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).

Margaret Ebner on Twitter: Medieval Sanctity and Twenty-First Century Social Media

Catherine of Siena receiving the stigmata
Catherine of Siena, a model for Elisabeth Achler, receives the stigmata; Domenico Beccafumi, c. 1515

Even Elisabeth Achler’s hagiography admits she was faking it.

Franciscan tertiary Achler (1386-1420) fulfills all the stereotypical demands of late medieval women’s sanctity, although sometimes just barely. It is an extreme that gets her into trouble. During her three-year fast and her even more extreme twelve-year fast, she ate nothing but the Eucharist. Well, the Eucharist, and the food she stole from the kitchen and hid under her bed. [1]

The wobbly nature of Achler’s portrayed sanctity suggests her hagiographer is being somewhat honest, and in this case, honest to a conscious attempt to achieve living sainthood. Achler tried to live up to an ideal.

That is nothing unusual in any time or place, of course. But this case is particularly interesting as scholars question more and more the extent to which late medieval ascetic sanctity was historical versus rhetorical.

Nicholas von Flue was a wildly famous living saint whose cell became a pilgrimage site for peasants all the way up to scholars and bishops. Nicholas’ public reputation (and eventual hagiographic portrayal) represented him as a Desert Father come again. He was the most severe ascetic possible (not even eating the Eucharist!) and a hermit. His face was gaunt, his skin yellow or colorless, his hands ice cold; he lived in isolation to the point where he was known as the “Forest Brother.” [2]

Nicholas von Flüe portrait
Nicholas von Flüe, parish church in Sachseln, Obwalden, Switzerland, c. 1492

And no matter how many people saw him in person, it didn’t matter that his hands were warm, he looked healthy, and his cell was on a corner of the property where his wife and children lived.

Whether Nicholas did or didn’t eat and whether he did or didn’t see his family are both beside the point. His sanctity was built on the rhetoric of imitating, or besting, the Desert Fathers.

But nothing better embodies the debate over historicity versus literary construction, or the ideal of women’s ascetic sanctity to which Achler aspired, than a group of books from Dominican women’s convents in fourteenth-century southern Germany. Here I want to focus on the first-person “autohagiography” of one nun, the so-called Revelations of Margaret Ebner. [3]

From external evidence, we know that Ebner was a historical person with a reputation for sanctity already in her own lifetime. There seemed no reason to doubt that the Revelations filled in the details from Ebner’s (necessarily biased and subjective) point of view. [4] The text recounts her spiritual life over the course of several decades: repetitive prayer, devotion to the Passion and the Christ-child, heavily somatic piety, sensations of sweetness, severe sickness. It is repetitive and simplistically written.

If you’re thinking this is the spirituality that was once accounted “hysterical,” you are absolutely correct. If you’re thinking this is the spirituality that scholars now recognize as distinctively feminine with very real social-theological significance, you are also correct.

But what if the Ebner of the Revelations is a hagiographic Nicholas von Flue? What if the literary portrayal of living sainthood is unconnected from the reality of a woman nevertheless renowned as holy?

So runs Susanna Bürkle’s argument for Revelations. Bürkle argues that a nun or nuns at Ebner’s convent constructed the I-narrator of the autohagiography as an exemplar of so-called women’s sanctity. [5]

Or, to speak in the idiom of the twenty-first century: the nuns curated a public version of Ebner that adhered to the demands of women’s sanctity.

It’s easy to draw parallels between blog posts with comments and manuscripts with glosses, between Tumblr and commonplace books. So how about late medieval women’s autohagiography and hagiography as Instagram and Facebook?

screenshot from TwitterWe’ve all seen the “I take 1000 selfies for every one I can post” Instagram admissions, and the smartphone videos where the gorgeous YouTube star turns this way and that to display how she can go from (ridiculously thin and good-looking) normal to supermodel quality with angles and makeup. These social media accounts have a rhetoric of their own. The “Feet in the foreground, beautiful scenery in the background” photo means ultimate relaxation. Twitter has its own grammar, often departing from “proper” English, that mashes up different vernaculars and changes from meme to meme.

