Exploring the European Modernity-Medievalism Link


By Carol SymesUniversity of Illinois Urbana-Champaign

All Europeans shared a history of progress, traceable from antiquity through a middle dark age and up to their 16th century present. The idea of European modernity grounded in a unique gestational history—what would come to be called medieval history—and is thus the crucial piece of the puzzle that makes modern racism and its valorization of a white European heritage—regardless of an individual’s class or gender—possible.

Europe viewed from space
Europe experienced a history of progress from antiquity through the middle dark age and up to the 16th century. (Image: NicoElNino/Shutterstock)

The Benefit of Being from the White Race

It is the keystone that keeps the rest of the fictive structure intact. It is what drove Europeans to reenvision their medieval past as evidence of an inherent and inherited superiority which both enabled and authorized them to subjugate others, even when many on-the-ground agents of that subjugation were socioeconomic inferiors: the mariners, the slave-dealers, the overseers, the middlemen.

The benefit to these inferiors, of course, was membership in that white race, even if they were sometimes degraded as “white trash”. As the medievalist Kathleen Davis has shown, in her important book Periodization and Sovereignty, Europeans’ claims to be the unique agents of modernity’s “civilizing mission” were now bound up with claims to a unique historical maturation period. 

No History, No Civilazition

By contrast, in the words of anthropologist Eric Wolf, all of those stuck in a “dark age” on “dark continents” were “peoples without history” and therefore not fully human.

As Cicero once claimed, there’s a connection to one’s history that distinguishes men from boys. Here, that same historical claim buttresses the racial narrative of a mature, enlightened Europe in touch with its history, contrasted by its childish counterpart without one.

Noble Europeans

All of these discourses are bound up together and reinforce one another. In a textbook which I read in high school, the (in)famous British historian, Hugh Trevor-Roper, argued that the noble history of Europeans was inherently more important than “the unrewarding gyrations of barbarous tribes in picturesque but irrelevant corners of the globe: tribes whose chief function in history, in my opinion, is to show the present an image of the past from which, by history, it has escaped.”

This process of historicizing Europeans as racially advanced because of their history and non-Europeans as barbarous for their alleged lack of it was both ideologically and practically powerful. It is what led to the rooting of 19th century European nationalist narratives in the medieval past and the idolization, among today’s white nationalists in the US, of “uniquely Anglo-Saxon political traditions”. 

This article comes directly from content in the video series The Medieval LegacyWatch it now, on Wondrium.

The Case of Algeria and France

After Algeria had been recognized as French, it could never be anything else—that was the meaning of Charles de Gaulle’s defiant cry of “Vive l’Algérie française” during the Algerian War of Independence, in 1958.

In that same year, a French academician called André Chamson published a satirical pamphlet in which he mocked the Algerians’s bid for recognition as a sovereign nation by explicitly linking France’s colonization of North Africa with its medieval past. 

Flag of Algeria
The Algerians’ bid for recognition as a sovereign nation was mocked by André Chamson. (Image: SKopp/Public domain)

He imagines a scenario in which an unnamed Gaul, the staunch spokesman of his subaltern society, demands an audience at the United Nations and argues for his country’s liberation from the imperialism of an alien power. “I ask, therefore, that you officially recognize and proclaim that France does not exist; and that you admit Gaul, my fatherland, a sovereign nation, to be seated among you, to work alongside you for the expansion of civilization and culture.”

Here, Chamson explicitly aligns temporal and territorial colonialism in an effort to show that both calls for liberation are equally absurd, in his view, because there has always been a France, and France’s manifest destiny, rooted in its history, has always been “the expansion of civilization and culture” to those with no such pedigree.

A Toxic Medieval Heritage

Today, these are the very convictions undergirding ongoing efforts to suppress the signs of African Muslim culture that have been increasingly visible in France since Algerian independence and after decades of Afro-French immigration; witness the ongoing national furor over the wearing of la voile or headscarf, by Muslim women and girls, or the right wing French talking point that these immigrants do not (and cannot) share “French civilizational values”, even though they come from African regions long claimed by France. 

But, how do we reconcile the cognitive dissonance exhibited by a white supremacist discourse that celebrates Anglo-Saxon or Celtic heritage, Germanic or Viking ancestry while, at the same time, labeling Muslims as dangerously “medieval”?

Of course, prejudice and hatred do not have to be logical to be powerful. But there is a logic here, and it has been baked into European colonial projects from the very beginning. The implicit narrative is that Europeans have a God-given ethno-genetic superiority that glorifies even the early barbaric era of their history. 

Meanwhile, we are left struggling with the tortured, toxic logic of this medievalist heritage.

Common Questions about the Link Between European Modernity and Medievalism

Q: What was the idea of European modernity grounded in?

The idea of European modernity was grounded in a unique gestational history that would come to be called medieval history.

Q: What were the views of anthropologist Eric Wolf?

In the words of anthropologist Eric Wolf, all of those stuck in a “dark age” on “dark continents” were “peoples without history” and therefore not fully human.

Q: What is the cognitive dissonance exhibited by right-wing white supremacist discourse?

They celebrate Anglo-Saxon or Celtic heritage, and Germanic or Viking ancestry while labeling Muslims as dangerously medieval. Europeans seem to believe they have a God-given ethno-genetic superiority that glorifies all of their history, even their early barbaric era.

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