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

August 8, 2020

International Medievalism Studies and Current Media Debates: Kalamazoo, Italy, Poland

International Medievalism and Current Media Debates: Kalamazoo, Italy, Poland


Piotr Toczyski (


This is the story of how a medievalist book, both in its Italian original and its reccent English translation, inspired my participation in the current public debate related to the Polish presidential election in the mainstream old and new media. If I take part in such debates, it is because I believe that we live in the period, when medievalism studies (and all other humanities) should be remediated and mainstreamed in the popular media. We need more scholars critically engaging with the continuing process of inventing the "Middle Ages"[1] to act as public intellectuals. What could this mainstreaming look like? I will suggest one such possibility, based on my recent media presence.


Like so many projects, it all started at the 44th International Congress on Medieval Studies in Kalamazoo in 2009, at the session "What, in the World, is Medievalism?," sponsored by the International Society for the Study of Medievalism and presided by Richard Utz[2]. There, I met an Italian scholar, Tommaso di Carpegna Falconieri, with whom we later exchanged some ideas. Tommaso referred to my working paper in his 2011 book Medioevo Militante (published by Passaggi Einaudi)[3] and acknowledged it thoroughly, as well as some of the sources I later suggested. This way two Europeans, having met at Western Michigan University, experienced a specifically transatlantic dialogue – meeting in the US, but never before dialoguing in Europe. This year, nine years since its first publication, the updated and revised English translation of the book was published, and has thus become more accessible globally than its earlier Italian, Spanish, and French editions.


In the meantime, intellectuals worldwide started more and more willingly to acknowledge that our liquid postmodern world may be retold in terms of neo-medievalism – or may just simply be quasi-medieval. The media agenda opened to mainstream these and related concepts. In July 2020, I included some of these ideas into a letter to the editor of Gazeta Wyborcza, the biggest Polish quality daily, both web and print, and the letter was immediately published on their website. In the letter, I decided to mainstream an idea from the inspiring Congress experience and the similarly inspiring book. In the next paragraphs the letter (to which I hold copyright) follows:


* * *

The letter begins with the names of the medieval rulers of what used to be Poland in medieval and early postmedieval period, respectively ca. 960–992; 992–1025; 1333–1370; 1506–1548:


"We are mentally in the Middle Ages. And not even the one that ended with the fall of Constantinople or the great geographical discoveries, but the one that the French mediaevalist Jacques Le Goff called a long, extended medieval period stretching to the 19th century. You don’t believe it? Then look in your wallets. In mine I can find Mieszko I, Bolesław Chrobry, Kazimierz Wielki and Zygmunt Stary.


When in 2009 I visited the world’s largest congress of medieval scholars in western Michigan, I saw illustrations with Polish banknotes on a big screen in one of the halls. These illustrations from Poland served the Italian scientist Tommaso di Carpegna Falconieri to talk about rooting our mentality in the Middle Ages. It was not until this year that the English translation of his book (The Militant Middle Ages, Brill) was published late, but the myth of the medieval ruler, who so caught the attention of the Italian scholar, accompanies us in our wallets every day. According to di Carpegna Falconieri, this is an affliction of Eastern Europe. He writes: ‘And the Medieval Era, which in the Western European countries is now a metaphor for the non-state, is seen in Eastern Europe as the foundation of both the state and the nation. The examples may be numerous, but we will limit ourselves to a few notable cases, starting with symbolism. Banknotes printed since the early Nineties and circulating in Bulgaria, Moldavia, Poland, Czech Republic, Slovakia, Ukraine, Hungary... (all republics) represent medieval sovereigns as fathers of the nation.’[4]


If banknotes were the only evidence, it could be considered a trifle. But what if the subjective mentality shapes our daily thinking? Political myths spoil a lot by dividing people. At the same time, they are useful, even uniting entire civilizations. It seems that Poles are united by the medieval myth of a ruler. We also see it in the election campaign. The presidential candidate currently holding this office is called the president regardless of circumstances. When running for election, there is no separation between the his presidential duties and activities as a candidate. Journalists write about the president, not the candidate, without thinking.


The archive of Gazeta Wyborcza shows that for the 30 days between June 7 - July 6, 2020, the phrase ‘President Duda’ has been mentioned 420 times, ‘Andrzej Duda’ 317 times and ‘President Andrzej Duda’ 276 times. What does this lack of precision prove? It is a manifestation of mythical thinking. The myth is constantly in our heads.


That is why I wrote to my friends: ‘Believe me, calling a candidate president is a manifestation of feudalism, a longing for a king. It’s not the right thing for us to do as a free people. During the election campaign, the president is president perhaps for two hours a day. We pay him for his presidential work, not for the rally. He runs the campaign as a candidate –  if we don’t understand this, we are not democrats, but subjects of the king.’


The question was: is it not the same in the West? Yes, it is. They may have no banknotes with kings, but in campaigns there are presidents, not candidates. During the summer months in the middle of Barack Obama’s second election campaign (1-30 June 2012) in the New York Times the words ‘President Obama’ appeared 667 times, ‘Barack Obama’ 110 times and ‘President Barack Obama’ - 27 times. The difficulty in separating the candidate’s actions from those of the president is therefore also a tendency of the Western world. For now, only some people can see that our language is controlled by mythical thinking. We have the intellectual tools to separate what a person does as a candidate and what s/he does as a president. We learn this in primary school and repeat the lessons in college level logic courses.


