“I must admit, just when I think I’m king…”

Last month, when suicide bombers attacked an Ariana Grande concert in Manchester, the world was aghast that ISIS specifically targeted girls and young women. Unfortunately, no one who understands the pseudo-medieval image ISIS has built around itself was all that surprised. In “Muscular Medievalism,” a prescient article in the 2016 issue of The Year’s Work in Medievalism, Amy S. Kaufman makes important points about the misogyny of ISIS and their obsession with a fantasy version of the medieval past:

[A] key component of muscular medievalism is its need for the suffering and exploitation of women in order to validate its vision of masculinity. In the autumn of 2014, the new caliphate declared that the enslavement and rape of women and girls is central to its ideology. ISIS’s glossy, almost corporate, monthly English language magazine, Dabiq, included an article called “The Revival of Slavery Before the Hour,” which explicitly argued, “One should remember that enslaving the families of the kuffar—the infidels—are taking their women as concubines is a firmly established aspect of the Shariah, or Islamic law.”

After giving several harrowing examples of ISIS’s brutality, Kaufman draws a bitter conclusion:

And yet, despite the explosion of reporting on the fate of ISIS’s conquered territories, the world’s reaction to this horrific violence against women and girls—apart from the usual Twitter outrage—is largely complacent. The enslavement, ritual rape, and murder of thousands of children and grown women—on a scale that would demand immediate action of the persecuted group were anything other than women—is lamented, but ultimately dismissed as part of the “medieval” nature of life under the Islamic State, thanks, in part, to our misguided fantasies about the past.

What does Kaufman mean by that, and why does she implicate all of us, including Westerners? Throughout her article, she draws a provocative connection between the way ISIS asserts its “authenticity” and what we as readers and viewers in the West seek in our entertainment. I hope she won’t mind if I quote her at length:

Take, for instance, HBO’s Game of Thrones, which holds such a revered place in contemporary American popular culture that it’s treated to weekly recaps in respected newspapers like the Washington Post. The author of the epic fantasy series the show is based on, George R. R. Martin, claims to be delivering an unapologetically “real” version of the Middle Ages in his Song of Ice and Fire series. Martin says he was inspired to pen his particularly brutal portrayal of medieval times because other writers “…were getting it all wrong. It was a sort of Disneyland Middle Ages, where they had castles and princesses and all that.” And if Martin’s novels are any indication, getting it right means saturating the faux-medieval world with rampant misogyny and rape . . . However, Martin explains away the sexual violence in his novels with his vision of history: “Well, I’m not writing about contemporary sex,” he clarified to one interview. “It’s medieval.”

For Martin—and his legions of fans—the abundance of sexual violence and the disturbing conflation of sex and rape in the books and on the show are, in fact, markers of medieval authenticity. Indeed, rape-as authenticity is a key component of the show: “It’s not our world,” argued executive producer D.B. Weiss in defense of the rape scenes on HBO’s show, “but it is a real world, and it’s a violent world, a more brutal world . . . It’s a world where these horrible things are definitely pervasive elements of their lives and cultures. We felt that shying away from these things would be doing a disservice to the reality and groundedness of George’s vision.” To be clear: violence against women isn’t just a byproduct of historical authenticity in the show and in the novels. It is, according to their creators, what makes these medieval-inspired works of entertainment authentic. The violence against and degradation of women in the world of Westeros is as important to the “medieval” setting as the armor, the castles, the weapons, and the charmingly fetishized details about food. But using violence against women as a shortcut to bolster authenticity is hardly limited to Martin’s creative endeavors: the casual rape of women and girls, often as a kind of “background noise” behind the “real” plot, pervades almost every work of medievalism that is proclaimed “gritty” or “authentic,” the often-anonymous victims themselves rendered disposable tropes in the service of historicity, from the Channel’s show Vikings to popular games like The Witcher and Dragon Age.

When someone questions the decency of our fondest shows and books, it’s tempting, and awfully easy, to recite a familiar refrain: “It’s just a show. I should really just relax.” But to answer too quickly is to evade self-examination. Even though I think there’s too much moralistic finger-wagging at artists and writers these days, there are ethical dimensions to reading and watching television, especially where the Middle Ages are concerned. Goodness knows I’ve heard plenty of parents complain about the overwhelming influence of the “Disney princess” franchises on their impressionable daughters. The novels of Sir Walter Scott, harmless in themselves, possessed antebellum Southern planters with such absurd visions of chivalric grandeur that Mark Twain blamed him, not facetiously, for the Civil War. Centuries earlier, the Spanish conquistadors who hacked and slashed their way through the Americas were obsessed with chilvaric romance, seeing the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlan not for what it was, but as a magical city out of the sprawling tale Amadis of Gaul—and seeing themselves as the latest wave of crusading heroes, called to convert, conquer, and rule.

