Archive for June, 2017


“I must admit, just when I think I’m king…”

Last month, when suicide bombers attacked an Ariana Grande concert in Manchester, the world was aghast that ISIS specifically targeted girls and young women. Unfortunately, no one who understands the pseudo-medieval image ISIS has built around itself was all that surprised. In “Muscular Medievalism,” a prescient article in the 2016 issue of The Year’s Work in Medievalism, Amy S. Kaufman makes important points about the misogyny of ISIS and their obsession with a fantasy version of the medieval past:

[A] key component of muscular medievalism is its need for the suffering and exploitation of women in order to validate its vision of masculinity. In the autumn of 2014, the new caliphate declared that the enslavement and rape of women and girls is central to its ideology. ISIS’s glossy, almost corporate, monthly English language magazine, Dabiq, included an article called “The Revival of Slavery Before the Hour,” which explicitly argued, “One should remember that enslaving the families of the kuffar—the infidels—are taking their women as concubines is a firmly established aspect of the Shariah, or Islamic law.”

After giving several harrowing examples of ISIS’s brutality, Kaufman draws a bitter conclusion:

And yet, despite the explosion of reporting on the fate of ISIS’s conquered territories, the world’s reaction to this horrific violence against women and girls—apart from the usual Twitter outrage—is largely complacent. The enslavement, ritual rape, and murder of thousands of children and grown women—on a scale that would demand immediate action of the persecuted group were anything other than women—is lamented, but ultimately dismissed as part of the “medieval” nature of life under the Islamic State, thanks, in part, to our misguided fantasies about the past.

What does Kaufman mean by that, and why does she implicate all of us, including Westerners? Throughout her article, she draws a provocative connection between the way ISIS asserts its “authenticity” and what we as readers and viewers in the West seek in our entertainment. I hope she won’t mind if I quote her at length:

Take, for instance, HBO’s Game of Thrones, which holds such a revered place in contemporary American popular culture that it’s treated to weekly recaps in respected newspapers like the Washington Post. The author of the epic fantasy series the show is based on, George R. R. Martin, claims to be delivering an unapologetically “real” version of the Middle Ages in his Song of Ice and Fire series. Martin says he was inspired to pen his particularly brutal portrayal of medieval times because other writers “…were getting it all wrong. It was a sort of Disneyland Middle Ages, where they had castles and princesses and all that.” And if Martin’s novels are any indication, getting it right means saturating the faux-medieval world with rampant misogyny and rape . . . However, Martin explains away the sexual violence in his novels with his vision of history: “Well, I’m not writing about contemporary sex,” he clarified to one interview. “It’s medieval.”

For Martin—and his legions of fans—the abundance of sexual violence and the disturbing conflation of sex and rape in the books and on the show are, in fact, markers of medieval authenticity. Indeed, rape-as authenticity is a key component of the show: “It’s not our world,” argued executive producer D.B. Weiss in defense of the rape scenes on HBO’s show, “but it is a real world, and it’s a violent world, a more brutal world . . . It’s a world where these horrible things are definitely pervasive elements of their lives and cultures. We felt that shying away from these things would be doing a disservice to the reality and groundedness of George’s vision.” To be clear: violence against women isn’t just a byproduct of historical authenticity in the show and in the novels. It is, according to their creators, what makes these medieval-inspired works of entertainment authentic. The violence against and degradation of women in the world of Westeros is as important to the “medieval” setting as the armor, the castles, the weapons, and the charmingly fetishized details about food. But using violence against women as a shortcut to bolster authenticity is hardly limited to Martin’s creative endeavors: the casual rape of women and girls, often as a kind of “background noise” behind the “real” plot, pervades almost every work of medievalism that is proclaimed “gritty” or “authentic,” the often-anonymous victims themselves rendered disposable tropes in the service of historicity, from the Channel’s show Vikings to popular games like The Witcher and Dragon Age.

When someone questions the decency of our fondest shows and books, it’s tempting, and awfully easy, to recite a familiar refrain: “It’s just a show. I should really just relax.” But to answer too quickly is to evade self-examination. Even though I think there’s too much moralistic finger-wagging at artists and writers these days, there are ethical dimensions to reading and watching television, especially where the Middle Ages are concerned. Goodness knows I’ve heard plenty of parents complain about the overwhelming influence of the “Disney princess” franchises on their impressionable daughters. The novels of Sir Walter Scott, harmless in themselves, possessed antebellum Southern planters with such absurd visions of chivalric grandeur that Mark Twain blamed him, not facetiously, for the Civil War. Centuries earlier, the Spanish conquistadors who hacked and slashed their way through the Americas were obsessed with chilvaric romance, seeing the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlan not for what it was, but as a magical city out of the sprawling tale Amadis of Gaul—and seeing themselves as the latest wave of crusading heroes, called to convert, conquer, and rule.

Even though Kaufman isn’t blaming Game of Thrones viewers for ISIS, her article won’t sit easily with many fantasy fans. I appreciate that she isn’t just sniping on Twitter; she’s drawing a sober, thought-provoking analogy. I like her strident contrarianism, and I think she’s right to wonder what the pop-culture ubiquity of Game of Thrones actually means. Even if you’re certain the answer is “not much,” why not ponder it further anyway? As I write this, my TV is advertising “Game of Thrones Night” at Nationals Park in D.C., complete with t-shirts and a chance to “visit an authentic Iron Throne.” If someone mugs for a selfie with a TV-show prop on a fun night at the ballpark, what is it they’re trying to be a part of? Why do they need to believe so badly that fictional violence gets us closer to the “real” Middle Ages?

