A Note on Use of the Medieval Past in our Precarious Times

As a teacher of language and literature and as an admirer of the world’s numerous poetic traditions, I urge others to view Old English and Middle English literature as the inheritance at once of humanity generally (that is, as “World Literature”) as well as the particular inheritance of anyone and everyone who speaks/reads Modern English.

As Irish poet Seamus Heaney famously said about his own fraught relationship with Modern English, with a turn of the linguistic eye “one’s language [can become] an entry into further language.” For him and for many, Old English literature has become a sort of “unpartitioned linguistic country” not “owned” by anyone in particular. Instead, Old English can be seen as a welcome into a past not formed by territorial bounds and DNA but by sound, sensibility, and beauty (even with its own cultural problems and limitations, which all cultures have).

It should be acknowledged that medievalist scholarship in the West has origins that emerged simultaneously with racial theories of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries that have now been rightly and empirically debunked, and scholars have explicitly recognized and renounced this problematic beginning of the discipline. More troubling though, there has been a recent upsurge in the simplified and misdirected use of especially medieval Germanic literature, symbols, script (lettering, especially runes like the ones used in the logo of this website), and design by white supremacist and nationalist groups. Given all this, I think it necessary to contribute to a growing resistance to such misrepresentation and misinformation about the medieval past by explicitly inviting visitors of this site to see through and denounce the coöption of the art, literature, and scripts of the medieval Germanic-speaking peoples by groups based in anger, hatred, and historical anachronism.

Those interested in learning more about this topic should visit the blog The Public Medievalist and see their series, “Race, Racism, and the Middle Ages,” and the sources supplied there.