Could Medieval Women Read?

As a specialist in the study of women’s education and literacy in England in the Middle Ages, I’m asked this question a lot. I’ll cut to the chase: YES. 

How do we know this? 

Medieval England (on which I’ll focus this blog) was a multilingual nation.1 English had been its primary vernacular from the time of the Anglo-Saxons (about 450) until the Norman Conquest of 1066, when French became the language of the nobility, government, and diplomacy.2 By the mid-fifteenth century, though, English had reasserted dominance as the primary vernacular language, while the Church, clerics, and higher education continued to use Latin.3 Because medieval English people would have heard and used all three languages in daily life, children were taught to read and speak all of them.4 Whether children’s reading knowledge became advanced depended on the importance of reading in their lives and what socioeconomic station they attained. In fact, most of the evidence for literacy survives from the upper classes; uncovering the history of less privileged groups remains difficult. 

In infantia

Medieval scholars commonly thought of childhood in three divisions: infantia (birth to about 7 years), pueritia (about 7 to 14 years), and adolescentia (about 14 to 21 years).5 The teaching of reading began in infantia with parents and nurses, if the family could afford such help. 

Girls and boys began by learning the letters of the Latin alphabet and the sounds they made. In this way they acquired the basic skills of early reading, called contemporaneously sillibicare (sounding out syllables) and legere (sounding out words), even if they didn’t understand what those sounds or words meant.6 Singing might have been used as well to teach pronunciation, as sung Latin was used in church services. Because reading was important to promote spiritual instruction, and had indeed been cited at least as far back as Jerome in the fourth century as a reason girls should be taught to read, some of the earliest texts learned were the Pater Noster, the Ave, and the Creed. Alphabets and these simple prayers could be written out on a variety of surfaces: boards, painted walls, wooden trays covered in ash or sand, ceramic or metal vessels, or hand-held tablets made of materials such as slate, horn, or board covered in parchment (more on this below).

Beginning around 1300 in England, medieval parents had a model of teaching in St. Anne, the mother of the Virgin Mary. Depictions of her teaching Mary to read appeared in stained-glass windows, manuscript illuminations, wall paintings, and other artistic representations.7 One such survives today in the Church of St. Nicholas in Stanford-on-Avon, Northamptonshire, England.

Image of stained glass window of Saint Anne teaching the Virgin Mary to read
“Saint Anne teaching the Virgin to Read,” about 1330­–50, the Church of St. Nicholas, Stanford-on-Avon, Northamptonshire, England; south aisle, east window, farthest left panel. Image from Painton Cowen’s The Online Stained Glass Photographic Archive

In this window, Mary is shown sitting in Anne’s lap and holding a bound book with letters written on its pages. She holds the book open so the text is visible to the reader. Her mother Anne points upward, in a gesture both teacherly and pointing heavenward, perhaps emphasizing the importance of reading for spiritual development.8

This beautifully-painted miniature from a Book of Hours shows Anne and a young Mary holding a book together. With her right hand, Anne isolates text for Mary to examine.  

Saint Anne Teaching the Virgin to Read, a miniature painted by Master of Sir John Fastolf (French, active before about 1420–about 1450), in a Book of Hours created in France or England about 1430–1440. Tempera colors and gold ink on parchment. Los Angeles, Getty Museum, MS 5 (84.ML.732), fol. 45v

Other surviving representations show Anne using a hornbook (mentioned above) to teach Mary to read. This illustration comes from a Book of Hours that originated in England around 1325­–1300. 

Oxford, Bodleian Library, MS Douce 231, fol. 3 

This detail shows the hornbook more closely. 

Though the hornbook was at least a medieval invention (discussed recently by Erik Kwakkel and Trinity College, Cambridge, librarians), it survives only from early modern centuries, as in this example, created in London around 1625. The text is printed on sheepskin parchment and fixed to an oak paddle with a brass frame and iron nails; the handle is used for holding the hornbook. The parchment is laminated over with a processed animal horn (hence the name) to protect the text. 

“Aabc (English hornbook),” Washington, Folger Shakespeare Library, STC 13813.6 (dated 1625).

A text from the 1230s, written by a layman, Walter of Bibbesworth, also reveals much about how boys and girls learned, especially languages, in a gentry household. Bibbesworth was a wealthy English landowner and a knight who wrote this book for his neighbor and fellow member of the gentry, Dionisie de Munchensi. Dionisie had three young children to educate, and as part of the expectations of their class, they would have needed to learn a French more advanced than what they would have picked up through everyday living. The image below shows the opening leaf of Walter of Bibbesworth’s Tretiz

The opening leaf of Walter of Bibbesworth’s Tretiz. The manuscript dates from 1325. London, British Library, Additional MS 46919, fol. 2r. 

Walter addresses Dionisie in column 1, lines 10-20, identifying the purpose of his text: “Chere soer, pur ceo ke vous me / pryastes ke jeo meyse en ecsryst [sic] / pur vos enfaunz acune apryse / de fraunceys en breve paroles” (Dear sister, because you have asked that I put in writing something for your children to learn French in brief phrases). What follows is a narrative poem, beginning in column 1, line 21, that describes childhood, starting with birth and ending in young adulthood with a large household feast. In each scene, Walter presents French vocabulary for Dionisie’s children to learn.

Many clues in the text demonstrate that the physical book was shown to children so they could learn the reading of words on a page, not just the sounds of them. Walter gives many homophones, for example, that would only make sense in writing, rather than in pronunciation. Some of the vocabulary also has English translations written in between the lines of the main text. You can see this in the image above in the poem, which starts at column 1, line 21, and goes into column two. All the smaller words written between the lines give the English translation of the main text, which is written in French.

