- Neomedievalism, Neoconservatism, and the War on Terror
Intellectuals enjoy the privileges and protection of the proverbial ivory tower yet also long for a place on the political stage. In the age of the blog, ephemeral and narcissistic, the Prickly Paradigm Press has given the political pamphlet a new lease on life. In writing about the abuse of the Middle Ages in American political discourse since 9/11, Bruce Holsinger, a professional medievalist, comes across in places as petulant and, by one admission, paranoid. Yes, George Bush, Paul Wolfowitz, and Donald Rumsfeld have used the word medieval indiscriminately, and yes, their lack of verbal discrimination has debased public discourse at large. Holsinger distinguishes between more innocuous expressions of medievalism, which include the Society for Creative Anachronism, and the pernicious if unexpected influence of “neomedievalism,” which is a subfield of International Relations that Holsinger traces to the writings of the British political theorist Hedley Bull (aptly named). Bull focused presciently, as early as the 1970s, on the impact of nonstate actors, such as terrorists, and the implications of their actions for “world order,” a phrase to which the Bush family has given ominous resonance. Misuse of the “medieval,” however, cannot be attributed to the machinations of the Bush bureaucracy alone: think of Butch’s memorable line in Pulp Fiction [End Page 489] (1994), “I’ma get medieval on your ass.” Speaking of bureaucracy, Byzantinists have long complained about the common parlance use of “Byzantine” to describe anything hopelessly backward and complicated. For that matter, academics at large should be up in arms about the use of “academic” to describe anything hopelessly irrelevant.
But Holsinger has a point: “Get Medieval” is now a violent video game, suggesting that, as he concludes, “we are all medievalists now” — true, I suppose, of anyone foolish enough to get caught up in the bellicose rhetoric of a “crusade” against Islam. Holsinger starts with Strayer, but if he wanted to defend the Middle Ages and not just medievalists, he might have remarked en passant that the Middle Ages need not be associated only with lawless violence. Medievalists have long pointed to the period as the starting point for much in our system of government (Magna Carta, parliamentary democracy, the nation-state, and, as I like to remind my deans, the university). Moreover, Holsinger could have observed that if there are supposedly “medieval” currents within modern Islam, then so too within modern Christianity and Judaism. There are “enlightened” currents as well. Holsinger worries about “traveling theory” and its translation of metaphor into reality, which in turn has been used to justify unpardonable American transgressions, most notably torture. Part of the problem, however, is the extent to which some of modern theory has discredited the concept of “enlightenment” and translated everything into terms of power. Holsinger’s tract focuses too exclusively on discourse when terrorism and religious fanaticism comprise a real and present danger. Intolerance, however, is a universal vice, and Holsinger’s booklet underscores the perils of our getting caught in rhetorical traps that have perilous consequences: falling prey to violence ourselves and imposing a modern culture of surveillance of which the Inquisition could only have dreamed.
Jeffrey F. Hamburger is professor of art history at Harvard University and author of Nuns as Artists, The Visual and the Visionary: Art and Female Spirituality in Late Medieval Germany, The Rothschild Canticles, and St. John the Divine: The Deified Evangelist in Medieval Art and Theology. His books have received awards from the American Philosophical Society, the College Art Association, the International Congress for Medieval Studies, and the Medieval Association of America.