Why Is the Alt-Right Into the Middle Ages? Plus: Scott Wolter Claims Ice Age Peoples Held Intercontinental "World Conference" Meetings
The Economist had an interesting blog this week speculating on why far right Americans have come to embrace the Middle Ages. Specifically, the blog post – anonymous, like most Economist pieces – looks at why far right advocates seem to have moved the center of their intellectual interest from Classical Antiquity to medieval times:
The embrace of the medieval extends from the alt-right online forum culture that has exploded in the last few years to stodgier old-school racists. Helmeted crusaders cry out the Latin war-cry “Deus vult!” from memes circulated on Reddit and 4Chan. Images of Donald Trump, clad in mail with a cross embroidered on his chest, abound. Anti-Islam journals and websites name themselves after the Frankish king Charles Martel, who fought Muslim armies in the 8th century, or the (slightly post-medieval) Ottoman defeat at Vienna. Jihadists, meanwhile, use images of Muslim cavaliers from movies and videogames to illustrate their own war against a West they believe to be a reincarnated Byzantium. Indeed, much of the far right's attraction to the Middle Ages seems to be driven by a grudging admiration for Islamic State’s fusion of medieval motivation and modern technology.
I don’t think there is much mystery about it. The culture warriors of the alt-right want to embrace a time period that saw Western Christendom battling the forces of Islam to what they perceive as a glorious victory for the West. The blogger, though, relates this to a more modern trend, the search for ethnic homogeneity, writing that the alt-right twists history to imagine a medieval Europe that was united, Christian, and white, standing firm against a swarthy Other.
The trouble, though, is that this was never the case. Modern racial categories didn’t exist at the time, and the peoples of Europe were barely united in much of anything, spending most of the 1,000 medieval years regularly fighting one another for temporary regional supremacy. However, instead of exploring this issue in its complexity, our blogger prefers to discuss how progressives might also weaponize the Middle Ages as an early model of multiculturalism. This is equally problematic, though, since that multiculturalism often came at the point of a sword, as when the Norse-originating Normans invaded first northern France and then England, reshaping cultures in both countries.
Our blogger correctly notes that Christendom was beset with inner turmoil, culminating in the schism between the Catholic and Orthodox Churches in the Middle Ages, and the Reformation and Counter-Reformation that dominated the Renaissance. But this leaves out an equally important component of the story, namely the epic struggle between the Holy Roman Emperors and the Popes for supremacy in Europe, a struggle that set the precedent for the separation of church and state.
Our blogger misses the fact that the alt-right version of medieval history is tinged with the Victorian romanticism of the nationalist era, a time when history became conflated with imagined ethno-national groups, such that medieval history started to be read as an account of how nineteenth century European ethno-national groups (usually defined by language) came into being from the ruins of Empire. The appeal to ethnic homogeneity, today bastardized into a crude veneration of the white race, began with Victorian efforts to shake off multicultural imperial polities like the Habsburg or Ottoman Empires in favor of small, ethnically homogenous, and sometimes openly racist countries that venerated one people, religion, and ethnicity above all others.
But let’s be honest: The reason you’re reading this is because Scott Wolter said something weird again. In comments on his blog this week, Wolter explained his newfound belief, apparently acquired from his recent efforts to align his work with that of Graham Hancock, that ancient peoples held regular world council meetings where representatives of various cultures gathered together to shape history. Here is what he said:
Personally, I think there was a world wide exchange of knowledge and information prior to the Younger-Dryas period that experienced a massive reduction in the high culture of humans that existed beforehand. I know Graham Hancock personally, and recently discussed his latest book with he and Robert Schoch. Robert has a different theory about what caused the massive population reduction around the planet, but the two are friends and it was refreshing to see two intelligent individuals with competing ideas present their ideas without attacking the other. this is how it's supposed to be.
If we take his words literally, it sounds like he was talking to a 12,500-year-old immortal, but it sounds rather like he got the idea from a Native American informant, passing along what was claimed to be oral history. It is prima facie improbable, if for no other reason than this world council somehow failed to distribute the fruits of the Old and New Worlds around the world, except for the odd cigarette or line of cocaine, yet was 100% effective in preventing the spread of diseases from the Old World to the New and vice versa over thousands of years of regular contact by (presumably) at least the low number of Europeans who sparked the epidemics that felled two continents’ worth of people after 1492.
The trouble with oral history is that it is gets revised and edited with each new teller, and it is easy enough to find examples of modern material worked into and presented as “ancient” history. Add to that the regrettable influence of fringe history on pop culture, and you have a recipe for unreliable narration of past events, particularly those alleged to have taken place 12,500 years ago!
Wolter also tried to address the problem I mentioned last week about his claim that the Templars calculated longitude in New England and used a single meridian to align a random assortment of hoaxes, misinterpreted material, and weird junk. As I noted, he mistook minutes of longitude for decimal readings, producing correlations that had about 50% less variation off true than the correct figures would show. In response, Wolter claimed that the difference between minutes (out of 60) and decimals (out of 100) is not relevant, and “unpublished” material shows that the Templars used decimals hundreds of years before anyone else thought to regularly report coordinates that way:
Of course I understand that difference, but for the point I’m making it doesn’t matter. Plot them on Google Earth, or on any plan map, and you’ll see they all fall very closely to a common meridian that I claim isn't a coincidence and suggests the medieval Templars understood how to calculate longitude with reasonable accuracy. Incidentally, in as yet unpublished source material I have seen, the decimal notation for latitude is what was used.
Of course, even if the sites were connected by anything other than the restrictions of New England geography, there is no need to calculate longitude to the minute in order to draw a north-south line. Virtuvius (On Architecture 1.6), for example, lays out the ancient method of using a gnomon to establish a north-south line.
The history of decimal degrees is a complex one, but probably a bit too boring to go into in much detail, mostly because I don’t find it all that interesting. Everybody probably knows that the Babylonians advocated the 360° circle, with degrees divided into 60 minutes, in turn divided into 60 seconds. This is because they used a base-60 counting system. However, this system was not always predominant, and according to J. Elfreth Watkins of the former U.S. National Museum, writing in 1891, there are instances of circles divided by decimal systems in the Assyrian period and even into 480°, according to a tablet from the palace of Sennacherib in the seventh century BCE. However, it was only in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries that mathematicians advocated using decimal degrees, with scholars like Stevinus, Briggs, Oughtred, and Newton crafting competing plans for decimal degrees. Newton’s would have divided degrees into 100 minutes 100 seconds each, a bit different from our own current decimal degrees, which do away with the concept of minutes and seconds altogether. On the other hand, Continental scholars of the era, like Gasciogne and Horrocks did away with the 360° circle altogether and advocated a circle of one million equal parts.
The long and short of it is that if Wolter sees modern decimal degrees on a map, he has some explaining to do, especially since decimal points weren’t used in the Middle Ages, a time when decimals were indicated by a bar placed over the last non-decimal digit. At the same time, Arab mathematicians used a short vertical bar to separate integers from decimals. By common agreement, it is generally held that John Napier was the first to use the separatrix (first a comma, then a period) in the Western tradition, first in Rabdologia in 1617; however, as late as 1700, there was no agreement on how to use a separatrix, what symbol to use, or when.
I am an author and researcher focusing on pop culture, science, and history. Bylines: New Republic, Slate, etc. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
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