I went on a bit of rant yesterday on Twitter about medievalists engaging with popular culture. This was, in part, prompted by Phillipa Byrne’s blog post. It is something that I have been thinking about in terms of my own work, so here are some more thoughts on medievalism and popular culture.
I think we, as medievalists, definitely should talk about Lord of the Rings, Game of Thrones, comic books, Great British Bake-Off, the cultural touchstones of the day. When we talk about the medieval echoes, of course, we need to be accurate and sensitive. But, as long as we are professional when we bring medieval voices to bear on modern cultural phenomena, this engagement need not be dumbing down. No topic is unworthy of serious thought.
The worry that talking about popular representations of the medieval distorts the time period and is not proper history, misses the importance of these popular representations to modern audiences. It may seem like Game of Thrones is a distractions, incidental to the real work of culture. But many people are very invested, for good or ill, in these kinds of fandoms. Treating them seriously, treats the fans seriously. Talking about them in terms of the medieval influence, makes medieval studies a living part of modern life. I was recently at a conference in the University of Reading, discussing why our research matters. In the round-table, almost all the participants, post-graduates and early career scholars, said that they became interested in medieval studies through popular representations of the Middle Ages. This is the door through which the next generation of scholars is coming.
When we stop talking about Game of Thrones, we do something pernicious to this spark of enthusiasm. We say, “That’s all fine and good, but it’s not proper history. Now put that down and read this writ”. Joy and enthusiasm are placed in a separate box from real work – which by extension becomes joyless and draining. I want to make a more integrated medievalism. This goes back to treating all texts with sensitivity. As long as we are aware of the short-comings of modern representations, why can’t we use them alongside medieval texts? This is what I do all day. I bore people with anecdotes that begin “I really loved that film/book/play. It reminds me of this thing from medieval Irish literature …” This is my scholarly life and I want to pass my enthusiasm on to others.
“But Tom”, I hear you cry, “shouldn’t we let the texts stand for themselves? Medieval culture is fascinating in its own right, we don’t need to sex it up”. This is very true. As a Celticist, I spend far too much time trying to let the texts speak for themselves as vibrant, funny, grotesque, complicated narratives, not the misty, airy-fairy Celtic twilight that is so popular. But, we must always be aware that we appreciate these texts thanks to years of training and familiarity with the canon. If you give someone a copy of A Song of Ice and Fire, they will read it and possibly enjoy it, but whatever happens they will be familiar with how it is presented. It is a novel, written in English, in the twenty-first century. This is a way of presenting material we are familiar with. Medieval literature is always mediated through some lens. At the very least it is translated. But it is not a novel. That form is alien to it. Should you be reading it at all? Should you be hearing it? Should you be hearing it extemporized or read aloud while you eat? That Biblical reference really makes the text come alive, but who knows Saul II back to front anymore? We always need to mediate and explain a medieval text. They cannot stand alone. So why shouldn’t we present them in the most engaging way possible?
Finally, there is the argument of frivolity. We have all trained for years to attain this level of education privilege. If we use it to parse TV, it is a waste of our talents. I would preface this section, by saying that we often ignore the responsibility this educational privilege gives us. It is a problem that needs to be addressed. However, I would say, returning to the point about the deep cultural impact of Game of Thrones et al., that through popular culture we can make a difference. Game of Thrones is often, and rightly, accused of negative portrayals of women and excessive use of violence against women. Those who seek to ignore this claim that is is historically accurate, so we shouldn’t care that one more show normalizes the violence women face everyday. This is a facile argument and as medievalists we can reclaim the past from those who wish to abuse it. For many in the Western world, that battlefield of history is fought on TV screens and in comic books. Many modern concerns find their expression in popular culture. We can and should add to these debates.
This is a justification of my own approach to medieval studies and popular culture. I think it is a valid one. But I would not force people to follow this model. If you don’t want to talk about Game of Thrones, don’t. Medieval studies is so broad and rich it can be applied to many different cultural areas. But, as long as we are rigorous in though, clear in presentation, and open to discussion nothing should stop us from discussing Game of Thrones. Or anything else, for that matter.