Race and the Medieval Consciousness: Perspectives on St. Maurice

By Kiran Williams

No other figure has captured the attention of scholars working towards a more diversified understanding of medieval Europe, and a more sophisticated apprehension of medieval conceptions of race, than St. Maurice, the Theban soldier-saint whose corporeal features have been extensively scrutinised in both written and visual interpretations. In particular, the 13th-century statue of him at Magdeburg Cathedral, which shows him with phenotypically African features, has been widely discussed. The singularity of this depiction compared to other medieval artistic representations of Maurice—which previously had shown him as a white Roman soldier—seems to have been analyzed and discussed through two major lenses: Maurice’s status as a foreign soldier, one with sufficient strength of arms to command a Theban Legion; and as a martyr, with sufficient strength of purpose in devotion to Christ to restrain those arms and be killed for his faith. 

Despite a considerable body of scholarship focusing both on artistic representations of Maurice and his cultural and religious legacy, there has yet to be a deep dive into how these scholars have chosen to write about Maurice, nor any critical examination of the specific language used by these authors to describe those visual characteristics which so evidently distinguished the saint from his contemporaries. In this paper, I will analyse several pertinent pieces of scholarship from the past two decades, considering commonalities and discrepancies in the authors’ descriptions of St. Maurice, his origins, and his place in the paradigm of European sainthood from the 11th to 15th centuries. In conducting this historiographical review, I seek to understand contemporary scholarship examining the relationship between race and sanctity, as well as the ways that historians have attempted to define “race” in Maurice’s historical milieu. 

Runoko Rashidi’s 2016 essay “The Black Saint Maurice: African Saint in Early Europe” is perhaps the most idiosyncratic work considered in this review. Rashidi, a Pan-African anthropologist, historian, and novelist, does not attempt to defray image through analytical writing, instead composing a photo essay which includes images of both the Magdeburg Cathedral statue alone and photographs with Rashidi standing next to it. The article also takes a first-person approach, with Rashidi describing the Magdeburg Maurice in terms that relate to his own experience of viewing. He begins the essay with a summary of the etymology of Maurice’s name, his personal view of Maurice within the larger canon of Catholic saints, and the genesis of his depictions in literature and art. Rashidi immediately refers to St. Maurice as “like a Moor,” distinguishing him as “The Black St. Maurice.” He summarises the events that led to Maurice’s martyrdom in his own terms, using short sentences which recount the number of soldiers in Maurice’s legion and the date of his martyrdom. This section outlines both the early history of St. Maurice’s veneration across Europe and the ways in which this veneration often referenced the influential Holy Roman Emperor Charlemagne. Immediately after, Rashidi inserts two close-cropped photographs—watermarked with his name to identify him as the photographer—of the Magdeburg Maurice’s face at frontal and oblique views. 

In the text that follows, he strongly affirms both the importance of Maurice’s associated symbols in representing the virtues of the Carolingian dynasty and his symbolic potency as a much relied-upon saint across class levels, a ubiquitously relevant and powerful intermediary. Throughout this section, Rashidi concretises his historical narrative with exact dates, like the (oft-disputed) 1240 C.E. installation of the Magdeburg statue, and traces the international diffusion of Maurice’s iconography, emphasizing how Maurice came to be widely revered and worshipped. Rashidi then moves to quote Gude Suckale-Redlefsen’s 1987 article of the same name, “The Black Saint Maurice, ”which highlights the heavily clad nature of Maurice’s silver mail, its contrast with his dark skin, and his indisputably non-European features. Another of Rashidi’s photos, with the statue, is included between the two text blocks in which this quote is included. Moving on to the use of Maurice’s imagery, Rashidi touches on the cultural importance of the “Moor’s head” as an iconographic motif employed in battle and religious processions before concluding with a statement underscoring the exceptional nature of a black saint being worshipped in a predominately white culture. 

Rashidi concludes his essay with twelve reproductions and photographs of what he claims are the most notable images of St. Maurice, with Rashidi’s name watermarked over a reproduction of Matthias Grünewald’s Saint Erasmus and Saint Maurice. These images depict the primary icons, all done in contemporary styles of the 16th and 17th centuries, associated with Maurice in his capacity as soldier-saint: a red-cross shield, golden sword, and elaborate silver-gilt armor.. From Rashidi’s article emerges a picture of St. Maurice as a crucially important, and near-universally esteemed, historical figure. Rashidi’s emphasis on the intricacy of the icons created and sublimity of monumental religious spaces erected in Maurice’s honor, effectively affirms Maurice’s importance and recognizability in the canon of saints, but does little to explain why Maurice was such a popular saint, or to consider how the veneration of the Black St. Maurice, in a culture deeply steeped in white supremacy, might have differed from that of any other saint. He simply presents a basic, accessible, holistic picture of Maurice that affirms the crux of his recognisability and fame on his race, while intimating that the Black St. Maurice is a figure separable from St. Maurice as a whole, a distinct interpretation [1].

In 2014, Anu Mänd, an art historian studying the semiotics of the Middle Ages, produced “Black Soldier – Patron Saint: St. Maurice and the Livonian Merchants,” which focuses on the iconography of St. Maurice in Livonia, a historical region in present-day Latvia. Mänd begins by introducing the phenomenon of using a black saint’s head as an emblem above mercantile establishments, emphasising the peculiarity of a black figure being chosen over a white one. Like Rashidi, she then summarizes the narrative of Maurice’s martyrdom.  However, unlike Rashidi, she attributes the decision to refuse Emperor Maximian’s order to attack Christians, the decision which precipitated the martyrdom of the Theban Legion, not to Maurice himself but the Legion as a whole. Mänd then moves to provide a short summary of relic translations associated with Maurice in Europe, the use of the Holy Lance as a symbol for him, his iconographic place in the Crusades, and his immense popularity as the patron saint of Magdeburg. She establishes this historical foundation with strings of dates and places that focus on the “cult of St. Maurice,” rather than St. Maurice as a purely human figure. 

It is here that Mänd analyses the blackness of St. Maurice’s iconography in the shifting ideological milieu of 12th century Europe, arguing that attitudes towards Black people, long characterized by conceptions of blackness as “the ugliness of evil and sin,” were beginning to shift. Mänd suggests that an increasing familiarity with Black individuals at court and in popular writing led to devotional practices which transcended racial discrimination and “othering,” pointing as evidence to the increased frequency with which “positive” Biblical figures (largely St. Maurice, St. George, and the Virgin) were depicted as Black. Mänd further suggests that Maurice’s oscillating racial depictions across Europe might correspond to shifting views of blackness in positive and negative terms. While she does not explicitly identify the causality and exact nature of this dynamic, her inclusion of this theory suggests that she perceives both black and white depictions of St. Maurice as representing the same figure fundamentally, rather than distinguishing the black images—as Rashidi does—as a distinct epithet. She frames her discussion of the Virgin and St. George in this physiognomic framework, arguing that the negativity typically associated with dark skin might be ignored if sufficient piety was evident in the given figure. This system of values introduces an interpretation of medieval race-making which positions St. Maurice’s blackness as an oppositional force to his sainthood, and which positions his enshrinement in the Catholic canon of saints as happening despite his blackness rather than in conjunction with or apart from it. Mänd argues that, while saints with black skin were no longer completely atypical by the 15th century, black saints were often mistakenly identified as St. Maurice, testifying to the enduring power of blackness as an identifying characteristic.

Mänd continues to delineate the history and practice of the Black Heads’ Guild, describing their function as a discrete social group in Livonia, their veneration of St. Maurice, and the iconographic link between the cult of St. George—another vastly more popular soldier-saint who was, occasionally, depicted as Black—and the cult of St. Maurice. She suggests that the Black Heads’ Guild’s use of St. Maurice’s iconography was largely a function of his status as a soldier-saint, and that this iconography had additional cultural resonance in light of Livonia’s history as the target of predominantly German-led crusades. Mänd’s interpretation of St. Maurice as a figure whose blackness was subordinated to his role as warrior and martyr, and which became ancillary to his worship in Livonia, directly contrasts with Rashidi’s positioning of Maurice as exceptional because of his blackness. Where Rashidi emphasizes the ideological contradictions associated with the veneration of a dark-skinned saint on a predominantly white, Christian continent, Mänd seemingly argues that these contradictions did not exist when the Magdeburg statue was erected in the 13th century, thus excising issues of racial differences and blackness from her piece. She is then able to use the term “black” without having to deal with the meaning of blackness in a medieval setting or the importance of blackness to devotional practice. As such, she presents a St. Maurice who is similar to Rashidi’s, but whose emblematic prowess is generic and whose corporeal form is an accessorial rather than defining characteristic. Mänd opens her piece in much the same way as Rashidi closes his—by questioning the worship of black saints alongside white saints, but neither fully delve into the medieval practises which would seem to make exalting a black person as a holy martyr atypical, surprising, or objectionable [2].

In contrast to Mänd, who contends that imagery of Maurice proliferated in a (mostly) racially tolerant 12th century setting, Geraldine Heng, a medieval literary scholar and critical race theorist, suggests, in “An African Saint in Medieval Europe: The Black Saint Maurice and the Enigma of Racial Sanctity” (2014) that black depictions of St. Maurice were borne out of a culture deeply steeped in animosity towards black Africans. Like Rashidi and Mänd, Heng first summarises Maurice’s martyrdom and the spread of his iconography across Europe, emphasizing the exceptional nature of his blackness as a holy figure, noting the ways in which his relics served as exoticized objects with the power to create an imagined Africa in European consciousnesses. Unlike Mänd, Heng also suggests that the acceptance of his blackness by white society was less a function of his holiness than it was his historicity and authenticity as an antique figure. Heng analyses Maurice’s martyrdom and iconographic connection to that of contemporary crusader kings through the lens of comparative literature, juxtaposing 13th-century literary fantasy with Eucherius’ Passion of the Martyrs to illustrate the ways in which Maurice’s idiosyncratic popular image synthesized conceptions of the chivalric lord knight and the Christian soldier. She further argues that Maurice is defined by four primary characteristics: his blackness/Africanness, his elevated social status as a knight, his devotion to Christianity, and the earliness of artistic depictions of him as black.

While Heng, like Rashidi, distinguishes Black Maurice as a distinct figure, she argues that this blackness was not, as Rashidi seems to suggest, of mysterious origins, but instead reflective of the multiethnic composition of the courts of the Holy Roman Empire in the 12th century. Critically, Heng refutes the idea put forth by Mänd that blackness had purely negative connotations before the 12th century. Instead, Heng suggests that, in the Germanic kingdoms in which the Black Maurice first appeared, his blackness served as a sort of expansionist symbol –  one which reflected both the universality of the Christian faith and the secular scope of Frederick II’s empire. She does incorporate the discussion of physiognomic values present in Mänd’s piece in considering the sinfulness attached to black bodies as an expression of “universal salvation.” Put simply, where Mänd argues that sanctification wards off the sin of blackness, Heng argues that blackness itself, when acknowledged as a sin, and forgiven, begets piety; black bodies, too, might be saved. The Magdeburg Maurice is, in Heng’s estimation, both subversive of sanctified value systems and, as an affirmation of the universal redeeming power of Christ, an implicit affirmation of them. Heng concludes by considering the Magdeburg statue in light of two key art historical developments in the early-to-mid 13th century: the creation of increasingly life-like and dynamic statues which encouraged interaction with the viewer, and a broader trend towards idealised artistic representations of “pure [whiteness].” She suggests that the latter development hindered the creation of other artistic representations of Maurice past the late 13th century, affirming Kaplan and Devisse’s view of the Magdeburg statue as a singularly successful representation of a black African. Further, while Mänd and Rashidi centre their studies primarily on historical data, Heng largely focuses on the intersection of visual analysis, literary comparisons, and her own inferences to construct her analysis [3]. 

The last piece of scholarship considered here is Effrosyni Zacharopoulou’s 2015 article, “The Black St Maurice of Magdeburg and the African Christian Kingdoms in Nubia and Ethiopia in the Thirteenth Century.” Like Heng, Zacharopoulou begins by affirming the importance of the statue as indicating a transformation in “racial identity” before summarising the statue’s history, its connection to Otto I, and its contemporary symbolic significance to crusaders. Zacharopoulou suggests that the blackness of the Magdeburg Maurice is particularly notable in light of the fact that the Christianised kingdoms around Thebes, the Egyptian city from whereMaurice and his fellow legionaries are thought to have originated, were incredibly ethnically varied, precluding an interpretation of the statue’s blackness as solely rooted in historical authenticity. Instead, Zacharopoulou suggests that the Magdeburg statue is best considered in light of critical 13th century political developments which preconfigured its creation: continued European contention with Arab and Egyptian Muslims in the form of the Fifth Crusade (1217-1221), the intensification of Papal military and ideological campaigns against heresy, and changes in European relations with eastern and African Christians. Zacharopoulou argues that the creation of the Magdeburg statue, and associated societal acceptance of the iconography of a black Maurice, stemmed in part from increased contacts with African Christians in and around Egypt during the Crusades, suggesting that the Magdeburg Maurice is best seen as symbolizing the scope of imperial power and the integration of African Christians into Christendom, though Zacharopoulou also argues that the statue must be understood in its localized geographic context [4].

Turning to consider the commonalities and discrepancies in the authors’ approaches to evaluating St. Maurice’s blackness and Africanness, all four draw extensively on historiographic and primary sources to establish the historical account of Maurice’s martyrdom, the development of his cult, and the proliferation and use of his iconography. All of the articles seem to agree on four core characteristics of a black St. Maurice: he appeared in the mid-13th century and was closely associated with European kings; his Magdeburg statue is the most unique and noteworthy likeness of him; his blackness and sanctity are in conversation with medieval associations of colour with good and evil; and he was accepted by medieval Christians for veneration. Yet despite these fundamental similarities in structure (and, it should be stressed, in sources), comparing these articles reveals four distinct portraits of St. Maurice. That Rashidi’s St. Maurice— a symbol of a sort of proto-Black Power, universally venerated for his decisiveness and courage—exists besides Heng’s St. Maurice—whose blackness primarily testifies both to the salvatory power of Christ and the geographic extent of German imperium—clearly demonstrates both the enduring historiographic ambiguity around Maurice and the ways in which, as a singularly notable black saint, he retains contemporary resonance. 

What is remarkable about these comparisons is not their summation of Maurice as a historical figure—in the context of other 3rd century saints, a historical Maurice seems plausible, if not likely—but the extraordinarily different settings in which they situate him. Rashidi’s narrative centres him as a legendary hero at the intersection of the modern and medieval, emphasizing his perennial relevance in a European culture which was, and continues to be, deeply biased against blackness. Indeed, Rashidi’s emphasis on Maurice’s personal virtues in the nexus between his iconography and contemporary regal iconography testifies to the extent to which Rashidi has gone to restore to him what we might call historical agency. By contrast, Mänd and Zacharopolou, both of whom largely focus on rigorous historical accounts of the saint’s iconography and cult within a more localized geographic context, situate Maurice in a society both familiar and accepting of his “difference” by virtue of exposure. But while Mänd suggests this iconographic acceptance through the fifteenth century indicates the prioritisation, by European Christians, of Maurice’s piety over his blackness, Zacharopoulou argues that that such an acceptance is all of the more exceptional because of the enduringly hostile climate towards blacks in much of Europe, similar to Heng’s situation of Maurice within a disturbingly racist “discourse on blackness… of vicious black African[s].” This fundamental contention between the authors over the nature of antiblackness at the time of the creation of the Magdeburg Maurice suggests the existence of a relatively nuanced racial environment, one in which blackness was neither entirely accepted nor outright rejected. 

As to the specific language the authors use in explaining the “difference” found in various depictions of St. Maurice, there seems to be minimal regularity or standardization in the vocabulary employed. The nearly interchangeable use of African, black, Africoid, and Negroid throughout the Rashidi, Mänd, and Zacharopoulou pieces raises interesting questions about the definition of these terms in a medieval context. In outlining the variability in skin color of other artistic representations of Maurice, Mänd notes that some artists took a middle ground, opting to depict his blackness but not his African phenotype, an interpretive decision which suggests, in turn, that the two were not seen as one and the same. Heng and Zacharopoulou, too, choose to present the two characteristics as distinct, often describing Maurice as a “black African.” Heng is deliberate in specifying blackness as “epidermal race”—skin colour used to identify place of origin—while Rashidi seems to align blackness with a state of being, a cultural phenomenon accompanied by expectations of inferiority which Maurice, exceptional as he is, surmounts. Zacharopoulou explicitly refutes the notion that St. Maurice of Magdeburg’s blackness was solely rooted in his specific geographic origins in literature, pointing to a 13th-century belief in the correlation between dark-skinned people and anti-papal heretics, which would imply an interpretation of racial identity as a systemic, morally-derived, man-made label rather than an indication of Theban heritage. 

Additionally, Rashidi and Mänd both describe the Magdeburg statue as an important image in the development of Maurice’s cult, but do not describe the actual image beyond the features that make it identifiably African. Heng and Zacharopoulou, however, describe or allude to the statue’s qualities—the properties which evoke empathic responses from the viewer—but do not choose to explicate which physical characteristics, precisely, contribute to the statue’s Africanness. The radically different approaches to documenting the characteristics of the statue raises a critical question: are a defined set of traits for African bodies necessary in this context? Do Heng and Zacharopolou see Africanness as self-explanatory, as so obvious as not to warrant description? Or do they see a list of physical features as inherently exclusionary, restrictive to a more expansive and diversified vision of Africanness? Reciprocally, Rashidi and Mänd’s particular identification of full lips and a broad nose as distinctly African traits bears consideration, especially in the context of whether these would have been the defining characteristics of an African man in the 13th century. Though Rashidi and Mänd, unlike Heng and Zacharopolou, do not use the terms “race” or “racialised,” the apparent consensus that St. Maurice’s blackness affects his interpretation naturally implies that the environment in which he emerged was involved in practices of discrimination between pictures of dissimilarly coloured and shaped bodies, practices which potentially bear resemblance to ideas of race-making. 

Our comparative analysis of these articles also raises the question of how interpretations of a black St. Maurice fit—or are impelled—into 21st-century racial discourse. Both Rashidi and Mänd employ a particularly contemporary lens in their study of Maurice. Mänd’s analysis of the historiography of the Black Head’s Brotherhood makes extensive mention of contemporary issues of racism in the production of scholarly texts, while Rashidi’s photo essay format, accessible writing style, and emphasis on Maurice as a singularly exceptional black figure in non-African Christendom aligns his piece more closely with a public history angle. Indeed, Rashidi’s inclusion of photographs of Maurice marked with Rashidi’s name, as well as photographs of himself in front of the Magdeburg statue, striking the same pose and expression, seem to invite comparison between the attested African features of the statue and those of Rashidi, thereby subverting accusations of anachronism and presentism in applying racial language to St. Maurice. Rashidi suggests, then, that the presentation of blackness and Africanness in a medieval context has profound bearing on modern conceptualisations of race. 

