On martyrdom and nationalism

This week, at the behest of the good Dr Öberg Strådal, I have been thinking about martyrdom, as one does. As someone with a documented interest in saints it could be that this particular sideline thought is just a result of, you know, being a dork-ass medievalist who should get out more but can’t because there is a pandemic on. Instead, however, I am forced to admit that this pondering has been spurred by a tweet from none other than Trump’s lawyer (a thing I defo knew and did not have to google), Jenna Ellis.

Now we can all agree that this is a very normal thing to tweet, and not at all some sort of red flag, but nonetheless, it is very interesting from a medievalist perspective. For several reasons.

First up, obviously, there is Jenna’s martyrdom complex over here. Girl is VERY CONCERNED about something that she just made up in her head right now, and she is NOT GOING TO BREAK when confronted by this strawman. Scintillating stuff.

For the purposes of our discussion today we can think of three medieval martyrs: St Wenceslas and St Leocritia, who will already be familiar to friends of the blog (Love you guys!), and St William of Norwich. As I am sure you are aware, a martyr, by definition, is someone who suffers and dies for their faith. This means that martyrs need to be killed by someone opposing their Christianity in order to get the status of martyr/saint. The three named martyrs here are no exception, but while they were all medieval, they died in different parts of the era. Leocretia (d. 859) and Wenceslas (d. 935) were both early medieval Europeans, while William (d. c. 1144) was alive in the high medieval period.

These dates of death are meaningful. You’ll note that Leocretia and Wenceslas are less than a century apart, and there is a reason for that. During the early medieval period a great deal of Europe was not yet Christian, or indeed was not Christian because it was Muslim. As a result, it was possible to get yourself martyred off real good and nice if like Jenna up there, that was your deal. Leocretia was killed in the Emirate of Córdoba, which as the title hints was majority Muslim, whereas Wenceslas got got by his own brother Boleslaus the Cruel (d. 967) who was some unspecified form of pagan and also a world class hater. (He picked up the name from killing his brother. It wasn’t, like, ignored foreshadowing or anything although that would be absolutely hilarious if it had been.)

The death of St Wenceslas at the hands of his brother Boleslaus. From the Life and Suffering of St Wenceslas, held at the Austrian National Library. Sixteenth century.

This is part of what makes Jenna’s deal so laughable. The insinuation that she is willing to die for Christianity makes no goddamn sense given that she lives in a country that is overwhelmingly, even stiflingly, Christian. More specifically, America is overwhelmingly evangelical which is what I presume is going on for her here. Exactly who is going to come “cancel” Christianity? And how are they going to have the power to kill her when the entire American apparatus of state violence is chock full of Christians all the way up to the office of President? (I mean not that I am saying that man is a devout Christian or anything given how he stands inside of churches.)

So, Jenna’s whole fantasy about standing up to those who would “cancel” Christianity (Yeah sorry I am just not over that phrase.) is a lot more like what was going on for William of Norwich. William’s status as a martyr is a bit stranger, because by the high medieval period his corner of Europe had been staunchly Christian (much like Jenna’s United States) for quite some time.

And it is there that things start to get more interesting, because exactly who is blamed for William’s death is a great segue into second point about this whole martyrdom complex Jenna has going here: martyrdom is often used as a tool to define in and out groups.

William’s thing was that he was a young man who was found dead on the street in Norwich. Obviously, and in a very normal way, what the Christians of Norwich decided was that William had been killed as blood libel by the local Jewish community – a very real thing that defo existed. (That is sarcasm.) Blood libel is an anti-Semitic idea that Jewish people kill Christians in order to use their blood and bodies in weird black masses. For sure. Yeah. Can’t think why that wouldn’t be real.

The death of William of Norwich, according to Thomas of Monmouth, as depicted on a rood screen in Holy Trinity church, Loddon, Norfolk. 

Anyway this was particularly a thing when young people were involved, so no sooner is William found dead than a cult springs up around him. He is declared a saint by the local community and has a number of miracles attributed to him by the monk Thomas of Monmouth who writes a multi-volume work about him.[1]

Clearly, here you can see where martyrdom gets really really dangerous. Jewish people at this point were very new to England. In fact, they had been invited into the kingdom less than a century before William’s death by the Normans after they invaded. Further, the Jewish community in Norwich was extremely new and had only really been established in the Norwich Jewrey by 1135. They were also, like the Norman lords who had invited them into the Kingdom, French speakers. In contrast, William’s family were English speakers.[2]

The William story was particularly nefarious as well because it was a catalyst by which any unsolved murder of a child in England was soon attributed to Jewish people. Suddenly you had saints popping up in Gloucester, Bury, and Lincoln as well. (None of whom were ever recognised by Rome, but hey ho.) All of this helped to contribute to the generalised hatred of Jewish people in England, and played a part of the expulsion of the Jews from the kingdom in the next century, which we have talked about before. (The other part was that the king didn’t want to pay his debts and was a shady bastard.)

At its heart then, the story of William was the story of an innocent murdered by a group of nefarious outsiders whose actions dictated that they could never be integrated into the local community. They might live in England, but they could not be understood as every being English. May as well force them all to leave the country because they were never truly a part of it.

Even in cases like that of Leocritia and Wenceslas this same urge to delineate between the “real” denizens of a particular place and outsiders crops up even in the modern period. Leocritia’s death (which she was absolutely gunning for. Like straight up demanding. I am serious.) was used as proof of the cruelty of Muslims during the Reconquista and Spanish inquisition when Spanish-speaking Muslims were killed and tortured in the thousands. Even the Spanish and Portugese term for the Muslim population “Moriscos” or “Moors” identified them as outsiders. They weren’t Grenedinos or Córdobian, instead they were to be understood as outsiders and interlopers who needed to be removed from the population in order to re-attain the mythical Christian Iberia which had … literally never existed. No, not even under the Visigoths because the entire population didn’t have time to convert to Christianity yet. Fight me.

