From letters of recommendation for college applications to buying insurance, scratch the surface of any American institution and you will find racism, antisemitism, or both. Over the past number of years, voices have been raised in shock over the increase in American society and political discourse of overt White supremacy, the racist belief that White people are superior to all other races. This is not who we are! these voices exclaim. It’s un-American to be a racist! But as Nell Irvin Painter demonstrates in her book The History of White People, being a racist, and being a White supremacist, is as American as apple pie.
Though published already in 2010, Painter’s history of the White race in America is as relevant as ever. Flipping the coin on the historiography of race, Painter, Professor Emerita at Princeton University, puts the White race under the microscope to investigate how the group seen as the default in American culture invented itself.
Painter’s findings are as fascinating as they are revolting. Over and over, Painter demonstrates how scholars, intellectuals, philanthropists, and others turned themselves into intellectual contortionists in order to build pseudo-scientific arguments that prove why they, because of their pale skin and Protestant Christian beliefs, are superior to all other groups, especially Jews and Blacks. Particularly interesting to read is how these labyrinthine discussions over time created a contradictory, yet clear, origin of White Americans in Scandinavia.
As racism turned into race science, scholars made use of eugenics, genealogy, phrenology, anthropology, and history to create an internal hierarchy within the White race in America where Nordics, Anglo-Saxons, and Caucasians are the top three best groups to belong to. These three groups are intellectual products with no connection to reality, either in the United States or Europe, but as we have daily proof, the belief in them and the violence that this belief provokes is very much real. As Painter so convincingly demonstrates, even those of us who refute the ideas of racism and White supremacy can’t escape them, because racism and White supremacy are built into the walls of that shining city on a hill we call America.
The History of White People is essential reading to understanding racism, antisemitism, and White Supremacy in the United States today.
In the words of my friend, the Australian, I shall return.
When I signed up to review the book in January this year I did it out of my own personal interest. The Black Sea is a body of water that is generally overlooked in today’s West-centric geopolitical debates, but for thousands of years, the Black Sea has been a nexus for human communication. I encounter the Black Sea no matter what type of history I study. The Ancient Greeks colonized the shores of this sea. Constantinople was founded by the Romans as a lock on the sea. The Goths migrated from the shores of this sea and changed the face of the European peninsulas during late Antiquity and the early Middle Ages. The Ottoman Empire, Poland-Lithuania, and Russia went up against each other for supremacy over this sea, a fight that went on for centuries.
In May, when I sat down to talk to Jens, the world was in a different place than back in January. The Black Sea was at the center of the world’s attention because of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Ukraine’s modern southern border stretches along the north shore of the Black Sea, cut short by Crimea, which was annexed by Russia in 2014.
In the parish church of Svinnegarn in the Swedish region of Uppland there is a Viking Age runestone fixed inside a wall. The runestone was placed there when the church was rebuilt in the eighteenth century, serving as something similar to a mural. Decorated with a large Greek cross at its center, it reads:
Þjalfi and Holmlaug had all of these stones raised in memory of Banki/Baggi, their son, who alone owned a ship and steered to the east in Ingvarr’s retinue. May God help Banki’s/Baggi’s spirit. Áskell carved.
Known as U 778 in the registry of the Swedish National Heritage Board and dated to c. 1010–1050, this runestone is one of more than twenty that mention a Viking raid to the east, possibly as far as the Caspian Sea, led by a man named Ingvarr and which ended in disaster. When news of the expedition’s violent end reached the families at home, they raised runestones to commemorate their dead family members.
Meanwhile further south, another family raised a runestone to commemorate a family member who never returned. Standing at the edge of a field on the Gillberga farm in the Swedish region of Östergötland, the runestone known as Ög 104 is also dated to c. 1010–1050. Decorated with a snake wrapped by its own tail, it tells the following story:
Rauðr raised this stone in memory of Tóki, his brother, a very good valiant man, who was killed in England.
U 778 and Ög 104 are only two examples of the thousands of runestones that were raised and remain standing across the Swedish, Danish, and Norwegian countrysides. These stones are invaluable because they are the only written sources where the Scandinavians of the Viking Age speak for themselves. The practice of raising runestones lasted for a short period of time, but the fact that they are found not only in Scandinavia, but also in places where the Scandinavians traveled and settled, such as England, the Isle of Man, and Ukraine, demonstrates that it was an important custom.
U 778 and Ög 104 are also examples of how far the Scandinavians of the Viking Age traveled, and that they traveled both east and west. Traditionally, the idea has been that people from Norway and Denmark traveled west and people from Sweden traveled east. As a scholar, you studied either one direction (west) or the other (east); most often the west because the other direction was the Soviet Union. But as time progresses after the Soviet Union’s collapse, the modern geopolitical split that cut the Viking world in two is healing, contacts between Viking Age scholars on both sides of what used to be the Iron Curtain continue to be established and nurtured, and the Viking world is re-emerging as even larger and more complex than we could ever have imagined.
