Thursday, August 21, 2014

Re-making The Real Middle Ages™

by HELEN YOUNG [Guest Posting]

Hello readers! Here's our third posting on race, diversity, and things medieval [and if you're just joining in, read the postings in this thread by Michelle Warren and Dorothy Kim!]. This posting comes from Helen Young.

[EDITED 24 August 2014: In this thread, see also Jonathan's posting, and Karl Steel in a related thread here and here.]

Re-making The Real Middle AgesTM

The professoriate of future decades is the current generation of Game of Thrones cosplayers, Vikings watchers, and Medieval Times diners, and every teenager who is part of what Umberto Eco called, in what has proved to be a masterful understatement: “a period of renewed interest in the Middle Ages.” In the past year or so I’ve done a straw poll of scholars working in Medieval Studies, and almost without exception they said were interested in the Middle Ages before beginning their studies. Not everyone can identify a precise moment, book, or toy – for me it was a combination of medieval-themed Lego and Tolkien – but many people can and do. There are multiple steps, turns, and obstacles between playing with a Lego medieval market village “full of authentic features” as a child and a career in Medieval Studies, but that every journey begins with a single step is a cliché for a reason, even if that step is an excruciating painful one onto a Lego brick, or a hoax rune-stone.

The ultimately white supremacist desire for home and belonging that Karl Steel identifies in claims for the Viking heritage of North America is just one aspect of a much broader phenomenon. Popular culture medievalisms, particularly those that achieve massive success in the mainstream, are as lacking in diversity, if not more so, than the medieval academy. Creators and audiences alike invoke The Real Middle AgesTM to justify heteronormativity, the absence of disabled characters, extreme violence, especially towards women, and the whiteness of the majority of protagonists, with occasional exceptions for enemies or minor characters. When the BBC television series Merlin cast Angel Coulby, an actress of color, to play Gwen it met with backlash because of historical inaccuracy, despite the overtly fantastic elements (magic, dragons etc) of the program. Earlier this year, when a post on the Tumblr site “People of Color in European Art History” cited multiple academic sources to suggest that a “realistic” video-game set in Central Bohemia could include characters of multiple ethnicities without being inaccurate, the author received multiple rape and death threats. Dorothy Kim has just written eloquently about the ongoing abuse of that blogger, and other many other abuses of people considered, in multiple medievalist forums, to be outsiders.

Not only are the Middle Ages constructed as a nostalgically longed-for pre-race utopia, the same argument is also used to in attempts exclude people of color from contemporary fan communities and to construct those communities as normatively white. People of color are only welcome in many medievalist digital spaces if they pass as white by not asking questions or commenting on any thread to do with race, let alone starting one. The myth of the monochrome Middle Ages, in which the medieval is originary, pure, and white, transcends geographical and temporal boundaries. It is attached, through supposed biological descent, to white bodies, wherever and whenever they go, even into the apparently non-corporeal digital realms of fan-forums, television and video-games.  There are many fans of color of popular culture medievalisms, but a hostile milieu which consistently repeats the messages that ‘you don’t belong in the Middle Ages’ and the ‘the Middle Ages are not yours’ actively discourages setting out on, let alone completing, a journey from interested fan to professional scholar.

The figure of J. R. R. Tolkien looms large here. Amy Kaufman, in her essay “Medieval Unmoored, argues that ”the neomedieval idea of the Middle Ages is gained… through a medievalist intermediary. Neomedievalism is … a medievalism doubled up upon itself.” In the realms of popular culture no shadow is longer than Tolkien’s, even if his medievalist fantasy imaginings have been folded and re-folded into neomedievalist origami, some of it in shapes that would outright horrify the man and scholar. Fantasy author Saladin Ahmed rightly suggested that Game of Thrones problematic representations of race could be traced back to Tolkien’s influence, creased by the race problems of modern-day America. We can take this several steps further and suggest that the most troubling racial elements of Tolkien’s work stem from his medievalism. Medieval texts inspired him – orcs and the armies of Sauron have a lot in common with the Saracen armies of Crusade romances. The philological thinking which connects language with culture and biology in Middle-earth derives directly from Germanic thought of the nineteenth century which not only shaped the medievalist academy, but underpinned global Anglo-Saxonism, the British Empire, American expansionism, and taken to extremes, ultimately also inspired the racist excesses of the Nazi regime. Tolkien-the-scholar lends authority to Tolkien-the-author even as the former’s studies shaped the latter’s novels.

The overwhelming whiteness of being medieval in popular culture does not go unremarked; witness Laurie Finke and Martin Shichtman’s 2007 discussion of Gil Junger’s 2001 movie Black Knight: “the first thing everybody notices (or does not need to notice) about films set in the Middle Ages is that the characters are usually white. The fantasy of the Middle Ages has always been the exclusive province of European colonialism, representing the historical legitimation of white, Christian, European domination.” Norman Cantor’s 1991 remark in Inventing the Middle Ages that “academic medievalists constitute the interpretive community to which the popular writers … defer in their highly imaginative writings” (p. 19) was an accurate insight into the connections between popular culture and scholarly visions and re-visions of the Middle Ages. But how much that fantasy of the white, Christian Middle Ages as it is currently expressed in popular culture derives from the medievalisms of nineteenth-century constructions of ethno-national identities, both within Europe  and outside it, and the place of the academy in creating and perpetuating them, is the big white elephant in the corner of the classroom and at the back of the conference venue.

