Pedantic Professors

A followup to a post below. Sam Fallon writes in The Chronicle of Higher Education:

In recent weeks, Donald Trump’s pursuit of a border wall between the United States and Mexico has worked its way back in time — to the Middle Ages. Trump has happily agreed that his proposal is a distinctly “medieval solution.” “It worked then,” he declared in January, “and it works even better now.” That admission proved an invitation to critics, who inveighed against the wall as, in the words of the presidential hopeful Senator Kamala Harris, Trump’s “medieval vanity project.”

The response from medievalists was swift and withering — not just for the president, but also for his opponents. Calling the wall “medieval” was misleading, wrote Matthew Gabriele, of Virginia Tech, in The Washington Post, “because walls in the actual European Middle Ages simply did not work the way Trump apparently thinks they did.” On CNN.com, David M. Perry, of the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities, insisted that “walls are not medieval.” And in Vox, Eric Weiskott, of Boston College, urged readers to “take it from a professor of medieval literature: calling things you don’t like ‘medieval’ is inaccurate and unhelpful.”

Along with every other medievalist, I take umbrage at the negative connotation of “medieval” in popular discourse. But on this particular issue, I think that our politics have gotten the better of us. No, boundaries between states were generally not walled in the Middle Ages (unlike in the Roman Empire or in Imperial China) – in fact, they often weren’t even defined. But any city worth the name was surrounded by a wall, for the obvious reason that it might be attacked, and given the military technology of the time, a wall formed an effective defense against such attack.

The walls of Orleans helped save the city from an English siege in 1429, which even involved the use of canon. Wikipedia.

All that Trump would like to do is to treat the country like a medieval city. One can take issue with his idea that the great hordes of illegal aliens swarming across our southern border really constitute an invasion force or otherwise threaten our way of life, or that a wall will be the best way of keeping them out (proper visa tracking and compulsory e-verify might be more useful on this front). I note, however, that a lot of the people who are in favor of not enforcing our immigration laws live in places where they don’t have to experience the externalities of the policies they champion, often surrounded by actual barriers, or otherwise protected by private security forces or just astronomical prices to keep the riffraff out. I read somewhere that the choice for America going forward is this: either a wall on the southern border, or lots of little walls throughout the country.

So yeah, walls are medieval… and they just may be something worth reviving.

“Medieval”

Eric Weiskott in Vox:

Last month, Dana Milbank wrote for the Washington Post that President Trump’s proposed wall along the Mexico–US border was “medieval.” “It’s true,” Trump responded later the same day, “because [a wall] worked then and it works even better now.” CNN’s Jake Tapper mocked Trump’s response on his newscast with a cartoon depicting the president as a medieval European king.

Take it from a professor of medieval literature: calling things you don’t like ‘medieval’ is inaccurate and unhelpful. It’s inaccurate, because we don’t live in the Middle Ages. The things that most anger, disgust, or offend us are relatively new in the grand scheme of history. And it’s unhelpful, because the ‘medieval’ label reinforces our overconfidence in ourselves and our modernity. That attitude goes all the way back to the Enlightenment in the 18th century. Not coincidentally, the Enlightenment is the movement that cemented the idea of the Middle Ages as a distinctive—and distinctly regrettable—period of European history, spanning roughly the 5th to the 15th centuries.

It’s not just Trump’s wall. ‘Medieval’ is often used to describe something cruel and archaic, a nod to a dark age that precedes the modern era. In December, the satirical website The Daily Mash ran a story with the headline, “‘No deal’ Brexit plan suspiciously similar to Middle Ages.” During the second 2016 presidential debate, while deflecting a question about the Access Hollywood tape, in which he can be heard boasting of sexually assaulting women, Trump described “a world where you have ISIS chopping off heads” as “like medieval times.” In Pulp Fiction, Marsellus Wallace famously threatens his rapist, Zed, “I’ma get medieval on your ass,” evoking the Middle Ages’ unearned reputation for creative torture. The threat is supposed to promise Zed a fate worse than death. Wallace mentions “a pair of pliers and a blowtorch.”

Quite right! Blowtorches were not medieval instruments. Read the whole thing.

Phi Alpha Theta, 2019

L-R: Levi Cochran, Guest Speaker Dr. Richard Utz, Zoe Roberts, Madelyn Montgomery, Abigail Merchant, Dr. Jonathan Good, Aliyah Reeves, Josh Carver, Luke Hayes, Grant Ashton, McKayla Parmele, Jessie Fanczi, Madison Little. Photo: Jordan Beach.

