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.
As Robert Egger’s epic The Northman hits the movie screens today, the eternally intriguing Viking Age is once again in the spotlight. Based on a story from Gesta Danorum by Danish chronicler Saxo Grammaticus (1160–1220), The Northman follows a man named Amleth on his journey for vengeance after his uncle murdered his father and married his mother.
Dubbed by its publicity campaign as the most accurate Viking movie ever made, The Northman shows the Viking North in all its cold, damp, dark, and messy glory. It taps into the strong sense of honor and vengeance-based vendettas that make stories likeNjal’s Saga such a compelling read.
Scandinavia of the Viking Age was a fascinating world and a vibrant high culture. A sophisticated oral-based legal system, technically-advanced poetry made up on the spot, beautiful craftsmanship, state-of-the-art ship building, worldwide travels, rune stones where art and literacy (or perhaps better said, runacy) meet, and a religion that straddled the natural and supernatural and bent gender roles out of shape.
The Vikings attract such attention because we can project onto them our own anxieties and beliefs. Apart from the brief messages left behind on the runestones that litter the Norwegian, Swedish, and Danish countrysides, the Vikings left no writings behind. Everything we know comes from people who met them, or people who wrote about them centuries after they were gone. Because the Vikings do not have a historical voice of their own, we can make them say and do whatever we want them to.
The most striking example of molding the Vikings into an image in which we can reflect ourselves are the Vikings themselves. Why? Because the Vikings never existed. And the Viking Age never happened.
Historical time periods are at the foundation of all history writing. Historical time periods are the sine qua non of history. The historical time periods of western history are based on the Julian and Gregorian calendars, invented in Rome and medieval Europe, respectively. Based on how these calendars divide up time, intellectuals and historians across the centuries have identified what they believed were important historical events, and from these events, they organized the past into historical time periods. For example, the Middle Ages are called the Middle Ages because during the Renaissance they were in the middle of the time of the Renaissance writers and Antiquity, and by Antiquity these writers meant Rome. The Middle Ages are called the Middle Ages because the one thousand years they lasted were considered to be of lesser value and interest than what came before and after.
A time period begins and ends with turning points. Scholars decide what those turning points are. This is not to say that all time periods are made up out of the blue and have no connection to events in the past, but a time period begins and ends depending on what scholars deem to be important.
In traditional history writing, the turning points were precise. The Roman Empire in the west ended in 476 CE when chieftain Odoacer deposed the western Roman emperor Romulus Augustus and declared himself king instead of emperor. The Middle Ages ended in 1492 when Christopher Columbus reached present-day Bahamas. Or in 1517 when Martin Luther nailed his 95 Theses to the church door in Wittemberg. Or in the fourteenth-century when Petrarc discovered the letters of Roman consul Cicero. Wait… I’m confused…
Today, scholars have mostly abandoned the idea that time periods begin and end on a dime. Instead, we acknowledge that there are transition periods when one type of society morphs into another. This is why different scholars can study Late Antiquity and the early Middle Ages and still talk about the same time period. It all depends on what questions the scholars want answered.
Which brings us to the Vikings.
History is considered to have begun in a region of Europe when Latin literacy is introduced. For Scandinavia this happened around the eleventh century. The combination of the introduction of Latin literacy, the introduction of Christianity, and the early formation of kingdoms rather than chieftancies is enough of a convergence of turning points to say that the eleventh century is when Scandinavian history, and also the Middle Ages began.
Before the Middle Ages in Scandinavia was the Iron Age. The Iron Age is not a historical time period; it belongs to archaeology. The Iron Age is the final stage of the prehistoric time periods known as the Stone Age, the Bronze Age, and the Iron Age. The Iron Age in Scandinavia lasted between 500 BCE and 1050 CE. The Scandinavian Iron Age can be divided into subperiods: the Early Iron Age, which consists of the pre-Roman Iron Age and the Roman Iron Age, and the Later Iron Age, which consists of the Vendel Age and the Viking Age.