It is clear that, even in those articles not explicitly focused on the Black St. Maurice of Magdeburg alone, the statue is still centred as the predominant visual reference for the meaning of a dark-skinned likeness of Maurice, a focus evident in the inclusion, in all four article titles, of phrases like “The Black St. Maurice” and “black St. Maurice”. Further research might aim to provide deeper analyses of works of art depicting St. Maurice as black outside of the immediate space of Frederick II’s reign [5]. Such work might provide additional context for how black depictions of St. Maurice were received over time, and might reveal critical discrepancies in styles of artistic representation across temporal and geographic space. Additionally, scholars might further emphasize the ways in which Maurice’s iconographic blackness affected his hierarchical position and functionality within the cult of saints, looking to how, if at all, the specific acts including gift giving, the decoration of altar spaces, and processions, which constituted the interpersonal relationship between worshipper and saint were affected by the way in which Maurice was racialized, and whether there exists a clear emphasis among worshippers on one of his core attributes; black, African, soldier, martyr. 


[1] Rashidi, Runoko. “The Black Saint Maurice: African Saint in early Europe.” Journal of Pan African Studies, vol. 9, issue 7 (2016).

[2] Mänd, Anu. “Black Soldier – Patron Saint: St Maurice and the Livonian Merchants.” Nordic Review of Iconography, no. 1 (2014): 56-75.

[3] Heng, Geraldine. “An African Saint in Medieval Europe: The Black Saint Maurice and the Enigma of Racial Sanctity.” In Sainthood and Race: Marked Flesh, Holy Flesh,” ed, by Molly H. Basset and Vincent W. Lloyd, first edition, (Oxfordshire: Taylor & Francis, 2014): 18-44.

[4] Zacharapolou, Effrosyni. “The Black St Maurice of Magdeburg and the African Christian Kingdoms in Nubia and Ethiopia in the Thirteenth Century.” Southern African Journal of Medieval and Renaissance Studies, vol. 25, (2015)

[5] See Maryan Ainsworth, Sandra Hindriks and Pierre Terjanian’s “Lucas Cranach’s ‘Saint Maurice’” for an example of such a work, with a focus on visual analysis.


Heng, Geraldine. “An African Saint in Medieval Europe: The Black Saint Maurice and the Enigma of Racial Sanctity.” In Sainthood and Race: Marked Flesh, Holy Flesh,” ed, by Molly H. Basset and Vincent W. Lloyd, first edition, (Oxfordshire: Taylor & Francis, 2014): 18-44. 

Mänd, Anu. “Black Soldier – Patron Saint: St Maurice and the Livonian Merchants.” Nordic Review of Iconography, no. 1 (2014): 56-75. 

Rashidi, Runoko. “The Black Saint Maurice: African Saint in early Europe.” Journal of Pan African Studies, vol. 9, issue 7 (2016): 150-166. 

Suckale-Redlefsen, Guda. Der heilige Mohr /The Black Saint Maurice. First edition, (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1987): 19. 

Zacharapolou, Effrosyni. “The Black St Maurice of Magdeburg and the African Christian Kingdoms in Nubia and Ethiopia in the Thirteenth Century.” Southern African Journal of Medieval and Renaissance Studies, vol. 25, (2015): 77-110.

A “Few Bad Apples”: A Historiographical Review of the White Power Movement

By Aidan Goldberg

On the morning of April 19th, 1995, a Ryder truck containing close to 5000 pounds of ammonium nitrate fertilizer, nitromethane, and diesel fuel mixture detonated in front of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City, leading to the catastrophic collapse of the northern half of the building, severely damaging all structures within a 4-block radius, and killing 168 people, including various federal employees and, particularly disturbingly, 19 children in a day care center directly adjacent to the blast. The bombing was perpetrated by Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols, two disaffected Army veterans, radicalized both by antigovernment literature and the perceived brutality of federal law enforcement at Ruby Ridge, Idaho–where a standoff between survivalist Randy Weaver and the United States Marshal Service resulted in the death of Weaver’s wife and son–and Waco, Texas, where an ATF/FBI siege of a fringe religious sect’s compound in Waco, Texas ended in the immolation of the compound and the deaths of 76 people.  

The attack on the Murrah Building remains the deadliest incident of domestic terrorism in American history, effectively forcing the federal government to dedicate new attention and commit greater resources to investigating and prosecuting white supremacist groups. While the intensity and efficacy of these investigative efforts has varied greatly depending on the ideological priorities of political leadership—consider, for example, the contrast between the Obama administration’s investment in anti-domestic terrorism efforts and the Trump administration’s legitimization of white supremacist rhetoric for political gain—white supremacy is now generally regarded as one of the most pressing national security concerns facing the United States. Racist, right-wing attacks have been occurring with increasing regularity; Black churchgoers gunned down in Charleston, Latinx individuals murdered at a Walmart in El Paso, elderly Jews shot at a congregation in Pittsburgh. Taken with other, overseas incidents of racialized political violence—Anders Behring Breivik’s 2011 attacks on the Norwegian Prime Minsters’ office in Oslo and a Labor Party-run children’s summer camp, and the 2017 murder of 51 people at two mosques in Christchurch, to cite but two examples—these domestic attacks seem part of an increasingly globalized pattern of white supremacist revolutionary activity, in many ways inextricably tied to the development of a shared discourse between right-wing ideologues in Europe and the United States. Testifying to the urgency of the present moment, both the FBI and Department of Homeland Security (DHS) affirmed during 2021 congressional hearings that the greatest domestic threat facing the United States comes from “racially or ethnically motivated violent extremists,” specifically white supremacists [1].

Given the post-Oklahoma City governmental focus on the security risks posed by right-wing domestic terrorism, and, more recently, the heightened public awareness about the dangers of white supremacy with the emergence of the Black Lives Matter movement and the rise of Trumpism, it is perhaps unsurprising that there has been a proliferation in the past two decades of literature focusing on white supremacist violence. In this review, I have analyzed three popular readings which exemplify this body of work. The readings— The Terrorist Next Door, written by Daniel Levitas in 2004; Blood and Politics, written by Leonard Zeskind in 2009; and Bring the War Home, by Katherine Belew in 2019—are illustrative of the varying approaches academics, popular writers, and journalists have taken in their treatment of the white supremacist movement, and of the ways in which these historiographical methods have shifted over time. While it is difficult to extrapolate anything definitive from such a small sample size, it appears that authors writing about the white supremacist movement have adopted an increasingly holistic analytical lens, one emphasizing the tactical flexibility, social cohesion, and political influence of white power groups.

The Terrorist Next Door by Daniel Levitas is fairly narrow in scope, focusing specifically on the figure of “Reverend” William Potter Gale, and his establishment of a paramilitary group known as the Posse Comitatus in the early 1970s. Levitas delineates the origins and maturation of the Posse, outlining its birth out of opposition to the Civil Rights movement, its broadening connections to other factions in the white supremacist and anti-tax movements through the 1970s and 1980s, and its eventual metamorphosis into the “Christian Patriot” and militia movements which dominated the late 1980s and 1990s [2]. While Levitas clearly establishes the nexus between the Posse and other white supremacist groups, which, he contends, have been profoundly influenced by the Posse’s ideological framework, his book is primarily focused on the Posse, with any broader analysis of the modern paramilitary right filtered through that lens. 

As befits a semi-biographical study, Levitas begins the book with the immigration of William Gale’s family–ironically Jews fleeing from Russian pogroms in the late 19th century–to South Dakota. This background, while seemingly anecdotal, effectively forces the reader to consider the ways that religious and ethnic minorities might, in their effort to assimilate into existing sociopolitical and economic power structures, internalize and adopt white supremacist attitudes [3]. After discussing Gale’s family background and important experiences in his early life, Levitas describes how, following his discharge from the Army in 1950, Gale became increasingly engaged with anticommunist and, intertwined as they tended to be, antisemitic political causes, effectively embracing the Christian Identity movement by 1953. 

Gale’s political efforts which predated his founding of the Posse Comitatus were largely reliant on harnessing the bigotry of both conservative opposition to the Civil Rights Movement and Christian Identity theology, a fringe ideology which dictated that white people constituted the true Israelites, and which regarded the extermination of nonwhite peoples as necessary for the fulfillment of eschatological prophecy. Levitas is less interested in these early efforts to mobilize opposition to racial integration and to infuse Christianity with white supremacy–two tactics which were hardly novel–than he is with the ways in which Gale was able to take radical, right-wing rhetoric and effectively cloak it in “pseudoreligious legalisms” which lent it a semblance of credibility [4]. Through synthesizing anticommunist and white supremacist talking points, historical allusions to the principles of common law, and the idea of radical popular sovereignty into a single rhetorical toolbox, the Posse was able to provide a range of white nationalist activists and sympathizers with a useful (if inane) legal framework–one which affirmed the unconstitutionality of both federal civil rights legislation and the income tax [5].  Levitas suggests that the relative success of the movement can be attributed to both the usefulness of this quasi-legalistic framework and the movement’s effective use of dog whistles, rather than explicit appeals to notions of racial purity, to recruit a broader segment of the American public [6]. 

Professing this “American-sounding” ideology, Posse groups expanded rapidly from California, Gale’s home state, up the West Coast and to the Midwest, where they effectively leveraged contemporary economic challenges facing farmers—high interest rates, rising inflation, and low farm prices—to expand their recruitment efforts and political activities in rural areas. By the 1980s, the Posse had expanded its political base to encompass a wide range of economic classes and political demographics. While increasing confrontation with the federal government—including, notably, the murder of two federal marshals in 1983 by Gordon Kahl, a Posse member—forced the movement to reconfigure itself under the new label of “Christian Patriotism,” its ideas were effectively incorporated by the militia movement of the 1980s and 1990s. Levitas concludes that the Posse’s success lay in its ability to articulate a new anti-government legal framework, and, critically, in its ability to unite the underlying conspiracy theories and bigotries of its ideology with more mainstream political issues like gun control, land use, and regional planning [7]. While Levitas’ study of the white supremacist movement vis a vis Gale and the Posse is narrowly focused, and his discussion of broader historiographical issues and events somewhat minimal, Levitas provides an excellent overview of a critically important faction within the larger movement. 

By contrast, Zeskind’s Blood and Politics, written five years after Levitas’ account, takes a significantly more expansive view of white supremacy, providing a survey of the white nationalist movement more broadly and describing critical developments from the 1950s through the immediate aftermath of September 11th. While Zeskind, like Levitas, is sure to situate the subject of his investigation, white nationalism, in the context of other white supremacist movements, his engagement with the latter is relegated to what he sees as pertinent to telling the story of the former. Like Levitas, Zeskind clearly emphasizes the importance of the Civil Rights Movement in mobilizing political actors on the radical right.  Zeskind contends that white supremacist organizations in the post-Jim Crow era, responding to the inability of their predecessors to prevent widespread racial integration, opted to “build a movement around the idea of white dispossession.” The rhetoric of white dispossession—that the economic and political dominance of whites was being threatened by political reform and demographic change—motivated racist groups to coalesce around the need to create a white ethnostate [8].

Zeskind has chosen to center his narrative around individuals, focusing on two prominent white nationalists,Willis Allison Carto and William Pierce,whom he believes epitomize a key strategic divide in the movement between a more reformist “mainstreaming” represented by Carto and a more revolutionary “vanguardism” represented by Pierce. As Zeskind describes it, Carto’s “mainstreaming” approach was heavily preoccupied with cultivating political respectability. Zeskind notes that Carto attempted to win people over to the white nationalist cause by working within existing political institutions to affect policy change. Pierce’s “vanguardism” approach, by contrast, was rooted in the premise that gradual reform is an impossibility, and that any attempts to recruit white people en masse through respectability politics is misguided, instead suggesting that the movement should rely on small, highly organized cells of dedicated cadres to take revolutionary action [9].

Zeskind’s narrative, which describes the political activism and criminal activities of numerous factions within the white supremacist movement—David Duke’s neo-confederates, pseudo-constitutional groups like the Posse Comitatus, and myriad paramilitary survivalist groups—is framed around this ideological and strategic debate between Willis Carto and William Pierce. Zeskind suggests that the viability of each strategy shifted depending on contemporary political conditions. For instance, when describing white supremacist activities in the 1980s, Zeskind notes how the bank robberies and assassinations carried out by vanguardist factions like the Order prompted federal prosecution of key figures in the white supremacist movement, leading the vanguardist approach to fall out of favor. This is not to say that acts of political violence were not perpetrated by organizations within the movement—the OKC bombing testifies to that—but that vanguardism ceased to be the dominant strategic approach as the 1980s drew to a close. Indeed, Zeskind suggests that by the 1990s, those on the right had begun to develop a form of ethnic nationalism which found its way to the margins of political respectability, attributing this development, in part, to the ways in which the end of the Cold War and effective collapse of communism catalyzed a reckoning within conservative circles about the meaning of American identity [10]. He argues that the relative political success of figures like David Duke, who was elected to the Louisiana state legislature, and Pat Buchanan, who enjoyed considerable support in national presidential primaries, exemplified this new form of white nationalism and illustrated the extent to which white nationalist rhetoric has been assimilated into the political mainstream. 

Zeskind’s study is, broadly speaking, more all-encompassing than Levitas’, and he provides the reader with greater insight into both the methods of his historiographical approach and the challenges associated with studying white supremacist groups. He describes how, in researching hate groups, he would rely on a wide range of printed sources, including racist and antisemitic booklets and periodicals, numerous newspaper clippings, and a variety of courtroom documents, including federal affidavits, criminal indictments, and depositions. Additionally, Zeskind details how he relied on the stories of people who were part of the movement, both current members that he met while attending white supremacist rallies, and those individuals who sought him out when they were trying to leave the movement. Zeskind also addresses what is one of the most obvious historiographical challenges associated with studying fringe, racist groups—their tendency to lie to outsiders—noting that  to work around this, he enlisted several volunteers to attend racist meetings and gather information covertly [11].

In Bring the War Home, Katherine Belew seeks to provide a more extensive narrative of the white supremacist movement. The author departs from the traditional historiographical approach to the post-Vietnam white power movement—one which characterizes the movement as a simple resurgence of Klan activity–seeking instead to understand white power as something more ideologically all-encompassing and tactically flexible than had been previously understood [12]. Indeed, Belew is quite deliberate in her use of the term “white power” rather than “white nationalist” or “white separatist,” arguing that the former better encompasses the range of ideologies and practices aimed at affirming the political and economic control of white people, and suggesting that the latter terms minimize the violence of the movement while implying that white supremacists were seeking to defend the American state [13]. Taking a comprehensive approach to the archive, Belew begins her study in the aftermath of the Vietnam War, arguing that the historical memory of American defeat in Vietnam played a central role in the efforts of the white power movement to construct a common group identity [14]. The centrality of Vietnam in her narrative represents a particularly interesting contribution to the historiography of the movement, forcing the reader to reckon with the ways in which militarism, imperialism, and racialized violence abroad might, and frequently do, have profound repercussions domestically. Her historical study goes on to discuss the intensification of white supremacist criminal activities in the 1980s and the effective climax of the movement’s violence in Oklahoma City.  While Belew’s work is more limited in time frame when compared to the chronological scope of Zeskind and Levitas, the depth and comprehensive nature of Belew’s research enables her to effectively reframe our understanding of the white power movement. 

Moreover, Belew argues quite compellingly that prevailing scholarship has failed to recognize both the extent to which white power constituted a full-fledged social movement and the movement’s remarkable influence on mainstream politics [15]. Whereas Levitas and Zeskind orient their narrative around particular individuals and their respective organizations, Belew’s study examines the ways in which more macro-level political developments, namely the Vietnam War, allowed the white power movement to construct a common political identity. Belew argues that, after the military defeat in Southeast Asia, there was a concerted effort by the white power movement to construct a common narrative about the war: that American soldiers had been betrayed by cowardly military and political leadership, and that their sacrifice had been trivialized by an ungrateful public. This narrative helped the movement both to create a common political identity, effectively unifying a disparate array of white supremacist congregations, neo-confederates, Klansmen, and neo-Nazis, and to attract more military veterans, a development which she sees as instrumental in the development of the movement’s paramilitary culture and infrastructure and, consequently, of its capacity for revolutionary violence [16].

Belew divides her study into three constituent parts. Part I focuses on the 1970s, establishing the role of violence within the movement, including the centrality of the Vietnam narrative, the development of paramilitary training camps, and the nexus between the white power movement and various transnational mercenary groups. In Part II, Belew focuses on the 1980s, illuminating how the movement became more and more violently antistatist, discussing the movement’s 1983 declaration of war on the federal government, its use of early computer networks and cell-style organizing, and its attempts to steal military-grade weaponry from the state. Part III looks to the apex of the white power movement’s revolutionary violence, describing its confrontations with the federal government at Ruby Ridge, Idaho and Waco, Texas, and the effective culmination of antigovernment violence with the Oklahoma City bombing. Belew concludes her study with a meditation on the ways in which the bombing has obfuscated and distorted historical memory, arguing that it cemented public perceptions of white supremacist violence as merely the acts of a few men rather than the manifestation of a broader movement. Belew argues that the inability of the American public to understand the broader implications of OKC and the white supremacist violence that fueled it, in part, set the stage for the rise of Donald Trump, a political development that seemingly took mainstream and left-wing America by surprise. 

Perhaps because she is writing as an academic historian, Belew deals at great length with the historiographical issues inherent to writing about white supremacist groups. She notes, for instance, the difficulties associated with incorporating images from the white power movement into the book, saying that using any photographs owned by racist organizations risks making a financial contribution to their cause. Like Zeskind, she also points out that white supremacists tend to hide their activities, legal or illegal, to mitigate the risk of government infiltration of their cells. Belew also emphasizes the many ways that the archive itself is limited. She suggests that FBI, ATF, Marshall Service, and DOJ records, used widely in research of the white power movement, vary enormously in the accuracy of their accounts, the motivations of their authors, and the degree to which they have been redacted. She further asserts that white supremacist activity in prisons—a key part of the movement—has been poorly documented, and that legal documents from the height of the movement in the 1980s and 1990s are rarely digitized, making them difficult to access. Belew also notes, quite shrewdly, that records from extremist watchdogs like the Southern Poverty Law Center and the Anti-Defamation League, while extremely useful, ought to be read in light of these organizations’ reliance on donations; that is to say, they might have a financial incentive to overestimate the movement’s influence and organizational sophistication [17].