In pueritia and adolescentia

Once they moved into pueritia (about 7-14 years of age), girls of the upper classes would often transition into the care of a mistress (called at that time magistramagistrix, or maitresse). The mistress provided education in such things as deportment, embroidery, dancing, music, and reading.9 For any skills the mistress did not herself have, she could bring in other household members, such as the minstrel for musical training, the chaplain for more advanced reading and spiritual instruction, and the huntsman for hunting. Specialized academic tutors could teach girls more advanced academic subjects. Sometimes these well-to-do girls were sent to other households to be fostered, serving as ladies-in-waiting to upper-class women. Girls, especially those of the upper classes, could be sent to nunneries as well (sometimes beginning in infantia) for education. Not all girls sent to nunneries were meant for the vocation of nun.10

As their reading abilities progressed, girls and boys moved on to reading comprehension (intelligere) and began to read more sophisticated spiritual texts, such as prayer-books, books of hours, psalters, antiphonals, and saints’ lives. They also would continue on, as personal libraries grew in the thirteenth century, in reading romances, histories, poetry, classical authors, theology, philosophy, and more. It is most likely, given that women were not admitted to the university (unlike boys, who could progress from this stage to Latin grammar school and then on at a university level to the study of business, liberal arts, medicine, canon or civil law, or theology), that the reading of these last few would have been limited to girls whose families could afford private tutors.

Miscellany of religious, medical, and secular verse and prose in French, Latin and English. Oxford, Bodleian Libraries, MS Digby 86, fol. 68r. Produced in Worcestershire, England, c.1271–83, this “common-place book” contains French, Latin and eighteen English texts of various genres including fabliau, romances, devotional and didactic texts, prognostications, charms and prayers, among others written between 1271 and 1283. The manuscript was written by its owner and has amateurish scribal drawings and decoration. This image shows three sections of French text: the end of the hymn Veni Creator Spiritus (Come, Creator Spirit) (top 11 lines); a list of the unlucky days in the year (middle section of the text); and at the bottom a list of Arabic numerals 1 through 46. Three shields decorate the bottom. 

In adulthood

By the time they reached adulthood, women who were privileged enough to have obtained a sophisticated education and their own libraries could be avid readers. 

Gospel lectionary written in Latin, made in England c.1025–50, later owned by St. Margaret of Scotland. Oxford, Bodleian Libraries, MS. Lat. liturg. f. 5, fols. 21v–22r. This opening shows St. Luke with the start of his gospel reading. The Bodleian Libraries digital Treasures exhibition notes: “A compact selection of passages from the Gospels, this finely illustrated book was Margaret’s favourite, and one she read and studied closely, even when she travelled. A poem added at the front describes how this very book was dropped into a river but remained almost unharmed: this miracle contributed to her growing reputation for holiness.”

The historical and literary records provide examples of such sophisticated learning, primarily among the nobility. For example, the Norman monk and chronicler Robert of Torigni (c.1110–1186), praised the education of St. Margaret of Scotland (d. 1093) and her daughter Matilda (1080–1118), wife of Henry I, writing, “Quantae autem sanctitatis et scientiae tam saecularis quam spiritualis utraque regina, Margareta scilicet et Mathildis, fuerint” (Of how great holiness and learning, as well secular as spiritual, were these two queens, Margaret and Matilda).11

In a different Latin life, commissioned by Matilda about her mother Margaret, the biographer describes how Margaret from her childhood would “in Divinarum lectionum studio sese occupare, et in his animum delectabiliter exercere” (occupy herself with the study of the Holy Scriptures, and delightfully exercise her mind) and notes that her husband, King Malcom III, cherished the “libros, in quibus ipsa vel orare consueverat, vel legere” (books, which she herself used either for prayer or reading), even though Malcom himself could not read Latin.12

London, British Library, Harley MS 2952, fol. 19v. Book of Hours, made in France c.1400–1425. 

This image above shows the unidentified female patron of this Book of Hours kneeling on a prie-dieu, her prayer book open to the text “Maria mater gratiae” (Mary, mother of grace). This open book with its discernable text has several functions: it leads the reader into the  prayer; it demonstrates the piety of the patron, kneeling in prayer before both her spiritual book and the Blessed Virgin and Christ (illustrated on the facing leaf); and it shows one of the primary purposes of teaching children to read: being able to use spiritual texts in personal devotion. 

Even women who were not noble and who were not able to read much Latin possessed and used books such as the one pictured above. In the mid-fifteenth century Englishwoman Margery Kempe wrote through her scribe of a memorable time in her church of St. Margaret in King’s Lynn when a chunk of masonry fell from the ceiling down onto her as she was praying with her prayer book in hand.

The image below comes from her Book of Margery Kempe as preserved in London, British Library, Additional MS 61823. Lines 24-28 narrate, “Sche knelyd upon hir / kneys heldyng down hir hed. and hir boke in hir hand. / prayng owyr lord crist ihesu for grace and for mercy. Sodeynly fel / down fro þe heyest party of þe cherche vowte fro undyr / þe fote of þe sparre on hir hed and on hir bakke a ston / whech weyd .iii. pownd” (She knelt on her knees, bowing down her head and holding her book in her hand, praying to our Lord Christ Jesus for grace and mercy. Suddenly fell down from the highest party of the church out from under the foot of the rafter onto her head and her book a stone which weighed three pounds). She survived, for which she credited the mercy of Christ.

The Book of Margery Kempe, online facsimile and documentary edition hosted by Southeastern Louisiana University, project director Joel Fredell. London, British Library, Additional MS 61823, fol. 11r.

