Telling Medieval Stories: Prolegomenon

Some of my readers might have seen when I took to Twitter yesterday for a rant about representations of the medieval period in pop culture. It began with a video game and ended with some arguments about needing more medievalists telling better stories for more audiences.

I want to offer an extended version of my reactions in this post. I also want to use this post as a way to connect these thoughts to my recent involvement in the the Triangle Scholarly Communication Institute (Triangle SCI) and my growing belief that medievalists need to be better public scholars. While I know that I’ve said some of this before, it’s worth saying again.

My frustration yesterday began with fascination. I happened to see a tweet by Ciaran Jones, who mentioned a video game that caught my interest:

For those who know me, it’s no surprise that this would widen my eyes and get my heart thumping a little faster. After all, I’ve spent much of my life and years of my academic career thinking about preaching. And I love some good intrigue and scheming.

Unfortunately, what I found when I looked into the game widened my eyes and got my heart thumping more in ire than out of interest.

It turns out that the game is titled The Guild II: Renaissance, and its setting is Western Europe in the fourteenth century. My first hesitation with the game was the title itself. For years medievalists and some early modernists have been raising red flags about the term “Renaissance” for a number of reasons, especially because of its origins in problematic ideologies in the nineteenth century. I could go on about the connection of this idea with notions of historical progress (teleological history), which are also bunk.

In short: the term “Renaissance” is deeply flawed and sets up a way of thinking about the Middle Ages with all sorts of problems. Using it unironically is already an indication of misrepresenting history.

But what really got me was the description of the game. As I quoted in my initial rant, here’s how the game creators set up the background to the game’s story:

For centuries Europe has been dominated by the church and nobility. On the shoulders of ordinary people the servants of god and the noble families justified their power and wealth. This was the incontrovertible, divine world order. A truly dark era…

This is where many medievalists find their pulses quickening. This whole description smacks of misconceptions about the medieval period. I could provide many references to articles, books, and online stories, but this piece by Matthew Gabriele hits the major points.

Foremost of the problems in the game’s description is the evocation of the concept of “The Dark Ages.” Medievalists keep addressing the misconception, but this zombie lie just keeps coming back as a terror. But it really is just wrong-headed. (See number 5 in Gabriele’s list.) The term, the ideas behind it, and evocations of these ideas continually hijack popular understandings about the Middle Ages.

Beyond the title and description, another insidious aspect of the game is what appears to be a thorough whitewashing of medieval people. Despite the game’s name and claims, the setting in fourteenth-century Europe is thoroughly medieval. But this is a fantasy Middle Ages, not a complicated, historical depiction. From the trailer and images of the game on Steam’s website, the characters all appear to be pretty white. Of course, there could be people of color in the game (full disclosure: I haven’t played it), but as far as I can tell none are featured in the promotional content.

There’s a dangerous aesthetic in this game that many pop culture depictions of the Middle Ages uphold. These kinds of misconceptions and representations allow white supremacists to gain a foothold to use medieval studies for their nefarious ends. And it’s no surprise that–as Dorothy Kim and Helen Young have discussed–these issues are also (like the idea of “The Renaissance”) linked to problematic nineteenth-century ideologies.

We can thank a whole host of medievalists for combating these types of misconceptions (I’d especially like to single out Medieval People of Color with this excellent Tumblr), and yet they persist. Zombie lies are hard to kill, and some perpetuate serious violence.

[Edit 11/22/17: Now you can also read more about some other “medieval” games on Steam in this post.]

So how do medievalists stop these types of misrepresentations of the Middle Ages?

This same question intersects with my participation in the Triangle SCI, which focused this year on the theme of “scholarly storytelling.” While there, I was part of a team considering storytelling for medievalists–a group we conceive of as including academics, para-academics, fans, aca-fans, practitioners, and the generally medieval-adjacent. I wrote about this project before (see the previous link), when the proposal was accepted, and in our time together we came up with solid plans to carry our project forward in exciting ways. We’ll have more to say sometime when we make a more formal announcement about it all, but we certainly have PLANS.

For now, I have just a few thoughts that I pose here as a type of prolegomenon for our hopes concerning public storytelling by medievalists.

It’s clear that we need to make medieval studies (in all of its many facets) relevant in new ways. As part of another Triangle SCI project team, Alyssa Arbuckle and Bonnie Stewart provided a bombshell of an article about making scholarship relevant through multimedia storytelling. There’s a certain resonance between my thinking and what they wrote: “we want to share narratives and story environments that invite diverse publics to participate in scholarship in action.” So much of this is applicable to what we need in medieval studies.

At the heart of our plans for medieval storytelling are still the pursuits that we described in our original proposal. As I said in my Twitter rant, we need better stories about the medieval period. Medievalists need to tell these stories ourselves, and we need to help other creators to tell the right stories across many media forms.

Medievalists need to tell stories that resist modern, teleological narratives about historical progress embedded in the idea of “The Renaissance.”

Medievalists need to tell stories that challenge misconceptions about the Middle Ages being driven by the church, the elite, or backward thinking.

Medievalists need to tell stories about what makes the Middle Ages so fascinating to us, to the interested, to anyone who encounters them.

Medievalists need to tell stories about the fundamental diversity of the global Middle Ages.

Medievalists need to tell stories that resist white supremacists.

Medievalists need to tell these stories because it’s our ethical responsibility. If we don’t do it, others will, and we might not like the stories we find.


5 thoughts on “Telling Medieval Stories: Prolegomenon

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s