In the nineteenth century, when archaeology and history became professionalized and museums were invented, bureaucrats needed to label and categorize all the artifacts that became part of the collections housed in these new museums. At the same time, during the course of the nineteenth century, a change in the masculine ideal took place in Scandinavia.
As demonstrated by Anna Lihammer and Ted Hesselbom in their book Vikingen. En historia om 1800-talets manlighet (Historiska Media, 2021), in moving away from the emotionally oriented masculinity of the eighteenth century with its wigs, powdered faces, and high heels, a new type of masculinity was found in the Icelandic and Norse sagas, one of physical strength, honor, and endurance. This new type of ideal man was given the name “Viking,” after the part-time job of raiding and trading that some men participated in during the later years of the Iron Age. In the 1870s, when museums began cataloguing the archaeological finds dated to the late Iron Age, what they saw were artifacts from a high culture that stood out. They named this time period after the new type of ideal man. Thus, the Viking Age was born with a life span from 800 to 1050 CE.
The Viking Age as a distinct time period ran into problems pretty quickly. In 1881, elaborate and rich graves were discovered in the village of Vendel, near Uppsala north of Stockholm in Sweden. What the archaeologists found at Vendel were massive ships graves with swords, helmets, shields, horses, drinking vessels, and board games, to name a few of the many fantastic artifacts.
However, the graves at Vendel were dated to between 550 and 800 CE, that is to say, they predated the Viking Age. But since the Viking Age already existed and instead of extending the Viking Age further into the past, yet another time period was invented: the Vendel Age.
Because of the similarities between the two, there is reason to argue that the Vendel Age and the Viking Age could have been consolidated into one and the same time period.
Here you might say that the Vendel Age and the Viking Age should be different time periods because the Vikings had ships with sails and they used those ships to go abroad and loot, trade, and be hired as mercenaries. Just look at what happened in England!
To further demonstrate how the Viking Age never existed, in European and North American history writing the Viking Age is considered part of the Middle Ages. This makes sense from the European point of view because the Vikings appear in the historical sources of medieval Byzantium, England, France, Ireland, Germany, and Spain. Interpreting the Vikings within a medieval context makes sense when you study how these societies reacted to the Scandinavian presence. But to say that the Viking Age in Scandinavia was medieval and that it lasted between 793 (the raid on Lindisfarne in England) and 1066 (the battle of Hastings, also in England) is to apply an interpretation and periodization to a region where none of this has any relevance.
So what about the Vikings themselves? What time period would they say they lived in? Well, they wouldn’t have said that they lived during the Viking Age, that is for sure. They didn’t live during the Middle Ages, either. And they wouldn’t have called themselves Vikings. To be a “viking” is to travel abroad to raid and trade and come back with riches and a reputation that precedes you. For the people who lived in Iron Age Scandinavia, the word “viking” was a job description, and not the name of a people nor the name of an ideal type of masculinity.
In the words of my friend, the Australian, I shall return.
In 2014, President Barack Obama declared March 31 to be Cesar Chavez Day, a federal commemorative holiday in remembrance of the work of activist and union organizer Cesar Chavez (1927–1993). Chavez is known for being the founder of the National Farm Workers Association, which later became the United Farm Workers Union, and for coining the phrase “Si se puede,” in English “Yes, we can,” also known as the presidential campaign slogan that helped Barack Obama become the 44th President of the United States.
But this is only half the story of Cesar Chavez’s life’s work. When he founded the National Farm Workers Association, he had a co-founder whom he worked with for the rest of his life. This co-founder was Dolores Huerta, who, in fact, was the one who coined the phrase “Si se puede,” as she pointed out to President Obama when she was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2011.
As seen in the documentary that chronicles her life and work, Huerta was a controversial person. Although soft spoken, she was considered difficult, and was often treated as Chavez’s sidekick. Her determination, activism, and personal life broke all the perceived rules for how a woman should behave and what a woman should do with her life. Especially if she, as in Huerta’s case, was the divorced mother of eleven children.