And, as article after article reminds us, social media is brutal for self-esteem because we are convinced these accounts portray something of reality. No matter how much we are aware of constructing our own Facebook feeds and dividing up our Reddit alts, the ideal of others’ lives looks real. The occasional admission of failure or falseness is the modern humility topos, yes. It is also a guarantee of reality—a sign we can trust these people, who, after all, are honest about their dishonesty.

Whether or not an Instagram account is an accurate summary of the life behind it is irrelevant to us in these cases. All we can see, and all that the users mean to convey, is the ideal.

But as Elisabeth Achler’s desperate hoarding and bingeing reminds us, the construction of exemplarity in the Life of Catherine of Siena and the Vitae patrum, in Revelations and the Sister-books—on twenty-first century social media—has its costs.

Nicholas von Flue died at age 70. Margaret Ebner died at age 60.

Elisabeth Achler died at 34.

Cait Stevenson, PhD
University of Notre Dame

[1] The oldest recension of Achler’s hagiography, probably from an autograph by its author, was published by Karl Bihlmeyer, “Die schwäbische Mystikerin Elsbeth Achler von Reute († 1420) und die Überlieferung ihrer Vita,” in Festgabe Philipp Strauch zum 80. Geburtstag, ed. Ferdinand Joseph Schneider and George Basecke (Halle: Niemeyer, 1932), 88-109.

[2] Gabriela Signori examines the role of appearance in Nicholas von Flue’s hagiographies and reputation: “Nikolaus of Flüe (d. 1487): Physiognomies of a Late Medieval Ascetic,” Church History and Religious Culture 86, no. 1-4 (2006): 229-255.

[3] The standard edition is Philipp Strauch, Margaretha Ebner und Heinrich von Nördlingen: Ein Beitrag zur Geschichte der deutschen Mystik (Amsterdam: P. Schippers, 1966). Ebner’s text is the best-known among the Sister-books and related Dominican women’s texts because of its accessible English translation: Margaret Ebner: Major Works, trans. Leonard Patrick Hindsley, Classics of Western Spirituality (New York: Paulist Press, 1993).

[4] On the question of whether medieval visionary texts reveal something of the visionaries’ actual experiences: Peter Dinzelbacher, “Zur Interpretation erlebnismystischer Texte des Mittelalters,” Zeitschrift für deutsches Altertum und deutsche Literature 117 (1988): 1-23.

[5] Bürkle’s argument for Ebner is part of a long line of work by primarily German scholars on the Sister-books. Piece by piece, they (including Bürkle herself, working on Engelthal) have built an argument for the 14th-century Dominican women’s texts as deliberate literary works, though they differ as to the purpose of these constructions and what information the Sister-books can still tell scholars. “Die ‘Offenbarungen’ der Margareta Ebner: Rhetorik der Weiblichkeit und der autobiographische Pakt,” in Weibliche Rede – Rhetorik der Weiblichkeit. Studien zum Verhältnis von Rhetorik und Geschlechterdifferenz, ed. Doerte Bischoff and Martina Wagner (Berlin: Walter de Gruyter, 2003), 79-102.

 

Feond Mancynnes: The Enemy of the People

The information and views set out in this publication are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily represent those of the Medieval Institute or the University of Notre Dame.

For Halloween this year, we continue our discussion of rhetorical representations of the monstrous in Beowulf by framing the poem in our current political climate and historical context. In my previous blog, “Mearcstapan: Monsters Across the Border” (July 20, 2018), I explored various interpretations of the Old English compound mearcstapan, used to describe the Grendelkin in Beowulf, and discussed the rhetorical implications of translating the compound as “border-crosser” when teaching or reading the poem in the United States in 2018. Placing the term mearcstapan in conversation with the current administration’s immigration policies (and President Trump’s rhetoric on immigration) emphasizes the othering force of being categorized as immigrant, foreign, or alien. These labels encourage an emotional response due in part to the in-group and out-group dynamics encoded in the language of migration, and the ramifications for certain immigrant groups living in the United States are dire.