In her excellent book River Kings, archaeologist Cat Jarman takes this re-assembly of the Viking world to its extreme when she launches an investigation into how a carnelian bead from India ended up in the grave of a Viking Age Scandinavian warrior in Repton, England. Written like a true crime story, Jarman draws on her expertise and immense knowledge to tell a story that is a real page turner. To find the answer to her question about the carnelian bead, she takes us on a journey where she travels both in person and through history. She takes us to the early medieval emporia of Kaupang in Norway, to the mass grave on the Estonian island of Saaremaa, to the cities of Kievan Rus, to archaeological excavations in Ukraine, to Baghdad, Constantinople, and finally, to India and the last existing workshop that makes carnelian beads the way they would have been made over a thousand years ago.
River Kings successfully adds new weft where the tapestry of the Viking world was torn asunder. The book is beautifully written, the story is masterly crafted, the research solid and deep. The only complaint I have is Jarman’s use of the term “Anglo-Saxon” instead of “early Middle Ages” in English history. The origins of the term “Anglo-Saxon” have been exposed as white supremacist and racist with no connection to the time period it purports to represent. Jarman acknowledges that the term is modern, has no connection to history, and that it has been “misused” by racists and extremists. By not mentioning the origins of the term, she is able to continue using it because it “remains a widely understood frame of reference for the communities and kingdoms of England between the fifth and eleventh centuries.” (p. 23) It is an interesting conservative choice in an otherwise groundbreaking book. But then again, Jarman also slips in the term “Dark Ages,” which too is outdated.
River Kings by Cat Jarman is a groundbreaking book. Alongside Neil Price’s Children of Ash and Elm, River Kings is charting new territory in Viking studies and as such is essential reading for anyone serious about the Viking Age.
In the words of my friend, the Australian, I shall return.
Hroznata was a powerful man in medieval Bohemia who also was very pious. On two occasions, he made a vow to go on a crusade but he broke them both. As penance, he founded a monastery. Used to having his way, he tried to interfere with the daily running of it, but the only thing he managed to do was to piss off the monks so that when he was captured and held for ransom, they stalled the payment and he died in prison.
A pawn in the political game played by her father, Princess Ingeborg of Norway married Duke Erik of Sweden when she was 11 years old and he was 30. At age 15, she gave birth to a son, Magnus, and a year later to a daughter, Eufemia. Duke Erik was a man of ambitions, who together with his brother Valdemar rebelled against their older brother Birger, the king of Sweden. A peace offering was made in the late fall of 1317 when King Birger invited Erik and Valdemar to a feast at Nyköping Castle. In the middle of the party, Erik and Valdemar were thrown into prison where they died–possibly of starvation–in early 1318. Now a seventeen-year old widow with two children alone in a hostile environment, Ingeborg joined her late husband’s allies and together they deposed King Birger and sent him into exile. They executed Birger’s son and heir to the throne, and made Ingeborg and Duke Erik’s son, Magnus, king instead. At the age of 19, Duchess Ingeborg was the legal guardian of her three-year old son and in his name, she ruled the largest kingdom in medieval Europe, reaching from Finland in the east to Greenland in the west.
The lives of Hroznata and Ingeborg are only two examples of why the Middle Ages are so fascinating. Both of these stories are true, and both of them would be good plots for historical fiction if they were not. Writing historical fiction set in the Middle Ages is a big task. As an author, your imagination needs to be vivid enough to trump reality, and you also need to have the capacity to inhabit a cultural and psychological universe different from your own.
Two people who decided to tackle the Middle Ages through historical fiction are the siblings Boyd and Beth Morrison who have co-written the novel The Lawless Land (Head of Zeus 2022). Boyd is a New York Times bestselling author of thrillers and Beth is the Senior Curator of Manuscripts at the J. Paul Getty Museum.
The Lawless Land is the story of Gerald Fox, a knight without a lord who is on a quest to restore his family name and ancestral estate. In his pursuit, he meets Isabel, a young maiden on the run from her own wedding and who harbors more than one secret.
The novel is set in 1351, at the very end of the first wave of the Bubonic plague across Europe, also known as the Black Death (1347–1351). The setting is England and France on both sides of the English Channel.
Even though the novel is set in the late Middle Ages, the only thing that makes it medieval is because it says so. Gerald Fox is a man who has lost faith in his faith after having seen one too many battles. By making Fox into a battle-weary atheist, the authors have given themselves a get-out-of-jail-free card because by removing religion from the mix, they didn’t have to wrap their heads around the one thing that made medieval Europe tick: Christianity.
