It is the work of public humanities to question how we wield memories of the past for present ends. Through community-engaged teaching and learning, medievalists have the opportunity to pass on memories of the Middle Ages that move us toward social justice. We must begin by telling the dangerous memories of suffering that marked the millennium between 500 and 1500 C.E.: the expulsion of Jews from Christian kingdoms, Crusades against Islamic rulers in the Holy Land, and other instances of violence against religious and ethnic minorities. However, violence is not the whole story. At different times and places during these 1000 years, people of different religions and cultures lived peaceably side by side. Jews and Christians in Islamic Spain shared new learnings from Greek and Arabic writings on theology and philosophy. In the Levant, crusaders of diverse ethnicities farmed alongside their Muslim neighbors, not only tolerating the other’s religion but even appreciating their style of worship. Many Christians converted to Islam. Travel along trade and pilgrimage routes brought medieval people into contact with cultural others as they traversed commercial networks spanning from China through Syria and around the Mediterranean to North Africa and Europe. Migration compelled people to settle far from home, carrying their culture with them and adapting to their new circumstances. This is the more complicated story we need to tell.
Through public humanities initiatives, medievalists can engage community partners in remembering a messier, more complex Middle Ages and discovering the relevance of that memory to our messy and complex world today. At Notre Dame, the Medieval Institute is animating students and faculty to engage the wider community on campus and beyond. This fall we hosted Game Day events during which the community could learn from local artisans who practice historically informed crafts. We sponsored roundtables that put MI faculty fellows in conversation with scholars working on labor and religion to discuss issues related to the COVID-19 pandemic. This spring we are partnering with a local public high school to offer an elective history course on the global Middle Ages and participating in the public library’s hands-on science programming. These initiatives invite our community partners to think critically with us about popular (mis)conceptions of medieval culture, to challenge modern assumptions about the past, and to lift up the stories of marginated medieval peoples: women, laborers, and religious and ethnic minorities.
It is challenging to envision ways of engaging a broad public in reimagining history and its meaning for us today. Nevertheless, I care about this work because the dangerous memories of the medieval past help me imagine – and hope for – a more just future. In the political theology of Johann Baptist Metz, the dangerous memory of Jesus Christ, executed by the state for challenging the power of empire, is subversive of the status quo and impels Christians to work for liberation. I perceive medieval art and literature to be full of similarly dangerous memories: of women who dared to write against the fearful and patriarchal theologies of their day, of poets who critiqued ecclesiastical abuses of money and power, of reformers who wanted all people to have access to sacred scripture in their mother tongue and who dreamed of “a poor church, for the poor.” Theirs are the stories I want to remember from the Middle Ages – stories that feel urgently relevant for our time, as dangerous then as they are now.
Annie Killian, Ph.D. Public Humanities Postdoctoral Fellow Medieval Institute University of Notre Dame
After almost forty-years without a major motion picture adaption, David Lowery’s The Green Knight (2021) was much anticipated and made quite a splash, but pulled mixed reviews from scholars and critics.
The film’s primary source material, the medieval alliterative poem Gawain and the Green Knight, happens to be my personal favorite work in Middle English, my favorite Arthurian romance and my second favorite work of medieval literature following only Beowulf. Indeed, because I find both the story and poetics so fascinating, my very first blog explored possible functions of the bob and wheel in Gawain and the Green Knight. I have always read the poem as a tale of a hero brought low and the three conclusions offered by the Green Knight, Gawain himself and King Arthur’s court provide a variety of interpretations from recognition of the hero’s humanity to his feelings of failure and shame to the merriment and celebration of his chivalry by king and court.
The poem’s concatenation on themes (such as schame “shame” emphasized in the “bob and wheel” structure) drives these points home but also mimics the psychological experience of anxiety and a nagging, internal monologue. The mystery of the enigmatic Green Knight haunts the entire tale. The parallelism, especially between Gawain and the Green Knight, as well as the playful emphasis on games, exchanges and hunts produces a thrilling, at times dizzying, narrative that is rich with implication and subterfuge.
Often with modern film adaptions of medieval literature, directors and producers make what I consider to be a fatal mistake of perceiving virtually every medieval tale as an action movie. In my view, this fundamental bias plagues every film adaption of the poem to date, and when I learned Lowery’s The Green Knight (2021) was under production and forthcoming, I will admit I was rather skeptical. However, even from the trailer, it seemed—at least to me—this adaption of the medieval poem might get some things right which previous film adaptions like Stephen Weeks’s Sword of the Valiant: The Legend of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (1984) staring the late Sean Connery as the Green Knight did not seem to pick up on. When The Green Knight was released in theaters, I went to see it, making it the only film I have seen in a movie theater since the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic. Thankfully, it did not disappoint.
