Words and Swords: A Samizdat on Medieval Military History and the Decolonization of the Academy
Ken Mondschein (ken at kenmondschein dot com)
The past two years have seen a growth of a movement, notably amongst our colleagues in literature but with the support of many in other disciplines, to “decolonize” the practice of medieval studies. This includes de-centering Europe, and especially northern Europe, as a locus of study; challenging narratives of a white, male, Christian Middle Ages perpetuated by white, male, Christian historians; considering critical race and gender theory in our work; and rejecting earlier historiography as supporting systemic racism and imperialism. While this movement is partly a culmination of long-brewing changes, it is also a reaction to the emergence of the alt-right and its use of medieval symbolism. Dorothy Kim, in her influential essay “Teaching Medieval Studies in a Time of White Supremacy,” has said, “medieval studies is intimately entwined with white supremacy and has been so for a long time… objective neutrality… no longer works, because it facilitates white supremacists.” In other words, we have no choice but to engage in this work: to not do so is to implicitly support injustice. No matter what one’s own politics or position on the matter, this debate has become the historiographical question of the moment, and it is part of our professional responsibilities as historians to be au courant on these ideas.
As someone who is paid to teach all eras of “Western Civilization” and “World History” to undergraduates; who educates students of all colors, genders, and sexualities both in the classroom and in the fencing salle; who is committed to social justice both within and without the academy; who readily engages with nonacademic communities such as fandom and reenactors; who is worried about the use of my subjects of study by those who would like to return to an imagined age of European ethnostates; and who, as a Jew, is personally targeted by alt-right ideologies, I believe that understanding the arguments made by our colleagues, as crystallized in the essays published by the Medievalists of Color group and the In the Medieval Middle blog, is an imperative. I would like to suggest in this brief essay that we medieval military historians not only should pay attention—for our field can easily be seen as old-fashioned or even reactionary—but also that we have much to contribute to this effort. In fact, I would argue that in many cases, we are already doing consonant work. Further, I would like to suggest that an “intersectional” perspective could provide a useful tool for us to explore some of the core questions in our field in new and interesting ways. Thus, even as I question some of the approaches taken by previous generations (and their larger implications), I will also defend the value of some traditional subjects of study and their ability to contribute to the overall aims of “decolonization.”
Interactions between different peoples and cultures are not always peaceful, and students of the Middle Ages must be aware of this unfortunate fact. The medieval world, as Robert Bartlett points out in his Making of Europe, was created on the frontiers, and often through violent processes. From the Carolingian empire to the Crusades to the German Drang nach Osten, “Europe” was formed through the conquest and Christianization of new lands and enfolding these into a worldview that unified the socio-economic, the moral, the historical, and the cosmological. If we are to ask if the migration era was a violent swamping of Christian Rome with “foreign barbarians,” a more-or-less peaceful merging of cultures, or if the truth lies in some middle ground between these, then continuity of military institutions from antiquity to the Carolingian world, and armed response to migrants, give us key data points with which to answer the question. The rise of Carolingian social-military structures is worth studying, as well: it parallels that of the associated worldview of Latin Christendom, which in turn transformed over the ages and was carried along with successive waves of colonizers from the Carolingian conquest of Saxony to the Norman conquests to the Crusades (including the Baltic and Albigensian Crusades) and the Reconquista. A significant part of medieval warfare was also driven by slave-taking, and this has likewise become part of the historiography (see, for instance, the various recent works by David Wyatt and John Gillingham). If we are to understand imperialism and exploitation of subject peoples, and the ideology that justifies it, we can not neglect the Norman conquest of Wales and Ireland or the subjection of Livonia any more than we can neglect the Spanish conquest of the Americas or the Belgian Congo, as they are all linked in a long history of thought, institutions, and ideas. Just as historians of the latter subjects should appreciate the importance of our work for their areas of concern, so those of us working on the former topics need to take account of the new scholarship on modern imperialism, which can provide us with invaluable perspectives, questions, methodological examples, and theoretical frameworks.
