- Medievalism, Politics and Mass Media: Appropriating the Middle Ages in the Twenty-first Century by Andrew B.R. Elliott
It isn't often a book on a medieval topic is timely, but that is certainly the case with this one. After white supremacists marched in Charlottesville recently, some of them carrying Viking symbols, there was a flurry of discussion among medievalists on social media about how to address extremists' appropriation of medieval symbols, from devoting more scholarship and class time to racial diversity in medieval Europe to publicizing new research that shows cultural assimilation by Vikings was not limited to crushing the cultures they assimilated. Andrew B.R. Elliott does not offer solutions to this problem (and most of the comfort you might take from his book is cold), but he does give us what we need to make a start, an understanding of why and especially how such images and references are being deployed in propaganda wars.
Elliott, who teaches Media Studies, does not focus mainly on the mistakes extremists, terrorists, politicians, journalists, and internet commenters make when they employ 'medievalisms,' though he is well aware of the various ironies that misuses can entail. For example, supporters who called Brexit a 'crusade' to restore 'Britain's heritage as an independent nation' seemed unaware of 'the traditionally European character of Britain's medieval history' (p. 18). It is a given that calling a barbaric act 'medieval' is reflexive shorthand for uncivilized (because it is 'not modern'), as if barbarity were limited to the Middle Ages and not characteristic of all human cultures. It doesn't indicate any detailed understanding of history, and Elliott aptly calls this use of the past 'tapas-style history' (p. 9). After discussing the best term for this casual, shallow appropriation of the Middle Ages ('medievalism'? 'neomedievalism'? 'pseudo-medievalism'?), he chooses 'banal medievalism,' modeled [End Page 74] on the term 'banal nationalism' for superficial flag waving (p. 16). Elliott argues convincingly that, as clichéd words like 'medieval' and 'crusade' are remediated and spread widely via television and radio, and especially over the Internet, where they can be frozen in memes or in phrases copied and pasted and sent repeatedly into the ether, the already simplistic concepts become 'flattened,' empty vessels into which the audience pours meaning. Thus, the boundary between producer and consumer shifts, so that tracing the origins of a usage becomes pointless; as a result, analyzing how medievalisms function at any given point or in any given internet thread becomes paramount. It is in this process that Elliott excels, with thoroughness, insight, and surprising doses of humor.
Chapter One, 'Not Dead Yet,' argues that banal medievalism depends so little on actual knowledge of the Middle Ages and so much on an anachronistic concept of them that it is essentially a product of the modern era, beginning with the Renaissance. Especially in popular culture over the years, 'accelerated . . . in the new world of digital media,' the Middle Ages have become 'a hazy conflation of overlapping eras' (p. 14). The faux or quasi-medieval exists side by side with the ultra-modern, much as (in a brilliant analogy) 'many European cities stand as living reminders of uneasy confrontations of medieval and modern, and, in the case of the neo-Gothic, the conflation of the genuinely medieval alongside the replicas and follies of Victorian medievalism' (p. 15). However, the banal is not necessarily benign. Following Hannah Arendt, Elliott argues that the more banal and quotidian medievalism becomes—infusing the present with a vague sense of the past—the easier it is for extremist ideologies to 'mask a poisonous distortion of history for presentist concerns' (p. 17).
Chapter Two, 'Getting Medieval on Your RSS,' elaborates on how the medium shapes the message. In most instances, the message is that 'medieval' means outdated, antiquated, primitive, intolerant, and barbaric. There are exceptions, however, beginning with the Romantics and continuing with Disney, that idealize or sentimentalize the medieval for its perceived simplicity...