Who’s writing our history and who should we listen to – were Medieval Europeans Racist?

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History Reclaimed
Written by History Reclaimed

In a new podcast for History Reclaimed, Jeff Fynn-Paul a Senior Lecturer in Economic History and International Studies at Leiden University, The Netherlands tells us why he wants historical contributions to be valued on the “quality of the science” not on who’s saying it. He calls this a new form of Donatism:

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History Reclaimed
Who's writing our history and who should we listen to – were Medieval Europeans Racist?

“In its modern form, Donatism holds that certain scientists’ and academics’ arguments are invalid, because they are either the wrong sort of person, or else they harbour impure thoughts.  Thus the arguments of “white male” historians, or even black historians who think the wrong things, are a priori invalid in the minds of many readers, no matter how consonant with the facts their arguments may be.  This same Donatist tendency tends to value the arguments of certain “scholars” above others because of who they are, rather than the quality and value of what they actually say.”

He calls for academic journals to “wake up” to the fact that it is “the pursuit of science” that matters.

“It is not the identity of the scientist, but the quality of the science which matters.  In any other direction lies a breakdown of the scientific method itself,” he says.

In his paper he takes issue with two books to support his opinions and explains:

“It is notable that two of the major voices now calling medieval Europeans “racist” are not those of trained historians, but literary scholars.  The two books under review, Geraldine Heng’s The Invention of Race in the Middle Ages, and Cord Whitaker’s How Modern Racism Emerged from Medieval Race-Thinking, are not academic history so much as exercises in literary criticism.  There is much to lament in the fact that Heng’s book garnered several awards for historical scholarship, and that it has been taken by countless readers as a foundational work of European intellectual history.  Both authors were trained in English departments rather than history departments; and works of history, by historians, are almost entirely absent from the footnotes in both Heng and Whitaker’s work, while references to literary scholarship and literary texts predominate.”

Fynn-Paul points out that both authors use literary not historical criteria for their analysis: “It’s enough to make one’s head spin, and I speak as someone who trained in literary theory as an undergraduate.”

He concludes his paper by writing: “They are quite frankly unable to bear the burden that their authors—and much of the academic establishment—hope that they can support.  Instead of giving the likes of Heng and Whitaker credence as historians of European racism, what the academy should do is recognize the obvious:  that their Black Metaphors are so tenuous as to dissolve into meaninglessness under the lightest historical scrutiny.  This is precisely what the majority of the Medieval Academy used to believe, before the rot of modern Donatism set in.”

In the History Reclaimed podcast Fynn-Paul elaborates on these views and says why he thinks they are dangerous for the cohesion of Society and how Twitter helps to propagate them in a post-truth World.

He says: “I think what really matters is science and facts. These are the shields against too much ideology and witch-hunting. So as long as we live in a society where most people accept the basics of the liberal project then we are going to see an increase in human rights. It doesn’t matter who is participating and maybe then people will realise that facts and science are a good way to do civil society. Scientists from all over the World have always been welcomed as long as they have some interesting equations to put on the table, and so it should be in civil society. It is a question of remembering to defend the roots and the foundation of science and modern democracy and not give up on that when we embrace multi-culturalism and that is really the challenge that faces us today.”

He praises the History Reclaimed website for standing up for proper historical facts and research: “History Reclaimed is definitely in the vanguard of trying to organise resistance to a culture that is not really based on facts but on feeling.”

Fynn-Paul says he has been the victim of “terrible attacks” on twitter that are similar to a pre- enlightenment mentality. “Social media gives licence to our most childish impulses, and I am hoping as we learn to live with it, we will do what we did after the 17th Century and settle down and be polite again.”

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History Reclaimed

History Reclaimed