The Crusades in particular were not only a military venture—and one whose memory is deployed by both latter-day white nationalists and the Islamic State—but also incubators of social exchange and transformation that enabled the exchange of new methods of craft production, economic and social administration, and other cultural products. The work of medieval military historians on the Crusader states, the Reconquista, and the Norman conquest of Sicily, Apulia and Calabria show that medieval society was indeed “diverse,” that “the Mediterranean” is a valid term of analysis, and that we cannot consider Europe in isolation. The most interesting history frequently happens in liminal zones, and, as D. K. Fieldhouse noted for modern imperialism, it was often that the colonial tail wagged the metropolitan dog. Whether we can say the same for the Middle Ages is an open research question.
Medieval military historians necessarily take a transcultural view of such interactions. We have long used Greek and Arabic sources: studying Byzantine-Latin and Muslim-Christian interactions shows us how different cultures saw one another and reached accommodation and how the struggle of would-be conquerors and resisters, often beginning with xenophobia, led to mutual respect, accommodation, and, if not tolerance, at least convivencia. What is more, some of the advances of the Muslim world were seen as highly desirable by northern Europeans and were readily adopted. Indeed, we medieval military historians have long evaluated these encounters in a non-judgmental, nonpartisan way that would frustrate any white nationalist who bothered to do any research deeper than looking at memes on the Internet. From there, it is but a small step to include a postcolonial approach that looks at the effects of these interactions on both colonizers and colonized. Asking questions such as “how is a Welsh archer fighting for the English crown like, or unlike, a Sepoy?” can only enrich our understanding of our subject of study.
At the same time, we must recognize many of the subjects beloved of medieval military historians might be considered as implicitly supporting a teleology of European hegemony. These include the history of technology, the growth of nation-states, and the study of knighthood and chivalry. I am not saying that these histories cannot be written, only that we must be sensitive to the “intertwining” of such subjects with a narrative of white supremacy. On the other hand, exploring how European global hegemony came to be, if done mindfully, can be a valuable part of critiquing it.
For instance, the history of military technology can be of value for elucidating a diverse Middle Ages. One brief example: Migration-era and early medieval Scandinavians—“Vikings”—greatly valued the advanced metalcraft of the Near East, and swords of “Damascus steel” are common archeological finds. Norsemen were also great travelers, serving, for instance, as the Byzantine Emperor’s Varangian Guard. This provides concrete evidence that the glories of the “white” Viking age were no such thing: to the contrary, Scandinavians were acutely aware of their marginal and impoverished status on the edge of the known world.
The ideas of chivalry, just war, and rightful conduct of war (jus in bello) inform the history of our own moral systems and cast light on modern conflicts. Were these steps towards a modern system of ethics, or a “bro code” that allowed privileged men to act with impunity? The primary literature is filled with just such questions, but what meaning did these debates have in their own context? The works of John Gillingham, Matthew Strickland, and Richard Kaeuper, to name three eminent historians, speak to these important issues. But these works cannot be read in isolation: Ruth Mazo Karras has shown how we cannot approach the history of chivalry without considering the social construction of masculinity. Gender studies has given us invaluable tools for the study of chivalry, such that any recent work on the subject would seem incomplete without considering this vantage.
Moreover, telling women’s stories has long been an integral part of the work of studying medieval military history. The work of Valerie Eads, Helen Nicholson, Megan McLaughlin, and others have shown that women were an integral part of this core activity of medieval society. Sichelgaita of Salerno, Mathilda of Tuscany, and Eleanor of Aquitaine were all women of power who, far more than just “holding down the castle” while their husbands were away, enacted their own political aspirations through military means. So, too, were women without privileged birth part of, and indeed key to, medieval armies. The military history of the Middle Ages is not only one of knights, kings, and queens, but also one of “ordinary” women who did the gendered labor without which these ventures could not have functioned—and who could take up arms or participated in siege works when the need arose.
However, other areas of study and methodologies are inherently problematic. One of the major historiographical subtexts of medieval military history is the top-down formation of nation-states, particularly in the Hundred Years’ War. The specific argument, as made by Clifford Rogers and others, is that the need to more effectively govern and organize territorial units for greater military effectiveness contributed to more centralized states. Medieval military historians thus seek to contribute to a discourse that is ultimately rooted in nineteenth-century nationalist discourses, and which sees this development as teleologically inevitable and desirable. To be sure, this is a complex issue, and one in which intent and outcomes are muddied. For instance, Daniel Franke was quite correct in his December 18, 2017 response to Carol Symes on the AHA website that, concerning the Monumenta Germaniae Historica, “German ‘nationalism’ had no fixed trajectory after Napoleon” and that “the MGH [was] squarely at odds with the growing tide of central European anti-Semitism.” However, he missed the point: Symes did not critique the MGH authors’ anti-Semitism, or lack thereof, but rather that they sought to “construct the nationalist narratives that bolstered the claims to territory, patrimony, and sovereignty on which 19th-century European states and aspiring states depended.” In other words, their intent didn’t matter; it was the overall episteme they supported. The postmodern argument, deriving from Benedict Anderson’s seminal 1983 work Imagined Communities, is that the modern nation-state itself is an inherently racist, exclusionary construct. Writing its history in a manner that does not take these ideas into account is therefore problematic.
