Past and Present

Current EventsThe War for the Humanities

Selling the Humanities is Not Selling Out


Editor’s Note: This article is a follow-up from an article I wrote for Inside Higher Ed, “The Humanities Must Unite or Die.

I recently met a young woman struggling over the decision of whether to go to college. She was enrolled in an excellent program for bright high-schoolers from low-income families, which was intended to give them a leg-up into STEM majors (and then, STEM careers). Any university would be lucky to have her—she is smart, motivated and articulate. She would be a first-generation college attendee. But she was torn.

The prospect of a five-figure loan to finance her education—while her parents struggle to make ends meet—felt risky, even irresponsible. She wondered whether, instead, to take a job right out of high school, particularly since she was unsure whether she even liked the STEM subjects promoted by the program.

STEM has been promoted by programs like this one—not to mention by government programs and presidential initiatives—as the sure path to a lucrative career, despite numerous studies indicating that it is little better than the arts and humanities at providing jobs after graduation. As a result, as college attendance rates have dropped for low-income students, those low-income students who remain have chosen to major in STEM fields far more than the arts and humanities.

The Washington Post recently reported a disturbing trend: between 2008 and 2013, “college enrollment among the poorest high school graduates—defined as those from the bottom 20 percent of family incomes—dropped 10 percentage points… the largest sustained drop in four decades.” This is particularly alarming because, “more than half of the nation’s K–12 public school students are considered to be from low-income families.” Ten percent of this population represents a very large number of people, including, possibly, the bright, conflicted young woman I met.

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Film and TVRace, Class and Religion

Django Unchained and Inglourious Basterds: Bloody Experiments in Impossible History


Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained (2012) is not a typical historical film. It is certainly an historical film—at least by a simplistic definition of what an “historical film” entails: it is set in the pre-Civil-War wild west and deep south, and it has all the detailed and well-researched visual details—set pieces and costumes—which have become a central defining trope of the contemporary historical drama. That said, at a more basic level it does not have the same relationship with history that most other films given the title “historical” do. Instead, Django,[1] like Tarantino’s previous Inglourious Basterds (2009), re-renders history to match the topoi and narrative arcs typified by a particular film genre. It even goes so far as to explicitly and self-consciously create historically-absurd scenarios in furtherance of its cinematic goals. Tarantino deploys those things for which historical films are most often criticized—unintentional anachronism, historical implausibilities and absurdities—intentionally, developing a sophisticated interplay between the expectations of “historical accuracy” and cinematic fantasy. This is a controversial approach that at once bolsters and threatens to derail his intentions: with one hand, to render a compelling vision of the institution of slavery, and with the other, to smash that institution to pieces.

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Education and AcademiaPolitics

Shame on you, Niall Ferguson


A Famous Harvard Historian’s Remarks on Paris Misuse History to Push a Racist, Islamophobic Agenda

Around the world, people continue to struggle to make what sense can be made of the attacks in Paris. An historian’s job in such crises is to offer context and balance, to show how the past helps us understand these events and resist knee-jerk overreactions. In a debate stuffed with ideologues, historians must be among the adults in the room.

Instead, Harvard historian Niall Ferguson elected to throw gasoline on the fires of Islamophobia. In an article published in the Times of London, and syndicated internationally in the Boston Globe, and the Australian, he grossly misuses the past to promote hateful ideology.

In it, Ferguson presents an apocalyptic prophesy where Europe stands as a new Roman Empire in decay. Europe, as Rome before it, “has allowed its defenses to crumble,” has “grown decadent,” and “has opened its gates to outsiders who have coveted its wealth without renouncing their ancestral faith.” He is abundantly clear who those “outsiders” are: “they have come from all over the imperial periphery — from North Africa, from the Levant, from South Asia … in their millions.”

Looking at the Paris attacks, he intones: “this is exactly how civilizations fall.”

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Museums and HeritagePast and Present

Sculpting Medieval Landscapes for Viking Tourism


by Megan Arnott 

We use so many criteria to help us define the spaces around us: What is the environment like? What are the people like? What can you do there– and what are you supposed to? That said, one of the interesting ways we define a space is by who–or what–was there before us. Cultural heritage can help us label our maps, or help us comprehend landscapes in “new” ways. And as a result of the heritage of a place, we often reshape the landscape in terms of what the environment looks like, and how we understand its function in our lives.  It can even change how we think of the people who live there now– or how they see themselves.

Maybe we should start with this map.

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Was Medieval Marriage “Traditional?”


by Jessica Legacy 

Last week, the Internet turned the colours of the rainbow as the Supreme Court of the United States ruled in favour of same-sex marriage. The vote came down to five justices for and four against—a marginal ruling over a complicated custom.

