Leila K. Norako, Thinking Matters Program, Stanford University, Palo Alto, CA, USA
All moments past, present, and future always have existed, always will exist. . . . It is just an illusion we have here on Earth that one moment follows another one, like beads on a string, and that once a moment is gone it is gone forever.
– Kurt Vonnegut, Slaughterhouse Five
I vividly remember sitting in my Gothic Architecture seminar as a junior, discussing the matter of when the Middle Ages ended and when the Renaissance began. To demonstrate the difficulties in answering that question, our professor showed us a comic in which a group of people toiled on a cathedral-in-progress. A scroll-wielding gentleman interrupts them by proclaiming loudly that the Middle Ages have ended, the Renaissance has begun, and that all future work must be done in a Renaissance style. The workers look at him in complete confusion. The comic pokes fun at the notion of periodization — the idea that time periods are anything more than categories constructed by those looking back on the past.
As a medievalist and a blogger, I work in a variety of ways to upend notions of progressivist history, because I am well aware of how this view of the past usually leads to the abjection of the Middle Ages (Cohen, 2012).1 I don’t do this kind of work defensively, but rather because — in spite of the tremendous temporal and cultural differences between Medieval Europe and Twenty-first Century America — I see startling similarities in how we create and prioritize certain kinds of stories in order to respond to the world. I believe that we can learn a lot about why a film like American Sniper, for instance, is simultaneously so polarizing and so popular by tracing the narrative mechanics of that film back to medieval romances that also insist on Christian triumphalism (Norako, 2015). That kind of work can help dismantle the notion that our sensibilities and appetites are inevitably more evolved. To say that racism, xenophobia, and religious intolerance are medieval is to say that such things do not exist in the now, and that kind of relegation, as many have argued already, is a dangerous and damaging practice. Consider, for instance, the ever-pejorative use of the term “medieval” in popular discourse. We use it to refer to the barbaric, the alien, the profoundly not-Us. Most recently, as David Perry and others have powerfully pointed out, we’ve seen this term used to describe ISIS/ISIL and the Ferguson Police (2015).2 These kinds of rhetorical moves seek to create comfortable, but ever-artificial, distance between us and the things we would rather not be. Put differently, they comfort by allowing participants to assume positions of superiority that are, more often than not, more fiction than fact. I write publicly about medieval literature and its resonances with contemporary film and literature as a way of encouraging others to think long and hard about the implications of labeling a particular cultural phenomenon “medieval” — to think, in other words, about the limitations of progressivist history.
I think it’s incredibly easy to forget that humans are adept both at creating terms with which to define the world and at forgetting that those terms are always, already constructions. The great number of students I’ve taught over the years have had to be coached into the awareness that while we do have to create terms with which to describe the world and its happenings, we also have to be willing to renegotiate, diversify, and even dismantle them, especially when we realize that their limitations overshadow their usefulness. One of the after-effects of assuming the stability of categories is that it invites people to accept as truth the idea of progressive/teleological history and, as a result, assume that the Middle Ages is simply and unequivocally something to be Othered.
As a medievalist blogger, whether I’m writing about President Obama’s Prayer Breakfast speech, Frank Miller’s Holy Terror, or about Pearl and the ways in which it resonates with my own experiences with grief, I advocate for a conception of time periods in a way somewhat similar to Vonnegut and his aliens in my opening epigraph, stressing that the appetites and desires of past, present, and future cultures are far more linked and intertwined with each other than we might want to admit (Norako, 2015a, 2015b, and 2011). But whereas Vonnegut’s aliens ignore horrible moments in their history and future because they believe “there isn’t anything we can do about them,” I offer that the only way we can hope to press against problematic ideologies and better our world is to acknowledge them as ones of our own shared creation. We can and should account for differences (of temporality, culture, socio-political particulars, religion, etc.) when we approach a different culture or age, but we also need to avoid the tempting assumption that we are immune to similar, if not identical, impulses.
- See Ganim (2005). See also the responses to Stephen Greenblatt’s The Swerve, a best-selling and award-winning work vociferously criticized for its endorsement of progressivist history and its denigration of the Middle Ages: Cohen (2012a) reacts to the book receiving the James Russell Lowell prize from the MLA; see also Cohen (2012), Hinch (2012), Norako (2012), and Pugh et al. (2013).
- To read more about these specific examples and why they are problematic, see Perry (2015), McDonald (2014), and Nelson (2015).
Cohen, J. J. 2012. Early Modern. In the Middle. 30 November. http://www.inthemedievalmiddle.com/2012/11/early-modern.html.
Cohen, J.J. 2012a. Stephen Greenblatt’s The Swerve and the James Russell Lowell Prize. In the Middle. 5 December. http://www.inthemedievalmiddle.com/2012/12/stephen-greenblatts-swerve-and-mlas.html.
Hinch, J. 2012. Why Stephen Greenblatt is Wrong, and Why It Matters. The Los Angeles Review of Books. 1 December. http://lareviewofbooks.org/review/why-stephen-greenblatt-is-wrong-and-why-it-matters.
McDonald, K. 2014. Islamic State’s ‘Medieval’ Ideology Owes a lot to Revolutionary France. The Conversation, 8 September. https://theconversation.com/islamic-states-medieval-ideology-owes-a-lot-to-revolutionary-france-31206.
Nelson, F. 2015. ISIL’s Barbarism is Modern, Not Medieval. The Telegraph, 6 February. http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/islamic-state/11393811/Isils-barbarism-is-modern-not-medieval.html.
Norako, L. K. 2011. Pearl’s Poetics of Grief. In Romaunce as We Rede, 15 November. http://inromaunce.blogspot.com/2011/11/poetics-of-grief-considering-pearl-and.html.
Norako, L. K. 2012. Musings of an Interswervist. In Romaunce as We Rede, 5 December. http://inromaunce.blogspot.com/2012/12/musings-of-interswervist.html.
Norako, L. K. 2015. American Sniper: A 21st-Century Crusades Romance? In Romaunce as We Rede, 4 February. http://inromaunce.blogspot.com/2015/02/american-sniper-21st-century-crusades.html.
Norako, L. K. 2015a. On Obama’s Crusades “Controversy.” In Romaunce as We Rede, 9 February. http://inromaunce.blogspot.com/2015/02/on-obamas-crusades-controversy.html.
Norako, L. K. 2015b. On Holy Terror. In Romaunce as We Rede, 27 April. http://inromaunce.blogspot.com/2015/04/on-holy-terror.html.
Perry, D. 2015. The Ferguson PD is NOT Medieval. It’s Modern White Supremacy. How did We Get Into this Mess?, 6 March. http://www.thismess.net/2015/03/the-ferguson-pd-is-not-medieval-its.html.
Pugh, T. et al., eds. 2015. Book Review Forum, The Swerve. Exemplaria 25(4): 313–70. http://www.maneyonline.com/doi/pdfplus/10.1179/1041257313Z.00000000036.