This April, as I joined millions of people around the world watching towering flames consuming the roof of Notre Dame Cathedral, I mourned the destruction of something medieval and beautiful. I've spent my life studying the medieval church in all its human complexity, an institution capable of terror and bigotry, but also designed to promote faith through the brightness of beauty and learning. That history defies simple stereotypes.
Simple stereotypes about the Middle Ages, though, aren't just wrong; they have become weapons for white supremacy. As the great spire of Notre Dame fell, I knew the disaster, whatever the cause turned out to be, would fuel incendiary anti-Muslim and anti-Jewish conspiracy theories based on white supremacist reconstructions of Western European history.
The discipline of medieval history, like all history, has always been political. For many scholars and fans of medievalism in fantasy or other genres (Renaissance festivals, architecture, European martial arts), this simple truth remains uncomfortable. As the New York Times recently reported, a large faction of academics—most of them white, in my experience—dismiss the notion that white supremacists' use of the Middle Ages should influence how we teach and study the past. Such skeptics argue that these medievally minded murderers are a rarity—and moreover that these young men don't know much about history. The bigots place medieval symbols next to Pepe the Frog memes or racist YouTube videos, thus (according to the skeptical faction) pulling the medieval content outside of time, creating an ahistorical iconography that historians need not bother about too much, beyond periodic fact-checking.
Consumers of medievalism in movies and games don't have quite the same responsibility as scholars, but they're much more numerous and often equally resistant to recognizing white supremacy in their communities. Many such fans, especially in the white male demographic, seem to believe they can "keep politics out" of medieval-themed video and role-playing games and fantasy books. Both groups just don't want to complicate their engagement with (and enjoyment of) the medieval past by worrying about white supremacy.
Since the murder of Heather Heyer by a white supremacist in Charlottesville, Virginia, in August of 2017, I've been regularly watching discussion boards on 8chan and the neo-Nazi website Stormfront to better understand what I call "8chan Medievalism." I wanted to examine how the worst people in the world talk about the Middle Ages within their own Internet safe spaces. What I've found is that the problem has gotten worse online, even as 8chan medievalism has shown up in the writings of mass-murdering terrorists and would-be terrorists.