Mexican emigrants crossing the Rio Grande near El Paso, Texas. Image by Danny Lehman/Corbis.

In Beowulf, Grendel is repeatedly described as the enemy of the Danish people and is characterized as the arch-nemesis of the heroic protagonist. Beowulf describes the monster as feorhgeniðla “mortal enemy” (969) to the Danish king, Hroðgar, whose hall was the focus of Grendel’s wrath and terror for twelve years. Hroðgar later refers to Grendel as ealdgewinna “old enemy” (1776), a satanic epithet and translation of the Latin hostis antiquus “old enemy.” Although the monster is Hroðgar’s long-time foe, in this description, the Danish king ominously characterized Grendel as something demonic—intuitively or unwittingly reinforcing the narrator’s designation of the Grendelkin as the monstrous progeny of Cain (102-114). This spiritual overlay frames the narrative, and Grendel’s dual characterization as the respective enemy of both the Danes and God is twice corroborated by the narrator’s explicit references to the monster as Godes ondsaca “adversary of God” (786, 1682).

Today, I will consider the Old English satanic epithet feond mancynnes “enemy of the people,” used by the narrator in Beowulf to describe Grendel and modeled on hostis publicus “public enemy” in Latin. The term dates back to Roman antiquity, and the senate famously pronounced emperor Nero a hostis publicus in 68 CE. This epithet has since been leveled against political opponents throughout history and in many languages. The term emphasizes animosity and frames whomever is designated hostis publicus as working against both the will of the people and the greater good. Embedded in this description are pathetical appeals to both fear-mongering and tribalism. Feond mancynnes stresses the majority group (mancynn “mankind” or “the people”) as in a position of moral superiority and opposed to a hostile minority group (feond “the enemy”). This adversarial aspect simultaneously encourages in-group and out-group mentality and emphasizes the danger inherent in hostility.

“The Roll Call of the Last Victims of the Reign of Terror” by Charles Louis Lucien Muller (1860), housed at the University of Notre Dame’s Snite Museum.

The epithet ennemi du peuple “enemy of the people” was employed by Maximilien de Robespierre during the French Revolution, and referred to a legally punishable group of socio-political opponents charged with moral depravity and disseminating false news. The epithet vrag naroda [враг народа] “enemy of the people” also gained traction in the Soviet Union because it highlighted economic disparity and social class, emphasizing both the strength of a unified public and the antagonism between the bourgeoisie and proletariat. Once in power, Vladimir Lenin used this epithet to characterize the political leadership of the Constitutional Democratic Party as public enemies in the decree of 1917. Other similar epithets featured prominently in Soviet rhetoric aimed at demonizing socio-political opponents include vrag trudyashchikhsya [враг трудящихся] “enemy of the workers,” vrag proletariata [враг пролетариата] “enemy of the proletariat,” and klassovyi vrag [классовый враг] “class enemy.”

‘Enemies of the 5-Year Plan’ by Viktor Deni 1931, Soviet propaganda targeting landlords, kulaks (wealthy farmers), journalists, capitalists, White Russians (anti-communists), Mensheviks (moderate socialists), priests, and alcoholics.

As during the French Revolution, the term became legally formalized in Stalin’s Soviet Union, and similar articles codified versions of the term in other Soviet Republics. Mao Zedong also referred to dissenters as “enemies of the people” in his 1957 speech, On the Correct Handling of Contradictions Among the People. In each appropriation of this epithet, both moral and political animosity is linked to social otherness. The rhetoric of hostis publicus may have been used to depose a tyrant in Roman antiquity, but modern dictators have consistently used the epithet to target their political rivals. More recently, after the Brexit vote in the United Kingdom, the Daily Mail labeled the presiding judges “enemies of the people” for ruling that consent from British Parliament was necessary for departure from the European Union.

Image of Lord Chief Judge John Thomas featured in the Daily Mail’s article headlined “Enemies of the people” (November 3rd, 2016).

