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Friday, April 4, 2014

Out-Creating Destruction, or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Entropy

Here is the last painting I finished, which I am calling "Sinus Olei Britannici" (transl: Gulf of British Petroleum). 
It and this post pertain to an idea that has been much on my mind of late: artistic creation as an attempt to out-create destruction. Perhaps because I was listening to War and Peace as I painted, I started thinking big meta-thoughts about what I originally conceived of as a painting with no outside signifieds. (If that's a thing.) At inception, it wasn't intended to point to anything beyond itself. It was an excuse to paint sea critters. And yet I ended up believing, to the extent a painting is about something, this one just might be about creation itself, and the wacky persistence of life in the face of certain death.

The first image I concocted and drew was the two-headed sea monster. I populated his underwater world with a variety of completely factual aquatic critters. Soon, I was envisioning some time, far in the future, when certain life forms have changed dramatically from what we now know...possibly with the aid of some man-made catastrophe. 

Then, unsurprisingly, I thought about the Fukushima Daiichi disaster and the British Petroleum oil spill off the coast of Louisiana. If you look closely you can pick out the BP sunburst logo on an oversized cork at the bottom right of the painting. High technology.
I then decided that this bizarre future undersea-scape would be most complete with a set of sailors gazing into the depths...and so naturally I imagined a technologically retrograde, post-apocalyptic future and threw in a Viking ship.
I included a 19th-century, Vernesque underwater diver in the margin for good measure.
The implication of my historical mixing sounds pretty mundane: we are the far future's deep past. But the temporal prison that life on our planet occupies makes this mundanity feel profound as it is lived. To imagine the detritus of our existence lurking, completely unseen, in the nooks and crannies of some future civilization's world gives me goosebumps, the good kind. I like picturing that scenario better than one where the future civilization examines our detritus and tries to "know" something about us. And that gets me thinking about the detritus itself and its relationship to us. 

Every day, for - so far as we can tell - as long as homo sapiens have existed, we have been committed makers of things. 

Now, life in general is the superlative maker. Life makes itself. Hooray! Among life that we know, there are a variety of critters who make other things; famously termite-poking sticks, but also arenas and structures to do with mating rituals, and then of course nests, beds, dens and homes of various kinds.  But, quite obviously, no other critter makes as many things, as often as people critters do.

I loathe the human-exceptionalism-wagontrain of entitlement upon which many philosophies have placed humankind, so I am not arguing that this makes us especially grand. With the unintended buffoonery innate to our species, much of our creation ends up assisting destruction. Precisely such disasters as Fukushima and Deep Horizon illustrate the dark flip side of our impulse to create, a dark side where we create at all costs, at any cost; and, germane to nuclear and oil extracting technologies, where we create via destruction of other life, of our planet and of ourselves.

But that is the dark side. On the more buoyant, ingenuous side we have quotidian creation, from sexual reproduction to gardening to weird little paintings of two-headed sea creatures.

I ask myself why I paint. I earn very little money from it. It occupies a lot of time. Sometimes it makes my hand hurt. Yet I intend to paint until I cannot. And, amazingly, this impulse is utterly normal, completely comprehensible to the vast majority of folks. Creation using one's own hands to attempt to physically realize something that exists only in the mind, is its own reward. It supplies a soul-contentment, a sense of accomplishment, a moment of wonder that you made something. But like all wonderful things, these feelings are fleeting, mostly leaving you with the impulse to do it all over again. And again. And again.

The most tragicomic aspect of this impulse to create - aside from its pregnant, inextractable possibility of ending up destructive - is this Sisyphean nature. The act of creation expresses a striving that never quite achieves satisfaction. It sates primarily while it occurs but not long after. There is something in the act itself, and only incidentally in the product, that satisfies the creator's weird compulsion to make things. "Make" is more operative than "things" in that construction.
I call it "weird" because I cannot explain the human desire and habit of making things, even when I find it in myself. But actually it is rather primordial and obvious; linked with the rhythms of life and death, not just of we fragile biological organisms, but of the whole grand shebang.

Considering the rhythms of the universe itself, its life and death as it were, and how this bears on human creativity, I begin to think about entropy.

Bear with me.

The second law of thermodynamics, to the extent it talks about more than the attainable efficiencies of heat engines, pertains to entropy as a function of state describing the state of equilibrium of a thermodynamic system.


My humanities background encourages me here to offer some illustrative metaphors, definitions and paraphrases that will probably make the eyes of the science-minded roll. But I think they're used to that, living as they do in a nation full of people who know more about Kim Kardashian's ass than about the laws of thermodynamics.

The word "thermodynamics" derives from Greek words meaning heat and power. It refers to a branch of physical science that studies the relationships between heat, energy and work. The four laws of thermodynamics contain some of the most basic postulates concerning the behavior of matter and energy in given systems and under given circumstances. They are fundamental to many areas of science and also have been applied rather metaphorically in less scientifically-delineated situations, which I readily admit is my mode of engaging good ol' Law #2 and entropy. [Panel from Ryan North's hilarious Dinosaur Comics at right.]

Heat engines and their maximum efficiency do not specifically turn my crank. Entropy is another matter. Although, to be clear, entropy is not matter. Entropy is a quantity; that is, a characteristic that can be measured or counted, that there can be more or less of, that can be quantified. And its definition in thermodynamics differs from, but is related to, its definition in statistical mechanics. Insofar as I understand these differences, I believe they have to do with the ability to describe entropy at a micro- versus a macroscopic level. I do not think this difference bears overly on my thoroughly unscientific purposes so I intend to ignore it.

So! Entropy describes systems and is a function of state, which means it describes a system at a specific moment (i.e., in a specific state) without regard to what occurrences, developments or causalities preceded that moment. In this way, it reminds me of Ferdinand de Saussure's structural linguistics. Language as a system can be studied historically over time (diachronically) or at a given moment without concern for historical antecedents or differences (synchronically). Entropy is a synchronic quantity.

There is an equation that can determine entropy. In its simplest form it looks like this: ΔS = Q/T where Q is heat and T is something I do not understand. This use of entropy has something to do with a work-heat-energy-blah-blah differential-something-something called the Carnot Cycle, which again, bears so much on the operations of a heat engine it inhibits my ability to either (a) decipher it clearly or (b) care.

What I do think is cool, is that all of this math and technical language ("differential-something-something" and "work-heat-energy-blah-blah", I'm looking at you) describes something that, when removed from heat engines and extrapolated into other systems, we each experience daily and expect intuitively from the universe.


Phillip K. Dick talked about it using his concept of kipple.

In over-simple and likely flawed terms, entropy is the amount of energy lost (i.e., made unproductive) in a system. To explain my use of "unproductive", think of a Newton's cradle.

You lift one ball, let it hit the next one and watch as the energy of that initial impact moves back and forth through the balls, until the momentum runs down. The fact that it runs down - that perpetual motion machines cannot exist - owes to the loss of energy through friction and ball elasticity. Energy becomes unproductive when it is lost, redirected or dissipated in some way. It stops being able to accomplish its "purpose"* in the system under scrutiny.

In the above example, energy is rendered observable by the motion of the balls. In most examples one finds of entropy, unsurprisingly given its thermodynamic roots, temperature is the observable marker of the energy at work versus the energy being lost: e.g., an ice cube melting or a hot pan cooling.

Each of us has observed entropy so often that we mostly do not think concertedly about it as an experience, but rather naturalize it into one of the ways things just are: anything not actively heated or cooled becomes room temperature, buildings with no upkeep eventually crumble. This is just the way the universe works. And it is. It is also entropy.

In metaphorical terms, entropy is the tendency of disorder to follow order.

I have read several science writers display annoyance over the association of entropy with disorder. I appreciate the frustration attendant on non-professionals misunderstanding or negligently co-opting specific vocabulary and using it inaccurately. However, I also think metaphorical relationships constitute their own truths. If someone is mistaking entropy-as-disorder for the scientific thermodynamic use of entropy, that's a problem.

If someone, say me, is using a highly specific and technical term self-consciously in a loose and/or metaphorical way to discuss a small part of what it is like to live on our planet, then I think the science bloggers and protesting professors can chill out. Words are capable of containing more than one meaning. Sometimes "lay" people even understand this about language. It's really true.

As far as I can tell, in the development of scientific understandings of entropy, there exist historical reasons why it was ever mentioned in the same breath as disorder. These reasons have to do with statistical mechanics, possible molecular movement and the likelihood of molecular movement. But to be clear about my own interpretive take on this point: as I grasp it, entropy represents a system achieving equilibrium through energy loss (or conversion).

Disorder indeed sounds like the opposite of achieving equilibrium...except when you consider that the human idea of placing things "in order" implies that everywhere all the time, unless we actively work against it, our universe is disordered. I toy here with the suggestion that, perhaps, humans perceive equilibrium as it is achieved naturally in our universe as disorder. Conversely, we tend to see wild imbalances, especially in nature, as orderly (I'm thinking, for instance, about farming or urbanization). New studies of ecology and the dramatic climate changes observable all around us (whatever you attribute those changes to), may be starting to change this attitude. Still, ideas of a "natural order" notwithstanding, we humans continue to maintain a strong association between ordered things and man-made things, just as we have traditionally relegated the natural world to a wild, untamed (disordered?) place.

Viewed in this way, the vast majority of human activity on the planet has so far attempted to thwart a basic law of science. We try to memorialize ourselves with huge buildings, we create monocultures, build dams, pave things. And then we work vigilantly and persistently to maintain them despite the imbalances they introduce. We fight entropy constantly. Because our "order" looks a lot like nature's lack of equilibrium. I am not observing this to make a larger comment about our dysfunctional relationship with Earth...although I believe that's a valid observation. I would really like to begin considering the philosophical and creative implications of metaphorically seeing entropic equilibrium as disorder.

Fighting entropy is not the most elegant, efficient activity we could engage in. But after all of these millennia, most human societies do indeed build structures, assertively manage land, use non-renewable fuels for a variety of purposes, and concretely live in ways that cannot possibly be maintained in perpetuity; moreover, these behaviors leave few to zero traces over any geologically-significant time span.

Deep time and its habit of eradicating evidence of our existence tends to unsettle humankind. Small groups of folks periodically have developed philosophies that do not shudder at the reality of our collective utter impermanence (some atheists, Jains, scientists and certain pastoral nomads leap to mind).

I myself am not overly troubled in an existential sense by the tendency of things to fall apart. The eventual non-existence of myself, of the house or town I live in, of the city or civilization I live in, of humanity itself, does not seem particularly upsetting when I think about the civilizations, creatures and ecosystems that have already begun, flourished and died on our planet. Why would I enjoy imagining myself apart from all of that?

On a personal emotional level, however, we all have to deal with the ramifications of entropy and no amount of cultivated intellectual distance can keep us from feeling its effects. From the persistent, baffling accumulation of dust bunnies to the breakdown of cells, all of life is on the road to death and our very universe is winding down to eventual heat death. Moreover, reality - in the form of our fragile bodies, for instance - seems to point this out to us at every opportunity, like a twirpy kid repeating words you wish she'd forget.

Little wonder then that humans are uniformly eager to engage in small or large ways with the futile enterprise of out-creating this omnipresent destruction. I, for one, will certainly continue with my tiny attempts. It would sure be something, however, if we could target our grander creative efforts in ways that do not fight equilibrium so dramatically, but take it into account, respect its power. We might even hitch us a free, if temporary, ride on the energy of that ebb tide.

