Wednesday, August 16, 2006
Dear Capital One
Dear Capital One Marketing Gurus,
I am writing you this letter to ask you to cease and desist in your commercial use of medieval Vikings, barbarians, and other louche fellows.
Although I understand very well that these ruffians are meant to be symbolic representations of "the pain and tribulation that a credit card user feels when they [sic] have to pay high interest rates", I feel that you do a grave injustice to the early Middle Ages in offering such an unnuanced view of ancient proclivities towards raiding and pillage. As a medievalist I am well aware that the Normans (for example) were originally the "Northmen" or Vikings who besieged much of Britain, Ireland, and the continent. But to be fair to pirates in general as well as to medieval marauders in particular, it should also be noted that the Normans were in their later days the so-called civilizing force that Europeanized Europe! Do you like the Song of Roland? Good for you, you show some class. Let me tell you that this supreme masterpiece of human achievement was written down in England in ANGLO-NORMAN, the French spoken by the descendants of these wallet thieving corsairs.
You may argue that Capital One's roving bands of malcontents are not Normans or Vikings at all, but are generic barbarians. If you do assert this thesis I will be surprised. But I will also heckle you as laughably Roman-centric, because you will have demonstrated that your innate worldview is positioned from the Mediterranean looking north. This was the same worldview adopted by the Venerable Bede, who should have known better. So-called barbarians have been paying the price ever since, because their story has always been told by those who judge them as sorely deficient by their own culture-bound standards.
To the Romans, just as to the Greeks, barbarians were simply those uncouth and margin-dwelling people who did not speak Latin or Greek. The reality is that such people undoubtedly possessed sophisticated cultures, but because they were dismissed as feral or "Latinized" into proper citizens this culture is mainly unrecorded. As Peter S. Wells has demonstrated in his excellent book (The Barbarians Speak: How the Conquered Peoples Shaped Roman Europe), however, the indigenous Europeans [as they are better labeled] left a material record of "settlements, graves, ritual places, pottery, and personal adornment" that, in the absence of texts, speaks eloquently on these peoples' behalf (ix; cf. 22-23). Indeed these groups met the Romans at frontiers where a vivacious cross-cultural dynamism transformed indigenous Europeans and Romans alike.
Such is my polysyllabic way of letting you know that your primitive and thuggish depictions of barbarians do a violence to history by flattening it beyond subtlety. I ask you to grant these groups their full complexity, a first step towards which might be having the spokesbarbarian no longer declare the tagline "What's in your wallet?" in a seriously poor Cockney accent. I should also note that a search at your website for the word "barbarian" returned no results, a missed opportunity for pedagogy that nearly made me weep.
Thank you for your consideration, and I am very sorry that I was tardy with my last payment. Could you please refund the $120 late fee and return my interest back to whatever it was before it shot to 23.7%?
Jeffrey J. Cohen