Taken together, these readings support several broad statements about contemporary trends in the historiography of the white power movement. First, the recent proliferation of literature focusing on the white power movement and racialized violence illustrate the extent to which both popular and academic interest in these groups has increased as right-wing domestic terrorism is increasingly seen as one the most pressing critical threats to national security. Second, the books I selected suggest an evolution in who is writing about the movement. Whereas Daniel Levitas and Leonard Zeskind have worked primarily as experts on the origins and activities of white supremacist and neo-Nazi group (Zeskind, for a time, also worked as a community activist), Katherine Belew is a professor at the University of Chicago, suggesting the ways in which the white power movement has increasingly become an important subject of inquiry for academic researchers. Finally, the differences between the three books indicate a fundamental shift in the historiography towards more all-encompassing studies of the white power movement as a whole, exemplified by Bring the War Home, rather than more specific examinations of particular groups, as shown by Blood and Politics and The Terrorist Next Door. All three books, however, are thoroughly researched and cogently written, significantly contributing to our understanding of the history of various factions within the white power movement. Future scholarship should look to answer more developed questions, building off of the work of Levitas, Zeskind, and Belew. For instance, is it even possible to identify common root causes of white supremacist violence that can be applied across disparate demographic groups; disaffected workers in the rust belt, Christian extremists, anti-immigration vigilantes at the border, corporate CEOs reliant on GOP support? Furthermore, what does our lack of understanding about these issues mean about our ability to address white supremacist violence in a cohesive, policy-driven manner? There is an urgent need for continued scholarship in this area—scholarship that broadens our understanding of white supremacy beyond the focus on a few isolated groups, a few bad apples.


[1] Eileen Sullivan, Katie Benner, “Top law enforcement officials say the biggest domestic terror threat comes from white supremacists,” New York Times, June 15th, 2021.

[2] Daniel Levitas, The Terrorist Next Door: The Militia Movement and the Radical Right (New York: St Martin’s Press, 2002): 3.

[3] Levitas, The Terrorist Next Door, 11.

[4] Ibid., 3.

[5] Ibid., 8.

[6] Ibid., 4.

[7] Ibid., 9-10.

[8] Ibid., 22.

[9] Ibid., 26-27.

[10] Ibid., 29-30.

[11] Ibid., 16-18.

[12] Katherine Belew, Bring the War Home (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2019): 25.

[13] Belew, Bring the War Home, 12.

[14] Ibid., 12-14.

[15] Ibid., 29.

[16] Ibid., 15.

[17] Ibid., 30-34.


Belew, Katherine. Bring the War Home. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2019.

Levitas, Daniel. The Terrorist Next Door: The Militia Movement and the Radical Right. New York: St Martin’s Press, 2002. 

Sullivan, Eileen, Benner, Katie. “Top law enforcement officials say the biggest domestic terror threat comes from white supremacists.” New York Times, June 15th, 2021. 

Zeskind, Leonard. Blood and Politics. New York: Farrar Straus Giroux, 2009. 

Broken Tulips in Broken Bubbles: The Dutch Tulip Trade

By Kash Radocha 

A ship sails across the Mediterranean sea, having departed from Turkey and en route to Holland. When it arrives in a Dutch harbor, the buyer of the shipment discovers a strange plant tucked away inside his crates, most likely a gift from his Turkish vendor. Unsure of what it truly is, he plants a few in his vegetable garden, until in the spring, a wide array of colored flowers pop up and baffle him. It was through a visitor of this man’s garden that they were identified as tulips; thus, the true cultivation of the flower began, and it was studied by a man named Carolus Clusius. Native to the Middle East, the tulip was a beautiful flower unknown in Europe prior to the 1500s. When it first arrived, most did not know what to make of it; some thought it was an allium species, and promptly ate it. However, this plant would soon play a much more significant role in Dutch history. 

The 1634–1637 collapse of the Dutch tulip market has been widely characterized by historians and economists as the first speculative bubble in history, in which asset prices–in this case, the contract prices of newly introduced tulips–far exceeded their intrinsic valuation. While this assessment is undoubtedly accurate, there actually lies a deeper and evidently overlooked rationale that can be critically attributed to the collapse. This paper dives into the many circumstances using a variety of sources surrounding the tulip trade, the economic collapse of the market, and the underlying causes that ultimately led to the collapse of the Dutch economy. In doing so, it explores a separate answer that places blame not only on risky trade behaviors, but also emphasizes the flowers being traded as the main variable. In this essay, I will argue that the Dutch economy surrounding the trade of tulips collapsed not simply because of the risk of speculative market trading, rather the tulips themselves presented as a causality for the inhibition of the trade because of a virus affecting their ability to reproduce.

Judith A. Lesnaw and Said A. Ghabrial cite in their journal that the botanist credited with being the father of tulips, Carolus Clusius, began planting some of the first tulips in Holland, studying the plant and writing down his observations [1]. Clusius was reluctant in selling his findings; mainly because in addition to the normal, solid color bulbs he was growing, he was also growing an extremely strange and special variant, for the true nature of the flower’s existence was unknown. Nobody knew their genetic composition and the reasons for the captivating pattern, and only looked on to their beauty. So, because of his resistance, many resorted to breaking into his garden and stealing rare plants to reproduce for their own profit. The widespread cultivation of the flower can be attributed to this thievery. According to Mike Dash, author of the book Tulipomania: The Story of the World’s Most Coveted Flower & the Extraordinary Passions It Aroused, the spreading of the tulip gained so much momentum that “by 1630 professional flower growers could be found in almost every town in the Dutch Republic” [2]. 

However, its exotic introduction can account for its success among investors. Since it was a new, gorgeous introduction into European life, many coveted the flower. But, looking back to Clusius reveals a different answer. Many of the bulbs Clusius planted had sprung up with captivating patterns, which he described as the flowers being “broken.” To consider a flower broken, the petals of the tulip had to have strayed from a solid color and developed a pattern of streaks of an alternating color. Dash claims that the earliest observations of the phenomenon date to about 1580, but probably existed previously [3]. Much later, it was discovered that a virus was the cause for these patterns. At the time, however, his reluctance to sell this variant of the flower seemed to be because his was the only garden in Europe in which it could be found. Clusius likely had his speculations since he had studied botany for most of his adult life; he may have been reluctant to sell as he was still studying the cause for these varying patterns. Regardless, the flowers were stolen, and soon these unique flowers spread rapidly and were sold to the highest bidder. The economy took a turn for the worst for traders years later in 1637 when the entire trade eventually collapsed. Historians credit the failure to investors’ inability to pay the growers the high price originally agreed upon previously, but a major factor seems to be overlooked in terms of the trade failures. Ultimately the true failure of the entire trade rested in the tulips themselves, because the virus that caused their unique appearance had catastrophic consequences on the flowers, unbeknownst to the Dutch at the time. 

For a time the flowers sold no matter their color because of the high demand, since tulips were new to Europe and cultivated mainly in Holland. However, as the popularity of these “broken flowers” took Holland by storm, the value of tulips changed drastically, and evidently so, broken tulips came out on top for their unique and rare beauty. Economist Peter M. Garber of Brown University states that the value of solid colored bulbs was non-existent, except for the chance that they might break [4]. He also describes the flowers of the trade, and maintains that the most important varieties of tulips were in fact diseased for over two centuries of European cultivation. The Amsterdam Tulip Museum records that “at the height of Tulip Mania, it was the ‘broken’ flowers that had speculators running wild. Viceroy, Admiral Van Der Eijk, the legendary Semper Augustus… they all featured a distinct, broken pattern.” [5]. This pattern, as described by the Museum, was the result of a virus inflicted against different species of tulips. The best visual of the breakage could be found on the breed Semper Augustus, immortalized in paintings by various European artists. Its petals were coated in brilliant red and streaked with white stripes that looked similar to soft brushstrokes by a paintbrush, and each bulb was slightly different from the rest. It is understandable as to why this flower was the most coveted of them all, since it was not only rare but also uniquely gorgeous [6].

However, the existence of these broken tulips led to serious ramifications. Despite the continued cultivation of these diseased flowers over numerous generations, the virus caused serious damage to the flower’s health and spread to other plants if the tulips were grown relatively close by. The Museum notes that “spread by aphids, this tulip breaking ‘mosaic’ virus infects the bulb and causes the flower to ‘break’ its lock on a single color” [7]. Aphids are small insects that rely on plants and flowers for nutrients, just like many other insects. These aphids discussed are the facilitators of what are known to be potyviruses: “Dekker et al. characterized ‘five viruses that cause color breaking in tulips and concluded… that they are distinct potyviruses’” [8]. The authors go on to elaborate on the effects of the individual viruses and conclude that they are not solely physical. Rather than the virus exclusively affecting the pigmentation of the petals, it was also inhibiting the flower’s ability to reproduce in sufficient and healthy quantities. At the height of the Dutch tulip trade, the facts about tulip breakage were not well-known, and the only evidence of the virus was physical. Lesnaw and Ghabrial specify that in terms of the tulip’s health, the potyviruses reduced flower size, pollen production, and seed set [9]. With each generation of infected flower produced, the offspring were gradually weaker and less abundant than the parent’s generation. After many generations, this led to early withering in flowers that were bred too quickly despite their sickly state and resulted in varieties of some tulips no longer growing. This caused major issues for growers since their coveted flower could no longer be sold. Historian Anne Goldgar describes that sales of the flowers came to take the form of contracts for future deliveries [10]. If the grower was lucky, their intended buyer would have already paid for the flower, but would never actually receive a shipment because the flower was never grown. When the deliveries were never fulfilled, both parties experienced financial problems. Thus, the very virus that made a particular tulip species so valuable also caused the species to be physically vulnerable and impaired the grower’s ability to meet demand. 

Reproducing the virus to grow the much-coveted tulips was tricky for growers largely because of the lack of scientific knowledge at the time. Growers had no way of knowing how the virus spread, when it would take hold, or when the virus would cause the flower to wither away. Further, Garber notes that planting the seed of an infected flower will only result in a common flower because the virus infects only the bulb [11]. The downfall of the entire trade could be largely attributed to this inability to determine if the infection would take hold of the offspring of the infected parent. Many growers typically replanted the daughter bulb of the parent tulip, simply because it would bloom once again the following spring. Growers favored this method because seeds took multiple years to finally bloom. The Amsterdam Tulip Museum further supports the statement that every time an infected flower was replanted, its offspring were less abundant and even more sickly than the parent. Eventually, the tulip would have completely died, leaving no bulb to replant, meaning that broken tulips could no longer be reproduced quickly. It would take years to grow healthy flowers from seeds and transmit the virus to them, which would be far too long for any sustainable market focusing solely on the tulip. They reinforce this by stating: 

Over time, the virus weakens the bulb and inhibits proper reproduction. WIth each new generation, the bulb grows weaker and weaker, until it has no strength left to flower and withers away. It is for this reason that legends of old, like the Semper Augustus, have gone extinct. It is also why many growers today view the breaks not as a benefit but as a danger that must be purged. [12]

This still did not prevent growers from planting the flower seeds, so the entire tulip craze evolved into a highly speculative market viewed as gambling [13]. This worked for a short period of time at the height of tulip mania, spanning from 1634 to 1637. However, due to the economic collapse of the market in 1637, it became clear that this form of trading was simply not sustainable.

One factor to consider in the collapse of the tulip trade was the rapid growth of bulb values. Initially, prices for the bulbs began to rise slowly as more bulbs were introduced into Europe and more buyers coveted this new rarity. Regardless of the reproductive effects of the virus, buyers demanded these broken tulips simply for their beauty and offered extremely high prices for them. In Dutch currency at the time, one florin, also known as a guilder, equaled about $150 in today’s money [14]. A single bulb of the rare Semper Augustus sold for at least 3,000 guilders or $150,000 today [15]. That means that the best tulip cost upwards of $750,000. Under normal circumstances, the wealthy would have been typically the only class that could even begin to afford these high prices. However, the craze for tulips infected every class. According to Hayes, the newspaper, The Library of Economic and Liberty, wrote, “The rage among the Dutch to possess [tulip bulbs] was so great that the ordinary industry of the country was neglected, and the population, even to its lowest dregs, embarked in the tulip trade” [16]. Since tulips were so deeply integrated into Dutch life, members of the lower classes who had hopes of gaining wealth or acquiring rare beauty had no choice other than to join in on tulip mania. They viewed it as an easy access to wealth and status, as instead of the commodity being traded being an extremely rare or exquisite item, it was a plant that could be reproduced in the simplest of gardens. These members of the lower classes began making promises of economic gain for the growers, such as entering into financial contracts with no actual repercussions, in return for the exquisite flowers: “Bulbs, which have to stay in the ground for most of the year, naturally lent themselves to future trading with the demand fueled by a highly unequal society looking for rare status symbols” [17]. These promises were never fulfilled as in 1637, the entire economic bubble surrounding tulip mania burst and left growers in economic despair. The demand for tulips from every economic class further exacerbated the damage of the market crash, but the idea of a speculative future market was new at the time and no one had foreseen the consequences. 

When they bloomed in the spring at the height of tulip mania in 1637, growers were petrified because they could not meet demands even though they had already been paid. This gamble was taken by the growers. It was also not just the quantity of tulips that caused growers to not meet their demands, but also the type of tulip. As a separate form of trust within this trading, Dash claims buyers had no chance of inspecting the bulbs before they bloomed [18]. This holds true as, again, bulbs needed to remain in the ground for most of the year before they bloomed. By the time they actually bloomed, buyers would probably have no chance to actually get their hands on any as others would have already invested prior to their growth. So, the type of tulip was critical to the amount they were investing, as breeds like the Semper Augustus had an extreme value ratio compared to simple solid color breeds. This gamble was taken by the buyers. Evidently, both parties in the trade took high risks, so in a way, the people of the trade were liable to the economic collapse, but not without the tulips. 

Hayes even states that buyers informed growers that they could not pay the price previously agreed upon, which caused the market to fall apart. Even so, if this faulty trust did not occur and buyers stayed true to their words about their investment, it was only a matter of time before the blame would have been placed on the growers. In the end, the trade would have collapsed at some point because of the virus. The Amsterdam Tulip Museum reinforces the statement that every time an infected flower was replanted, its offspring were less abundant and even more sickly than the parent. Eventually, the tulip would have completely died, leaving no bulb to replant, meaning that broken tulips could no longer be reproduced quickly. It would take years to grow healthy flowers from seeds and transmit the virus to them, which would be far too long for any sustainable market focusing solely on the tulip. The Amsterdam Tulip Museum supports this by stating: 

Over time, the virus weakens the bulb and inhibits proper reproduction. WIth each new generation, the bulb grows weaker and weaker, until it has no strength left to flower and withers away. It is for this reason that legends of old, like the Semper Augustus, have gone extinct. It is also why many growers today view the breaks not as a benefit but as a danger that must be purged. 

After the collapse of the peak prices during tulip mania, it took years for the tulip economy to settle. Holland still grew and cultivated tulips in greater numbers than the rest of Europe, but not to the same extent seen during the late 1630s. Dash describes the life of professional growers after the entire ordeal: 

This steady business was of inestimable value to the florists, who certainly must have lost a good proportion of their customers to the mania, and from scattered hints it appears that the bulb growers did what could to keep supply of the most favored species low. They thus contrived to maintain prices at a decent level for years, cannily resisting the temptation to breed more tulips and risk flooding the limited market that remained.

Since the collapse, some growers were still able to produce flowers. It is fortunate for the country that many still clung to growing and selling tulips, andt today the Netherlands still relies heavily on tulips for their trade market. Additionally, the flowers of the current trade are almost all completely different from those during tulip mania times. It took centuries for historians to understand why the tulip crop had failed so catastrophically. The phenomenon of “tulip breaking” was still unknown, and probably less widespread than it had been before. The Semper Augustus, one of the most beautiful species, was probably completely extinct along with many other broken breeds, and others managed to survive long enough to be studied as technology advanced greatly. The Amsterdam Tulip Museum cites that “it was not until 1928 that scientist Dorothy Cayley discovered the cause [of breaking] to be a virus.” [19]. The virus was dubbed the “mosaic virus” for its physical effects on the tulip as well as other plants that it ended up affecting. The tulip still remains as the most prominent example of the mosaic virus, since the visuals are most clear on flower petals as opposed to the leaves of other plants. Its effects were studied further and finally, after centuries, the Dutch had their answer behind tulip breaking: Cayley, having studied the flowers intensively, revealed it to be a negatively impactful virus against the flowers, which inhibited reproductive success and caused the breaking of pigmentation in their petals, and can ultimately be attributed to the eventual extinction from overbreeding of sickly bulbs. The Tulipmania Art Journal states that since tulip cultivation is still extremely important to the Dutch economy, they promptly banned cultivation of infected bulbs to protect plantations of tulips [20]. This led to even further extinction of infected breeds, and today very few remain in private conservatories and breederies. Some botanists outside of Holland still grow and produce infected breeds, simply because of their beauty and the higher prices offered to them. Still, the severity of tulip mania was never truly reflected again in today’s society, despite some broken tulips still being grown and sold.

Ultimately, it can be concluded that although the nature of a speculative market caused the economic collapse of the Dutch tulip craze, the true fault of the entire market rested in the flowers themselves. They were infected with a beautiful yet dangerous virus that inhibited proper reproduction of the flowers, so as multiple generations were bred in a short span of time,  fewer and fewer tulips actually bloomed. This held true especially for the rarest breed, Semper Augustus, which promptly went extinct and has been immortalized in paintings. The beauty of these tulips captivated many and took Europe by storm. Growers could not know that what caused the beautiful patterns of the tulip was actually a virus and that the trade was doomed from its beginnings. 


[1] Lesnaw, Judith A. and Said A. Ghabrial. “Tulip Breaking: Past, Present, and Future.” Plant Disease, vol. 84, no. 10, 2000, https://apsjournals.apsnet.org/doi/pdf/10.1094/PDIS.2000.84.10.1052. 1053.

[2] Dash, Mike. “Tulipomania: The Story of the World’s Most Coveted Flower & the Extraordinary Passions It Aroused.” 84.

[3] Dash, “Tulipomania,” 61.

[4] Garber, Peter M. “Tulipmania.” The Journal of Political Economy, vol. 97, no. 3, 1989, The University of Chicago Press. https://ms.mcmaster.ca/~grasselli/Garber89.pdf. 542.

[5] Amsterdam Tulip Museum. “Broken Tulips: The Beautiful Curse.”

[6] Amsterdam Tulip Museum.

[7] Amsterdam Tulip Museum.

[8] Lesnaw and Ghabrial. “Tulip Breaking.” 1055.