* I use "purpose" not to imply that naturally-occurring systems possess teleology, but because this word choice carries semantic content related to end results and work productivity.

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Bog People! Hangin' out...

In a recent post, I waxed long-winded about Iron Age Europe. When I began that essay, I had actually intended a shorter, sweeter, art-oriented post...and then got carried away. Well, try try again.

Not too long ago I read P.V. Glob's The Bog People, a decades old, highly accessible treatment of the naturally mummified bodies that folks have been pulling out of peat bogs in northern Europe for hundreds of years. Most of the bodies were placed there during the Iron Age and many of them appear to have been killed as part of a ritual sacrifice.

Tollund Man [below], a 4th-century B.C. ritual burial found in Denmark, has become the poster child for Iron Age bog people...perhaps because his face is still in one piece and it makes him easier to look at. That is not true of all of the bog bodies.
If you look closely, you can see the braided cord around his neck by which he was most likely hung. That cord motif is repeated in designs found on metal objects that have also been pulled out of the bogs.

One of the most astounding and famous of these objects is the Gundestrup Cauldron, also found in Denmark but dating to the 1st century B.C. or later. In several places on the cauldron [images left and below], you can see armlets or bracelets, necklaces and head bands that all, according to Glob, echo cords like the one that killed Tollund Man, which have been found around the neck of more than one bog burial. He tied the images on the cauldron to gods and goddesses and believed that the sacrifices had to do with a ritual tied to spring and regeneration after the hardships of winter.
As you can begin to see from these pictures, the cauldron is also decorated with animals and tiny people. Even Glob didn't know exactly what was going on here. But he assumed that these designs depict aspects of rituals and beliefs pertaining to both the bog sacrifices and the pagan religion in whose service they occurred. Interestingly, from my perspective, the origin of the cauldron is shadowy. Between its design elements and the silver out of which it is made, scholars give it alternately to Thracians or Gauls. So how did something made in what is today either France or Bulgaria end up in a bog in Denmark? And, moreover, why does it appear to express images related to a ritual carried out in Scandinavia and the British Isles during, but also centuries before, its creation?

Well, that has to do with my earlier post about the Iron Age as well as with my general interest in this topic. Namely, pre-Roman Europe was not the chaotic heathenish place the Romans (and thence modern Westerners) thought. Trade networks spanned the continent and cultures co-mingled in artistically and religiously productive ways. And the fact of Roman conquest did not automatically or completely destroy, replace or erase these native European cultures and their relationships.

One may wonder how I can claim pre-Roman Europe wasn't heathenish if human sacrifice was going on. Now that we understand the movement of the planets and the changing of the seasons, our worldviews do not generally support something like human sacrifice, which is probably a good thing. But to condemn ritual human sacrifice as simply barbaric when it occurs within the context of a religion and society who validates the usefulness of the practice, I think is to impose anachronisms of thought and behavior on people who came before us.

I suppose I should also offer that I am not in that camp of people who believes human life is inherently more sacred than any other kind of life or that the preservation of life should always be the final consideration that trumps all others. And so the very fact of a human life being extinguished can, at the safe distance of thousands of years, contain morally different values depending on the context.

With that said, imagine the weight of such an act, the incredible symbolic potency of giving one's life for the perpetuation of one's people. And, according to Glob, the bog people who appear to be sacrifices and not victims of violent murder or some accident were in good health, of relatively high status, and had been fed specific foods before meeting their end. In fact those are among the very characteristics of the the burials that point toward human sacrifice as opposed to murder or accident.

In any event, thinking about this form of human sacrifice*, I grew rather mesmerized by the power and terrible beauty of this act. I began wondering how the sacrifice would come to terms with his or her impending death. Did Tollund Man feel as though he himself were committing an act in offering his life, or as though an act were being worked upon him by his community...or by the gods? Was he frightened or resigned? How would the living think about or honor the dead, year after year?

As I do with so many existential questions, I decided to answer myself with a painting.

I depict Tollund Man, already quite mummified, and curled fetus-like in a patch of boggy ground while a young girl weaves a garland of spring blossoms for him. I populated the scene with flowers I saw in bloom during my first spring here in Massachusetts, because I would rather paint plants I have seen firsthand and I've never been to Denmark. I apparently feel less a stickler with regard to architecture, because I sure had no compunction about putting a longhouse in the scene. I included Gundestrup Cauldron details in the frame. The result is weirder than I intended, but I usually count that a fortuitous occurrence.

And if you don't get the Allen Toussaint reference in my post's title - which I could not help nonsensically thinking about the entire time I was reading Glob's book - then listen to this. Because you need to:

*The cultures who have performed human sacrifice did so in a variety of ways. Some have used it to cull undesirable members from their midst. Some sacrificed conquered peoples and low status individuals who, I would imagine, did not feel particularly grateful for the function they were about to perform. I do not intend to romanticize human sacrifice, but to speak very specifically about the form it appears to have taken in Iron Age northern Europe. Human sacrifice will always carry an inherent horror with it, but I think it does not have to be thought of as uniformly cruel or brutish.

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

The Non-Celtic, Non-Germanic Empire That Didn't Define Europe or Fall Tragically

If you are the kind of person who would think about such a thing, perhaps you have noticed that history is often presented with gaping wide chronological and geographical holes in between "significant" historical events. Take American history for example.

If I remember my own elementary education accurately, I was taught appallingly little about pre-Colombian America but was told that Columbus landed in the Caribbean in 1492. Some hundred years pass and all of the sudden we are in Massachusetts, with the English pilgrims founding Plymouth. Another hundred fifty years pass and all of those British colonists have become American, are living as far south as Georgia, and want independence from the repressive British crown. And it's a revolution! I was taught something about Spanish colonization in the American southwest, but I lived in El Paso during elementary school. I don't feel confident extrapolating that fact out into the rest of the United States. However, tangentially, I am of the opinion that all Americans could do with more stories about the rapacious and comically ill-informed Spaniards whose cruelty and buffoonery did so much to shape our country. [Francisco Vázquez de Coronado above: Seeker After Mythical Cities a/k/a Explorer, Governor of Nueva Galicia, Asshole.]

I believe American K-12 curriculum may be expanding into some of the traditionally missing spaces along with scholastic interest in them, but gaps persist.

And history of all sorts is purveyed this way, at least in the West (I can't speak to other educational systems or historiographies). Creating a narrative - which humans tend to do when writing history - requires picking an arbitrary beginning and end, and picking various discrete points of significance along the way in order to string them together to tell the story you want to tell. I am very persuaded by Hayden White's argument that narrative history gets told according to one of four emplotments: romance, tragedy, comedy or satire. White himself acknowledges that there are other plots but asserts that these are the four archetypal plots that contain all the others. He's much better read than I, so I defer to his judgment on this point.

With regard to the themes of historical gaps and emplotments, the topic on my mind today is Iron Age Europe.

The European Iron Age is complicated to speak about for a number of reasons; most of which do not differentiate it in any way from the problematic nature of most periodizations. First, like most periodizations, it is based on highly specific consideration of select evidence; in this case, the dominant metal used by a given culture in making weaponry and other tools. Is what a group of people used to make their weapons the most important thing to know about them? Does the fact of widespread iron use point to other developments or conditions? The answer to both of these is yes and no. What materials and technologies people worked with is important. It can reference and influence other aspects of their culture. Is it the most important thing to know about a group? I'm not sure there is such a thing. But it is certainly characteristic as well as archaeologically identifiable. You get my meaning. To name a whole period and the cultures in it after a material they used is a reflection of the importance of the material on the culture and of the kinds of data the scholars who came up with the period work with.

Also like most periodizations, the Iron Age is a chronologically rough and relative category. Technology spread at varying speeds and got to different regions in Europe at different times. When modern-day Bulgaria was in the Iron Age, for instance, Denmark was still in the Bronze Age.  Use of iron spread across Europe from east to west and south to north, in general.  This age on that continent can, with picky caveats that don't overly concern me here, be said to encompass 1000 B.C. through 400 A.D. As a whole, over all continents in which the Iron Age is said to have occurred and using the most expansive estimates, it lasted from 1200 B.C. to 1000 A.D. Yowza. [A more conservative timeline is represented below.]

Another thing that complicates discussions of the Iron Age and characterizes it alone, particularly in Europe, is that it encompasses the prehistoric/historic boundary. That is, some Europeans in some places began writing and recording history during this long expanse of time. This adds special complexity to the issue in my mind, because as far as I can tell scholars consider the Iron Age to have ended in a transalpine European region whenever that region was either (a) conquered by Rome, or (b) converted to Christianity; two historic events frequently tied to a rise in literacy and writing wherever they occurred.

Now the first question this age-ending causality begs for me is: What determined the end of the Iron Age in cisalpine Europe (namely, Italy and Greece)? In the case of Greece, perhaps (a) and (b) still hold, but in the case of Italy (i.e., Rome)? I imagine this answer is out there somewhere, but it has evaded me.*

Another question relates to the fact that while sometimes (a) and (b) were concomitant, often they were not. Rome invaded parts of Gaul as early the 2nd century B.C., and it was ultimately conquered by Rome during the Battle of Alesia in 52 B.C. [Excavation of Roman Alesia pictured below.] But all the foregoing occurred when Rome itself still practiced a pagan religion. Presumably Gaul was not officially christianized until Rome was, in 380 A.D. So when did Gaul emerge from the Iron Age? In the 2nd century B.C., in 52 B.C. or in 380 A.D.? I have my guess - 2nd century B.C. - running with the whichever-came-first assumption. In the case of Scandinavia, I have read some assertions that the Iron Age lasted there throughout the Viking period (c.800-1100 A.D.)...hundreds of years after the disappearance of the West Roman Empire, which obviously was not conquering anybody at that point, but that period was when Scandinavia began to be christianized.

So what explicitly do Roman conquest and Christian proselytism have to do with the prehistoric-to-historic transition in Europe? Aside from the obvious answer that Rome and Christianity were both vectors for the spread of one specific language and its alphabet, I don't really know. It's still an itchy question for me. The term Iron Age refers to an aspect of material technology characteristic of a certain time and place. The conquest of parts of Europe by Rome and the conversion of those places to Christianity certainly involved some change in or new influence on the extant material cultures, but did it signify some other technological shift? Possibly the shift from orality to writing?

Historians do not assert the Iron Age in Europe ended with the introduction of writing to a given place; they tie it in explicit terms to Rome and Christianity. And I'm not necessarily asserting this either. But I am intrigued by the way three certain ideas hang together according to our modern urban biases against non-urban non-literate cultures and how those biases influence our conceptual breakdown of time periods, what we study in those time periods and how we study it. The three ideas: (1) Rome as "civilizing" force, where civilization essentially means centralization, urbanization and stone architecture; (2) Christianity as unifying force, where solid record keeping and strict administrative and behavioral enforcement significantly (if never wholly) unified the continent; and (3) writing as the technology that allowed for the administration and power-perpetuation of both forces.

Of course, it's to be remembered that Germanic people of northern Europe had runic writing before they were ever christianized or conquered by Rome...and Romans themselves developed writing from other Europeans: Greeks via Etruscans. So perhaps only the ur-civilized Latin alphabet could somehow wrench a place from an archaeological age and into an historic one? Or perhaps my hangup on writing and the end of the Iron Age is a red herring.