The opposing justices formed their dissents around two central arguments: first, on the grounds that marriage should be determined by democratic majority rather than the Supreme Court, and second on the grounds of religious belief. Screen Shot 2015-06-28 at 10.02.30 PMAs is so often the case with contested issues that “threaten” “traditions,” (ed.: both of those deserve really big scare quotes) the past was, ironically, both dragged through the mud and then held up as a murky example to refute change. For example, Justice Samuel Alito waved the medieval flag when he argued that “for millennia, marriage was inextricably linked to the one thing that only an opposite-sex couple can do: procreate.” In light of the fact that Alito seems to be calling the past to testify as an expert witness in the trial of same sex marriage, let’s look at what we know about medieval marriage.

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FeminismFilm and TV

Modern Rape Culture and BBC’s Banished

Banished 1

by Phoebe C. Linton

Editor’s note: This is a second part of our continuing conversation on sexual assault in the media and in historical realities. As a result, this article includes frank discussions of the depictions of sexual violence.

One of the criticisms of our last article on the topic was that it amounted to “a man writing about men writing about women.” Thanks to Phoebe for offering up her perspective on the topic.

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Current EventsPolitics

Qatar, Kefala and a “Medieval” World Cup


By Laurent J. Cases

In a recent post on the FIFA corruption scandal and the attribution of the World Cup to Qatar, Yahoo columnist Dan Wetzel exposed the wrongs of Qatar’s labor practices, known as the kefala system. While his exposition is meant to highlight the fact that the United States should have attributed the 2022 World Cup, a fact that I do not dispute, he nonetheless rightly appalled that a migrant worker:

can live in labor camps that western media […] have exposed as wretched. The work is long and stressful. It takes place under extreme heat and with few safety precautions. The results are often fatal – illness, heart problems, sheer exhaustion killing some of these men. There are falls and accidents because labor laws are almost non-existent.

He concludes, and this is the problem, “The entire thing is reprehensible. It’s almost unfathomable […]. It’s something out of the Middle Ages.”

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FeminismFilm and TVGame of Thrones

Was Sexual Abuse Normal in the Middle Ages?

Sansa cover

by Paul B. Sturtevant

Content and Spoiler Warning: The below article contains both spoilers for Season 5, Episode 6 of Game of Thrones as well as frank discussions of rape and sexual violence.

Editor’s Note: This article is significantly longer than usual for The Public Medievalist. I did this because the topic is a very difficult one, and there are a lot of issues explored here that demand a longer form to even scratch the surface. Thanks also to Amy Kaufmann for reviewing this article and offering very helpful suggestions for revision.

Don’t believe it.

As a medievalist interested in popular culture, I’ve been asked by a handful of people to comment on that scene from a recent episode of Game of Thrones (season 5, episode 6). If you saw it, you probably know which one I mean: Sansa Stark is married to Ramsay Bolton—the currently-reigning Worst Person in Westeros (a title always under fierce competition). Predictably—and horribly—he then rapes her on their wedding night. At this point in the show, Sansa is many things, but not so naive as she started out. It is heavily implied that she knew what she was getting herself into, but accepted this fate so that she can get closer to the targets of her vengeance. That doesn’t make it any less horrible though—and obviously does not in any way equal consent.

Since its airing, there has been considerable discussion on the internet about that scene; some accused it of being “gratuitous.” Considering that the show is one of the most popular depictions of the medievalesque in recent years, depicting marital rape in the show this raises a number of questions about the realities of sexual violence in medieval Europe.

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Current EventsRace, Class and Religion

Dark Revivals: Medievalism and ISIS


Handbill recruiting British Muslims to join ISIS. Image credit London Evening Standard, 2014. 

Guest post by Amy S. Kaufman, Associate Professor of English at MTSU and Director of Conferences for the International Society for the Study of Medievalism. Amy works on medieval Arthurian legend, women in medieval literature, and medievalism in popular culture. 

As the self-proclaimed ‘Islamic State’ continues to dominate headlines, medieval scholars have cautioned against casually labeling ISIS and its practices “medieval” as a way of calling them brutal or cruel or to distance them from ourselves.  Although ISIS courts the label through its desire to ‘rebuild’ an Islamic caliphate, Clare Monagle and Louise D’Arcens point out that their vision of the Middle Ages is a fantasy, one that “bears little relationship to the historical record of the very complicated and diverse forms of Islamic governance that evolved in the Middle East and around the Mediterranean.”

These are important historical correctives, but there may also be a danger to limiting our conversations about ISIS and the Middle Ages solely to questions of accuracy. If we want to understand the movement’s appeal, especially to Western recruits, we need to consider another dimension of ISIS’s identification with the medieval past: the power that our collective fantasy of the Middle Ages has to inspire violence.

