An Open Access Review Journal Encouraging Critical Engagement with the Continuing Process of Inventing the Middle Ages

February 4, 2016

Hardwick (ed.): New Crops from Old Fields

Oz Hardwick, ed. New Crops from Old Fields: Eight Medievalist Poets. York, UK: Stairwell Books, 2015.
Reviewed by Julie A. Chappell (
Through their introductions and poetic offerings, the eight medievalist poets gathered in this volume reflect upon the sacred and the profane in the physical and spiritual remnants of the medieval world so important to their lives and work, and, as Jane Chance notes about her own poetry, the poems they tender uncover “the Naked truth inside” each poet.
Jane Beal captures the essence of the simultaneous distinction between and union of being a medievalist and a poet: “As a medievalist, I must translate older forms of English, French, and Latin . . . into modern English. As a lyric poet, I must translate emotion and the memory of experience from my heart to my reader. In both cases, translation is a key that opens new doors” (5). As both medieval scholars and poets, we are compelled to ‘carry across’ past times, memory, place, emotion, and experience to others. Beal’s poetry crosses over from the medieval languages and literary allusions that propel each piece to the more tangible and familiar human emotions that permeate her poetry and her medieval sources. Beal’s travels in the holy land are encapsulated in a poem made up entirely of questions—“Where are you from?” “Are you married?” “Have you been to Bethlehem?” “When will you return to Israel?”—not only relating her memories of moments of experience but also the reality of the collision of the ancient, the medieval, and the modern worlds, of the ordinary and the extraordinary that we encounter as we search for our truths. In one poem, her Speaker encounters a “far-walking pilgrim” a “shadow-walker.” This elicits a reflection and a question: “What shape does the shadow of my life form / when I take my stand in the light of God?” A devout faith seems to resonate from and to guide her poetry as it did the poets of the medieval world whose work informs Beal’s own.
Jane Chance’s scholar’s eye not only provides the reader with the background of her sources of inspiration for each poem but her own interpretation of the inner workings of her poetry as well. In her poems, we encounter such medieval and human drama and emotion as the reluctant second son, newly knighted who must slay the dragon of paternal impatience and skepticism even as he prays his future hinges on luck in love rather than prowess in arms. In another piece, we hear voices—the stone of a castle and the woman “awaiting rescue” becoming one—reminding us of the voices of most, if not all, of the women of medieval romance (and life) which we have found sometimes nearly irretrievable from within the books that bind them for all time. One of the most moving of Chance’s poems juxtaposes a medieval abbey with the modern cafe that faces it, a posture most medievalists have found themselves in in one medieval city or another. In Chance’s poem, a woman sits “sipping coffee” but finds herself not just confronting the abbey but a riot of feelings. Abelard’s ‘calamities’ serve as fodder for the pathos she imagines in the life of the “laughing woman” she sees. Yet, as the woman in the cafe rushes away, as if chased by her own dark thoughts, the “she” of the final stanza embodies both women with their “joy” and “regrets.” Chance’s learned imagination fills every line of her poems where medieval knights and ladies, magic and marvelous beasts vie with modern lyric egos, all in the thrall of desire, dreams, regrets, and the weight of woven texts of symbolic stature.
Pam Clements entices all five of our senses as she entwines Nature and spirituality effortlessly in her poems. We walk into a forest to encounter the green man and to hear Hildegarde’s lyrical voice speaking to “the cosmos.” We discover St. Kevin’s Irish valley as worthy of the contemplation of God and of watching “a river of foxgloves . . . waking the ruins” of the monastic churches and tower. As she reflects on a modern painting that, itself, comingles medieval and modern images of knights and castles, “moat and portcullis,” a figure holds “a rounded object” / (palette, frisbee, paten, Grail?),” a postmodern pastiche of “damaged, things / unfinished.” A Norse and Celtic legend blends the natural world with the human in metamorphosis where humans transform into seals. The Speaker watches with envy as “one dolphin kick / slides past humanity,” and the transformed breaks the constrictions not only of human form but also of human society. Here, no bathing suits are needed and “fat becomes warmth,” and we hear a cacophony of “barking” from the lovely silkies lying “flank to flank ... in noisy caucus.” Clements returns us