The resolution to this largely semantic problem I'm picking at is probably a function of disciplinary tendencies in archaeology on the one hand and history on the other. Because the Iron Age was so long and is a periodization based on archaeological evidence rather than written evidence, historians, whose meat is documentary leavings, have focused on other things. Due to the lack of chronological utility of the Iron Age periodization, they have found other ways to talk about the period. The two modes just don't jibe super well. In fact, I'd argue historians have obscured the continuities in one long archaeological period by fixating on the differences between shorter historical periods. Additionally, while a group of people's ability to make iron or not make iron is pretty specific and archaeologically provable, historic periodizations notoriously rely on a lot more manipulation of viewpoint and subjective weighing of value. Which is not to say that archaeology relies on none of this. But history depends even more so on picking your discrete points of evidence and demanding they make a story: on emplotment. Archaeology seems a little more comfortable with letting some unexplained tidbits hang out there, unwoven into the overarching story. But maybe this is a misperception.

Since, "Iron Age" has little use to historians who nevertheless study whole stretches of the Iron Age, what historical time periods do they prefer to use? In the dominant periodization of historic Iron Age Europe, as has already been referenced, the only game in town is Rome.** If you begin generally to talk about Europe after say about 200 B.C. as "Roman Europe", everything before becomes "pre-Roman". And those pre-Romans weren't writing too many documents. So traditionally historians have studied Greek and then Roman writing about the pre-Roman folks of Europe.

Within this paradigm, other vocabulary that has traditionally been used to describe them (e.g., "Celtic") becomes meaningful primarily in its contrast to Roman Europe. The Celts were just holdouts to an as-yet incomplete Romanization of Europe. And even a term that can be applied to whole stretches of Roman history - like "pagan" - becomes most strongly linked with pre-Roman (and later pre-Christian) Europe. This is largely because of Rome's subsequent and extremely strong association with Christianity. But it is still an anachronistic, retroactive association based on events that, for much of the Europe that was conquered by Rome between 200 B.C. and 400 A.D., had not yet occurred; namely the conversion of Constantine to Christianity and that religion's subsequent "official" adoption by the Roman Empire in 380 A.D.

And just to really belabor my point about the nonlinear, mind-tangling strangeness of comparing a historical time period with an archaeological one, consider the gladius: an iron sword made by Romans after 218 B.C. modeled on a weapon made by Celtoiberians (a/k/a Iron Age Europeans of Spain). [At left, the gladius wielded by a nerd after my own heart.] So were Romans still considered Iron Age in 218 B.C.? I don't know, but they made this sword and other iron weapons and tools well into the imperial period when they definitely were not considered Iron Age. So how did Rome become the harbinger of the end of the Iron Age using iron weapons modeled on Iron Age weapons?


Suffice to say this periodization stuff is almost arbitrary and, from certain angles, makes zero sense. That's the nature of periodization of any kind. It renders one technology, ruler or event the identifiable earmark of a whole period of time only by obscuring other technologies, rulers or events...or by valuing them differently.

And there's tthe thing that really bothers me about the Latin-centric vision of the late Iron Age in Europe: in it, Rome conceptually dominates the whole European story from 800 B.C. to 400 A.D. and not just the period of its ascendance and collapse from c.200 B.C. to 400 A.D. In fact, Rome literally dominated a hunk of Europe for only a few hundred years. While before, during, and after Roman dominance, there were other histories playing out, other cultures at work that Rome (and Christianity for that matter) affected but did little to actually erase or dislodge. For in its earlier years before it looked northward, when Rome was more concerned with Turkey and Phoenicia, the Celts and other people of Europe were busy doing other things and not just waiting to be the stage for the glorious rise and tragic fall of Rome.

And that is how the historic European Iron Age, when talked about in terms of the Roman period, is often emplotted: as tragedy which, in turn, has frequently given pop culture (and sometimes academic culture) license to render whole chunks of it into those pregnant chronological and geographical gaps I referenced above.

Hayden White has the following to say about tragic emplotment in history:
In Tragedy, there are no festive occasions, except false or illusory ones...[T]he fall of the protagonist and the shaking of the world he inhabits which occurs at the end of the Tragic play are not regarded as totally threatening to those who survive the agonic test. There has been a gain in consciousness for the spectators of the contest. And this gain is thought to consist in the epiphany of the law governing human existence which the protagonist's exertions against the world have brought to pass.
The reconciliations that occur at the end of Tragedy are much more somber; they are more in the nature of resignations of men to the conditions under which they must labor in the world. These conditions, in turn, are asserted to be inalterable and eternal, and the implication is that man cannot change them but must work within them. They set the limits on what may be aspired  to and what may be legitimately aimed at in the quest for security and sanity in the world.
White, Metahistory (Johns Hopkins University Press: Baltimore, 1973) p.9.

In sum, rather than treating Iron Age Europe as one long period which saw an amount of continuity and shared culture across many centuries, the pre-Roman/Roman version of things makes Rome, not Europe, the protagonist whose existence and subsequent decline ("fall" in emplotment terms) is both tragic and the most important event to be observed about this long stretch of history. Therefore, the moral of Rome's decline is also the most important moral to derive from this story.

In fact, where Rome (symbolizing civilization and order) appears to be the protagonist, pre- and post-Roman Europe (symbolizing chaos) is the clear antagonist. The "tragedy" of Rome's decline has been explored by generations of scholars; they usually come up with some soupy recipe of the same ingredient-answers to explain it: a pound of Catholic Church ascendance, a soupçon of disease and resource collapse, Germanic invasions for spice, a dash of imperial overreach.*** From which we can observe that in this particular tragedy the "conditions under which [men] must labor" involve man's own ego (hubris), the limits of biology and the environment (ecology), and the destructive bent of irrational powers unrestrained by some form of rational, centralized and secular state (religion).

I hope the ramifications of this emplotment are obvious. We've all been hearing this simplified version of things for years, even now when scholars very rarely subscribe to it. But to be explicit:

Our protagonist, Rome, brought literacy, advanced technology, and all things civilized to Iron Age Europe, which was in the middle of being ungodly, unruly and primitive at the time. The decline (or fall) of Roman civilization resulted in the "Dark Ages", when pagan superstition again ruled, flavored by Christian superstition. Technology, commerce and literacy declined along with strong secular centralization and, basically, Europe went to Hell in a hand basket until THANK GOD (or Petrarch?) people began studying Roman and Greek thought again and dragged themselves into the Renaissance 1,000 years later! Hallelujah! The angels would sing, except we got rid of that ornate non-scientific bullshit with the Middle Ages. [Francesco Petrarca, right, thinks humanism and his laurel crown are a-ok in this 15th-century depiction.]

I've written before about how the "Dark Ages" is a seriously baggage-laden misnomer for the Early Middle Ages. Depicting Rome as the only culturally significant thing to happen to Europe during the entire Iron Age is another pretty obnoxious misrepresentation. And I do, incidentally, believe they are related offenses that stem from the west's Renaissance-worship of the last 500 years which in turn, springs from Rome-worship. Or possibly the Rome-worship springs from the Renaissance-worship...worth considering. No disrespect to the Renaissance intended (especially the northern Renaissance, though a little disrespect to Rome fully intended), but decades of scholarship have demonstrated that while there was a resurgence of interest in classical arts and letters during the 14th century and it did change a lot about the way people were doing things, it does not follow that all previous centuries contributed nothing to this future, were in fact diametrically opposed to it and, while we're at it, smelled bad and had yucky teeth.

Ok, they might have smelled bad and had yucky teeth, but maybe not quite as bad as you imagine! It's also worth considering that nobody would have been studying anything scientifically in the 14th-century if a whole handful of 11th-13th century theologians had not started to cope meaningfully with pre-Christian and pagan authors. In other words, the Renaissance happened because of the Middle Ages, not despite it.

But I digress. My point here is that western culture has lionized all things Roman (and more broadly, classical) for centuries now. Moreover, it has equated those Roman "things", like centralization, literacy and stone architecture, with civilization and with some nebulous refinement or worthwhile-ness. Incidentally, it was Romans in Iron Age Europe and the Catholic Church in the Middle Ages who cranked out those documents upon which these biases were originally based. They have skewed the way we today popularly look at anything not considered classical in European history. This includes the Middle Ages and this sure includes the Iron Age. Far from being an object lesson in the tragedy of civilization's limits, the Iron Age in Europe (and the very early Middle Ages for that matter) represent fecund, far-reaching, vivid, surprisingly enduring material cultures with which Roman culture merely became enmeshed, or over which it was overlaid. Not that those Mediterranean guys and gals did not change some shit in Europe, but we should not overestimate the depth of their reach nor the flimsiness of non-Roman European cultures.

Before, during and after Rome's political and military dominance in Europe a number of cultures thrived north of the Alps, contemporaneous and successive to each other. They created intricate and advanced art [some La Tène examples at left and below]; followed a variety of ancestor- and earth-based religions later subsumed but not destroyed by Christianity; and maintained extensive lively trade connections with each other, with Rome, and some evidence implies with parts of Asia. They changed, grew and developed, and while their interaction with Rome (whether it occurred by trade, conquest, or both) ended some aspects of native material culture, changed certain values, introduced certain other technologies, and definitely began influencing language, Rome became only one more culture that went into the general European mix. It was not the scraper that made the rest of Europe some palimpsest onto which only Latin and Christian history was then written.

The Hallstatt (8th century B.C.) and subsequent La Tène (5th century B.C.) cultures represent extensive shared material culture that did not necessarily rely on a single shared language.**** It is hard to talk linguistics about a society who did not write, but especially the La Tène folks (who most know as Celts) lived all over Europe from Spain in the west to Romania in the east, and from France in the south to Poland in the north. It's a reasonable assumption that, if they did belong to one linguistic group, they did not all speak the same language. While Celtic culture on the continent became submerged during the Roman period, it persisted "ghostlike", and would reemerge periodically especially in the arts. Notably, Celtic motifs and artistic styles remained in use for many centuries on the British Isles, helping that region develop its own highly identifiable medieval style. [A carpet page from the famous 8th-century Lindisfarne Gospels below. I fancy the persistence and further development of intricate curvilinear designs is fairly clear.]

In north Germany and Denmark beginning in the 6th century, the Jastorf culture became dominant.  There is also evidence that at its geographical edges, it had some interaction with Hallstatt and even, in a few instances, La Tène culture.

There were many additional distinct peoples in early Iron Age Europe, defined today by specific archaeological sites. All of these groups were subject to the same migration and climate pressures that moved people around Europe at that time and helped destabilize Rome as it continued to expand. They all had some interaction with their non-Roman contemporaries. One of the largest of these groups were the Germanic tribes who occupied northern Scandinavia during the Bronze Age and moved south during the Iron Age. The Roman author Tacitus ostensibly wrote about the Germanic tribes in his Germania (c. 98 A.D.), but it is a late source in terms of Iron Age peoples, it was written by a highly biased outsider, and scholars now believe it probably describes some Celtic as well as Germanic peoples. And so, as with the other Iron Age transalpine European cultures, archaeological source material is the most reliable.

A compelling source of archaeological material for Iron Age Germanic peoples, particularly in northern Europe and the British Isles, comes from the peat bogs of that region. For centuries people have been pulling well preserved bodies, metal objects, cloth and wood out of the bogs. The sundry reasons for the burials remain mysterious, but seem to include anything from pure accident to pagan ritual. [The so-called Grauballe Man, below, a terrifying Iron Age corpse found in a peat bog in Jutland.]

