Thursday, January 05, 2017

REEEEEE Vult, a Response to The Economist's "Medieval Memes" Article



Yesterday I became aware of an article published by The Economist on January 2nd titled “Medieval Memes: The far right's new fascination with the Middle Ages.” It is an irritating piece of clickbait, that I normally would ignore, but this time its in my wheelhouse. Here it is.

Here is the Archive link if you don't feel like giving the Economist clicks for it (or in case it is somehow edited or removed)

I recommend reading along, because otherwise my ramblings won't make any sense.

Some credentials. I have a Master's Degree in Humanities, which is a small department at my alma mater that focused on a more Classical fusion of philosophy, literature, history and so on pertaining to a historical area. It was very niche, and allowed the student and department to work together to develop a focused curriculum suitable to their field of study. Mine was the 14th-15th centuries and more specifically the Northern Crusades. So while I am not currently employed as a Medievalist (it is a very small field and good luck getting your foot in the door unless you want to take a Marxist or Feminist approach to the subject, then you can be swimming in grant money. Sadly not a joke), nor am I by any means an expert in the field, I still am a historian thanks to my academic training, and I will be viewing this article though that lens.

First, the byline. The initials “S.N.” which tell me nothing. I have no idea who or what the author of the piece is, nor their credentials, if they even have them. A quick search of the initials in connection to The Economist bring up several “The Economist Explains” articles. One about Dutch people working part time, another about some economists wanting to get rid of cash and so on. A dead end, then. Next to it is “Claremont, California,” which a quick search shows is a primarily residential town at the Eastern edge of Los Angeles County that is home to a collection of seven colleges, both undergrad and graduate. So its a college town, and a large one at that. So the author of the piece is more likely to be a professor, or staffer, or student than, say, a pipe fitter.

Below that is a photograph from Game of Thrones featuring horsemen in armor that is clearly more fantastical than real. (Seriously, Lamellar? In a Wars of the Roses ripoff?) I suppose that's to be expected, since GoT is visually synonymous with “standard fantasy” in the eyes of modern pop culture. Ten years ago, it would've been a picture from Lord of the Rings. Yet it has nothing to do with actual Medieval scholarship outside of the visual cue of armored men on horseback.

The text begins with a contradiction. The first sentence asserts that until recently “it was rare to find Americans who were passionate about both medieval history and contemporary politics.” First, this is an anecdotal assumption without evidence provided (which is most of the article). Second, it mentions “the odd Christian conservative,” “a Marxist grad student” and “an environmental activist” in a list of hypothetical examples of your average medievalist. Each of these hypothetical people is identified as someone deeply rooted in contemporary politics. It is a Christian conservative, a Marxist grad student, and an Environmental activist.

None of these is a prerequisite for studying the past. Moreover, one need not have a modern political agenda to be fascinated by land ownership patterns or vegetable dyes. The Society for Creative Anachronism in particular is deeply interested in rediscovering how authentic Medieval clothing was constructed for the purposes of recreating it.

Moreover still, the odd “Christian Conservative” is less odd than one would think. I went to a Jesuit university. One of my grad school mentors was a Jesuit, and another was a devout layman who headed up the Catholic Studies department. I shared several classes with a few seminarians. The encompassed a broad spectrum of political alignment. In my experience, you could not throw a copy of Summa Theologi√¶ without hitting a fellow Catholic. Which is not a surprise, considering that Europe during the time period in question was dominated by the Roman Catholic Church.

“Since the September 11th attacks." The current year is 2017. 9/11 happened sixteen years ago. There are people who were born after the event who are now learning how to drive. “Fairly recently” is a stretch at this point. “The American far right has developed a fascination with the Middle Ages and the Renaissance—in particular, with the idea of the West as a united civilisation that was fending off a challenge from the East.” The idea of a unified Western European civilization (interestingly, the spelling of “civilization” uses the British variant, a possible clue to our mystery author) is one that the Medieval Europeans themselves held. It was called Christendom, and referred generally to the lands where Christianity was the dominant religion as opposed to neighboring Islam or paganism. The notion of “whiteness” was much less important than being Christian to the Medieval mind. This is part of the reason why Europeans were so enamored with the legend of Prestor John's distant, but very Christian, kingdom providing assistance to greater Christendom in a time of need.

