Wednesday, July 18, 2007

The Retrieval of the Medieval

A recent issue of The Chronicle of Higher Education included an article on the academic field of Medieval Studies and its counterpart, popular medievalism, that caught my eye, especially since it involves J.R.R. Tolkien, the subject of one of my previous posts. The title of the Article is "Knights of the Faculty Lounge," written by John Gravois (Vol. 53, No. 44, July 6, 2007, Page A8), and it's accessible online at, but you can only get the full the article if you're a subscriber.

But never mind about that, because I'm going to deal with it in this blog. I should note, for starters, that Fordham University has an excellent Medieval Studies program, and while I have had some contact with the program directors on an administrative level over the years, there has never been any scholarly on intellectual interchange with our department of communication and media studies, at least as far as I know. Both Marshall McLuhan and Neil Postman were fond of the term "hardening of the categories" in regard to critiquing academic specialization. Even though Medieval Studies is itself regarded as interdisciplinary, it's still very much a product of scholarly expertise, one that I make no claims to.

Anyway, the article begins by alluding to the distinction between the academic and the popular, which coincides with a high vs. low culture dichotomy:

I had a fat chance of finding a Dungeons & Dragons game in Kalamazoo, they told me. It was a harebrained quest. But it was a quest, at least, and that seemed appropriate.

In early May, I set out for the International Congress on Medieval Studies at Western Michigan University, the world's premier annual gathering of scholars who study the middle ages. The congress is probably the best place to hear the latest research on early vernacular Bibles and Norse myths, but my goal was to find a fantasy role-playing game.

In the weeks leading up to my trip, I had spoken to some youngish scholars who said they found their way to medieval studies via an adolescence spent playing D&D, the iconic role-playing game. I spoke to scholars at elite universities and scholars at sleepy institutions; to associate professors, adjuncts, and graduate students; to men and women. All of them had cast spells, slain goblins, and rolled the many-sided dice of Dungeons & Dragons.

Here, we see evidence of a generational change, the same kind of shift that helped to legitimize the academic study of popular culture, of movies, television, and now even comics and videogames. Older scholars would tend to poo-poo popular medievalism, but the younger ones enjoyed it, participated in it, were even motivated by it to pursue their studies in this area. But the dichotomy persists:

They still seemed to love pondering the kinship between fantasy and the Middle Ages. But when I asked some of them whether I might find a role-playing game at the congress, their academic superegos kicked in.

"If you locate a D&D game, I will be extremely surprised," one of them, Jeff Sypeck, a medievalist blogger, wrote me in an e-mail message. "I can't imagine that such a pastime would be viewed fondly at Kalamazoo."

That response revealed something interesting and awkward: the uneasy coexistence of academic medievalists and the burgeoning subcultures of recreational medievalism (Quasi medievalism? Pseudo-medievalism? Neo-medievalism? The terms vary according to levels of interest or contempt). Recent decades have produced millions of medieval re-enactors, role players, and fantasy buffs — and billions of dollars for the industries that fuel them. "There is big, big money flowing into commercial medievalism," says Richard Scott Nokes, an assistant professor of medieval literature at Troy University. "There is this deep desire out there for these things."

Often, academic medievalists have viewed this engorged popular interest not as an embarrassment of riches, but as a plain embarrassment.

Yet those same re-enactors, role players, and fantasy buffs — the young ones, at least — make some of the most natural candidates for academic study of the Middle Ages. Surely, the two worlds must be mixing. Surely, there must be a role-playing game somewhere in Kalamazoo.

And so I set out.

Now, if this were some other periodical, there'd be an anti-intellectual thrust to the story, that would ultimately reveal the academics to be snobs and the popular medievalists as the good guys. But this is the Chronicle of Higher Education, reporting on academics to an academic readership, so the story moves in a somewhat different direction:

So 'Juvenile'

Here's a quick rundown of those burgeoning subcultures:

The Lord of the Rings, a sprawling, three-part saga full of orcs and Anglo-Saxon inside jokes, has become one of the most popular works of 20th-century literature and now of film. Elvish, a language created by Tolkien, is one of the most widely spoken invented languages — along with Esperanto and Klingon.

The Society for Creative Anachronism, a group that formed in the 1960s as "a protest against the 20th century," is an elaborate organization that superimposes a set of imaginary kingdoms over the modern political map and stages combat tournaments to determine who will rule them. In 2006 the society reported 30,000 members.