P.V. Glob, in particular, wrote an immensely engaging book on this topic in 1965 called The Bog People, in which he argued that many of these burials represented ritual human sacrifices of a religion that endured for centuries. For any academic work of this age, it is unsurprising that some scholars have taken issue in the intervening years with several of Glob's interpretations. Nevertheless, his argument for a coherent pagan religion that spanned Iron Age northern Europe - and probably involved some Germanic and Celtic components, especially on the Isles - remains intact.

For me, the continuity of religion seems a lot like the continuity of language. Even though Latin took over Europe with Rome's conquest, it did so differently in each region, augmenting existing languages and leaving us with a diversity of European languages. The same must be true for Iron Age pagan religion and Christianity. Very fortunately for humankind, all of our most authoritarian and repressive forces throughout history - from the Catholic Church to colonialism - exert themselves imperfectly, with unequal pressure and outcome, and are only intermittently systematic. There is always room for idiosyncrasy on the individual and group level.

Human sacrifice itself did not persist for centuries in Scandinavia following its conversion to Christianity, which was in any event late. But I do wonder if Christ's self-sacrifice were not uniquely legible to a culture that once practiced human sacrifice; and whether the culture remained free enough, church standardization notwithstanding, to interpret that self-sacrifice according to values and thoughts it had already developed as well as in accordance with approved dogma.

When considering this topic I often think of Jean-Claude Schmitt's work, The Holy Greyhound. In it Schmitt chronicles the activities of the 13th-century inquisitor Stephen of Bourbon, who roamed France looking for heresies to stamp out. He happened upon one region whose people worshiped at a shrine to a saint of whom Stephen had never heard: St. Guinefort. Upon investigation, Stephen discovered that Guinefort was understood by the people who prayed at his shrine to be a dog who had once saved a child from a snake and been killed for his trouble. [Above, the astonishing painting by artist Chris Musina depicting Guinefort's death and beatification. Please go here and look at some of Musina's other unique and arresting work.]

Parents would bring their sick children to Guinefort's shrine and pray to him for healing. In some cases, a mother would expose her ill child as a changeling, hoping the "true" healthy child would be returned. Not exactly standard Catholic belief or practice. Stephen's realization of this heresy horrified him, the good inquisitor he was, and he ordered the shrine destroyed. However, Schmitt found evidence as late as the 1930s that some form of practice related to the former shrine of St. Guinefort remained in the region.

Two things about Schmitt's story really amuse me: (1) the old-ladyish shock and disapproval of Stephen of Bourbon, and (2) the utter inability of literate, standardized practice to destroy the oral and folk beliefs of people.

Literate cultures, including the medieval Catholic Church, Rome and our own, think very much of themselves. But while writing is superb for record keeping, it has been historically embattled by lived, everyday culture in terms of preserving practice and belief. The record keepers, standardizers and centralizers will always make inroads into oral and idiosyncratic cultural spaces. They have a certain concrete longevity on their side. Moreover, they will certainly get to write their versions of things first. But their ability to annul remains incomplete and often plain ineffectual where more fluid processes of orality convey cultural belief and practice.

This was true of Jewish and Muslim conversos in Spain and of west Africans brought to the Americas in bondage. The explicit attempt by standardizing powers to erase a group's identity and implant a new, power-approved one seems only from a shallow vantage point to succeed. Groups of people linked by blood, geography or religion tend to tell the same or similar stories generation after generation, cook the same foods - or different foods in the same way - as they were taught, and so forth. Obviously change occurs over time for a variety of reasons, which it is history's project to study. But to ignore the persistence of practiced - as opposed to described - culture is to create a gap or a tragedy, where we should instead try to see a presence or a triumph.

Scholars long ago figured out what a vibrant and persistent set of cultures occupied pre-Roman Europe and the extent to which they were conversant with each other and eventually influenced early medieval culture. But alas, scholars only ever write about their findings. I am only writing. We need to start telling these stories. Please someone make a bog people movie! So we can decenter Rome from quite such a large chunk of European history and put it back in its place as an important codifier, augmenter, and disseminator, but not as the sole progenitor of European culture. Maybe then we can also revisit our assumptions about what makes a culture "high" or civilized and, in doing so, offer ourselves new ways of evaluating our own civilization, its writing and attempts at standardizing, the gaps we are busy trying to create, the presences we are trying to ignore.

*I am also intensely curious about the ways the Iberian peninsula converges or diverges with the rest of Europe in this matter. That's a rabbit hole I don't have the proper time or inclination for here, but it's worth wondering about.

**Obviously Greek history is both European and Iron Age. However, Greek influence enters transalpine Europe primarily via the Romans. Greek culture was much more focused on lands south and east of itself, as indeed Rome was initially.

***Increasingly scholars have been looking at the continuities between Roman Europe and post-Roman Europe, but until that story is common and we begin redefining the period and decentering Rome, I will keep hollering about this.

****It is important to note that for every Iron Age European group that can be mentioned, there is a Bronze Age culture that predates it. 

Sunday, September 1, 2013

Yarn and Nostalgia

Not long ago I toured the Old Manse in Concord, Massachusetts, the rustic Emerson family home in which a number of famed American writers worked and lived. It also stands hard by the North Bridge, where the first battle of the American Revolution was fought. (Nick's picture of the Old Manse below.)

Sitting on the second floor landing at the top of the stairs is a spinning wheel. While I was listening to our tour guide talk about transcendentalism, Nathaniel Hawthorne’s writing habits and Sarah Ripley’s self-education, I stared at the spinning wheel, its moving parts and components, and tried to deduce how it worked. It dawned on me that though I could identify a spinning wheel in a moment, I had never – not once – seen one used. This homely object seemed both comfortingly familiar and utterly alien.

 I considered stories like Rumpelstiltskin, where the miller’s daughter has to spin straw into gold, and Sleeping Beauty, where the princess pricks her hand on a spinning wheel’s spindle and goes to sleep for a hundred years. My impression of this rustic piece of machinery, I realized, had come straight from fairy tale land which, in chronological and geographical terms (if it was anywhere) was medieval Europe. But here I was finally seeing a spinning wheel in person; one that, if it shared provenance at all with the house in which it stood, was colonial and American. And, obviously, real. I felt reasonably certain Ralph Waldo Emerson had not been the spinner of the house. But who had been? His grandmother or his aunt? Sophia Hawthorne? A slave or an Irish maid?

Our tour continued and we left the landing, the spinning wheel unreferenced, unanalyzed and unelucidated. I thought about many other things and half forgot the spinning wheel until a month or so later when I picked up The Age of Homespun by Laurel Thatcher Ulrich. I did not pick up this book because of the spinning wheel I’d seen in Concord. Rather, I picked it up because Ulrich’s famous A Midwife’s Tale blew my undergrad mind when I read it in a historiography class, and because Elizabeth Wayland Barber’s The Mummies of Ürümchi had taught me that the history of textiles, written right, is intensely fascinating.

I learned promptly that spinning is a very difficult skill to master. I also learned that the wheel I had seen is known as a great, wool or walking wheel...because it's big, you spin wool with it and you have to stand up to do so.  (The image at left is not the Old Manse wheel, but very like it. This image comes from The Nazarene Way website, which has a fantastic and extensive page of information on old textile machines of many kinds.)

It is simpler-looking and larger than a flax wheel (right), which also has a variety of names depending on where you find it and how it is tricked out. A flax wheel is used to make linen thread, and while using it you can sit and spin.

No comment.

I also learned that most of the women who lived in the Old Manse up until the early 1800s - free, enslaved, old, young, proprietress or boarder (though probably not Sophia Hawthorne since she did not live in the house until the 1840s) - likely spun some thread as a part of their regular work. That’s how widespread women’s spinning was in late colonial and early republic America, regardless of a family’s ownership of a spinning wheel. Most non-native women at that time in America spent at least some of their labor hours spinning, and many Native American women would have too, depending on where and how they were raised.

Spinning was a symbolically, socially and economically important activity especially to early white American families. Cloth itself stood for Anglo ideas of “civilization”. And spinning in the home symbolized American independence from imported British goods. This association became maximized as weaving, the subsequent step in cloth manufacture, moved from being a male-dominated apprenticed craft, as it remained in England, to being performed in individual homes mostly by women, as it was in America.

Spinning’s social importance goes hand-in-hand with its economic importance. Not every household had a spinning wheel, so dividing the use of one wheel was a means for women to get together and share or trade the yield of their labor. If young and unmarried, these women were often also contributing to what would become their own trousseaus. Many communities held regular “frolics” where women would gather and spin as much yarn as they could in a day for the benefit of a community member deemed to be in need and worthy, often the local pastor. (Above, New Zealanders of Scottish heritage "frolic" in 1870 in an image from the Waipu Museum. Apparently, this venerable institution followed colonists from the United Kingdom all around the globe.)

Before weaving was performed in homes alongside spinning, one might wonder how all of this unwoven yarn was, in fact, particularly useful. But recall we are still talking largely about a trade economy where those pounds of yarn could be traded for other goods. Not every man’s wife or daughter was a paragon of Protestant domestic feminine industry…and even when they were, perhaps they had a better knack for needlework, raising chickens, canning or candlemaking than for spinning. Somebody somewhere would trade you for your spun wool or linen, especially if it were well made.

Spinning, like all forms of household manufacture and most kinds of agriculture, began to be industrialized in the early 19th century. As spinning and cloth production in general moved from the home to factories, for many mid-19th-century Americans all the old forms of domestic production grew to represent an idyllic, independent, industrious past that became known as the “Age of Homespun”. In other words, all of this women’s work, undertaken by necessity for a variety of secondary motives and with a diversity of independence or willingness, became flattened-out by nostalgia into a pastoral American identity claimed by (particularly white) men and women of all classes. (Isn't spinning for two hours, after I've done laundry, fed the animals, cooked two meals, weeded the garden and darned twelve pairs of socks, fun!)

The “Age of Homespun” as a story of Anglo-Americanness seems to me something like the narrative codification of the WASP work ethic. Although Ulrich herself tells more than just the story of white women’s production. She pays special attention to Native American practices of fiber weaving and how it followed its own transformation from economic and practical necessity to cultural symbol.

In pre- and early colonial times, women native to the region that would become known as New England used fibers of various kinds to weave baskets, mats and any number of other multi-use receptacles. As disease and colonization transformed their lives, native women retained this skill even while using it in different ways. (A modern example, left, of a traditional-style basket woven by a member of the Wampanoag tribe in Massachusetts.) Throughout the 17th and 18th centuries, American Indians in the New England area increasingly lived in Anglo-style housing, at least for part of the year, and increasingly used Anglo-style cloth and other objects. But they continued to create, in native styles, objects for trade such as wallets which were specifically marketable to white buyers.

Following King Philip’s War (1675-76) the lifestyles of New England’s Native American tribes had drastically transformed. To the Anglo colonists, notoriously unobservant and arrogant where matters of cultural difference existed, these transformations seemed less like the creative hybridization they actually represented and more like “simple” assimilation. The Anglo colonists deluded themselves that New England Indians had simply ceased to exist. As this obtuse narrative proliferated, Native American woven objects became precious among white folks, collected and saved for their supposed representation of the prelapsarian pastoral American Indian past as imagined by Anglo-Americans. Never mind that they were objects made during (not pre-) colonialism, sometimes even evidencing European stylistic influence, by tribes who still existed.