[9] Lesnaw and Ghabrial. “Tulip Breaking.” 1056.

[10] Goldgar, Anne. “Tulipmania: Money, Honor, and Knowledge in the Dutch Golden Age.” University of Chicago Press, 2007. 2.

[11] Garber. “Tulipmania.” 542.

[12] Amsterdam Tulip Museum.

[13] Lesnaw and Ghabrial. “Tulip Breaking.” 1053.

[14] Hayes, Adam. “Dutch Tulip Bulb Market Bubble.” Investopedia, Dotdash, 30 Oct 2021, https://www.investopedia.com/terms/d/dutch_tulip_bulb_market_bubble.asp.

[15] Lesnaw and Ghabrial, “Tulip Breaking.” 1053.

[16] Hayes, “Dutch Tulip.”

[17] Peterson, Deborah. “A Brief History of Financial Bubbles.” Insights by Stanford Business, Stanford Graduate School of Business, 24 Nov. 2014, https://www.gsb.stanford.edu/insights/brief-history-financial-bubbles.

[18] Dash, “Tulipomania,” 114.

[19] Amsterdam Tulip Museum.

[20] Tulipmania Art. “Tulips of Tulip Mania Times are Called Broken and are Illegal in the Netherlands.” Tulipmania Art Journal, 1 Oct. 2020, https://www.tulipmania.art/broken-tulips-and-are-illegal-in-the-netherlands/.

Works Cited 

“Broken Tulips: The Beautiful Curse.” Amsterdam Tulip Museum, 5 Dec. 2017, https://amsterdamtulipmuseumonline.com/blogs/tulip-facts/broken-tulips-the-beautiful-curse. Accessed 16 Nov 2021. 

Dash, Mike. “Tulipomania: The Story of the World’s Most Coveted Flower & the Extraordinary Passions It Aroused.” Crown, 30 Jan. 2001, pp. 42-114. 

Garber, Peter M. “Tulipmania.” The Journal of Political Economy, vol. 97, no. 3, 1989, The University of Chicago Press, pp. 535-560, 

https://ms.mcmaster.ca/~grasselli/Garber89.pdf. Accessed 17 Nov. 2021. 

Goldgar, Anne. “Tulipmania: Money, Honor, and Knowledge in the Dutch Golden Age.” University of Chicago Press, 2007, pp. 1-7. 

Hayes, Adam. “Dutch Tulip Bulb Market Bubble.” Investopedia, Dotdash, 30 Oct 2021, https://www.investopedia.com/terms/d/dutch_tulip_bulb_market_bubble.asp. Accessed 16 Nov. 2021. 

Krawisz, Daniel. “How the Free Market Works.” Mises Daily Articles, 27 Oct 2009, https://mises.org/library/how-free-market-works. Accessed 17 Nov. 2021. 

Lesnaw, Judith A. and Said A. Ghabrial. “Tulip Breaking: Past, Present, and Future.” Plant Disease, vol. 84, no. 10, 2000, https://apsjournals.apsnet.org/doi/pdf/10.1094/PDIS.2000.84.10.1052. Accessed 16 Nov. 2021. 

Peterson, Deborah. “A Brief History of Financial Bubbles.” Insights by Stanford Business, Stanford Graduate School of Business, 24 Nov. 2014, https://www.gsb.stanford.edu/insights/brief-history-financial-bubbles. Accessed 17 Nov. 2021. 

Tulipmania Art. “Tulips of Tulip Mania Times are Called Broken and are Illegal in the Netherlands.” Tulipmania Art Journal, 1 Oct. 2020, 

https://www.tulipmania.art/broken-tulips-and-are-illegal-in-the-netherlands/. Accessed 8 Dec. 2021.

Fall 2022 History 101 Roundtable

In Professor Wurtzel’s Fall 2022 History 101: Medieval and Early Modern Writing class, students were asked to respond to prompts about race in medieval Europe based on readings by Carol Symes and Geraldine Heng. What follows is an excerpt from the conversation between Professor Wurtzel and the students in her class on Blackboard. Interested parties can find the readings in question linked here and here.

Rosemary Avila: 

Director of medieval studies, associate professor of English and Comparative Studies Geraldine Heng, and medieval historian Carol Symes both use the word “urgent” in their essays concerning race in the medieval era and its critical legacy today (Symes, 1; Heng, 323). These secondary documents stress the pressing nature of the historical analysis around race or lack thereof. For instance, Heng argues in her 2011 essay, The Invention of Race in European Middle Ages I, “the past is never completely past, but inhabits the present, and haunts modernity and contemporary time in ways that estrange our present from itself” (Heng, 321). 

On the first day of our class, we discussed our tendency to view the medieval age as both the antithesis of the modern and as a fantasy landscape. Heng and Symes point to these myths as the root of our current tensions surrounding the discussion of race. For example, Symes’ 2017 article, Medievalism, White Supremacy, and the Historian’s Craft, argues white supremacy uses medievalism to support its claims and ideology. She defines this connection as a “projection” built on the “toxic nostalgia for nonexistent eras of ethnic homogeneity” (Symes, 1). Symes exposes our myths of medievalism, arguing it was a modern construction, “co-created in tandem with white supremacism” (Symes, 2). It is impossible to separate the medieval age from its constructed context. In her article, Symes galvanizes her fellow medieval historians to critically engage with race — a responsibility that medievalists do not often take on. 

Heng engages with this historical research that Symes references. At the beginning of her essay, she discusses the “emergence of homo europaeus,” particularly in context with Jewish persecution and exclusion in the 13th century. We similarly studied the solidification of a European identity by defining the Jewish community as a “vile race” in the aftermath of the crusades. Heng also argues the church characterized those inside and outside of these groups. They defined who was good, bad, damned, saved, holy, and demonic (Heng, 316). Next, Heng turns to the pedagogy and study of race in the historical community and beyond. She argues that canonical race theory does not connect the medieval age to an era consumed with race and racial ideology despite evidence that claims otherwise, such as her above discussion (Heng, 318). Instead, we ascribe race to the Enlightenment, which only validates racial theory connected to biology. Furthermore, historians have difficulty locating race in pre-modern history as it is often intertwined with other “hierarchical systems” (Heng, 319).

Our inability to see race in a medieval context is compounded by our tendency to view history as a linear temporality. Therefore, we distance the medieval age from the modern, and because we define race through modernity, we separate race and medievalism. By refusing to link race and modernity, we absolve the medieval age of “the errors and atrocities of the modern, while its own errors and atrocities are shunted aside as essentially non-significative” (Heng, 320). Through this ignorance, we deny vital, consequential history and underestimate racial practices and institutions’ ability to persevere and mold to our present. These two factors feed into each other. Discounting race and its historical consequence in the medieval era cultivates the destructive white utopian fantasy Symes references (Heng, 319). 

  To counter this erasure, Heng advocates for a new view of race as a “structural relationship for the articulation and management of human differences rather than a substantive content” (Heng, 325). This new lens allows historians to avoid the snares of particular evidence Heng comprehensively discussed in her essay. Furthermore, Heng argues that studying how the past interacts with our present “only recalibrate[s] the urgencies of the present with greater precision” (Heng, 323). As difficult as race is to define and acknowledge in our past narratives, its historical presence and our modern lens have immense contemporary consequences. These consequences are urgent. 

Both Syme and Heng’s essays have a broader argument for studying history. They illuminate its power to shape our contemporary social and political landscape. Similarly, both authors challenge the role of the historian, asking them to engage critically with race. I wonder about the role and responsibility of classes like ours. What about a 101 Medieval History class at a liberal arts college? What role do the students, professors, and syllabi hold in this conversation? Are we exempt from this work, or do we hold some sense of responsibility? What does our response look like if we have established that it is “urgent”? 

Professor Wurtzel:

I love the question you end with Rosemary, and with your incisive account of both Heng’s and Syme’s work. It is an important step to establish the validity of race as a concept applying to medieval Europe, and unpack why it has been so hard to do so, since medieval history has been constructed to uphold modern myths of (white) nationhood and community. And then, as you ask, what should change in how this history gets discussed? I believe that the role of the historian is not to dismiss or judge people in the past for their views that we hold to be abhorrent or just strange, but to recognize, as these historians are doing, how perceived difference upholds structures of power, and communicate how it does to others. What can sometimes get lost in that exercise, however, is the sense of personal agency-what individuals do to resist or change these larger categories they’ve inherited. 

Susanna Weiss:

Despite medieval Europe’s lack of modernity, racist prejudices existed. For example, there was a belief that white people were braver (and, since medieval European culture valued skilled warriors, superior) since they had allegedly ventured north while people of color, scared of venturing abroad, remained near the equator. Additionally, there was an association between the color black and the devil, those that worshiped unjust gods, and impurity. This association was further strengthened through a poem titled “Cursor Mundi” in which a group of Saracens, Muslims who were therefore pagan, converted to Christianity; upon doing so, the Saracens changed races from black to white (Heng). As opposed to blackness, whiteness during the middle ages was associated with purity, nobility, and morality. However, the concept of race throughout the middle ages was not solely categorized by skin color as it is today. It was a wider-reaching term that encompassed further aspects about a person such as their religion and culture; prejudice existed based on these characteristics as well. For example, in England during the twelfth century, Jews were required by law to wear badges on their chests to denote their religion. Since it was believed that anyone who was Jewish was sinful, the general English population discriminated against the Jews, concocting stories that described the Jewish people as having monstrous body parts such as a tail and horns, and enacted laws that quashed the rights of the Jewish people. Finally, in 1290 and after decades of enduring discrimination, the Jewish communities in England were expelled by the government (Heng). The treatment of Jews in this instance greatly parallels that of Jews in the Holocaust, demonstrating the similarities among the modes of racism between medieval and modern Europe. However, today’s definition of what constitutes “racism” no longer encompasses discrimination based on religion in its definition. 

The way racist ideas exist today comes from a scientific point of view. After the dawn of the scientific revolution, racists sought to support their bigoted notions of white superiority with scientific evidence. Therefore, they created biological data proving the alleged fundamental inferiority and animalistic nature of non-white individuals. These studies supported and later popularized countless racist notions, such as that people of color are not as intelligent or as skilled as white people. 

To further cement their argument that a homogenous society is the ideal, racists also painted medieval European society as being void of racial intermixing. This was done in the face of numerous such examples, including the multiracial nature of the Roman Empire and the intermixing of Arabs and Anglo Saxons and the cultures thereof during the Umayyad Caliphate. Instead, today’s racists portray medieval Europe as mundane, with the only real tension occurring within the scope of the church. The exclusion from racists’ iteration of medieval European history of examples of racial intermixing and its resulting disputes was an intentional move done to convince people today public that a homogeneous society is one of widespread peace and, as a result of the growth of the church, of population, and of cities, prosperity. Racists idolize this concocted image of a homogenous medieval Europe to try to create an association between whiteness and utopian society to try to convince others that a society made up of only white individuals will produce the same high quality of life as in their fantasy. 

In other words, racists use the rhetoric of this false Middle Ages to promote the alleged positives of an all-white society and spread hatred from white supremacy. In doing so, white supremacists further normalize the messages of the submission of people of color, which incites even more hatred of non-white people, creating an endless cycle. Therefore, it is crucial that people today acknowledge the importance of race in medieval European society to end the association between homogenetic whiteness and prosperity. This will, in turn, end the idealization of an all-white society and, with it, diminish some of the racist ideas that are so pervasive in modern society.

Professor Wurtzel:

Susanna- incisive post about these readings. You point out very clearly not only the way that medieval texts include descriptions of racialized others, particularly Jews and people with dark skin, in ways that are not often acknowledged, but also that there is a direct link between their invisibility in many histories written about medieval Europe and the pretense of an all-white Middle Ages that persists in popular culture and even with some scholars. And though biological race and medieval ideas of race are not interchangeable, as you note, the importance of acknowledging the existence of this way of thinking in the middle ages is key to understanding the past and the power it has to shape the present.

Kiran Williams:

The idea of race as inapposite, as modern scholarship on racial theory or theories of “difference” in medieval studies has begun to refute, is both comforting – that medieval people of colour could exist without self-discriminatory preconceptions seems to offer a hopeful outlook for those of us in the midst of burgeoning white supremacist resistance to necessary and long overdue diversifications in academia – and invalidating, suggesting a model of disinterest that seems to facilely brush away raciality as a modern concept, a modern pursuit, a temporally-situated phenomenon disparate from historical social structures in a way that makes the two incomparable and at times oppositional. Often easier to ignore for the sake of convenience, race theory’s applications to the study of representations of difference have in recent years established a space for itself, one of contention wherein “race” is often either oversimplified in terms of mutual acceptance and coexistence or decried as irrelevantly anachronous (conveniently allowing foundations of white imperium to stand). 

Geraldine Heng’s Invention of Race seems to offer a distinctly contrary narrative, asserting not only the presence of what we may (but should perhaps be cautious towards doing so) view as “race” in the lives of medieval people and their corresponding institutional entities, and an examination of the jargon modern literary scholars, historians, and race theorists (among others) use to articulate these instances of “race-making” (322). Through her work, Heng makes a fundamental anthropological claim: that it is no longer possible to think about race or otherness or difference as inert, but as active systems of visual and rhetorical constructions, superimposed and created rather than natural and endemic (319). And it is ultimately impossible to deny that they are, within the doctrinal spaces of the discipline itself, a representative lived experience. Heng does not deny that race theorists and using race theory carry their own assumptive loads, but that the added weight is not so much a burden as it is an expansion, a useful lens through which premodern scholarship can dissect constructed systems of difference. 

  To take just one (perhaps familiar) example of Heng’s application of her closest definition of “race,” the “repeating tendency, of the gravest import, to demarcate human beings through differences among humans that are selectively essentialized as absolute and fundamental, in order to distribute positions and powers differentially to human groups”, we can consider a category of difference-generation: colour (324). The paradigm of symbolic value (good and evil, chivalric and disloyal, holiness and sin) mercurially applied to darker-skinned figures that Heng describes position the black/white binary as a way to create/assign meaning through oppositional, so that whiteness and blackness are both defined relationally and imply one another when attributed with positive and negative value (318). Blackness is thus a constructed response to whiteness, whiteness a constructed response to blackness – a reciprocal feedback loop of constructed racialities. Heng thus suggests that a modern preoccupation with studying medieval race exclusively through the lens of blackness essentializes “color” as the operative characteristic used in race-making rather than just one signifier assigned variable values, in the same way that the “biological referent” has become to dominate understanding of the function of difference-making practices today (319). This theme comes up most prominently in relation to ethnogeographic (and somewhat “phenotyp[ic]” (323)) difference-making strategies in the Song of Roland, where the ranks of the forces of Balignant, Emir of Babylon, are described as both distinct and one. First, each rank is listed (“the first is made up of men from Butentrot / And the next of the large-headed Milceni… / The sixth of Armenians and Moors…” (Song of Roland, lines 3220-3221, 3227) which appears to assign distinctiveness to the forces by geopolitical alliance. And yet the placement of the last descriptor, which could be applied to the “tenth of men from Balide the Strong” (Song of Roland, l. 2320), could suggest a synchretisation of the distinct categories into one, singular evil, “a people to whom good deeds are unknown” (3231).

  So what Symes aligns these systems of sign-making, labelling, and assigning power in the modern day with is an idea of raciality, in the premodern world or modern world, in scholastic or colloquial settings, that has eminently inextricable personal stakes on disproportionate levels to different people for different reasons. Even more interesting is the fulgently obvious divide that these interactions have inspired, akin to political debates lobbied across public forums. To scholars like Symes and Heng, the discussion of race is explicitly posited as an innately personal investment for them to decenter the tools of a traditionally white field in favour of modern methodologies that address exclusions of globalism and boldly reassert the presence of diverse voices and tools in the field as scholastically legitimate and necessary. Invoking St. Maurice or Ethiopian Christianity is no longer a valid excuse for passivity towards forming a globalised, holistic impression of a “Middle Ages” (if we choose to use that term). Geraldine Heng’s response to backlash about her book by senior scholars, “Why the Hate? The Invention of Race in the European Middle Ages, and Race, Racism, and Premodern Critical Race Studies Today” demonstrates the debate within the field about “privileged position[s] and powerful allies… derid[ing] bully[ing], and persecut[ing]” (Symes) in an implicitly similar sense to acts of violence attributed to assigned power dynamics in medieval Europe. It also serves as an excellent bridge between the two articles. The link is as follows: https://www.inthemedievalmiddle.com/2020/12/why-hate-invention-of-race-in-european.html

  I think one of the key ideas that Symes misses (or chooses to omit from) in her article – but which no doubt was discussed in the conference – is the disproportionate degree to which dealing with underrepresentation in the field, studying race-making practices in the Middle Ages, and defraying/resisting historical and modern use of medievalism in racist jargon falls on the shoulders of medievalists of colour. For a bit of Oberlin history, Fanny Jackson Coppin – the third Black woman to graduate with a Bachelor’s degree from the College – said, “I never rose to recite in my classes at Oberlin but I felt that I had the honor of the whole African race upon my shoulders. I felt that, should I fail, it would be ascribed to the fact that I was colored” (see Jackson Coppin, Fanny. Reminiscences of School Life, and Hints on Teaching (Philadelphia: A.M.E. Book Concern, 1913): 15)). While Jackson Coppin was a student studying Classics (Greek & Latin Literature) in 1865, her sentiment still resonates with the experiences of BIPOC undergraduate students in underrepresented and potentially “misuse[d]” fields, like “ancient Rome and medieval Europe” (Symes). This is in some part embodied by the rhetorical methods that feature in monographs written by some medievalists of colour, which Heng employs as a counterpoint to traditions of white escapism that avoid the idea of “race” altogether and situate the Middle Ages as a period before race; with these rhetorical methods, childhood recollections prefigure their respective approaches to the temporal paradigms that they tackle (see particularly: Whitaker, Cord J. “Race-ing the dragon: the Middle Ages, race and trippin’ into the future.” Postmedieval 63–11 (2015). https://doi.org/10.1057/pmed.2014.40, for a particularly effective use of this device, which he uses to demonstrate a living link between the premodern and the modern that is woven throughout his discussion of Black knights). 

Professor Wurtzel:

This is truly superlative, Kiran. This is evidently a topic you have engaged with previously and which you describe here in terms of its salience for the study of history from an anthropological lens as well as the pitfalls it creates for those who want to discuss it in a way that challenges the foundations of medieval history making. Both Symes and Heng establish the validity of race as a concept applying to medieval Europe, and unpack why it has been so hard to do so, since medieval European history has been constructed to uphold modern myths of (white) nationhood and community. Symes does not, as you note, acknowledge that the difficulties lie not only in the myth of nationhood these ideas uphold but also the absence of medieval historians of color and the disproportionate burden those few in dealing with it. Finally, I think you should pursue more this idea that power is created and maintained by differentiating and judging difference, as is noted in these pieces, but also by homogenizing, erasing differences among people, to create a group that individuals must then interact with. It’s making me think about individual agency in a new way.