to the magical medieval world in “Vivien/Merlin,” eschewing the kind or cruel judgment of Vivien’s entrapment of Merlin. In this poem, the Speaker wakes in the roots and vines of an oak tree instead of a stone tower. Nature and spirit mingle in the consciousness of both medieval characters who seem to become one “I,” mourning the loss of time and magic in a world now filled with “bent metal citadels” instead of oak trees, nightjars, and owls. In another poem, the Old English alliterative line is suffused with white owls swooping like “virtual Vikings invading our shores” but, ultimately, here only to “bask in winter sun.” Longing infuses every line as we follow a wanderer out of place and time. Just at the right moment, a line from the Old English poem which inspired this modern one jars the ear in conflict with its modern descendant, leaving the “drifter” of this poem more forlorn and the reader in aching, yet reluctant empathy with the dissonance of displacement. A visit to a monastic choir stall explores the collision of the sacred and the profane in the medieval world as we recognize with the Speaker the physical and spiritual relief of the misericords, where the “pious perched / atop grotesques” and we, ‘hear’ a fart and “snicker,” enjoying the tension between the sacred and the profane relief.
Oz Hardwick [pictured] revisits the misericord juxtaposing the medieval grotesque carvings with another solemn ceremony, but modern this time. A funeral procession being watched by the Speaker imagines the “sadness” and “tears” alongside “goats and grimaces,” “naked women mounting naked men.” We cannot look away from either as, again, “someone farts” inside the sacred silence of the choir. Hardwick’s life in one of the most medieval of modern cities, York incites him to conjure up the green man, sensual and seductive as he “kisses spring / into lithe limbs waking from winter” until the very next poem where “The Green Man Sleeps” and in his sleeping, is a harbinger of winter’s death of “barren buds, / a court of worms.” We recall the great Yorkshire mystic Richard Rolle’s fire of love as a supplicant in another poem prays for that which is most difficult to achieve in any age, “the heart’s bright kindling, / the understanding beyond understanding.” York’s Viking history again appears in a piece that echoes the Old Norse Vestrfararvisur. In contrast to the warriors who wage bloody battles with “sharp swords,” we hear the voice of a skald recounting his dependency on his “word-wave,” on “gaining /grace of place” “proud” that his “one word resolves all riddles.” True Thomas, a witega, prophesies darkly of a world always in disorder; a doom sealed by our “chains to market” and imminent “In your time and mine and the time between.” The legend of Merlin’s Tree comes alive in one poem in dark visions of natural and human-contrived devastation. Hardwick’s final poem recalls “The Seafarer,” and his Speaker also experiences “earfoðhwil” and “bitre breostceare” but gathers humble gifts along the way to vie for God’s grace at the “door.”
M. Wendy Hennequin conjures up Old English laments with classic kennings as she simultaneously revisits the sorrow of Andromache while infusing her with power. This Andromache bears the translation of her Greek name, “Man Battle,” and is now an Amazon warrior, longing for her “sword-brother” (Hector) and the power of her people as it once was. A beautifully crafted poem in perfect imitation of Old English riddles produces three riddles that are smart, modern, and fun to read. Don’t look at the answers until you’re sure you know what these riddles describe! Another poem explores the idea of the chivalric code in its extreme as a bard, coming to Arthur’s court at “Christmastide,” tells the story of the seriously bloody rescue of a damsel in distress by Gawain, Kay, and Bedivere. The story unknown to Arthur, he turns for verification to the knights themselves, who stand nearly mute and will only agree what they did was “just.” Hennequin’s ballad reveals a scribe, alone but deftly and joyously writing of kings and queens and reveling in the brilliant colors on the vellum. This piece closes with a very medieval “envoi to St. Katherine” asking for “grace,” “mercy,” and “might” from this patroness of scribes. Hennequin returns to explore Andromache’s state of sorrow, in the pathetic image created by the repeated line, “Andromache beside the window waits.” This is no Amazon princess but a frail human woman caught in a vicious downturn of Fortune’s wheel.