Early white Americans, in obviously problematic ways, came to view native artifacts and crafts as part of their own American identity, symbolically different but not less important than all of that homespun yarn. In the 20th century, Native Americans would themselves use Indian objects and stories from the colonial period to control and narrativize their own past and identity, and to mobilize cultural preservation movements.

Ulrich spends very little time on the domestic textile-related activities of African and African-American women in this period in America. Being unfamiliar with the preserved historical record, I can only guess that this pertains to a dearth of source material or a lack of expertise in the extant source material, rather than to a cultural difference that made cloth manufacture a less important or engaged-in activity among black women in colonial America. I imagine this story, like every history I have yet encountered concerning domestic, homely or “women’s” work, is engaging, enlightening and representative of myriad different individual lived experiences.

Whatever nitpicky criticisms I might have about exclusions or narrative flow in The Age of Homespun are diminutive and minor in contrast to what Laurel Thatcher Ulrich has achieved with this book. She demonstrates a special facility with drawing stories out of voiceless objects, especially objects that relate to activities historically dismissed as uninteresting because feminine or domestic. Obviously this narrow view of women’s history has been changing over many decades and Ulrich is one of the historians who has helped it change. But it is still lovely and exciting to see her at work.

And I found myself thinking back to that spinning wheel in the Old Manse. Our tour guide had encyclopedic knowledge and was really superb. However I now daydream about a tour that, instead of highlighting the intellectual lives of residents in the Old Manse, pays attention to the quotidian and the physically specific. I wish I knew how they cooked and kept warm during a New England winter, how many people slept to a bed, what kinds of tasks the women and men busied themselves with on a daily basis when they were not famous writers – especially when they were not famous writers, how the children helped and were taught. And I really wish I knew who used that spinning wheel and how finely she spun her yarn.

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Thursday, August 8, 2013

The Mouth of Hell

I always wanted to paint a hellmouth. This desire relates closely to my dream of painting an apocalypse. And now I have finally tried my hand at both.

The hellmouth is an old motif in western art, dating to the early medieval period (c.400-1066).* Historian Gary Schmidt specifically locates the image's development as we know it in the 10th century and relates it to the monastic reform that was occurring in England. Apparently the real heyday of the hellmouth began in the 12th century. The mouth's prominence as a depiction of hell enjoyed a special boost by its frequent use in religious stage dramas of the late medieval period. I get immense amounts of pleasure and satisfaction from imagining elaborate painted flats and other set pieces configured like gaping maws - always stage left, naturally - big enough for the actors to be swallowed up in during the course of a play.

Of course they also appear in many an illuminated manuscript. (Image below from the 15th-century Apocalypsis Johannis.)
And on more than a couple of church walls. (Image below from the 15th-century paintings that adorn the walls of St. Peter and St. Paul Church in Pickering.)

The metaphor is obvious and effective: hell is a ravenous beast eager to devour our souls. Two features of hellmouth imagery have always enthralled me: first, the personality of the mouth and second, the depiction of the damned.

Most hellmouth depictions might be more properly, if inanely, called hellfaces. Please take a moment to scan through the fairly exhaustive Monster Brains blog, where Aeron Alfrey has diligently collected images of hellmouths, Last Judgments and dooms from around the web. You'll quickly notice that in addition to wide opened mouths, the nose, eyes and sometimes even a head are often shown. At times the faces seem more reptilian or human, at others more canine or leonine. Each hellface is relatively unique; the trope is hell's opening as a mouth, not what kind of mouth or what kind of creature the mouth belongs to.

And so regarding personalities, you may also note that the expressions on all these hellfaces do not appear nearly as ravenous, rapacious or delighted as one might expect they would be, given that they are about to devour some tasty human soul-morsels. In fact, the lips are hardly curling into rabid sneers at all. The eyes tend to look bland and noncommittal. Some of the hellstares appear so hollow that I begin to fancy they actually rather regret all this gluttony. At the very least they are bored of it. In the really excellent version below, we see three hellmouths, two with those vacant stares, one with eyes closed apparently in shame, fear or pain.

On one hand, it puzzles me that the mouth of hell should be so dour. An eager eater of the damned might frighten more would-be sinners. But on the other hand, it seems appropriately haunting for the swallowing hellbeast to not actually be enjoying himself very much. I am not entirely clear why this possibility gives me an enjoyable shiver, but I suppose if I had demons, flames and tortured people cavorting in my mouth I would look pretty unexcited as well. When it came time to depicting my own hellface, one feature I decided on easily and early was a frankly dolorous expression for my beast. I even gave him a tear drop.

Regarding the second bit of hellmouth imagery to which I have paid probably too much attention, revisit the Monster Brains images and this time take a gander at the damned. They are almost invariably depicted as naked or near naked people being herded, quite docilely, into hell by a variety of menacing devils. In many depictions the damned crowd together in the hellmouth with vaguely sad expressions on their faces, but they do not seem truly beset or tortured.
In the more interesting cases they are being dragged, contorted, skewered, force fed frogs (?!) or burned, which strikes me as more appropriate for hell.

Until I recall that hell is supposed to be a place for souls, not bodies. But human imaginations being what they are, we have a hard time picturing let alone rendering extreme suffering without referencing our bodies. I would be intensely curious to learn whether characterizations of the damned in medieval art grew less symbolic (i.e., if they were increasingly depicted as enduring more physical torment and looking more bothered by it) as time wore on. Depictions of crucified Jesus became more "human" and focused on his suffering as the Middle Ages wore on, moving away from the staring-eyed Pantokrator, and I wonder if some similar (possibly related?) trend occurred here.

Perhaps it is my utter paganism and disbelief in hell as a spiritual place or sin as a useful concept. Probably it is just my affection for horror movies and Hieronymus Bosch, but I wanted to depict my damned as physical people with bodies that could be rent. And so I did.
I concocted hybrid monsters that frightened me and devised demented agonies to inflict on the damned.
I'm proud of it. It is one of my more ambitiously detailed paintings so far and I am eager to raise my own bar in this direction.

* I found a surprising dearth of good source material on hellmouth iconography. Gary Schmidt seems most broadly reliable and useful, although I believe his book is out of print. I only obtained a copy by calling in a favor from my partner and his access to a schmancy Ivy League library. Robert Lima was a critic and scholar, but not a historian so I feel less inclined to accept his ideas about the origin of the imagery, even while I value his analysis of its use. Gary D. Schmidt, The Iconography of the Mouth of Hell: Eight-Century Britain to the Fifteenth Century, (London: Associated University Presses) 1995. Robert Lima, "The Mouth of Hell: the Iconography of Damnation On the Stage of the Middle Ages", European Iconography East and West, 1993, 36-38.

Friday, June 21, 2013

Medievalism, Modernity and White Identity: a lengthy meditation in five parts


The Middle Ages frequently serve as western modernity's receptacle for fears about itself.

We endow the period with every Weltanschauung and behavior popular western conceptions of self, especially liberal ones, claim to decry: intellectual and spiritual dogmatism, torture, superstition, religious persecution. We push the Middle Ages away from ourselves and judge them. Like any useful "Other," the Middle Ages absorb the characteristics we wish to deny in ourselves and allow us to create, underscore and vaunt our identity in opposition to them; namely, our identity as "modern" where modern means not only new but better, kinder, more enlightened.

And simultaneously we find the Middle Ages enormously entertaining. From 1928's The Passion of Joan of Arc through 2013's The Hobbitt, some version of the Middle Ages has steadily been placed on film since cinema's beginnings. Medieval Film (2009), edited by Anke Bernau and Bettina Bildhauer, examines an array of these films from a number of perspectives.

The editors appropriately spend their introduction musing on what that titular term encompasses: Films set in the historical Middle Ages? Fantasy films that employ a medieval aesthetic? Films of any kind that employ certain uses of non-linear temporality? The essays in the volume all speak to some aspect of the medieval in film. Frustratingly, while much time and energy is exerted in defining the whole concept of "medieval film", practically none is given to considering what these scholars mean, more specifically, by the adjective "medieval".

 A few of the contributing authors gesture toward the difference between what they call "medievalism" and the actual historical Middle Ages, notably Carol O'Sullivan and Anke Bernau. The difference between medievalism, as I understand it from these essays, and the Middle Ages proper is roughly analogous to the difference between Edward Said's famous orientalism and the Middle East or Asia. In any event, this is how I will employ "medievalism" throughout this essay, so useful is the concept.

A quintessentially orientalist painting by Ferenc-Franz Eisenhut called "Reclining Odalisque" (1892) appears below. Orientalism just screams at you from this canvas. Apparently, late 19th-century Europeans and Americans enjoyed picturing the female slave-chambermaids of Ottoman bigwigs as (1) white, (2) recumbent in an opium- or hashish-induced daze, (3) concubines, and (4) attended by someone of a significantly darker complexion. None of these things were necessarily, or even usually, so about a female slave in the Ottoman Sultan's harem. It is obvious how paintings like this served western imagination more than they represented facts about any Asian or Middle Eastern culture.

And so with medievalism.

In contrast to the actual time period from about 500 AD to 1500 AD that we tend to call the Middle Ages, medievalism refers to the set of aesthetics, tropes and clichés we popularly reference when we say the word "medieval", whether or not we are, or mean to be, talking about the actual Middle Ages. 

Though the historic periodization "the Middle Ages" is certainly constructed and culturally determined, it nevertheless delineates a period of time in a particular part of the real world when and where real people lived, and events and thoughts actually occurred in specific ways that were independent of our historic inquiry into them and are, because of the distance of chronological time, difficult to apprehend in their full complexity of interrelationships with each other and with our present.


Medievalism, on the other hand,  is a tool of self-identification, self-differentiation, politics and entertainment, but it is not about history. Below is the 1885 painting, "Chivalry" by Frank Dicksee. As with orientalist paintings, one of the main points of a "medievalist" (a/k/a Pre-Raphaelite) painting is apparently to give a Victorian painter the opportunity to show white women in various states of undress, while alluding to an "exotic" set of social relationships: in the Eisenhut painting, life within a harem; in the Dicksee painting, medieval knighthood. 

The problem with this depiction as "medieval" has to do with what Dicksee's knight conveys. First, full suits of heavy plated armor really only became popular in the late 15th and 16th centuries (the Early Modern period by most periodizations, the end of the late medieval by some others). Its development coincided with the increasing popularity of jousting tournaments. Second, armor of that exaggerated luster and ornateness is much likelier to have been ceremonial wear, not everyday rescuing-a-damsel-in-distress wear. And third, along with plate armor suits and jousting, although chivalry does have its origins in the Middle Ages, the modern popular conceptions of it as it relates to courtly love more properly belong to, again, the last decades of the Middle Ages or the Early Modern period, depending on how you slice it. Medieval knights would have heard of chivalry, but cursory reading of the history of medieval Europe during war- and peacetime should convince anyone that most knights were one-part landed aristocratic snob and one-part hoodlum. Knights menaced Europe at least as much as they protected it.