Chavez died unexpectedly in 1993. At first, it was expected that Huerta would take over, but eventually she left the movement entirely. What happened after her exit was an erasure of her significance and her work. In the new narrative, Chavez became the sole founder and the rallying catch phrase “Si se puede” became his as well.
After the death of Cesar Chavez, Dolores Huerta was written out of the history of her own movement. What happened to her is what Michel-Rolph Trouillot calls the creation of a historical silence. In his book Silencing the Past, Trouillot identifies four moments when historical silences are created. These moments are:
The moment of fact creation, which is when it is determined whether something that happened is significant enough to be considered a historical fact.
The moment of fact assembly, which is when the historical facts determined the most significant are collected and stored into archives.
The moment of fact retrieval, which is when something that happened becomes a story about what is believed to have happened.
The moment of retrospective significance, which is when a historian sits down and writes history based on the assembled facts while influenced by the narrative of those facts.
Important to keep in mind whenever we discuss anything that has to do with history is that history is not a universal force with its own mind nor does it have a will of its own. History is not headed in a particular direction. History is not an arc that bends towards a certain goal. History is not a judge. History is not a moral guide with a side that is either right or wrong.
Why? Because history is something that is made by people with agendas. With “made” I mean written. With “people” I mean historians and those who commission their work, whether it be educational institutions, museums, government organizations, or publishers. With “agendas” I mean the contexts of political power that define our interpretation of history, as well as the implicit and explicit biases, prejudices, and preconceived notions that all people carry within them depending on the kind of society that has shaped them and which affect how we interpret the world.
This is why Trouillot talks about the Haitian Revolution as a non-event in Western historiography. The Haitian Revolution is a historical fact. The Haitian Revolution exists in the archives. The narrative of the Haitian Revolution is either a fight for freedom of the enslaved population of the French colony of Saint Domingue (the Haitian narrative) or an illegal slave revolt that needed to be destroyed (the French, American, and British narrative).
Because history writing is connected to power, empires, and the nation state, and because the kind of history writing that has come to dominate the world is that of the West, the latter narrative prevailed over the former and the Haitian Revolution was excluded from the moment of retrospective significance. The Haitian Revolution was silenced. It became a non-event as far as history was concerned.
Similarly, the holidays we celebrate and the people we commemorate also create silences. By focusing on the creation of Columbus Day as a federal holiday, Trouillot demonstrates how an insignificant date became a federal day of celebration while silencing the deaths of millions. On October 12, 1492, Christopher Columbus reached what is today the Bahamas. Consequently, this day is considered the day the “New” World was “discovered.” But only in retrospect and several centuries after the fact. Columbus kept a journal during the voyage that he famously believed would take him to India. There is no entry for October 12 in that journal. What is more, news about the landing in the Bahamas didn’t reach Spain until 1493, at which time the impact was limited.
The celebration of Columbus Day has been made possible by the sanitizing of Christopher Columbus as a person and the silencing of what took place following the landing in the Bahamas. For us to be able to celebrate a person or an event, by necessity we need to look away from the negative aspects. This is true for Christopher Columbus, and it is true for Cesar Chavez.
Cesar Chavez was married to his wife Helen his entire life and had eight children with her, but he also had relations with other women. Chavez co-founded the union with Dolores Huerta, but he was a chauvinist who did not allow women in positions of power within the movement. Cesar Chavez Day is a celebration of Mexican-Americans, but Chavez and Huerta rose to national fame by organizing Filipino-American farm workers.
Every historical investigation involves setting boundaries or else the investigation will achieve nothing, no questions will ever be answered, no search for information will ever be complete. Consequently, to write history is to be complicit in the creation of historical silences.
Historians, then, seem to be in a bind. They are damned if they set boundaries for their investigation. They are damned if they don’t. So, how should they solve this conundrum?
Historians need to get down from their high horses where so many are still strapped. Historians sometimes come across as arrogant, and to a certain extent we are. We are trained to think that the way historians engage with the past is the only correct way, and because our way is the correct way, we are never wrong. When criticized, the weapon historians use in their defense is objectivity. But as Peter Novick has shown, objectivity in history can be utilized to hide prejudices and biases; it can even promote racism. Objectivity is what makes it possible for historians to create insidious historical silences while at the same time coming across as skilled scholars with integrity.
