How James Joyce used the Middle Ages to have a Good Laugh at History

Umberto Eco famously described James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake as “a node where the Middle Ages and the avante-garde meet” (xi). For Eco, Joyce’s obsession with order and architectonics had a medieval character, and the Wake frequently refers to the Book of Kells as a kind of emblem of Irish modernism. A whole host of iconic medieval texts is put on display in the “museyroom” (8.09), or the museum that Joyce builds in order to warehouse all of human history. The surahs of the Koran echo in Joyce’s female protagonist, Anna Livia Plurabelle, who is described as “Annah the allmaziful” (104.01), and we move from here to the Annals of the Four Masters towards universal theories of history like Giambattista Vico’s Scienza Nuova.

The Book of Kells, [Codex Cenannensis] Dublin, Trinity College Library, MS A. I.,  folio 292r.

However, the extent of James Joyce’s research into the Scandinavian influences on Irish and British culture has been underappreciated until somewhat recently. Thanks to the work of genetic scholars like Daniel Ferrer, and others involved with the Genetic Joyce Studies project, we now have a fuller picture of the depth of the Irish author’s appreciation of the history of Dano-Norwegian conquest. The Wake creates a speculative cartography, drawing on the ways in which the Scandinavian incursions into the western European peninsula—“the penisolate war” (FW 3.06)—impacted the cultural geography of Ireland. Ireland becomes a microcosmic composite of diverse global histories of migration in the Wake, and the historiographical adage that the Vikings became ‘more Irish than the Irish themselves’ plays out in Joyce’s mosaic of native-settler miscegenation: a process of “Noirse made Earsy” (314.27), or Norse made Irish/Erse

The imaginative topography traced by the Wake ‘spatchcocks’ the totality of global history onto the local map of Dublin and its environs. As Joyce uses the course of the river Liffey to delimit the world-historical synecdoche that is Dublin, he draws on writers like the nineteenth century historian Charles Halliday. Halliday’s work, The Scandinavian Kingdom of Dublin, identified the Norwegian settlement of Dyfflinarsky with the inland route that the Liffey takes from Dublin Bay to the ‘Salmon Leap’ in Leixlip. This archaic territorial map has several notable features of Scandinavian origin, and even as early on as Joyce’s A Portrait, we see the influence of Halliday in references to the existence of a thingmote—a primitive structure that survives at the centre of Joyce’s imaginary Dublin as a vestigial icon of lost ages of Scandinavian sovereignty.  

Indeed, the structure of the thingmote has profound symbolic significance in the Wake, as its hump-like shape resonates within the moniker of the Wake’s quasi-Nordic protagonist: Humphrey Chimpden Earwicker (the ubiquitous HCE). An entire retinue of Scandinavian sovereigns populates the pages of Earwicker’s story, or his “Eyrawyggla saga” [48.16] (the comparison with the Icelandic Eyrbyggia Saga with Ireland was likely derived form A. Walsh’s 1922 history, Scandinavian Relations with Ireland during the Viking Period). The more familiar characters and incidents form the Poetic Edda crop up intermittently in Joyce’s novel (HCE assumes various forms of Odin’s name, and Yggdrasill and the hanged god theme lie behind the book’s recurrent theme of the scapegoat who is sacrificed). Indeed, from Thórodd, to Harald Bluetooth, to Sitric Silkenbeard—the Wake is heavily invested in bringing the expansionist networks of Norse hegemony into close proximity with more ‘Celtic’ accounts of the roots of Irish culture (indeed, the Tripartite Life of St. Patrick is a recurring nativist source, and the Wake returns frequently to St. “Peatrick” [3.10] as a satirical symbol of earthy, native identity). 