ISIS’s desired caliphate has historical precedent, but the movement also attempts to purify the past, fetishizing a lost “golden time” of Islam as an era free from dissent, free from bid’ah (heretical innovation), when women were silent, obedient, and pure and the entire community hummed with religious synchronicity.*

What is so appealing about this dream of a neomedieval Islamic state to young Westerners? Recruits in propaganda videos claim that ISIS offers them the freedom to be themselves, to live uninhibited lives, true to their hearts. A propaganda video released in June courts young men who feel alienated or constrained, one of its speakers promising, “All my brothers living in the West, I know how you feel in the heart, you feel depressed. The cure for the depression is jihad.” Another speaker on the video, a British man, explains how it felt to leave his wife and children to join ISIS: “I don’t miss a thing, you know?. . . I felt like I was in prison in that country and I’m here. I feel free, you know? I can drive, I can, you know, I don’t need a license. I don’t need insurance. I don’t need this and that…all of these things, you know, you feel like you’re in prison. You’re being punished. Here, it’s freedom. Totally freedom. I can walk around with a Kalashnikov if I want to, with an RPG if I want to.”

Gun- and sword-toting, freedom-fighting, uninhibited, these young recruits cast themselves as heroes in a glorious narrative of revolution and conquest.

Islam Yaken, a wealthy Egyptian who left his old life behind to join ISIS. He promotes the neomedieval hyper-masculine ISIS brand on social media.
Islam Yaken, a wealthy Egyptian who left his old life behind to join ISIS. He promotes the neomedieval hyper-masculine ISIS brand on social media. Image credit New Republic, 2014.

A New, ‘Medieval’ Manhood

ISIS is also peddling masculinity through its medievalism—not a historical masculinity, but the brutal Vikings plus Game of Thrones plus a dash of Grand Theft Auto medieval masculinity that’s glamorized in popular culture: a virile, violent, and dominant masculinity that controls the world. And while this wasn’t the reality of the Middle Ages, this is the reality of our fantasies about the Middle Ages, from HBO and The History Channel to Florida Congressman Steve Southland, whose recent invitation to an all-male fundraiser read, “Good men sitting around discussing & solving political & social problems over fine food & drink date back to the 12th Century with King Arthur’s Round Table.”

Obviously, in this neomedieval dream vision, freedom isn’t for everyone. The ‘emancipation’ of ISIS fighters relies on the oppression of those who would complicate the narrative of the golden time: it requires the submission and containment of women (or their rape and enslavement), the slaughter of heretics, and the conversion or execution of unbelievers.

That’s because the draw of the neomedieval state really isn’t about feeling “free”—it’s about feeling powerful and entitled. Even as medievalists lament the stereotype of the Middle Ages as barbaric and oppressive, governed by crushing religious intolerance and patriarchal domination, popular representations suggest that this fantasy of the past has an allure beyond making us feel better about our own progress. A society based on domination implies that someone had the power. And there are those who believe a hierarchy organized by gender and faith is a ‘natural’ or ‘pure’ condition, and more importantly, a structure in which they would have been privileged. They feel that today’s environments of equity and religious parity are landscapes of deprivation that have robbed them of the legacy of leadership and power they deserve.

Salacious Fantasies

Despite the religious claims of a group like ISIS, their fantasy is not the product of Islam. The neomedieval patriarchal religious state beckons with the promise of a lost status reclaimed, appealing both to people who are marginalized, like many first-generation Muslim immigrants, and those who simply see themselves as marginalized, like the Americans who flocked to the Biblical Patriarchy Movement (a movement now shaken by abuse scandals) hoping to ‘take back’ America and create a neomedieval state for Christians; or like Anders Breivik, the Norwegian mass-murderer who claimed to be a Templar warrior fighting against Marxists and Muslims. Or we could cast back further into history for examples of the violent will to regain an imagined medieval power, authority, and grandeur: to the “Knights” of the Ku Klux Klan, for instance, or to Nazi Germany.

I’m grateful to my fellow medievalists for their efforts to keep the media and the politicians honest, and we need more of it, especially when media outlets participate in ISIS’s construction of reality by calling murders “beheadings” and rape victims “concubines” or “sex slaves,” words with salacious rather than horrifying connotations. But we can’t be too quick to dismiss this vision of the past as just a fantasy: it is powerful enough to draw converts and recruits, and to justify violence and persecution in the minds of ISIS fighters. Murder becomes a way of negotiating perceived loss, victims become the agents of a corruption that must be purged, and the legions of innocent dead are celebrated as conquered enemies who threaten a historical precedent that never really was.

ISIS’s fantasies should remind us that the Middle Ages is never just the past. Their dark dream of medievalism, constructed half by history and half by desire, thrives in our collective imagination and threatens to cast a long shadow over our future.

*Peter ‘Theo’ Curtis, writing as Theo Padnos, delves into the intellectual and emotional roots of Westerners drawn to fundamentalist Islam in his 2011 Undercover Muslim: A Journey into Yemen. Students at the Yemeni school he investigated were drawn to the vision of the Islamic “golden time” in the early Middle Ages as well as the possibility of recreating it.

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