Finally, a note on those of the working classes. I have not discussed them in detail as it is unfortunately difficult, in fact nearly impossible, to say much about the reading skills of those who left few or no records behind: the great majority of women (and men) of the medieval population were laborers who left little trace in the written record. Yet as we see from the image here below, even for working women, especially in the last few centuries of the Middle Ages, possession and use of books was within the norm, provided those books could be afforded. 

A woman attendant reading a book, from La Bible historiale of Guyart des Moulins, c. 1470s. London, British Library, Royal MS 15 D I, fol. 18.

Conclusion

My focus here has been tightly on the teaching of reading to medieval English girls. Girls and boys alike were taught to read, and began their reading education in the same ways. Boys alone could attend the medieval university and reach the highest (and best educated) ranks of clerics, but if girls had access to the right resources, they too could be highly educated. The evidence demonstrates that the teaching of reading was not linked specifically to gender; rather, it was a function of both socioeconomic station and the usefulness of such skills for one’s life.

If you’re interested in this topic, I cover the subject in much greater detail, with many other examples and suggested readings, in my article, “Women’s Education and Literacy in England, 1066–1540,” in the “Medieval and Early Modern Education” special issue of History of Education Quarterly, and the accompanying HEQ&A podcast.

Megan J. Hall, Ph.D.
University of Notre Dame

Twitter @meganjhallphd


[1] On languages in medieval England, see Amanda Hopkins, Judith Anne Jefferson, and Ad Putter, Multilingualism in Medieval Britain (c. 1066–1520): Sources and Analysis (Turnhout, Belgium: Brepols, 2012).

[2] W. M. Ormrod, “The Use of English: Language, Law, and Political Culture in Fourteenth-Century England,” Speculum 78, no. 3 (July 2003), 750–87, at 755; and William Rothwell, “Language and Government in Medieval England,” Zeitschrift für französische Sprache und Literatur 93, no. 3 (1983), 258–70.

[3] David Bell, What Nuns Read: Books and Libraries in Medieval English Nunneries (Kalamazoo, MI: Cistercian Publications, 1995), 57.

[4] On the complexities of a trilingual England, with a number of helpful citations therein for further reading, see Christopher Cannon, “Vernacular Latin,” Speculum 90, no. 3 (July 2015), 641–53. 

[5] A variety of frameworks were imposed upon the ages of humankind, though these major divisions for the stages of childhood were fairly commonly accepted. For a discussion, see Nicholas Orme, From Childhood to Chivalry: the Education of the English Kings and Aristocracy, 1066-1530 (London: Methuen, 1984), 5–7; and Daniel T. Kline, “Female Childhoods,” in The Cambridge Companion to Medieval Women’s Writing, ed. Carolyn Dinshaw and David Wallace (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2003), 13–20, at 13.

[6] Jocelyn Wogan-Browne, “‘Invisible Archives?’ Later Medieval French in England,” Speculum 90, no. 3 (July 2015), 653–73. For more on levels of reading Latin, see Bell, What Nuns Read, 59–60; and Malcolm B. Parkes, “The Literacy of the Laity,” in Scribes, Scripts, and Readers: Studies in the Communication, Presentation, and Dissemination of Medieval Texts1976 (London: Hambledon Press, 1991), 275–97, at 275.

[7] On the cult of St. Anne and the teaching of reading, see Nicholas Orme, Medieval Children (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2001), 244–45; and Clanchy, “Did Mothers Teach their Children to Read?,” in Motherhood, Religion, and Society in Medieval Europe, 400–1400: Essays Presented to Henrietta Leyser, ed. Conrad Leyser and Lesley Smith (Farnham, UK: Ashgate, 2011), 129–53. For further examples and a detailed analysis of the Education of the Virgin motif, see Wendy Scase, “St. Anne and the Education of the Virgin,” in England in the Fourteenth Century: Proceedings of the 1991 Harlaxton Symposium, ed. Nicholas Rogers (Stamford, UK: Paul Watkins, 1993), 81–98.

[8] For a discussion of this window, see Orme, Medieval Children, 244–45.

[9] Boys (especially royal princes) typically followed the same path of moving from the nursery into the care of an educator-caretaker: pedagogus (a term used into the eleventh century) or magister or me[i]stre (terms in use from the twelfth century forward) (Orme, From Childhood to Chivalry, 19).

[10] Excellent reading on the education of girls in nunneries is found in Eileen Power, Medieval English Nunneries, c. 1275 to 1535 (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1922); Alexandra Barratt, “Small Latin? The Post-Conquest Learning of English Religious Women,” in Anglo-Latin and Its Heritage, Essays in Honour of A. G. Rigg on His 64th Birthday, ed. Siân Echard and Gernot R. Wieland (Turnhout, Belgium: Brepols, 2001), 51–65; and J. G. Clark, “Monastic Education in Late Medieval England,” in The Church and Learning in Late Medieval Society: Essays in Honour of R. B. Dobson; Proceedings of the 1999 Harlaxton Symposium, ed. Caroline Barron and Jenny Stratford (Donington, UK: Shaun Tyas/Paul Watkins, 2002), 25–40; and Dorothy Gardiner, English Girlhood at School: A Study of Women’s Education Through Twelve Centuries (Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 1929).

[11] Robert of Torigni [Robertus de Monte], Historia nortmannorum liber octavus de Henrico I rege anglorum et duce northmannorum, ed. J.-P. Migne, Patrologia cursus completus, series latina 149 (Paris, 1853), col. 886; translated in “History of King Henry the First, by Robert de Monte,” ed. Joseph Stevenson, The Church Historians of England vol. 2, part 1 (London, 1858), 10.