Essentially, just when medieval knighthood as a useful socio-economic category waned is when Europeans (especially the English and French, as I understand it) got really excited about the outward symbols and pageantry of playing knight. They didn't have Crusades to go off on anymore. Infantry had grown more strategically important than cavalry in military operations. Many European rulers were tired of trying to gainfully employ the most heavily armed guys around when there wasn't a handy war to distract them from pillaging the countryside. What's a rich dude with a horse to do? Go jousting, wear fuck-off glistening armor and tout an outmoded "code" that makes you look good to the babes. Of course. And somehow this Early Modern self-aggrandizing misremembrance of Europe's not-so-distant past still flies as "medieval".

So in my understanding and by my usage, orientalism and medievalism are related systems of stereotyping. I have read and written before about the resonance between postcolonial historical thought and the Middle Ages. This othering of the Middle Ages, this using of them to construct the present rather than understand the past, is an enduring method of evaluating that time period. Of course, it is a method of evaluating any time period. We popularly use consideration of historical time periods to reflect thoughts about ourselves back to us. However, the object time period is usually also understood as expressly real in its own terms. The Middle Ages less so. Film - participating as it does in educating, popularizing and mythologizing past times for present day audiences - is a good place to look for evidence of this othering medievalism. As Arthur Lindley so cogently put it:

Where films of the more recent past habitually construct their subjects as existing in linear and causative historical relationship to the present, films of the medieval period present their matere in an analogical relation: as type or anti-type of current circumstances, as allegorical representation of them, or as estranged retelling. The distant past may mirror us -- we, not it, are the real subject -- but it does not lead to us...The dominant mode of medieval film -- regardless of country of origin or degree of commercial calculation -- is fabular, whatever claims, usually unfounded, a given film may make to factuality.*

Indeed, in the United States in the 21st century, chances are if you ever encounter the words "medieval" or "Middle Ages", unless you're reading an academic history book (which you probably aren't in America in the 21st century), you are hearing or watching medievalism at work. Likewise, if you watch a fantasy film set in some amorphously premodern European place, if dragons or other magical creatures are involved, if anyone lives in a castle or wears armor, this is also medievalism alive and well.

Some potent examples of medievalism that historian Tom Luongo liked to use in his "Introduction to Medieval History" course are the witch trial scene from Monty Python and the Holy Grail and the rape scene from Pulp Fiction. I pilfer them shamelessly to demonstrate.

Holy Grail, in its entirety, represents medievalism at its most delightful. You get the feeling the Monty Python boys know their actual medieval history quite well and are now, as they say, taking the piss with all the nudges and winks you'd expect. They like the Middle Ages, so they lampoon them and our understanding of them. The witch trial scene specifically highlights the caricaturish way we moderns consider medieval reason (or, more to the point, the lack thereof), while offering a demonstration of medieval jurisprudential logic that is exaggerated, but not entirely inaccurate:

The rape scene from Pulp Fiction features Ving Rhames uttering the oft-quoted line: "I'm gonna get medieval on your ass." Given the general violence of the movie, the entire context of the scene and the retaliation Rhames' character describes inflicting on his abusers, it is clear that the meaning here of "medieval" is "gruesomely violent": 

These clips demonstrate, I hope, that medievalism as I am using it in this essay, entails the employment of either the term "medieval" or a recognizably medieval motif, plot or stereotype as shorthand for backwardness, brutality or illogic. In rarer cases, it can also mean idyllically pre-modern, culturally pure, simple or earthy. This strange dichotomy of positive and negative associations is actually a hallmark of medievalism. We will encounter it again.

Medievalism does not exist only in film, but that is an easy place to find it. And, as the essays in Medieval Film demonstrate, even film historians have a difficult time separating medievalism from the actual Middle Ages. They have such a difficult time that a few of their essays do not even register that there is a meaningful difference between the two. I think specifically of the essays by Marcia Landy, Richard Burt and Alison Tara Walker.

Thence my biggest gripe with the book. I do not expect film scholars to take umbrage at the historical inaccuracies of medieval film. There are much more interesting observations to make about a period film than whether it neurotically concerns itself with accurate historical detail to the satisfaction of historians trained in the period. The eternal answer will and should be "no". Fictive art forms ought not, I believe, be held to this sort of measure. Archivally-based accountability belongs to historians, not artists. But I do believe the topic of medieval film begs a discussion of the disjuncture between historicism and artistic narrativity, especially since so many medieval films adopt the conceit of historical authority, either with regard to plot or aesthetic.

Historical authority in film usually derives from a self-conscious reference inserted by the filmmaker, convincingly authentic sets, costumes, plot points or characterizations. But what constitutes authenticity in this (or any) context? The differentiation of "authenticity" from "accuracy" is a topic touched on by many of the contributing authors in Medieval Film. However, in most of the essays authenticity is differentiated from accuracy only to introduce a particular filmic "authenticity-effect" in order to use the effect like any other plot device, set piece or character development: as a means to an end of filmic analysis, which bears a much stronger resemblance to literary analysis than anything else. It leaves me craving historiographical, or psycho-sociological, analysis. I want to see film historians excavate authenticity-effects to see how and why they work.

The meat of the matter concerning authenticity-effects is this: when we want to watch a movie that looks or feels "authentically medieval," we more often want to see something that medievalism calls "medieval" regardless of how accurately medieval it really is. The look of medieval architecture provides one good illustrative example. A shiny, brightly painted, well-repaired building in a medieval film would not read as "medieval" to most people today - even if the building were meant to have been built during the Middle Ages. Why do we envision medieval architecture as unadorned gray masonry in some state of decay? Because, in 2013 that is exactly what anything built in the Middle Ages looks like. That shit is old. Peculiarly, we also seem to try to preserve it in a state of decay. As Sarah Silah states in her essay, "Cinematic authenticity-effects and medieval art: a paradox":

Ruins continue to signify the medieval. Heritage sites regularly display reconstructions of post-medieval interiors, but medieval sites are more commonly left in the ruined state which thus comes to be felt proper to them. Conservation may involve maintaining them at just the right pitch of ruination. (22-23)
In other words, preserving a Baroque building would mean returning it to its appearance when built in, say, the 1600s. Preserving a medieval building could mean restoring something built in the 1200s to how it appeared in the 1700s, or how it may never have appeared but how we would like to think it appeared at some indeterminate point in history. Indeed, aesthetic decay, like brutality or superstition, is shorthand - this time visual - for medieval and, in turn, the word "medieval" is shorthand for aesthetic decay.

It is fascinatingly weird to me that we create these fancies then call them authentic and believe in them unquestioningly, so much so that they not only populate our fiction but begin to stand in as history. What I crave that Silah never delivers is some discussion of what it means about popular understanding of the Middle Ages and, perhaps, about modern white westerners' relationship to their own heritage, that it feels appropriate and authentic to preserve medieval sites only to the point of half falling down. What do we say about ourselves and our cultural past by insisting on this fantasy? And how did it begin? How did other inaccurate authenticity-effects gain acceptance with regard to the Middle Ages? Who decided vikings should wear horned helmets, for example? Because they sure didn't.

Perhaps I just need to be reading a different book and am not reasonable to expect this kind of inquiry in Medieval Film. What it does, it does well. It simply seemed to gesture toward expansive topics - like medievalism versus Middle Ages or the related authenticity versus accuracy - only to leave them alone and get bogged down in minute mimetic, fictive questions germane to film or literary analysis and, consequently, unmoored somewhat from the real world.


Because the authors in Medieval Film do not generally grapple with authenticity-effects to my satisfaction, I am going to dwell on the topic a while longer.

What, more explicitly, is an authenticity-effect with regard to the Middle Ages and with regard to medievalism? First, authenticity-effects needn't be inaccurate, though they often are. Additionally, an authenticity-effect can be represented by a single object (say, the Bayeux Tapestry), a building (e.g., a crenellated castle) or article of clothing (a hennin, anyone? Nice hat.). But an authenticity-effect can also speak about a whole mind state, zeitgeist or mode of being that is presumed to inhere in the Middle Ages. In fact, most authenticity-effects in medieval film display more complicated examples of medievalism than just a solitary aesthetic element. 

One such zeitgeisty authenticity-effect that has always really killed me is the characterization of the peasant girl in The Name of the Rose. I happen to really love this movie for all of its zany inaccuracies, precisely because it nailed a spooky dingy medievalism so well and because most of the authenticity-effects suit the kind of story it is: the bleak, slatey skies, the crumbling monastery, the way every actor but the leads are downright strange-looking (because I guess most people in the Middle Ages were grotesque caricatures?). These things all lend a morose, claustrophobic intensity to a plot that is, essentially, a noir detective thriller. I think the high stylization fits despite its fancifulness and periodic factual erroneousness.

But Valentina Vargas' peasant girl? I do not know whether her mannerisms came care of the source-novel's author Umberto Eco, Vargas herself, the director Jean-Jacques Annaud, or some sexist and/or lazy screenwriter, but it represents a really obnoxious example of medievalism. According to which, if you were female, poor and illiterate during the Middle Ages, you also communicated primarily through grunting like an animal. Despite the fact that you were wily enough to work yourself into a mutually beneficial, if exploitative, relationship with a randy old monk, you were essentially a hungry, feral, sexy dog. To me this character is so ridiculous her (fortunately) meager screen time jars me out of my disbelief suspension that otherwise works so well during the rest of the film. I have a hard time believing everybody does not see her patent ludicrousness. On the other hand, we are depressingly used to seeing poorly-drawn women represented on screen. If you add the medievalist notion of the Middle Ages as uniformly ignorant and backward to the longstanding filmic tradition of shittily-rendered female characters**, no wonder the nonverbal sex critter not only raises no eyebrows, but is read as all the more authentic.

Perhaps because the medieval period tends to represent for so many modern westerners our very antithesis - mute ignorance to our enlightened verboseness, the home of all dark impulses and forces we have grown beyond - do we pay so very little attention to it as a real time.

Lindley suggests it is the basic distance in time that creates the tendency to view the medieval as solely allegorical. However, given the west's recent proclivity for allegorizing, fantasizing and historicizing the Roman Emjpire, I am not so sure it is chronological distance alone that has created this resilient image of the "fabular" Middle Ages we use so frequently.

One obvious culprit for perpetuating the fabular Middle Ages is J. R. R. Tolkien. He, more than most, helped link an ostensibly medieval aesthetic with ahistorical fantasy in the popular imagination. And his famous works of high fantasy were so incredibly researched and detailed they cunningly convey their own sense of historical depth and reality. Amusingly, he of all people, as a scholar of literature and a disdainer of contemporary industrialization, clearly understood the Middle Ages as linear antecedent to his own place and time - even if he used them mythologically.

Also, of course, many readers have found in Tolkien thematic and tropic parallels with literary works that actually are medieval: Beowulf, the Nibelungenlied, the Edda, the works of Chrétien de Troyes. Medieval Europe did offer posterity a verdantly imaginative landscape of fiction, Arthurian legend and Robin Hood tales being only the most famous (and most English). Perhaps the aesthetic potency of imaginative medieval literature, coupled with our chronological distance from the actual period, have allowed us to seamlessly conflate the time period with its fiction.

I suspect, however, given the dearth of people today who have actually read medieval literature, this is not the answer. Instead, I look to those great, arrogant, ceaseless adapters, thieves and oppressors of culture: the Victorians.*** The more I learn about the history of most western academic disciplines (e.g., archaeology, biology, philosophy and, yes, history), the more it becomes apparent that we of the anglophone postcolonial world are endlessly either regurgitating or purposefully dismantling ideas generated by those fruitful imperialists. In other words, we are still coping with them. We still live in the world they created and still deal daily with the ramifications of their values, biases, interests and inequities.

