Thursday, October 20, 2016

“like medieval times”: Being modern in the Middle Ages

Crusaders and Saracens Battle,
Boulogne sur Mer BM, MS 142, f. 153v (detail)

On Sunday 9 October, Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton engaged in a second Presidential debate. Deflecting a question about his sexual assault of women, Trump said:

You know, when we have a world where you have ISIS chopping off heads, where you have -- and, frankly, drowning people in steel cages, where you have wars and horrible, horrible sights all over, where you have so many bad things happening, this is like medieval times.
It’s clear, from Donald Trump’s comments, that what he’s calling ‘medieval’ – ISIS chopping off heads, drowning people, wars, horrible sights – is, for him, associated with or located in the modern Middle East.

Two days prior to the Presidential debate, I gave a talk to mark the launch of my book Representing Difference in the Medieval and Modern Orientalist Romance (Palgrave Macmillan, 2016). This book, which originated with my doctoral research, compares the way that romantic relationships between Christians and Muslims, East and West, are described in popular fourteenth-century and twenty-first century British romance stories. In it, I talk extensively about the labelling of the modern East as medieval and how this is problematic.

There’s been plenty of discussion on Twitter (search for #medievaltwitter) and elsewhere about the problems with associating the modern East with the medieval where 'medieval' is understood to mean backwards, barbaric, or anti-modern. This isn’t a new discourse either: Fred Robinson pointed this out back in 1984.

But given that this association of the East and the medieval keeps coming up, I wanted to share three of my concluding thoughts from that talk (and from the book) to give a more nuanced view on this kind of rhetoric.

1.                  Sameness endures

In my book, I look at how romantic and sexual relationships between people who (given the backdrop of conflict in each period) should not be romantically involved. So, a Harlequin Mills & Boon sheikh and a North American woman, for instance, or a Saracen sultan and a Christian princess. I discovered that despite 700 years of textual history, multiple genres and forms, divergent audiences and different contexts, when it comes to sex and romance, a desire for sameness rather than difference persists.

While the audiences of both medieval and modern romance might enjoy the way these texts play with ideas of difference, the possibility of significantly breaking cross-cultural, interracial or interreligious boundaries is never really considered. In order for a romantic relationship to be successful in these stories, the two characters have to be of the same religion or ethnicity.

2.                  The fact that there are similarities between the two textual genres challenges the binary association of East/medieval and West/modern

On the one hand, Harlequin Mills & Boon novels exploit the Orientalist association of the east and the medieval in order to define themselves (i.e. the west) as having modern values in contrast to the ‘backwards’ medievalism of the east. On the other hand, the modern solutions proposed to deal with the medieval east are rooted in a romance tradition from the actual Middle Ages – changing your religious or ethnic identity so that you and your romantic partner are the same. While these are presented in twenty-first-century romance novels as modernizing, western values, their effect -- to create the sameness required for the romantic relationship to happen -- is distinctly not modern: in fact, it is medieval. 

In a special issue of the Journal of Medieval and Early Modern Studies, John Dagenais and Margaret Rich Greer wrote
perhaps the most common use of The Middle Ages is as one of the hiding places (along with the nearly always brutish nature of the colonized native) which Europe finds in which to tuck away some of the violence of imperialism. By insisting on the brutality of its medieval past, it distances itself and others from the violence of its present: “we used to be like that” (i.e. “we aren’t anymore”). (p. 444, n. 2)
The argument of my book -- that we in the West are indeed ‘still like that’, or, to put it as Trump did that we are still ‘like medieval times’ -- is a riposte to the ‘us and them’ way of thinking central to Orientalist discourses. 

‘Disentangling the layers’ (to borrow a phrase from Lisa Lampert-Weissig) of history and discourse in Orientalist romance fiction -- figuring out what is and what is not medieval -- offers a chance to rethink our relationship to the past and encourages a more sophisticated and open conversation about the perceived differences between East and West, rather than a simple repetition of the kinds of prejudices perpetuated by Donald Trump. Pointing out that western modern romance stories use strategies lifted from medieval romance challenges the labelling of the east as medieval (i.e. barbaric) because it shows that the west is medieval too.

3.                  It is important to engage with medieval history and texts.

Viewed from the somewhat simplistic perspective of medieval/bad, modern/good, it might seem that the continued relevance of the medieval to modern popular culture is negative and unwelcome: a millstone around the neck of modernity. But, the very act of exposing the relationship between the two periods shows that the study of medieval history and culture is relevant and important for the twenty-first century.

When you show how medieval texts underpin modern ones (as I did with these romances), it reminds us that medieval studies is so important today. Many have mourned the marginalised position of medieval studies in education. However, it seems to me that studies like this one, showing how we can see modern texts differently because we’ve looked at them alongside medieval ones, are precisely what we need in order to answer the kind of question Trump’s comment poses: ‘Are we actually “like medieval times”?’

In other words, in order to really get a full idea of what’s going on with this modern political rhetoric, we really need to find out what “medieval times” were actually like.


If you're interested in reading more scholarship on this topic, I created a free online reading list to accompany my talk.

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