While much of this historiographical overlaying of chronicles and pseudo-histories is designed to critique the ethno-purism of the Gaelic Revival’s celticization of history, it also speaks to the universal tendency of national cultures to ‘invent’ their own traditions—especially as this invention involves appropriating the histories of minority cultures. Norse references often displace the homely founder-narrative of Gaelic authenticity and rootedness in the Wake, and in Book Two, Chapter Three, for instance, HCE becomes a Norwegian sea-captain, who is naturalized as an Irish citizen through his marriage to Anna Livia. This episode recalls various incarnations of the invader/betrayer narrative that has defined Irish history, and the way in which he is domesticated and hybridized by the Celtic influence (becoming a “Scowegian” [16.06] and an “Eirewhigg” [175.17]), puts into question any assumptions about the uninterrupted purity of the Celtic lineage.

Finnegans Wake by James Joyce, Illustrated by John Vernon Lord (The Folio Society, 2014).

While Joyce introduces a Nordic element in order to desacralize Irish mono-culturalism, the Wake draws on a unique tendency within early twentieth-century historiography to complicate ethnic narratives by emphasizing the influence of peripheral, colonized cultures. Indeed, we can see how Joyce was actively searching for what could be called a counter-hegemonic chronicle of Norse-Irish history by looking at the complex array of notebooks and draft sheets for this chapter. These sources are often used by Joyce scholars to support their genetic claims about the gestation and composition of Finnegans Wake. As Ian MacArthur and Viviana Braslasu point out, in his notebooks of 1926 (V.B.17) and 1936 (VI.B.37), Joyce was reading and annotating a book by the Norwegian historian Alexander Bugge. Here we find references to the “Danelagh” (or Danelaw), to Magnus Barefoot, and to a variety of other tid-bits of Dano-Norwegian provenance. Bugge’s A Contribution to the History of the Norsemen in Ireland would have been attractive to Joyce—the counter-hegemonic writer, who wished to challenge monolithic histories. The Norwegian historian’s work contains chapter titles like “The Royal Race of Dublin”—a study of the elite Scandinavian inflections of medieval Irish culture. While this Nordicization of Irish history might appear to smack of Norwegian chauvinism, it is also deeply invested in complicating the Norwegian narrative of cultural purity, as a micro Irish note is introduced into the macro-schema of Viking supremacy (Bugge had also won a Nansen Foundation in 1903 award for an essay on “How or to which extend have the Norse, and particularly the Norwegians, culture, way of living and society been influenced from the Western Countries [ie. Ireland and the British Isles]”.  

On the negative side, we can also see how the “becoming-minor” of national historiography could enable more domineering cultures to include minority cultures within their assimilationist narratives of national superiority. The politics of Nordic historiography in the early twentieth century was fertile ground for exploring the ways in which historical revisionism was used to articulate a clearer national identity in times of crisis (Norway and Sweden were in an identity crisis after the dissolution of their union in 1905). However, Joyce’s habit is to ridicule every nation’s proclivity to co-opt the history of minority political subjects. While Ireland becomes a positive source of talkback to national chauvinism in the Norwegian context—complexifying the tapestry of Viking history—Great Britain had been more resistant to Irish charges of cultural appropriation. 

As British Anglo-Saxonists articulated their own version of national history throughout the nineteenth century, Ireland often features in their revisionist schema as a minority partner only. Attempts to archive an autonomous Gaelic literature had many pitfalls during the period of British colonization, as incidents like the Ossian controversy demonstrated. In this way, the ‘Celtic note’ (as critics like David Lloyd have made clear), was always expressed within a clear hierarchy of colonizer/colonized, modern/primitive—primary history versus secondary account; the authentic ‘Angle’ versus the imitative ‘Celt’. The self-fashioning of British identity (which accelerates during the Victorian era) was thus tied up with an emergent field of medieval scholarship. This field provided an intellectual justification for jingoism, and Anglo-Saxonists would play a key role in subordinating problematic minority cultures to a master narrative of national (namely, ‘Anglo-‘) culture.

The problem of Scandinavian identity upsets this kind of national chauvinism in the Wake. It functions in a multivalent fashion—less as a distinct culture, or a clear form of geopolitical identity, so much as a repertoire of possible colonial subject-positions. Joyce dramatizes the reversibility of dyads like colonizer/colonized and settler/native, and identity becomes a negotiable and heterogeneous phenomenon, as it is written and rewritten in the cyclical drama of conquests and colonisations in the Wake

Cover of Penguin Books edition of Finnegans Wake by James Joyce (1999).