Sam Hart:

While contemporaneous depictions of the medieval period in Europe often see little deviation from casting white actors and having them don decrepit Cockney accents, texts this week from Carol Synes and Geraldine Heng urge us to challenge the shallow perception and portrayal of medieval European culture in the modern era, insisting that the rich tapestry of racial experience in pre-modern Europe only appears obfuscated when looking from where we stand in the 21st century, and especially with being in the United States.

Symes’ piece “Medievalism, White Supremacy, and the Historian’s Craft” clarifies the obstacles that come up when analyzing a medieval culture and environment from where (American) society stands today. For one, the profusion of popular culture depicting the more fantastical elements of the medieval European period, such as knighthood or engaging in the Crusades, has proliferated a narrative of white European conquest and success that subsequently has provided ammunition for the “renewal of white nationalist ideologies base on long-discredited versions of ancient and medieval history” (Symes 1). The upkeep of medieval European stories and themes in western culture throughout the modern era, says Symes, has occurred concurrently (not coincidentally) alongside the development of “white supremacism, the ‘scientific’ racialization of slavery, and modern European imperialism” (Symes 3). As such, perceptions of the medieval European period are rife with fallacy about cultural and racial homogeneity on the continent and within the culture, as though western Europe was entirely insular and already developing into contemporary nation-states. Symes unequivocally advocates for having more conversations about how historical pedagogy might affect the public understanding of the medieval period, but what approaches or tools should historians utilize to begin deepening the perception of race in medieval studies?

In her article “The Invention of Race in the European Middle Ages”, Geraldine Heng argues that medieval European populations are seen as being ubiquitous and conjoined with their incredibly complex and multifaceted culture, likely a side effect of the public presuming that the compartmentalization of peoples into nations transcends modern humankind and existed in some form in medieval Europe. Conceptually, the understanding of race per race theory scholars discredits racial interaction as having to do with “substantive content” and rather involving a “structural relationship for the articulation and management of human differences” definitely can be applied to individuals in medieval Europe (Heng 315). While race was definitely understood in part as a “body-centered phenomenon”, the perceived “race” of a person in that period certainly could have connotations about their cultural background, social relations with other people, and even their religious affiliation, and the variety of factors that collectively determine race were just as particular and individual for people then as it is now (Heng 324). The complicated fabric that constitutes a person’s racial identity in the medieval period, then and now, concerns what experience exists in the intersections of “practices, institutions, fictions, and laws” enacted upon the “bodies and lives of individuals and groups” (Heng 325).

All this being said, I feel like the development of a definition for “race” as it pertains to culture – and specifically that of the United States – deserves its own detour. While the medieval period was preceded by much cultural diffusion and evolution prior to the birth of the nation-state and the subsequent descent into the Industrial Revolution, the United States as its known now was birthed entirely out of colonial expansion, and the existing perception of race amongst Americans is undoubtedly framed in part by the foundation of enslavement and racial subjugation of Black individuals and communities by the United States, then and now. If racialized, othering depictions such as that of Saracen warriors in The Song of Roland can be argued as underpinning present-day perspectives of race across cultures in medieval Europe and the Mediterranean, then it can assuredly be stated that the othering of enslaved Africans and Black individuals in the United States obviously persists into modern perspectives of race. Sociologist Joseph Feagin describes these baked-in mannerism that come of interacting with race and systematic upholding of whiteness in the U.S. as the white racial frame, where the ideas of thinking, interacting, and even being in society are mitigated by one’s proximity to the white ideal and, subsequently, their distance from that which is othered. This is all to say that the perception of race for individuals and communities in the United States is predicated on a staunchly colonial background and one that, while spurred on by European powers, resembles little of Europe’s sociocultural development and perception of race.

Professor Wurtzel:

This is really interesting Sam. What I think you’re saying is that racial constructions of the medieval Europeans did not depend on economic structures of colonialism and empire in the same way it has for modern Americans—the history, socio-economic imperatives, etc. are different, and therefore race then and now do not have the same framing. If that is what you’re thinking, I would agree that it makes a difference that a medieval peasant in England would not have thought of herself as white, and all that entails in a world shaped by chattel slavery, but rather Christian (not Jewish or Muslim), and perhaps free or bound depending on the status of her land tenure. White and black are some of the characteristics that designate good and evil, insiders and outsiders, but those people were imagining different histories and associations for their categorizations.

Overall, you have provided a clear and deftly-summarized synopsis of the readings and expanded upon their implications in relevant ways, particularly in the way that these concerns over medieval racial categories are reflections of our current American present.

Zahra Stevick:
I really appreciated Symes’ point about the importance of a continuing conversation about race and the Middle Ages, despite how far removed that time is from us now. The truth is that claiming we have nothing to learn from ancient history is ludicrous, especially when we still consume media, speak languages, adopt symbols, and perhaps most importantly, reinforce traditions that have roots in that time period. Neglecting to engage with the issue of race and racism in the medieval age is, by extension, the neglection of an important facet in the discussion around modern race and racism. The understanding of any sort of modern issue is bolstered by an understanding of how humans have dealt with that issue over time, in what ways that has changed, and in what ways it is still being upheld. As Symes states, the Middle Ages cannot and should not be exempt from that conversation.

Professor Wurtzel:

I agree, Zahra, that it absolutely matters what we imagine the classical or medieval past to be-it is not dead! And what’s also really interesting from Symes is the point that medieval history is often seen as exempt from race precisely because those 19th century historians helping to construct modern notions of political identity used the middle ages to bolster their image of community. So in other words, what we know of medieval history was picked out to support a white identity, not just because it was there. Now that historians are working in these areas, what was seen as strange or unimportant becomes relevant to revealing the heterogeneity of medieval people. 

Lily Hessekiel:

Carol Symes’ “Medievalism, White Supremacy, and the Historian’s Craft” argues that the modern understanding of medieval times is bound to 19th and 20th century historians’ nationalist beliefs and projections onto medieval history. This statement of political narratives conflicting with our ideas of a period’s beliefs and realities is not unique; it has occurred throughout history as historians overlay the politics of their present day over the facts of the past. Symes specifically calls out American history as a perpetrator of this problematic action. While we expect history to stay concrete and consistent, only changing as we uncover new details, the reality is that history is defined by historians as much as it is by the discovery of ‘solid’ facts. 

As much as we as historians would hope to believe in the academic integrity and unfailing dedication to the definitive truths of the past, the reality of history seems to be social and constructed out of the politics and zeitgeist of the times we are in. The study of race throughout history is a perfect example of that concept. Our modern-day understanding of race, at least in America, stems from the foundations of 17th century chattel slavery: the racist justifications dependent upon the existence of scientific racism, physiognomy, and genetically suggested social hierarchies. We cannot apply this, our definition of race, to medieval Europe, because whatever form of race might have existed there certainly does not and cannot match up with our understanding of race now. Symes acknowledges this in her third paragraph, writing that “in fact, ‘medieval’ Europe was co-created in tandem with white supremacism, the ‘scientific’ racialization of slavery, and modern European imperialism” (Symes 1). The discussion of race in medieval times is necessary because race is important now. Heng suggests the meaning of ‘race’ in medieval Europe in terms of what was on the forefront of societal consciousness then – trade – when she says, “the sheer diversity of the world is thus filtered into lists of what industry, agriculture, or trade is practiced in each place Marco [Polo] visits, and what goods and services are consequently derived” (Heng 331). A trade-based definition of race was relevant to Marco Polo’s 13th century – trade is not considered the foundation of race to historians in discussion now. 

Along with trade, Christianity was especially important to the construct of race that existed in the Middle Ages. This is obvious in Song of Roland, as the author describes the Muslim Saracens consistently as Pagans. The author describes the Saracen soldier Abisme as a “felon… a man of evil character and many crimes; he does not believe in God the son of holy Mary. He is as black as molten pitch, and he loves treason and murder” (Song of Roland v. 113). Skin color, which is of foremost importance in our modern interpretation of race, comes after the author labels Abisme as inferior and innately felonious due to his idolatry and religion. The prioritization of mentioning religion over color shows the ways race was formed in the era of Song of Roland. Adversely, color is first in modern definitions of race, while in recent years, crime has become a dog-whistle term for race.

Symes’ point is consistently supported by both her contemporary, Heng, and the author of Song of Roland. Like Syme says in the article, it is truly not that history is “hermetically sealed” (Syme 1) and constant. Historians play an active role in the documentation, understanding, and teaching of history. In a feedback loop, history receives contemporary issues and interests before re-engaging social discussion of what those concepts were in the past. In other words, as much as the past shapes the present, the opposite is true. As race increasingly becomes a topic of discussion in medieval history, this must be acknowledged and accounted for. 

Professor Wurtzel:

Really nicely done, Lily. As you note, historians, like the history they write, are never hermetically sealed, but thinking with the lenses of the present and the problems that matter to them and their contemporaries. As such, our conceptions-and as Symes says, what has been collected in archives to provide evidence of the past-tell us less about the past than that they needed to create a homogenous middle ages to support their imagined national community. It’s useful to put your comments in conversation with Sam’s (also posting for this week). He argues that racial constructions of the medieval Europeans did not depend on economic structures of colonialism and empire in the same way it has for modern Americans—the history, socio-economic imperatives, etc. are different, and therefore race then and now do not have the same framing. This reminded me of what you wrote about economic measures of racial difference, through trade vs. chattel slavery as well. I would also argue that it makes a difference that a medieval peasant in England would not have thought of herself as white, and all that entails in a world shaped by chattel slavery, but rather Christian (not Jewish or Muslim), and perhaps free or bound depending on the status of her land tenure. White and black are some of the characteristics that designate good and evil, insiders and outsiders, as you note in Song of Roland, but those people were imagining different histories and associations for their categorizations.

Leela Miller, responding directly to Lily:

Lily, I think you make an interesting point by explaining that modern understandings of race — particularly in America — are both shaped and limited by our fairly recent history of chattel slavery, scientific racism and physiognomy. As Heng puts it, there is now often an assumption that “Properly racial logic and behavior must invoke biology and the body” (319). However, this belief constricts our understanding of what race actually is: a “structural relationship for the articulation and management of human differences, rather than a substantive content” (325). Race is, ultimately, a tool for assigning and essentializing power; it has “no singular or stable referent” (319). Therefore, racial categorization and racism can be traced back into the pre-modern era if we are willing to be flexible with our understanding of what race can look like, as racial logic is constantly in flux and is able to “stalk and merge with other hierarchical systems” (319). Because religion was the “paramount source of authority in the Middle Ages,” it makes sense that, as Heng describes, “nature and the sociocultural are … not bifurcated spheres in medieval race-formation: they often crisscross in the practices, institutions, fictions, and laws of a political — and biopolitical — theology” (325). Religion can function as the referent for race; physiology doesn’t necessarily have to fill that role. And, as you show in your discussion post, the characterizations of the Franks and Saracens in Song of Roland give weight to Heng’s assertion that religion — rather than skin color — has determined racial groupings at certain points in history. 

Professor Wurtzel:

Excellent, Leela — in your characterization of Lily’s post and your picking out of useful sections of Heng’s article. You point to the tensions in these articles as well-that racial logic changes over time, settling on religious difference or physiological or other, but at heart is about defining power through hierarchizing of difference, which is seen in many different guises and periods. It is also, I think as Kiran pointed out, defined by grouping lots of people under one category-so homogenizing into one while differentiating from another group. I will be interested to see what you think when we read about Jews and heretics in a couple of weeks — because now you can question both the sources we have as well as the histories that have been told about these groups.

More than  “Africa’s Che”: The life and legacy of Thomas Sankara

By Noah Elazar

Thomas Sankara (1949–1987) was a socialist revolutionary leader who took control of the former French colony of Upper Volta in 1983. He constructed a new national identity as Burkina Faso, and implemented wide-ranging, radical social, political, and economic reforms. Sankara was a controversial figure for his extreme politics and after just four years in the presidency, he was killed by his former friend and right-hand man, Blaise Compaoré. His policies, many of which directly and greatly benefited the Burkinabè people, as well as the distinct figure that he put forth, means that after his death, Sankara has taken on a new status as a political icon. Today he is remembered around Africa, and to a lesser extent the world, as a symbol of pan-Africanism, anti-imperialism, and left-wing politics. Western media often distills him down to “Africa’s Che.” But Sankara was a distinct figure on his own, and there are several important aspects to his legacy which deserve much greater attention from the wider world.

Sankara’s early life gave him personal experience with both colonialism and political revolution in Africa, which shaped him into the leader he became. Sankara was born in 1949, under French colonial rule in the territory of Upper Volta. The French had conquered the area which was to become Burkina Faso towards the end of the 19th century, and the formal territory of Upper Volta was established in 1919. However, France never considered Upper Volta to be of much worth, mainly taking Voltaic men to be manual laborers in other colonies. Upper Volta would gain independence from France in 1960, when Sankara was eleven years old. However, the first president, Maurice Yamégo, had strong ties to France and very little in the country actually changed with independence. When Yamégo’s government was overthrown in a military coup six years later, Sankara started to realize the power and importance of the country’s military, which would play directly into his later style of governing. When the new government, led by Lieutenant Colonel Sangoulé Lamizana, established the country’s first military academy, Sankara applied to and was accepted into the very first class at the age of 17.

In the academy, a progressive professor invited Sankara into discussions about socialism, neocolonialism, and political revolution, especially in Africa. This marked Sankara’s first exposure to radical left-wing politics. He gained further personal experience with political revolution when, after excelling at the Voltaic military academy, he was invited for further training at a military academy in Madagascar. In the third and final year of his stay in the island nation, it descended into political turmoil ending with a military takeover.

After returning to Upper Volta, Sankara began a highly successful military career where he became close friends with other radical members of the military, including Blaise Compaoré, who eventually served as his second-in-command. He also gained national recognition after successfully staging an ambush in a border dispute with Mali.

By 1980, Lamizana’s government had been in power with relative stability for nearly 15 years, unusual in the volatile West Africa of the time. However, Lamizana seemed disinterested in addressing any of the social or economic issues left over from Upper Volta’s time as a French colony. By the end of the year, Colonel Saye Zerbo took power in a coup. Zerbo pledged to fight corruption and reorganize the government. Sankara was offered the position of Minister of Information under Zerbo, which he reluctantly accepted. He soon brought diligence and determination to his post however, in which he strongly encouraged press freedom, especially to hold government officials accountable. It was as a public servant where he truly started to build his reputation and image. He forewent the luxury car offered to major government officials and could be commonly seen riding his bicycle around the streets of the capital Ouagadougou. When Zerbo’s government shifted towards authoritarianism following periods of unrest, Sankara very publicly resigned with a speech and radio broadcast.

Just seven months after Sankara’s resignation, yet another coup placed the moderate Major-Doctor Jean-Baptiste Ouédraogo in the presidency, and Sankara was soon appointed Prime Minister as an effort to appeal to the radical members of the military. In his acceptance speech, he swore an oath that he and other government officials would serve only the people, not themselves. This oath would end up becoming an important part of his legacy. In this position, Sankara made several prominent speeches, growing his skill at public speaking and his reputation in Upper Volta. At one rally in Ouagadougou, he viciously attacked Upper Volta’s elites, engaging the crowd with a call-and-response. He would use this technique to great effect in many of his speeches to the Voltaic/Burkinabè people.

Sankara’s radical language alarmed conservative officers in the government, as well as France. The African affairs advisor to French president François Mitterrand landed in Ouagadougou on May 16, 1983. Although French involvement has never been officially confirmed, just hours later, Sankara was arrested and jailed. It was far too late for the government to get rid of Sankara, however. Protests erupted in Ouagadougou almost immediately, resulting in a two month period of political instability before Compaoré led a band of radical military officers favoring Sankara in yet another coup. On August 4, 1983, Sankara made a radio announcement that the government had been overthrown and that he was leading a new revolutionary process.

As president, Sankara would continue to develop into an iconic figure. He was almost always seen in military fatigues and distinctive red beret, and, very importantly, he was seen. Sankara was never content to rule from the presidential palace; instead he visited villages around the country, making speeches and getting hands-on with government projects. Although more of an uncommon sight, he could still be seen cycling or even jogging unaccompanied around Ouagadougou. Intentionally or not, many of his policies created distinct symbols of his dedication to the common people. He sold off the government fleet of Mercedes cars and replaced them with the much cheaper Renault 5, and required government officials to wear traditional clothing manufactured domestically. In a country where the ruling class had always distanced themselves from the abject poverty that the majority of the country lived in, it must have been a powerful sight to see the president personally demonstrate his commitment to listening to the common people and keeping the political upper class in check.

He also made himself visible to the broader African continent. He was a staunch supporter of pan-Africanism and anti-imperialism. He made a particularly famous speech to the Organization of African Unity, dressed, along with his entourage, in domestically-produced clothing to demonstrate the ability of the African people to achieve self-sufficiency. In the speech, he was even more overt, railing against Western aid in Africa as yet another form of colonialism. When French president Mitterrand visited Ouagadougou in 1986, Sankara criticized his fellow leader to his face, and relentlessly harried Mitterrand to free several colonies still under French rule. France had recently welcomed the leaders of apartheid South Africa to visit, and Sankara coldly proclaimed to Mitterrand that “they dirtied [France], with their bloodied hands and feet.”

For many important people, Sankara’s attempts to accomplish his radical reforms were too much, too fast. Traditional indigenous leaders and political elites worried that he was taking power away from them (selling their fancy cars did not improve Sankara’s popularity among the political elite either); sections of the Burkinabè population were tiring of his constant push towards ever greater accomplishments; and the French were concerned over his vicious denunciations of imperialism. With increasing unrest, and the suspected support of France’s ally Côte d’Ivoire, his own second-hand man Compaoré organized his assassination and took power for himself.

Sankara may have only held power for four years, but in that time he constructed an enormous cultural and political legacy. Around Africa, he is a common face on tee shirts and as a sticker in taxi windows, and has been memorialized in poetry and song. The spread of his icon around the continent is a strong demonstration of just how much he inspired pan-African pride and resistance to the former colonial powers. Not only did he speak to the entire continent about their cultural value and need for unity, but he demonstrated exactly how countries could throw off the lingering shackles of neo-colonialism and create pride in their nation and culture. Additionally, he created meaningful symbols around himself, from the beret taken from his military uniform, to the bike he rode to work, to his iconic pose captured in a statue. Perhaps most importantly, through his eloquent and prolific public speaking, he coined impactful phrases summarizing his ideology and drawing people in. In a time before social media made short, punchy statements almost a political necessity, Sankara understood the value in such quotable phrases.

