- Notre Dame is Burning:Medieval Futures
It was 15 April and Notre Dame was on fire. A month before that, on 15 March, exactly at the moment that Australian school children were downing tools to join the world-wide climate strike, a gunman opened fire at a Christchurch mosque, slaughtering people at prayer. He had the date 732 emblazoned on his rifle, celebrating a putative defeat of Islamic invaders by the armies of Charles Martel. Our Lady, Christ's Church, France herself, Muslim believers—in the space of the month so much seemed to be in flames, to be on fire, and to be under fire. And, of course, the planet herself is heating. At the climate strike in Sydney a student held up a sign 'Don't burn my future'. As medievalists mourned the loss of Notre Dame, and the myriad historicities which dwelt within her, for the authors this was coupled with sadness and terror about the uses to which the Middle Ages are put in the service of suicidal futures—but also a quickening sense of the spaces of hope that can be opened through radical critiques of the civilizational stories with which many medievalists remain complicit.
The first suicidal future to be contested is that of white pride, in which human civilization is rooted in the raw white masculinity that tamed the medieval forests of Europe, mined the earth to make weapons and ploughs, hunted the animals, and domesticated the women—then did the same thing to the rest of the world. It is by asserting their right to continue carrying out those acts of destruction and domination that white supremacists know themselves. Medievalists have sought to counter this through critical study of the mythologies of medievalism and the production of richer, more diverse, more entangled histories of the global past. Sometimes people listen. But on the whole, white supremacists are not listening to stories about people who are not them, told by people who are not them. They are only listening to the people whom they want to be: the people who rule the world and its resources. They do not realize that their love and their hate is cynically inflamed and instrumentalized against their interests and those of their families. Medievalists have not done much to help with this. Our virtual abandonment of the study of class-based social inequality, of slavery and serfs, and of the 'caging' of the peasantry for the extraction of their labour by lords and incipient states, may have permitted white supremacists to look back to the Middle Ages as a heyday of empowered egalitarian masculinity. Has anyone told them that Western civilisation did not belong to their kind: their kind was tied to the land, and the profits belonged to their lords, then, as now? The dynasty that built Notre Dame had the resources to do so because they extracted them from the rest of the population. To maximize those resources, they drained marshlands, destroyed woodlands, and set the people to growing grains at the expense of local ecologies. A medieval story that connects [End Page 169] social inequality and labour exploitation to the exploitation of natural resources might begin to open people's eyes to the realities that are destroying the earth in the name of civilisation's needs.
The second suicidal future is the one that requires the restoration of Notre Dame. As the cathedral burned, the knee-jerk reaction on the part of many medievalists, and more influentially, various French billionaires, was that it needed to be rebuilt NOW. The gaping wound at the heart of Paris was too much to bear, too visible a sign of brokenness and destruction, and historicity itself. The collective paroxysms of loss and disbelief testified to a bizarre confidence in the building's permanence. As humans, we should know better: ashes to ashes and dust to dust. But as moderns in the West we cling to a story of progress in which this civilization, these empires, this politics, these monuments, will somehow be stable and hold. This is the temporal blind spot of what we might call western civilization, in its modern...