The Wake cultivates a pervasive aura of Norse-ness in-order-to articulate the impure nature of Irish identity—which was defined by successive waves of conquest and occupation (from the Vikings, to the Normans, to the modern British state). As we encounter the bellicose reparteé of two Neanderthal men—Mutt and Jute—in the first chapter of the novel, Joyce challenges us to develop an ethno-critical kind of thought. As Mutt encounters Jute, the hybrid native meets the ambiguous colonizer/Jutlander, and here Joyce plays with and inverts the roles of native and invader, moving beyond Manichaean constructions of history. In so-doing, Joyce radicalizes and repurposes the hackneyed trope of the  Vikings’ assimilation to native Gaelic culture, and while the latter become “more Irish than the Irish themselves”, we are left with the sense that the Irish ‘mutts’ become less like themselves by virtue of the same process. 

To further this deconstruction of historical roles, the Battle of Clontarf becomes a teachable moment in the Wake, as it works to complicate the received Manichaean narrative that the foreign invader was somehow expelled by the resilient natives in 1014. As Joyce himself remarks:

Finally, the bloody victory of the usurper Brian Boru over the nordic hordes on the sand dunes outside the walls of Dublin put an end to the Scandinavian raids. The Scandinavians, however, did not leave the country, but were gradually assimilated into the community, a fact that we must keep in mind if we want to understand the curious character of the modern Irishman (CW 159-60).

Photo of James Joyce by Berenice Abbott (1928).

This is taken from a lecture that Joyce gave in Trieste on the topic of Irish identity in 1907, ironically entitled “Ireland, Island of Saints and Sages”. Here, the Wake’s vision of “miscegenations on miscegenations” (18.20) comes to the fore, as Ireland functions as what Thomas Hofheinz calls a “transparency”: a historiographical overlay of a diverse array of settler cultures. Joyce’s aim is to critique the homogenizing of identity that he saw at work in certain strands of Irish culture—from the church’s promulgation of a pan-Catholic, confessional culture, to what would seem like (from a modern vantage), rather chauvinistic references to a Gaelic “race” (we find this kind of language in Douglas Hyde’s The Necessity for De-Anglicizing Ireland, a talk given to the Irish National Literary Society, in 1892).

Rather than monumentalizing a supposedly stable monoculture, the Wake dwells on how history inevitably becomes a document of errors. We see an example of such “intermisunderstanding” (118.25), in the dialogue between Mutt and Jute in chapter One. The text that accompanies this bizarre piece of dialogue speaks of how the historian Tacitus has related a deceptive narrative of Hiberno-Germanic cultures: “as Taciturn pretells, our wrongstory shortener” (17.03). Here, the chronicle of history becomes a “taciturn” document—one that is unforthcoming; less of a clear and concise history, and more of a faulty chronicle, which is full of erroneous assumptions about foreign cultures. The inherent cultural relativism of a text like the Wake thus complexifies history, to the extent that it advances a hard historical relativism—challenging any attempt to devise a faithful account of the national past. 

This lack of a definitive historical perspective is matched by the subversive interplay of Mutt and Jute, and they develop a sort of grudging complicity as they dialogue with each another (a sort of settler-colonial folie à deux, that upsets the rigid demarcation between settler and native). In their tenuous acts of civility towards one another, Mutt and Jute overturn any notion of a “pure” ethnic identity, as they come to represent the multifarious cultural exchanges that were involved in different phases of immigration and conquest. As they “swop hats and excheck a few strong verbs weak oach eather” (16.08), Mutt and Jute illuminate a history of linguistic cross-pollination, and the pair become a clownish, vaudeville duo, who deflate the grandiose pretensions of cultural chauvinisms that were becoming more prevalent during the composition of the Wake in the fascist 1930s. The latent violence of such exchanges is palpable, and Joyce effectively transplants the grander theatre of European tensions onto his own insular, Irish setting. The Wake constantly excavates and re-visits the histories of European violence. By domesticating and ironically reducing the gravity of this martial story of cultures (localizing it within in a remote enclave of the western European peninsula, like Ireland), he performs both a critique of epic jingoisms, and a desacrilization of the Hibernian insula sacra.

