In June, while a large Black Lives Matter protest was staged in downtown Philadelphia, a much smaller one occurred in the Fishtown neighborhood to the north. As a counterprotest, a group of white men calling themselves “Old-time Fishtowners” paraded through the streets carrying bats and antagonizing BLM protestors. At the end of the night, one Fishtowner boasted that, “We did our job.” Another claimed his aim had been “protecting the police.”
The language of white supremacists is full of such chivalric references to duty and protection. It was as if the police were medieval romance damsels, classic Disney princesses, imperiled and in need of defending. To these Fishtowners’ minds, their acts, which included beating a white Black Lives Matter protestor who passed by on his way home, were acts of valor.
I’m a medievalist, and for years now, I have researched and lectured about how the idea of chivalry motivates white supremacists. They apply it to multiple objects. They defend their families. They defend their neighborhoods. They defend their way of life. The flag. Western Civilization. The police. Always they use the language of honor. In their minds, they merely defend the defenseless. Never mind that some of the objects of their defense, such as the police and the United States at-large, are highly militarized and quite capable of effective offense, let alone defense. The object of defense does not matter so much. What matters is the act of defending.
Medievalism is the study and use of medieval Europe by modern people for ends ranging from education to entertainment to political ideology. White supremacists have used medievalism for a long time, from the pastoral pretensions of plantation owners in the antebellum U.S. South to the not fully understood relationship between the hooded vestments of Catholic penitents in Spain during Holy Week and the 20th century Ku Klux Klan’s hooded robes. Members of the KKK, after all, even refer to themselves as “knights.”
But the language of honor and chivalry can work two ways – even as it empowers white supremacists, it can be coopted by their anti-racist antagonists. Anti-racists who understand the power that medievalist language and symbolism have on white supremacists, and figure out how to wield it themselves, will have a powerful weapon to combat the appeal of white supremacy.
You can clearly see the workings of white supremacist medievalism in today’s far-right extremist ideology.
Julius Evola, an early 20th century Italian philosopher, has been an important influence on Richard Spencer, the alt-right luminary who was catapulted to fame by the “Unite the Right” rally of August 2017 (and who has recently disavowed his own movement on Twitter). Evola’s philosophies directly influenced Benito Mussolini and Italian fascism as well. Evola wrote significantly on honor, the value of a warrior’s commitment to proving his bravery by defending those in need, and his works were shot through with admiration for medieval knighthood.
A central tenet of Spencer’s alt-right and associated far-right extremist groups has been that the U.S. should be a white ethnostate, or a nation in which membership requires being white. This objective relies upon the erroneous notion that medieval European kingdoms offer the perfect all-white example. An all-white medieval Europe, however, is a fantasy. An ever-increasing body of evidence from scholars in fields such as bio-archaeology has shown that major European port cities were quite diverse. Take London, for example. Researchers have shown that people from the Middle East and the African continent lived side-by-side with English whites in the Middle Ages. DNA evidence from 14th century bodies shows that some were newcomers while some had lived in England for generations.
The myth of an all-white medieval Europe was peddled by European colonialists in Africa, Asia, and the Americas in the 18th and 19th centuries. It taught colonized people of color that all the literature, history, and culture that mattered belonged exclusively to whites. They were to learn it and emulate it, though they had no part in creating it, because, they were told, they had no worthwhile history of their own.
Still, when white nationalist protestors donned Viking helmets and carried chivalric shields in Charlottesville, the influences of Evola’s version of medievalism and the more general notion of a homogenously white Middle Ages were on display. European history, whether real or imagined, brings with it the values of chivalry. Those who claim that European history is exclusively their history lay claim to those values for themselves.
The idea of chivalric defense is a key component of how far-right groups recruit new members. In venues such as Reddit and 4chan, you can find posts about the Civil War extolling the honor of Confederates in battle and arguing that Unionists were dishonorable and perpetrated unfair massacres. Even when posters predict a bleak future for European whites, their critics offer replies that lament the weakness of today’s Europeans and the degradation of chivalric heroic European values. These imagined future Europeans suffer genocide and extinction because they have not properly defended their territory, cultures, and people. Defense is the language of comfort and self-worth, and it is the upshot of fear-mongering when it inspires the fearful to rise to action.
The problem is that the language of valor requires an enemy to defend against. And all too often, notions of race provide an easy way to identify an enemy.
The idea was already common, though not universal, in medieval literature and culture that Black and brown people are dangerous enemies, criminals, from whom Europeans need to be saved. Blackness has been associated with devils and demons since at least the early centuries of the first millennium CE. At the same time, the medieval Church recognized the need to incorporate people from Europe, Africa, and Asia, the three known continents at the time, and even depicted some important Christian saints as Black.
However, during the Crusades such universalism ceded its primacy to an association between dark-skinned people and Islam. European culture picked up on the connection between black skin and devils and demons, and Black people became a metaphor for the enemies of Christ and Christians and for depravity in general.
Medieval texts, such as popular romances in which white Christian heroines are threatened by Black non-Christian men, are a precursor to the color-coding that informed African slavery in Europe and then, on a far greater scale, in the Americas. This association was later made more concrete by the mass enslavement of Africans in the Americas. Then, through the racial sciences of the 18th and 19th centuries and the development of municipal policing born of the slave patrols that enforced Black servitude in the U.S. South before the Civil War, Black people came to be seen as especially suspect.
Now, in the 21st century, the association between Blackness and criminality is so entrenched that sociologist Jason Eastman was able to prove that legal ramifications including incarceration are significantly worse for U.S. Blacks who are charged with “doing the exact same thing, in the exact same place, at the exact same time” as whites.