[12] Transcribed in Symeonis Dunelmensis Opera et Collectanea, ed. J. Hodgson Hinde, vol. 1 (London, 1868), at 238, 241, from the version preserved in London, British Library, Cotton MS Tiberius D iii, fols. 179v–186r (late twelfth century).

Marauders in the US Capitol: Alt-right Viking Wannabes & Weaponized Medievalism

Vikings are a very hot topic right now; there’s no question. Within the thriving genre of medievalism, Vikings have recently proven an especially sexy and profitable subject for contemporary pseudo-historical fiction, particularly in television series like the History Channel’s Vikings (2013) and Netflix’s The Last Kingdom (2015). Both these series are fundamentally anachronistic and closer in many ways to medieval fantasy than an accurate historical representation of the early medieval period known as the Viking Age (793–1066 CE). Inaccuracies are, of course, not unique to medievalism involving Vikings, and historical liberties are more abundant in historical fiction set in ancient and medieval times.

Bjǫrn “Ironsides” son of Ragnarr Loðbrók from the final season of the History Channel’s Vikings (2019).

Still, these television shows are very popular and therefore highly influential. Even the anachronisms and inaccuracies in popular medievalism provide effective conversation starters when teaching the subject by offering both a hook into the material and a chance to separate fact from fiction. But in today’s world, by far the most important reason for medievalists to know the trends in popular medievalism and engage with this media directly is white nationalism. As scholars of the period, we must be aware of information, misinformation and disinformation that is being widely disseminated if we are to have any hope of using our voices to help debunk, nuance and contextualize shows like Vikings and The Last Kingdom with a watchful eye toward white supremacist interpretations and appropriations.

King Haraldr “Fairhair” leads his army in the final season of History Channel’s Vikings (2019).

Many medievalists of color have sounded the alarm—again and again—warning that this monster lurked in the shadows. Over five years ago, Sierra Lomuto stressed how “When white nationalists turn to the Middle Ages to find a heritage for whiteness—to seek validation for their claims of white supremacy—and they do not find resistance from the scholars of that past; when this quest is celebrated and given space within our academic community, our complacency becomes complicity” (2016).

In the wake of the riotous “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville in 2017, where some alt-right protesters donned crusader and Viking garb, scholars such as Dorothy Kim, Mary Rambaran-Olm and others have repeatedly warned the field of the dangerous appropriations of the medieval by white supremacists. Immediately following Charlottesville, Kim insightfully cautioned her fellow medievalists that “The medieval western European Christian past is being weaponized by white supremacist/white nationalist/KKK/nazi extremist groups who also frequently happen to be college students” (2017). More recently, Rambaran-Olm has pointed out that “far-right identitarian groups [are] seeking to prove their superior ancestry by portraying the ‘Anglo-Saxons’ in ways that both promote English identity and national sociopolitical progress” (2019).

James Alex Fields Jr., who has been convicted of second-degree murder and sentenced to life in prison for killing an anti-racist protester in Charlottesville VA, is pictured in the group (second from the left, wearing dark glasses), holding a round shield with white supremacist symbolism. Photo credit: Lidia Jean Kott (August 12th, 2017).

Moreover, alt-right activists have postured as pseudo-medievalists in order to further these white supremacist narratives and misappropriations of the Middle Ages. For example, Milo Yiannopoulos is known for his ad hominem article “The Middle Rages” that targets numerous medievalists of color. Still somehow, the “jousting” between medievalists of color and the alt-right was not enough to shake many white medievalists into action, despite the very real threat posed by white supremacist weaponization of the medieval.

Since the Nazi appropriation and sacralization of the “Germanic” in the service of white supremacy, medieval literature—especially Scandinavian myth and legend—has been rhetorically mobilized as an imagined “pure white” era in Northern Europe prior to encountering and intermingling with nonwhite peoples, despite clear historical evidence of multi-cultural trade interactions between ancient and medieval peoples. This ideology has infiltrated the neopagan religion known as “Odinism,” which varies widely and spans the political spectrum, but harbors a perverse, neo-Nazi strain (sometimes called Wotansvolk meaning “Odin’s Folk”) that has long haunted the movement.

Oðinn wandering after the battle from first season of History Channel’s Vikings (2013).

Odinism—named for the chief Scandinavian god of war, Odin—refers to modern New Age interpretations of indigenous religion in pre-Christian Scandinavian, and The Southern Poverty Law Center reported that “A neo-Pagan religion drawing on images of fiercely proud, boar-hunting Norsemen and their white-skinned Aryan womenfolk is increasingly taking root among Skinheads, neo-Nazis and other white supremacists across the nation” more than twenty years ago. More recently, “Anglo-Saxon” neopaganism, sometimes called “Heathenry” to further ground their practice in the language of the culture they idolize, has grown and frequently provides a haven for white supremacist rhetoric.

Jacob Anthony Chansley, a.k.a. Jake Angeli, the “Q Shaman,” was one of several protesters to storm the US Capitol. Photo credit: Win McNamee, Getty Images (January 6th, 2021).

The alt-right has mobilized medievalism toward nefarious ends, fashioning harmful narratives of white supremacy, which have been rhetorically weaponized by domestic terrorists such as the “Q Shaman” also known as Jake Angeli, but whose real name is Jacob Anthony Chansley. As a QAnon promoter and influencer, Chansley is described as a pseudo-celebrity at alt-right rallies, flashing his tattoos, including three prominent Norse symbols: Thor’s Hammer [Mjǫllnir], the Valknut and the World Tree [Yggdrasil]. All three were proudly displayed as he sat in Vice President Mike Pence‘s seat in the Senate, after the Pence was forced to retreat from the angry mob calling for his head.

