Topics of Discussion at the 2013 Poplar Culture Association Conference

Response: Seductive Medievalisms

Amy Kaufman
April 20, 2013

This is the last of four posts of a METAPOST–four posts in one! All four posts have been adapted from presentations made at the 2013 Popular Culture Association/American Culture Association Conference (Washington, D.C.). The session, “Medievalism in Politics Round Table,” was a part of the Medievalism in Popular Culture section (comprised of seven sessions total), organized by Amy Kaufman.

What do we mean when we call something ‘medieval’? Usha writes that the Middle Ages have become “a blank canvas onto which political figures can write whatever they want.” And what politicians and everyone else seem to want from the Middle Ages is sexism, Eurocentricism, feudalism, religious fervor, and isolationism. As Usha points out, to Mitt Romney, the Middle Ages signify cultural stagnation, the rejection of all things foreign, and complete surrender to spiritual law against scientific and economic advancement. But that’s a profound mischaracterization given the level of interaction that medieval people had with the world around them―the literary, philosophical, and scientific exchanges between France and Arabic Al-Andalus during the twelfth-century Renaissance, for instance, or the appearance of ‘Saracen’ heroes and heroines in medieval romance. Medieval people were hungry to know and explore their world, not to close themselves off from it. Consider John Mandeville’s fictional dialogue about religion with an Egyptian Sultan, in which the Sultan lectures him on Christian hypocrisy and sin. The text spends a lot of time reviewing the similarities between Christianity and Islam, constantly reinforcing common ground. The narrator’s assessment that “Sarasyns byleveth so neygh our fay, they beth lightly converted when men telle hem the lawe of Crist” is, of course, a mixed bag: it combines a stereotypical medieval way of thinking (convert the unbelievers!) with a radically surprising one, that Christians and Muslims should focus on their similarities rather than their differences.

The most common meaning of ‘medieval’ in popular culture, of course, is repressive to women, anti-feminist, or sexist. This view of the medieval past as a man’s world in which women are always already victims permeates popular culture (consider, as just one glaring example, HBO’s Game of Thrones). Though such representations are ostensibly pejorative, allowing us to pat ourselves on the back for progress, they also have a whiff of nostalgic fantasy for a world in which maleness was uniquely meaningful. This is the imagined world of Alex’s gun enthusiasts too: a theme park of masculinity and self-reliance. The problem with these ambivalent fantasies of the Middle Ages is not necessarily the assertion that patriarchal structures and ideas existed in the medieval past; they certainly did. The problem is the mistaken assumption that these paradigms are totalizing. Over-determining medieval misogyny not only validates gender stereotypes with the supposed weight of history, but it also closes the whole period for women in a way that is neither historically accurate nor entirely defensible. For what Carol’s use of Chaucer in her video rightly points out is the complexity of medieval thought, the dialogue about women rather than the monologue; and she also demonstrates that in many ways, contemporary politicians can be more reductive in their views of women than medieval physicians ever were.

Take the example of Todd Akin and his professed belief in the power of the womb to reject a rapist’s sperm. Some journalists, such as MSNBC’s Chris Hayes, pointed out the connection to medieval theories of sexuality (which encouraged labeling Akin himself ‘medieval’) but never delved into the details that might complicate the backwards image of the Middle Ages. The medieval theory, based on Galen’s ancient ideas, was specifically that both parties needed to climax in order to conceive. In other words, it emphasized the equal importance of female orgasm. Medieval women could divorce impotent husbands because the law viewed sex as a marital and medical priority, so much so that midwives were sometimes enlisted to masturbate a sex-deprived woman to orgasm so that she would not suffer from “womb suffocation”(1). While Galen’s theories could be used against women in medieval rape law, their use was by no means ubiquitous, and such laws actually got worse for women as the “Dark Ages” advanced toward the Renaissance in England, the status of rape shifting from a crime against an individual woman to a crime against her family (2).

In the wake of recent academic dismissals of the entire medieval period, it is even more important that we try to liberate the Middle Ages from the dark, not just so that we can encourage others to explore the beauty and complexity of history―although that is a noble goal―but also so that we do not overestimate ourselves. Ironically, the misunderstanding of Chinese history Usha documents in No Apology proves this point when juxtaposed against Romney’s own relationship to China. Frequently omitted from public outcry against Romney’s infamous 47% video is that its recorder, Scott Prouty, cared far less about Romney’s insult to American retirees and veterans and far more about his description of a factory he bought in China. (And if you missed Prouty’s interview on MSNBC’s Ed Show, watch it immediately.) Romney uses the story of this factory to extoll the glories of economic production:

When I was back in my private equity days we went to China to buy a factory there. It employed about 20,000 people and they were almost all young women between the ages of about 18 and 22 or 23….[A]s we were walking through this facility, seeing them work, the number of hours they worked per day, the pittance they earned, living in dormitories with little bathrooms at the end of maybe ten rooms. And the rooms, they had 12 girls per room, three bunk beds on top of each other. You’ve seen them. And around this factory was a fence, a huge fence with barbed wire, and guard towers. And we said, “Gosh, I can’t believe that you, you know, you keep these girls in.” They said, “No, no, no —this is to keep other people from coming in because people want so badly to come work in this factory that we have to keep them out, or they’ll just come in here and start working and try to get compensated, so we…this is to keep people out!”

Romney later adds, “When I walked through the factory, nobody looked up.” Apart from the willful naiveté Romney exhibits this description, we have to ask ourselves: Is this the progressive future that he claims ‘medieval’ China rejected? Enforced enclosure, the dehumanization of economically-disadvantaged young women, the class hierarchy enforced by armed guards, the peasants forbidden to raise their heads and look at their lords as they walk past?

Misunderstanding the Middle Ages doesn’t just create flattering illusions about the past, but it confuses us about the present as well. We who fancy ourselves “post-feminist,” “post-modern,” “post-racial,” or even “capitalists” compulsively gravitate toward the neofeudal, ethnically isolationist, socially-regressive, and sexist in our laws, our entertainment, our economic practices, and our political philosophies. And the ambivalent fantasy we have about the Middle Ages as nasty, brutish, and patriarchal, the revulsion mixed with longing evident in so many visions of the past, has very real consequences: it indulges in a nostalgia that authenticates masculinity through acts of violence. Now more than ever, as the world is blanketed in brutality and catastrophe from Connecticut to Texas to Boston to China to Iraq, we are even more obligated to open our eyes to the long arc of history and interrogate the structures and belief systems that perpetuate the darkness of our own age.


1 See Jacqueline Murray, “Twice Marginal and Twice Invisible: Lesbians in the Middle Ages”, in Handbook of Medieval Sexuality, ed. James A. Brundage and Vern L. Bullough (New York: Routledge, 1996), pp. 191-222, p. 198, 201; Murray, “Hiding Behind the Universal Man: Male Sexuality in the Middle Ages,” in Handbook of Medieval Sexuality, ed. Brundage and Bullough, pp. 123-52, p. 139; and Ruth Mazo Karras, Sexuality in Medieval Europe: Doing unto Others (London: Routledge, 2012), p. 112.

2 For a very thorough survey, see Corinne Saunders, Rape and Ravishment in the Literature of Medieval England (Cambridge: D. S. Brewer, 2001).