Christianity, or Latin Christendom to be precise, was the umbrella under which everything took place in the Middle Ages. The agricultural year was organized around the saints’ feasts, politics and piety were so closely intertwined there is no point in trying to separate them, agnostics and atheists did not exist, relics were big business, and royalty and nobility secured their place in heaven by donating and founding chapels, monasteries, and churches. Latin Christendom drove inventions in science, art, literature, and fashion. Latin Christendom was the reason why there were two legal systems in medieval Europe: Canon Law, or the law of the Church, and secular law. Latin Christendom was the reason why Jews and Muslims were discriminated against and tolerated at the same time. Latin Christendom is what gave medieval culture a mystical bent.
The book’s idea of what is Europe is outdated. The map at the beginning of the book is called “Europe 1351” but shows only France, northeast Italy, and southern England, even though medieval Europe reached all the way east to Ukraine, north to the Arctic, and south to Spain and Greece. No borders are visible on this map, which robs the reader of the knowledge that half of what we think of as France at this time was English, the other half consisted of regions more or less under the French king’s sovereignty, and that Turin and Genoa were powerful city-state republics with large hinterlands. For reasons unknown, the detailed map of southeast England is called “Canterbury” even though what is shown is the county of Kent with Calais added on the other side of the English Channel.
The McGuffin of the story is an expensive manuscript that was “saved” from destruction during the sack of Constantinople in 1204; the story does not divulge that Constantinople was sacked as part of the Fourth Crusade, when Latin Christians turned on Greek Christians and wreaked such havoc on the city that it did not recover until the Ottoman Turks conquered it in 1453 and breathed new life into it. In other words, the priceless manuscript was saved from being destroyed by the very people who saved it. Moreover, this manuscript is an heirloom of Isabel’s family because they didn’t want to give it up to a monastery, a logic that runs counter to how a medieval person would have thought. If there was an opportunity to donate a priceless manuscript to a monastery, they would have done so. Such donations were used as evidence of largess on behalf of the nobility and also as payment for prayers in the afterlife, an integral aspect of medieval culture and psychology.
The medieval world that comes across in The Lawless Land is without the color, absurdity, religiosity, mysticism, and bawdy sense of humor that permeated the medieval world. The characters are stiff, the plot is predictable, the ideas of what is and was Europe are outdated, the ideas of what it meant to donate objects to a monastery and indeed join a monastery display Protestant prejudices against holy objects and religious institutions of what is today Catholicism. What matters in historical fiction is not only that the authors get the facts straight; they also need to capture the essence of the time period.
On its dust jacket, The Lawless Land is given an endorsement by Lee Child, which makes sense. The Lawless Land is written like a thriller, and it reads like one. Change the year from 1351 to 2022 and it wouldn’t make much of a difference. So, if you are looking for Jack Reacher in the fourteenth century, this is the book for you. If you are looking for historical fiction set in the medieval world, I suggest you move along.
In the words of my friend, the Australian, I shall return.
On May 29, 1453, the city of Constantinople fell to the army of Ottoman Sultan Mehmed II (r. 1444–1446, 1451–1481), also known as Mehmed the Conqueror. Even though the relationship between Latin Christianity and Greek Christianity (today known as Roman Catholicism and the Greek Orthodox Church, respectively) had been complicated since their messy break up in the middle of the 11th century, the loss of Constantinople to the Muslim Turks came as a shock to the rest of Europe. Secure in their conviction that the fortified capital of the Byzantine Empire could withstand a long-term siege, allies had been slow to muster forces and send aid. And now, it was too late. The last bastion of the Roman Empire was no more.
In traditional history writing, the fall of the Roman Empire in 476 CE marks the end of Antiquity and the beginning of the Middle Ages. Behind this narrative lies the idea that Rome was the pinnacle of human civilization, and nothing has been the same since. After the light of Rome was extinguished, darkness fell on the world until light was kindled once more with the rebirth of Roman culture in fourteenth-century Italy.
We find evidence of this view of history in the Dark Ages, an outdated name for the time period otherwise known as the Middle Ages, which, incidentally, is also a pejorative name for the time period between the end of Rome and Rome born again. And, we find this view in the name of the time period that in Italy followed the Middle Ages, the Renaissance, which literally means “rebirth.”
This simplistic narrative hides several complicated truths. For one, Rome didn’t suddenly collapse and leave the world in darkness. Nor was it the end of the entire Roman Empire. What happened was that to save the Empire from collapsing, Emperor Diocletian (r. 284–305) divided the massive realm into two halves along a north-south axis, which created a Latin-dominated western half and a Greek-dominated eastern half, ruled by an emperor in the east and a co-emperor in the west. As it turned out, the eastern half dominated over the western half, most notably after Emperor Constantine the Great (r. 306–337) founded a new imperial capital where the Mediterranean meets the Black Sea. He named this city after himself–Constantinople.