In 2007 there will only be two weekends when a Renaissance Faire is not scheduled to take place somewhere in America. (Despite the name, Renaissance Faires often focus on the Middle Ages. Go figure.)

And those are just activities for skin-bags, as online citizens sometimes refer to nonvirtual folk. World of Warcraft, the largest online role-playing game, boasts 8.5 million subscribers with avatars roaming around its medieval-style landscape. And according to some reports, Lord of the Rings Online is closing in on those subscriber levels. Another, similar online game, EverQuest, has earned the nicknames "Never-rest" and "Ever-crack" for its addictive tug.

Meanwhile, far away from the movies and festivals and virtual worlds, medieval scholars do the arduous detective work of unearthing, interpreting, and contextualizing the evidence that has survived from the actual Middle Ages — a period when real people lived, labored, imagined, and died. Yet it was also a period when knights and monsters were pressing literary concerns.

"There's so much about the medieval that's associated with the juvenile, the popular, the low," says Jeffrey Jerome Cohen, a professor of medieval English literature at George Washington University. As specialists in Arthuriana and other literature heavy on adventure and light on introspection, he says, medievalists already dread being regarded as scholars of so much juvenilia.

And so sometimes their responses to the truly puerile strains of pop medievalism are downright grouchy and exasperated — as when medievalists point out for the umpteenth time that turkey legs, consumed with such gluttonous abandon at Medieval Times restaurants, did not exist in medieval Europe.

Interesting to note that medievalists might be subjected to a certain amount of prejudice on account of their subject matter, a position that those of us dealing with media and popular culture find quite familiar. And note that the position here is essentially sympathetic to these scholars, that their "exasperation" with popular medievalism is at the very least presented as understandable (it would not be in the popular press). And we again return to the theme that scholars in medieval studies also take part in popular medievalism:

But another factor that heightens the tension between medievalists and their dress-up counterparts is this: Alongside the painstaking manuscript work, medievalists have a lot of fun. At Kalamazoo, or K'zoo, or the Zoo, as the scholarly congress is often called, the agenda is salted with events like medieval beer and ale tastings, demonstrations of medieval weaving techniques, and campy dramatic readings of tales in Middle English. Year after year, the conference culminates in a dance legendary for its debauchery. ("I only know one person who left the profession because of bad choices at the dance," writes the medieval blogger Michael Drout, an associate professor of English at Wheaton College and a leader in the field of Tolkien studies.)

"There's an embarrassment that most medievalists feel for enjoying the work they do so much," says Mr. Cohen. None of them want to be taken for mere enthusiasts.

Hence recreational medievalists have had an off-and-on relationship with their scholarly brethren. Years ago, the Society for Creative Anachronism had a presence at Kalamazoo. They came in costume. They jousted. Then the congress organizers told them the jousting and codpieces were out. Unless they were willing to learn Latin and deliver papers, they were not welcome anymore.

Journey's End

But as generations of gamers and fantasy buffs have matured into scholars — and as role-playing games have migrated from dice and tabletops into the brave new world of online avatars — something has begun to shift in medieval studies. As evidence, I submit this: My quest to find the D&D game lasted ten minutes.

When I arrived in Kalamazoo on a warm Thursday evening, my first glance around the conference lobby revealed a couple of men in bow ties, a cash bar, and a nun. (And indeed, bow ties, alcohol, and robed clerics studying early church history, I would learn, are all plentiful at the congress.) Then I saw the stack of fliers.

"Medieval Video Gaming: A Festive Workshop," the fliers announced. "Also featuring GrailQuest — a board game that involves a killer rabbit!" I looked down at the posted time. "Thursday, May 10th, 7:30 p.m." That was ten minutes away.

So I hurried up to the second-floor computer classroom where the event, sponsored by something called the Medieval Electronic Media Organization, was already drawing a crowd. Each of the computer terminals was loaded with a different massively multiplayer online role-playing game (or MMORPG, as gaming aficionados call them), and the seats were filling up. If any of these stalwart medievalists were ill at ease in this den of pseudo-medievalism, they did not show it.

"When they remade Quest for Glory, I didn't like the remake," said one.

"The landscape details in Lord of the Rings Online are just insane," said another. "I mean, you can pick out constellations."

Then I saw it. There, near the middle of the room, was a computer running Dungeons & Dragons Online. Bingo. Quest closed. But I still had a nagging question on my mind — and I wasn't alone.

