Writing Medieval Imagery in Today’s Politics

There were two reactions that I would often get, one following the other, from colleagues and friends asking what Medieval Imagery in Today’s Politics was all about. The first reaction was a nod and uncertainty. After all, how could the Middle Ages have any real impact on political discourse in 2018? The second reaction would come after I would say something along the lines of, “Did you see the runes on the shields of the white supremacists at Charlottesville?” That was the light bulb; right, that does seem worth investigating. Such extremists as the ones at Charlottesville last summer defend and validate their white identity by turning to perceptions of “heritage” and “traditions,” and my book for Past Imperfect starts from that faulty connection between past and present. MITP (Medieval Imagery in Today’s Politics) examines how the past is manipulated for political purchase and tries to serve as an introduction to political medievalism for any reader, both specialist and non-specialist alike, who hopes to get a foothold on the subject.

One of the core arguments of the book is that the medieval in popular culture and political discourse is in a state of eternal return, serving the ideological needs of whomever wields it. In a sense, this is the true nature of the medieval in political discourse: the period shapeshifts depending on the wielder. I suppose this is the way with any deployments of history in the service of a present political need. What makes the deployment of the medieval in political discourse today so disturbing is the way that it is used to bolster and legitimize ideas about communal, racial, and ethnic identity.

That rhetoric of white heritage and identity formed the project’s foundations as I set out writing, but it is only one aspect of the book, which starts with extremism but ultimately tries to show how such extremist rhetoric is not isolated and is not even idiosyncratic, emanating from decades, and perhaps centuries, of mainstream right-wing thought in the academy and politics. That more mainstream discourse too is studied in MITP, from mid-twentieth century American academics anxious to give the U.S. medieval European roots, back to the thought of Edmund Burke in the late-eighteenth century, whose work informed later conservative scholarship. Other political medievalisms today are also studied, such as the deployment of the term “feudal” to describe crony capitalism, as well as the increasing successes of right-wing political parties in Europe whose members sometimes turn to the medieval to bolster their anti-immigrant, xenophobic views and policies. One of my goals for the book is that it serves as an introduction and a rallying call for further study, analysis, and dismantling of white supremacist views of the Middle Ages as a time of white community and solidarity. I hope that it spurs medievalist scholars to continue to think seriously about the history and nature of our field, and that it encourages non-specialists to have a think about how their ideas about the past serve to shape and inform their political opinions. I hope for everyone to think about how historical narratives can influence ideals and principles.

The shortform nature of the Past Imperfect series serves this particular subject well, I think. It was certainly challenging, especially during the planning and research stage, to figure out precisely how to do justice to the topic in about a hundred pages. But as I drafted the work, I came to appreciate the form, and I encourage other writers working in this shorter format to see it not as a limitation but as a feature. As scholars, embarking on a new line of inquiry can be simultaneously exhilarating and intimidating, as we see in front of us the gulf of information that must be digested. The Past Imperfect series serves as a relief for those just starting out on a new line of inquiry or for anyone interested in getting a handle on the fundamentals of a particular problem. I hope that MITP productively serves both audiences.

By Daniel Wollenberg

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