Monday, January 29, 2018


A recent article in the Public Medievalist makes me feel that someone just walked over my grave.

The author, Paul Sturtevant, has done us a service by giving a name -- "Schrödinger’s medievalism” -- to ambiguous phenomena that may or may not  be the product of racism.

While at the beach in Ocean City, Maryland he spotted an unfamiliar pseudo-Scandinavian flag, which he soon discovered was the "Vinland" flag, Vinland being the shortlived Viking settlement  in Newfoundland ( A.D.1000), and the flag a product of the goth metal scene.  The inventer of the flag was not an obvious racist  But the flag has come to mean more than its perhaps lighthearted origins, at least to some:

I was suddenly confronted with two equally likely possibilities:
  1. on the one hand, the Vinnland flag waving at me could be yet-another appropriation of the medieval (or in this case, a medievalism) by white-supremacists in order to push their hateful agenda;
  2. on the other hand stood the possibility that someone in the shop was not a neo-Nazi at all but simply a fan of Type O Negative Was it a racist dog whistle? Or was it simply a band flag?
Following the ADL’s advice of judging carefully in its context didn’t help either; the shop was an innocent-seeming place, full of flags and toys and kites and no obvious signs of white supremacy. On the other hand, one of the flags they flew outside was the “Thin Blue Line” flag. This flag was originally created to honor the sacrifices of police officers, but, you guessed it, the flag has subsequently been appropriated by those advocating that “Blue Lives Matter” in opposition of the Black Lives Matter movement.
So was this flag a white supremacist appropriation of the Middle Ages? I don’t know. And without more information about the person who chose and raised that flag, I can’t know.
That’s why I call it a Schrödinger’s Medievalism.

Sturtevant explains in more detail:

In the famous “Schrödinger’s cat” thought experiment, Erwin Schrödinger said(entirely theoretically)that because of quantum mechanics, if you put a cat in sealed box with a flask of poison and a radioactive trigger, you cannot tell what state the cat is in—whether it is alive or dead—without opening the box. So, without more information, the cat can, weirdly, be considered both alive and dead at the same time. 
  So, that Vinnland flag was a “Schrödinger’s medievalism.”  
To my mind, a Schrödinger’s medievalism is a piece of medieval culture found in the wild that you know has been appropriated as a symbol by right-wing nationalists or racists. But, that piece of culture also has a broader, potentially benign, meaning. You can’t tell which is it until you get more information—and sometimes doing so is impossible. So, sometimes you are left in the uncomfortable position of having to treat it as both benign and hostile at the same time. 


Sturtevant  gives an example of the toxic potential of this phenomenon, when he takes us back to Maryland:

Another example: I attended the Maryland Renaissance Festival this year, and in the crowd I noted a small group of four young people. They were all cosplaying, and all wearing replica amulets of Thor’s hammer...
For some white-nationalists, Thor is an icon of white Aryan warrior masculinity. But Marvel’s Thor comic books and films have been reimagining the Norse mythological tradition in a way that is more inclusive than ever. And notably, three of the four cosplayers I saw were people of color. For them, it seemed that Viking religion was simply cool, and the amulets were part of a fun costume.
White supremacists try to appropriate these sort of symbols precisely for this reason: it’s easy for them to hide in plain sight, allowing them to slip under our radar. And even more insidiously, when it comes to light that these are sometimes used as symbols of hate, it can make white supremacists’ numbers seem greater than they really are.

The reference  to the cosplayers hits close to home for me, even though I'm not young, noticeably racist, or a person of color.  By today's definition I can be seen as a cosplayer, since I have been dressing up and re-enacting the Middle Ages for nearly 50 years.  Now I and my non-racist fellow members of the SCA, generally seen as harmless eccentrics, are in severe danger of being reclassified as harmful eccentrics.  Take a look at some of the alt-right demonstrators last summer and you will see a fair number of them are wearing leather armor and round shields and various ambiguous symbols.  How many non-SCA people will be able to distinguish these characters from the SCA.

As Sturtevant says:

Why we can't have nice things.
There's more to the article.  Read it.

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