The Color of the House of the Lord

I don’t want to write this post, but I think I need to.

Back in September, I did a post that you may have read entitled “How to Signal You Are Not a White Supremacist.” My point was to answer the concern that certain members of my academic field currently have about how we, as medievalists, should signal to our students that we do not endorse the use of medieval imagery for the purposes of present-day political arguments, specifically those having to do with the claim that “white” people are in any way superior to other people simply by virtue of their skin color and/or ancestry. The suggestion had been made by certain of my academic colleagues that for members of the academy who do not fit certain criteria—“white” or of Anglo-Saxon, Germanic, or other European ancestries now associated with “whiteness”—there is little need to signal that they do not endorse this type of appropriation, but for all those of us who do—the vast majority of us in medieval studies—not to make explicit statements about how we oppose “white supremacy” as an ideology would be taken by our students as proof that we support it.

“Neutrality is not an option,” as one colleague put it.
You do not have a choice in whether you are part of this debate because the debate is already prevalent and public. Our students are watching and will make judgments and calls on what side you are really on. 
Paraphrasing: You must prove you are not a white supremacist in your classrooms or your students will assume that you are one.

I am white by almost every definition of “whiteness” you could name. My ancestry is almost entirely English, Scots-Irish, German, and Dutch, on both sides of my family—and Protestant to boot. I have ancestors on both sides of my family who came to North America as settlers of the earliest Dutch and British colonies; those who came after the Revolution arrived in the mid-nineteenth century and quickly married in. Most settled in the middle region of the country dubbed “Greater Appalachia” by Colin Woodard in his American Nations. In my scholarship, I have worked mainly on the long tradition of devotion to the Virgin Mary in the medieval Latin West, focusing on the technical practices of scriptural exegesis and liturgy as a way of understanding how medieval Christians understood the Mother of God. My work is highly technical and has sometimes been described as “narrow,” with the assumption that the sorts of practices I describe would have been accessible only to a very narrow elite then—not to mention now. Further, as readers of my blog will know, I have long been vocal about the importance of studying this tradition as a part of what Americans call “Western civilization.” As a reminder of the importance of this “Western” tradition—since the 1980s often described as centered on “dead white European males”—I did a blog post back in June 2015 entitled “Talking Points: Three Cheers for White Men,” in which I listed four reasons, including freedom of speech, that women in particular had to be grateful for the ideals developed by these “dead white European males.” And then, in September 2016, I took the unforgivable step of siding publicly with Milo Yiannopoulos, for many in the academy the definition of a “white supremacist,” despite the fact that he has never advocated for anything other than the values by which Western civilization would make race irrelevant.

Clearly, if anybody needed to signal she was not a white supremacist, it was I.


It is true I find the whole issue absurd, a moral panic driven more by the need for academics to feel relevant (yes, we get anxious about that from time to time) than by any effect we can hope to have on the way the general public perceives the object of our field. Novelists like Mark Twain and Dan Brown will beat us every time when it comes to creating images of the Middle Ages or Christianity, never mind designers of video games, movie makers, and artists of all sorts. Nothing academic medievalists have been saying for the past hundred or so years—i.e. since the Middle Ages became a topic of academic study in the United States—has made so much as a dent in the way in which most Americans think about the period. Ridley Scott’s image of the Crusades depends far more on the historical fictions of Walter Scott than it does on the work of professional historians in the field. This does not mean we should despair of having some impact on the way people perceive the past, but—I would argue—it does mean we need to get a grip. Much as we would like to be culture leaders like Hollywood and best-selling novelists, we academics aren’t—even as we somehow manage to make our students hysterical about threats that may or may not be real.

So I was a bit snarky in that blog post, I confess. I was also a bit weary of being called a white supremacist on social media by certain colleagues in my field. And I was frustrated at how even thoughtful colleagues seemed to be getting sucked into the panic, as if medievalists were in fact responsible for the way in which fantasists like Richard Spencer behaved simply because some of his followers like dressing up as knights. The point of the blog post, accordingly, was to do as my anxious colleagues insisted I must and signal that I was not a white supremacist. To do so, I made an argument based on what I study: devotion to the Virgin Mary.