A.J. Odasso notes that she is “unable to separate the act of writing from the act of dreaming.” Consequently, her poems take us into a dream-world in which we must negotiate the real and imagined in each poem. In one, we inhabit the mind of an orphan searching and grieving; another takes a journey through the tragic past and uncertain future of time where the Speaker seems bereft of hope in the shattering of a cup (set up in an epigraph quoting Hawking’s A Brief History of Time). We follow an emotionally bankrupt Speaker into a dream of loss and despair that, yet, is not totally devoid of hope. Odasso’s ekphrastic poem, responding to a Chagall lithograph of the same title, creates a dream-like vision of Chagall’s abstractions deftly captured in only eight lines. Her second meditation on time relies on our reading of the earlier poem where hope is revived as the cup and time, once shattered, “began to mend.” Another dream vision of barrenness, then birth, startles us with a dark but perverse practicality when “Mother” wraps and stores newborn twins in “an ice-rimed grave” to “keep till we return.” The final poem is true to its title, “Postscript” to the subject of the Hawking-inspired poems invoking the shattered life of the past that must be put to rest.
Joe Martyn Ricke brings poetic verve to his poems, and, in a response to the fifteenth-century “Adam lay ibowndyn,” Ricke applauds Eve’s inquisitive spirit and Adam’s devotion to her that made them the humans we are, embracing our “felix culpa,” while the lyric ego sings “with Harry Belafonte.” Ricke playfully catalogues the three faces of Mary Magdalene as she appears in medieval interpretations as one or all of the women named Mary appearing in the Gospels of Mark, Luke, and John with a final brush with her ‘lost gospel’ union with Christ himself. Ricke’s ekphrastic offering, responding to a twelfth-century wooden statue of the Virgin and Child (gone missing from this medieval artifact), evokes the iconoclasm of the reforming zeal of the sixteenth century as well as the twelfth-century cult of the Virgin. In another poem, we experience a ritual celebration of Our Lady deep in the heart of Mexico and the overpowering scents, sounds, and emotions such a spectacle can still elicit with an “envoy” to a medieval man, a single man, whose ecstatic vision carried him to sainthood, albeit more than 400 years after his death. In his final poem, Ricke gives us that which delights him most about the Middle Ages, the “bloody, grotesque, physical side of late medieval spirituality.” In his unfettered hands, the images of stigmata and blood ooze from the lines of this poem.
Hannah Stone’s poetry finishes this volume and returns us to the idea that “all poetry is a translation of sorts.” Her first poem empathizes with and honors the early desert hermits whose physical sacrifices, including eschewing sleep, turned them into “bones already half spirit,” in their quest for the “holy flame.” An archaeological find displayed in Worcester Cathedral provides Stone with an ekphrastic contribution in which her Speaker contemplates the life and death of the remnants of the life of a medieval pilgrim—boots, staff, and cockleshell badge. Considering scientific musings about his headless remains (captured in a photograph but not in the glass case), the Speaker wonders how he must have tortured his body to save his soul. Her found poem chooses and weaves the words of Richard Rolle, “capturing the flavour” of his instructive exhortations to stay “unsullied” so as to “fly straight to the love and contemplation of God” with Nature (the bee) as God’s model of virtue. Medieval alliterative lines infuse a modern prose poem with poetic vitality allowing us to feel as well as see the nervous, stuttering flight of a lone sparrow as it struggles for freedom from manmade spaces. Her poem about blindness of the losses in Gaza is fraught with the darkness at human frailty as the sestina forces the images of “Gaza’s murdered” in our face so that we must bear witness to the “Great deliverer” as the “girls’ and boys’ / last moments flare in shameful spotlight.” The piety inherent in a medieval Book of Hours is lithely lifted from a poem in which sensually suggestive language is counterpoint to our expectations. In another playful poem giving voice to a medieval “cathedral rodent catcher,” our suspicions about feline omniscience are confirmed. This cat brings to life the diverse inhabitants and their diversions—amorous, holy, and mercenary—giving him “barely a minute’s peace till dusk” when he can return to the mice, those “devious little bastards,” he’s bound to dispatch. Stone’s final piece and the last of this volume sets holy men’s physical discomfort from asserting “doctrines” that “don’t sit comfortably” against the physically freeing observations of “a walker” enjoying God’s grandeur in the quintessential English landscape.
The “old fields” of medieval literature and history lovingly ploughed and sown with fresh seeds from modern hands have engendered delightful and inspiring “new crops” that will refresh any who partake of these evocative, powerful, and revealing poetic medievalisms.