And one of those interests was the Middle Ages.


The same way I find it fun to abuse the Victorians****, I believe the Victorians found it fun to abuse the Middle Ages. To be fair, I think Enlightenment-era thinkers (18th century) are the unparalleled bullies in this regard. If anything, views of the Middle Ages became softer and fuzzier in the 19th century. Nevertheless, the Victorians elevated the use of the Middle Ages as an identity-foil to a new level. Victorian authors, depending upon their proclivity, seemed committed either to the Enlightenment goal of shedding the medieval past or of reasserting their connection to it through pure nostalgia. The Middle Ages were bell bottoms to the Enlightenment's stirrup pants, until they became retro with some Victorian romantic nostalgists…more like vinyl to hipsters, I guess. And so, by “abuse”, I do not necessarily mean ridicule; rather I mean to imply that the Victorians flagrantly used the Middle Ages as a mirror, in straightforward and dark ways. The Victorians birthed the Gothic Revival, after all. They had a very complicated relationship with the Middle Ages, loving it and hating it, looking to it both as a superstitious other and a pre-industrial Eden.

Victorian attitudes regarding the Middle Ages were configured by the fact that, among other things, they were (a) the inheritors of Enlightenment negative thinking about the Middle Ages, (b) a little freaked out by their own Industrial Revolution, (c) great codifiers of western history, and (d) extremely convinced of the superiority of their own viewpoint. They really internalized their vision of the Middle Ages as spiritually innocent and aesthetically pure, but simultaneously had no little sympathy for the Enlightenment’s favorite vision of them as superstitious and brutal. This dichotomy of the medieval has grown so normalized in the intervening years that it is still popularly accepted as obvious.

And so I assert that the rupture - the point at which the Middle Ages started seeming less like a shared western heritage, like an actual historical time period full of actual historical people that many westerners came from or were directly influenced by, and more like a romantic fantasy historically disconnected from our present - occurred during the Victorian period. I lay this at the doorstep of the Victorian period instead of at the Enlightenment’s, incidentally, because the Enlightenment’s virulent aversion to religion and “superstition” implies to me an acknowledgment of the historical reality of the Middle Ages. They were still reacting against a past perceived as influential and present to some extent. Whereas the Victorians, generally, looked to the Middle Ages for sentimentalized comfort from their fears concerning their own time period. And when they weren't sentimentalizing, they too were denigrating, if not the Middle Ages overtly, than those things taken to be medieval, e.g., Catholicism, superstition and religious oppression.

Victorian medievalism then exhibits the same dichotomy as medieval film: the Middle Ages as pre-industrial and pure (e.g., Augustus Pugin, Contrasts or William Cobbett, History of the English Reformation) and the Middle Ages as oppressive and superstitious (e.g., G.W.F. Hegel, The Philosophy of the Middle Ages - not English, I know, but Protestant and influential to some English thinkers - or David Hume, Essays Moral and Political). It depended upon the agenda of the artist or scholar which interpretation was highlighted. Most importantly, to my way of thinking, is that Victorian-era industrialization – however one felt about it – so gripped the western world that the medieval past of Europe (whether viewed as positive or negative) necessarily began to seem more and more foreign, less and less real.

That the othering of an entire time period came to full, glorious fruition in the 19th century should not surprise anyone given that othering people was a favorite pastime of Victorians. They seemed constitutionally unable to assert their own identity without completely denigrating or weirdly exoticizing someone else's. As it turns out, according to me, they proved equally unable to assert their own zeitgeist without willfully contorting someone else's. What medievalist paradigms did the Victorians birth or, at least, coddle into fully realized stereotypes?

To begin with, Victorian England hated itself some papists (i.e., Catholics). To be fair to Victorian England, her forefathers lived through the English Reformation, the reign of "Bloody" Mary, and several centuries of wars that were more or less the consequence of this religious strife. In the aftermath of Henry VIII's break with Rome, his formation of the Anglican church, the back-and-forth religious prosecutions occasioned by his two strong-willed daughters, and subsequent centuries of conflict, England developed a strong ambivalence towards the Catholic Church. While anti-Catholic laws were relaxed during the Victorian period, the sentiments persisted. (Frank Wallis, "Anti Catholicism in Mid-Victorian Britain," Journal of Religion and Society,

Even though all Protestantism grew from, I do not think England's post-Reformation identity as Protestant can be overstated as it relates explicitly to the prevalence of anti-Catholic sentiment in post-Reformation England. If you tend to see the Catholic Church as a bastion for licentious, corrupt and superstitious idolaters who wantonly punish people for disagreeing with them - and if you foster ongoing hostilities with Catholic subjects neighbors - you would necessarily see medieval Europe, when Catholicism was the only legitimized religious game in Europe, as a backward, brutal, happily-finished time period.

In the case of "popery," the Middle Ages looked suspicious to some Victorians because a current perceived threat (Roman Catholicism) was understood to have flourished and grown rotten way back in that medieval when. Any ill or vice of which antipopery propaganda accused Catholicism could be launched against the Middle Ages themselves.

For literary purposes, the Victorians also exploited the dark, violent associations of the Middle Ages to create truckloads of gothic fiction. Hallmarks of the gothic novel include being set in a decaying castle; the villain is often either a Catholic cleric, from a Catholic country or from a non-Christian country (at the very least he is swarthy); the crux of the plot almost always hangs on the arbitrary exercise of corrupt power (usually by said foreign male) over an innocent (usually a nubile and pale female). Sometimes these stories are actually set during the Middle Ages. But even when not, they drip with lurid medievalism. Much the same way ahistorical Middle Ages configure a de facto fantasy setting for us today, a slightly less ahistorical but just as fanciful Middle Ages provided an all-purpose horror milieu for the Victorians. The setting needn't be the Middle Ages proper; it just had to evoke the medieval in order to provide the proper frisson of mystery and dread.

The Pre-Raphaelites provided the Victorian anglophone west with still another set of associations for the Middle Ages. As demonstrated in the Dicksee painting above, they painted romantic scenes from medieval history, literature and myth. At first Pre-Raphaelite depictions of the Middle Ages appear favorable. In sharp contrast to the antipopery folks, Pre-Raphaelites endowed the Middle Ages with an unspoiled sense of spirituality, portraying them as idyllic, magical, chivalrous, culturally homogenous. But this vision of the Middle Ages amounts to fetishization. See John William Waterhouse's "Lamia" (1905) at left. Here he has portrayed a creature (i.e., the woman) from classical myth as medieval. And again with the full suit of plate armor.

If you have ever read into gender studies, you have undoubtedly come upon the virgin-whore dichotomy of Christian culture typified by the Virgin Mary and Mary Magdalene. Well, I see the Pre-Raphaelite use of the Middle Ages a lot like the "virgin" in contrast to the "whore" it sometimes played elsewhere in Victorian culture. In short, a positive stereotype is still a stereotype. The Pre-Raphaelite's vision of the Middle Ages bears no more and no less a resemblance to the actual, nuanced, varied time period we call the Middle Ages than do the visions of Catholic-haters and gothic novel writers. It is just as reductive but merely with a positive slant.

These (and many other) Victorian uses of its own medieval past, along with a healthy dose of Tolkien's fabular Middle Ages, have helped create the medievalisms we still use and enjoy today. It bemuses me that we still think of the Middle Ages as both violently superstitious and idyllically agrarian, as sinister and innocent.


Which brings me, at last, to my favorite essay in Medieval Film: "'Poison to the infant, but tonic to the man': timing The Birth of a Nation" by Anke Bernau, which traces other sources of specifically American medievalisms. Bernau hangs her evaluation of that racist classic as a "medieval" film on its employment of Southern identity mythologies that, she compellingly argues, derived from consideration of white western culture heritage. She observes:
While the US could not claim a medieval origin in the ways European nations did, it still looked to the Middle Ages to provide a foundation for what was presented by many until the First World War as the most 'original' American identity: that of the Anglo-Saxon. (87)
Colonial American reliance on the perceived shared western heritage of the classical world is famous. It is why most of the monuments in our nation's capital, as well as many of the civic buildings in most major U.S. cities of any age, are neoclassical in style. It is why young Americans are often taught that the antecedent to our democracy was ancient Greece.

Underexplored is America's attention to its own medieval past via the heritage of its early English settlers invaders.

Working within this American medievalist framework 19th-century historian, Herbert Baxter Adams, developed "germ theory". This theory equated political and cultural development to biological evolution, contending that early medieval Anglo-Saxon traditions and institutions provided the germ from which the rest of western civilization grew. Moreover, he contended that civilization progressed through demonstrably more developed stages as time went on. In other words, the Middle Ages were the childhood of western civilization, Early Modern Europe something like it's adolescence, and America the fully-realized adulthood of the Anglo-Saxon seed.

Incidentally, Adams taught Woodrow Wilson and Thomas Dixon at Johns Hopkins University. D.W. Griffith based The Birth of a Nation on two novels by Dixon and he used quotes from Wilson's History of the American People as an "authenticating source" in the film. This intellectual lineage appears unusually direct, as intellectual lineages go. A still from the film below.

The biological metaphor at the heart of germ theory clearly does violence to the diversity of American heritage by completely editing out the non-Anglo cultures that have constituted and contributed to its development since the beginning. Additionally, it assumes an ancient homogeneity or isolation of British Isles culture that the archaeological record does not support. It further encourages a theory of civilization that justifies all the most racist movements, activities and decisions undertaken by the American government and it's English colonial precursor since the 17th century. Namely, thinking of culture in evolutionary terms, where the American white person sat at the top, implied that everybody else was in some stage of underdevelopment; and specifically, that African and Native American people were in a cultural childhood. In fact, these ideas were already in commerce in colonial America. Adams merely supplied the "science" to support them. How better to justify enslavement, confinement, rending families asunder, forced education assimilation, lynching, disregard of traditional land usage and rights, than by asserting that non-white cultures required "adult guidance"? (90)

The extra potent toxicity of this "scientific racialism" is that, by Griffith's characterization, even though the Anglo-Saxon Middle Ages is viewed as white American culture's childhood, the "childishness" of non-white cultures in America is unchangeable, in a permanent state of underdevelopment, a "'time lag' between the races [that] serves as an explanation for why national unity cannot be achieved through racial equality." (98) The racial stereotypes in The Birth of a Nation repeatedly return to this idea of an atemporal, unbreachable division and essential inequality between white and black.

Keeping Griffith's American-medievalism-as-scientific-racialism in mind, Bernau proceeds to point out the ways the film also perpetuates a second medievalism that depicts the Middle Ages as the home of white cultural purity, religious piety and the rule of natural order. Claiming these qualities also belonged to the antebellum South it then depicts that time and place as medieval, a lost Eden of Anglo-Saxon traditional values that the post-Civil War white South - via those pseudo-medieval "Crusaders" the Ku Klux Klan - seeks to reinstate. If the Middle Ages were something American culture grew out of, they are somehow simultaneously also something the American South was attempting to return to.

Eliding over precisely this sort of inconsistency is where, according to Bernau, film comes in handy.