As the eastern half of the Empire flourished, the western half struggled to stay together. In 476 CE, Emperor Romulus Augustus was deposed by Ostrogothic king Odoacer and the Roman Empire in the west is considered to have come to an end. The debate on why the Roman Empire disintegrated in the west is a lively one, but suffice it to say, that when the Roman Empire went away in the west, it continued to exist in the east. We call that Rome the Byzantine Empire. Its capital remained Constantinople.
Whereas it can be debated whether or not the Renaissance is a time period of its own or if it is a cultural, political, and artistic movement among the elites of a fractured Italian peninsula that spread its influences over Europe for the next three centuries, the fact remains that during the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries in Italy, new ideas flourished with inspiration from the Ancient world. These ideas built on their medieval predecessors, but as Nancy Bisaha argues in her excellent book Creating East and West. Renaissance Humanists and the Ottoman Turks, they were distinguished enough to warrant the label “new.” And, as Bisaha goes on to prove, one of the main catalysts for these new ideas was the Ottoman Turks taking Constantinople for themselves.
Whereas the relationship between Latin Christendom and the Muslim world at times was contentious during the Middle Ages, it is in the work of the Italian Renaissance humanists that Bisaha traces the invention of a clash of civilizations. People of the medieval world harbored prejudices and cultivated stereotypes about those who were not Christians, but the chauvinism, superiority, and vitriol that can be found in the writings of the Italian Renaissance humanists is of a different kind. The dichotomy between civilizations is more clearly drawn; the Othering of initially the Turks, but later all Muslims, is more marked; and the identity of Europe as something distinct and superior to the rest of the (Muslim) world is in the process of being formed.
By delving deep into a very large corpus of primary sources from Renaissance Italy, Bisaha convincingly demonstrates that these attitudes were not expressed by a chosen few of the Italian Renaissance humanists, but that they were widespread, and that the intellectuals who participated in the debate, which the fall of Constantinople sparked, were many.
Suffice it to say, Creating East and West is an excellent book. The research is extensive and meticulous. The writing craft is exemplary. The historical analysis is on the highest level.
If I were to criticize this book for anything it would be how it positions itself in the existing research at the time of its publication in 2004. As a scholar who has worked in different European countries and in the United States, I am well aware of how difficult it is to obtain books from abroad. I am also well aware that much has changed as to what was available in 2004 compared to today when libraries and book publishing is increasingly digitized.
All that being said, I still need to point out that the majority of the books and articles referenced by Bisaha are Anglo-American publications. A handful are European, even fewer are Italian. Of the Italian publications, two are from 1999 and 2002, respectively. The rest are older, some significantly so.
Moreover, in the book’s otherwise impeccable introduction chapter, the historians whose works that Bisaha discusses as the most relevant research that the book is positioning itself against are all either British or American (and they are all men). Publishing this type of book is an important step in the recruiting process towards tenure at an institution of higher education in the United States. Therefore, positioning yourself within the field where you intend to have your career is crucial.
However, that doesn’t change the fact that this is a book on Italian and European history that does not position itself against the work of Italian and European historians. This would be the same as if an Italian historian would write about the American Revolution and then only position their work against that of other Italians.
This is not to criticize Bisaha or her credentials as a historian; it is merely an observation about a systemic issue within academia.
However, this observation does beg the somewhat uncomfortable question: how relevant are Bisaha’s findings in the larger context of European history and historical research? The Italian Renaissance is not my field of expertise, and because of that I am unable to determine whether something of importance did take place in Italian humanist thought following the fall of Constantinople, or whether the writings of the humanists come across as important because they look important in the primary sources.
Or, perhaps the geriatric publications in Bisaha’s references are evidence of the fact that what Bisaha highlights in her book is under-researched among Italian historians, and her findings are something that shakes life into a research field that has stagnated?
I don’t know the answers to these questions, because the book doesn’t tell me.
These reservations aside, Bisaha’s results do demonstrate that a shift did take place among Italian Renaissance humanists after 1453, and these new thoughts that developed are of significance because of Italy’s cultural influence over the rest of late-medieval and early-modern Europe. They are also of significance because we are still living with them today. The roots of Islamophobia and the Othering of people in what used to be the eastern half of the Roman Empire can be found here, in the impressive amounts of centuries-old texts that Bisaha has dedicated herself to.
If you are curious about the roots of the ideas of the clash of civilizations, Western exceptionalism and chauvinism, Creating East and West is the book for you.
In the words of my friend, the Australian, I shall return.