In the past decades, medieval scholars have voiced concerns about the misuse and abuse of the Middle Ages, particularly within pop culture and among right-wing politicians, whether populist, neoconservative, or fascist. I’ve covered this topic previously. For those unfamiliar, medievalism refers to the modern depictions of the Middle Ages. Medievalists can be divided into two groups: academics who either focus on the Middle Ages or their modern reception. There is overlap. A medievalist interested in chivalric romances in 14th Century Northern France may have a keen perspective on the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. Of course, popular culture in the West has also shown this, with films and shows such as Game of Thrones and Vikings. In the case of Thrones, although not set in our world, the medieval influences are obvious and heavily discussed among journalists and fans alike.
This is certainly true in politics and international relations. Many papers and conferences are dedicated to uncoding the medievalism in figures such as Donald Trump, Vladimir Putin, Nigel Farage and Marine Le Pen. Of course, these individuals are vastly different. Neomedievalism can create a narrative of sameness or universality among politicians studied. However, this doesn’t count for cultural, linguistic and philosophical differences across Europe and North America. Unfortunately, (some) medievalists favour a particular kind of diversity, one built on anti-white and postcolonial sentiment without appreciation for ‘Western’ thoughts and behaviours. Medievalism can easily turn into a vehicle for historical revisionism and utopian projection.
While studying an undergraduate unit on medievalism, I read a monograph about the Far-Right’s abuse of the Middle Ages. The book, lauded by leading academics, featured numerous inaccuracies (no, Richard Spencer is not a Christian and has expressed severe loathing towards Donald Trump) as well as simplified statements (Medieval Europe’s racial diversity was confined to the Mediterranean and is hardly relevant to England or Iceland) with the worst tendencies of pop history (presentism). For a field proud of its diversity, like medievalists are, there’s little acknowledgement of it existing amongst the loathed far-right, a political position rife with schismatic characters, negativity, accusations of ‘being a fed’, personal fights, rage and blunt disagreement. This diversity occurs within far-right groups and cultures. However, these observations are never broadcasted in established newspapers or journals. I learnt about the far-right through primary sources and my own investigation. It’s a shame academics have (mostly) proven insufficient at this.
Yet academic history exists as a meat grinder: raw, untamed knowledge goes into the funnel, and comes out as planned. Moral judgements work like this, too. Overwhelmed with the apparent ‘far-right appropriation’ of the Middle Ages, our socially responsible and diverse academics must fight this threat. Thus, all references to medieval history must undergo scrutiny and comment. Marine Le Pen’s LARPing as a Joan of Arc-like figure needs proper criticism, because when fascism is marching its return, it’s our moral duty to fight it. Right?
Medieval studies, and nearly all humanities fields, were initially designed for the pursuit and study of knowledge. The universities of Paris, Bologna and Heidelberg, which graced medieval Europe, did use the university system to solidify power and to propagate certain causes. However, there was a general thirst at discovery, as seen in scholasticism and later in Renaissance thinkers such as Poggio Bracciolini, who recovered classical Latin manuscripts, building on the brilliant work from Byzantine and Latin West monks in Christendom, who also translated ancient philosophy and biblical literature. It’s naive to assume academia can never contribute to battles, whether fair or not. Also, I’m not convinced of an ‘apolitical’ academic system. However, it is imperative to have an overarching celebration of knowledge. I don’t see this in medievalist scholarship about white nationalism and the far-right.
Academics also fall into a deceptive binary, where cultural references towards medieval history are interpreted as either true or false, good or bad. For example, the 1995 Academy Award winning movie Braveheart presents a pro-Scottish view, where historical clans value liberty, freedom and truth. An academic may question the accuracy in Mel Gibson’s epic by illustrating historical inaccuracies and the simplified representations of real people. Yet this doesn’t mean Braveheart is ‘abusing’ the Middle Ages, which is a loaded and uncharitable claim towards a film trying to tell a story. Unfortunately, medievalists studying film and politics frequently lack familiarity with modern history, linguistics and semiotics as well as international relations. This is because medievalists have previously taken modern sources at face value. Whether it’s a politician’s speech or a catchphrase used in a movie, nuance matters in uncovering intent and meaning.
One incident comes from the 2017 Unite The Right rally in Charlottesville. Some right-wing protestors wore Crusader-esque imagery and shouted about fighting a Crusade. Medievalists were quick to express horror at this ‘misrepresentation.’ This is somewhat understandable due to the intense emotions many Americans felt at the tiki-torch protestors shouting racist slogans.
However, I question the medieval-themed scholarship and journalism that came out of Charlottesville. For one, an outfit, visual sign or a single phrase can only infer so much. Nor does it suggest a ‘misuse’ of history. The burden of proof is ultimately on the individual making the claim of misrepresentation. In a case cited by The Conversation, former Klu Klux Klan member Derek Black references his work in creating a subforum on Stormfront (a neo-Nazi website) about Lord of the Rings and fantasy literature. Black’s intentions were to transform appreciation for Tolkien’s “white mythos” into white nationalism. Nothing here suggests a ‘misrepresentation’ of the Middle Ages but perhaps of Tolkien, who never associated himself with Nazism or white nationalism.
Here, the claim of white nationalists and the far-right misrepresenting the Middle Ages rings hollow, partially due to academics seeing everyone in dialogue with their specific field, medievalism. Perhaps a Crusader outfit is just a costume. Stormfront isn’t making a grandiose claim on the Middle Ages here, it’s mere propaganda and a way to further their own terrible cause. The evidence of either being in serious, sustained dialogue with medieval history is extremely weak. As a result, many medievalist academics resort to using three sentences in a ten minute speech as evidence. There’s also ongoing discussion about ‘tropes’ and ‘stereotypes’ among politicians and right-wing activists from medievalists. However, these concepts are quite subjective and rarely translate into a coherent argument. Simply ‘playing into tropes’ is neither right or wrong. It’s just something people do. Perhaps medievalists see themselves as having a monopoly over the Middle Ages – only those with their approval can incorporate medieval history and ideas.
Medievalists have shown little to no interest in engaging with those who ‘misuse’ the Middle Ages. I cannot find a single interview or debate online between an academic medievalist and a reactionary figure who ‘embraced the Middle Ages.’ The Charlottesville protestor, accused of misrepresenting the Middle Ages, is never given the opportunity to express and confront his opinions on medieval history. The academics condemning him try mindreading and infer his intentions – rather than asking directly. Many medievalist publications are scant in regards to contemporary primary sources, preferring to moralize about ‘misrepresentation’ and assigning motivations.
To conclude, I do not object to medieval scholars using their expertise to engage with the public. This is to be encouraged. Some artists, journalists, activists and politicians share this passion towards the Middle Ages, too; this is also terrific and wonderful. Unfortunately, medieval history is currently undervalued by schools and universities, especially in my home country, Australia. However, I am deeply concerned about the activist presence in medieval studies. This is not desirable for numerous reasons, but mostly, due to the poor scholarship it produces.
A scholar working on medievalism can understand, and write about the latter, using primary sources, engaging in interviews and debates, and writing clear and fair literature, free from polemical goals.