There were some odd decisions which I did not quite understand such as the introduction of a talking fox (a feature of medieval beast fables, but appearing nowhere in the film’s Middle English source). Similarly, demoting Gawain from the status of knight made little sense to me and rather than as an egoistic knight displaying hubris, Gawain appears as a desperate and neglected aspirer doomed to a life of psychological trauma. The humanization of Gawain was apparent throughout, and Dev Patel gives a stunning performance in his role as Gawain, but the arch of his character is somewhat flattened due to these changes in Gawain’s status and characterization. Still, overall, this movie hits the nail on the head for me.
In particular, the Green Knight is in full green man form and spot on. The story is presented not as an action movie but as a psychological thriller. Emphasis on games, exchanges and hunts is imbedded throughout the movie. The visual components from cinematography to mise-en-scène are eye-popping as the film frequently displayed surreal imagery to create a psychedelic mysticism associated with the Green Knight as well as Morgan Le Fay and Gawain’s quest as a whole. Additionally King Arthur and Queen Guinevere are shown as diminished in their old age, and this generates a sort of magical realism within the film.
For some, the movie will perhaps be too vulgar or too artsy-fartsy. Others, expecting to watch Gawain’s epic battles, may likewise be disappointed. Nevertheless, I agree with reviewers who observe a notable affinity between the medieval source and this modern rendition. In my opinion, Lowery’s The Green Knight represents a modern film adaption like few others: one that has its finger on the pulse of the medieval poem which inspired its creation.
Richard Fahey PhD in English University of Notre Dame
Vikings are a very hot topic right now; there’s no question. Within the thriving genre of medievalism, Vikings have recently proven an especially sexy and profitable subject for contemporary pseudo-historical fiction, particularly in television series like the History Channel’s Vikings (2013) and Netflix’s The Last Kingdom (2015). Both these series are fundamentally anachronistic and closer in many ways to medieval fantasy than an accurate historical representation of the early medieval period known as the Viking Age (793–1066 CE). Inaccuracies are, of course, not unique to medievalism involving Vikings, and historical liberties are more abundant in historical fiction set in ancient and medieval times.
Still, these television shows are very popular and therefore highly influential. Even the anachronisms and inaccuracies in popular medievalism provide effective conversation starters when teaching the subject by offering both a hook into the material and a chance to separate fact from fiction. But, in today’s world by far the most important reason for medievalists to know the trends in popular medievalism and engage with this media directly is white nationalism. As scholars of the period, we must be aware of information, misinformation and disinformation that is being widely disseminated if we are to have any hope of using our voices to help debunk, nuance and contextualize shows like Vikings and The Last Kingdom with a watchful eye toward white supremacist interpretations and appropriations.
Many medievalists of color have sounded the alarm—again and again—warning that this monster lurked in the shadows. Over five years ago, Sierra Lomuto stressed how “When white nationalists turn to the Middle Ages to find a heritage for whiteness—to seek validation for their claims of white supremacy—and they do not find resistance from the scholars of that past; when this quest is celebrated and given space within our academic community, our complacency becomes complicity” (2016).
In the wake of the riotous “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville in 2017, where some alt-right protesters donned crusader and Viking garb, scholars such as Dorothy Kim, Mary Rambaran-Olm and others have repeatedly warned the field of the dangerous appropriations of the medieval by white supremacists. Immediately following Charlottesville, Kim insightfully cautioned her fellow medievalists that “The medieval western European Christian past is being weaponized by white supremacist/white nationalist/KKK/nazi extremist groups who also frequently happen to be college students” (2017). More recently, Rambaran-Olm has pointed out that “far-right identitarian groups [are] seeking to prove their superior ancestry by portraying the ‘Anglo-Saxons’ in ways that both promote English identity and national sociopolitical progress” (2019).
Moreover, alt-right activists have postured as pseudo-medievalists in order to further these white supremacist narratives and misappropriations of the Middle Ages. For example, Milo Yiannopoulos is known for his ad hominem editorial “The Middle Rages” that targets numerous medievalists of color. Still somehow, the “jousting” between medievalists of color and the alt-right was not enough to shake many white medievalists into action, despite the very real threat posed by white supremacist weaponization of the medieval.
Since the Nazi appropriation and sacralization of the “Germanic” in the service of white supremacy, medieval literature—especially Scandinavian myth and legend—has been rhetorically mobilized as an imagined “pure white” era in Northern Europe prior to encountering and intermingling with nonwhite peoples, despite clear historical evidence of multi-cultural trade interactions between ancient and medieval peoples. This ideology has infiltrated the neopagan religion known as “Odinism,” which varies widely and spans the political spectrum, but harbors a perverse, neo-Nazi strain (sometimes called Wotansvolk meaning “Odin’s Folk”) that has long haunted the movement.
Odinism—named for the chief Scandinavian god of war, Odin—refers to modern New Age interpretations of indigenous religion in pre-Christian Scandinavian, and The Southern Poverty Law Center reported that “A neo-Pagan religion drawing on images of fiercely proud, boar-hunting Norsemen and their white-skinned Aryan womenfolk is increasingly taking root among Skinheads, neo-Nazis and other white supremacists across the nation” more than twenty years ago. More recently, “Anglo-Saxon” neopaganism, sometimes called “Heathenry” to further ground their practice in the language of the culture they idolize, has grown and frequently provides a haven for white supremacist rhetoric.