Although more rare, there are artworks from around the world about him, ranging from Italian opera to French multimedia, to American historical fiction. Sankara does not have as global an appeal as similar figures, such as Che Guevara, simply because his appeal was always to Africans and the unique political and cultural situation that they faced at the time. Still, he is revered in leftist circles as a successful revolutionary whose time in power was cut short by imperialist forces. It’s unclear how much of Sankara’s icon was deliberately created, although considering that he generally prohibited any depictions of himself, it may have been entirely unintentional. Regardless, there is a powerful lesson for leaders around the world in both his habit of developing symbols and catchphrases, as well as his genuinity in not trying to turn himself into an icon.

While his cultural appeal may seem relatively limited, Sankara also made important contributions to the political sphere, especially in regards to developing, post-colonial nations. Firstly, Sankara recognized faults with Western-style democracy and implemented a different system. While he has been called autocratic by Western media, Sankara simply had good reason to believe that the parliamentary system, which had been implemented under their first president, Maurice Yamégo, was ineffective in Upper Volta. It did not enable the common people to be involved in political decision making, and was dominated by a class of political elites. Instead, Sankara opted for Cuban-style Committees for the Defense of the Revolution (CDRs), which, for the first time, gave many Voltaic/Burkinabè citizens a political voice. And although the CDRs unfortunately empowered young citizens who often abused their positions, the concept of highly localized, participatory democracy should not be completely discarded.

Secondly, Sankara demonstrated a model for nation-building from colonial history. Upper Volta was simply a line drawn around many different indigenous ethnic groups, without a shared language or culture. On the first anniversary of his revolution, Sankara changed the name, flag, and anthem of the country, in an effort to create a shared identity. The new name, Burkina Faso, combined words from the two biggest indigenous languages into a phrase which roughly translates to “Land of the Upright People.” The demonym, Burkinabè, added a suffix from a third language. Many of Sankara’s policies also worked to create a shared identity, mainly by encouraging cooperation and mutual support to achieve sweeping goals. These included massive campaigns to vaccinate children, plant trees, and build schools and other public facilities. When the Burkinabè saw genuine progress being made as a collective, the new national identity gained real meaning.

Thirdly, Sankara recognized the value of women and their domestic labor in his project. He encouraged women to join the labor force and men to recognize how much women contributed to their society. He promoted women to important roles in his government, and for one International Women’s Day, he directed men to take on the domestic tasks that women usually carried out, such as cooking and going to the market. Considering that the domestic labor of women is still grossly underappreciated around the world, there are certainly lessons to be learned from Sankara.

While Sankara’s cultural legacy may be small, he leaves a mark through his humble style yet iconic appearance. And his political legacy is anything but. His contributions to concepts of democracy, identity-building, and gender in politics are distinct, and unlike political theorists, he genuinely demonstrated that many of his ideas have merit. It is essential that he is remembered for his ideas as well as his important role in the history of Africa. We can all learn from his fierce love for his culture and belief in the ability of the common person to achieve greatness. Sankara did not think of himself as special: as he once said in reference to the entire Burkinabè population, “There are seven million Thomas Sankaras.”


BBC News. “‘Africa’s Che Guevara’: Thomas Sankara’s Legacy,” April 30, 2014, sec. Africa. https://www.bbc.com/news/world-africa-27219307.

Besong, Bate. For Osagyefo Capitaine Thomas Sankara. October 12, 2007. Poetry. https://www.batebesong.com/2007/10/for-osagyefo-ca.html.

The Economist. “Burkina Faso Opens Trial for the Assassination of Sankara,” October 14, 2021. https://www.economist.com/middle-east-and-africa/2021/10/14/burkina-faso-opens-trial-for-the-assassination-of-sankara.

BBC News. “Burkina Faso Unveils ‘corrected’ Thomas Sankara Statue,” May 18, 2020, sec. Africa. https://www.bbc.com/news/world-africa-52704979.

Davis, Rebecca. “Remembering Thomas Sankara, the EFF’s Muse.” Rhodes University: Perspective, November 5, 2013. https://www.ru.ac.za/perspective/2013archive/rememberingthomassankaratheeffsmuse.html.

Harsch, Ernest. “The Legacies of Thomas Sankara: A Revolutionary Experience in Retrospect.” Review of African Political Economy 40, no. 137 (2013): 358–74.

———. Thomas Sankara: An African Revolutionary. Ohio Short Histories of Africa. Ohio University Press, 2014.

Katongole, Emmanuel. “Thomas Sankara and the Burkina Faso Revolution.” In The Sacrifice of Africa: A Political Theology for Africa, 203. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2011.

Kobo, Kingsley. “Ghost of Africa’s Che Guevara.” Al-Jazeera, October 31, 2014. https://www.aljazeera.com/features/2014/10/31/burkina-faso-ghost-of-africas-che-guevara.

Rodamel, Arnaude. Sankara et moi [Sankara and me]. n.d. Multimedia. https://arnaudrodamel.blogspot.com/p/thomas-sankara.html.

Sams’k Le Jah – Sankara Du Burkina, 2015. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YaXnrrJ8M-A.

Sankara. “A United Front Against Debt (1987).” Viewpoint Magazine, February 1, 2018. https://viewpointmag.com/2018/02/01/united-front-debt-1987/.

Sankara, Thomas. Thomas Sankara Speaks. Translated by Samantha Anderson. Pathfinder Press, 1988.

Sebastiani, Fausto. Il paese degli uomini integri [The land of upright men]. 2019. Opera. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AU3aeZjjzpY.

Shillington, Kevin. “Madagascar: Independence to 1972.” In Encyclopedia of African History, 2:882–83. Taylor & Francis Group, November 22, 2004. ProQuest: Ebook Central.

Thomas Sankara: The Upright Man. Documentary, 2006. https://fod.infobase.com/PortalPlaylists.aspx?wID=148210&xtid=49792.

Wilkinson, Lauren. American Spy. Random House, 2019.

A New Frontier: Digital History

By Gunja Sarkar

Although digital history is not yet well-known in mainstream academia, most people have likely encountered it without realizing. Digital history is both a methodology and a framework [1] – in the production of historical knowledge, it is the use of computer technologies and techniques to analyze historical sources. In the presentation of historical knowledge, it is the use of computer technologies to display historical arguments for people to experience, read, and follow. Thus, digital history ranges from using computer systems to model historical situations to the digitization of historical archives and virtual museum exhibits. Digital history has revolutionized history as an academic area to the extent that it allows for historians to use vast numbers of resources and has made historical knowledge widely accessible to the general public. Digital history is only beginning to scratch the surface of how computer science techniques and ideas can be used in historical thinking. That being said, it is overly simplistic to claim that these changes have only benefited historians and the discipline as a whole.

The presence of online archives is a blessing and a curse for historians everywhere. On one hand, digital archives allow historians access to an absurd number of sources [2], which means that historians can find information on just about any topic, regardless of where they are in the world. This alone has powerful implications – the scope of the historical field seems limitless with digital archives since anything and everything can be included. However, the long-term effects of digital archives can seem less fortuitous. For one, historians no longer need to have any physical contact or relation with their subject of study – it might seem curious that someone could be an “expert” in Canadian history, without ever actually visiting Canada. Some scholars have also argued that digitization may actually harm the prospect of long-term preservation since digital copies can be less stable than physical objects and digital formats quickly become obsolete or unreadable [3]. Furthermore, the massive size of digital archives means that a historian could find evidence to argue just about any point of view or perspective [4], regardless of its validity. As a result, historians no longer need to be as selective about what evidence they use to support their arguments, leading to weaker historical arguments.

For history students, the presence of digital archives makes it possible to draw from thousands of primary source documents, the “raw materials of history,” offering them the opportunity  to construct a more personal understanding of history [5]. However, as many history students can attest, digital archives can be overwhelming due to both the sheer quantity of resources available and the conflicting perspectives offered by the different sources [6]. Further exacerbating this issue is the widespread acceptance of the  “expert researcher” model cultivated in the social sciences; a pedagogical approach to research that emphasizes the importance of practice, experience, and trial and error without providing students with significant guidance [7]. This ready access to digital archives pushes historians to produce faster, more immediate research results, which when combined with the lack of guidance about using these sources is likely to lead to a deterioration in the quality of historical research.

Moreover, the way historians navigate digital archives creates significant bias issues from a methodological perspective. Many historians locate online resources through searching for a few specific keywords in a full text search in a large database [8]. This creates a powerful confirmation bias as historians find evidence containing what they already know or were searching for to begin with. The historian in question would never have the opportunity to discover evidence that is relevant to their topic if they did not already know to look for it. Furthermore, the way that search algorithms filter results by sorting in order of relevance filters out alternative theses and creates an artificial prioritization of sources that may be damaging to the historian’s research. Most people are likely to use the first relevant resources that are discovered by their search, neglecting ideas and possibilities that the search algorithm – which the historian does not control – deemed irrelevant. Thus, while digital archives are unimaginably powerful in the many sources they house, they also inevitably alter the way we do research and what we are likely to find. Without proper attention to the biases caused by the use of digital archives, our historical scholarship could neglect alternative perspectives and ideas.

The development of digital history offers the opportunity to  both experiment with new historical pedagogies and to address educational deficits. In today’s digital age, unprecedented numbers of people have access to the Internet and electronic devices, enabling more people than ever before to learn about anything they choose. Equity in access, though, has remained elusive. The term “digital divide” came about early in the Internet Age to refer to the disparities in Internet access along  socioeconomic lines [9]. As digital systems become more complex, a lack of education and training in these new systems has further exacerbated this disparity with low rates of computer usage and Internet connectivity among lower-income populations and the elderly, who are often still unable to fully engage with these online resources [10]. As digital tools become increasingly advanced and convoluted, this disparity will only increase. Thus, to realize the full potential of the accessibility of digital history, we must first address initial disparities in digital education itself.

Another consequence of greater accessibility means that as more people can learn history on the Internet, more people can teach (or claim to teach) history on the Internet as well. The massive capacities of digital storage means that unlimited perspectives, points of views, and arguments can be housed on the Internet. While this certainly increases nuanced understandings of history, one is left to wonder when the endless discursivity of the Internet becomes adverse to producing meaningful historical discussions. This is further complicated when different arguments directly contradict each other, leading to another difficulty: the lack of fact-checking, peer review, and credibility of writers on the Internet. Open-source projects like wikis have long wrestled with the question of how to guarantee the credibility of information on the Internet [11]. While print formats certainly face issues of legitimacy as well, the Internet makes it significantly easier to spread misinformation and exploit good faith.

The massive scale of the Internet also leads to the tendency for collective information about a topic to read more like a long-winded definition or an encyclopedia entry, rather than a concrete historical argument. Rather than encouraging more in-depth interactions with sources and the synthesis of materials between different historical sources, greater accessibility tends to lead to a focus on providing larger and larger quantities of information. Although the greater accessibility of digital history has indisputable benefits, there is much left to wonder about how this greater access to digitized materials and the development of increasingly complicated databases  shapes historical scholarship and learning. Edward Ayers, the pioneer of digital history at the University of Virginia, points out that while other fields have engaged in discussions about epistemology, narrative, and audience about the advent of digital media, the way that academic history is written has remained unchanged [12].

The current state of digital history suggests that the full potential of the use of digital technologies in the production and dissemination of historical knowledge is unexplored and that professional historians could often benefit from a more formal computer science education. Initial efforts at producing digital history were able to integrate different forms of digital media into historical writing – pictures, sounds, and videos were suddenly presentable mediums. Yet while multimedia formats lead to more effective pedagogical  engagement and more creative historical perspectives, to limit digital history only to the integration of digital media neglects the broader ways in which the ideas and techniques of computer science might be applied to historical scholarship. For instance, oral history could be much more easily transcribed through the help of artificial intelligence. Data mining algorithms which analyze large sets of data looking for specific trends and statistics are directly analogous to the process by which historians search digital and physical archives for phenomena and evidence [13]. Historians with the ability to program and control their own search algorithms could more effectively and efficiently make use of digital archives. Geographic information system technologies (GIS) contain software that allows a user to manage, analyze, and visualize geographic data. The use of GIS would allow historians to visualize geographic patterns and examine historical evidence at different layers and scopes [14]. Other forms of geovisualization can be used to recreate various historical settings both to better connect with viewers and to create a more concrete understanding of historical settings and situations [15]. Some scholars have gone so far as to imagine 3D simulations–enabled by artificial intelligence–in which users would engage with historical actors and influence the course of events. Network analysis, which refers to a set of methods and techniques to analyze relationships (edges) between different data points (nodes) represented by a graph,  can be used to represent different relationships between people, places, objects, ideas, and events [16]. Those graphs can then be analyzed through centrality algorithms to identify the most influential nodes. It is of note that computer science as a discipline is still looking for algorithms that can better handle multiple types of nodes and edges – which historians would use to represent different categories of evidence. Through encouraging historians to explore computer science techniques, we might find that historians, too, contribute to the field of computer science. In short, there are a plethora of ways in which computer science techniques might help historians become more innovative researchers and effective teachers, and there is much to be gained from encouraging historians to gain a more formal background in computer science.

It is perhaps a mistake to say that digital history would revolutionize history as an academic field – as Edelstein and Findlen found in their Mapping of Letters project, these new methods do not produce radically different historical conclusions [17]. Rather, digital history gives us new tools to access and analyze unprecedented numbers of sources, refine insights, identify both large-scale trends and previously neglected microhistories, and point us in new directions to explore [18]. Nevertheless, the age of the Internet has undoubtedly transformed history as an academic field. The ways in which digital technology has opened up history as a field – making it more accessible for anyone to read and write, regardless of their physical location or background – certainly changes the kinds of histories being written, for better or for worse. The digitization of records and democratization of information access has opened up new platforms for historical discourse, changing the types of histories being written, and challenging conventional notions of historical knowledge. Technologies such as augmented reality, 3D printing, mobile podcasting, holographic reconstruction, and more [19] are changing what we envision as history, challenging conventional notions of what we consider a unit of historical information [20]. That technology is constantly evolving and changing has become a given in our daily lives. That academic history will learn to adapt with it remains to be seen.

[1] Seefeldt, Douglass, and William G Thomas III. 2009. What is Digital History? A Look at Some Exemplar Projects. Accessed February 3, 2022. https://www.historians.org/publications-and-directories/perspectives-on-history/may-2009/what-is-digital-history.

[2] Ayers, Edward L. n.d. The Pasts and Futures of Digital History.

[3] Brennen, Claire. 2018. “Digital humanities, digital methods, digital history, and digital outputs: History writing and the digital revolution.” History Compass 5.

[4] Underwood, Ted. Summer 2014. “Theorizing Research Practices We Forgot to Theorize Twenty Years Ago.” Representations 127 66.

[5] Lee, John K. Aug 2002. “Digital History in the History/Social Studies Classroom.” The History Teacher 504.

[6] Daniel, Dominique. February 2012. “Teaching Students How to Research the Past: Historians and Librarians in the Digital Age.” The History Teacher 266.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Underwood, Ted. Summer 2014. “Theorizing Research Practices We Forgot to Theorize Twenty Years Ago.” Representations 127 65.

[9] Hurley, Andrew. February 2016. “Chasing the Frontiers of Digital Technology.” The Public Historian 71.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Rosenzweig, Roy. 2006. Can History Be Open Source: Wikipedia and the Future of the Past. June. https://academic.oup.com/jah/article/93/1/117/813367.

[12] Ayers.

[13] Leonard, Peter. 2014. “Mining Large Datasets for the Humanities.”

[14] Knowles, Anne Kelly. 2008. “GIS and History.” In Placing History: How Maps, Spatial Data, and GIS are Changing Historical Scholarship, 2. Redlands, CA: Esri Press.

[15] Hurley, 71.

[16] Weingart, Scott. 2011. Demystifying Networks. December 14. http://www.scottbot.net/HIAL/index.html@p=6279.html .

[17] Edelstein, Dan, Paula Findlen, Giovanna Ceserani, Winterer, Caroline, and Nicole Coleman. April 2017. “Historical Research in a Digital Age: Reflections from the Mapping of Letters Project.” American Historical Review 408.

[18] Edelstein, 409

[19] Hurley, 69.

[20] Knowles, 19


Ayers, Edward L. n.d. The Pasts and Futures of Digital History.

Brennen, Claire. 2018. “Digital humanities, digital methods, digital history, and digital outputs: History writing and the digital revolution.” History Compass 1-12.

Cohen, Daniel J, and Roy Rosenzweig. n.d. Digital History: A Guide to Gathering, Preserving, and Presenting the Past on the Web. Accessed February 3, 2022. http://chnm.gmu.edu/digitalhistory/.

Daniel, Dominique. February 2012. “Teaching Students How to Research the Past: Historians and Librarians in the Digital Age.” The History Teacher 261-282.

Dorn, Sherman. n.d. “Is (Digital) History More than an Argument about the Past?” In Writing History in the Digital Age, by Jack Dougherty and Kristen Nawrotzki, 21-34. University of Michigan Press: Digitalculturebooks.

Edelstein, Dan, Paula Findlen, Giovanna Ceserani, Winterer, Caroline, and Nicole Coleman. April 2017. “Historical Research in a Digital Age: Reflections from the Mapping of Letters Project.” American Historical Review 200-224.

Gutterman, Lauren Jae. Fall 2010. “OutHistory.org: An Experiment in LGBTQ Community History-Making.” The Public Historian 96-109.

Hitchcock, Tim. 2017. “Digital Searching and Re-formulation of Historical Knowledge.” In The Virtual Representation of the Past, by Mark Greengrass and Lorna Hughes, 81-90. Routledge.

Hurley, Andrew. February 2016. “Chasing the Frontiers of Digital Technology.” The Public Historian 69-88.

Knowles, Anne Kelly. 2008. “GIS and History.” In Placing History: How Maps, Spatial Data, and GIS are Changing Historical Scholarship, 1-25. Redlands, CA: Esri Press.

Lee, John K. Aug 2002. “Digital History in the History/Social Studies Classroom.” The History Teacher 503-517.

Leonard, Peter. 2014. “Mining Large Datasets for the Humanities.”

Nonovich, Len. 2000. “Database as a Genre of New Media.” AI and Society 176-183.

Paju, Petri, Mila Oiva, and Mats Fridlund. 2020. Digital Histories: Emergent Approaches within the New Digital History. S.I.: Helsinki University Press.

Rosenzweig, Roy. 2006. Can History Be Open Source: Wikipedia and the Future of the Past. June. https://academic.oup.com/jah/article/93/1/117/813367.

