Diverse folk diversely they demed;
As many heddes as manye wittes there been.
Geoffrey Chaucer, The Squires Tale

Sunday, 15 April 2012

The Middle Ages MADE Me Do It

I’ve been spending a lot of time trawling online discussions of fantasy – as a genre and specific works – finding out what people have to say about racism, ethnicity, diversity and lack thereof, and similar topics. There a quite a few common threads, and the discussions – mainly in fan forums and blog comments sections – tend to take similar shapes. I’m still working on how to describe them all, and what they might mean, but there’s a feature I wasn’t expecting, although perhaps I should have: medievalism. This is particularly true in places where some participants have made accusations of outright racism. A common feature is comments along the lines of: “but it’s based on Europe in the Middle Ages, and everyone there was white so it’s OK for this book/film/game to only have white characters too.” The line between fantasy and the Middle Ages is so blurred as to be non-existent in many cases – the orcs in my last post apparently have no problem going both ways! Chuck Wendig blogged about ways people try to excuse/justify racism in fantasy and pointed out the lack of logic in the “medieval” excuse As have plenty of others. Putting aside, for a moment, the question of whether the Middle Ages were as white as lots of fantasy fans claim, I wonder why it is that the idea of a ‘real’ Middle Ages is so potent? Like Wendig says, no-one says there were actually wizards, elves, dragons etc in medieval times, so why should any notion of an authentic past matter so much? But it must, because people keep bringing it up. Even when they are advocating greater inclusion of minorities, like Wendig does.
It doesn’t matter on these forums if the Middle Ages were actually monochrome – little if any evidence is ever given and no-one making assertions gives any kind of academic or other credential to claim authority. To go back to the Orcs movie blurb in my last post, modern culture tends to see the European Middle Ages (and rarely a Middle Ages located anywhere else) and call them mythical, warmongering, monstrous, and sadistic. Why not add racist to the mix? After all, it’s them not us. The Middle Ages can be ‘ours’ but ‘we’ aren’t medieval – these comments always have an assumed audience of youngish white males – so no-one is responsible for any exclusion, offense, or down right racism.
That “the Middle Ages made us do it” is an excuse for modern racism of many different kinds – it features on everything from white supremacist sites on – probably isn’t much of a surprise to anyone. But in the process an interesting thing happens. The Middle Ages are always spoken for and about in these kinds of discussions, but are also constructed with a certain level of agency: they made us do it. “The medieval” is often conceptualised as the opposite, even the Other, of “the modern”, but this aspect of contemporary popular culture depends on being similar, even the same. I think this is a feature of fantasy and its relationship with the idea of the Middle Ages that doesn’t happen in other kinds of popular medievalism.

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