Julie A. Chappell
Tarleton State University

January 18, 2016

Buc: Holy War, Martyrdom and Terror

Philippe Buc, Holy War, Martyrdom and Terror: Christianity, Violence and the West. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2015.

Reviewed by: Helen J. Nicholson (

This wide-ranging study sets out to establish Christianity’s role in creating violence, covering the whole history of the Christian Church from the first century to the twenty-first. Described by its author as ‘a typical laboratory experiment’ (p. 288), the book examines the writings of Christians and those living in cultures derived from Christianity to establish how they have justified and condemned violence and those who exercise it. It argues that ‘a certain way of war is peculiar to the West’ (p. 45) and that this derives from Christian ideals. Unlike many studies that claim to trace the development of a concept from the ancient world to the present day, it gives due weight to the medieval period.

As a medieval historian and a scholar of the crusades, Philippe Buc is well equipped to carry out this investigation. He discusses the ideology of the First Crusade, Joan of Arc and the Hussites. He shows how descriptions, condemnations and justifications of violence written by Christians during the French Wars of Religion and in early modern America, and by activists during the French Revolution, by the Baader-Meinhof Gang in modern Germany and by modern US presidents reflect and continue the views recorded in earlier centuries. He points out, however, that these ‘cultural forms’ were not necessarily transmitted directly from one writer to another; they were repeatedly reinvented, and continue to be reinvented in the post-Christian west. He shows that despite its claims of non-violence, violence is inherent in Christianity and the culture derived from it in the western world.
Buc does not claim that Christianity has been the sole cause of violence in the West or that it is the only religion which can be linked to violence; but he states that he lacks the expertise to come to definite conclusions regarding Muslim violence. He emphasises that ‘Christianity has engendered mature human rights and just-war doctrines’ and ‘intense commitment to humanitarian action’ (p. 6). Yet: ‘the form that human rights and just war have taken is genealogically unthinkable without Christianity, just as the form that sanctified warfare and terrorism have taken is genealogically unthinkable without Christianity’ (p. 7). While this may be true for the West, it would be interesting to have similarly detailed studies of the depiction and roles of violence and martyrdom in Islam, Sikhism, Hinduism or Buddhism.
Buc’s ‘laboratory experiment’ proceeds through a series of hypotheses, each supported with evidence and argument. The first chapter argues that American wars are based on ‘deep-seated Christian notions of freedom, purity, universalism, martyrdom and History’ (p. 45), and discusses these notions. Chapter two explores how violence is inherent in Christianity, as Christian writers have described the struggle against evil as warfare and the ‘End Times’ as a great war when God’s forces will overcome the forces of evil. These concepts have continued into the modern world: the language of the Terror in the French Revolution was derived from Catholic discourses of purification and holy war. Chapter three discusses how religious fundamentalists have depicted their opponents, and have been depicted by them, as mad or mentally imbalanced. Buc argues that taking an historical approach reveals that modern terrorists’ beliefs are coherent, and quotes social science research showing that jihadists are mentally normal and ‘have in their immense majority enjoyed a happy life’ (p. 144) – although enjoyment of a happy life does not mean that a person is sane. The fourth chapter discusses martyrdom within Christianity. As a medievalist, Buc argues that Christianity is a religion of vengeance that believes martyrdom carries history forward. He discusses the nineteenth-century American martyr John Brown, and argues that the concept was also taken up by the secular religion of communism. In chapter five, Buc considers the similarities between national holy war and sectarian terrorism: one waged for the state and the other for an elite group, but both aiming at purification of societies from within and without. In chapter six, he discusses liberty and the use of violence to force liberty on individuals or populations: hence, using violence to enforce human rights. Chapter seven draws his arguments together, arguing that it is not possible to understand present violence unless we understand that the concepts used to justify it originated in the distant past.
Inevitably in such a wide-ranging study, there are some errors and omissions. For example: on p. 116, the satirist Lucian of Samosata’s amusing description of the ‘cultural epidemic’ does not mention supernatural action. On p. 117, Buc states that Cicero described ‘seers’ divining the future ‘through fury’ – in fact Cicero was quoting Plato’s interpretation. Buc then attributes to Cicero a definition of divination which Cicero put into the mouth of his brother Quintus and then refuted: this may have been the view of Cicero’s contemporaries, but it was not Cicero’s own belief. Although Buc discusses the Hussites in detail he has little to say about the Cathars, despite the similarity between medieval depictions of Cathar heretics and modern depictions of terrorists. In the modern West, the Northern Irish ‘troubles’ have their origins in and are expressed through religious difference, and images of holy war have been used by both sides: but that particular area of modern religious conflict is never mentioned.
Buc’s study is based on very extensive knowledge and thorough analysis, and its findings are important: martyrdom, holy war and terror are inherent to Christianity and are likely to continue within post-Christian cultures; those holding extremist ideological views are not insane and cannot be simply educated out of these views, and there is an historical basis for their position. Buc hopes that by comprehending that historical basis it is possible to understand religious extremism and that ‘sociological approaches … will be key’ to inhibiting ‘fights to the death and deaths for the cause’ (p. 295). But his conclusion does not explain what these sociological approaches will be.
Yet although this is an important study whose conclusions could be very valuable in guiding public policy, it is not an easy book to read. Buc writes as an expert for experts rather than to communicate to the wider educated public. As an expert, he uses specialised terms which should convey a precise meaning, but they are not always used in a way that readers will readily understand. Although ‘writing is an instrument for conveying ideas from one mind to another’ (to quote Ernest Gowers' Plain Words), it appears that Buc’s primary concern is to impress his erudition on his readers even if his ideas are misunderstood in the process. For example, hapax, short for hapax logomenon, means something said only once, and is usually used to mean a word that appears only once in a corpus. Here (pp. 93, 243) it is used to mean an opinion recorded by a single writer or only two writers: Buc has sacrificed clarity in favour of impressing the reader with his superior knowledge. His prolixity all but engulfs his key points: for example, ‘to Christianity alone should not be attributed the causation of violence’ (p. 5) would be expressed more clearly as: ‘Christianity was not the only cause of violence’. The reader encounters impossible images such as: ‘In 1420 and 1421 the moderate Prague university men literally danced around the question of the commons’ right of resistance’ (p. 200) – one cannot literally dance around an abstract concept; this was a metaphorical dance. Sub clauses and authorial asides distract from the core argument. Buc’s use of language serves to obfuscate even as it informs: the reader may fail to notice that he has overlooked or dismissed some arguments but accepted others without explanation (as on p. 91: ‘Haussherr opined … Maier demonstrated the contrary’).
This is an erudite and exasperating book. It is a work of significant scholarship, with the potential to have a significant impact on how western societies combat the growth of religious extremism. It demonstrates that it is necessary to understand past societies and their concerns if we are to understand modern western society. Regrettably, by choosing to present his findings in complex language, Buc demonstrates his scholarship but renders his message inaccessible to those who most need to read it.