Even though Kaufman isn’t blaming Game of Thrones viewers for ISIS, her article won’t sit easily with many fantasy fans. I appreciate that she isn’t just sniping on Twitter; she’s drawing a sober, thought-provoking analogy. I like her strident contrarianism, and I think she’s right to wonder what the pop-culture ubiquity of Game of Thrones actually means. Even if you’re certain the answer is “not much,” why not ponder it further anyway? As I write this, my TV is advertising “Game of Thrones Night” at Nationals Park in D.C., complete with t-shirts and a chance to “visit an authentic Iron Throne.” If someone mugs for a selfie with a TV-show prop on a fun night at the ballpark, what is it they’re trying to be a part of? Why do they need to believe so badly that fictional violence gets us closer to the “real” Middle Ages?

“The medieval era is the dumping ground of the contemporary imagination,” Kaufman writes, “rife with torture, refuse in the streets, rape, slavery, superstition, casual slaughter, and every other human vice we supposedly stopped indulging in once we became ‘enlightened.'” It’s worth asking what we miss seeing in the Middle Ages if we’re invested in only this view. Despite what George R. R. Martin believes, his dark, despairing fantasy isn’t any more “authentic” than the Disney-princess version, nor is it less harmful. Observations like Kaufman’s always bring me back around to a blunt conclusion by medievalist and Tolkien scholar Tom Shippey: “There are . . . many medievalisms in the world, and some of them are as safe as William Morris wallpaper: but not all of them.”

12 thoughts on ““I must admit, just when I think I’m king…”

  1. Yes: “It’s worth asking what we miss seeing in the Middle Ages if we’re invested in only this view.”

    Partial seeing is at the root of how we portray the past and describe the present, isn’t it? And when a country is radically divided, as we are today, partial seeing becomes the way each group looks at the others.

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  2. Yes, I was discussing this with a friend in email just the other day, how we use the past selectively, especially the medieval past, often to flatter ourselves, and you’re right that we do it in the present with our contemporaries as well. It’s an act of self-effacement and charity to work harder to see something we’re not inclined to see.

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  3. Somewhere on my blog is a quote from a Syrian who compares his situation to Game of Thrones ( https://bookandsword.com/2015/10/31/link-dump-3/ ). If he really said it (and journalists often invent or mangle quotations, so =caveat lector=) I find that fascinating, because ASoI&F (at least the two and a bit books which I read) and GoT (at least the half-season which I saw) is classic 90s/oughties Anglo grimdark, and I would not have thought that that had such a widespread appeal when Syria has 4000 years of real horrors to draw upon (I mean, that style of fiction is very different from American fiction from the 1950s, or Canadian fiction from the 1980s … it has rules and assumptions and things which it can’t talk about which are just as rigid as Middle Comedy or a Victorian obituary).

    You know, I think that Kaufman is reading the English-language propaganda of the unshaven ones as a sign of how they are thinking, not of what effect they want to achieve. My understanding is that the Europeans and Anglos who join them are carefully kept on the margins of a movement which is lead by Arabs from Syria and Iraq who use the international media as an instrument. But I am not an American, and I decided some time ago that the people who control the American media aren’t interested in people in Milan or South Dakota as people, just as tokens in a morality play for their friends. Someone who reads their country’s media as “what are we talking about today?” not as “what are they trying to sell me?” might have trouble being so detached.

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  4. “And yet, despite the explosion of reporting on the fate of ISIS’s conquered territories, the world’s reaction to this horrific violence against women and girls—apart from the usual Twitter outrage—is largely complacent.”

    On page A5 of today’s New York Times I find “Every couple of weeks, the United States Central Command, which oversees combat operations in the Middle East, announces the death of an Islamic State leader who has been killed in airstrikes.” I am wondering what a non-complacent reaction to ISIS’s behavior would be–tweet storms?

    Mr. Martin appears to have his own doubtful take on the world, sure enough. Life seems to me a bit short to make it profitable for me to take on his works.

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  5. But surely there was a lot more rape in the medieval world? I don’t think that’s just an imposed fetish on the past.

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  6. Withywindle, the answer to that question will depend on whether your “modern world” is Denmark or South Sudan and your Medieval world is France in 1360 or England in the same year. But in the classical sources that I spend more time with, rape of the free is often in the background as something which our upper-class male sources find so horrible that they can only address it obliquely (whether the comedies and novels where the enslaved woman preserves her virginity and can still marry and live happily ever after, or Xenophon’s story of the two Kardouchoi prisoners Xenophon, Anabasis, 4.1.19-25 http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=Xen.+Anab.+4.1.19&fromdoc=Perseus%3Atext%3A1999.01.0202 ). The other thing is that when a medieval chronicle or sermon-writer is mentioning atrocities, rape is usually in the first few amongst violation of churches and murder.