Seefeldt, Douglass, and William G Thomas III. 2009. What is Digital History? A Look at Some Exemplar Projects. Accessed February 3, 2022. https://www.historians.org/publications-and-directories/perspectives-on-history/may-2009/what-is-digital-history.

Spichiger, Lynn, and Juliet Jacobsen. 2005. Telling an Old Story in a New Way: Raid on Deerfield, The Many Stories of 1704. Accessed February 4, 2022. https://www.museumsandtheweb.com/mw2005/papers/spichiger/spichiger.html.

Underwood, Ted. Summer 2014. “Theorizing Research Practices We Forgot to Theorize Twenty Years Ago.” Representations 127 64-72.

Weingart, Scott. 2011. Demystifying Networks. December 14. Accessed February 15, 2022. http://www.scottbot.net/HIAL/index.html@p=6279.html

A Brief History: the Study of 律 (Pitch) in Ancient China

By Norah Han

The study of harmony, in both ancient East and West, was occasionally related to the belief of the harmonic consonance between heaven and earth. The Pythagoreans discovered that the ratio 2:3 between two music tones gives a pleasant sound and thus resembles the harmonic echo between heaven and earth.1 Similarly, in ancient Chinese literature the connection between music and the cosmos, 2:3, was regarded as the interval of harmony and symbolizes the reverberation between earth and heaven, as 2 was regarded as the number of the earth, and 3 represented the three points that form the sky.2 Starting from the period of the Han Dynasty (206 B.C – 220 A.D.), each lunar month was associated with one musical pitch (律, ) , as people believed that music was an intangible link between humans and heaven. During each month, all ritual performances were carried out in the specific assigned to the month.3

The calculation of musical pitches in ancient China can be traced back to its earliest written form in the books 吕氏春秋 (Master Lü’s Spring and Autumn Annals) written by scholars funded by 吕不韦 (Lü Buwei) in 241 B.C. and 管子 (Guanzi) written by 管子 (Guan Zi) in the fourth century B.C.. In his book, Guan Zi recorded the method of adding and subtracting a third ( 三分损益法) and applied it to the number 81, an auspicious number in the Chinese tradition. Through his pitch-generating formula, Guan Zi was able to generate other four numbers: 54, 72, 48, and 64, respectively. Together with the number 81, the five numbers correspond to the musical notes do-so-re-la-mi in today’s common music notation system. These five notes form the fundamental pentatonic scale of the Chinese music tradition, which are gōng 宫 (do), shāng 商 (re), jué 角 (mi), zhǐ 徵 (so) and yǔ 羽 (la).

Image 1: The pentatonic scale (CDEGA) commonly used in traditional Chinese music 

The concept of , which consists of 12 tones that make up the chromatic series had long been used in ceremonial rituals ever since the Shang-Zhou era (circa 1766-256 B.C.) in ancient China, with the fundamental note 黄钟 (huangzhong, just like the C in today’s standard chromatic scale).4  However, a tuning problem occurred. In the traditional Chinese music theory literature, such problem is referred to as “the huangzhong cannot be restored –  if one tunes the 12 notes of the chromatic scale in perfect fifths, the 13th note relative to the fundamental note, which is supposed to be an exact octave higher than the fundamental note, is actually a bit higher than expected. Similarly, there exists an ancient  Greek counterpart to the tuning problem, commonly referred to as the “Pythogorean comma” of the Pythogorean tuning system.

 The “huangzhong cannot be restored” problem, or the “Pythogorean comma,” was not resolved until the establishment of a new tuning system, the 12-tone equal temperament. The equal temperament tuning system is constructed via dividing an octave into 12 equal parts, each corresponding to a note in the chromatic scale using the 21/12 specific ratio defined using the notion of irrationality. In other words, the system can not do without the discovery of irrational numbers. Such an advancement in mathematics was made almost simultaneously in the East and the West, as with the emergence of the equal temperament system. 

In the history of Chinese music theory literature, Zhu Zaiyu was the first person to come up with an exact mathematical formula that gives the system of 12 equally tempered tones, approximately around 1581.5 Zhu Zaiyu (1536-1611) was a Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) Chinese scholar, musician, and poet. His areas of research included mathematics, astronomy, metrology, music theory, choreography, etc. He also created musical instruments, composed songs, and wrote poems. Born into a noble family, Zhu Zaiyu did not live a privileged life, as his father criticized the emperor, which enraged the emperor who imprisoned Zhu’s father. After his father’s case was redressed and Zhu inherited the title the Prince of Zheng, Zhu continued to live in the mountain ranges and conducted his research in mathematics, physics, music theory, and dance theory. Though Zhu was a prolific scholar and writer, his books were ignored by the emperor as well as the scholarly community at that time. 

The fundamental pitch that generates all the other 11 pitches is referred to as huangzhong in Zhu’s works. Though being the first person in ancient Chinese history to propose a theory that is analogous to today’s equal temperament tuning system, Zhu did not invent the concept of huangzhong. Huangzhong first appeared in its written form in 汉书 (Han Shu) (105), a historical chronology compiled by 班固 (Ban Gu) of the Han Dynasty, which is an expansion on the works by 刘歆 (Liu Xin). On the other hand, according to the legend, the origin of huangzhong can be dated back to 黄帝 (Huang Di), who is deemed as the founding figure of the Chinese civilization. Huang Di sent 伶伦 (Ling Lun) to the mountain ranges within the 昆仑 (Kun Lun). Ling Lun returned with a bamboo that produced the huangzhong pitch, and according to the legend, Ling Lun was inspired by the voice of  凤凰 (Fenghuang), an immortal bird in Chinese mythology. As mentioned earlier, music’s main role in ancient China was to accompany rituals, which were deemed as ways to communicate with the gods. Moreover, the consonant, correctly tuned pitches used in rituals were perceived as the harmonious relationship with the cosmos. Thus, when a new dynasty replaced the old one, the former huangzhong pitch was always replaced by a new pitch, as it was believed that it was the improper music ritual system that partially led to the demise of the former dynasty.6

Zhu’s definition of the huangzhong, on the other hand, is slightly different from his predecessors’. Instead of defining the length of huangzhong as 9 寸 cun, Zhu’s huangzhong is 1 尺 chi (10 cun ~ 255 mm) long. His fixed huangzhong would correspond to today’s concert pitch E5 (650 Hz).7 In his work《律呂精义》, Zhu gives the following formula that defines his 新法密律 (the new law for density rate), or equivalent to its western counterpart, the equal temperament system.

ln+1= 2-1/12ln,

where ln denotes the length of each of the 12 fundamental pitches. The length of the fundamental pitch, huangzhong, is defined as 1 chi. In his book 《乐律全书》, Zhu gives an illustration of the relationship between the 12 pitches via a picture with explanations on the side: “长律下生短律,下生者皆左旋。短律上生长律,上生者皆右旋。(In the descending direction, the higher pitch gives rise to the lower pitch, and the counterclockwise direction of the graph labels the pitches in the descending direction. In the ascending direction, the lower pitch gives rise to the higher pitch, and the clockwise direction of the graph labels the pitches in ascending direction.)”

Image 2: 左旋右旋相生之图 the picture of the generation of pitches through left and right rotation, from 乐律全书》. 

By using this formula, Zhu constructed his instrument  律准, equivalent to a monochord that has 12 strings, each corresponding to a pitch in his 12-pitch system.

Zhu’s 律准, “monochord” from 乐律全书》

Moreover, Zhu constructed pitch pipes in order to apply his formula more accurately. Through constructing pipes that have different diameters,  Zhu defined in total 12 pitches, 36 notes, spanning 3 octaves in his book 《律呂精义》. Moreover, he classified them as the clear tones, the central tones, and the murky tones. A paragraph from 《律呂精义》 in which Zhu elaborates on his understanding of the concept of the clear tones, the central tones, and the murky tones, gives the readers of today a peek into the philosophy behind Zhu’s music system:

十二律皆中声也 […] 夫何为中声耶歌出自然虽髙而不至于揭不起虽低而不至于咽


Translation: The twelve pitches are all central tones… They are regarded as the central tones, as the pitches are neither too high nor too low for the singers to perform. Higher than the central tones are the half pitches called the clear tones. Lower than the central tones are the double pitches called the murky tones.

Zhu was able to define the accurate calculation of the equal temperament system that is the most dominant tuning system used eversince the western classical era compositions and performances till today’s worldwide repertoire. His calculation of the notes were astonishingly accurate—to 24 digits after the decimal point. Moreover, his formula and the definition of 密律 (density ratio), 21/12, is the same ratio used in the equal temperament tuning system developed by Flemish mathematician Simon Stevin around 1600 in his unpublished treatise Van De Spiegheling der singconst (On the Theory of Music) under the section “Arithmetical Division of the Monochord”. 

Zhu Zaiyu’s works were heavily influenced by his uncle 何瑭 He Tang’s work 《乐律管见》. Zhu also worked with his father, whose interest in music influenced him ever since childhood. In his short article introducing his work 《律呂精义》to the emperor, Zhu wrote:


Translation: I hereby offer my book to describe my family’s study and to complete my father’s goal, … my father Zhu Houwan, the King of Gong, is quite interested in the study of musical pitches and calendar. His study of these topics, though is quite similar to his predecessors, I humbly think that his study can supplement the aspects overlooked by his predecessors.

This article marks several important milestones of the development of music systems in ancient China, but the story is far from complete. First of all, the scholars’ attempt to find an underlying law that governs the voices that are considered as music is undeniably important, as constructing a system that builds consensus among people makes the production and communication of music easier. However, a brief review of the history of music laws developed by the ancient Chinese does not present a complete picture of the practice of music in ancient China. Moreover, the readers should note that music in ancient China did not solely exist in the court ceremonies, but also in the daily life rituals as folk music, festivity accompaniment, music for life events like funerals and weddings, etc.

1 Cho, Gene Jinsiong. 2003.”Music and Man,” The discovery of musical equal temperament in China and Europe in the sixteenth century,1-15. Lewiston, NY: Mellen.

2 Ibid.

3 Woo, Shingkwan. “The Ceremonial Music of Zhu Zaiyu.” Doctoral dissertation, The State University of New Jersey, 2017. 73-99.

4 Ibid.

5 Woo, Shingkwan. “The Ceremonial Music of Zhu Zaiyu.” Doctoral dissertation, The State University of New Jersey, 2017. 201-228.

6 Woo, Shingkwan. “The Ceremonial Music of Zhu Zaiyu.” Doctoral dissertation, The State University of New Jersey, 2017.73-99.

7 Woo, Shingkwan. “The Ceremonial Music of Zhu Zaiyu.” Doctoral dissertation, The State University of New Jersey, 2017. 201-228.


Stanevičiūtė, Rūta, Nick Zangwill, and Rima Povilionienė. 2019. Of essence and context: between music and philosophy. Springer EBooks. https://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&scope=site&db=nlebk&db=nlabk&AN=2149659.

吴鸿雅 Wu, Hongya. 朱载堉新法密率的人文理解研究 [A Study on Zhu Zaiyu’s Density Rate Law ]. Ziran bianzhengfa tongxun 自然辨证法通讯, no.2( 2006).

Zhu, Zaiyu 朱载堉. 《律呂精义》. 人民音乐出版社, 2006.

Zhu, Zaiyu 朱载堉. 《乐律全书》. 电子科技大学出版社,2017.

The Spying Lady Shippen

By Eliza Greenbaum

Peggy Shippen is an enigma. Few people know about the story of the cunning spy who transformed the stereotypes surrounding her ‘weakness’ as a woman into one of her greatest strengths. On April 8th, 1779, at the age of eighteen, Peggy Shippen married Benedict Arnold, the notorious traitor of the Revolutionary War.1 To this day, Peggy fascinates historians. During her life, Peggy was viewed as a helpless ingenue, trapped in a marriage with a viper. She was pitied as a damsel in distress, prone to fainting spells and emotional outbursts. The reality of the situation was quite different. Peggy was a major player in a conspiracy to help the British during the Revolutionary War. She dispatched messages to the British while utilizing the stereotype of women being unstable and ‘hysterical’ to outwit some of the most influential men in the nation, including George Washington and Alexander Hamilton. When Benedict’s plans were discovered, Peggy faked hysterics to distract his accusers and help her husband escape. The Lady Shippen was a fascinating woman who deserves more recognition in history.

Peggy Shippen was highly intelligent and heavily involved in the politics of her nation, during a time period when women were criticized for engaging in political activity. She was the wife of Benedict Arnold, an American military general in the Revolutionary War who betrayed the nation with his plot to sell information to the British and surrender Fort West Point.2 When Arnold’s plans were discovered, Peggy was believed to be completely innocent. Hamilton and Washington pitied the damsel in distress, as a victim of her husband’s crimes. Hamilton viewed Arnold’s actions as unforgivable for hurting Peggy. He stated “could I forgive Arnold for sacrificing his honor reputation and duty I could not forgive him for acting a part that must have forfieted the esteem of so fine a woman” (Hamilton).3 However, Peggy was far from a damsel in distress. Scholar Lina Kerber notes that most women at the time operated within a domestic context thought to be divorced from politics: 

Most of the women who furthered the patriots’ military purposes [in the Revolutionary War] did not do so in an institutional context; as cooks, washerwomen, laundresses, private nurses… They did not change their domestic identity (though they put it to a broader service), and they did not seriously challenge the traditional definition of the woman’s domestic domain… The notion that politics was somehow not part of the woman’s domain persisted throughout the war.4

Peggy was a notable exception to the rule. She was an enthusiastic Loyalist and engaged in the politics of her country. When Arnold began corresponding to Peggy he valued her political opinion and was willing to discuss the unladylike topic of politics with her. In a letter from 1778, Arnold wrote to Peggy stating that “the security which liberty and property might obtain under democratic forms of government, or of the possibility of successful resistance by arms to the mighty power of England, they might well be pardoned for hesitation to embark in a struggle which, should it end in defeat, might be followed by severe oppression.”5 The letter was written months before Arnold and Peggy’s marriage, highlighting the importance of politics in their relationship. Only a month after his marriage to his wife, Arnold switched his allegiance to the British. There were multiple factors involved with Arnold’s decision to switch allegiances. Arnold believed he was not given enough recognition in the war and required money with his mounting debt.6 However, Arnold’s marriage to Peggy also likely played a role in his shift to traitor. Peggy was certainly not an innocent ingenue, entrapped by the crimes of her husband. Instead, Peggy and Benedict were partners in crime, both involved in treachery.

Peggy Shippen soon proved willing to get her hands dirty with treason. She was friends with John Andre, a major in the British Army.  In August 1779, shortly after her marriage to Arnold, Peggy received a letter from Andre. The letter reads: 

“It would make me very happy to become useful to you here. You know the Mesquianza has made me a complete milliner. Should you not have received supplies for your fullest equipment from that department, I shall be glad to enter into the whole detail of cap-wire, needles, gauze, etc., and, to the best of my abilities, render you in these trifle services which I hope you would infer a zeal to be further employed.”7 

At first glance, the letter appears dull with the focus on “needles, gauze, etc.” However, this was the first letter Andre had written to Peggy in a year. The letter is ambiguous with its intentions, yet statements such as “I hope you would infer a zeal to be further employed” and “it would make me very happy to become useful to you here” hint at hidden intentions. Soon afterward, Peggy and Arnold began sending military information to Andre. Peggy was no bystander. She actively conspired with her husband, cultivating a contact to act as a messenger for the letters. Peggy utilized Joseph Stansbury, a china and furniture dealer who was helping her decorate her home and eager to assist in treachery. Stansbury delivered the messages to Andre at the British Headquarters of New York City, where Stansbury typically went on shopping trips.8 Peggy’s letters to Andre through Stansbury had previously been harmless messages between friends.9 The letters were soon filled with treasonous information coded to the British.10

Lady Shippen was the last person anyone would ever suspect of treachery. However, she was an active member of the plot to betray Washington and the American troops. Peggy and her husband worked together to decode and encode the messages, by using a cipher written in invisible ink that was only readable when rinsed with acid or lemon juice.11 Andre and Arnold decided to smuggle the letters, using the guise of Peggy writing to her friends. Andre wrote in a letter to Stansbury on May 10, 1779, “in general information, as to the complexion of Affairs / an Old Woman’s health may be the subject. / The Lady might write to me at the same time / with one of her intimates.”12 The decision to use the guise of Peggy writing to her friends suggests that Andre, Arnold, and Peggy believed nobody would care to read the letters between female friends or bother examining the details of an older woman’s health. This assumption emphasizes how the group utilized the societal underestimation of women to hide the ‘unladylike’ crime of treason.

Moreover, Peggy was more than a side partner in the conspiracy. She actively participated in negotiations between Arnold and the British. In October 1779, when the British failed to meet the terms of payment for Arnold dispatching information to the British, Peggy sent a letter in code to continue the negotiations. The letter stated, “Mrs. Moore [Arnold’s code name] requests the enclosed list of articles for her own use may be procured for her and the account of them and the former [orders] sent and she will pay for the whole with thanks.”13 The letter requested items that had absolutely nothing to do with treason such as cloth, spurs, and pink ribbon. However, the list of items was intended as a code to inform Andre and the British that Arnold had stated his price. Peggy’s role in sending the letter maintained the negotiations between the two men and proved that she was fully involved in the conspiracy.14

Peggy Shippen’s actions prove how she took advantage of her role as a woman in the eighteenth century to maintain a facade of innocence while assisting in one of the most traitorous episodes in American history. Peggy Shippen was underestimated as a woman with her emotions treated as a weakness and viewed as too “frail” to be capable of treason. During Peggy’s youth, multiple members of her family were captured by the British, which created a large amount of anxiety in the Shippen family. All of “these constantly recurring scenes of anxiety and danger developed in Peggy Shippen a susceptibility to fainting spells… which continued all through her life.”15 Peggy was prone to highly emotional outbursts, often fainting afterward. She was viewed as “hysterical” and unable to contain her emotions. Peggy was heavily underestimated because she fit the stereotype of the “hysterical” woman. Women were heavily associated with “hysteria” and emotional instability throughout the eighteenth century. According to the author Heather Meek, 

[In the eighteenth century] the continued use of terms such as, ‘hysteria’(which derives from the Greek for ‘belonging to the womb’)… suggested that, even though hysteria was beginning to be understood through new mechanical and nervous models of the body, metaphors of wandering wombs, corrupt menstrual blood, and disease uteri lingered. Doctors in particular insisted on using the term ‘hysteria’ for female patients, and they promoted notions of women’s inherent hysterical inclinations and deficient physiology.16 

Peggy was believed to fit the socially constructed notion of the “hysterical” woman with her emotional outbursts and fainting spells. Therefore, Peggy also may have taken advantage of people’s perception of her as a mentally unstable woman.  For example, Peggy’s emotional outbursts successfully convinced her father to allow her to marry Arnold. Mr. Shippen was originally opposed to the marriage due to “rumors about Arnold’s unsavory business dealings and arrogant behavior. Peggy, nevertheless, insisted on the marriage and…wept endlessly, took to her bed, and refused to eat or drink until she became ill. The judge [Mr. Shippen] assented.”17 Peggy may have struggled with her mental health, as demonstrated by her emotional outbursts and fainting spells, yet it appears she also exaggerated her “hysteria” in order to appear unsuspicious and influence those around her.