The alt-right has mobilized medievalism toward nefarious ends, fashioning harmful narratives of white supremacy, which have been rhetorically weaponized by domestic terrorists such as the “Q Shaman” also known as Jake Angeli, but whose real name is Jacob Anthony Chansley. As a QAnon promoter and influencer, Chansley is described as a pseudo-celebrity at alt-right rallies, flashing his tattoos, including three prominent Norse symbols: Thor’s Hammer [Mjǫllnir], the Valknut and the World Tree [Yggdrasil]. All three were proudly displayed as he sat in Vice President Mike Pence‘s seat in the Senate, after the Pence was forced to retreat from the angry mob calling for his head.
Moreover, Chansley’s horned helmet (while almost certainly referencing other traditions as well) represents a continuation of the Victorian anachronistic introduction of horned helms on Vikings and Valkyries, drawn from classical depictions of Roman Victories. Chansley’s flag-spear may be intended as a reference to Odin’s spear, Gungnir, which further points to white nationalist medievalism. In the case of his horned helmet, Chansley’s ignorance is on full display, as his caricature more closely resembles the ahistorical symbol of the Minnesota Vikings’ football team than anything remotely resembling what a medieval Viking might have looked like. Chansley joined with other pro-Trump supporters to form a violent mob which stormed the United States Capitol on January 6th, 2021.
Of course, it must be emphasized that this insurrection was perpetrated specifically by a pro-Trump “Stop the Steal” MAGA mob, there in support of the president’s blatantly false and dangerous claims that there was election-altering voter fraud during the recent 2020 presidential election (which he soundly lost to Democratic rival Joe Biden). This mob, incited by the president, sought to disrupt the lawful process outlined in the US Constitution by any means necessary in order to overturn a free and fair election.
Donald Trump’s boasting, belligerence and greed does link him with warrior ethics which sustain predatory economies and the Viking activities of marauding, feuding and plundering. The ironic Twitter account, “Beowulf Trump” (discontinued after Trump’s election in 2016), highlights this rhetorical connection by comparing the president’s macho posturing and self-aggrandizing campaign promises to hyperbolic boasts and egoistic attitudes in Beowulf. There were indeed marauders in the Capitol Building on January 6th, and alongside Trump’s red hats, outfitted in army camouflage and waving Trump or Confederate flags, were alt-right Viking wannabes.
This week, the academy has been quick to respond. Alfred Thomas compared the storming of the US Capitol Building to the Peasants Revolt of 1381, although Miriam Müller has disputed this analogy, prompting Thomas to further clarify his argument. Ken Mondschein considered Rudy Giuliani’s terrifying invocation of “trial by combat” in order to spur the MAGA mob into action, and Giuliani later likened his use of the phrase to its function in HBO’s Game of Thrones (2011), which he inaccurately described as “that very famous documentary about fictitious medieval England.” Matthew Gabriele reflected on the role of medievalism in the seditious attack at the Capitol Building, pointing out that like at Charlottesville, in addition to Viking-oriented medievalism, rioters also sported crusader symbolism to signal their white nationalism. Helen Young responded to the incident by offering an explanation of why white supremacists often embrace medieval symbolism, noting that “the association of European Middle Ages and white identities reflect modern racism more than medieval realities.” She emphasizes that “Medievalist symbols have been linked to white European identities for centuries. Their use by violent extremists mean that this connection can not be denied, ignored or thought of as a neutral choice.”
On January 13th, the Medieval Academy of America issued a direct response to the insurrection acknowledging the “presence of pseudo-medieval symbols and costumes among the rioters in the Capitol” and recognizing “our discipline’s complicity in the racist narratives of the past, and our responsibility to advocate unequivocally for anti-racism both in our policies as an organization, and in our teaching and scholarship as individuals.” More white medievalists need to be willing to stare this beast in the face and recognize that it is our problem too. It is my view that we should not idly concede medieval studies to the likes of white supremacists. We must respond. Failing to do so—for far too long—makes us complicit. We need to actively reject white supremacy. We must correct and denounce the alt-right’s misappropriations of the medieval both publicly and in the classroom by identifying these dangerous narratives as white nationalist propaganda.
If what we all witnessed last week is any indication of the widespread public ignorance we as scholars are up against, we surely have our work cut out for us. As medievalists, we must heed well the warnings of our colleagues of color and more forcefully and ubiquitously address the problematic phenomenon of white nationalist weaponizing of the medieval. Let me add my voice to those within the academy who are calling attention to this dire issue: the recent use of medieval symbolism during the insurrection at the US Capital is but the latest in a horrific trend that cannot be ignored in the field and must be loudly condemned as nonfactual and nonsensical white supremacist rhetoric in the guise of medievalism.
Richard Fahey PhD in English University of Notre Dame