Some of us are so busy spotting medievalism in the modern world that sometimes we need to stop and notice the moments when the lack of it is literally remarkable.
Three days before Thursday’s referendum on Scottish independence, the Wall Street Journal ran a curious piece by foreign affairs writer Bret Stephens, who harks back to the 1919 Paris Peace Conference. Stephens suggests that the Wilsonian emphasis on national self-determination backfired, leading people around the world to the perilous realization that “nations are almost endlessly divisible into smaller entities.” Wilson and his advisers (some of whom were medieval historians) did get it wrong when they cobbled together a doomed Yugoslavia, but Stephens believes that when smaller countries go it alone, they may become dangerous, poor, corrupt, or insignificant.
The point is interesting and debatable—but Stephens’ conclusion is inarguably weird:
Some Scots may imagine that by voting “Yes” they are redeeming the memory of William Wallace. Maybe. The other way of looking at it is as a vote for medievalism over modernity.
Memo to wannabe Bravehearts: The 13th century wasn’t all that fun.
“Medievalism over modernity”! That might seem like a fair way to talk about a referendum that was almost slated for June 24, the 700th anniversary of the battle of Bannockburn, a key moment in the medieval fight for Scottish independence.
The thing is, I followed the news surrounding the referendum, which was actually held on an otherwise unimportant date in Scottish history. I browsed the “Yes” websites and sat through the videos. Knowing that European nationalists love to dig up and reanimate their shambling medieval ancestors—benignly in countries like Finland, malevolently in places like Germany and Serbia—I kept an eye out for William Wallace, Robert the Bruce, and other heroes hauled from the pages of Sir Walter Scott.
I saw economic arguments, anti-nuke and anti-English rhetoric, sentimental appeals to independence, and other pleas—but outside of news articles reporting on Scotland’s history of pre-1707 independence, I saw nary a trace of sword-wielding medieval warriors. I don’t doubt that in recent weeks, somebody decked out in costume and kit spoke glowingly of Scotland’s medieval glory, and I hope readers will send me examples—but overwhelmingly, the “Yes” side rooted its arguments not in some politicized dreamland of castles and kings, but in the here and now.
The press has been keen to emphasize that separatist movements in Catalonia, the Basque region, Flanders, the Crimea, and even Venice were watching to see what the Scots would decide. I assume there was interest in Wales and Cornwall as well. I suppose it’s possible that these movements will conclude that the “Yes” campaigners failed because the Scots didn’t sufficiently use their medieval heritage to inflame nationalistic pride—but if so, that won’t be Scotland’s fault.
As a distant, disinterested observer, I had no opinion on the outcome of the referendum except to note that the Scots set a worthy and decent precedent: asserting their identity and affirming their independence while keeping their medieval forefathers silent and snug in their graves.