FDR's Mother / by Jake Purcell

Caveat: This post is going to be more serious than most, and will actually articulate some ideas about why there is Medieval architecture in the U.S., both things we try to avoid on this platform like the plague. But the topic is important, and we would be extremely remiss if we did not point out that medieval art collecting, as part of the history of medievalism more generally, can have a lot to do with white supremacy. It doesn’t come up that often in our research, for two reasons that we’ll explore in this post. First, most people can muster at most a watery enthusiasm for the Middle Ages, and then only if it is not too expensive. Second, because white supremacy often looks awfully innocuous in the sources.

While searching ProQuest for any material about the Detroit Institute of Art's late gothic chapel, I found a small handful of articles about a weird moment in French-American relations. Shortly after FDR was re-elected in 1936, the mayor of the small town of Lannoy, France, cabled to offer his congratulations, since the ancestors of FDR's mother, Sara Delano Roosevelt, had lived there. Weird telegram, but OK.

 FDR & Mom (Photo:  NARA/Wikimedia Commons )

FDR & Mom
(Photo: NARA/Wikimedia Commons)

A few days later, on November 11, the White House held a small Delano genealogy event (what?). Daniel Webster Delano, "a research scholar" and the president's fourth cousin, presented his studies of the Delano family, which reporters dutifully rehashed. The Delanos/de Lannoys were authoritatively traced back to the 1621 arrival of Philippe de Lannoy in the U.S. on the second pilgrim ship to Plymouth, Fortune, and could possibly be traced back to Hugues, count of Lannoy in 1096. If you really wanted to believe, the Delanos could even be traced back to the Roman Actii family through Alfred the Great, Charlemagne, the Merovingians. (Going forward in time, the story has a kind of charming coda: Eleanor Roosevelt was made a citizen of Lannoy at a ceremony in 1952. They mayor welcomed her, then 68, as "a returning child.")

 "Perhaps the smallest town in France." (Photo:  NARA/Wikimedia Commons )

"Perhaps the smallest town in France."
(Photo: NARA/Wikimedia Commons)

Media interest in the medieval origins of FDR was… underwhelming. The reports weren't that widespread, the articles are basically short notices heavy on space-filling technical detail about family linkages and lions rampant. The AP is extremely skeptical about the shaky connections between FDRs and the medieval "Greats," Alfred and Charles, but still uses the outrageous claims to carry the story. When a Washington Post writer tried to make a little more out of the genealogy, the Delano narrative became about the Colonial American struggle rather than European greatness. In this version, Philippe's son Jonathan represents the family; the "noble ancestry was forgotten" as Jonathan makes his own name by killing American Indians in King Phillip's War

People in mid-century America do not seem to have cared that much about the Middle Ages. Americans who bought medieval art liked that it was old and fancy, and they could afford to pay for aesthetic. When they no longer wanted their buildings, for whatever reason, they sometimes struggled even to give away medieval architectural elements. Explaining what drove collecting of Gothic art is a challenge, and, to be historianly about it, there's not a ton of evidence for any collective cultural enthusiasm in the United States, particularly for the purchase of any individual object.

It's when people do express enthusiasm for the Middle Ages that things get dicey; this was as much true in the 1930s as it is today, hence the need for a post explicitly acknowledging where medieval art collecting overlaps with racial discrimination. White supremacists regularly use medieval imagery; their fondness for it is grounded in a historically inaccurate fantasy of a purely white Middle Ages. Josephine Livingstone wrote an introduction to medievalism and white supremacy at The New Republic, Dr. Dark Age made an incredible list of discussions and resources on Twitter, People of Color in European Art History demonstrates exactly how inaccurate "racial purity" myth is, and In the Middle is a go-to resources for these subjects and particularly how they affect the profession. While most of the current conversations focus on race and the Anglo-Saxon or Norse traditions, there is also sixty years of scholarship on Germanic ethnicity that explicitly addressed the misuse of medieval history, though it feels now that it has tragically failed in its political goals.

 Family resemblance??? (Photo:  Wikimedia )

Family resemblance??? (Photo: Wikimedia)

So, back to FDR's mother. What's strange about the short-lived, lukewarm media interest is that it's not actually presenting anything new. Three years earlier, the Atlanta Constitution ran an effusive series, in two-page spreads full of images and literal trees with family members as branches, on the "never before published" wonders of the Delano family. The Delanos certainly did come from Charlemagne, Alfred the Great, the Capets, William the Conqueror, and Richard the Lion-Hearted, and the Constitution had the unreadably long genealogical descriptions to "prove" it.

So far, not so different from the later descriptions of FDR's ancestry, which are, hmmm, politely skeptical. The Constitution, on the other hand, thought that blood tells--specifically European blood:

If there be such a thing as 'history-making blood,' it flowed through the veins of Jonathan Delano and Mercy Warren, who were married in Plymouth town on this Sunday in 1678. Their wedding directly linked Europe's past conquerors to America's future ones... No wonder President Roosevelt has, as he sits in the White House, a sense of being independent of time and place, and linked to the main course of human history. And no wonder his fifth cousin, 'Tom' Delano, whistles as he goes about his daily task of caring for the parks and pavements in his Nevada town. The most active, aggressive blood of the human race is in their veins.

Here we get a very explicit statement of the problem: to equate efficacy with conquest, to attach efficacy to blood (or genes or whatever biological term), to localize that blood in Europe, and to express that this blood-unit is bounded and also superior to whatever it is separated from. Every one of these leaps is fundamentally flawed; collectively they form a worldview that constitutes an existential threat to whoever does not belong to the central group.

At least one American purchaser of a medieval building wanted to recreate the same sense of imagined medieval harmony and order. Thomas C. Williams, Jr., purchased part of the English manor house Agecroft Hall to bring to the U.S. and erect at Windsor, a family estate near Richmond. Assembled between 1926 and 1928, the building was the subject of a pamphlet by Virginia historian Mary Newton Standard: "Windsor Farms, Hauntingly Reminiscent of Old England." The pamphlet cited Williams’ “vision of again planting an English village… on the banks of the James River,” and his plan to “literally” bring England to America. At first glance, there’s nothing obviously off-putting about this flavor of antiquarian nostalgia. Who doesn’t want a little respite from the modern “industrial” (we would probably say “capitalist”) world, and, uh, I guess someone without a huge amount of historical expertise could think medieval England is where you’d go to find it.

 Agecroft Hall. Feel uneasy. (Photo:  Wikimedia Commons )

Agecroft Hall. Feel uneasy. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

But, you know, context. And the context is… bad. The desire for an explicitly Anglo-Saxon past wasn’t random, it was an effort to identify with a history and culture distinct from those of the central and southern European immigrants working in factories, people who were often blamed for the problems of modern, industrial society. Williams’ project was part of a larger effort to define America in terms of the contributions of the earliest English settlers – a phenomenon that can also be seen in the genealogy articles above, and has links to both new immigration quotas and a growing Klan presence in the 20s. Bringing a chunk of Europe, rather than slapping a Tudor or Stuart facade on a building, suggests something more than a vague appreciation for that nice English aesthetic was at work, too.

What is crazy to me about the information in above paragraph is that it’s all stated explicitly in the 1978 application to add Agecroft Hall to the National Register of Historic Places. The building is worthy of inclusion on the list not because of its unusual, medieval origins, but because it’s a beautiful, haunting manifestation of a moment in American history when fear and the desire to recreate an ethnically pure society drove interest in the Middle Ages. In the 70s! When did we forget?