Sunday, April 08, 2018

Medievalism, Politics and Mass Media: Appropriating the Middle Ages in the Twenty-First Century, by Andrew B.R. Elliott

Medievalism can mean several different things: historical re-creation inspired by the Middle Ages, drawing on medieval precedents to shape art and literature, using the symbols of the medieval past to justify modern nationalist movements; the academic study of the Middle Ages. Undoubtedly some of you can come up with more types of medievalism. The adoption of medieval ideas and and symbols by extremists in the last little while is something that concerns me as a medievalist (academic) and a medievalist (hobbyist). These people are stealing my good name by associating medievalism with loathsome ideas and actions, which in some cases include murder. The Medieval Review (hosting site being upgraded this week) slipped into my mail box today, and it included this very interesting book review. I know no more about it than what is written below:
Elliott, Andrew B. R. Medievalism, Politics and Mass Media: Appropriating the Middle Ages in the Twenty-First Century. Medievalism. Woodbridge: D.S. Brewer, 2017. Pp. 223. $39.95. ISBN: 978-1-84384-463-1.

Reviewed by Richard Utz

Georgia Institute of Technology

While researched, written, and published before most of last year's momentous discussions about the role of race, gender, politics, and ideology in medieval studies and medievalism, Andrew Elliott's study is a timely and relevant contribution to the field. It continues the work begun by Louise D'Arcens and Andrew Lynch (eds., International Medievalism and Popular Culture, 2014), Tommaso Carpegna di Falconieri (Medioevo militante: La politica di oggi alle prese con barbari e crociati, 2011), David M. Marshall (ed., Mass Market Medieval: Essays on the Middle Ages in Popular Culture, 2007), and Bruce Holsinger (Neomedievalism, Neoconservatism, and the War on Terror, 2007), but deepens their insights with a focus on the roles of contemporary media and communication, specifically online medievalisms. It also offers an original theoretical framework for future investigations.

Aware of the often visceral reactions of medieval historians to the public (mis)use of the Middle Ages by non-academic voices, Elliott is careful to prepare a secure theoretical foundation for his subject matter in the first three chapters. He immediately demarcates medievalisms referring to medieval history from heavily mediated popular political medievalisms. For the latter, the Middle Ages is most often merely a "'surprise player' used throughout political discussion by the modern media in order to become a site of identity, a point of identification or an ideological weapon then reused across other media" (6). According to Elliott, these popular medievalisms tend to originate in a three-step process: First, they need to be expropriated from history, as when medieval objects, concepts, and symbols are invoked in a postmedieval context; second, this expropriation is repeated and retransmitted, allowing the meaning of the object, concept, and symbol to gradually stand for new meanings increasingly unrelated to any historical reality; and third, the object, concept, or symbols is assimilated, translated, and modified so that it is completely "divested [...] of its original meanings and context-dependent significance making it ripe to be grafted onto modern concerns" (6). In chapters 4 and 5 of his study, Elliott details this process for the use of the (medieval) crusades by both George W. Bush and Osama bin Laden:

"In each case, though for very different purposes, the cultural symbolism of the Crusades was excised from its original meaning, transmitted through the mass media in a new form, and ultimately became the subject of a dispute not over their original meaning but over their new significance as an ideological weapon. So when bin Laden calls on his fellow Muslims to resist a Crusader invasion of the Holy Land, he is referring to an established tradition which has, through relentless repetition, assimilated the modern armed incursions into the Middle East with twentieth- and twenty-first-century "crusades." Likewise, it is precisely because the term was already in use that Bush's famous description of the War on Terror as a Crusade had such enormous political and ideological resonance"(6-7).

In chapter 6, Elliott shows a similar process at work for the events and media reception of Anders Behring Breivik, the Norwegian far-right terrorist who killed 77 people in 2011 and justified his actions by stylizing himself as a Knight Templar defending western civilization against its allegedly impending Islamization. Chapters 7 and 8 move on to a discussion of the popular political medievalisms of the right-wing English Defense League (EDL) and the Islamic State (IS), respectively.