Finnegans Wake by James Joyce, Illustrated by John Vernon Lord (The Folio Society, 2014).

The specific mechanics of the interplay between Norse and Anglo-Saxon references that we find in Mutt and Jute will be detailed in our next blog. For now, it is worth noting how the political resonance of this cultural-linguistic patchwork begins to emerge. As Hofheinz has argued, Joyce’s engagement with historiography on Ireland’s Scandinavian roots is drawn from a scholarly tradition that was intimately bound up with both colonial antiquarianism, and the official outlets of English cultural production. Halliday, for example (whose Scandinavian Kingdom was clearly an influence on Joyce), was a historian commissioned by the Dublin Ballast Board—a municipal maritime body that had a quasi-governmental remit. As a member of the Royal Irish Academy in the mid-nineteenth century, Halliday joined the ranks of an academic organization whose history was inflected by a culture of colonial curatorship. The Academy was disproportionately patronized by the educated, Protestant elites of Ireland (one thinks of the Anglo-Irish novelist Maria Edgeworth and the statesman, Edmund Burke as notable members—critics of colonialism and slavery who could also be extremely paternalist in their attitude).  It is thus impossible to separate the source-texts of Joyce’s Scandinavian fascination from the long history of official chronicles, and what was oftentimes an intense competition (between Irish and more ‘Anglo’-oriented intellectuals) for cultural legitimacy. The bellicose nature of historiographical debate—a veritable patchwork of cultural appropriations and revisionisms—is consequently encoded in the confrontational patois of Mutt and Jute. Here, also, Joyce uses the comic strip template of Mutt and Jeff to conjure a comic duo of primitive cavemen who are trying to muster the most rudimentary form of language competency. As they are excavated from some palaeolithic era like the Heidelberg Man (“our old Heidenburgh” [18.23]), these original hominids represent the historical extremes that founder-narratives of cultural legitimation will go to, and in the end they become little more than bungling diplomatic negotiators, engrossed in an awkward telephone conversation. Stay tuned for more on the archaeology and language archaism of this anti-colonial satire in our next blog post on the subject!

John Conlon, Ph.D.
University of Notre Dame


Selected Bibliography:

Braslasu, Viviana-Mirela and Ian MacArthur. “Norsemen in Ireland in Spree, Notebook VI.B.37”. Genetic Joyce Studies: 20.1 (2020).

Eco, Umberto. The Middle Ages of James Joyce: The Aesthetics of Chaosmos. MA: Harvard UP (1989).

Hofheinz, Thomas. Joyce and the Invention of Irish History: Finnegans Wake in Context. Cambridge: Cambridge UP (1995).

Joyce, James. The Critical Writings of James Joyce. NY: Cornell UP (1989). 

Finnegans Wake. London: Penguin (1999).Lloyd, David. Nationalism and Minor Literature: James Clarence Mangan and the emergence of Irish Cultural Nationalism. CA: University of California Press (1987).

Medieval Chicago is Getting its Own Site!

Announcing medievalchicago.com, a new project inspired by the former special series.

While in its developmental stages, Medieval Chicago’s potential to grow into its own project became rapidly apparent. The initial posts were so much fun to write, and what could be better than the opportunity to go on local pilgrimages to medieval(ish) sites? So, in lieu of this special series, I happily announce the creation of an entirely new website: medievalchicago.com. Keep an eye out for new content coming soon!

My original introductory post on “Medieval Chicago,” lays out the rationale behind this project. A lightly revised version along with new introductory material is now live on medievalchicago.com as well. An updated version of the original Water Tower article will also be appearing soon along with new articles currently in progress.

