Wollenberg, Daniel, Medieval Imagery in Today’s Politics (Leeds: Arc Humanities Press, 2018)
Reviewed by Andrew Elliott (firstname.lastname@example.org)
For a short volume of only 91 pages, Daniel Wollenberg’s Medieval Imagery in Today’s Politics has managed to cover a surprisingly wide, and singularly impressive, range of examples and ideas. The quality and range of the book stands as a testament both to Wollenberg’s clarity of expression as well as to the value and growing confidence of the ARC Humanities Press’s Past Imperfect series. Perhaps even more impressive is that Wollenberg’s study of political medievalism has done so with a range of different audiences in mind, offering at least two levels of reading. On one level, he introduces a complex interdisciplinary issue in an informative and substantive way to a reader unfamiliar with political medievalism, or indeed medievalism as a whole. Such a feat is often underappreciated, but here it is obvious the extent to which such an accessible introductory text is only made possible by a genuine scholarly talent and profound understanding of the topic.
On the second level, the short text uses its three introductory case studies to weave a broader, more nuanced critique of the ways in which the medieval imagery/imaginary links to a broader discursive strategy aimed at fellow scholars in the field. For those who are more versed in the discussions of political medievalism, this second level is also profound, thoughtful and well written, and makes a new contribution to the growing literature on uses of the medieval past outside of the university campus.
Those familiar with Wollenberg’s other works will of course know him as an astute historian of philosophy and historical thought, which is in part what allows him to navigate between these two audiences with ease. Here, too, he follows through three short case studies with perspicacity and tenacity through a range of contexts and uses. The result is a small book filled with big ideas, which engages with complex and slippery notions of white identity, vituperative History wars, and the often contradictory stakes in the medieval past to which the players of today’s political dramas variously lay claim.
The book’s complexity and deftness is well illustrated by the taut and careful structure which governs, and in many ways regulates, the flow of arguments. Consider, for instance, the palindrome of the book’s introduction and postscript: whether intentionally or not, Wollenberg uses a kind of structural chiasmus in order to make a broader rhetorical point. He begins with the account of a self-proclaimed French ‘patriot’ and his sad suicide at the altar of Notre Dame in Paris, in support of a Far-Right anti-immigration platform. Wollenberg’s discussion of that gesture’s futility leads him into the complex nexus of ideological exchanges between politicians and their voter bases in Europe, and the parallels with US politics, up to and including Donald Trump. It then discusses the ways in which Trump’s co-option of the medieval has both built on earlier instances of political medievalism (as illustrated by Bruce Holsinger), as well as taking a scarcely-veiled brand of white nationalism and white supremacism into the mainstream.
The remainder of the book mines the ways in which contemporary politics, particularly US politics, makes use of a very specific set of assumptions about the Middle Ages, and the interactions between these ahistorical uses and other political uses of the past. However, after this discussion, the postscript (which acts as a second conclusion) demonstrates that same transition in reverse, pointing to the ways in which the mainstream of extremism, white nationalism and the so-called alt-right in the USA has impacted on European populism in turn. The subtle point brought out by this structural mirroring is that these are not isolated cases, taking place in hermetically-sealed, ideological vacuums, but a broader trend by and through which fringe groups are able to call on and to each other by, say, the ‘rediscovery’ of the medieval origins of whiteness, as Chapter Two demonstrates. A secondary point to emerge from the bookending is its emphasis on the fundamental fluidity of non-scholarly medievalism, and the extent to which political medievalism leaves behind the traditional territory of neomedievalism. These are not one-to-one correlations with the medieval past. Instead, the political medievalisms studied by Wollenberg are part of an extremely complex discourse in which history becomes what is useful and expedient. As Wollenberg puts it, in this mode, “the past is in the eye of its beholder”; when two accounts come into conflict, “for both camps, the problem is the bad history of their opponents.”
Given such a complex project, Wollenberg does not always manage to strike the perfect pitch. Chapter Two’s discussion of Anders Behring Breivik, for instance, takes a lot of knowledge for granted to connect the dots. Beginning with a brief discussion of Breivik’s murder of unarmed teenagers, the discussion moves rapidly from Breivik into “Generation Identity”, and within ten pages Wollenberg has linked both factors to broader far-right youth movements in the USA, all of whom exploit the medieval past for a range of reasons, albeit with broadly similar rhetoric. Wollenberg knows this perfectly well, as his exceptionally insightful article on Breivik makes clear, but in his goal to cover the breadth and to show how far the rabbit hole of medievalism goes, the specifics become—for me at least—a little hard to follow when some of the threads are not made clear.
Nevertheless, given the range and ability of this book, Medieval Imagery in Today’s Politics represents a lively, authoritative, thorough, persuasive, and insightful study of the ways in which the medieval has come to be exploited in the service of modern political movements. It builds beautifully on other debates by Shichtman and Finke, D’Arcens, Holsinger, Perry and through The Public Medievalist’s series on race and racism, debates to which I myself have also made a contribution. More than this, however, it moves the discussion onwards to show both how horrifyingly natural the co-option of the past has become for contemporary politics, and why as medievalists and medievalismists we should care about it. As Wollenberg concludes in the last line of his book, “anyone who seriously studies the Middle Ages should be vigilant.” (90) This book offers a great illustration why these debates matter.
Andrew B.R. Elliott
University of Lincoln