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  7. Thanks for your comments, everyone! I’ve been recovering from oral surgery, so this is my first look at these responses. In my absence, this post appears to have attracted a fair amount of notice on Facebook. I should have teeth removed more often.

    Was there really more rape in the Middle Ages than in the ancient world? In the 17th century? In current civil-war Syria? I doubt we can know. But I don’t think you have to be a gender-studies prof or buy into all aspects of Kaufman’s argument to find it self-congratulatory of modern people to call rape and violence “medieval.” In the end, though, I don’t think her article is about which historical period wins the brutality Olympiad; it’s about the way Martin and his fans use claims of historical “authenticity” to justify fantasy. Is that not a little weird? Depictions of horrific violence are necessary in storytelling, but I’ll admit I find it odd to justify the cheap thrill of horror-show violence by claiming it’s a Serious Statement About the Past.

    (If the American attitude toward the Middle Ages were one of those animated cuckoo clocks, two alternating figures would represent the medieval: Miniver Cheevy and George R. R. Martin. We’re definitely in a Martin hour.)

    Sean, to respond to your first comment: “I would not have thought that [classic 90s/oughties Anglo grimdark] had such a widespread appeal when Syria has 4000 years of real horrors to draw upon.” The teacher in my household has many students who are obsessed with fictional dystopias—yet they appear to have little knowledge of or interest in recent Eastern European communism, repressive North Korea, the cult of personality in Turkmenistan, et al. Some days I wonder if wealthy Westerners are using fantasy to avoid looking squarely at the world’s worst places. If so, claims of authenticity ring a bit hollow.

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  8. Jeff: That is a good point! I get the impression that even the ritual denunciations of the horrors of communism have vanished from popular culture in the USA, maybe because they are no longer useful for beating up other Americans. A few decades ago Readers’ Digest was full of descriptions of the Chinese government forcing women to have abortions or throwing religious minorities into prison camps, but today it seems like most of the criticism comes from the anticapitalist left. News agencies in the rich Anglo countries are spending less on foreign reporting while the budgets of fantasy films and TV are exploding.

    So in the same period that fantasy and historical fiction have gotten more gruesome, descriptions of horrors in our world have become more euphemistic. Somehow, people want to imaging massacres at weddings committed with crossbows, but not see ones committed with Hellfire missiles or Kalashnikovs, and fantasize about paunchy spies in robes who intrigue with priests and merchants, not ones in cheap suits who steal your dirty underwear in case they ever need to track you with bloodhounds, and force your chess partner to type up your conversations in triplicate on threat of losing his job.

    (And why is it that in a period where most of the world became democratic, and the nuclear powers are not threatening to murder us all and are even slowly reducing their arsenals, American and British fiction became so despairing? You guys won! You imposed your system on us!)

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  9. Intriguing observations, Sean. (I’ve seen a fair number of critics of communism speaking from the right, but they’re a principled and rather lonely-seeming bunch; they’re keeping vigil on an issue that some of their fellow conservatives find, as many people in general do, dreary and inconvenient.) Having had teachers and friends from communist Russia, Serbia, and Bulgaria; remembering the desperate letters sent to my grandparents from communist Poland; and having reading deeply in what I flippantly call my “bummer shelf” (Klemperer’s Holocaust memoirs, Karski on his time in the Polish Resistance, books about Maoist famines, Rwandan genocide, the Balkan wars, etc.), I’ve lost what little taste I had for violent entertainment.

    I consider the rise of fantasy in the U.S. and England in the 20th century to be pretty easy to understand, but what we’re doing with it in the 21st is less clear to me, and I may only get it in hindsight. Fantasy is a whole different beast now. Perhaps people give it a pass because of its marginal and more innocent pedigree, but now that it’s central to the culture it no longer strikes me as being about progressive ecology or premodern nostalgia or safely reactionary politics and all that jazz. If it’s still about escapism, it’s no longer of the benign “boy, the suburbs are boring and I feel all magical!” variety. It’s worth keeping an eye on; pleasant fictions can get ugly when they go mainstream.

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  10. Well, the Lawrence Watt-Evanses of the world are still out there on the mid-list, and Guy Gavriel Kay or Katherine Addison even make some money and get some awards. And Don Kushner or George MacDonald Fraser don’t vanish from the shelves just because their pictures have too many shades and don’t give such easy answers.

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