I've paraphrased the panelists' words, and apologize in advance for any mistakes or mis-representations - let me know by leaving a comment and I will fix it.
(Also check out Paul Weimer's notes on the panel.)
Panelists: Charles Allison, Robert Killheffer, Chelsea R. Miller (moderator), Jess Nevins, Faye Ringel
Description: Medieval Europe was a hotbed of interaction among people of different cultures and ethnicities, so there’s no reason for fantasy novels with medieval-like settings to be blandly homogeneous. Panelists will discuss how popular narratives of medieval Europe misrepresent known history, how these narratives serve white supremacist movements, and how writers can do better by readers by basing their worldbuilding on Europe as it really was.
Highlights from panel discussion:
Inventing the narrative of the Middle Ages
CA: The image of Europe as a sequestered place during the Middle Ages, not influenced by other lands, is absurd. A simple version of history is an agenda.
CM: Medievalism in pop culture tells us less about medieval world, and more about the ecology where it’s written. Check out Shiloh Carroll’s book on medievalism in A Song of Ice and Fire.
FR: The Middle Ages is always being reinvented to mirror what people are looking for at the time. The very idea of “middle” started as pejorative. It was coined during the Italian Renaissance, to imply all the “middle” stuff between them the Roman empire was bad.
On the flip side, countries often use their “history” in the middle ages for the sake of nation-building, for example, the Kalevala from Finland.
CA: Saying that Mongols are oppressors is a simplistic narrative. A lot of Russian and Muscovite culture comes from Mongol/steppe influence. As James Halper said, even hostilities require a degree of intimacy. “You sacrifice accuracy for a narrative you find compelling… Fantasy is a key part of history.”
RK: Rulers create backstories for their countries to legitimize their rule. The idea of “national types/characters” is that the place a person is from tells you something about them.
CM: There is a history of European national leaders abusing their historical stories for nationalistic purposes. For example, Francesco Franco invoked the memory of Spain’s medieval past.
JN: Check out the book Inventing the middle ages.
RK: Mythmaking is not unique to 19th century Europe. Early Anglo-Saxons rulers made up genealogies to include Jesus and Caesar.
CA: Europe got heavy cavalry from steppe cultures. This runs counter to the standard white nationalist narrative of a sequestered Europe.
CM: What ways are white supremacist transforming the past? What are ways writers and readers can respond?
FR: The name King Arthur Flour came from the association of medievalism with whiteness, purity, and strength. The KKK saw themselves as descendants of noble Scots clans and dressed with what they imagined as 15th and 16th century clothes.
JN: The white nationalist website Stormfront gives a history of the white race, leaving out everyone who’s not white; it constructs a reactionary version of the middle ages. The son of the cofounder read up on the middle ages and defected from his family and the movement, getting a degree in medieval studies.
RK: Respond using facts! Anyone open to facts will have to change their mind; facts overwhelm simplistic stories.
CA: Check out primary sources from other countries interacting with medieval Europe. A great book is The Ultimate Ambition in the Arts of Erudition by Al-Nuwayri. Open to any page and it’s fascinating; you see a historical account of a battle, or how to cure a hangover, or erotic poetry next to an article denouncing erotic poetry.
Q: Tell us about another culture that has interacted with medieval Europe.
FR: I want to point out the Jewish contribution. When I was starting grad school, nobody was writing about it. There are huge amounts waiting for translation to be accessible, such as the Yiddish King Arthur story, and the story of the Jewish troubadours.
RK: Arabic literature had a large influence. Research in the 1990’s and 2000’s revealed the extent of the interaction.
JN: I’m fascinated with individuals who cross borders. In 1102, a Sudanese man accompanied crusaders to North France, and became the hangman of Lyon, France. He was even more Black Adder than Black Adder. The crusader was killed by a mob, and there was no evidence of what happened to the hangman (named John). He was wandering around Northern France. Someone needs to write this story!
CM: I like to focus on places with intercultural interactions, like the Mediterranean and North Africa.
Panelists: Charles Allison, Carolyn Ives Gilman, Anna Kashina (moderator), Chelsea R. Miller, Walt Williams
Description: Writers looking for alternatives to cod-medieval European settings don’t need to look far. The years 500 to 1500 C.E. were times of tremendous cultural and technological change around the world. Novelties of that period included Islam, paper money, and fast-ripening rice; the Incan Empire, Great Zimbabwe, and the Tang Dynasty flourished. Which non-European settings of the 6th to 16th centuries have been successfully used as the basis for fantasy lands, and which might writers find particularly inspiring?
Highlights from Panel Discussion:
CG: The origin of science fiction and fantasy can be traced to travel literature of the Elizabethan era; it similarly evoked a sense of wonder.
Some non-European settings
CA: There is a range of contradictions and varieties in a small area. For example, going from Yucatan to the border with Texas:
- The Maya in Yucatan had the milpa system of farming; it’s the only sustainable way to farm with thin topsoil atop permeable limestone permeable, and it still persists now.
- The Aztecs (?) had an urban empire in tune with the environment. Cortés wrote about a city twice as big as Madrid and clean, with free education.
- The Chichimecas are nomadic hunter-gatherers, semi-pastoralists, who fought a 50-year long guerrilla war with the Spanish despite being relatively stone-age people.
How do you approach research?
WW: I look at the literature of people I’m writing about. This gives the internal view. I recommend Cynthia Ward and Nisi Shawl’s book Writing the Other.
CM: Stay abreast of recent scholarship. Folks are trying to make it broadly accessible.
CG: There is no substitute for visiting the people themselves. Find differences in attitudes, in the way people look at the world.
CG: Non-western civilizations have different ways of telling stories, different narrative structure and language; it’s non-Aristotelian. Western readers find it deeply unsatisfying. Just by transforming them to stories satisfying to Western readers, we are distorting and colonizing them.
CG (?): My research is on Brazil. I find a ton of stuff searching in Portuguese on YouTube. People film their local festivals. At the local market there will be someone selling DVD’s. They’re wicked good.