Very pleased to have been able to induct no fewer than twelve new members of Reinhardt’s chapter of Phi Alpha Theta, the honor society for students of history:

Grant Ashton
Josh Carver
Levi Cochran
Jessie Fanczi
Luke Hayes
Madison Little
Abigail Merchant
Carlos Molina

Madelyn Montgomery
McKayla Parmele
Aliyah Reeves
Zoe Roberts

The ceremony took place on Thursday, February 21, 2019 in the Glass House. Our guest speaker was Richard Utz of Georgia Tech, whose talk was entitled “What About Those Middle Ages?” The Middle Ages are always popular in certain circles, and people refer to them for reasons that we can call good (Anglo-American law and government, the university, or ideas of chivalry and romantic love) but also for reasons we find bad (nationalism and crusading). It is up to historians to “choose the right,” in this case – especially through public outreach, like editing Wikipedia, which is far more influential than any professional scholarly publication.

Congratulations to all our new members! And heartfelt thanks to President Mallard and Provost Roberts for their support.

Arthuriana

• My friend Christopher Berard’s book Arthurianism in Early Plantagenet England from Henry II to Edward I was published yesterday by the Boydell Press. It represents the “first full-scale account of the use of the Arthurian legend in the long twelfth century.”

The precedent of empire and the promise of return lay at the heart of King Arthur’s appeal in the Middle Ages. Both ideas found fullness of expression in the twelfth century: monarchs and magnates sought to recreate an Arthurian golden age that was as wondrous as the biblical and classical worlds, but less remote. Arthurianism, the practice of invoking and emulating the legendary Arthur of post-Roman Britain, was thus an instance of medieval medievalism.

This book provides a comprehensive history of the first 150 years of Arthurianism, from its beginnings under Henry II of England to a highpoint under Edward I. It contends that the Plantagenet kings of England mockingly ascribed a literal understanding of the myth of King Arthur’s return to the Brittonic Celts whilst adopting for themselves a figurative and typological interpretation of the myth. A central figure in this work is Arthur of Brittany (1187-1203), who, for more than a generation, was the focus of Arthurian hopes and their disappointment.

• At Medievally Speaking, Kevin Harty interprets the movie Aquaman as an Arthurian tale:

The Arthurian elements are established by the title character’s first name, and by a variation on the traditionally problematic or unusual Arthurian parentage: for Ygraine and Uther read Atlanna and Thomas.  Aquaman, like Perceval in multiple versions of the Arthurian legend, initially defeats a knight in red armor—here, of course, a sea knight. While King Arthur’s last battle is usually with his illegitimate son Mordred, Aquaman’s last battle with his half-brother Orm is a close enough parallel.  Mera is part Guinevere, part good Morgan le Fay.  Vulko serves as Aquaman’s Merlin, and the Trident is, of course, the film’s Excalibur.  Malory has it that “whoso pulleth out this sword of this stone and anvil is rightwise king born.”  In Aquaman, the ability to retrieve the Trident similarly guarantees who is “rightwise king born” of Atlantis. Aquaman’s interrogation by the Karathen at times recalls that of Arthur and his knights by Mighty Tim in Monty Python and the Holy Grail.  In John Boorman’s Excalibur, Arthur learns that the secret of the Grail is that the land and the king are one.  In Aquaman, the title character declares that the land and the sea are one.

Vikings in Boston

Yet another example of the American desire for Viking roots is detailed in an article on WBUR.org (hat tip: Chris Berard):

Vikings, Baking Powder And Poets: Boston’s Long And Confusing History With Leif Erikson

If you were to believe a small plaque on the grounds of Mount Auburn Hospital in Cambridge, you’d think there was a time when the Vikings sailed the Charles River.

But there’s a reason you didn’t read that story in your American history books.

The plaque, which can be found if you walk along Fresh Pond Parkway with Gerry’s Landing Road to the left, reads, “On this spot in the year 1000 Leif Erikson built his house in Vineland.” One of our readers asked why the marker is there, and it turns out the plaque is not the only nod to the renowned Viking explorer that Greater Bostonians could spot across the region.

So we set off to break down the long timeline of Massachusetts’ complicated, largely unproven and definitely unorthodox infatuation with Erikson and Viking heritage.

Check it out.

Robin Hood

Kevin Harty, at Medievally Speaking, reviews the film Robin Hood (dir. Otto Bathurst, 2018):

The legend of Robin Hood celebrates transgressive behavior.  King Arthur is authoritarian—the focus of a structured legend rooted in long foundational medieval texts by the likes of Geoffrey of Monmouth, Chrétien de Troyes, and Sir Thomas Malory. Robin Hood is anti-authoritarian—the focus of an unstructured legend rooted in popular culture and shorter anonymous texts.  In literature, the Hoodian legend begins as what Roman Catholics used to call an occasion of sin.  In the B-text of Piers Plowman, William Langland in the late fourteenth century presents an idle priest, a figure of sloth, who has failed to learn his prayers but who knows instead the “rymes of Robin Hood.” Those “rymes” mark the literary beginning of a legend that would grow by bits and bobs and cross genres for centuries, adding along the way characters and incidents with which we have become more than familiar, and, at one point, resituating itself in the time of King Richard I, some two hundred or so years earlier than when it sprang up.