The pro-Trump mob breeched security, and demonstrators entered the Capitol as Congress debated the 2020 electoral vote certification. Photo credit: Saul Loeb (AFP), Getty Images (January 6th, 2021).

Moreover, Chansley’s horned helmet (while almost certainly referencing other traditions as well) represents a continuation of the Victorian anachronistic introduction of horned helms on Vikings and Valkyries, drawn from classical depictions of Roman Victories. Chansley’s flag-spear may be intended as a reference to Odin’s spear, Gungnir, which further points to white nationalist medievalism. In the case of his horned helmet, Chansley’s ignorance is on full display, as his caricature more closely resembles the ahistorical symbol of the Minnesota Vikings’ football team than anything remotely resembling what a medieval Viking might have looked like. Chansley joined with other pro-Trump supporters to form a violent mob which stormed the United States Capitol on January 6th, 2021.

A man shouts and brandishes his shield as pro-Trump mob gathers in front of the U.S. Capitol Building in Washington. Photo credit: Leah Millis, Reuters (January 6th, 2021).

Of course, it must be emphasized that this insurrection was perpetrated specifically by a pro-Trump “Stop the Steal” MAGA mob, there in support of the president’s blatantly false and dangerous claims that there was election-altering voter fraud during the recent 2020 presidential election (which he soundly lost to Democratic rival Joe Biden). This mob, incited by the president, sought to disrupt the lawful process outlined in the US Constitution by any means necessary in order to overturn a free and fair election.

Donald Trump’s boasting, belligerence and greed does link him with warrior ethics which sustain predatory economies and the Viking activities of marauding, feuding and plundering. The ironic Twitter account, “Beowulf Trump” (discontinued after Trump’s election in 2016), highlights this rhetorical connection by comparing the president’s macho posturing and self-aggrandizing campaign promises to hyperbolic boasts and egoistic attitudes in Beowulf. There were indeed marauders in the Capitol Building on January 6th, and alongside Trump’s red hats, outfitted in army camouflage and waving Trump or Confederate flags, were alt-right Viking wannabes.

This week, the academy has been quick to respond. Alfred Thomas compared the storming of the US Capitol Building to the Peasants Revolt of 1381, although Miriam Müller has disputed this analogy, prompting Thomas to further clarify his argument. Ken Mondschein considered Rudy Giuliani’s terrifying invocation of “trial by combat” in order to spur the MAGA mob into action, and Giuliani later likened his use of the phrase to its function in HBO’s Game of Thrones (2011), which he inaccurately described as “that very famous documentary about fictitious medieval England.” Matthew Gabriele reflected on the role of medievalism in the seditious attack at the Capitol Building, pointing out that like at Charlottesville, in addition to Viking-oriented medievalism, rioters also sported crusader symbolism to signal their white nationalism. Helen Young responded to the incident by offering an explanation of why white supremacists often embrace medieval symbolism, noting that “the association of European Middle Ages and white identities reflect modern racism more than medieval realities.” She emphasizes that “Medievalist symbols have been linked to white European identities for centuries. Their use by violent extremists mean that this connection can not be denied, ignored or thought of as a neutral choice.”

Man who joined the pro-Trump mob wearing the Templar Cross of European crusaders. Photo credit: Samuel Corum, Getty Images (January 6th, 2021).

On January 13th, the Medieval Academy of America issued a direct response to the insurrection acknowledging the “presence of pseudo-medieval symbols and costumes among the rioters in the Capitol” and recognizing “our discipline’s complicity in the racist narratives of the past, and our responsibility to advocate unequivocally for anti-racism both in our policies as an organization, and in our teaching and scholarship as individuals.” More white medievalists need to be willing to stare this beast in the face and recognize that it is our problem too. It is my view that we should not idly concede medieval studies to the likes of white supremacists. We must respond. Failing to do so—for far too long—makes us complicit. We need to actively reject white supremacy. We must correct and denounce the alt-right’s misappropriations of the medieval both publicly and in the classroom by identifying these dangerous narratives as white nationalist propaganda.

If what we all witnessed last week is any indication of the widespread public ignorance we as scholars are up against, we surely have our work cut out for us. As medievalists, we must heed well the warnings of our colleagues of color and more forcefully and ubiquitously address the problematic phenomenon of white nationalist weaponizing of the medieval. Let me add my voice to those within the academy who are calling attention to this dire issue: the recent use of medieval symbolism during the insurrection at the US Capital is but the latest in a horrific trend that cannot be ignored in the field and must be loudly condemned as nonfactual and nonsensical white supremacist rhetoric in the guise of medievalism.

Richard Fahey
PhD in English
University of Notre Dame

Further Reading

Baker, Peter. “Anglo-Saxon Studies After Charlottesville: Reflections of a University of Virginia Professor.” Medievalists of Color (2018).

Barnes, Sophia. “Capitol Rioter Seen in Horned Hat, Carrying Spear Arrested: US Attorney.” 4 Washington (2021).

Chazan, Robert. “The Arc of Jewish Life in the Middle Ages.” The Public Medievalist (2017).

Cole, Richard. “Make Ásgarðr Great Again!Medieval Studies Research Blog. University of Notre Dame (2017).

Connelly, Eileen AJ. “Jake Angeli, Capitol rioter in horned helmet, arrested by Feds.” New York Post (2021)

Dockray-Miller, Mary. “Old English Has a Serious Image Problem.” JSTOR Daily (2017).

Elliott, Andrew B.R. “A Vile Love Affair: Right Wing Nationalism and the Middle Ages.” The Public Medievalist (2017).

