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 Old Norse and Old English 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).

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.

Mark, Joshua J. “Medieval Cures for the Black Death.” Ancient History Encyclopedia, 2020.

Murphy, Mike.Trump Again Touts Unproven Drug to Treat Coronavirus: ‘What Do You Have to Lose?'” MarketWatch (2020).

Murray, J., H. Rieder, and A Finley-Croswhite. “The King’s Evil and the Royal Touch: The Medical History of Scrofula.”  The International Journal of Tuberculosis and Lung Disease (2016).

. “Medieval Medicine: Astrological ‘Bat Books’ That Told Doctors When to Treat Patients.” The Conversation (2019).

Thompson, Helen . “How Witches’ Brews Helped Bring Modern Drugs to Market.” Smithsonian Magazine (2014).

 

Internet Trolls: Monsters Haunting the World Wide Web

Wendy and Brian Froud, book cover of ‘Trolls’ (2012).

In continuing our previous conversation surrounding the semantics of trǫll in Old Norse-Icelandic literature, and the evolution of the term in modern English, we turn our attention to contemporary applications of the term, particularly in the context of internet trolls and trolling. The concept of  internet trolls builds on the image of a goblin or a giant stalking and skulking about in the dark and the implication that these people are perhaps ugly. This produces a harmful stereotype of “somebody sitting on their bed that weighs 400 pounds,” as Donald Trump remarked in a 2016 debate, in a diversionary (and rather ironic) attempt to draw attention away from evidence of Russian meddling in his favor during the most recent U.S. presidential election.

Harry Potter (Daniel Jacob Radcliffe) holding his invisibility cloak in Chris Columbus’s ‘Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone’ (2001).

However, the reality is that the online shield of anonymity operates as a cloak of invisibility, not unlike the invisibility cloak worn by Harry Potter as he explores Hogwartz castle at night or the tarnkappe “cloak of concealment” that Sîfrit [Siegfried] receives from a dwarf named Alberich in the Middle High German Nibelungenlied. Online anonymity often renders one’s physical fitness either irrelevant or artificial anyway, while at the same time it protects the identities of nefarious actors, thereby allowing them to troll the internet unseen or in disguise. Indeed, the ugliness of internet trolls has everything to do with their emotionally pathetic behavior characterized by cowardly hatred and blind rage.

BrittMartin, ‘Internet Troll’ (2014 – 2020).

Considering this semantic range, a trǫll is not much more specific than the general concept of a “monster” that encompasses everything from sorcerers to goblins and giants to dragons. As we have seen, the medieval tradition bears out the vagueness of this term as a category of being. While the giant-trǫll may be one of the most common applications of the term in saga literature, modern representations of trolls suggest far more uniformity than evidence from medieval literature demonstrates.

However, even the modern sense of troll retains some flexibility, for in addition to the giant-trǫll, much smaller goblin-like representations of trolls (manifesting in the modern troll doll phenomenon) also features prominently in modern medievalism from early modern fairy tales, like those in the Grimm brothers‘ and Hans Christian Andersen‘s collections, to contemporary fantasy literature and film.

Allen Douglas, ‘The Brothers Gruff’ (2020).

If a troll is principally a monster lurking in the shadows, then the contemporary use of the term to describe a form of cyber-bullying is especially apt. Not everyone agrees on the precise definition of a modern internet troll, and it seems that—in this sense—the semantic ambiguity of the word endures. For some a troll is specifically someone interested in online agitation for the purposes of entertainment, for others a troll is essentially comparable to a cyber-bully and internet stalker. As with some of their medieval counterparts, internet trolls may hunt in packs or prowl alone, though they no longer hide under bridges and caves but instead lurk in the recesses of the world wide web.

The monstrous vitriol, stalking and harassment in which internet trolls engage is notorious, especially on social media platforms such as Twitter, and has furthered cultural trends in discourse toward antagonism rather than cooperation, leading Melania Trump to launch a campaign as first lady against cyber-bullying and online harassment, in other words against the internet trolls.