Now, this is where it starts to get interesting. So far, we just have the fact of the tension between the two groups, mediated to a degree by the younger scholars. Now for the $64 question:

In the back of the room, a clutch of Canadian doctoral students was gathered around a bearded man with swirls of gray hair and a Hawaiian shirt. This was Daniel T. Kline, a professor of medieval and Renaissance English at the University of Alaska at Anchorage, and one of the event's hosts. At one point, one of the students — a pale young blond woman — leaned forward and asked him the fundamental, runic question behind the evening's proceedings.

"When you say 'fantasy,'" she said, "you think 'medieval.' So: Why?"

Father of Fantasy

The simplest answer to that question is John Ronald Reuel Tolkien.

Dungeons & Dragons, World of Warcraft, EverQuest: All of them derive from Tolkien's vision of Middle Earth, a world built from medieval languages, references, and literary conventions. And some scholars say Renaissance Faires and the Society for Creative Anachronism got their momentum from Tolkien's surge in popularity in the 1960s.

At the same time, Tolkien, an Anglo-Saxonist, is an immensely important figure in medieval studies. Sessions on Tolkien's scholarship as well as his fiction abound at Kalamazoo. Modern medievalists credit him with being the first scholar to treat Beowulf and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight as texts with literary depth, instead of just as linguistic time capsules. It is thanks to him, many believe, that those poems have become canonical works rather than obscurities.

And so in Tolkien, modern academic medievalism and fantasy culture share a common ancestor — as it happens, one who clearly favored the academic side of the family. Tolkien, who originally wrote his fantasy books for a tiny circle of colleagues and kin, called his fans "my deplorable cultists." So the uneasy coexistence started with gramps.

First, let me note that this quote from Tolkien is taken out of context, so we really don't know what he meant, who he was referring to exactly, what led up to the remark (was he being hassled by some fans, for example), who he said it to and in what situation, whether it represented his attitude over a prolonged period of time or just at the moment, etc. Even granted that the relationship between creative individuals and their fans can be problematic (and who, in his right mind, wants to be the object of cultish devotion?), that's hardly the point, it seems to me.

But I think it worth noting in this context that Tolkien does not deserve all of the credit for popular medievalism, and that there is a kind of snobbery at work even here in that the other author who is consistently overlooked was not a scholar like Tolkien, nor was he capable of the same literary artistry (which even Tolkien's detractors among literacy critics could not fail to notice). Instead, he wrote what was known as pulp fiction for popular magazines, adventure stories, and in doing so, invented what is known as the "Sword and Sorcery" genre (as distinct from Tolkien's "Dungeons and Dragons"). I am referring to Robert E. Howard, whose best known creation is Conan the Barbarian, subject of a series of books, comics adaptations, and of course a couple of Arnold Schwarzenegger movies (Conan was Ahnald's first major role, actually).

It would be interesting to do a comparison between Tolkien and Howard, as the two were contemporaries, both constructing elaborate fantasy worlds that predated known history. But Howard was a professional writer, working in the popular media of the time, mostly pulp magazines, his development of fantasy paralleling the early development of American science fiction. Howard was also an American, an American original, as they say. And his career was unfortunately a short one, in contrast to Tolkien, as he published the entirety of his body of work in a 12 year span, and committed suicide at the age of 30. But it is hard to imagine the fantasy genre without Howard's dark visions complementing Tolkien's spiritual imagery. For more on Robert E. Howard, you can take a look at the official site devoted to his life and work.

Anyway, let's return to the article to consider its conclusion:

That's one way to answer the question of how fantasy got associated with the medieval. But Mr. Kline answered the Canadian student's question differently. Mr. Kline, along with several other scholars of the middle ages, has begun thinking about fantasy literature and role-playing games as actual revivals of medieval literary forms.

Arthurian legends, he and others say, had a similar open-ended narrative structure built of quest after quest, a similar relationship to an ahistorical imagined past (Sir Thomas Malory wasn't writing about his present either), and a similar kind of open authorship (there were hundreds of medieval Arthurian yarn spinners). Unlike more modern forms, the medieval approach to storytelling is one that lends itself perfectly to fantasy worlds that can be endlessly constructed, reconstructed, and traversed. "The grail quest never ends," said Mr. Kline.

By contrast, there will probably never be any massive multiplayer online Henry James novels.

"We can define the Middle Ages in terms of a historical time period," says Mr. Nokes, of Troy University. "But medievalism just keeps moving forward." Geeking out on medieval quests is as old as Don Quixote — who, come to think of it, resembles nothing so much as someone who refuses to leave the Renaissance Faire. (Or someone who might have disappeared into his online avatar.) But oddly enough, we may now be more medievalist than ever.