The epithet is famously the title of Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen’s En folkefiende, “An Enemy of the People” (1882), and Shakespeare appeals repeatedly to this Roman designation in Coriolanus, when Caius Marcius Corliolanus is charged as “chief enemy to the people” (I.I.5), “enemy to the people and his country” (III.III.119) and “[The] people’s enemy” (III.III.138). However, Beowulf and the Old English Juliana also participate in the epithet’s rhetorical tradition and appropriate the Latin political designation by transforming it into a satanic epithet. The Old English feond mancynnes represents an Anglo-Saxon appropriation of the Roman designation, which frames the antagonism in spiritual rather than political terms. In this way, Christian morality is emphasized and opponents are represented as demonic.

“Hell” by Hans Memling, Right Hand Panel from the Triptych of Earthly Vanity and Divine Salvation (ca. 1485).

This shift reflects the semantic evolution of the Old English feond “enemy” into the modern English “fiend,” which the Oxford English Dictionary defines primarily as “An evil spirit or demon.” In Juliana, the demon who visits the saint is designated a public enemy, thrice referred to as feond moncynnes (317, 523, 630). The demon comes disguised as an angel to deceive the protagonist and tempt her into sin, but Juliana conquers the monster with her saintly virtue. Once she identifies her visitor as demonic, she commands him to disclose his plot: þu scealt furþor gen, feond moncynnes,/ siþfæt secgan, hwa þec sende to me “you must still say further of your journey here, enemy of mankind, and of who sent you to me” (317). The demon boasts how he successfully overcame Nero, Neþde ic nearobregdum þær ic Neron bisweac “I dared venture with wicked tricks when I deceived Nero”(302), but laments that he cannot overpower Juliana:

                           Næs ænig þara
þæt mec þus bealdlice         bennum bilegde,
þream forþrycte,   ær þu nu þa
þa miclan meaht         mine oferswiðdest,
fæste forfenge,         þe me fæder sealde,
feond moncynnes,        þa he mec feran het,
þeoden of þystrum,         þæt ic þe sceolde
synne swetan.  

“There were not any [others] who have so boldly laden me with bonds or overcame me with rebuke, before now when you seized me firmly and overpowered my great strength, which my father gave me, the enemy of mankind, when he commanded me to journey forth, a prince from the darkness, so that I should sweeten your sins for you” (520-525).

St. Juliana defeating a demon, in “Jerusalem Psalter,” The Hague, KB, 76 F 5, f. 32, (ca. 1190-1200).

Eventually, seeing that he is no match for Juliana, the demon flees from the saint:

                                 þa seo eadge biseah
ongean gramum,         Iuliana,
gehyrde heo hearm galan         helle deofol.
Feond moncynnes         ongon þa on fleam sceacan,
wita neosan,         ond þæt word acwæð:
“Wa me forworhtum!         Nu is wen micel
þæt heo mec eft wille         earmne gehynan
yflum yrmþum,         swa heo mec ær dyde.

“Then blessed Juliana gazed at the angry one, she heard the devil from hell sing his torment. The enemy of mankind began then to retreat in flight, seeking punishments, and spoke these words: “Woe to me, forwrought! There is now a great expectation that she will again humiliate wretched me with evil calamities, as she did to me before” (627-34).

In the first and third instances, the satanic epithet feond moncynnes is used to describe not the demon’s father (i.e. Satan), but rather the demon himself. These references to devils as “enemies of the people” elevate the Roman epithet hostis publicus by presenting the term in a spiritual context, thereby shifting the focus from political opponents to moral adversaries.

“Hellmouth,” image from Hours of Catherine of Cleves, Morgan Library & Museum, MS M.945, f. 107r (ca. 1440).

Ælfric refers to the devil as mancynnes feond in two of his Catholic homilies. In one homily, he makes a direct appositive association linking mancynnes feond with awyrigeda deofol “accursed devil” (II.31-32), and in the other Ælfric positions awyrigeda engel “accursed angel” (II.38) in apposition with the satanic epithet. Moreover, mancynnes feond appears in two anonymous Old English homilies. In one of these homilies (contained in Oxford, Bodleian Library, Junius 121), the Latin political epithet hostis publicus is combined with a Latin satanic epithet, hostis antiquus “the old enemy,” and expanded into the Old English epithet se ealda feond mancynnes “the old enemy of mankind.” Additionally, mancynnes feond is used as a satanic epithet in Old English prose hagiographies, twice in a vita of St. Giles and once in two vitae of St. Guthlac.