Alexander Pavlov, ‘Internet Troll Sitting at the Computer’ Vector Illustrations (2003-2020).

Internet trolls have developed a terrible reputation as being a cowardly group of angry individuals. Bernie Sanders, despite unequivocally disavowing any internet trolls among the ranks of his supporters and calling for a government of compassion and justice, suffered from a lasting stereotype of the “Bernie-bro” during both his presidential campaigns, which characterized his grassroots movement as an army of internet trolls, primarily comprised of angry white men terrorizing Twitter. Although a recent Harvard study revealed that the “Bernie-bro” narrative was a myth and suggested that political trolling occurred by supporters of every Democratic candidate at similar rates, this caricature proved impossible for Sanders to shake as a result of the public disdain for internet trolls.

Steve Sack, ‘Troll Trouble’ Star Tribune (2020).

This Harvard study, however, highlighted a different but related issue—namely how ubiquitous trolling has become and the damage it has wrought upon ethical discussion and political conversations in this country regardless of which candidate one supports or with which party one affiliates.

Although Joe Biden does not have the same online presence as Sanders, and has promised to restore decency, he nevertheless embodied the trollish spirit of combativeness, which permeates social media discourse, in his everyday interactions with voters on the campaign trail. Biden repeatedly told those who disagree with him that they should vote for someone else, and at times getting into near physical altercations with Americans who challenged him on his record and policies. Despite both Democratic candidates’ feisty reputations (or in Sanders’ case the reputation of his supporters), both Bernie and Biden were notably amicable and referred to each other frequently and intentionally as friends during the primary. Sanders‘ recent endorsement of Joe Biden for president as the Democratic nominee then comes as no surprise and underscores a shared sense of party unity with the goal of winning back the White House.

US Senator Bernie Sanders (I-VT) and former Vice President Joe Biden hug at February’s debate, Getty Images (2020).

When responding to charges of a “Bernie-bro” culture among his supporters, Sanders has wondered if again, as in 2016, Russian media (especially bots and trolls) might be targeting his campaign, though this claim has been contested. Sanders also noted that in fact some of the most vicious trolling has been aimed at his surrogates and supporters of his campaign and progressive agenda, especially women of color, including his campaign co-chair Nina Turner, and the freshmen congresswomen known as “the squad” three of whom have endorsed Sanders, namely Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ilhan Omar, and Rashida Tlaib. In making this point, Sanders shifted the spotlight onto some of the most marginalized voices in our government who face some of the most vile and threatening trolls haunting the internet.

US Representatives Ilhan Abdullahi Omar (D-MN), Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) and Rashida Tlaib (D-MI) hold a press conference on July 15, 2019 to address remarks President Donald Trump Twitter attacks on them. Photo by Brendan Smialowski/Getty Images (2019).

In our own field of medieval studies, we have observed a similar phenomenon. Medievalists of color, including junior scholars such as Dorothy Kim, Mary Rambaran-Olm, Adam Miyashiro, Sierra Lomuto, Seeta Chaganti and others, have become the target of alt-right trolls as a result of their speaking up against white nationalist appropriations of medieval history, literature and culture and raising the issue of racism within the field itself (and not without resistance). Professional internet trolls, like Milo Yiannopoulos, have pursued ad hominem attacks on some of these scholars in the guise of pseudo-academic arguments, and the internet troll forces involved with the alt-right movement have taken up his call to arms against our colleagues of color in the name of white supremacy, masquerading as nationalism (but centered on issues of ethnocentrism and notions of cultural homogeneity). The threat from modern trolls is indeed as serious as encountering a monstrous trǫll in an Old Norse-Icelandic saga.

Ashva, ‘Ugly Internet Troll’ Vector Illustrations (2003-2020).