Helen Nicholson
Cardiff University


January 12, 2016

Fusco: Marco Polo

Marco Polo, season 1. Written by John Fusco; directed by David Petrarca, Alik Sakharov, John Maybury, Daniel Minahan. Distributed by Netflix, 12 December 2014.

Reviewed by Pamela M. Yee (

Early in Netflix’s 2014 original series Marco Polo, the title character, recently traded by his father to the Mongol court, asks: “Am I a privileged guest or a prisoner in this hell?” (“The Wayfarer”). Viewers, ensnared in the show’s sluggish and sometimes incoherent narrative, might well wonder the same thing. One must admire its sheer ambition; its astronomical price tag, its epic narrative scope, meticulous world-building, and in-your-face shock factor inevitably draw comparisons to its more successful cable cousin, HBO’s Game of Thrones. As Mitchel Broussard observes, “there’s a certain scrappiness here that I found endearing, a show, who [sic] pretty much draws comparison to one of the biggest TV series of all time by merely existing, attempting to stay on level ground with said behemoth.” But Marco Polo fails to capture either Game of Thrones’ popularity or its critical acclaim. As of this writing, Rotten Tomatoes lists the show at a dismal 24% rating, averaging a rating of 4.7 out of 10 from 33 reviews. Hank Stuever at the Washington Post drives the nail home, calling the streaming service’s offering “practically binge-proof.” Ouch.

Marco Polo opens with the eponymous character’s (Lorenzo Richelmy) arrival in the thirteenth-century Mongolian court of Kublai Khan (Benedict Wong). Young Marco, barely out of his teens, is abandoned there by his father. He learns to navigate his new environment with the help of Hundred Eyes (Tom Wu), a blind Taoist monk and kung fu master. Marco quickly falls in love with Kokachin (Zhu Zhu), the beautiful but mysterious Blue Princess of the (Mongol) Bayaut tribe. Meanwhile, he develops a strained relationship with Kublai himself, bonding over midnight games of chess and discussions about their respective fathers. Eventually, Marco’s silver tongue earns him the privilege to participate in the Khan’s quest to conquer Xiangyang, the last remaining Chinese stronghold. Power-hungry Chancellor Jia Sidao, played with Machiavellian sadism by Chin Han, leads the Chinese resistance while jockeying for position in the Song court against the Dowager Empress. His deceptive and ruthless tactics make him the Khan’s main antagonist. The Chancellor is not above coercing his own sister, imperial courtesan Mei Lin (Olivia Cheng) – a femme fatale, whose sexual prowess is matched only by her fighting ability – into infiltrating the Khan’s court, becoming his favorite concubine, and spying on Mongol plans. There, Mei Lin finds a formidable foe in the Khan’s chief wife, Empress Chabi (a magisterial Joan Chen), a Chinese noblewoman whose marriage to Kublai brings prestige to Chinese traditions practiced in the Mongol court. Chabi is mother to Prince Jingim (Remy Hii), the Khan’s heir, but his mixed Mongolian-Chinese heritage makes him an object of suspicion to his father, who questions whether he is suitable to be the next khan. Jingim’s troubled relationship with his father and Marco’s growing esteem in court foments a rivalry between himself and “the Latin,” as they both compete for the Khan’s trust and affection.

Although the show suffers from a number of narrative difficulties, I will focus on a problem central to medievalism, the show’s failures in its cultural representation. Marco Polo depicts medieval Asia as an Orientalist fantasy, gratifying the tastes of a Western audience. The show perpetuates both racist and sexist stereotypes, which mutually reinforce each other. Its problematic racial representations bleed into and amplify its troubling gender politics, revealing that issues of race cannot be meaningfully separated from issues of gender. I will look first at the show’s fundamental issues of racial representation, before moving on to examine its troubling depictions of Asian women and men at some length.