That said, readers should find material here for a wide range of historical interests. Anyone—residents, visitors, the curious-minded—interested in Chicago, the Middle Ages, art, architecture, manuscripts, and even local events might discover something new. Like many digital projects, this currently solo, ongoing work-in-progress will see periodic posts, rather than weekly. Nevertheless, I hope you take a moment to look at the photos and blog posts already there as well as future additions to the site as it evolves. I hope you enjoy exploring Medieval Chicago as much as I enjoyed creating it!

Karrie Fuller, PhD
University of Notre Dame

 

Featured Image: Design vector created by Rwdd_studios - Freepik.com

Magical Thinking: Plague, Pandemic & Unconventional Cures from the Black Death to the Covid-19

When the pandemic strikes, and the trusted authorities are without a sure remedy, people extend their search for a cure, and they often resort to more unorthodox means of healing associated with alternative forms of authority and knowledge. Some of the most famous medieval collections of tales are set in times of plague when folk fled to the countryside to avoid exposure to pestilence, as in Giovanni Boccaccio‘s Decameron and Geoffrey Chaucer‘s grim “Pardoner’s Tale” from his Canterbury Tales (which were themselves modeled on Boccaccio‘s collection of stories).

Portrait of Geoffrey Chaucer from the Ellesmere Manuscript ( The Huntington Library, MS EL 26 C 9, f.153v).

Medieval historian John Aberth writes of the plague known as Black Death, “for this pestilential infirmity [of 1348], doctors from every part of the world had no good remedy or effective cure, neither through natural philosophy, medicine [physic], or the art of astrology.” Aberth adds that although there were no medical solutions, those peddling in various cures could profit from a plague, and he argues that “To gain money some went visiting and dispensing their remedies, but these only demonstrated through their patients’ death that their art was nonsense and false” (The Black Death, 37).

In the Middle Ages, whenever plagues hit, people’s fear of the disease quickly resulted in a lack of faith in traditional authorities, at times followed by scapegoating. The later phenomenon has been observed with respect to xenophobic conspiracy theories targeting marginalized groups, which alleged that Jews were poisoning wells (and sometimes gypsies and witches) in order to spread the Black Death during the later part of the medieval period. And, as Samuel K. Cohn observes, it was then, “Not until the late sixteenth century did authorities once again arrest people suspected of spreading the plague through poisons and tampering with food; these later waves of fear, however, did not target Jews as the principal suspects; instead, witches or hospital workers were now persecuted” (“The Black Death and the Burning of Jews,” 27).

Image of priest instructing the sick (lepers). James le Palmer, “Omne Bonum” in The British Library, Royal 6 VI f.301r.

Of course, in the earlier medieval period, when plague descended and church authorities—with all their medical knowledge and spiritual wisdom—were without a cure, medieval people might understandably turn to the other major source of authority in their lives, their kings and secular rulers, for guidance. We see this phenomenon manifest in the medieval belief that French and English monarchs (including saint-kings such as Saint Louis IX and Edward the Confessor) possessed miraculous healing powers. In time of plague, this gesture served to legitimize royalty as divinely sanctioned and win favor with the people, who could understandably become more restless during times of epidemic and pandemic.

Although kings and queens were often unskilled with respect to medical knowledge, especially by comparison to the clergy and university doctors, this sort of magical thinking and desire to imbue a leader with supreme knowledge and boundless inherent wisdom (despite their often limited information and experience) presents a totalitarian image of a ruler, which relies on public ignorance in order to reinforce the notion of a divinely organized, rigidly hierarchical society. It is a form of hero worship which knows no bounds.

The Royal Touch, in British Library, Royal 16 G.VI, f.424v.

As J. N. Hays points out, “the healing touch was a product of political motives, at least in part. But it coincided with a widespread belief in kings as magicians, endowed with near-divine powers” (The Burden of Disease, 33). This political motive leveraged popular belief in the royal touch to solidifying the claim that monarchs were chosen by God and thus superior in both the spiritual and political realms.