“The medieval era is the dumping ground of the contemporary imagination,” Kaufman writes, “rife with torture, refuse in the streets, rape, slavery, superstition, casual slaughter, and every other human vice we supposedly stopped indulging in once we became ‘enlightened.'” It’s worth asking what we miss seeing in the Middle Ages if we’re invested in only this view. Despite what George R. R. Martin believes, his dark, despairing fantasy isn’t any more “authentic” than the Disney-princess version, nor is it less harmful. Observations like Kaufman’s always bring me back around to a blunt conclusion by medievalist and Tolkien scholar Tom Shippey: “There are . . . many medievalisms in the world, and some of them are as safe as William Morris wallpaper: but not all of them.”

“Young man in a quiet place, got a hawk on his arm…”

Ten years ago today, I cobbled together “Quid Plura?” without any clear notion of what it should be. More than 600 posts and 1,600 comments later, this site has become a sort of vade nobiscum about medievalism, formal poetry, and other bookish pursuits. Even as blogging has gone the way of ham radio or dial-up BBSes, I love that my online hermitage is placidly old-fashioned: the site crashes a few times a month, and my only concession to changing times has been to add a search box to the sidebar on the right. (That was year nine’s big tweak.) Traffic has always been modest, but over the years this thing has allowed me to meet so many new friends, quirky writers, and kindred spirits that you’ll rarely hear me gripe about hosting costs, technical headaches, or the eclipse of the medium by pithy and hollow alternatives.

Loved ones frequently accuse me of being shy about self-promotion, so let me do ten years of catching up.

If you’re new to this blog, here’s what it’s about: I write about American medievalism, our efforts to continue, revive, or imitate the European Middle Ages and use that era for our own purposes, both malevolent and benign. At the core of “Quid Plura?” are more than 160 blog posts on this rather niche preoccupation. Why are there unicorns in a 1959 brassiere advertisement? What’s so “gothic” about American Gothic? What’s with the grotesques on a Delaware pharmacy? Are there really traces of the medieval on the Appalachian Trail? What hath Harriet Tubman to do with Joan of Arc? What’s with that castle in Baton Rouge? Or that Gothic synagogue in Georgia? Framing the world around us with the right questions can bring long-neglected details into focus, sometimes literally; that’s why I tried to photograph American medievalism with a clunky antique Polaroid.

And yes, I’ve used this blog for far more eccentric projects. It took me four years, but I read and reviewed all of Lloyd Alexander’s non-Prydain books. Three years of formal poems about the National Cathedral gargoyles resulted in a book they now sell at their gift shop, although following up the gargoyles with a yearlong medieval-inspired poem about moving from the city to the country tested the patience of longtime readers. Blogs have become uncool, but this is what they’ll always do best: give us places to show off our willfully unmarketable writing and uncommercial creative projects. It sure beats handing over our personal lives to vast social-media corporations with nothing but strife in return.

That said, you never can predict what will brighten the Internet’s disembodied eyeballs. Tens of thousands of readers have stumbled upon my 2007 take on Indiana Jones and the best thing Charlemagne never said and my 2013 defense of the much-maligned textbook from Dead Poets Society. New readers find those posts every day.

Yet I wish posts on other subjects had gotten more attention: the science-fiction writer forgotten by her alma mater, the Charlemagne scholar who got her Ph.D at 66, the architect who told us to move back into medieval walled towns, the ambiguous angels at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine, and the obscure Langston Hughes and T.S. Eliot poems I “rediscovered.” On a slow day at the office, I invite you to go nuts with the search bar or browse the subject tags on the sidebar to the right. If you’ve made it this far, you’re sure to find more here to like.

Above all, though, I hope you’ll read my reviews of small-press poetry books and do their authors a favor by buying the ones that strike your fancy:

  • E.C. Hansen’s The Epic of Clair, about a resourceful teen who survives the end of the world by becoming a messenger for witches in St. Paul, Minnesota.
  • Thaliad, a brilliant short epic by Marly Youmans about children who rebuild civilization in upstate New York after a fiery apocalypse.
  • Science And, Diane Furtney’s difficult but deeply moving book of science-inspired verse.
  • New Crops from Old Fields, a collection of work by eight medievalist poets.
  • Mid Evil, Maryann Corbett’s prayer for inspiration, confidence, purpose, and grace.
  • Need-Fire, Becky Gould Gibson’s poems about the lives of two important women in seventh-century Yorkshire.
  • To the House of the Sun, Tim Miller’s massive, challenging, disturbing, and deeply humane epic poem about vengeance and grace during the Civil War.

According to my site statistics, mirabile dictu, I still have regular readers. I know only a few of you, but I’m grateful to all of you—the lurkers, the critics, the poets, the scholars, the ghosts. If I have my way, even though our possible futures are unthinkably distant, I’ll still be here in another ten years, writing about medievalism and poetry in my rare spare moments and chasing whatever unforeseeable whims send me hacking through the brambles of my own imagination. Words aren’t precious; I don’t understand why all writers don’t have blogs for catching the sheer overflow of ideas, but I thank you for visiting mine. I may never post on a regular schedule, but I’ll offer you this: whatever turns up here you’ll never find anywhere else.