To cater to a Western audience, the series oversimplifies its major cultures. Because the show deals with two Eastern cultures in conflict, Mongolians and Chinese, this introduces a storytelling problem – how to tell the two Asian cultures apart? To maximize differentiation, creator John Fusco applies a well-established dichotomy, the East-West binary. Audiences may think that this problem is limited to past productions like the much-maligned Miss Saigon, but it persists even in more recent works. Game of Thrones, for example, in their representation of Westerosi vs. Dothraki culture characterize the West as civilized, technologically-advanced, rational, and familiar while the East is barbaric, primitive, mystical, and foreign. But in Marco Polo, there is a crucial difference. Neither side is familiar; rather, both cultures, though radically differentiated, remain firmly Other. What remains of the East-West binary is the basic dichotomy – the two cultures are diametrically opposed. On the one hand, the Khan’s Mongols epitomize the brutal violence, over-sexualization, and nomadic lifestyle reminiscent of Western depictions of Native Americans. Theirs is a warrior culture, proficient in horse-back riding, archery, falconry, and wrestling, all skills that Marco struggles to learn. On the other hand, the Chinese possess a distinct intellectual and aesthetic history. They study the military strategy of Sun Tzu and quote from the I Ching, as well as practicing arts like calligraphy, sword-dancing, kung fu, and divination. Both strategies are well-worn methods of Othering, of imagining the Oriental as either highly aestheticized or as brute savage [1]. This tendency to polarize, to force one culture into the antithesis of the other simply for the purposes of differentiating them, is both racist and insulting to the audience’s intelligence.

Such problematic portrayals of race exacerbate the show’s even more deplorable gender stereotypes, especially its treatment of women. As Salon’s Sonia Saraiya observes, “The men – Mongol, Chinese, and Venetian – get arcs hashing out their daddy issues, along with sword fighting and heroic horsemanship. The women are fierce and intelligent, but repeatedly relegated to the role of sex object.” Indeed, most of Marco Polo’s women are frequently sexed up and stripped down. This sexualization of Asian women fits Western fantasies which presume the exoticism of non-Western women, which consists of deviant sexuality and may be expressed as insatiable sexual appetite. Michael Calabrese has noted that the act of constructing what is “typically Oriental” (read: exotic) hinges on “fetishizing Asian promiscuity” [2]. Take, for example, Marco’s introduction to the Khan’s imperial brothel, glibly named the Hall of Five Pleasures. In one scene, Kublai – surrounded by nubile young women – explains that Marco must undergo a test: “Look…but do not touch.” If he can exit the orgiastic Hall without laying a hand (or any other organ) on the nude women there, he will have earned the Khan’s trust and, it is implied, be duly rewarded with the girl of his choice (“The Wayfarer”). Predictably, the scene pulsates with whorehouse clichés, high-pitched moaning, saturated red light, rhythmic drumming, and the writhing bodies of naked women reaching out to caress the dazzled Marco. As Neil Genzlinger of the New York Times accurately observes, “Yes, perhaps women were nothing but sex objects in the real Kublai Khan’s empire, but this series is historically accurate only when it wants to be; the better examples of the costume genre have found ways to treat female characters less dismissively.” Certainly it is not unusual for period pieces to objectify minor characters or female extras, but Marco Polo extends this treatment to its main cast as well.

Mei Lin, the courtesan, suffers the most from the show’s rampant objectification of women. While her sex appeal nominally serves the narrative, it more clearly gives the show carte blanche to strip her naked as often as possible. Her most obviously gratuitous nude scene shows Mei Lin seducing three assassins meant to kill her, dropping her robes to distract them, and then proceeding to clobber them with a bout of naked kung fu (“The Wolf and the Deer”). Some might object that this scene serves not only to titillate fanboys but actually builds Mei Lin’s character. Elena Lowe argues that “the naked kung fu works to showcase [her] simultaneous vulnerability and power.” Lowe has a point; Mei Lin’s sexuality is a double-edged sword, giving her some agency but also victimizing her. However, I find Lowe’s argument a bit specious. The nudity here is certainly not required for the scene to work. If Mei Lin can defeat the armed assassins with her clothes off, she can certainly also do it with them on. The nudity in this scene functions much more as tantalizing spectacle than as plot development. It is worth noting, however, that Mei Lin bears all the hallmarks of a proto-feminist character: she is unabashed about her sexuality, yet she is not limited to an exclusively sexual role. Clearly, she can make her own living, defend herself, and be a devoted mother. Mei Lin might be taken more seriously as an empowered woman were she not blackmailed into serving her brother or surrounded so often by other naked women, who are shamelessly objectified.

At the other end of the female spectrum is Bayaut princess Kokachin, Marco’s main love interest. She is, of course, a maiden. And unlike Mei Lin, she behaves primly and properly, always averting her eyes and speaking in a docile manner. Kokachin embodies a ‘china doll’ stereotype – dainty, obedient, and in need of protection, a male fantasy and precisely the type of “virtuous pagan wom[a]n fetishized by medieval clerics” [3]. It is hardly a surprise when Marco falls in love with her at first sight. The vast difference between the sexual practices of Mei Lin and Kokachin reveal one of the more troubling facets of series’ gender constructions. The dichotomy that oversimplifies the Mongol vs. Chinese cultures also persists in its representation of women: they are either whores or virgins, with little room for anything in between. Readers of medieval literature will, of course, recognize this binary as an all-too-familiar brand of sanctioned misogyny.