In function "Christendom" was more of a cultural identity than an established geopolitical unit, since Christian kings and nobles were constantly fighting each other over worldly disputes well before the Reformation fractured the religion in Western Europe. There's also the constant friction between the Papal States and the Holy Roman Empire over who should lead the general Christian community, the Popes or the Imperial heirs of Charlemagne, that frequently led to wars and excommunications of Emperors. The idea of “Christendom” is by no means new. It is also no surprise that when Islamic extremists refer to their own attacks as literal holy jihads, that there are people who would take to the idea that “Christendom” is under attack again. In many ways, it is, or are we ignoring the criticisms of the “decadent West” and the rhetoric of how America is “The Great Satan” which was used by the Ayatollah of Iran in the 1970s? The far-right of the West are not the only ones dredging this imagery up.

“The embrace of the medieval extends from the alt-right online forum culture that has exploded in the last few years to stodgier old-school racists.” Oh boy, here we go. Deus Vult memes from Reddit and Twitter are very, very, very rarely to be taken seriously, as are photoshops of Donald Trump in crusader armor shouting “Deus Vult!” as a reference to his saber rattling against ISIS. Internet “shitposting” as its called (if you'll pardon my French) is mostly to be taken ironically or deliberately contrarian to get a rise out of people. A quick look at Know Your Meme would provide plenty of stupid jokes that display this.

“Anti-Islam journals and websites name themselves after the Frankish king Charles Martel, who fought Muslim armies in the 8th century.” I have never heard of a website named after Charles Martel, but I know for a fact that he was the father of the man who would establish the Carolingian Dynasty (Pepin the Short) and while Charles himself would functionally rule as Mayor of the Palace and Duke and Prince of the Franks, he never, EVER became king and deliberately left the throne vacant during his time as regent.

This is not some nobody. This is the grandfather of Charlemagne and a major early Medieval figure in his own right. He is well documented, and a MEDIEVALIST, even one not focusing on the Carolingian period, could verify this information with even a quick glance at any online encyclopedia. This is an insultingly amateurish error in basic research.

Curiously, the article mentions that modern Jihadists use their own memes and images to promote the idea that they are in a cultural war against a reincarnated Byzantium. Sounds like an interesting counterpoint, but is not addressed again.

We continue. “For Americans who are indifferent to the Middle Ages, or think of it as an unpleasant plague-ridden prelude to the present, this might be of little consequence. But millions of others with mainstream or left-leaning beliefs are attracted to the medieval era—witness the popularity of Renaissance reenactments, or medieval-inspired fantasies like "Game of Thrones".” I will meet anecdote with anecdote: Most of the people I know who view the Medieval period as “a plague-ridden prelude to the present” are left-leaning or Progressive in some form or another.

Why is there an automatic assumption that it is only millions of left-leaning or “mainstream” people that are attracted to the time period? For a theologically minded conservative Christian, the works of Aquinas, Augustine, More, Erasmus, and Dante are THE bedrock of academic scholarship. And “mainstream” is as vague a category as can be imagined. Besides, aren't the masses of average people the ones who don't care about the Medieval period that much anyway? I'm getting deeply mixed signals here.

Then it mentions conservative firebrand Milo Yiannapoulis for some reason (probably clickbait algorithms). He's irrelevant to the article, but regardless of what one thinks of Milo, he's such a self-promoter who puts his name out as much and as far as possible that it should be easy to copy and paste his last name into an article so that it can be spelled properly. “Yiannopoulos.” There. I just did it myself. Also, “including a preference for a preference for “homogeneity over diversity.” is a sentence where a big red circle from a professor would go to mark the error. Proofreading is essential to presenting a academically professional argument.

The following paragraph quotes an essay by Sierra Lomuto (I had to look up her credentials because the article did not provide them: she is a doctoral candidate at the University of Pennsylvania with a background in women's studies and English) at “In the Middle” a left-wing academic blog that I have never heard of but has 2,895,500 page views. Here's the essay in full, if you are of a mind to read it since the author of the piece did not provide a link.