We are let off the hook by authors, film- and game-makers who have a vested interest in emphasizing their own roles as artists in the creation of medievalist worlds. George R. R. Martin, the author of the novels on which Game of Thrones is based, writes on his website that: “a writer cannot do much research… Research gives you a foundation to build on, but in the end it’s only the story that matters,” and authors across every genre, including historical fiction, and medium repeat this sentiment. The end of the statement is far more appealing than the beginning because it allows us, as members of the academy, to sit at a safe distance and point out anachronisms and inaccuracies. Doing it amongst ourselves is a fun way to pass the time at conferences; everyone at Kalamazoo has something to say when I tell them I work on Game of Thrones. Each time a new season of the show rolls around, there’s another slew of blogs, op-eds, and articles pointing out that rape and violence were not as commonplace in medieval times as Game of Thrones suggests.

Race rarely seems to get a mention in these sorts of pieces unless they are in activist forums, and those which do engage don’t often it take up in connection with the medievalism of the show – or novels. It is hard to argue with a comment like: “Westeros is the fantasy analogue of the British Isles in its period, so it is a long long way from the Asia analogue. There weren’t a lot of Asians in Yorkish England either.” Medieval England, however, was not mono-cultural, mono-racial, or mono-lingual, nor was Europe as a whole, much less all the shores of the Mediterranean. We know this, our research shows it: journeys, movement and connections, not politico-geographical ethno-national boundaries reverse engineered in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, are increasingly structuring our fields of study. Pointing out the errors and mis-representations that litter the landscape of works in The Real Middle AgesTM mold is a worthwhile endeavor, but unless we follow through by changing our own practices, we are just shouting into the Stormfront of white supremacy.  We need to not just interject into conversations that are already happening in the public sphere – although that in itself is important, and can happen in a multitude of ways. We also need to look to what we can do through our own scholarly to shape the ways that the Middle Ages will be re-imagined in the popular culture and the academy of the future.

The old dichotomies are breaking down. Medieval Studies scholars, increasingly under pressure to attract student numbers and show the relevance and impact of their material, and are turning to medievalisms, particularly popular culture medievalisms, for help. Eco’s now infamous dismissal of “fantastic neomedievalism,” contrasted with “responsible philology,” a binary which held sway into the twenty-first century has crumbled under the pressure of theory and evidence into what David Marshall has termed a “haze of medievalists.”

There is no quick fix for increasing diversity – racial or other kinds – but as Michelle Warren suggests in the first post of this blog series, “just about anything can be a contribution… [and] transformation is possible.” And the two things we all do are teach and research. We are at what could become a pivotal moment in the trajectory of the medievalist academy, if we do it right.

Research like the Global Chaucers project, and the forthcoming Studies in Medievalism volume on medievalism on the margins highlight examples of resistance to normative narratives. Historical authenticity does matter to producers and consumers of popular culture, and making research available in forums that are accessible and affordable to them is another move towards change.

Change in the classroom matters too, because other than then lucky few whose research really hits the big time (how many academics can live off their book royalties?), we’ll have far more students than we’ll ever have readers.

Teach something that makes you uncomfortable, teach something that challenges the things you were taught and how. Teach the Prioress’ Tale and talk about entrenched anti-Semitism. Teach Richard Coer de Lyon with its cannibal Crusader king. Teach being Black in Camelot. Teach Medieval Studies and Medievalism that resists monolingual, monocultural, monoracial heritage. Teach Game of Thrones to deconstruct its ideologies. Teach Charles R. Saunders’ Imaro instead of Robert E. Howard’s Conan. Teach Spenser’s The Faerie Queene alongside Saladin Ahmed’s fantasy short-story of a Muslim character stuck in that poem (podcast here). Teach something that makes you turn your dissertation upside down and look at it from underneath. Teach something that makes the Middle Ages belong to everyone, not just a monochrome few.


If we repeat the same stories about the Middle Ages then we’ll keep seeing those pages, folded and refolded in popular culture, and, ultimately, we’ll keep telling them to the same people. Dorothy Kim has just powerfully argued that we should not be silent. We should speak in our classrooms and at conferences and in every forum not just to rebut and refute and intervene and interject, but to take away the privileged trade-mark that is currently attached to The Real Middle Ages.  

4 comments:

Rob Barrett said...

My personal preference would be to teach both REH's Conan stories and Charles Saunders's Imauro stories and Saladin Ahmed's Throne of the Crescent Moon and C. L. Moore's Jirel of Joiry stories, if only because one needs REH to understand what Saunders and Ahmed and Moore are responding to. Also, REH represents a lower-class, low-status challenge to academic norms of literature: Conan's Irishness may be in the process of turning "white" in the 1930s, but it's not wholly "white" yet.

(There's a flourishing "sword and soul" scene out there these days as a response to the racist assumptions of traditional "sword and sorcery": check out the two Griots anthologies, one on primarily male heroes of color (HOCs), the other explicitly shifting focus to female HOCs.)

Medievalists.net said...

When we post on social media links to articles, videos, etc. that talk about diversity (religious, ethnic, racial, sexual, etc) we ALWAYS prepare for comments on our Facebook page that range from pure racism to accusations that we are force-feeding 'politically correct sh*t' to our audience. However, my unscientific estimation, based purely on social media response we get, is that people are getting more accepting that diversity existed in the Middle Ages too.

Jonathan Hsy said...

@Medievalists.net: Thanks for your comments here -- alas, not surprised by what you've revealed, but also hopeful that people seem to be coming around. The more that we can all do to change things, the better. People who have a narrow view of the past/present need to recognize the world is, will be, and also *has always been* varied and changing.

Jonathan Hsy said...

@Rob: Great suggestions for thinking challenging the classed, racialized, and gendered "academic norms" of literature! Never knew about the "Girots" anthologies; sounds very promising.