Many have argued that Donald Trump is a cyber-bullying wizard, and his supporters notoriously seem to follow his lead. This characterization marks the president as essentially the mesta trǫllgreatest troll” capable of dragon-scale destruction via the internet, which renders his wife’s campaign against online harassment profoundly paradoxical. Moreover, whether it’s demonizing undocumented immigrants, insulting the squad, or attempting to rebrand covid-19 as the “Chinese virus” rather than simply calling it the novel coronavirus, the president is infamous for his straightforwardly offensive, racially loaded and politically incorrect tweets, which inflame racial tensions and partisanship. Trump’s relentless trolling of Climate Change activist Greta Thunberg is perhaps his most opprobrious internet feud, surpassing even his decade-long spat with Rosie O’Donnell

Steve Sack, ‘Feeding the Trolls’ (2019).

While it only takes one brief glance at Trump’s Twitter account to recognize his ferocity, dedication and skill in trolling his political opponents, it is important to recognize that he also receives his fair share of troll-attacks. Perhaps as a result of observing Trump’s effective trolling, Democrats and those criticizing the president have resorted to similar tactics, and have been praised for it, especially when Trump’s statements are trafficking in bigotry or misinformation. Indeed, if the Democratic nominee means to best Trump in the general election, and thereby defeat the greatest troll, as it were, it will certainly require strength of character and no small amount of courage.

Photo by Sofya Levina. Images by Drew Angerer/Getty Images (2016).

Perhaps the most infamous subcategory of internet troll, which has come under intense scrutiny as a result of their involvement in the 2016 presidential election in the United States, is the Russian troll. The involvement of Russian trolls (and bots) has received a share of credit for Donald Trump’s surprising victory over Hilary Clinton, and the president’s critics have alleged collusion between the Trump campaign and the Russian government, which resulted in a special investigation by Robert Mueller centered on whether there was a conspiracy (with Russia) or obstruction of justice on the part of the administration. This produced the famous Mueller Report that indicted 13 Russian nationals linked to tampering with the U.S. election. This Russian strategic operation was organized by the Internet Research Agency, which CNN describes as “a Kremlin-linked Russian troll group, [which] set up a vast network of fake American activist groups and used the stolen identities of real Americans in an attempt to wreak havoc on the U.S. political system.”

Jeffrey Koterba, Omaha World-Herald ‘Russian Trolls’ (2018).

Now in 2020, the U.S. again finds itself in yet another battle against Russian trolls and the spread of misinformation and disinformation. Russian trolls seem to be focused on antagonizing and disaffecting groups and individuals thereby turning Americans on Americans, as the Mueller Report outlines a “strategic goal to sow discord in the US political system.” Although Russian virtual propaganda and social media trolling certainly may have fanned the flames, the sad truth is the the fire was already burning. What’s worse, anyone and everyone arguing online becomes a potential Russian troll, providing scapegoats and discrediting of the hard work and dedication of many Americans calling for social, racial, environmental and economic justice, and necessary reform to meet these needs.

As the loudest and most provocative views often receive the most traction and attention, especially on social media, internet trolls—whether an operative from the Internet Research Agency or simply troubled person lashing out online—cast long shadows, effectively silencing all those softer voices and further destabilizing civil discourse.

Bryant Arnold, ‘Internet Troll Under a Bridge’ (2013).

In both medieval literature and modern times, we must fight the trolls and the horrors they bestow upon human society. While I am suggesting a sort of call to action against internet trolls and trolling, it is expressly not a call for tone-policing. Critique, even the sharpest criticism—especially of public officials and elected representatives—must be uncensored so the people may speak freely and in whatever (and whichever) language they choose, whether vulgar or polite in tone. However, I am suggesting that we consider changing our rhetorical strategy as a nation and a world.

Legendary heroes often fight trolls by matching their strength and ferocity, by fighting fire with fire, but I believe a different path might be more efficient. Perhaps it is cliché for a medievalist to suggest a hagiographical approach, but I would contend that we could learn a lesson from St. Juliana’s contest with a demon (267-558) in the Old English Juliana by Cynewulf recorded in the Exeter Book (Exeter Cathedral Library MS3051). As a medieval saint might when facing a devil, I believe that it is often best (and more rhetorically effective) to match vice with virtue, anger with empathy, belligerence with amicability and hate with love in order to transform political conversations in America toward more ethical practices.