To combat the continued creation of these insidious historical silences, historians, as Priya Satia suggests in her book Time’s Monster, need to embrace the subversive side of history writing that is taking nation states, empires, and the historical profession itself to task. One way of doing this is for historians to move outside of their comfort zone to a greater degree than we are doing now. A great place to start is Michel-Rolph Trouillot’s Silencing the Past.
In the words of my friend, the Australian, I shall return.
Consider the slime toy. It is obviously an entity, a thing, right in front of you there it is. But as soon as you try and grab it, it slips out of your hand. Try and describe it–or worse, explain it–and you quickly run out of words. Or perhaps you find yourself forced to use too many words, and in the end you stop talking out of exasperation with yourself and the thing you are trying to define.
History is like a slime toy. They are both functioning contradictions. A slime toy is solid and liquid. It is slippery and dry. It is pleasant and unpleasant. Meanwhile, history is the past and the study of that past. It is a story and the creation of that story. It is a science and a liberal art. It is an artifact and a text. It is concrete and abstract. It is physical and ephemeral. It is popular and esoteric. It is the pursuit of the amateur and the expert.
Because of its amorphous nature, everyone has an opinion on history, and everyone thinks they can teach and write history. However, if we take a closer look at what history is–if we try and investigate that slime toy before it slips out of our hand–we will soon discover that history is a complicated thing with a long and complicated history of its own.
In her excellent book Thinking about History (The Chicago University Press, 2017), Sarah Maza, professor of history at Northwestern University, addresses the issues of the amorphousness of history and how that came to be. Divided into six chapters, Thinking about History discusses the who, what, where, and how of history production, as well as the-chicken-and-the-egg debate of historical causes and meanings, and the rise and fall of historical objectivity. The book is a fresh take on the history of history (historiography) that successfully breaks down the inherent Eurocentrism of the field. In doing so, it demonstrates how the parameters set up for what history is and should be are inherently northern European, Protestant, patriarchal, and imperialist, which still to this day actively disqualifies the histories of societies considered outside of the so-called “West” and groups considered not part of the mainstream.
Historiography might seem like a niche subject, but it is at the core of the polarization that we see in society today. At the heart of the so-called culture wars is a fight over history: who gets to write history; who should be included in that history; and what should that history be about.
As Maza demonstrates in her book, historians themselves have a lot to answer for in this mess. It is because of the biases, prejudices, and performative objectivity of historians in the past that we have ended up where we are. But, at the same time, it is also made clear that the key to solving the problem of polarization lies with the culprits.
In her conclusion, Maza states that for “the past to serve its best purpose we must not freeze it in place, we must argue about it” because history “becomes useless or boring at best, and dangerous at worst, when it jells into consensual orthodoxy of any sort.” Even though history studies the past, it does so in response to the needs of the present-day, and as such, history is one of the most important subjects we can study.
For history to be able to address the issues of today, we historians need to learn about our own sordid history. A very good place to start is with Sarah Maza’s Thinking about History.
In the words of my friend, the Australian, I shall return.
The more I learn about the human activities in the past we choose to label as history, the more interested I become in the epistemology and historiography of history as an academic field of study. Epistemology is the study of knowledge and how knowledge is created, or How We Know What We Know and Why This Is What We Think We Know. Historiography is a term that carries two meanings. It means the study of the history that has been published by historians and the history of history. I find both the epistemology and the historiography of history endlessly fascinating. How It’s Made: History Edition.
My fascination for how history is made is why I am happy to have been able to publish my second book review for the International Network for the Theory of History, an international community of scholars and web hosted by the University of Ghent in Belgium. This time I have reviewed TIME’S MONSTER. HOW HISTORY MAKES HISTORY (Belknap Press, 2020) by Priya Satia, Professor of History at Stanford University. In her book, Satia takes a closer look at how British historians were complicit in rationalizing and making legitimate the actions of the British Empire, particularly in India.