I abhor medieval fairs. When I joke about my revulsion with students, I tell them that the fairs always have three things in common: fires ablaze in the middle of the street, women in push-up bras playing the part of the buxom wench, and rooms at the ends of dark alleys displaying tools of torture. Usually, too, fair is spelled with an e – as in “Medieval Faire” – to evoke an “olde” sensibility. Beyond the fermented-honey mead, demonstrations of hunting hawks and horse-shoeing, and chatter about fifteenth-century sword thrusts, the essential elements of the modern medievalizing festivals fail to express what scholars know about the medieval period that lasted from roughly 500 to 1500 CE.
Joking and pedantry aside, what I call ‘the dress-up problem’ is serious one: historical and historicizing make-believe of the medieval fair kind feeds some very dark fantasies. These fantasies, while they have very little connection to the reality of the past, get put to the work of building and confirming nefarious identities in the present. I don’t want to be obtuse, so I’ll make my meaning more deliberately: Medieval fairs are ripe spaces for conservatives anxious to confront the present by inventing a mythologized past.
Conservatives have always had a special fondness for the medieval. Early modern Catholics decried the Protestant Reformation for its abandonment of supposed medieval communal solidarities built upon a unitary moral order (the imagined “Catholic Middle Ages” is an anti-Protestant myth that does not fit the evidence of 1000 years of dynamism and change). In the nineteenth-century, propagandists across Europe drew upon aspects of the medieval past, real or imagined, in order to confirm nationalities. They tell us that it was in the medieval period that the English became English, the French became French, Spaniards forged the Spanish nation, etc. (The evidence is considerably more complex, as I have illustrated in earlier posts problematize Spanishness). Hitler and Mussolini, just about a century ago, took the fixation on religious unicity and national origins to extremes. Both made a range of medieval and medievalizing themes central to their culture war horrors. Need I say more?
And now, according to a good deal of evidence, the Alt-Right is also discovering the malleability of the imagined medieval as a resource for their racializing, fearmongering, and violence. In recent years, medieval fairs have become breeding grounds for the Alt-Right.
In case you think I’m just making stuff up, or in the event that you have an interest in learning more, here some very good popular and press resources for learning more. A growing body of fine-tuned academic literature makes the same argument. I will be happy to point you to it if you want more detail.
Some of the evidence of Alt-Right medieval-ish fantasy is brutally plain. Fortunately, it is kept mostly within the confines of abstruse and secretive conservative websites, although it is sometimes released in tweets and retweets aimed at broad consumption. This one, for instance, showing Donald Trump dressed as a medieval warrior in a field of vanquished (Muslim?) foes, is illustrated with the lion and three stars, a visual dog whistle for hate groups. [Note: I will not honor fanatics with a scholarly citation in this case.]
We are left with the question of what to do about misrepresentations of the Middle Ages that give cover to extremism. I am not advising that we can put white nationalists and their fearmongering friends out of business by boycotting Medieval fairs. It will take a lot more than that.
To successfully confront misuses of the past we will need to begin by understanding some limiting initial conditions.
First, the problem is a big one. People can make mischief with the detritus of any historical period. The alt-right, for instance, draws just as heavily upon Civil War fantasies as it does from ugly re-imaginings of the medieval. We might tear down a few statues of Confederate generals, just like we might boycott a few medieval fairs, but like plastic in the oceans, garbage historicism sends its environmental pollutants into film, sports, music, as well as the more familiar internet forms of meme generation. We will need to seek a holistic solution rather than partial measures.
Second, we cannot rely on historians like me to sort truth from fiction. There are a couple of reasons for this, which we must be careful not to conflate. One reason is that historians, because it is their job to do so, disagree on readings of evidence and on points of fact. Our disagreements take a long time to sort out, and we tend to prefer academic rather than political venues as the places to do our sorting. The other reason why we cannot rely on historians to make a corrective turn when fantasy histories take us off course has to do with the success of the fake news industry. Let’s put it this way: the more Fox News that someone watches or tunes in to Breitbart, the less inclined that person will be to accept expert analyses like those offered by trained historians. Conservative propagandists have effectively exploited several knowledge and literacy gaps, and they have a good understanding of how to manipulate the fight and flight response they excite in their audience. They tell their adherents that the best defense against a confounding world is to ignore experts. Since the judgments of experts are contradictory and confounding, they assert, the best response is close oneself off to diverse opinion. Avoid the noise, they say, and rely instead only on the assurance that comes from certifiably conservative sources speaking in unison.
I have some thoughts about a remedy, but they require a depth of description that is not possible here. Let’s say, for the moment, that they have something to do with modes of engagement in the world of the kind that contemplatives and social critics of the prophetic sort have engaged in for centuries. First is awareness. If reading this post helps to make you more aware of possible misuses of the past, then you are on your way to moving toward healthy remedies. Second is discernment, the practice of doubting and then learning enough to challenge one’s doubts and prejudices. Third is a willingness to defend the institutions built up by a diversity of voices, democratic institutions that give people faith in openness, dialogue, and processual outcomes.
Perhaps in later posts I can offer a fuller explanation of how to operationalize these modes of engagement in ways that will help us limit abusive uses of the past.