Andrew B.R. Elliott, Medievalism, Politics and Mass Media (D.S. Brewer, 2017), 223pp.
Reviewed by Daniel Wollenberg (email@example.com)
Medievalisms, Andrew Elliott argues in this important book, are being amplified and accelerated. As a communication studies scholar, Elliott focuses his attention on mass media and the increasingly chaotic closed circuit networks distributing self-referential medievalisms for global audiences. What is particularly novel here is the distinction made between intentional medievalism and what Elliott calls banal medievalism, as well as the communication theory approach that the book takes. Medievalism, Politics and Mass Media transfers the spotlight of the study of medievalism from historical, literary, and aesthetic inquiry to communication theory, studying how new media theory can show us something important about the ways that medievalisms today are reflections of “sources and patterns of influence and transmission” (42). The book narrows its focus to online medievalism, and an important point is made that mass medievalisms feed off of meme culture. The truth-value or historical accuracy of an image is less important than the mutual recognition and acknowledgement of an image as a medieval representative, as a stand-in for an easily identifiable and easily understood symbol of ignorance, or injustice, or primitiveness, or intolerance, and so on. Mass media medievalisms do not usually refer to actual history but to blurry notions filtered through layers of online mediums and commentaries.
Elliott argues that the medieval in political rhetoric since 9/11 reflects “a collective shift in our understanding of [medievalisms’] function and meaning in modern political discourse” (203). Through its rapidity and scope, mass media helps undergird the conception of an unbridgeable gap between us and them, between past and present, recirculating ideas and images without reflection or analysis. Popular medievalism can only be understood through appreciating the role that mass media plays in promulgating it. Medievalisms no longer necessarily refer to the medieval per se, instead referring to others’ uses of a meme. They take on meaning and gain validation via mutual identification and re-transmission.
There are eight chapters plus an introduction, with increasing specificity as the book progresses. Although it is not officially marked in such a way, the book is essentially divided into two parts: the introduction and first chapters being the first part, and chapters four through eight being the second. The introduction and first chapter define terms, establish methodology, and offer an overview of the work; the second chapter, with a clever pun for its title (“Getting Medieval on your RSS”), situates the discourse within the framework of communications theory, and the third chapter addresses big-picture issues like the Dark Ages and the myth of progress. After the third chapter, the book moves on to its “second part,” taking something of a chronological turn, starting with 9/11 and the War on Terror (Chapter 4) and then moving to Al Qaeda (Chapter 5), Anders Breivik (Chapter 6), the English Defence League (Chapter 7), and ending with Islamic State (Chapter 8). There are a handful of helpful full-color images and the book is printed on high-quality glossy paper.
Al Qaeda, Breivik, the EDL, and Islamic State are well-chosen focuses of the last four chapters not only because they are all steeped in the language and imagery of the medieval, but because their use of mass communication so well illustrates Elliott’s central argument about the necessity of mass communications to the spread of medievalism. The copy-and-paste nature of Breivik’s manifesto; the meme culture of nationalist Islamophobes like the EDL; and the manipulation of mass media and global commercial and communications networks by Al Qaeda and Islamic State all demonstrate how and why medievalism spreads so rapidly now. Elliott draws together many disparate arenas of mainstream and extremist political rhetoric and action by showing how they deploy medievalisms banally, re-processing and circulating medieval imagery and rhetoric without actually engaging the Middle Ages. An impressively broad range of disparate sources are handled deftly and seemingly effortlessly, from the tweets of soccer fans and members of Parliament, to the blog posts of white supremacists, to the manifestos of a white terrorist like Anders Breivik and Islamic terrorists like Islamic State. The glue binding them together is the copy-and-paste nature of their medievalism. Identity is constructed and expressed by tropes and memes.
At the core of the book is a term Elliott coins “banal medievalism,” which is defined as being when medievalisms are deployed without historical intent and without reference to the Middle Ages. They do not directly engage medieval texts or buildings or art but instead rely on an identification with an already-knowing audience who see the medieval as a cultural shorthand, a representative of pastness, or primitiveness, or racial and religious solidarity, and so on. In short, Elliott approaches the medieval as a trope, or perhaps more accurately, as memes, rather than as a discrete period of history. In such deployments of medieval imagery and rhetoric, there is an absence of the “authentically” medieval and thus no distinctly medieval meanings. The Middle Ages thus have become “unconscious sites of unchallenged heritage,” passing unobserved as a marker of easily understood and digestible history (16).
A distinction is drawn between the “genuinely medieval” and the “pseudo-medieval,” but I find this distinction to be somewhat problematic (14). I wonder whether arguing for the existence or even possibility of a “genuinely medieval” plays into extremists’ hands by opening up the possibility that there is a singular path to getting the Middle Ages right, rather than leaving medieval texts and documents open to – and requiring – continual interpretation. I also wonder whether it is viable to maintain as sharp a distinction as this book sometimes does between “regular” (scholarly, academic) medievalism and medievalism aimed at mass audiences. There is surely an obvious difference between archival research published in well-documented scholarship and a “medieval” symbol on the shield of a white supremacist in Charlottesville, but perhaps the writings and ideas of amateur enthusiasts are not, or ought not to be, as distinct from academic work as we might assume.
Despite some of the ground here being well-trodden, especially concerning the idea of the Middle Ages as representative of the primitive, atavistic, and retrograde (“a catch-all term for anything one wishes to be disassociated from,” 204), because the “medieval” and the “Dark Ages” are so pervasive and – to use Elliott’s term, banal – it is useful to see so many examples of medievalism used in so many different spheres, from governmental debates to news broadcasts to hotel reviews to sports commentary. Some of the most effective and productive moments in the book are when Elliott slows down and really digs into the specific nuances between tweets, online comments and reviews, and newspaper articles and blog posts. These moments can be eye-rolling (“I think that it’s like living in the Middle Ages, where you hate to go outside because the wolves are going to eat your grandchildren,” says a New York Daily News reporter, p. 69); they can be comical (a negative review on the website Trip Advisor that calls a hotel medieval for its unreliable Wi-Fi); they can be dangerous (“I am a Christian and I think there needs to be a Crusade soon. We need to arm ourselves and…call a Crusade and kill all of them,” says a commenter on an extremist blog, p. 148). The book is at its best when Elliott deconstructs the English Defence League logo and traces back the inspirations and origins of its various parts to Wikipedia entries and Google Image searches. Moments like this one are essential reading for both specialists and non-specialists alike, as the book makes a very persuasive case for the closed-circuit and self-referential nature of medievalism.
The sheer number of these examples of online medievalisms cited by Medievalism, Politics and Mass Media is staggering. The astonishing quantity of them cited in this book perhaps proves Elliott’s point: that the medieval is so much a part of our discourse that most people probably don’t even notice it anymore. Giving readers so many examples drives home that point well and insists that we notice what is right in front of us.
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