If the king’s touch failed to heal, or one simply did not have access to a royal hand, there was always the other—unspoken and taboo—source of power: magic and witchcraft. As Catherine Jenkin notes “During Venice’s plague outbreaks, notably 1575–1577 and 1630–1631, the population, desperate for a cure, turned to both sanctioned and unsanctioned healers. The wealthy consulted physicians; the less wealthy consulted pharmacists or barber-surgeons; the penitent consulted clergy; and the poor or desperate consulted streghe, or witches” (“Curing Venice’s Plagues: Pharmacology and Witchcraft,” 202). Desperate times called for desperate measures, and without any effective treatments available, everything was on the table.

Image depicts the two witches on a broomstick and a stick, in Martin Le Franc’s “Ladies’ Champion”, 1451; see W. Schild. Die Maleficia der Hexenleut’, 1997, S. 97.

Still, the Middle Ages suffers from a somewhat inaccurate reputation with respect to religious and learned views on the magic, which until the later period regarded folk healing and herbal remedies as mere superstitions, though throughout the period, “witchcraft was universally illegal under both sacred and secular law and even healing magic might be considered heretical” (Jenkins, 204). Nevertheless, folk traditions were generally considered relatively unthreatening by church authorities, especially compared to popular medieval heresies, which argued for unorthodox, though often quite learned, interpretations of Christianity, such as the Catharism & Lollardy, and heretical groups such as the Knights Templar, Hussites & beguines to name a few that drew special attention in the period prior to the advent of the Protestant Reformation.

Furthermore, folk healing was sometimes efficacious, and  Helen Thompson has recently argued for a connection between herbal remedies and modern pharmacies and drug markets.

Old English medical practices, The British Library, Cotton Vitellius C III, f.22v.

Richard Kieckhefer famously categorizes magic in the Middles Ages as either “natural” or “demonic” in orientation. Folk healers, and most so-called witches, (especially during the earlier period) are regarded by Kieckhefer as practitioners of the former, while seemingly more learned necromancers, who adapt and pervert Christian rituals, are considered practitioners of the later category of magic (and feature later in the period). Scholars such as Aberth, Kieckhefer, Jenkins, Brian Levak and others have each demonstrated a relationship between a rise in magic and the Black Death in Europe (Aberth, The Black Death; Kieckhefer, European Witch Trials; Jenkins, “Curing Venice’s Plagues: Pharmacology and Witchcraft”; Levak, The Witch Hunt in Early Modern Europe).

Desperate people might pursue illicit measures to procure a remedy for pestilence, and as a result interest in magic cures, protections, spell, talismans and wards increased alongside demand. Indeed, it is possible that this contributed to theories that witches poisoned wells and ultimately the hysteria surrounding early modern witch-hunts.

Annales de Gilles Le Muisit, Black Death at Tournai, 1349; France Bruxelles, Bibliothèque royale.

It is important to note that, while the church authorities generally maintained that magic was demonic illusion, the rise of universities gave way to a learned study of “natural magic” in the form of the pursuit to unlock the occult powers in the natural world [i.e. God’s creation]. Hayes observes how “Natural magic, which attempted to understand the hidden powers of nature, was bolstered by philosophy as well as by religion. These relations were clearest in the late Middle Ages and the period of the Renaissance, when neo-Platonic doctrines gained wider currency among thinkers. Neo-Platonic beliefs insisted on the complete interrelation and mutual responsiveness of the different phenomena of the universe” (The Burdens of Disease, 81).

This approach became more widely acceptable leading up to and during the scientific revolution, especially the medical theories of the ancient physician Galen [130-210 CE], and so what Kieckhefer might categorize as natural magic in the later period bifurcates into two distinct subtypes—the highly learned, quasi-medical and folk traditional healing practices. Moreover, the university study of medicine rooted in classical theories of the four humors remained a medical authority, and one which generally held the approval of the church authorities and royal authorities alike. It is worth acknowledging that none of these authorities appear entirely “correct” by modern medical standards, and even the most learned methods involved practices that were toxic and harmful to the body.