In popular culture the Middle Ages were often imagined in a spectacular mode - a mode they shared with 'historical realism' and cinematic technology...It is here that modernity's ambivalent relationship with the medieval becomes particularly evident, for film frequently drew on spectacle in order to depict the Middle Ages as desirable and familiar as well as abject and alien.(89)
The Birth of a Nation clearly operates in the spectacular mode. It is commonly referred to as an "epic". It used elaborate sets, costumes and large numbers of extras to evoke both the time and distance over which the plot of the movie occurs, as well as to imply the importance and poignancy of the film's theme (according to Griffith...happily, most of us would find the story of the development of the Ku Klux Klan something other than poignant today). It's multiple medievalisms do not precisely oppose each other though they clearly conflict. Bernau demonstrates vividly how neither the South's nor Griffith's use of history generally, and the Middle Ages specifically, relies on careful consideration of whether these historical visions are (a) compatible or (b) accurate, which I offer helps determine Griffith's "history" as medievalism.

What Bernau's essay ultimately implies to me is a link more concrete than metaphor between medievalism and other stereotyping racial and cultural constructions. She begs a series of questions, which I believe are vital to resolve for our modern American mental and social health: Why does chronological othering and exoticizing of the Middle Ages bear such an obvious and direct resemblance to the racial othering and exoticizing white westerners have continually perpetrated on people of color? Moreover, what role does colonial expansion play in both of these practices?  Interestingly, the Middle Ages are generally treated as having ended concomitantly with European colonial expansion, which in turn signals the real heyday of so many European nations' systematic, racially-based oppression and persecution of non-white people around the globe. Why, for Caucasians in Europe and subsequently America, has being white and being modern so often led to discourse predicated on the wrongness, backwardness or difference of the non-white and non-modern?

Identity problems concerning whiteness and modernity cower at the center of this issue. Note, as I have been doing I will continue to treat these topics primarily at the discursive level because that interests me most, I am not a historian, this is my blog and, I suspect, I am periodically a lazy thinker. I also have never been able to shake the feeling that the stories we tell ourselves, the discourses we buy into, have real world effects and are not merely incidental. A lot of materialists, social historians, economic determinists and others would argue very well against this, but I wouldn't think or write anything if I worried too much about them.


White westerners as a group historically have long seemed unable to profess their own positive identity without, in equal measure, denigrating someone (or some when?) else's. The term "Middle Ages" was in use by the end of the 15th century; that is, as soon as the period was over, it was being relegated to meaninglessness, to the "middle", the thing to pass over because it is of little consequence. Medievalism began precisely when the Middle Ages ended. (Which fact screams about the complete constructedness and non-reality of periodizations, but that is another essay.) The Middle Ages had to become "middle" and pass away in order for the modern to be born...whatever "modern" means. Further, the "modern" had to construct itself in opposition to the "medieval" in order for "modern" to mean anything at all. Even in the case of nostalgic and therefore positive medievalism, the Middle Ages were expressly understood as substantively, qualitatively different from the Victorian "now" in ways that spoke to Victorian identity.

I believe that modernity's rush to otherize the Middle Ages itself indicates how much of Europe left the Middle Ages only able to assert positive identity by delineating negative identity.

I contend the Middle Ages themselves perfected (and possibly originated) this binary and oppositional thinking that was eventually used to discredit them as superstitious, backward and profoundly other. They honed the intellectual precursors of many dangerous stereotyping paradigms that subsequently developed: orientalism, tropicalization and even racism.***** Something medieval Europe assuredly was, was xenophobic. However, despite the American dream of medievalism, it was not culturally homogenous. Neither was it religiously "pure". Throughout the Middle Ages, the Catholic Church struggled with the persistence of non-orthodox and non-Christian belief and behavior in the form of Christian "heretic" sects, Jews, Muslims and the ingrained tenacity of pagan ancient traditional beliefs. The Catholic Church was never universal, even in Europe. It just produced the most documents claiming to be. And yet, its oppressive thinking combined with its actual heterogeneity to produce universities, complex systems of logic and, eventually, Enlightenment thought, the scientific method and the value of religious tolerance as a tool for coexistence (and later as a good in and of itself).******

The behaviors and policies early European colonizers adopted when dealing with specific groups of people - namely Native Americans and enslaved black Africans - developed over decades and then centuries of close proximity. Nevertheless, their ancestor medieval Europeans, heavily influenced by centuries of Catholic theology, had occasion to formulate relatively coherent narratives of difference before they ever encountered the New World or began shipping enslaved people here.

Built into medieval Christian ideas of self was the perceived originary difference between Christian and Jew. The Umayyad rule in Spain as well as the Crusades brought medieval Europeans into closer commerce with Muslim cultures. Again, during the Crusades, and also following the Mongolian conquest of Asia, medieval Europeans came into increasing contact with non-Catholic Christians and, for a while at least, with east Asian people of disparate theologies. All of these interactions, refracted through Christian universalist ideas about their own "natural" dominion, mission and privileged position with regard to non-Christian people, certainly led medieval European thinkers and leaders to formulate attitudes concerning how they ought approach, attack or convert non-Christians. This medieval Catholic thought about difference created the foundation epistemology from which early colonists (even Protestant ones) and their parent nations tended to operate.*******

If any distant period of European history did contribute traceably to the situations we now face as a former colony of essentially a medieval European power, it must be the Middle Ages. And yet, in order to appear modern, we disown it. I assert we ought to reevaluate what modernity means because it is only blatant denial to believe our age, and even our country, does not contain brutality, religious persecution, exclusion, systematic inequality and torture. It is something darker and more disturbing still that many who do not deny it, justify it. In fact, much of these nasty things are perpetrated on grounds all too similar to those offered by medieval Christians in their dealings with non-Christians. Somewhere along the way medieval European discourse began equating "Christian" with "white" and "non-Christian" with "non-white", even though these categories have never overlapped to any extent that justifies completely conflating them. At any rate, denying behaviors like religious persecution, exclusion or systematic inequality in our own culture and warehousing them in the "Middle Ages";  or worse, justifying them in xenophobic, self-centered terms that would be very legible to medieval people all while denigrating the Middle Ages as "not us", allows for the perpetuation of disgusting hypocrisies. If the medieval is not part of modernity's story, we moderns can pretend not to be implicated in the continuing ramifications of its behavior and do not have to account for it.

Like studying any other time period (or like getting to know another human), the Middle Ages sometimes seem immediately identifiable and sometimes hopelessly alien. If the American descendants of medieval Europeans have not the sensitivity and fortitude to claim this problematic medieval past, I am profoundly skeptical they as a group can be honest enough with people of different heritages - can find enough common ground (or a workable peace with our lack of common ground) - to build solid relationships across the deep divides of economic, cultural, religious and historical differences that separate us.

As a white person of predominantly European heritage and as an American, this is the demographic group whose sense of history and group identity is most alarming to me. Especially since it is this group's history that has, for most of the nation's existence, stood in for "American history" as a whole. The project of slowly and painstakingly dismantling that narrative, and the privilege that accompanies it, has been undertaken by generations of historians, artists, activists and novelists, but the old bad narrative persists. And so I still feel compelled to grapple with it.

I would also like to briefly note that, of course, not every Caucasian in America is the offspring of the literal European colonizers of North America (though likely the offspring of their cousins who stayed back home in Europe a bit longer). Many arrived only a few generations ago. In fact, I'm not at all certain my own family's presence here predates American nationhood. But, at least in America, fair skin and a mastery of English have been and remain tickets to inclusion in the dominant narrative that still requires deconstructing (at least in many white minds), and so I am going to use "white American" in a very broad way. Just a warning.

It seems to me some infuriating blend of fear, arrogance and sloth that keeps so many white Americans from more directly confronting the entirety of their distant and recent cultural past (as opposed to just the bits that are pleasant to think about). It is easier, so long as privilege is on their side, to imagine that the events of decades, centuries and millennia ago no longer concern them; easier, but by every measure that bears scrutiny, glaringly false. Humans are a remembering, storytelling, memorializing bunch. Most of our efforts as creatures on this planet seem geared toward making sure the past is perpetuated and not forgotten. Yet when cowardice, ego or laziness ask it, the beneficiaries of American history as it has traditionally been told (which beneficiaries tend to be white people of European heritage), eagerly insist on modernity's rootlessness and novelty, pretending that nothing affects us but the new or the recent. Alternately, they become apologists for history's worst atrocities by claiming historical contingency is to blame (the "they-didn't-know-better" school of historical examination), or by erroneously claiming that the end result has been equality so why bellyache about the past?

If white Americans cannot deal honestly and straightforwardly with the cruelest events, beliefs or behaviors of their ancestors, only through dishonesty or extreme ignorance can they claim these actions no longer resonate, carry potency or cause problems today. It is past time white "modern" Americans acknowledge their identity as, essentially, the children of medieval Europe, so we can do something about it and all dispense with medieval Europe's outmoded, predominantly Christian-based exclusionary and universalist attitudes that no longer function appropriately in our increasingly multicultural society.

Indeed, I think all people living in former European colonies could benefit from some grappling with medieval European history in a nuanced way, since it was medieval Europeans who began sailing around the globe and colonizing people; seemingly transitioning from "medieval" to "modern" through this very act of colonization. But rather than completely demonizing the Middle Ages like Enlightenment authors did, waxing nostalgic like the Victorians, or treating them like a setting for fantasy fiction as we currently do, maybe we could look at them squarely as a main, very problematic progenitor of our current age, which age could very well be ending and is at least transforming as we speak. It would do all of us Americans good, for ourselves and for each other, to consider what being modern in light of the Middle Ages in fact means. I suspect, unless we fundamentally change our attitudes about what it means to be white or black or anything else in America, and about what it means to be American at all, that we too will easily be read as just some brutal, backward middle age in another more inclusive period's self-narrative that is still for future generations to write.

*Arthur Lindley, "The ahistoricism of medieval film", Screening the Past, 3 (

** I think here of the host of self-sacrificing pleasers (Grace Kelly in Rear Window), buffoonishly optimistic girl-children (Sandra Dee in Gidget) and helpless, but sexy, “heroines” (Kristen Stewart in Twilight) that Hollywood has been foisting on viewers for decades.

*** Though "Victorian" probably refers properly only to British people during the reign of Queen Victoria (1837-1901), I use it to refer more broadly to scholars, artists and thinkers of the anglophone world of that time period, including America, as well as to contemporary continental European thinkers to the extent they participated in the knowledge production extravaganza that happened during that century.

**** Ok, like any time period, the Victorian era also spawned its share of gadflies and nonconformists whom I quite like, but the relative social openness of Thomas Hardy, Mary Shelley or Oscar Wilde stands always against the dominant mores of their time period. And each of the aforementioned were criticized, vilified and, in Wilde's case, imprisoned for their nonconformity.

***** I am not arguing that judgments based on race were never made by white (or any) people prior to the Middle Ages. I am arguing that only with the development of complex Christian theologies during the Middle Ages did white Europeans construct race in such a way that they could justify systematic dehumanization, disenfranchisement, murder of and theft from non-white people on the very basis of their non-whiteness.

****** Please note, I consider all of these institutions, values and ideas problematic and deeply implicated in the inequitable application of power; but I must acknowledge my culture celebrates them as though they are unabashed victories of humanity.

******* Jill Lepore in The Name of War has some fascinating things to say about the ways English colonists understood their own treatment of Native Americans in contrast to that of Catholic Spain. Nevertheless, she observes, "Even as the specter of "Spanish Cruelties" haunted Englishmen and -women in New England, its moral underpinnings had become largely incorporated into their own worldview." (166)