The association between Blackness and criminality has been on display when whites feel threatened by Blacks and antiracists. Take, for example, when the Missouri couple Mark and Patricia McCloskey pointed firearms at passing BLM protestors. Though the protestors had no interest in the McCloskeys, Mark McCloskey characterized his and his wife’s actions as “daring to defend our home.” McCloskey saw the protestors as a threat while he saw his own behavior through the lens of chivalry. Indeed, McCloskey has regularly portrayed himself in a chivalric light, for instance in his work as a lawyer in which he has claimed to defend the civil rights of clients.
The McCloskeys’ actions and comments offer clear evidence that the dangerous interaction between chivalric values and the idea that Black people pose a criminal threat is still at work in our society.
Being white has become associated with chivalry and valor, with defending the defenseless. Being Black has become associated with criminality and a lack of honor. But there is no good reason that white Americans should have a monopoly on valor and honor. And one response is for Black people to create an alternative Black chivalry.
Indeed, Black agitators for racial justice have experimented with Black chivalry before. Notably, in the Harlem Renaissance, that “flowering,” to use James Weldon Johnson’s term, of Black arts and literature that characterized the 1920s and 1930s, Black thinkers leveraged their knowledge of European literature and history, real and imagined, to assert Black people’s equal place in the world. As early as 1908, W.E.B. Du Bois used the idea of the Middle Ages in his fiction. Du Bois was not alone. Black medievalism appears, in obvious and subtle ways alike, in contemporary works by Jessie Redmon Fauset, Claude McKay, and other leading lights of the Harlem Renaissance. These writers treated Black chivalry as a corrective to the notion of Black inferiority.
Black chivalry erodes the idea that chivalric valor is the exclusive domain of Europeans and their descendants. Modern stories by Du Bois and other 20thcentury Black American writers depict Black heroes chivalrously courting beautiful heroines and overcoming insurmountable odds against individual villains and conceptual villains such as racism alike. Stories also depict knights courting beautiful Black heroines. They came by their stories honestly. Medieval romances also depict Black-skinned knights who are supremely chivalrous and Black lady-loves who are desired by Black knights and white knights alike. That Black people have had roles in the literature and culture of the Middle Ages makes clear that chivalry does not belong to whites alone.
Black medievalism and chivalry also break down the association between Blackness and criminality. As the 20th century progressed, Blacks became increasingly associated with advancements in arts and entertainment such as jazz and professional sports. Increasingly, Blacks were linked with modernity—with progress and its pitfalls alike—and Black medievalism fell out of favor.
The idea that Blacks are exclusively modern fits perfectly with contemporary ideas espoused by the Trump campaigns and his administration. Trump’s 2017 inauguration speech as well as 2020 campaign commercials portray a future America ravaged by crime and violence, bleak in comparison to a past golden age that excludes Black people and bleak because of Black people’s agency in the present and future. As the Black Lives Matter movement’s call to defund police forces has become well known, Trump’s rhetoric depicts a world where police reform means that no one is left to defend the defenseless from the constant threat symbolized by Black people. Black medievalism not only disrupts Black Americans’ restrictive association with modernity, it also disempowers the connection between Black Americans and criminality.
To disentangle Blackness and criminality, BLM protestors and their allies should use language to position themselves as defenders of those in need. Surely, helping to protect the lives of those who face potential danger at the hands of police is just as honorable as defending one’s region, nation, or home. But the language associated with today’s antiracism movement does not reflect that reality. Pro-police supporters and pundits have begun to borrow from the BLM movement by coopting call to “say his name,” usally reserved for honoring victims of police violence, to instead honor fallen police officers. For BLM to use the language of valor would be to similarly participate in an already established pattern of borrowing what works. What’s more, the language of valor gives violence positive connotations. When anti-racist violence is framed as necessary to defend those who need defending, accusing anti-racists of violence ceases to be a useful white supremacist tactic. Instead, BLM protestors and their allies become knights, with all the accordant rights and privileges.
The BLM movement should not borrow far-right extremists’ medievalist tactics wholesale, of course. Black Lives Matter has a gender-inclusive membership, while adherents to far-right groups have been notorious for their lack of women’s participation and online misogyny, thanks in part to the idea that chivalry is an all-male endeavor. That idea is wrong. Medieval and early modern literature offers strong examples of chivalric women. Take, for instance, Britomart in Edmund Spenser’s 1590s epic The Faerie Queene. She represents Britain’s military might and is a compliment to Queen Elizabeth I. The reader might be more familiar with a modern example in Game of Thrones’ Lady Brienne of Tarth. There is nothing to stop the protest for racial justice from adapting chivalric medievalism to its own gender-inclusive ends.
In addition to asserting Black people’s historical presence in the Middle Ages and using the language of valor, Black chivalry can take more performative forms, too. While the cosplay at Charlottesville seemed silly to some, it reinforced the idea that authority comes from the ownership of a long and deep history. That history, the costumes suggested, belongs to whites. To claim the medieval past is to claim ownership of the chivalric valor that animates authority, the right of belonging, in the United States and other western societies. Were protestors for racial justice to claim the Middle Ages and to make those claims visible, it would be to assert that they are just as chivalric, just as capable of defending that which is good, as anyone else.
We often use the old adage that life imitates art. Life also imitates language. It would be enough for anti-racists to begin using the language of chivalry to position themselves as defenders. That association would cut across the narrative that Blacks and BLM protestors are offenders. It would also help establish that what they are defending, the rights and lives of Black Americans, are valuable and good. From it, Black Americans and their allies would be inspired to imagine themselves and their cause as honorable, noble, and just. It might produce some new slogans: “Defunding is Defending.” Or hashtags: #DefundandDefend.
And if marchers engage in some medievalist cosplay at BLM protests to help make the point, that certainly wouldn’t hurt.