Physician letting blood from a patient. Attributed to Aldobrandino of Siena: Li Livres dou Santé. France, late 13th Century. The British Library, Sloane 2435 f.11v.

Still, while some medieval and early modern medical practices were undeniably ineffective or even counterproductive, it’s worth pointing out that some practices were helpful, such as quarantine measures during plague. Even the spooky plague doctor outfits from the early modern era—equipped with cloth masks and a leather suit for personal protection—reveal growing awareness with respect to contagion by contact (prior to germ theory), which overlapped with conventional medical theories that alleged the classical notion of miasma or “bad air” was polluting infected spaces with plague and pestilence.

Mark Earnest contends that “Despite its fearsome appearance, the plague doctor’s costume—the ‘personal protective equipment’ of the Middle Ages—had a noble purpose. It was intended to enable physicians to safely care for patients during the Black Death” (“On Becoming a Plague Doctor“). The plague doctors‘ cloth beak contained perfumed herbs to purify the miasma, their waxed robe were designed to shield the practitioner, and their cane allowed physicians a quick means by which to measure their proximity and maintain distance from sick patients during examinations and treatments. Although Earnest seems to regard plague doctors as a medieval phenomenon, historical evidence suggests that these practitioners were primarily a fixture of the early modern period.

Paulus Fürst’s 1656 satirical engraving called ‘Doctor Schnabel von Rom,’ or ‘Doctor Beaky from Rome.’

Although, there is ample evidence for widespread medieval belief in learned scientia “science” (often knowledge from classical sources or universities), many historians maintain the narrative that since the scientific revolution in the early modern era, there has been a gradual trend toward belief in science and medical professionals, and the public has generally come to accept doctors’ advice over the opinions of political leaders, when it comes to issues of health and medicine. However, even if one were to accept this notion of historical progress, today’s pandemic problematizes this grand narrative by demonstrating how similar medieval and modern people can be. Like so many established institutions and professional authorities in the age of (dis)information and the rise of Trumpism in America, medical professionals are under attack, and their recommendations and expert advice have become limited by the president of the United States.

As during some medieval and early modern monarchies, it seems that the political leader of the United States feels his position entitles him to an opinion on everything and bestows him with innate wisdom. And, like the royal touch, Trump is not afraid to offer his own unconventional and unsubstantiated remedies for the novel coronavirus which has resulted in an unprecedented global pandemic during his presidency. Despite no medical training or credentials, Trump has publicly sparred with NIAID (National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease) Director, Dr. Fauci, and with his own CDC (Center for Disease Control) guidelines and recommendations. The use of personal protective equipment (PPE), known to slow the spread of this highly contagious and robust virus, has become politicized in the president’s attempt to deny the issue and deflect blame and responsibility by minimizing the perceived impact and threat of the disease.

US President Donald Trump and Anthony Fauci, director of the NIH National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases attend a meeting at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Maryland on March 3, 2020, following up on the COVID-19, coronavirus, outbreak. Photo by Brendan Smialowski /AFP via Getty Images.

Indeed, our modern pandemic is not without its scapegoats, as president Trump continues to refer to the coronavirus as the “China virus” in a racially-loaded reference to the place of the virus’ origin in Wuhan, China (briefly referenced in my recent blog on internet trolling). Additionally, calling the coronavirus the “Chinese” or “Wuhan virus” fuels conspiracies theories, including that the virus was engineered in a lab in Wuhan. In addition to xenophobic scapegoating, today’s imaginative responses include now-discredited virologist Judy Mikovits, who asserts that the novel coronavirus is being wrongly blamed for many death and even implicates Fauci in a “plandemic” that alleges masks “activate” the virus.

There is no evidence for viral engineering, nor any “plandemic” orchestrated by Fauci, but nevertheless these modern conspiracy theories persists online and ultimately in the minds of those persuaded by their unsubstantiated claims.

CREDIT: COURTESY OF CDC/ ALISSA ECKERT, MS; DAN HIGGINS, MAM.