This demonic epithet also features in Beowulf and is twice used to describe Grendel, marking him as demonic. The narrator characterizes Grendel as feond mancynnes in his initial description of the monster’s carnage wreaked in Denmark:

                            se æglæca   ehtende wæs,
deorc deaþscua,   duguþe ond geogoþe,
seomade ond syrede,   sinnihte heold
mistige moras;   men ne cunnon
hwyder helrunan   hwyrftum scriþað.
Swa fela fyrena   feond mancynnes,
atol angengea,   oft gefremede,
heardra hynða

“The fearsome marauder was attacking the veterans and young warriors, the dark death-shadow lied in waiting and plotted. In the endless night, he ruled the misty marshes. Men did not know whither the hell-wonders glide in turns. So the enemy of mankind, the terrible lone-goer, often performed many crimes, hard humiliations” (159-66).

Saturno devorando a su hijo, “Saturn eating his son,” by Francis Goya (1819-23).

The narrator’s second reference to Grendel as mancynnes feond comes over a thousand lines later, during his description of Grendel’s defeat:

                                he þone feond ofercwom,
gehnægde helle gast.   Þa he hean gewat,
dreame bedæled,   deaþwic seon,
mancynnes feond.

“He (Beowulf) overcame the enemy, humbled the hellish ghost. Then he, the enemy of mankind, departed humiliated to see his death-place, bereft of joy” (1273-76).

In both these descriptions of Grendel, hel “hell” is directly referenced (163, 1274), which both reinforces the satanic undertones implied by feond manncynnes and further signals Grendel’s affiliation with the demonic. By characterizing the monster as “enemy of mankind” (164, 1276), the narrator emphasizes both the existential threat posed by Grendel to the Danish people as well as the spiritual doom which awaits them. The Danes are explicitly condemned as hæðen“heathen” by the narrator (179), especially for offering worship to the devil, described as gastbona “soul-slayer” (177). In this way, physical and spiritual devastation are fused—uniting the political and moral implications of hostis publicus or feond mancynnes represented as a terrifying monster in Beowulf.

Of course, in Trump’s America,  the phrase “enemy of the people” calls to mind the president’s repeated use of the term to demonize the media.

President Donald Trump, photo by Carlo Allegri/Reuters.

President Trump regularly resorts to scare tactics—portending doom—such as when he threatened an economic depression if he were to be impeached. However, the president has especially targeted the media as political and moral adversaries, and their designation as public enemies has resulted in threats of physical violence.

On February 17, 2017, Trump’s rhetorical appropriation of this epithet erupted on Twitter, when the president declared: “The FAKE NEWS media (failing @nytimes, @NBCNews, @ABC, @CBS, @CNN) is not my enemy, it is the enemy of the American People!”

Trump repeated his designation of the press as “the enemy of the people” on February 24, 2018: “A few days ago I called the fake news the enemy of the people and they are. They are the enemy of the people.” On June 25, 2018, the president condemned journalists as “fake newsers” and “the enemy of the people”during a rally. After his summit with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Helsinki, Finland (July 15, 2018), in his response to criticism by the press, Trump tweeted on July 19, 2018: “The Summit with Russia was a great success, except with the real enemy of the people, the Fake News Media.”

Trump and Putin hold a joint news conference after their meeting in Helsinki (July 16th, 2018), photo by Grigory Dukor/Reuters.

Trump has drawn criticism from international organizations such as the United Nations and the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights for his targeting of journalists and the institution of the free press. Still, the president’s attacks on the media have continued, despite that his administration is investigating the abduction and apparent murder of Jamal Khashoggi, a journalist for The Washington Post. Turkish media reports that he was tortured, executed and dismembered shortly after entering the Saudi consulate in Istanbul on October 2, 2018. Despite political pressure, the president has not toned down his rhetoric, and Trump praised Montana Republican Rep. Greg Gianforte for assaulting a reporter on October 19, 2018. The president applauded Gianforte’s violence and complimented the GOP Congressman saying, “any guy who can do a body slam, he’s my kind of… he’s my guy.”