Elliott, Josh K. “Horn-helmed QAnon rioter among far-right ‘stars’ in U.S. Capitol attack.” Global News (2021).

Fahey, Richard. “Internet Trolls: Monsters Haunting the World Wide Web.” Medieval Studies Research Blog. University of Notre Dame (2020).

—. “Mearcstapan: Monsters Across the Border.” Medieval Studies Research Blog. University of Notre Dame (2018).

—. “Monstrous Ethiopians? Racial Attitudes and Exoticism in the Old English ‘Wonders of the East’.” Medieval Studies Research Blog. University of Notre Dame (2017).

—. “Woden and Oðinn: Mythic Figures of the NorthMedieval Studies Research Blog. University of Notre Dame (2015).

Franke, Daniel. “Medievalism, White Supremacy, and the Historian’s Craft: A Response.” Perspectives on History (2017).

Gabriele, Matthew. “Vikings, Crusaders, Confederates: Misunderstood Historical Imagery at the January 6 Capitol Insurrection.” Perspectives on History (2021).

—, and Mary Rambaran-Olm. “The Middle Ages Have Been Misused by the Far Right. Here’s Why It’s So Important to Get Medieval History Right.” Time (2019). 

—. “Islamophobes want to recreate the Crusades. But they don’t understand them at all.” The Washington Post (2017). 

Goodman, Lawrence. “Jousting With the Alt-Right.” Brandeis Magazine (2019).

Greenspan, Rachel E., and Haven Orecchio-Egresitz. “A well-known QAnon influencer dubbed the ‘Q Shaman’ has been arrested after playing a highly visible role in the Capitol siege.” Business Insider (2021). 

Heng, Geraldine. “Why the Hate? The Invention of Race in the European Middle Ages, and Race, Racism, and Premodern Critical Race Studies Today.”  In the Middle  (2020). 

—. The Invention of Race in the European Middle Ages. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2018.

Höfig, Verena. “Vinland and white nationalism.” In From Iceland to the Americas: Vinland and historical imagination, ed. Tim William Machan and Jón Karl Helgason. Manchester University Press, 2020.

Hsy, Jonathan. “Antiracist Medievalisms: Lessons from Chinese Exclusion.” In the Middle  (2018). 

Kim, Dorothy. “The Question of Race in Beowulf.” JSTOR Daily (2019). 

—. “White Supremacists have Weaponized an Imaginary Viking Past. It’s Time to Reclaim the Real History.” Time (2019). 

—. “Teaching Medieval Studies in a Time of White Supremacy.” In the Middle (2017).

—. “The Unbearable Whiteness of Medieval Studies.” In the Middle (2016). 

Knight, Ellen. “The Capitol Riot and the Crusades: Why the Far Right Is Obsessed With Medieval History.” Teen Vogue (2021).

Lee, ArLuther. “Protester in Viking headdress ID’d as Trump supporter, not Antifa.” The Atlanta Journal-Constitution (2021).

Little, Becky. “How Hate Groups are Hijacking Medieval Symbols While Ignoring the Facts Behind Them.” History.com (2018). 

Livingstone, Josephine. “Racism, Medievalism, and the White Supremacists of Charlottesville.” The New Republic (2017)

Lomuto, Sierra. “Public Medievalism and the Rigor of Anti-Racist Critique.” In the Middle (2019). 

—. “White Nationalism and the Ethics of Medieval Studies.” In the Middle (2016).

Luginbill, Sarah. “White Supremacy and Medieval History: A Brief Overview.” Erstwile: A History Blog (2020). 

Mas, Liselotte. “Auschwitz, QAnon, Viking tattoos: the white supremacist symbols sported by rioters who stormed the Capitol.” The Observers (2021).

Mills, Ryan. “The ‘Q Shaman’ on Why He Stormed the Capitol Dressed as a Viking.” National Review (2021).

Mondschein, Kenneth. “Trial by Combat: Medieval and Modern.”Medievalist.net (2021).

Müller, Miriam. “Revolting Peasants, Neo-Nazis, and their Commentators.” Medievally Speaking (2021).

Narayanan, Tirumular. “Frazetta’s “Death Dealer” and the Question of White Nationalist Iconography at Fort Hood.” Medieval Studies Research Blog. University of Notre Dame (2020).

Olusoga, David. “Black people have had a presence in our history for centuries. Get over it.” The Guardian (2017).

Perry, David. “How to Fight 8chan Medievalism – and Why We Must.” Pacific Standard. (2019).

—. “What to Do When Nazis are Obsessed with Your Field.” Pacific Standard. September 6, 2017. 

—. “White supremacists love Vikings. But they’ve got history all wrong.” The Washington Post. (2017). 

Rambaran-Olm, Mary. “Misnaming the Medieval: Rejecting “Anglo-Saxon” Studies.” History Workshop (2019).

—. “Anglo-Saxon Studies [Early English Studies], Academia and White Supremacy.” Medium (2018).

Reed, Sam. “Here’s the Story Behind Those Viking Helmets at the Capitol.” In Style (2021).

Romey, Kristin. “Decoding the hate symbols seen at the Capitol insurrection.” National Geographic (2021).

Schuessler, Jennifer. “Medieval Scholars Joust With White Nationalists. And One Another.The New York Times (2019).

Steinbuch, Yaron. “Shirtless man in horned helmet at Capitol protest identified as QAnon backer.New York Post (2021).

Sturtevant, Paul B. “Leaving “Medieval” Charlottesville.” The Public Medievalist (2017).

Symes, Carol. “Medievalism, White Supremacy, and the Historian’s Craft.” Perspectives on History (2017).

Thomas, Alfred. “1381, 2021, And All That.” Medievally Speaking (2021).

