IMS in Conversation: The Devil's Historians: How Modern Extremists Abuse the Medieval Past

The sixth and final online Institute for Medieval Studies Book Launch session on Tuesday 28 July featured an edited book by Amy S. Kaufman and Paul B. Sturtevant.

Moderated by Dr Alaric Hall, Amy Kaufman and Paul Sturtevant presented The Devil’s Historians: How Modern Extremists Abuse the Medieval Past through a roundtable discussion followed by a dynamic and interactive Q&A session. Over 100 people signed up and attended the event and the discussions continued well past the scheduled ending time. This was to be expected by a book and body of work that has such wide-reaching implications and applications. The Devil’s Historians looks at many of the most common myths about the Middle Ages and show how extremists use those falsehoods as a vehicle to justify their hatred for other groups, whether that is through promoting colonialism, empire, slavery, hypernationalism, or simply creating and reusing toxic fantasies.

We didn’t want to be the final word, but rather to open the door to the discussion that people can continue the conversation about other places.

Drs Kaufman and Sturtevant were refreshingly upfront about their ethical approaches and Eurocentric viewpoints, an honesty which helps open doors rather than keeping the conversation closed. As the book deals with the way history is presented to the public and the way it is used by the public as a part of politics, it was inevitably impossible to keep politics out of the discussion. Ultimately, it is about balancing where stories come from and weighing which stories are important to tell and which must be investigated and dissected. But as they are limited by language and cultural background, supplemented by what Dr Sturtevant said was a hypocritical attempt at criticising other cultures without doing it properly to our own, the book does maintain a Eurocentric viewpiont with only a few attempts outside of Europe. But Dr Kaufman did impress upon the audience her viewpoint: “We didn’t want to be the final word, but rather to open the door to the discussion that people can continue the conversation about other places.” The Devil’s Historians is not meant to be the definitive work, but rather the door opener to allow future conversation about incorrect extremist interpretations of history.

The Q&A was animated, from people asking about good fictional medieval and fantasy titles to read that tend to avoid problematic tropes (The Goblin Emperor and The Empire trilogy both came up) to advice when teaching problematic subjects. Of particular note, Drs Kaufman and Sturtevant also broached the subject on what happens to discussion when extremists attempt to mainstream their beliefs, noting that as authors they had to make decisions about where to draw the line based on what a groups primary motivation was for using incorrect medieval assumptions. They also brought up that a lot of incorrect assumptions are borne from media which has a role to play not only in helping to get people passionate about history, but which unfortunately create a liability when portraying events solely as violent or using simple historical narratives when the reality is more complex.  But as with the collection of work within The Devil’s Historians, and indeed teaching as a whole, by using materials that are diverse and multifaceted, extremist viewpoints can be cut off before they are allowed to boil up and threaten the safety of other people or students.

By the end of the discussion, not only was the room showing hope at reclaiming history and being able to look at their own work again with a fresh lens, but attendees showed enthusiasm in continuing the discussion into the future. 

For more information, including bibliographies and other teaching or researching resources and to get the book, go to their website: