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How Hate Groups are Hijacking Medieval Symbols While Ignoring the Facts Behind Them

December 18, 2017 in History

By Becky Little

In August 2017, hundreds of white supremacists descended on Charlottesville, Virginia, for a violent rally that killed one woman and injured at least 19 others. They bore images and chanted slogans that evoked Nazi Germany, the Confederacy and the Ku Klux Klan. But they also carried symbols from an even older time—symbols whose origin they did not seem to understand.

One man carried a round shield decorated with a black eagle. It was a curious choice, considering the eagle image is strongly associated with a Saint Maurice, a Roman general of African descent who became a saint in the early Middle Ages.

“Nazis aren’t very happy that I keep posting the *original* medieval European bearer of this standard, Saint Maurice,” tweeted Malisha Dewalt, who runs a blog about people of color in European art history. In that tweet, she attached a side-by-side comparison of the man in Charlottesville holding his shield and Saint Maurice holding a flag with the same eagle on it.

The white supremacist in Charlottesville carrying that image was probably unaware that it’s strongly associated with a black Catholic saint, and this disconnect illustrates a larger trend. Hate groups that adopt medieval iconography as symbols of white supremacy usually have misconceptions about that historical era. One of the most common? That Europe in the Middle Ages was unvaryingly white.

“The understanding of medieval Europe as a homogeneously white space is completely erroneous, as scholar after scholar has shown time and time again,” says Cord J. Whitaker, a medieval literature professor at Wellesley College who is writing a book called Black Metaphors: Race, Rhetoric, Religion, and the Literature of the Late Middle Ages.

Recent work by archaeologists and anthropologists “shows beyond a shadow of a doubt, Northern Europe in the Late Middle Ages—even the Middle Ages generally—was an incredibly diverse space,” he says. In 2015, when researchers at the Museum of London analyzed the skeletons of four people who lived in Roman London between the first and fifth centuries, their groundbreaking investigation found that one of them had Near Eastern ancestry, and another was likely born in North Africa. In a 2013 roundtable interview for NPR, art historians also noted that medieval art is more …read more


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