—. “Politics in a Time of Pandemic: The Peasants’ Revolt of 1381 and the Storming of the Capitol by Trump Supporters in Historical Perspective.” Medievally Speaking (2021).

Vinje, Judith Gabriel. “Viking symbols “stolen” by racists.” The Norwegian American (2017). 

Whitaker, Cord J. “Game of Thrones’ Peasants are a Problem of White Supremacy – and It’s Victims, too.” In the Middle (2019). 

Young, Helen. “Why the far-right and white supremecists have embraced the Middle Ages and their symbols.” The Conversation (2021).

—. “White Supremacists love the Middle Ages.” In the Middle (2017). 

—. “Re-making The Real Middle Ages (TM).” In the Middle (2014).

We Were Here First: a Medievalist’s View of the Reformation

The 500th Anniversary of the Reformation in 2017 produced celebratory lectures, books and ecumenical services worldwide, but Medievalists, those whose job it is to know what the Reformation was reformed from, were mostly not on the radar.[1] This is nothing new, alas: the name “Early Modern” itself implies, or rather, insists that not much could have happened or been invented before “Early.”  Our irrelevance dates back at least to 1905 when Weber published Die protestantische Ethik und der Geist des Kapitalismus (The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism).  As Yale’ s Reformation historian, Carlos Eire, noted in his celebratory 2017 lecture:

Over one hundred years ago, Max Weber argued that Protestantism “disenchanted” the world and eliminated “magic” from it. Today, as we celebrate the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation, … this assertion needs to be reappraised. Did Protestants really vanquish “magic,” and, if so, what was that “magic,” exactly, or the “disenchantment” that accompanied its demise? Exploring the various ways in which Protestantism redefined the sacred might…allow us to appreciate more fully what the Protestant Reformation bequeathed to the world.[2]

Eire’s clarion call to discover how Protestantism redefined the sacred is refreshing, but, as he notes, the ghost of Weber remains a stumbling block, leaving Protestantism misunderstood. So, too, I would add, his ghostly presence leaves the Middle Ages misunderstood, and underestimated, too.  Our period is the “enchanted” world that Protestants allegedly lost, like Adam and Eve all over again,  just a placeholder in someone else’s historiography. So, since these misconceptions are costly for mutual understanding and in shrinking market shares of the Humanities, let’s take a moment to remember what the Medieval era bequeathed the Reformation, and how heavily Luther and all who came after depended on it.

A 1617 broadside on the centenary of the German Reformation, “Göttlicher Schrifftmessiger…,” showing Luther’s posting of the 95 Theses in Wittenberg. His over-sized pen knocks off the tiara of Pope Leo X. 

Weber had argued that the “ascetic” strand in Protestant ethics was a major factor in the rise of Western capitalism, and that the “disenchantment”(Entzauberung) so evident in Modernity stemmed originally from a devaluation of mysticism, “magic” and other (supposedly) pre-Modern worldviews.  For Weber, “disenchantment” grew out of mental habits of “rationalization,” which, along with burgeoning bureaucracy and valorization of the scientific, contributed to modern secularism. Little did Weber know that the Middle Ages were rife with their own forms of rationalization, bureaucracy, and secularism (scholasticism, laicization of the civil service, and disillusionment with clerical corruption and schism). In contrast, for traditional societies, Weber argued, “the world remains a great enchanted garden”.[3]

Mercifully, Weber’s patronizing vision is mostly behind us, but not far enough. Eire argues, rightly I think, that types of “enchantment” survived on both sides of the Reformation Protestant-Catholic divide, with different emphases in each religious culture, and, I’d stress, different aesthetics: e.g. Protestant painters like Rembrandt painted less medieval iconography, but experimented with inner and outer light; Protestant poets like Spenser reinvented medieval romance’s “enchanted” world as a four-part invention of inner and outer voices. But still missing from this more holistic picture is the recognition that, however many “disenchanting” attitudes one believes Protestants unleashed, they were already unleashed in the Middle Ages, itself as varied and unstable as any other period in history.

Medieval views of the supernatural were complicated at best, and often not naïve. Moreover, many forms of “disenchantment” flourished throughout Middle Ages, not just in the Late Middle Ages, the “age of decline” some Reformation historians conveniently blame. Carlos Eire noted the fact that many atheists were willing to die for their beliefs in the Spanish Inquisition, heralding a newer age, but I’d note that the High Middle Ages, too, saw many doubters who faced parallel dangers  (e.g. in England from 1161 onwards).[4] Books were even written to try to turn doubters: e.g. Peter of Cornwall, an Austin canon and prior of Trinity, Aldgate, tells us c. 1200 that he compiled his massive Liber Revelationum (now London, Lambeth Palace MS 51) to convince “unbelievers”:

“Since there are still some who believe that there is no God and the world is ruled by chanceand many who believe only what they see … I (ego, Petrus ecclesie S. Trinitatis Lundonie) have collected out of the lives and acts of the saints, these revelations and visions… . I have confined myself to those which occurred since Christ’s passion, excluding from my view the Old and New Testaments, to which all have access.”[5]

Whoever these unbelievers were, then, they were highly literate, apparently readers of Latin with access to the Old and New Testament – part of the establishment.  Medieval attitudes toward vision could range widely from the devout, like Peter (who nonetheless verified his witnesses officially) to skeptics, like Archbishop John Pecham (who in the 1270s questioned Hildegard of Bingen’s visions using historiographical methods worthy of later Renaissance humanists), to outright deniers, like John Wyclif (who denounced Hildegard’s visions as “extra fidem Scripture”).[6]

Without this range and complexity, the Reformation’s doubts, queries and changes would have been unimaginable, because their writers and reformers would have had less legal and theological precedent. In fact, I’d argue, Luther himself benefited enormously from medieval academic protections and precedents, achievements hard won via the legal and theological challenges of evolving academic institutions. These are the gifts that Medieval writers offered posterity, too often missed in the rush to pigeonhole the Middle Ages as simply “Other.”