Throughout the Middle Ages, medieval Christians described the Virgin Mary in verses taken from the Song of Songs—I wrote my doctoral dissertation and my first book about this practice—including one in which the bride of the Song describes herself as “black.” What effect the use of this verse—“Nigra sum sed formosa” (Song of Songs 1:4-5)—had on the way in which the Virgin was imagined and depicted in the medieval West has long been the subject of speculation among art historians, particularly with respect to certain statues of Mary in which her face and hands are painted black. One of the more famous non-sculptural images of the Virgin, the so-called Notre Dame de la Belle Verrière at Chartres, represents the Mother of God in terms associated not with her race—there is nothing in the tradition of exegesis to suggest that medieval Christians cared in the slightest about Mary’s race—but with her role as the temple of the Lord. What matters about the window is not the color of Mary’s face—the window underwent several renovations in the modern period, raising some doubts about what the image may have looked like in the twelfth-century when it was made—but rather the symbolism that it invokes to present her in her role as the one in whom God became present. This was the point I was trying to make in my blog post about the medieval depiction of Mary: in the face of the great mystery of God’s Incarnation, medieval exegetes, liturgists, and artists did not care what color Mary was.

Nor—and this was my main point—do I.

Modern American academics may be obsessed with race—we have the nineteenth century to thank for that, likewise for the arguments about Christianity I have spent my career fighting—but nothing in the work that I have done over the past thirty years on the devotion to the Virgin suggests that medieval European Christians saw themselves as somehow superior thanks to their race (as opposed to their religion) or that they needed to imagine her as “white” in order to devote themselves to her. One of the commentators whom I talk about extensively in my new book says explicitly that Mary’s love for God was “generous and wide: because she both loved and loves everything which is of God, Saracens, Jews, and Christians, albeit in different ways.”* Another, attempting to answer the question what she must have looked like physically, reasoned that she must have had a perfect body, perfect complexion (warm and dry), and perfect health, and, therefore—he reasoned according to contemporary physiological theory—black eyes and black hair.** Yet another, whom I wrote about in my first book, made an explicit point of depicting Mary as advocating on behalf of her people, the Jews, that they be saved,*** and in the miracle stories that authors across Europe told about her, she is shown as interceding on behalf of all who served her, regardless of sex or religion, including both Muslims and Jews. (I talk about these stories in chapter 5 of my new book.) Modern readers may find these stories troubling insofar as they argue for Mary as the Mother of God—that is, Jesus Christ—and for her Son as the way, the truth, and the life, but in the medieval context they were explicitly intended to cross the very boundaries that modern readers would seem to want to make permanently impermeable, namely, culture, religion—and race. **** For medieval Christians the great mystery was that God had deigned to become human at all—a much greater divide than anything so minor as the color of Mary or Jesus’ skin.


Is this argument enough to prove that I am not a white supremacist? Based on the responses that my champion Dan Franke’s recent AHA blogpost has been getting, my guess is no. “Once labelled a white supremacist, forever labelled a white supremacist” is now the rule—as Milo’s own experience proves. What is more terrifying to someone for whom race is all-in-all than a white supremacist? Someone who genuinely does not care about race. Milo doesn't give a toss about skin color. I don’t give a toss about skin color—which is not to say that either of us denies that there are issues with race in American culture that need addressing. What it is to say is that we do not see the answer to these questions in making race the thing that divides us. Ideas, yes; deep understanding of the importance of religion, certainly. But not race

“I am black but beautiful,” the bride of the Song of Songs says in the antiphon for Vespers for the feast of the Virgin. “I rejoiced at the things that were said to me, ‘We shall go into the house of the Lord,’” the psalm replies.

What more beautiful place could there be than the House where God became man, whatever color she might have been

Merry Christmas!


*Richard of Saint-Laurent, De laudibus beatae Mariae virginis libri XII, lib. 4, cap. 17, n. 7, trans. Rachel Fulton Brown, Mary and the Art of Prayer: The Hours of the Virgin in Medieval Christian Life and Thought (New York: Columbia University Press, 2018), 544 n. 146.
**Pseudo-Albert, Mariale, sive CCXXX Quaestiones super Evangelium “Missus est Angelus Gabriel,” questiones 17-20, trans. Fulton Brown, Mary and the Art of Prayer, 82-83.
***See Rachel Fulton, From Judgment to Passion: Devotion to Christ and the Virgin Mary, 800-1200 (New York: Columbia University Press, 2002), on Honorius Augustodunensis.
****There are authors who were exceptions. See my review of the recent edition of William of Malmesbury’s miracles.

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