Orientalism and Ornamentalism: The Claim That The Middle Ages Involved A Lot Of Africans
May 09, 2019, 10:32 AM
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From the New York Times:

Medieval Scholars Joust With White Nationalists. And One Another.

By Jennifer Schuessler
May 5, 2019

… [Medievalism] has also been slow to take up the subject of race.

While archaeological evidence shows that Africans and other nonwhite people were present in medieval Europe, some scholars argue that race is a modern construct, with limited relevance in a period when differences in religion mattered more than skin color.

The link claiming “Africans and other nonwhite people were present in medieval Europe” leads to an endless series of posts at a website called The Public Medievalist on “Race, Racism and the Middle Ages.”

For over two centuries, American slaveholders, the Knights of the Ku Klux Klan, Nazi Germany, and today’s white supremacist self-styled “alt-right” have all promoted a twisted idea of the Middle Ages that props up their white-supremacist fantasies. And unfortunately, their view of the Middle Ages has trickled into the groundwater of the broader popular historical consciousness. Depictions of people of color in films, TV series, and video games about the Middle Ages are practically nonexistent. Those that do show people of color in the Middle Ages typically only reinforce this paradigm. For instance, the 2001 film Black Knight makes comedic hay out of the idea being black is at odds with being a knight.

But scholars know that the medieval world was not limited only to England or Western Europe. And even if it were limited to only Western Europe, it would still feature the stories of a number of people of color.

So, there are two arguments here:

One is that the academic field of “medievalism” should extend to parts of the world that didn’t exactly have a Middle Ages because they didn’t have a Renaissance. But why shouldn’t those places be studied instead by other domains, such as the various Area Studies?

The conceit behind Medievalism is that Europe, especially Western Europe, was relatively unified enough during the Middle Ages and different enough from both the Ancient World and from the Europe that emerged after a series of landmark events around 1500 AD (from say as early as the Black Death through the Italian Renaissance, the invention of the printing press, the Age of Exploration, the Protestant Reformation, and going perhaps as very late as the Treaty of Westphalia) that it can form a coherent subject.

Adding, say, Pre-Columbian Studies to the subject of Medievalism seems more like academic imperialism than a useful way to organize knowledge. When Columbus reaches the New World in 1492 sounds like a good point to begin seriously fading out both Pre-Columbian Studies and Medievalism.

As for People of Color being in medieval Western Europe, here’s a posting from this site:

Uncovering the African Presence in Medieval Europe
by ADAM SIMMONS on APRIL 27, 2017

He mentions a French account of the Fourth Crusade that plundered Constantinople, which recounts in 1403 a visiting king with “black” skin and a cross on his forehead:

“I’faith,” said the emperor, “this is the king of Nubia, who is come on pilgrimage to this city.”

Nubia is a place up the Nile, southeast of Aswan in modern Sudan. The current residents are moderately dark in skin color. I don’t see any analyses of ancient DNA, but they probably won’t be all the different from what we can see today.

This pious Christian king from Nubia wanted to make the pilgrimage all the way to Santiago de Compostela in Spain. One Latin text from the era mentions Nubians as one of 72 nations having visited the Spanish shrine, so who knows if the king made it or not.

But of course this is just a version of Orientalism. Call it Ornamentalism when instead of visiting exotic foreign lands you look for accounts of exotics making long, arduous journeys to your lands. I’m a fan of Ornamentalism or, as you might call it, Prester Johnism, as I wrote last year about Ethiopians visiting medieval Europe in Taki’s Magazine:

Interestingly, it appears that Christian Ethiopia may have first reached out to medieval Europe rather than vice versa. Perhaps due to word of the ongoing success of the Christian reconquista of Spain, in 1306 the Ethiopian emperor sent a diplomatic delegation of thirty to the Pope in Avignon to discuss a mutual defense pact against the Muslims.

Roman Catholics had long dreamt of contacting a Christian ally on the far side of the Islamic world, perhaps in India or Central Asia, to open a second front against the Muslims. They had a name for this legendary potential comrade: Prester John. He was believed to rule a kingdom filled with exotic wonders, but still friendly to Western Christians.

The arrival of the Ethiopian delegation helped convince Europeans that Ethiopia instead must be the home of the formidable Prester John.

This proved confusing to Ethiopian diplomats, such as the four who attended the Pope’s Council of Florence in 1441. They patiently explained that “Prester John” was not one of the many titles of their king. But Westerners paid their protests no mind since their strategy was the same as Prester John’s would be: to team up with Europe against Islam.

Of course, the actual number of sub-Saharans in medieval Western Europe before the Age of Exploration must have been miniscule. Here’s a challenge for all the woke medievalists: designate medieval graveyards in Western Europe, such as next to pilgrimage sites, where you think the odds are highest that high tech graverobber geneticists like David Reich might find one medieval sub-Saharan.

Let’s find one.

[Comment at Unz.com]

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