But for some reason we don’t reach for these tools. Myth dulls our sensitivity. We see how presidents in election campaigns do things unworthy of their status, sharpen their language and render the highest offices dishonorable for the sake of the crowd. However, if we take away the president’s presidency during the election campaign, we would feel like subjects whose king abdicated. We don’t want to let that happen.


The extended Middle Ages continue in Eastern Europe and the U.S. alike. In the west of Europe there are also quasi-medieval structures underlying the thinking about presidential power. Let’s take the example of Portugal. In a work from 2006 by Antonio R. Rubio Plo, Spanish professor of international relations and history of political thought, I read: ‘The political model makes the president a kind of ‘father of the nation’ – someone who (...) through the magic of universal suffrage, becomes a living symbol of the nation. Portugal seems to connect in this way with its rich history and legends. In a certain sense, every five years there is the return or confirmation of a new King Sebastián, the young monarch who disappeared in the wars with Morocco in 1578 and whose unlikely return was awaited by many Portuguese. It could be said that Sebastianism is not entirely dead in Portugal (...) Sebastianism – this collective urge to put great hopes in a politician – was also present in other presidencies (...) And if the truth be told, the leftist candidates (...) would also have created Sebastianist expectations (...).’[5]


A feudal mentality gives way to precision only sometimes. I find very few articles in which I read many times about ‘the presidential candidate’. Example from ‘Gazeta Wyborcza Wrocław’ - looks like inspired by the words of the ‘Women’s Strike Wroclaw’ described in its content. Even there is a reference to the ‘acting president’, but this is a step towards thinking less of the mythical and a more rational reporting of the election campaign. Let’s think - what gap could we not bridge if we had a little less president and a little more candidate?”[6]


* * *

The newspaper website is kept in Web 2.0 mode, but only the subscribers may comment. The letter, published there on pre-election Thursday, received over 20 comments from registered readers, almost all of them faavorable. Next, the editors of Gazeta Wyborcza decided to republish the letter in the prestigious weekend print magazine section of the newspaper on Saturday[7]. The editors changed the title to "Let’s dethrone them!," which may have sounded ambivalent during the ‘election silence’ which began on Saturday. I received several appreciative phone calls over the weekend.


The newspaper, setting the web-letter-changed-into-print-opinion within the framework of throne and dethroning, clearly played with the Middle Ages again, as did the digital version by framing its title around feudal kings. This way the analysis of Polish banknotes and their quasi-medieval mythscape, the resource first shown in this context in Kalamazoo, and then analyzed in scholarly writing, has been remediated after more than a decade. It has finally reached the very audience which it describes.


The global dialogues around the Middle Ages resulted in an academic work and media activity. As we see, even the ad hoc popular media headings may enrich post-medieval responses to the Middle Ages. And certainly studies in medievalism(s) have a huge potential to enrich media contexts and their current agendas.


Piotr Toczyski

M. Grzegorzewska University in Warsaw

Head, Media and Sociology of Communication


[1] Mission [Statement] (2009): Medievally Speaking.

[2] What, in the World, Is Medievalism? Global Reinventions of the Middle Ages. A Panel Discussion. (2009, May 7-10). Sponsor: Studies in Medievalism. Organizer: Richard Utz, Western Michigan Univ. Presider: Richard Utz. A panel discussion with Tommaso di Carpegna Falconieri, Univ. degli Studi di Urbino “Carlo Bo”; Florin Curta, Univ. of Florida; Louise D’Arcens, Univ. of Wollongong; Mustafa Kemal Mirzeler, Western Michigan Univ.; William Snell, Keoi Univ.; Sandra Ballif Straubhaar, Univ. of Texas–Austin; and Piotr Toczyski, Institute of Philosophy and Sociology, Polish Academy of Sciences (Gründler Travel Award Winner). 44th International Congress on Medieval Studies,

[3] Di Carpegna Falconieri, T. (2011). Medioevo militante: la politica di oggi alle prese con barbari e crociati. Einaudi.

[4] Di Carpegna Falconieri, T. (2020). The Militant Middle Ages: Contemporary Politics Between New Barbarians and Modern Crusaders. Brill (p. 178).

[5] Rubio Plo, A. R. (2006). Presidential Elections in Portugal: Cavaquism, Sebastianism and Popular Hopes, Resultados de la búsqueda, Análisis del Real Instituto Elcano (ARI), (translated from Spanish original:!ut/p/a0/04_Sj9CPykssy0xPLMnMz0vMAfGjzOKNQ1zcA73dDQ38_YKNDRwtfN1cnf2cDf1DjfULsh0VAepxmvs!/?WCM_GLOBAL_CONTEXT=/elcano/Elcano_es/Zonas_es/ARI27-2011).

[6] Toczyski, P. (2020, July 9). Nazywanie kandydata prezydentem jest przejawem feudalizmu, tęsknotą za królem [Calling a Candidate President is a Sign of Feudalism, a Longing for a King],,,162657,26103462,nazywanie-kandydata-prezydentem-jest-przejawem-feudalizmu-tesknota.html

[7] Toczyski, P. (2020, July 11). Zdetronizujmy ich! [Let’s Dethrone Them!], Gazeta Wyborcza, p. 21.