More disturbing, though, is that several Asian women express attraction to the Venetian. While Kokachin takes a while to warm to Marco, Khutulun (Claudia Kim) of the Mongol Chagatai tribe does not. In keeping with the warrior ethos of her people, Khutulun is a gifted wrestler and has promised not to marry until a man can defeat her in wrestling. Yet, mere moments after she meets Marco, she maneuvers him into private encounter, playfully tussles him to the ground, and mounts him – to both his surprise and ours (“Feast”). Worse, when it becomes apparent that Marco has feelings for both ladies, Kokachin and Khutulun begin to snap at each other, giving an oily soap opera aura to the love triangle (“White Moon”). Clearly, the writers imply, Asian women are attracted to white men. Long live the male (and imperialist) gaze.

Thankfully, there is one female lead who escapes fetishization, Empress Chabi. She is written as a surprisingly round character with influence both in the political and domestic arenas. Joan Chen plays her as a trusted confidante and advisor to her husband, dispensing both queenly mercy and encouraging acts of ruthlessness. Chabi provides a strong foil to the widowed Song Empress, who is weakened by her lack of husband, dependent child, and the chancellor who actively works against her interests. It is obvious that the screenwriters intend Empress Chabi to impress audiences with the respect women can garner in Mongolian society versus Chinese culture, where women’s roles were more traditionally restricted [4]. Chabi, like Game of Thrones’ Cersei Lannister, achieves a great deal of female agency in a largely patriarchal world, but it is a shame that she must be forced into the stereotype of the unlikeable “dragon lady” to do it. The OED defines this term as “a domineering, powerful, or belligerent woman, specifically one of south-east Asian origin” and indicates that it is usually “derogatory.” Chabi’s draconian qualities emerge most clearly in her interactions with other women, where she always dictates the terms. When she suspects that Kokachin might have feelings for Marco, for instance, she quickly decides that it is time for her son Jingim to take Kokachin as his fourth wife, thwarting both lovers for the benefit of her own family. It is worth noting that the “dragon lady” is a particularly Western and modern stereotype, not one that is rooted in the medieval period. Unlike the promiscuity of Khutulun and the demureness of Kokachin, whose stereotypical qualities have roots in both medieval travel writings and historical accounts, Chabi’s dragon lady constitutes an anachronistic revisionism.

Finally, the sexist typecasting of the show’s women has ramifications for male sexuality as well. In comparison to Mongol men like the Khan, who are sexually insatiable, the show’s Chinese men are portrayed as asexual, celibate, or sexually deficient – seeming to draw on the toxic stereotype of the sexless Asian man. Jia Sidao, when offered the services of the woman he loves, refuses them; previous scenes suggest that he is too traumatized by the memory of young Mei Lin’s decision to sell her body to engage in sexual activity (“The Scholar’s Pen”). Hundred Eyes’ lack of a sex life seems conveniently explained away by his monkish celibacy (“The Scholar’s Pen). Perhaps the most interesting character in this department is the mixed-race Jingim. Though the prince has his father’s Mongolian blood, his Chinese upbringing and education makes his father question his masculinity. Whenever Jingim fails on the battlefield or in court, Kublai rationalizes that he is ‘too Chinese’ and ‘not Mongolian enough.’ Whenever Jingim tries to defend himself, Kublai impatiently tells him to stop “whining like a woman” (“Feast”). He is forever struggling to live up to his father’s expectations. Marco’s arrival, though, makes this task even more daunting. The Khan’s growing fondness and trust for the Latin irks the Prince; it becomes increasingly clear that Jingim views Marco as a usurper, a surrogate son whose word Kublai inexplicably trusts over that of his biological offspring. Jingim’s concerns about Marco’s rise affect his performance in the bedroom. Though he has three wives, he has not yet produced a child, and finds it increasingly difficult to perform. The rivalry between Jingim and Marco is not exclusively sexual, but Marco clearly emerges as the ‘winner’, catching the eye of two attractive Mongolian women while Jingim struggles with his wives. In their portrayal of Jia Sidao, Hundred Eyes, and Jingim, the screenwriters perpetuate the pernicious myth that Chinese men are sexually inadequate, especially in comparison to their Western counterparts. Among all the Asian stereotypes that the series condones, I find this to be the most damaging. Given all the naked women, is it so unreasonable to wish that the writers might include a single, well-adjusted, sexually active Chinese man? I think not.

Despite these stereotypes, a number of television critics have jumped to Marco Polo’s defense. The Atlantic’s Lenika Cruz reasons: In the grander scheme, the not-so-well-reviewed Marco Polo does more for the overall goal of increasing the representation of Asian characters … than other highly acclaimed Western shows that ignore such characters altogether. Recall that Marco Polo’s cast is more than 90 percent Asian; how many other big-budget Western shows can say that? It would behoove critics and TV viewers alike to acknowledge these kinds of efforts to hire more Asian actors and place them in lead roles.