Trump has himself given a couple of jaw-dropping recommendations, the first being his personal endorsement of the use of untested malaria drug hydroxychloroquin in treating the symptoms of covid-19, which Dr. Fauci repeatedly cautioned Americans against taking unless recommended by medical professionals. Some have raised the issue of Trump’s own small investment in hydroxychloroquin and allege a financial conflict of interest may lay behind his endorsement of the drug, though this claim has been widely discredited. Still, despite clear evidence to the contrary, Trump continues to insist on using this drug as a treatment for the novel coronavirus.

The president’s second and more startling suggestion was that perhaps an “inside injection” of disinfectants, such as Lysol and other Bleach products, directly into the body might do the trick, considering these chemical we so effective at killing the virus (and also people who ingest them). Trump then pointed to his head, adding: “I’m not a doctor. But I’m, like, a person that has a good you-know-what.” As expected, the CDC and Poison Control (as well as manufacturers and eventually social media platforms) responded by contradicting the president’s objectively harmful recommendation, enthusiastically pushed by some of his more ardent supporters.

Fujifilm Diosynth Biotechnologies CEO Martin Meeson [right], speaks as President Donald Trump wears a face mask during a tour of Bioprocess Innovation Center at Fujifilm Diosynth Biotechnologies, Monday, July 27, 2020, in Morrisville, N.C. AP Photo/Evan Vucci.

Even some at the conservative media outlet Fox News, often friendly to Trump and his agenda, in this instance challenged the president’s uninformed suggestion. Fox Business Network’s Neil Cavuto described Trump’s recommendations as “unsettling,” and the news anchor plainly acknowledged that “The president was not joking in his remarks yesterday when he discussed injecting people with disinfectant.” Cavuto also delivered a sober warning to his viewers: “From a lot of medical people with whom I chat, that was a dangerous, crossing-the-line kind of signal that worried them because people could die as a result.”

Indeed, when viewed in this light, Trump’s continued magical thinking with respect to covid-19 seems to mirror medieval responses to plague and the Black Death in certain ways, especially in the tendency to reach for unconventional remedies, from often unqualified authorities, in the search for a cure. But, as president Trump explains, if you’ve got the virus, already: “what do you have to lose?”

Richard Fahey
PhD in English (2020)

Selected Bibliography

Aberth, John. The Black Death. Palgrave, 2005.

Barzilay, Tzafrir. “Early Accusations of Well Poisoning against Jews: Medieval Reality or Historiographical Fiction?Medieval Encounters 22 (2016): 517–539.

Brittain, C. Dale. “The Royal Touch.” Life in the Middle Ages, 2016.

Clark, Dartunorro. “Trump Suggests ‘Injection’ of Disinfectant to Beat Coronavirus and ‘Clean’ the Lungs.” NBC News (2020).

Cohn, Samuel K. “The Black Death and the Burning of Jews.” Past & Present 196.1 (2007): 3–36.

Durkee, Alison. “Nearly A Third of Americans Believe Covid-19 Death Toll Conspiracy Theory.” Forbes (2020).

Earnest, Mark. “On Becoming a Plague Doctor.” The New England Journal of Medicine (2020).

EnserinkMartin and Jon Cohen. “Fact-checking Judy Mikovits, the Controversial Virologist Attacking Anthony Fauci in a Viral Conspiracy Video.” Science Magazine (2020).

Hays, J. N. The Burden of Disease: Epidemics and Human Response in Western History. Rutgers University Press, 2009.

Hetherington, Marc and Jonathan M. Ladd. “Destroying Trust in the Media, Science, and Government Has Left America Vulnerable to Disaster.” Brookings (2020). 

Jenkins, Catherine. “Curing Venice’s Plagues: Pharmacology and Witchcraft.” Postmedieval: A Journal of Medieval Cultural Studies 8 (2017): 202-08.

Kickhefer, Richard. European Witch Trials: Their Foundations in Popular and Learned Culture, 1300-1500. Routledge, 1976.

—. Magic in the Middle Ages. Cambridge University Press, 1989.

Levack, Brian. The Witch Hunt in Early Modern Europe. Routledge, 2016.

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