The deaths of Leocritia (she is waiting to be beheaded), and Eulogius whose head is being held up there. Absolute scenes. by Josep Segrelles, Historia de España, c. 1910.

Meanwhile in the Czech lands, Wenceslas was and is a foundational part of the nationalist mythos. Even in fourteenth-century he was being implemented by Holy Roman Emperor Charles IV to define a religious programme founded in a theoretical Czechness and used to intimate that a “pure” iteration of Christianity could be found only in the Czech lands.[3] This helped to define who was Czech and guess who wasn’t? The substantial Prague Jewish community that was the focus of intermittent pogroms to which Charles’s sons turned a blind eye. Whoopsie![4]

These conceptions of a quintessentially “Spanish”, “Czech”, or “English” martyr were weaponised even further during the nineteenth century – the heyday of nationalist myth making that has led us to this current state of affairs. By definition, anyone who could be said to be really linked to a place in Europe had to be considered as Christian. To be anything other than Christian in these places was to be cast as the antagonist, someone willing to kill innocent Christians because … look, no one is really sure, why, OK? Just non-Christians like doing that. As a result, Christians – no matter whether they are the dominant majority or not – are continually the aggrieved and persecuted group anywhere where non-Christians have the temerity to exist.

That is exactly the dynamic that is at play in Jenna’s little tweet there. She is defining a theoretical American-ness as rooted in a persecuted and threatened Christianity. Never mind the fact that Christians, even when they were the minority in America when white people initially showed up to trash the joint, have been in general the perpetrators of large-scale violence. Never mind that about sixty-five percent of Americans currently identify as Christian.[5] Never mind that Jenna literally works for the president so is ipso facto a member of the powerful elite and in no way put upon. Never mind that we are talking about taking down statues of actual slavers, Jenna, and no one said anything about Christianity.

My point is that martyrdom and nationality are at their heart social constructs that we use in order to organise our world. Martyrs are people who have died for their beliefs. Nations, in turn take those beliefs and weave them into the mythology that allows them to exist because they too are beliefs and require constant mythologising in order to exist. Neither they, nor Jenna’s Christianity are under and type of threat at the moment.

What is at threat, and which Jenna has let slip here, is the construction that American Christianity is a force for good and that it has grappled with its history as a tool for the oppression of slaves and non-Christian native peoples. Jenna sees us talking about statues of people who perpetuated genocide and fought wars in order to preserve slavery and she sees this as a threat to her Christianity. Like OK Jenna? You feel that Christianity is inextricably bound with slavery, I guess. You are not historically incorrect, but also YIKES. Maybe change your frame of reference.

Of course, nothing bad will happen to Jenna as a result of her, um, belief system. She will continue to be rich and powerful likely into her old age, and she will probably get mad at strawmen the whole time. We might not be able to do anything about that, but we can understand why she is doing this from a historical standpoint. I mean, other than the fact that she is an unhinged danger. I don’t really have a history on that one. Yet.


[1] The Catholic Church eventually suppressed the cult of William. His sainthood was taken to the Vatican but the cult was suppressed after the congregation at which it was considered. So, this might have played in Norwich, and hell if it had happened earlier when the Church had a less complex legal apparatus he may have been grandfathered in to the saintly corps. But you can’t try this stuff in the twelfth-century. While it is probs good that the fake blood libel saint didn’t make the cut, this process is also why we can’t have nice things like St Guinefort, so swings and roundabouts.
[2] Carole Rawcliffe, Richard George Wilson, Medieval Norwich, (London: Hambeldon Continuum, 2006), p.18.
[3] Eleanor Janega, Jan Milíč of Kroměříž and Emperor Charles IV: Preaching, Power, and the Church of Prague, PhD Thesis, University College London, 2014, Chapter 2. (Yeah, I cited myself. Deal with it. Go write your own book about Charles IV and I will cite you.)
[4] Charles also totally let pogroms happen across the Holy Roman Empire as Jewish communities were targeted and blamed for the Black Death. In particular, he allowed a pogrom of the Jewish community from Nuremberg, a free imperial city under his jurisdiction as Holy Roman Emperor in 1349.
[5] https://www.pewforum.org/2019/10/17/in-u-s-decline-of-christianity-continues-at-rapid-pace/


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For more on saints, see:
My fav Saints: St Procopius of Sázava, a spooky saint
On Michaelmas
My fav [not] saints: St Guinefort
My fav saints: St Wenceslas
On St Nicholas

For more on politics, see:
On a world without police
Medieval policing and race reading lists
Religious iconography has always been a prop
On Odious debt
On the King’s two bodies and modern myth making
Emergency Post: That is not what the “good” in Good Friday means
On defeats, small people, and the UK election
On colonialism, imperialism, and ignoring medieval history
On Q Anon and systems of knowledge
On the medieval separation of Church and state, or, putting the ‘holy’ in Holy Roman Empire
History is a discipline, not a virtue
On medieval healthcare and American barbarism
On chronicles versus journalism and ruling versus governing
On the American election, teaching history, and why it matters
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 essentialist to say that Islam oppresses women
The medieval case for remain, or, fuck Brexit

For more on the treatment of Jewish people in the medieval period, see:
On QAnon and Antisemitism
On Odious Debt
On Mike Pence, Holocaust Memorial Day, and Christian interpretations of Jewish utility
Keep the word ‘Judeo’ out of your racist mouth Nigel Farage
On Jerusalem and the Apocalypse, or why you should be deeply unsettled right now

Author: Dr Eleanor Janega

Medieval historian, lush, George Michael evangelist.

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