I do not disagree, nor would I detract from the work Fusco and company have accomplished in employing so many Asian actors onscreen. But simple by-the-numbers representation is not enough. While television screenwriters are beginning to pen larger roles for actors of color, these parts still need to break away from (conscious or unconscious) racial stereotypes. Certainly Marco Polo has broken ground in that area: the characters of Kublai Khan and Jia Sidao are more layered, conflicted, and psychologically realistic than most televised Asian characters that jump to mind. Even Mei Lin and Chabi, despite substantial typecasting, possess an interior life that breathes some depth into their personas. I acknowledge that the show has written complex characters under the auspices of solid research. But regardless of the depth of characterization, the fact remains that they maintain racist and/or sexist stereotypes. Nor are these stereotypes merely minor aspects of each role; rather, they substantially shape these characters’ narrative arcs. To take just one example, Kublai’s libido – conflated with his Mongolian identity – compromises his plans for conquest by allowing Mei Lin to learn his secrets and pass them onto his enemy. His lust nearly brings down his entire empire. To viewers, his character condones the toxic stereotype of a highly eroticized, exotic East, where even the highest dignitaries are ruled more by their genitals than their heads. Yes, Marco Polo may employ dozens more Asian actors than the average show, but it simultaneously perpetuates the damaging clichés that limits their chances of landing fresher, better, more complex roles.

Overall, Marco Polo fails to live up to its lofty ambitions. The show’s treatment of medieval Asia as a hedonistic fantasy world aligns with voyeuristic intentions in the source text. But, ironically, this faithful aspect of the show presents major problems, in terms of modern race and gender paradigms. The toggling between medieval representations and modern ideals that this adaptation requires is, the screenwriters admit, a tricky line to walk, particularly in the genre of historical drama. How can one portray female characters respectfully and with nuance when they are embedded in a historically patriarchal culture? How can one depict multiple cultures unfamiliar to Western audiences without resorting to reductive stereotypes? In some sense, it should come as no surprise that the series is plagued by such difficulties. After all, the problematic perspective is written into the source material; Marco Polo was a white Western male and his observations, as objective as he claims them to be, are inexorably colored by his viewpoint. It feels almost inevitable that a televised version catering to modern Western viewers would somehow make the show’s only white male the hero. But it need not be this way, and there is room for the writers to correct these issues in the upcoming second season, due out in summer 2016. Here’s hoping that season two can improve its cultural representation. In the words of Mic’s Zak Cheney-Rice, “Do better, Netflix.”

Pamela M. Yee
University of Rochester

1 Take, for example, two exemplary fight scenes. The first, a duel between two Mongols, is set outdoors, in a green valley. The two warriors approach each other on foot, heavily armored and bearing their blades. The ensuing fight is a brutal one, full of sweating, forceful strokes, heavy bodies hurled through the air. The soundscape is primarily of guttural battle cries, grunting, and metal-on-metal clanging. The winner eventually beheads his rival in a graphic, bloody display. The tone of the Mongolian fight scene is vicious and visceral (“The Wolf and the Deer”). A later showdown between two Chinese warriors, set in the Song imperial palace, presents a stark contrast in tone. Unlike the bulky, earthbound Mongolians, both of these kung fu masters somersault acrobatically off various surfaces and arc through the air like gymnasts, their robes flowing gracefully around them. Where the Mongolian battle was defined by weight and exertion, this skirmish seems to come effortlessly to both opponents, resembling more a choreographed dance than mortal struggle. Their soundscape is mostly one of whooshing – both from their flying robes and jabbing limbs. Unlike their Mongolian counterparts, neither combatant vocalizes at all, fighting in elegant silence (“The Heavenly and the Primal”). The aestheticization of both the Mongolian and Chinese battle methods reveal the heavy-handed ways in which the writers differentiate these two cultures.

2 Calabrese, Michael. “Between Despair and Ecstasy: Marco Polo’s Life of the Buddha.” Exemplaria 9.1 (Spring 1997): 197-229, p. 197.

3 Calabrese, “Between Despair and Ecstasy,” p. 201.

4 Co-executive producer Patrick Macmanus elaborates, “There was the Chinese side, where women were ultimately cast aside, either as concubines or at the whim of powerful men. In Mongolia, though, women were lauded. They were warriors, they were leaders, they were never seen as second-class citizens.” Actress Olivia Cheng notes the same dynamic, observing that “In China … Mei Lin is demonized for possessing stereotypically male characteristics such as strength, intellect and political prowess. In Mongolia, however, these characteristics are revered in Empress Chabi, adding to Mei Lin’s frustration” (Lowe).