This is why my fellow students and I in a graduate seminar I took during my doctoral program at Fordham found the historiography of the Haskins lineage so troublesome—that is, the work of the line of eminent historians trained by Charles Homer Haskins, including Lynn White, Jr. and Joseph Strayer, and Strayer’s own student William Chester Jordan. Strayer does not consider in his Medieval Origins of the Modern State that the Normans might have been influenced by the more sophisticated societies of the Mediterranean; rather, it is the northern Europeans—specifically the French and English—who were the torchbearers of civilization. In his consultancy for the CIA during the period when the agency was working to outmaneuver the Soviet Union by destabilizing national governments, Strayer was picking up the thread of thought that his frustrated mentor Haskins had left dangling after the disastrous post-Versailles tapestry of Europe had been woven—basing an order for the present in a particular conception of the past. Strayer may have had the noblest ends and was a noted opponent of authoritarianism, but, like the MGH authors, he was part of a regime of power-knowledge that led to numerous injustices and atrocities.
However, the situation is far more complex than can be covered in a Modern Global History seminar; sometimes there are no good answers; and there are numerous well-intentioned people in the State Department who see the situation with all of its nuance, who nonetheless persist in trying to build a more prosperous and peaceful planet, and who view our work with interest. Such work, however well-intentioned, can still benefit from the perspective of critical theory: For instance, when we read Jordan’s Women and Credit in Pre-Industrial and Developing Societies in a graduate seminar at Fordham, one of my fellows pointed out that chronologically separate societies are not commensurate: Africa could not develop as Europe did as it had no Africa to loot, and that the artificial nation-states carved onto the African map by colonizing powers are not the slightly more organic nation-states of Europe; for my part, I pointed out that it is a fallacy to think of “modernity” and “progress” being a single arrow that points inevitably to one teleological result.
I would argue that the history of state-formation can (and should) be written in such a way that it is not foreign to an intersectional view of medieval history—and in fact, I think that it is necessary to do so. Even if we condemn the Westphalian nation-state as a racist, imperialist construct, it remains an indisputable fact that such political units are a part of our geopolitical landscape. The United Nations is composed of representatives of nation-states, and the decisions made by national leaders affect billions. The Israel-Palestine conflict, for instance, is essentially one of national sovereignty. Knowing how these political units came to be can inform not only more ecumenical, more just state-building in the world today—efforts that will hopefully reduce the overall amount of violence, corruption, and human misery—but help explain the origins of, and expiate the effects of, modern imperialism. These new ways of asking questions are not a substitute for scholarly rigor—rather, they complement it. Intersectional and postcolonial theory can help us ask good questions, suggest methods for answering questions we didn’t think could be answered well, or see gaps and topics we have previously overlooked.
Furthermore, at the same time as we recognize some subjects as problematic, we must also recognize that many of the other subjects we study—the military orders, fight-books, chivalry and knighthood—are of interest to the alt-right. Though probably less appealing to white supremacists than the Third Reich, these subjects can, as Dorothy Kim puts it, still be “weaponized.” Yet, they are also of interest to vast numbers of random laypersons. My own subject—historical fencing treatises—appeals to many who see such works as artifacts of an autochthonous Christian European culture (despite evidence of Jewish and African masters), as well as numerous people who simply like to swordfight. If we do not write the histories of these subjects, we leave a blank page for the popular imagination to inscribe what it will. The history will then be written by those who do not consider the broader perspective and who reject the more inclusive narratives we support. I would therefore exhort my colleagues not to neglect the traditional questions, but rather to bring a new eye to them and to write with greater sensitivity to questions of race and gender. I would also exhort us—as medieval military historians have long done—to continue to sortie forth from the Ivory Tower and bring our educational campaign to the wider audience of popular history enthusiasts, re-enactors, and K-12 educators.