Demon attacks hermit in Smithfield Decretals, British Library, Royal MS 10 E IV, f. 113v.

This rhetorical strategy, meeting vice with virtue, is the centerpiece of the late classical Christian epic, Prudentius’s Psychomachia, often regarded as the first medieval allegory which establishes the robust tradition which follows. In the Psychomachia, demonic vices fight against saintly virtues in what amounts to a battle for the soul of humanity, a phrase which is repeatedly invoked regarding our current political moment. Although the Psychomachia frames its narrative in reductive notions of good and evil, it nevertheless argues that the strongest way to combat monstrous vices ira “wrath,” superbia “pride,” luxuria “luxury” and avaritia “greed” is with inverse behavior, in other words, the heroic virtues of patientia “patience,” humilitas “humility,” sobrietas “sobriety,” and operatio “service.”

Sobrietas defeats Luxuria, the vice is ultimately caught in the wheels of her own war-chariot and destroyed, British Library, Add MS 24199 f.20v.

Of course, we must continue the constant battle against what can seem like an endless horde of internet trolls, and it is all too tempting, and necessary at times, to get into the proverbial mud and valiantly take the fight to them in their digital lairs (usually located somewhere in the comment section) as heroes often do in saga literature and fantasy novels.

We might also note that in the Hobbit, the grey wizard Gandalf initiates and perpetuates an argument between three stone-trolls in an effort to stall and prevent the monsters from devouring Thorin’s company (ch 2: “Roast Mutton“). Gandalf’s ventriloquism mirrors the trolls‘ level of discourse, and eventually not only does their bickering delay their eating the dwarves, it causes the trolls to forget about the approaching dawn, which turns them to stone. Perhaps there is something of a serendipitous metaphor in the argument between the wizard and the trolls in the Hobbit, which suggests that in order to overcome trolls, one must beat them at their own game and hope they self-destruct.

DonatoArts, ‘Lunch with William, Tom and Bert’ (2018-2020).

Indeed, like Grettir wreaking vengeance upon the trǫllkona mikil “great troll-woman” in Grettis saga (ch. 65), it may be that sometimes the only way to respond to a troll is to retaliate in some form. But there is also another kind of strength, kinder but no less powerful. While it is often impossible to starve trolls by ignoring them, and acknowledging that no single strategy will always prove effective, it may nevertheless be that the most productive way to defeat internet trolls is through sustained civil discourse in the spirit of generosity. In other words, kill them with kindness.

Richard Fahey
PhD in English (2020)
University of Notre Dame

 

Texts and Translations

Andersen, Hans Christian. Fairy Tales and Stories, translation by H. P. Paull (1872).

Byock, Jesse. Grettir’s Saga. Oxford University Press (2009).

Grimm, Jakob, and Wilhelm Grimm. Grimm’s Household Tales, translation by Margaret Hunt (1884).

Cynewulf. Juliana. In Anglo-Saxon Narrative Poetry Project, translation by Aaron K. Hostetter. Rutgers University (2007).

Margaret Armour. The Nibelungenlied. In Parentheses Publications (1999).

Mueller, Robert. Report On The Investigation Into Russian Interference In The 2016 Presidential Election. Special Counsel Office (2019).

Prudentius. Psychomachia. In Prudentius, with an English translation by H.J. Thomson (1949).

Rowling, J. K. Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. Bloomsbury (1997).

Tolkien, J. R. R. The Hobbit, or There and Back Again. Allen & Unwin (1937).

 

Further Reading

Ashkenas, Jeremy. “Was It a 400-Pound, 14-Year-Old Hacker, or Russia? Here’s Some of the Evidence.” The New York Times (2017).