The central claim of Medievalism, Politics and Mass Media is that these various social media and other online mass medievalisms have little or nothing to do with the historical Middle Ages, but only and exclusively exist because of contemporary meme culture. In this culture, traditional models of authority and authenticity for communicating about medieval culture are pretty much irrelevant. Instead of the onerous identification of sources, causes, and paths of transmission, which would challenge ambiguity and inaccuracy, the modes of dissemination for medievalist memes in contemporary mass media are excellent examples of Jean Baudrillard's simulacra, presenting world-wide audiences with copies of copies without an original. However, even a Baudrillardian analysis of the vertical relationships between contemporary medievalisms and the Middle Ages will not do justice to the empty signifiers dominating current mass media. What is needed to understand these medievalist memes is an investigation into the horizontal relationships between various contemporary and multiply mediated mass medievalisms.

Elliott clearly has the background in communication and media theory necessary for dealing with these "elastic," "ludic," "pejorative," and "deliberately inappropriate" (all terms used in Elliott's study) mass medievalisms. In Michael Billig's Banal Nationalism (1995), which explores the uses of nationalism as when someone waves the flag not as part of a conscious and specific expression of national identity, but as a vague celebration of patriotic identity, Elliott has found a perfect model for his own study. He investigates "banal medievalisms," which he describes as bricolages of ideological redeployments of medievalist tropes or memes, or "the Middle Ages in the twenty-first century media landscape" as "unconscious sites of unchallenged heritage and, ultimately, unchallenged reference points in our collective imagination" (16). Like Billig's seemingly innocuous "banal nationalisms," Elliott reveals "banal medievalisms" as an "endemic condition made more powerful by the fact that [they] pass unobserved in most cases" (17). Behind these medievalisms' superficially harmless repetitions and unaware remediations, then, he recognizes the potential for the kind of banal evil Hannah Arendt diagnosed in the quotidian absence and failure of thinking, imagination, and self-awareness embodied by Hitler's Adolf Eichmann.

Many traditional medievalists will consider Elliott's book as external to medieval studies and therefore unrelated to their own work. After all, he is investigating medievalisms that are intentionally extirpated from the past events, texts, and artifacts they study. Moreover, these semantically "flattened" medievalisms are popular and political, two features most academics have learned to treat with disdain or at least caution. However, I would suggest that all medievalists should read his book because they will gain important insights into how their own published work and their teaching will increasingly be perceived by academic as well as non-academic audiences. Even if only to resist the alacrity with which these medievalisms can now spread at an electronic news cycle's notice, it serves medievalists well to comprehend the processes by which certain dominant (and often contradictory) ideas of the Middle Ages come about and are transmitted.

The association between "Middle East" and "Middle Ages" in the early 2000s is a case in point: Elliott documents how politicians, journalists, and others on instant messaging services and social media ceaselessly repeated and repurposed banal tropes and memes of the Middle Ages as regressive, violent, superstitious, primitive, anti-modern, and non-technological, until these tropes and memes ended up in support of political positions completely unrelated to anything we know about medieval culture. Elliott even documents how similar or the same memes of the "dark ages" were employed by the U.S. government as well as by Al Qaeda: If George W. Bush's famous post-9/11 gaffe about calling his "war on terrorism" a "crusade" was the beginning of a wholesale cultural clash between the "modern" west and the "medieval" East, Osama bin Laden employed Bush's neoconservative use of western orientalist/medievalist rhetoric and its elision of Islamism, Islam, and Arabic culture to mask Al Qaeda's own technological sophistication as well as to brand the western interference in the Middle East as a Crusader/Zionist alliance.

Medievalism, Politics and Mass Media would be a valuable contribution to our understanding of the phenomenon of medievalism if only for the wealth of illustrative examples it provides. However, I predict that its real legacy will be in affording a solid theoretical framework within which we can unpack what otherwise might well remain a confusing maze of medievalist mass media references. As Elliott states: "[M]edievalisms are rich with meaning because they are used so often across the mass media that the meaning is made elastic. Thus the (seemingly circuitous) assertion of banal medievalism is that medievalisms have meaning because they surround us, and they surround us because they have meaning" (45). I am grateful to Andrew Elliott for providing us with sound scholarly tools with which to explain the proliferation of banal medievalisms in the last 15 years, and I expect similar guidance about the sociological processes motivating the cultural phenomenon of medievalism from Paul Sturtevant's forthcoming book, The Middle Ages in Popular Imagination: Memory, Film and Medievalism. How long these tools will be efficient may depend on the accelerating pace of new communication technologies and how users and societies negotiate them. And the scholarly monograph, which takes years to write and thus considerably lags behind the speed at which technological change drives communicative practice, may not be the most efficient genre for critically accompanying what the future holds for the study of mass media medievalisms.

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