On the American election, teaching history, and why it matters

This election should not surprise anyone who teaches history. I teach medieval and early modern history at several unis in London.

The study of history in these eras shows us very clearly that Western society is built for white male protestant property owners.

This same society has been built over the bodies of black and brown people, and kept whites without property deliberately marginalised. Within it, the role of women has always been to be scapegoats for the worst of male excess, and vessels for sexual gratification/the getting of heirs.

You should not, therefore, be surprised to see a misogynist racist ruling what has always been a white supremacist society.

As historians, it is our job to show our students the roots of this society – SHOW them the thought processes that have built our world.

Today I am teaching two seminars – one on courtly love, one on the rise of Protestantism.

So – for courtly love we are going to discuss how noble society built a) the concept of women as objects to be admired and desired and b) we’ll talk about the concept of upper class men being entitled to the bodies of lower class women. I’ve talked about the concept of courtly love, the rape of poor women and Trump before here, of course, and we’ll expand on that.

We’ll also talk about how this concept plays out in pop culture, and how we romanticise the *idea* of women, but hate their sexual autonomy. In particular we’ll talk, like I have on this blog, about Hot Line Bling, and how Drake reuses concepts of courtly love.  We’ll talk about how society is still pushing for a quiet, sexually cowed woman to be controlled by more powerful men, not only in the realm of politics, but in pop culture.

We’ll talk about how it has ALWAYS been this way and that electing a man who brags about dominating women is nothing new.

In my early modern class I am teaching the Reformation. We will use this as an opportunity to discuss the glorification of the individual white male and his theoretical ability to speak for God.

The Reformation argues for the ability of individual white males to interpret the Bible for themselves, and therefore God’s will. Granted, before the Reformation the Church – a group of white males – interpreted God’s words. After the Reformation, however, every individual white man is told that he has the wherewithal to understand God, with or without training.

That no one needs to be educated and learn to interpret allegory is underscored by a movement away from Latin. Latin needs to be taught to people. In the vernacular, any uneducated person can read the Bible, and interpret it for themselves. In the Reformation we see the enshrining of the individual uneducated white male’s opinion. White men now speak for God. What is more, white men don’t need to speak any language other than their own. There is no need to find common ground with others.

We are all just living in the continuation of this world. A world that is built around the lionisation of mediocre white men with money. This is our job as historians – to show this. To show our students how we got here and how we are STILL here.

If you haven’t been connecting the study of history to the present day with your students, you’ve been doing it wrong. Those who study history are unsurprised by Trump’s election, and the racism and sexism in America, because it was always there.  It has always and ever been present in the Western world as a whole, and is on even further display in a country which was created to enshrine the desires of a group of slave-holding white men.

Go wake your students up. Teach them the history, point them in the direction of things like the Ferguson Syllabus. Give them the tools. This is our job. This is the work. History matters. Tell your students how the world was made this way, and how they can change it.


For more on politics and the medieval period see:
History is a discipline, not a virtue
On medieval healthcare and American barbarism
Keep the word ‘Judeo’ out of your racist mouth Nigel Farage
On chronicles versus journalism and ruling versus governing
On the medieval separation of Church and state
Such a nasty woman – on Eleanor of Aquitaine, femininity, reputation, and power
On power and entitlement to the bodies of lower-status women
Islam was the party religion, or, why it is lazy and existentialist to say that Islam oppresses women
The medieval case for remain, or, fuck Brexit

(This was originally posted 14 November 2016 here.)

Author: Dr Eleanor Janega

Medieval historian, lush, Kanye apologist.

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