Why historians hate history.
|Michael Warren DavisMay 13|
Earlier this year, I reviewed a book called The Bright Ages: A New History of Medieval Europe by Matthew Gabriele and David M. Perry. I don’t want to pile on (again) but, let it suffice to say, it was possibly the worst book I’ve ever read.
For instance, the authors say that, for too long, medievalism has been a tool of white supremacy. And it’s true that racists have an affinity for medieval Europe, for obvious reasons. But here’s how Gabriele and Perry tackle the issue:
The authors say of these white supremacists, “They looked into both the medieval and classical European past and imagined they found white faces, like theirs, looking back at them. They were wrong about all of this.” You’ll have to take my word for it, but there’s no context for this remark. The authors seem to be arguing that whiteness doesn’t exist because 10th century Europe was actually full of black people. If so, that would certainly take the wind out of the alt-right’s sails, though I’d really like to see their proof.
That should tell you everything you need to know.
Well, The Bright Ages is now at the center of an online fracas, because the authors are accused of being—get this—too right-wing.
According to a report in The New York Times, a Dr. Mary Rambaran-Olm also wrote a strongly negative review of the book. Dr. Rambaran-Olm’s review was slated to appear in The Los Angeles Review of Books. But the LARB ended up pulling the review, because… well, that’s what the fracas is about.
Dr. Rambaran-Olm accuses the editors of “torpedoing” her review because they’re friends with Gabriele and Perry, whom she accuses of being tools of the American Right. The editors say they pulled it because the author refused to accept “four minor edits.” The email exchange has not been published, but of course every self-declared medievalist on Twitter is taking sides. The debate is getting messy, with some defenders of the LARB apparently accused Dr. Rambaran-Olm (who is Anglo-Caribbean) of lying about her race.
It’s interesting that the brouhaha isn’t actually about the book (which is bad) or even the review (which is worse). It’s about identity politics, and how hard it is for an academic—one who happens to be black—to get her lousy review of a lousy book published in a lousy magazine.
Happily, you can still read Dr. Rambaran-Olm’s review, which she posted on Medium. It’s called “Sounds About White”, which should tell you everything you need to know. But here’s Dr. Rambaran-Olm’s thesis statement just in case:
The core theme that runs through The Bright Ages is a Christocentric (that which is focused on Jesus and Christian narratives) one that recycles the usual stories of emperors, bishops, kings, military leaders. Gabriele and Perry try to retell narratives about these convention [sic.] figures by discussing outside influence and “otherness” that played into these central figures’ successes and failures.
This may come as a bit of a surprise to Dr. Rambaran-Olm, but there we quite a few bishops and kings in the Middle Ages. Granted, there was only a couple dozen bishops per country, and just one king. As for “military leaders,” she probably means the nobility. Noblemen were also a definite minority of the population. Yet these two institutions—the Church and the State—wielded quite a lot of power. Nearly all of it, as a matter of fact.
One would think this would be obvious to a professional historian like Dr. Rambaran-Olm. But, then, I would have thought it was obvious to Perry and Gabriele that there were white people in medieval Europe. I’m not a professional historian—only a dabbler. I like nothing more than to stretch out on the couch with a cup of tea and a little something by John Julius Norwich. Yet here are three observations I’ve gleamed from my unguided studies.
First: that the overwhelming majority of people living in Europe circa the Middle Ages were white. It’s generally believed that white people are indigenous to the region. Second: most countries in medieval Europe were ruled by a mixed system of monarchy and aristocracy. Republics were not unheard of, but they were exceedingly rare. Third: a huge majority of the population was Christian.
If we’re going to discuss a history of medieval Europe, it’s very important to keep those facts in mind.
Of course, you don’t have to like them. You can say that whites are a supermajority because [racism], or that monarchies are the norm because [oppression], or that Christianity is dominant because [theocracy]. And there would be some truth in that. But it doesn’t change the fact that these are facts.
The Middle Ages were an historical event. They’ve already come and gone. They can’t be other than what they were.
To write a history of Medieval Europe, but without mentioning bishops and kings and white people, would be impossible. It would also be pointless. It would be like writing a history of Germany between 1934 and 1945, but without mentioning Hitler. First of all, you can’t. But even if you could, why would you want to? What interest could that era possibly hold? The villains are all Nazis; the heroes are all anti-Nazis. It has to be “Nazi-centric.” It can’t be anything else.
Now, you may think the medieval Church is the villain of medieval history. And let’s say you’re right, just for the sake of argument. Even so, how can a history of the Middle Ages not be “Christo-centric”? It may be the story of a small, non-Christian minority struggling valiantly against the tyranny of Throne and Altar. But whether they’re heroes or villains, Throne and Altar have to be main characters.
But Dr. Rambaran-Olm isn’t quite done yet. Later in her review, she writes:
In another place, the Abrahamic religions are described as “Asian” while Christ himself is described as a “Jewish refugee from the eastern Mediterranean who once crossed into Africa, who had now come to this island where He sat comfortably” (p. 74). While it is true that Western religions have origins outside of Europe, descriptions like this try to de-Christianize Christianity, making it seem “hip,” international and inclusive, while erasing its present role in western imperialism.
In other words, Gabriele and Perry point out that Christianity is ultimately an “Eastern” religion, and they’re right… but that fact is inconvenient to my political agenda, so they shouldn’t have brought it up.
It’s unbelievably sad when historians feel guilty for having any warm feelings about their chosen field. But this is how the modern academy operates. You can’t even mention facts like “Jesus was born in Asia” without adding a lengthy disclaimer about how Jefferson Davis was a devout Episcopalian.
Modern historians don’t study history. They hide from it. They suffer from a collective case of nostophobia: a debilitating fear of the past. They live in constant horror of dead white men. What a sorry fate.
As I was writing this post, the latest edition of Ed West’s newsletter “Wrong Side of History” arrived in my inbox. Mr. West is also reviewing Dr. Rambaran-Olm’s review. (Maybe he also read about it in Micah Mattix’s “Prufrock” newsletter.) As always, he says it better than I could:
If you are the sort of person who craves power over others, then there is huge satisfaction in subverting a field of history for ideological reasons. There’s a thrill in having absurd claims taken seriously, in forcing people to repeat things which are clearly not true, because they’re scared to contradict you. In this, it is quite similar to the attraction of the transgender movement for a minority of men.
Quite right. Bear in mind, too, that wielding that kind of power makes men miserable. These historians have set fire to their own field. It’s a power move, but not a smart one. As C. S. Lewis said, we go to Hell saying, “I now see that I spent most of my life in doing neither what I ought nor what I liked.”