Disputatio pro declaratione virtutis indulgentiarum(The “95 Theses”), Nuremberg, Hieronymus Höltzel, 1517

What allowed Luther in 1517, then a Wittenberg professor of moral theology, to commit his famous act (actually a routine act at the time[7]) of nailing up theological propositions for dispute was the fact that medieval universities had rights and privileges. He posted the Ninety-Five Theses (or Disputation on the Power of Indulgences) on the door of the Castle church (in fact, often used as Wittenberg’s university “billboard”), an action that depended upon a series of medieval inventions and precedents. First, a university had a right to some degree of self- governance independent of the local bishop, and to some forms of academic freedom (not so large as our own, but worthy ancestors of them). So, for instance, in 1290 Godfrey of Fontaine wrote his Quodlibet VII on whether a master of theology may contradict an article condemned by a bishop (“Utrum magister in theologia debet dicere contra articulum episcopi si credit oppositum esse verum”), deciding, strikingly, that on truths necessary to salvation a theologian should not comply with a condemnation he disagreed with, even if others are “scandalized” by his disobedience.[8]  Those outside of the protection of the university could be less fortunate: Godfrey later wrote an approbation of Marguerite Porete’s mystical work, which, however, did not prevent her tragic execution in 1310. Second, Luther had access to the technologies of medieval book and pamphlet production – like the university, the printing press, too, was a medieval invention,[9] but the pamphlet genre was even earlier, as was the broadside.[10] Third, in medieval university contexts, lists of “points” or topics for disputation were common, while “conclusions,” a related genre, were considered more aggressive. Famously in England, the Twelve Conclusions of the Lollards were affixed to the doors of both St. Paul’s and Westminster Hall in 1395, though the genre does not itself imply heresy.[11] In fact, medieval universities had developed a very specific set of loopholes for academic freedom, from the famous Paris condemnations of 1277 (which reached even to Thomas Aquinas), through John XXII’s persecutions of dissenting academics, and beyond, resulting in an intellectual tradition of disputations probing the one problem that could override any episcopal censure: the question of what was necessary to salvation.[12] I would argue, then, that it was precisely on such matters of “truths necessary to salvation” that many reformers, including Luther, benefited from a protective umbrella, to some real extent, developed – and not without pain and sacrifice – by academics in the Middle Ages.  Lest we forget.

Medieval stained glass fragments gather after destruction by Cromwell’s soldiers, Ripon Cathedral, Yorkshire.

So, when medievalists look at Luther 500 years later, they think not of rupture, but continuities – all the earlier times history came so close. Instead of thinking of the Reformation like the smashed fragments from Ripon Cathedral’s medieval windows (above), we probably think instead of one of the literally thousands of intact medieval windows across Europe, like the one from York’s Holy Trinity Goodramgate (below) of family-friendly saints smiling down upon the altar for centuries, over the Early Modern tablets bearing the Creed and Commandments in English.[13]  What divides us is never greater than what unites us.

15th-c East window of Holy Trinity, Goodramgate, York, with (bottom row) female saints, biblical families and Holy Trinity (centre). For close-ups of each see Corpus Vitrearum.

 

The same window in situ, with Early Modern tables of Creed and Ten Commandments above the altar.

 

Kathryn Kerby-Fulton, Emeritus Professor
University of Notre Dame

 

Notes:

[1]My thanks to Mike Johnston for creating one welcome exception, Purdue University’s The Meaning of the Reformation” conference where this paper was first given Nov., 2017.

[2]I quote here from Eire’s blurb for “Reshuffling the Seen and the Unseen: A Reappraisal of the Legacy of the Reformation,” given Oct. 17, 1017 at University of Victoria for The 500th Anniversary of the Reformation series. See Eire’s, Reformations: The Early Modern World, 1450-1650 (New Haven, 2016).

[3]Max Weber, The Sociology of Religion(Boston, 1971) p. 270.

[4]See the Chronology Chart in K. Kerby-Fulton, for Books Under Suspicion: Censorship and Tolerance of Revelatory Writing in Late Medieval England(Notre Dame, 2006) xix –lii (BUS); and “Skepticism, Agnosticism and Belief: The Spectrum of Attitudes Toward Vision in Late Medieval England,” in Women and the Divine in Literature before 1700: Essays in Memory of Margot Louis, ed. K. Kerby-Fulton (Victoria, 2009) 1-18.

[5]Quoted here from Robert Easting and Richard Sharpe, “Peter of Cornwall, The Visions of Aisli and his Sons,” Mediaevistik(1998): 248, from Peter’s Prologue.

[6]Kerby-Fulton,“Skepticism.”

[7]Andrew Pettigree, Brand Luther(London, 2015) 71. The Castle Church functioned as a classroom in the university, and its door was used as a billboard.

[8]BUS, 38-9.  For a similar case involving the privileges and liberties of Oxford (libertatum et privilegiorum universitatis Oxoniensis), see BUS,3.

[9]In Europe, but in China mechanical printing dates from the 8thc. C.E.

[11]Hudson, Select Wycliffite Writings, (Toronto, 1997) 150.

[12]BUS, 35.

[13]Sarah Brown, “Reformation, Iconoclasm and Restoration Stained Glass in England c1540-1830” http://www.buildingconservation.com/articles/english-stainedglass/english-stainedglass.htm.