Peggy Shippen was a figure of contradiction, sometimes praised as a clever spy and other times criticized as a foolish woman. Peggy was certainly a shrewdly intelligent woman with an eye for politics. However, she was also very young during the conspiracy, marrying Arnold at the age of eighteen, and often regarded as frail due to her emotional instability. Colonel Richard Varick once stated, “she [Peggy] would give utterance to anything and everything in her mind,” and he decided “to be scrupulous of what we told her or said within her bearing.”18 The quote is ironic, seeing as Peggy was currently hiding treason from the nation. Varrick’s statement also acts as a reminder of how Peggy was looked down upon as a woman in the eighteenth century. Nevertheless, Peggy was highly influential in a time period when women had few opportunities. In widowhood, Peggy proved herself more financially efficient than her husband, despite having limited experience in finance. Following his death, Arnold left behind significant debt which Peggy paid off through investing in Canadian property. In a letter, she proudly stated, “I believe I may without vanity say there are few women that could have so far conquered as I have done.”19 Although Peggy was often perceived as inept or foolish, in reality, she was extraordinarily bright and successfully manipulated the stereotypes surrounding femininity to her advantage.

As shown, Peggy utilized the societal perceptions surrounding women as “incapable” and “hysterical” to appear blameless despite her not-so-innocent role as a spy. However, Peggy’s double life quickly came to an end with the capture of Andre. On September 23, 1780, three Westminster militiamen discovered papers in Andre’s boots revealing the plot to capture West Point with Arnold. Andre was eventually executed.20 On September 25th, Arnold received a letter announcing Andre’s capture and impending execution. The letter arrived on the morning Arnold was expected to host breakfast for Washington and his party.21 Arnold swiftly fled the house, leaving Peggy alone to distract Washington and his men. Peggy was completely up to the task. She raved, sobbed, and even accused Washington of attempting to murder her child. Hamilton, a member of Washington’s party, wrote that Peggy

For a considerable time entirely lost her senses. The General went up to see her and she upbraided him with being in a plot to murder her child; one moment she raved; another she melted into tears; sometimes she pressed her infant to her bosom and lamented its fate occasioned by the imprudence of its father in a manner that would have pierced insensibility itself.22

Washington and his men watched Peggy’s display with pity, believing she had lost her senses from learning of her husband’s betrayal. The spy easily outwitted some of the most powerful figures from American history, such as Washington and Hamilton, by faking a sense of helplessness. Hamilton mentioned “​​her [Peggy’s] sufferings were so eloquent that I wished myself her brother, to have a right to become her defender. As it is, I have entreated her to enable me to give her proofs of my friendship.”23 Hamilton’s desire to defend Peggy emphasizes the perception of Peggy as helpless and needing to be protected. However, Peggy was a far cry from the weak wife that Washington’s men assumed her to be. The “innocent” Lady Shippen manipulated the stereotypes surrounding women as overly emotional to protect her husband even in the face of danger. She was certainly not helpless.

Peggy Shippen is proof that one should never judge a book by the cover. She demonstrated that a “respectable lady” and wife could also be living a double life as a spy involved in treason. Peggy utilized the generalization surrounding women as deeply emotional and uninvolved in politics to spy for the enemy through letters, overflowing with feminine coding that nobody would care to read. She was a cunning schemer who successfully outsmarted the most powerful men of the nation by playing into the trope of the “hysterical” woman. She was far more than the wife of an infamous traitor. Peggy Shippen should not be viewed as a side note to the stories of her husband but remembered instead as one of the most notorious traitors in American history who managed to transcend gender norms by shifting the stereotyping of women as weak into one of her greatest strengths.

1 Peggy Shippen. (Biography, Political Figure Newsletter, 2015).

2 Benedict Arnold. (History Newsletter, American Revolution, A&E Television Networks, 2009).

3 From Alexander Hamilton to Elizabeth Schuyler, 25 September 1780 (Founders Online, National Archives). Date Accessed February 13th, 2022. https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Hamilton/01-02-02-0869

4 Linda Kerber, Women of the Republic: Intellect and Ideology in Revolutionary America (The University of North Carolina Press, 2014), 73,74.

5 Benedict Arnold to Peggy Shippen, Letters and Papers Relating to Chiefly to the Principal History of Pennsylvania With Some Notices of Writers. (All Digital Collections, Making of America Books), Date Accessed February 17th, 2022. https://quod.lib.umich.edu/cgi/t/text/text-idx?c=moa&cc=moa&view=text&rgn=main&idno=AFK3977.0001.001

6 From Hero to Traitor: Benedict Arnold’s Day of Infamy. (Constitution Center, NCC Staff, September 21, 2021), Date Accessed February 15th, 2022. 


7 John Andre as quoted in James Parton. Daughters of Genius: A Series of Sketches of Authors, Artists, Reformers, and Heroines (The University of Michigan Libraries, 2011),201.

8 Willard Sterne Randall, Mrs. Benedict Arnold (History Net, MHQ). Date Accessed February 16th, 2022. https://www.historynet.com/mrs-benedict-arnold/

9 Willard Sterne Randall, Mrs. Benedict Arnold.

10 Ibid.

11 Ibid.

12 John André Letter to Joseph Stansbury, May 10, 1779 (Henry Clinton Papers. William L. Clements Library. University of Michigan).

13 Willard Sterne Randall, Mrs. Benedict Arnold.

14 Ibid.

15 Lewis Burd Walker, Edward Shippen, and B. Franks, Life of Margaret Shippen, Wife of Benedict Arnold (Continued) (The Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography, 1900), 416.

16 Gordon S. Wood and Peter Shaw, Histrionics and Hysteria in the American Revolution (Johns Hopkins University Press. Vol. 9, 1981), 176 and 177.

17 Nancy Rubin Stuart. Traitor Bride, (American History, Weider History Group), 44.

18 Colonel Varrick as quoted in  Nancy Rubin Stuart, Traitor Bride (American History. Weider History Group), 46.

19 Notes and Documents: The Widowhood of Margaret Shippen Arnold (The Pennsylvania Museum of History and Biographies), 226.

20 T.K Bryon, John Andre (Washington Library, Digital Encyclopedia, Center for Digital History). Date Accessed February 15th, https://www.mountvernon.org/library/digitalhistory/digital-encyclopedia/article/john-andre/

21 Life Story: Margaret “Peggy” Shippen Arnold (1760-1803) (Women in the American History Society, New York Historical Society, Museum and Library).

22 Hamilton to Elizabeth Schuyler, 1780 (National Archives).

23 Ibid.

The Sympathizer: Grappling with the Memories of War

By Dan-Ha Le

“I am a spy, a sleeper, a spook, a man of two faces. Perhaps not surprisingly, I am a man of two minds”

Viet Thanh Nguyen, The Sympathizer
Viet Thanh Nguyen: 'I always felt displaced no matter where I was' |  Fiction | The Guardian

The Sympathizer, a Pulitzer prize-winning novel by Professor Viet Thanh Nguyen, tells the story of a Communist spy in the South Vietnamese army, whose mission is to flee to America with the remnants of the Diem regime and report back on possible insurgent efforts. Aside from grappling with the trauma of displacement within the Vietnamese diaspora in America, Viet Thanh Nguyen illustrated the struggles of living with a double-identity through the torn conscience of his protagonist. 

In 1975, Viet Thanh Nguyen fled Vietnam and came to America with his family by boat. Upon arrival, they were placed in a refugee camp and were later forced to separate to live with their respective sponsors while they awaited citizenship. His family was eventually able to reunite, settling in San Jose, California. Growing up as both American and Vietnamese, Nguyen had always felt like an intruder: an American spying on his very Vietnamese family, but also Vietnamese spying on his very American society. In fact, this experience is what inspired the The Sympathizer protagonist’ profession as a double-spy.

 As the bastard son of a Vietnamese single mother in rural Central Vietnam, the protagonist had always hated his father for making him a bastard, of mixed blood no less. Half-French, half-Vietnamese, not Vietnamese enough to be respected by his countrymen, not quite French enough to be heralded as a Westerner, the protagonist has long resigned to receiving unjust verbal abuse and harassment: “the baby-faced guard who comes to check on [him] every day calls [him] a bastard whenever he feels like it”. 

The theme of double-identity is central to the message of The Sympathizer. A true and committed believer of the Communist cause, the unnamed protagonist volunteered to infiltrate the lives of his enemies in order to advance the operations of liberating Saigon from American grasp. After years of going undercover, the protagonist successfully carried out the missions he was given, while adjusting perfectly into his double-life. Eventually, the protagonist unintentionally develops sympathy and familial bonds with the enemy, while trying desperately to hold onto the ideology that painted his missions’ bigger picture. The two minds and identities that the protagonist assumed onto himself drift further apart to the point where he had to face the deeper political nuances of the Vietnam War, as well as his role within it.   

As a Vietnamese who was born and raised in Vietnam, the history lessons that I was taught and the historical narrative that I draw from is vastly different from that of Nguyen and my Vietnamese-American peers. Yet The Sympathizer forces one to come face-to-face with the duality, or rather, manifold nature of history. As much as the protagonist wanted to possess one and only one identity, the social nuances that envelope his existence compel him to wrestle with the morally ambiguous nature of history and war, to reconcile two adverse observations of the same truth.

Madame Nguyen Thi-Binh’s Biography

By Dan-Ha Le

Vietnamese women have traditionally been fiercely whole-hearted participants of revolutionary efforts against the French colonization, the South Vietnamese Regular Army, and the American military. The Vietnamese Women’s Union firmly believed that the liberation of women goes hand-in-hand with the liberation of the country. The biography below details the early life, career, contributions, and historical significance of Madame Nguyen Thi-Binh, one of many notable female revolutionaries.

(Notice: In Vietnamese and many other East Asian cultures, the surname precedes the given names)

Madame Nguyen Thi-Binh was born in Saigon on May 26, 1927 into a family of revolutionaries. Her grandfather was Phan Chau-Trinh, legendary Nationalist leader, and her father was a civil servant turned civil resistance worker after her mother’s death. The French effort to reoccupy Vietnam, primarily funded by the United States, marked the start of the Indochina War in 1946. In 1948, Nguyen Thi-Binh joined the Communist Party in defiance of colonial rule.[1]

With her strong educational background and fluency in French, Nguyen Thi-Binh became a teacher during her early career and led the first anti – ‘foreign involvement in Vietnam’ demonstration in 1950.[2] Consequently, she was arrested and imprisoned by French authorities from 1951 to 1953. During her time in confinement, Nguyen Thi-Binh came across “hundreds and hundreds of women with [her] who did not even know why they were there. They asked, ‘What have we done?’ They did not know when they came but when they left, they knew. They left as patriots.”[3]

After Ho Chi Minh’s Viet-Minh army claimed their victory at the decisive Battle of Dien Bien Phu, the French rule came to an end and Nguyen Thi-Binh, along with her female comrades, was released from prison in 1954.[4] The country was divided into two: Ho Chi Minh’s Northern Vietnam and US-backed South Vietnam. The South Vietnam government later installed Ngo Dinh Diem as their president, and he was adverse to both the communist North and Viet-Minh’s sympathizers in the South.[5] Nguyen Thi-Binh and her husband at the time worked for the underground opposition against president Diem. [6]

From 1963 to 1966, Nguyen Thi-Binh became a Council Member of the Union of Women for the Liberation of South Vietnam, which recruited peasant women to join the resistance force.[7] She then became a member of the National Liberation Front (NLF)’s Central Committee.[8] Before official peace talks at Paris, Nguyen Thi-Binh made many efforts to gather international support and spread awareness far and wide about the message of NLF and the Socialist Republic of Vietnam, visiting not only India, but also other parts of Africa and Europe. During the mid-1960s, Nguyen Thi-Binh never shied away from offering interviews to international press, and in the West, she became the representative and symbol of the NLF (Reporters warmly regarded her as “Madame Binh”). In 1968, Nguyen Thi-Binh was appointed Foreign Minister of the NLF’s Provisional Revolutionary Government of South Vietnam (PRG), an independent shadow government, and led its delegation to Paris to attend the Peace Conference.[9]

Since its establishment in 1919 after World War I, the Paris Peace Conferences historically excluded women from its roundtable.[10] However, Nguyen Thi-Binh, with her iron-clad convictions and fluency in French, refused to be overshadowed by the male-dominated dialogues and asserted her presence during the entire process of negotiation. Nguyen Thi-Binh was not hesitant to challenge the Kissinger-Le Duc Tho agreements in which she found inadequate, such as issues around prisoners-of-war. She strongly advocated for coupling the freedom of South Vietnamese political prisoners with the release of American prisoners of war. Nguyen Thi-Binh became the only woman to sign the Paris Peace Accord in 1973, ‘officially’ ending the Vietnam War.[11]

“Her statement at the talks have been as unswerving as her dark, expressionless eyes with while she has faced three United States negotiators, enunciating as she did yesterday, terms for a peace settlement.”[12]

After the war ended, the Communist Party started to restructure its personnel within the government. Many members of the NLF were either annulled or given moot roles, and speculations were high around Madame Nguyen Thi-Binh being replaced by a male colleague.[13] Furthermore, Nguyen Thi-Binh being such a charismatic and well-publicized character goes against Communist ideals of non-individuality.[14] However, she continued to hold influential positions in Vietnamese politics. From 1982-1986, Nguyen Thi-Binh was appointed Minister of Education, the first female minister in Vietnam’s history. From 1987-1992, she was a member of the Central Committee of Vietnam’s Communist Party. Most notably, Congress elected Nguyen Thi-Binh to be the Vice President of the Socialist Republic of Vietnam two consecutive terms: 1992-1997 and 1977-2002.[15]

Throughout her life, Nguyen Thi-Binh is relentless in upholding the importance of Vietnam’s independence and autonomy. Her political life and contributions challenge the stereotypes of women being docile negotiators and passive participants in war and peace-making. Even after retiring, Madame Binh is actively involved in advocating for post-war reparations, specifically against Agent Orange and its remnants on Vietnamese soil

“Like many other countries, my country, Vietnam, has lived through long years of wars which have ravaged this already-poor land and left behind millions of orphans, widows, disabled and missing-in-action. Vietnamese women. as part of their nation have been tested by harsh trials and countless hardships. They have derived therefrom their exceptional endurance and tenacity, their ability to survive and to persist in their full identity through the storms of life, just like the Vietnamese bamboo tree, which is supple but unbreakable, which bends under the wind but does not break, and which afterwards, stand again as straight and proud as before.” (Nguyen Thi-Binh, 1995, at the United Nations 4th World Conference in Beijing, China)[16]

“This January 27, 1973 photo depicts the signing of documents at the agreement table during the Paris Peace Accords that turned the page on war in Vietnam, to [begin] the process of peace.”[17]

[1] Jennifer S. Uglow, Frances Hinton, and Maggy Hendry, “The Northeastern Dictionary of Women’s Biography” (Boston: Northeastern University Press, 1999), https://archive.org/details/northeasterndict0000uglo.

[2] Uglow, “Northeastern Dictionary.”

[3] New York Times Archive. “Voice of the Vietcong in Paris.” The New York Times, September 18, 1970. https://www.nytimes.com/1970/09/18/archives/voice-of-the-vietcong-in-paris.html.

[4] Uglow, “Northeastern Dictionary.”

[5] Ronald H. Specter, “French Rule Ended, Vietnam Divided,” Britannica. https://www.britannica.com/event/Vietnam-War/French-rule-ended-Vietnam-divided

[6] Uglow, “Northeastern Dictionary.”

[7] Uglow, “Northeastern Dictionary.”

[8] Uglow, “Northeastern Dictionary.”

[9] Uglow, “Northeastern Dictionary.”

[10] Mona Siegel, “Peacemaking and Women’s rights…a Century in the Making,” London School of Economics, November 18, 2019. https://blogs.lse.ac.uk/wps/2019/11/18/peacemaking-and-womens-rights-a-century-in-the-making/.

[11] Uglow, “Northeastern Dictionary.”

[12] New York Times Archive. “Voice of the Vietcong in Paris.”

[13]  BBC, “BBC Interviews Madame Nguyen Thi Binh,” BBC, October 13, 2008, https://www.bbc.com/vietnamese/vietnam/story/2008/10/081010_nguyen_thi_binh_interview. (in Vietnamese)

[14] New York Times Archive, “Voice of the Vietcong in Paris.”

[15] Uglow, “Northeastern Dictionary.”

[16] WNN Editors Team, “Madame Nguyen Thi-Binh on the Atrocities of War,” Women News Network, January 7, 2007, https://womennewsnetwork.net/2011/01/07/women-war-vietnam-4989/.

[17] WNN Editors Team, “Madame Nguyen Thi-Binh on the Atrocities of War.”


BBC. “BBC Interviews Madame Nguyen Thi Binh.” BBC. October 13, 2008. https://www.bbc.com/vietnamese/vietnam/story/2008/10/081010_nguyen_thi_binh_interview. (in Vietnamese)

New York Times Archive. “Voice of the Vietcong in Paris.” The New York Times. September 18, 1970. https://www.nytimes.com/1970/09/18/archives/voice-of-the-vietcong-in-paris.html.

Uglow, Jennifer S; Hinton, Frances; Hendry, Maggy. “The Northeastern Dictionary of Women’s Biography”. Boston: Northeastern University Press, 1999. https://archive.org/details/northeasterndict0000uglo.

Specter, Ronald H. “French Rule Ended, Vietnam Divided”. Britannica. https://www.britannica.com/event/Vietnam-War/French-rule-ended-Vietnam-divided.

Siegel, Mona. “Peacemaking and Women’s rights…a Century in the Making.” London School of Economics. November 18, 2019. https://blogs.lse.ac.uk/wps/2019/11/18/peacemaking-and-womens-rights-a-century-in-the-making/

WNN Editors Team. “Madame Nguyen Thi-Binh on the Atrocities of War.” Women News Network. January 7, 2007. https://womennewsnetwork.net/2011/01/07/women-war-vietnam-4989/.