a way to feel invested in the subject, participants in the reverse-classroom rose to the occasion. Students built their confidence and cases by close reading the texts in interesting and sometimes surprising ways. The diverse ways people read John Mandeville as proto-colonial, post-Crusader, or as a compromise between extreme positions sparked discussions between groups. While tensions in the class remain, the dynamics have shifted. Not everyone in the class is yet comfortable speaking up to everyone else but everyone is now doing more of the talking as well as the listening. Overall, a sense of "responsibility" and the "role" of participants in academic discussions has moved from a background frame to function more as an active ethos of the seminar.

In the end, this lesson plan may just be a jumping off point for other classes. Your seminars may have different dynamics and challenges. Certainly, other course readings and discussions would change the content of the discussions. Likewise, contexts other than those of Fall 2017 would prompt other questions and places of emphasis. Yet overall, I hope these lesson notes prove helpful as you organize your own classroom discussions on white supremacy and medieval studies!


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