Trump supporting Greg Gianforte after “body-slamming” a reporter, photo by Carolyn Kaster/AP Images.

While rhetorical demonization of political opponents as “enemies of the people” is by no means new, in the past it has proven effective in arousing fear and hatred, paving the way in many cases for atrocities. By painting the free press as a public enemy, Trump has appropriated this political designation (and satanic epithet), applying it to those who would criticize him and sanctioning violence against them. The president uses the term as a rhetorical weapon—a tool which both challenges the credibility of his dissenters and conjures the specter of conspiracy against him. Even this past week, after pipe-bombs were sent to some of his most prominent political targets (including CNN and members of the previous administration), Trump persisted in his rhetoric against the media. Despite the ongoing manhunt for a serial bomber (which apprehended the alleged perpetrator, Cesar Soyac), the president tweeted on October 25, 2018: “A very big part of the Anger we see today in our society is caused by the purposely false and inaccurate reporting of the Mainstream Media that I refer to as Fake News. It has gotten so bad and hateful that it is beyond description. Mainstream Media must clean up its act, FAST!”

Trump followed this up a few days later with another tweet, again designating the media as enemies of the people and blaming the free press for the recent surge in politically motivated violence, declaring on October 29, 2018: “There is great anger in our Country caused in part by inaccurate, and even fraudulent, reporting of the news. The Fake News Media, the true Enemy of the People, must stop the open & obvious hostility & report the news accurately & fairly. That will do much to put out the flame…”

Until Trump’s presidency, attacks against the free press were primarily associated with the Nazi regime, which appropriated the 19th century political term lügenpresse “lying press” for their propaganda efforts against the free press in Germany. However, the alt-right movement in the United States has more recently appropriated this Nazi epithet to attack the media as pathological liars, and the president has adopted this rhetorical position. The New York Times has pointed out that the president’s demonization of the media frequently follows moments of crisis and criticism, comparable to the propagandizing use of lügenpresse by Nazis and vrag naroda by Soviets.

Nazi propaganda poster “We Workers Have Awakened” for the 1930 election in Germany, targeting political opponents including communists and the lügenpresse (lying press).

When Trump designates the free press as “the enemy of the people,” he appeals to the political tradition of hostis publicus, but invokes also a moral—even spiritual—component emphasized in the satanic epithet feond mancynnes used for the demon in Juliana and Grendel in Beowulf. The president has weaponized the rhetoric of monstrosity against his most vocal critics and whistleblowers, those who might hold him accountable for his actions through their reporting or political opposition. In placing Old English literature (such as Beowulf and Juliana) in conversation with global trends in political rhetoric, we find that the epithet feond mancynnes resonates with Trump’s ethical appeals and demonization of the media as “the enemy of the people.” In this way, the rhetoric of monstrosity displayed in these medieval poems can speak to the current crisis of credibility plaguing American politics. The narrator’s designation of Grendel as feond mancynnes sanctions vengeance against him in Beowulf, and similarly the president’s rhetoric both condones and encourages violence against the free press and his political adversaries.

Richard Fahey
PhD Candidate in English
University of Notre Dame

 

Further Reading

Feldman, Thalia Phillies. “A Comparative Study of FeondDeoflSyn, and Hel in Beowulf.” Neuphilologische Mitteilungen 88 (1987): 159-74.

—. “Grendel and Cain’s Descendents.” Literary Onomastics Studies 8 (1981): 71-87.

Orchard, Andy. Pride and Prodigies: Studies in the Monsters of the ‘Beowulf’-Manuscript. Cambridge: D. S. Brewer, 1995.

—. A Critical Companion to A Critical Companion to ‘Beowulf’. Cambridge: D. S. Brewer, 2003.

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