Mr. Nokes, who also runs a popular medievalist blog, happens to be on a quest of his own. A couple of years ago, he started attending fantasy and gaming conventions as an emissary from the scholarly world. He started giving talks in libraries. He started e-mailing his local Society for Creative Anachronism chapter. And this summer, he plans to attend Dragon*Con, the largest fantasy and science-fiction convention in the world. "I think we need to talk to people in the pseudo-medieval world," he says, "people who are into this stuff just because of the joy of it."

Because if fantasy buffs are willing to put in the time to learn Elvish, he figures, it is not too far-fetched to think they might actually be looking for someone to teach them Old English. "Some people are going to want to put on elf ears and watch people joust, and that's all that they'll want to do," Mr. Nokes says. "But some people are going to want to know more."

An appropriately optimistic ending for a report on an academic scene. But Gravois has touched on an interesting point: why is medievalism popular today? Umberto Eco acknowledged the phenomenon in his book, Travels in Hyperreality, but expressed some of the disdain of the academic medievalist and offered no explanation. Instead, we could turn to Marshall McLuhan who argued that one of the effects we get when a new medium is introduced is the revival or retrieval of something that had been previously obsolesced. Much of McLuhan's emphasis was on a retrieval of village life (in the form of what he called the global village) , and a kind of return to tribalism, a neo-tribalism if you will. But I think it's implicit in McLuhan's Gutenberg Galaxy that what is coming back is the Middle Ages.

So, at least in the quotes from Nokes, Gravois connects popular medievalism to electronic media, noting the similarity between the "open authorship" of manuscript (and oral) culture, and that of online gaming especially, but also blogs and hypertext. But, this doesn't account for the fact that popular medievalism predates most of these new media (for example, the Dungeons and Dragons board game), and goes well beyond the world of computers and the internet.

Essentially, popular medievalism might best be understood not as a return or retrieval, and I imagine this might come as a disappointment to medievalists, but rather as a neo-medievalism, something entirely new. There is something unprecedented, charming, and inherently fascinating about people learning Tolkien's invented Elvish languages (there is more than one, of course) , and it says something very important about the emerging electronic culture that we're living in, the global village if you will. That's not medieval, it's a new cultural synthesis.

Simply put, once upon the time there were the Middle Ages, whose media environment was largely oral, with an overlay of scribal/manuscript/chirographic culture. Then comes the printing press and the modern world, and one of its effects is to repress certain aspects of the previous media environment and concomitant culture. Now, along comes the electronic media environment, which in part displaces printing, shifts culture from the modern into something entirely new that we have only been able to term postmodern, and allows some of what has been previously repressed to now return--Freud's return of the repressed. So, some elements of the medieval come back, but its not so much as active retrieval as it is a passive bouncing back or restoration, as the force that was keeping them down has been removed. But these old elements intermingle with surviving elements of print culture, and entirely new elements introduced by electronic and digital technologies.

Additionally, in trying to get a handle on a world that is no longer modern, and now is in the unknown territory of the postmodern, we look backwards to the most recent period when the world was also not modern, the difference being that this premodern world is known to, and to an extent understood by us. In this sense, the medieval serves as a model through which we can understand our new culture.

But I would also add that popular medievalism also has special resonance for American culture, insofar as we trace our collective roots back to England, and also Holland, France, and Germany (think of the colonial period here). The Middle Ages really represents the starting point for any significant history of what we call Western Europe, as previously all of the action was taking place around the Mediterranean, in Southern Europe (Italy and Greece) and the Middle and Near East. A point I included in my MEA President's Address last month was how the innovation of the stirrup made possible mounted shock combat, chivalry, feudalism, and the Frankish Empire (leading to the Norman invasion, leading to what we know as Great Britain). This was the turning point that gave us what we think of as the medieval, and really was the beginning of history for Western Europe.

The Middle Ages was also a period in which the Roman Catholic Church reigned supreme in the west, not yet challenged by the permanent schism of Protestantism (a point I discussed in my post on The Tudors). It's not surprising, then, that Catholic media ecologists like McLuhan, and Walter Ong, seem to be especially sympathetic to the medieval, and especially encouraged by the apparent retrieval of the medieval. In contrast, Neil Postman, who is Jewish, and Jacques Ellul, who is Protestant, come across as champions of modernity and the Enlightenment. What's important, though, is that they identify similar patterns in history, even if their evaluation of them (i.e., being a good or bad developments) differs.