Chaganti, Seeta. “Statement Regarding ICMS Kalamazoo.” Medievalists of Color (2018).

Fahey, Richard. “Medieval Trolls: Monsters from Scandinavian Myth and Legend.” Medieval Studies Research Blog. University of Notre Dame (2020).

Grendell, Alexis. “Should We Have a Right to Troll Politicians on Twitter?The Nation (2019).

Hanson, James. “Trolls and Their Impact on Social Media.” University of Nebraska-Lincoln (2018).

Jones, Brandon G. “Harvard Scientist Analyzes 6.8 Million Tweets, Finds Bernie Sanders Supporters Are NOT More Abusive.” ABC 14 News (2020).

Kim, Dorothy. “White Supremacists Have Weaponized an Imaginary Viking Past. It’s Time to Reclaim the Real History.” Time (2019).

—. “Teaching Medieval Studies in a Time of White Supremacy.” In the Middle (2017).

Klempka, Allison and Arielle Stimson. Anonymous Communication on the Internet and Trolling. Concordia University (2017).

Kosoff, Maya. “Why the Right’s Dark-Web Trolls Are Taking Over Youtube.” Vanity Fair (2018).

Lahut, Jake. “Joe Biden Gets Away with Yelling at Voters, and May Even Benefit from It.” Business Insider (2020).

Leigh, Kira. “Fantastic Internet Trolls and How to Fight Them.” Medium (2017).

Lewis, Simon. “Bernie Sanders to Online Trolls: Stop ‘Ugly Personal Attacks.” Reuters (2020).

Lindgren, Émelie Vangen. “Trolls in Your Comment Section and How to Fight Them.” Medium (2017).

Lomuto, Sierra. “White Nationalism and the Ethics of Medieval Studies.” In the Middle (2016).

Martin, Tess. “Racism 101: Tone Policing.” Medium (2018).

McQuade, Barbara and Joyce White Vance. “These 11 Mueller Report Myth Just Won’t Die. Here’s Why They’re Wrong.” Time (2019).

Miyashiro, Adam. “Decolonizing Anglo-Saxon Studies: A Response to ISAS in Honolulu.” In the Middle (2017).

Noor, Poopy. “Trump’s Troll-in-Chief? Once Again, Nancy Pelosi Bites Back.” The Guardian (2019).

Perry, David. “How to Fight 8Chan Medievalism—and Why We Must.” Pacific Standard (2019).

 Mary. “Misnaming the Medieval: Rejecting ‘Anglo-Saxon’ Studies.” History Workshop (2019).

Ray, Alison. “The Psychomachia: An Early Medieval Comic Book.British Library (2015).

Read, Bridget. “I’m Sorry, What Did Biden Say to This Voter?The Cut (2019).

Roll, Nick, “A Schism in Medieval Studies, for All to See.” Inside Higher Ed (2017).

Sarsour, Linda. “Yes, Women of Color Support Bernie Sanders. It’s Time to Stop Erasing Our Voices.” Teen Vogue (2019).

Silver, Nate. “Donald Trump is the World’s Greatest Troll.” FiveThirtyEight (2015).

Spencer, Kieth A. “There Is Hard Data That Shows ‘Bernie Bros’ Are a Myth.” Salon (2020).

Sax, David. “‘If You Fight Fire with Fire, Everyone Burns’: How to Catch a Troll Like Trump.” The Guardian (2016).

Sebenius, Alyza. “Russian Trolls Shift Strategy to Disrupt U. S. Election in 2020.” Bloomberg (2020).

Stratton, Erica. “6 Ways to Fight Trolls Instead of Starving Them.” The Airship (2014).

Vinsonhaler, Christine. “The HearmscaÞa and the Handshake: Desire and Disruption in the Grendel Episode.” Comitatus 47 (2016): 1-36.

Waters, Lowenna. “AOC Destroys ‘Misogynist’ Twitter Troll with One Simple Comment: ‘I Don’t Give a Damn.” Indy100 & Independent (2019).