Finally, I would like to point out that question is not just how we do our scholarship, but how we interact with living people today, including our colleagues. At the 2018 Medieval Academy meeting, Geraldine Heng called for more diversity in creating conference panels, choosing authors for edited publications, and the selection of plenary speakers. As she pointed out, a conference panel that seeks to address Othering but consists entirely of white males is troublesome. (And, contrary to what I once said, a joke about it is not “harmless social lubricant,” but deeply harmful in that it trivializes the uphill battle faced by scholars of color.) Unfortunately, it is an inescapable fact that studying medieval military history, like studying medieval history in general, is a bit of a ludicrous career choice: it helps to already have a backpack full of privilege to go into this field. My own students of color, I have observed, tend to be more interested in practical career choices such as medicine, law, and business. It is an inescapable fact that the sub-discipline of medieval military history is, as the kids say these days, “so white.” It has also by and large been male, though there are many excellent female scholars in this field such as Valerie Eads, Theresa Vann, Helen Nicholson, and Anne Curry, and De Re Militari has seen a balance of genders in the speakers it has invited to speak in its lecture series over the past few years.
While we cannot go down to the Agora and rope reluctant women or scholars of color into our professional activities, nonetheless, it is incumbent upon us to, as the Medievalists of Color say in their Collective Statement, take the opportunity “to understand the perspectives and experiences of medievalists and other people of color.” This is doubly so if we are to write postcolonial, intersectionalist histories. I ask my colleagues to engage, to listen, and accept that the people best equipped to imagine Otherness are the ones who have themselves been Othered in our society. We can solve the seemingly insolvable problem by inviting scholars who work on other periods and places to provide needed perspective. Diverse perspectives can only make our work stronger. I have included some suggestions for avenues of investigation—weapons technology as cultural exchange, Welsh archers and Sepoys, Jewish and African fencing masters—over the course of this essay; other research questions will readily suggest themselves.
I will argue to my last breath both that medieval military history has a place in the academy and for the value of the traditional subjects of study. Considering the alt-right’s interest in Vikings, Crusades, and ancient swordplay, I would even say expertise in this subfield is crucial. But is important in the larger sense, as well: human beings are inherently political animals, and unfortunately sometimes these conflicts spill over into actual violence—between states, between factions in a state, between kin groups and religious sects, and between individuals. Our history is one of the subjection of one people to another and the looting of labor and resources, justified by regimes of power-knowledge. However, by understanding this history, we equip ourselves to recognize and combat these tendencies.
What is happening now in the academy is a re-alignment in the distribution of resources that plays heavily into ideas of power, authority, and legitimacy. The STEM fields and vocational careers are at the front of the line to receive increasingly scarce funding in institutions that increasingly resemble for-profit businesses. Meanwhile, administrators look upon the place of the humanities in the new order of things as being to reinforce the Weltanschauung of McWorld even as humanities professors themselves advocate for previously excluded groups to have their just share of the ever-shrinking resources. We must look at which way the wind is driving the waves to keep our heads above water even as we seek to swim against the current. Fortunately, medieval military history has placed an excellent flotation device beneath our seats. By studying the history of warfare, we not look at the origins of inter-group confrontations and equip ourselves to engage in the next conflict—or, preferably, to avoid it—but also cast light upon our nature as creatures who commit violence. However, we are also moral animals: Though most of us are guilty of benefitting from an unjust society, this is not an excuse for amorality in our academic work or our professional conduct. Being a good scholar requires keeping abreast of, and taking seriously, changes in our discipline and related fields. Medieval military history is indeed valuable, and understanding critical race and gender theory will help us bring a new perspective to these subjects for the twenty-first century. We have much to think about.
Ken Mondschein uncomfortably straddles the line between the “academic” and “popular” historian. A full-time contingent professor and medieval martial arts teacher, he is also a widely published and professionally active active scholar, a jouster, and a modern épée fencer and coach. He received his PhD in 2010.
 This essay was originally posted on the De Re Militari site, but taken down in accordance with editorial policy, as DRM does not publish opinion pieces. I would like to gratefully acknowledge Cliff Rogers' help with feedback and edits.