It is left-wing and intersectional, which is a topic of social justice controversy (and beyond the scope of this already too-long response), but the crux of its argument is that it is a moral imperative for Medievalists as a whole to resist white nationalism from pointing to the Middle Ages to justify their own viewpoints. Fair enough, I suppose, but could it not also be argued by a Medievalist who does not subscribe to intersectional feminism that they too must be resisted from pointing to the Middle Ages to justify their own viewpoints if they are counterfactual? The end goal of historical study should be historical accuracy, regardless of agenda.

Art historians document the appearances of dark-skinned migrants in northern Europe to show that medieval populations, if not quite as mobile as today, were still pretty mobile.” The “art historians” mentioned is one person, the person who runs the People of Color in European Art History page (medievalpoc.tumblr.com), which received considerable attention from left-wing outlets in 2014 (including NPR), has apparently received harrassment (which is never acceptable) but has also been rightly criticized for presenting factually incorrect information (the criticism of which is entirely acceptable for someone purporting to be historically accurate). Here's an example. (yes, its somebody roleplaying a Dalek, because Tumblr is a bizarre place, but at least they show their work and sources). Interestingly, the “In The Middle” essay also links to the Medieval POC Tumblr page.

The paragraph ends with: “Progressives and reactionaries may both be drawn to the Middle Ages out of an affinity for “tradition,” says Shirin Khanmohamadi, a professor of literature at San Francisco State University who teaches a course called the Multicultural Middle Ages. But progressives would find it most interesting to explore "the premodern contribution to 'multiculturalism' and to other modes taken for granted as modern."” Khanmohamadi has published one book, “In Light of Another's Word European Ethnography in the Middle Ages” in 2013 through the University of Pennsylvania Press. The description of which seems to explore Medieval European travel accounts, like those of “John Mandeville”, Gerald of Wales, and William of Rubruck. Fair enough, that's an interesting subject. What is much more controversial is her name attached to a list of 465 members of the MLA Members for Justice in Palestine resolution. The Modern Language Association is a huge body of academics who study modern languages and literature and have created the MLA Style Manual, which dictates the proper format for academic writing (in the Liberal Arts, at least). I say controversial because the resolution would call on the MLA to boycott Israeli academic institutions until political criteria are met by the state of Israel. That's uncomfortable territory for both sides of the Israel-Palestine dispute.

Then there is a small dig at people who enjoy movies and video games because that's somehow a sign of intellectual inferiority somehow? The very existence of Crusader Kings II, which is a very, very deep Medieval Spreadsheet Simulator, points to the opposite, that these mediums, while at times very flawed (such as Braveheart's Battle of Stamford Bridge Without the Bridge or the blatant Soviet propaganda of the 1938 film Aleksandr Nevskiy), they can be a valuable tool in promoting the study of the time period. Yet while absorbing medieval information primarily through movies is implied to be wrong, Game of Thrones is somehow fine, despite being a show many people watch for “titties and dragons.” If it is because George R.R. Martin has the “correct” political opinions, then this is, to appropriate a phrase, deeply problematic.

On the surface, it is a poorly-written article by an anonymous author with multiple proofreading errors, one glaring factual error, nonexistent citations, and a decidedly one-sided political slant that requires research on the part of the reader to discover.

The article's true argument seems to be that the Medieval period is one of deep historical complexity and nuance (I agree) and that it is a moral imperative that the gatekeepers of that academic knowledge must resist political stances that they deem to be wrong by teaching the benighted populist masses the error of their ways. On this I vehemently disagree. An “Ivory Tower” approach to teaching about the Medieval and Renaissance periods that presupposes the moral authority of a particular modern political philosophy is a dangerous slippery slope that discourages debate, encourages intellectual stagnation, and ultimately drives people interested in the subject matter away if they do not have the "correct" identity politics. No matter how well-intentioned it may be, that kind of mindset is identical to justifying every action with cries of “Deus Vult!”

Closing the academic gates against the supposed intellectual barbarians is not the answer. Those hungry for knowledge will seek it elsewhere, and the increasingly available translations of primary source documents, living history groups like the Society for Creative Anachronism (SCA) or several Historical European Martial Arts (HEMA) schools or the slowly growing number of very knowledgeable Youtubers will be happy to quench that thirst for knowledge.