Now, for me, being Jewish probably has something to do with the fact that I feel less connection to the Middle Ages than I do to antiquity. But then again, Tolkien's fantasy, which includes modern elements, not turkey legs but tobacco specifically, has perhaps as much to do with the ancient world as the medieval (and the division between the two is relatively arbitrary anyway, being the fall of Rome in the year 476, or was that 410?). Gondor is modeled on Rome, for example, and the history of Middle-Earth includes an Atlantis-like island of Númenor. Robert E. Howard also has a fictionalized Roman Empire, Aquilonia, and his world is an antideluvian one, which is why the history was forgotten (another character, Kull, not as fully developed, also lived in another Atlantis-like world).

The fantasy genre draws on both antiquity and the medieval, on myths and legends from all time periods, and also from the modern and contemporary (consider Harry Potter, for example). But what it all boils down to is something new and unprecedented. A new set of narratives, and with them a new set of environments or worlds, for a new age.


John said...

The high culture/low culture issue is a serious one, I think, and it is at least in part connected to the Arnold/Eliot/Leavis tradition of literary studies winning out over what I'll call the Grimm/Tolkien tradition. The Grimm brothers were attacked for studying fairy tales and interviewing "nurse-maids" and "spinster wives," and Tolkien's curriculum battles are well known. (Tolkien included a number of digs at the opposition in his works, once such instance being when Aragorn asks for athelas/king's foil at the end of The Return of the King and the only one who knows what he's talking about is a old woman.)

There's some irony that T.A. Shippey, noted medievalist and Tolkien scholar (and current holder of the Walter J. Ong Chair of the Humanities at SLU), went into medieval studies because it was the only part of the program at Cambridge that wasn't under the influence of F.R. Leavis (McLuhan's dissertation director).

Medievalism, including the popular kind, is growing in academia, in part because of the generation of scholars who grew up on Tolkien, Robert E. Howard, and Dungeons & Dragons (like myself), but also because of people like Shippey who applied rigor to the study.

Great post, and I think you're right about Robert E. Howard. I've done some research on Howard and see him, along with Tolkien, as an important bridge figure between Victorian medievalism and 20th century popular medievalism. I talk about this in my posts "Barbarian Chic," "Victorians and Vikings? Huh?," and "Chaucer's Blog and Medievalism." (And for what it's worth, I've read that Tolkien supposedly liked the Conan stories.)

As for finding a D&D game at Kalamazoo, I wouldn't expect to find one (and never tried to get one started), because of the lack of time. Kalamazoo, as with all conferences, is busy enough as it is, and I don't have the time to game when I'm not at Kalamazoo. If I'm going to take the time to set up a one-off game session, I'm going to do it at home. But that's just me. :)

Lance Strate said...

Thanks for your kind words, but even more so for filling in all of the gaps, John, as what I don't know about this topic is considerable. It's fascinating to learn about Shippey, who I very much admire, and while I only know about Leavis as part of the McLuhan bibliography, it's really I. A. Richards (who McLuhan doesn't seem to sufficiently acknowledge) that is part of the media ecology tradition (and I notice he's not part of the dichotomy you set up). It's also very interesting to learn that Tolkien liked Howard, I somehow thought he would not have cared for him, but I find this very encouraging. I hope there's a chance to carry on this conversation, or perhaps do a panel on it at an MEA convention.

John said...


Returning to this post, for some reason. Maybe the unresponded to parts of your follow-up comment have been haunting me....

I did leave Richards out of the dichotomy, in part because I want to go back and reread and read more of him before I try to pigeon hole him. I do agree that Richards is almost certainly insufficiently acknowledged in McLuhan's work, and I'd suggest in Ong's too. In Ong's teaching files, I found the materials for a Practical Criticism course he taught at Regis College (now University) in Denver between the M.A. degree at SLU and the start of the Ph.D. program at Harvard. In that file was a survey on reading comics in the tradition of Richards' practical criticism. I've always assumed that

Ong taught courses titled "Practical Criticism" for decades, but that was the only survey of readers attitudes I've come across in his files. As you know, what McLuhan brought to SLU (and therefore taught Ong) was the Cambridge version of New Criticism. As i understand the Leavis tradition, neither McLuhan's The Mechanical Bride nor Ong's survey make sense in without adding Richards to the equation.