Film began its fascination with Robin Hood at least as early as 1908; television, in 1950 in the United States, and three years later in England. Rarely, it is safe to say, no matter what genre or media is employed, does someone retell the story of Robin Hood without nodding to earlier versions of the tale and to contemporary politics. In the case of cinema, arguably the three best Robin Hood films react to world conflicts past (the 1922 Robin Hood starring Douglas Fairbanks, Sr.), present (Richard Lester’s 1976 Robin and Marian starring Sean Connery and Audrey Hepburn), and future (the 1938 Adventures of Robin Hood starring Errol Flynn). The Robin Hoods of television have similarly been used for political purposes: opposing the Hollywood Blacklist (the 1950s’ The Adventures of Robin Hood), opposing pollution and attacks on the environment (the 1980s’ Robin of Sherwood), and opposing the policies of Mrs. Thatcher (the 1990s’ Maid Marian and Her Merry Men).

More at the link.

Lady Godiva

Was pleased to receive a Christmas treat from a college friend of mine: a box of Godiva chocolates. The company’s well-known logo features Lady Godiva riding naked on a horse.

Wikipedia.

The Godiva episode is one of the more popular medieval legends, even outside of England, where it is alleged to have taken place (the company was founded in Belgium in 1926). The idea is that Leofric, earl of Mercia (d. 1057), oppressed his subjects with heavy taxation. His wife Godgifu (Godiva) repeatedly besought Leofric to change his mind, to no avail. Finally, an exasperated Leofric said that he would grant relief, if Godgifu  rode naked through the streets of Coventry. His request was seemingly impossible by the standards of aristocratic feminine behavior, but Godgifu took him up on it and rode through the town clothed in nothing but her long hair (although she ordered everyone to stay indoors first; only a certain “Peeping Tom” violated the edict).

Leofric and Godgifu were real people. Godgifu died between 1066 and 1086, i.e. some time after the Norman Conquest; unlike most Anglo-Saxons, she retained her lands and position in the face of the regime change. The legend of her naked ride started to be told in the thirteenth century, so this is an interesting example of medieval medievalism. A good book on the phenomenon is Daniel Donahue, Lady Godiva: A Literary History of the Legend (2002), which details the erotic, aristocratic, and decadent strands of the legend that made it so appealing as the name of maker of fine chocolates.

Some Recent Links

• Noble Ingram on Christian Science Monitor: “History lesson: Scholars take aim at racist views of Middle Ages”

Fiamenco File: “OMG, She Cheered for White Men!” (16 minute YouTube video)

• Peter Wood on Inside Higher Ed.: “Anatomy of a Smear: Scholars should speak out against those who have weaponized the language of “safety,” “security,” “acknowledgment” and “inclusion” to silence anyone who disagrees with them”

• Jay Nordlinger on National Review Online: “One Gutsy Medievalist” (link to Ricochet podcast)

Warrior Saints

The latest issue of Medieval Warfare features a piece by Reinhardt’s Dr. Jonathan Good, in which he popularizes his scholarship on St. George and explains the importance of warrior saints to soldiers and the broader population. Soldiers frequently offered prayers of thanks or supplication to warrior saints. Sometimes warrior saints appeared to soldiers on the battlefield, raising morale or even helping to defeat the enemy.

To read more, subscribe to Medieval Warfare or read Good’s book, The Cult of St George in Medieval England, published by Boydell, for a more in-depth treatment.

From Kevin Harty

My thanks to Kevin Harty for a new St. George. This is a postcard of the right hand side of a triptych entitled The Angel of Victory, which was painted in 1941 by one Violet Oakley. The Angel himself occupies the central panel, and St. Michael is displayed on the left. You can see the whole thing at the website of the Delaware Museum of Art. It represents “the first of her 25 wartime altarpieces, completed just two weeks after the attack on Pearl Harbor.”

As chance would have it, Kevin has also just reviewed the latest (and apparently last) installment in the Sharknado franchise. From Richard Utz’s Medievally Speaking:

In Travels in Hyperreality, Umberto Eco notes that we are always “messing up” the Middle Ages to meet a variety of agendas.  The Camelot segment in The Last Sharknado is a brilliant example of just that kind of “messing up.” To a popular culture enthusiast, it is an authentic example of “the medieval.” It has a castle, a dragon, a group of peasants, an evil Morgana, a wise Merlin, and a brave knight who wields a special, magical sword to save the day. It even furthers its authenticity by referencing such other authentic examples of “the medieval” as A Game of Thrones and Lord of the Rings, with a nod to The Wizard of Oz thrown in for good measure. And it casts as its Merlin and Morgana two “real” television celebrities, from admittedly opposite ends of the celebrity spectrum: the well-known physicist Neil deGrasse Tyson, who is a ubiquitous television and radio talking head on any number of scientific topics, and the truly outrageous Alaska Thunderf*ck, from a reality competition television show that has, for ten seasons, turned the outrageous into Emmy award winning high camp.

Read the whole thing.