Mixing Medieval and Modern: A New Module at Northampton

After a successful year running my first year module The Medieval World 1200-1500, I’m delighted that this autumn I’m able to launch a year two module: Medieval Chivalry and its Afterlives.

Chivalry is a popular topic with students interested in medieval society. Who hasn’t been caught up in the romance of knights jousting for the love of fair maidens?

“God Speed!” by Edmund Leighton, 1900.

The image above is, of course, not medieval, but is by the Pre-Raphaelite artist Edmund Leighton, and is a perfect example of the swooningly romantic vision these nineteenth-century artists had of the medieval past. The Pre-Raphaelites imagined themselves as a brotherhood of knights, and saw chivalry as an entrypoint into a purer world.

This all sounds relatively benign, but the darker potential of interpreting the medieval world in this way can be seen in how modern alt-right figures have co-opted chivalry as a locus for white supremacist doctrine. In April 2019, Steve Bannon, former strategist for the Trump administration, did the media rounds, calling for united Western action against the Islamic world in language that clearly played on tropes of medieval Crusade. Bannon was not presenting a new perspective here. As historian and expert in the Crusades Christopher Tyerman has explained, “the idea that the Crusades were a battleground between distinct racial forces is a fantasy dreamed up by modern geopolitical interests”. I have written elsewhere on this blog about how right-wing racists in the UK have used Crusader slogans to deface Muslim spaces.

Alt-right online memes use chivalric imagery to promote their worldview. In this example, Presidents Trump and Putin attack Germany, which they see as too sympathetic to Muslims.

The chivalric code is invoked as a male duty to preserve (imaginary!) white European spaces from anyone who threatens their purity – which in the narrow-minded view of a typical online fascist means a lot of the population, since it includes people of colour, LGBT people, Muslims, liberals and people with disabilities. As Amy Kaufman argues, “What’s most ironic about the civilizational conservative movement is how eager its members are to become the very thing they claim to hate…. On inauguration night, Sebastian Gorka said he had a message for America’s troops in the Middle East: “The alpha males are back.” This rallying cry to the red-pill-swallowing “alt-right”, much like ISIS propaganda, uses the promise of heroic masculinity to recruit young men into their own bloody reenactment of the Crusades.”

In Medieval Chivalry and its Afterlives, students will spend a lot of their class time learning about what medieval chivalry actually was and what it meant for medieval society, but they will also spend time learning about how chivalry has been co-opted by different people across time for political, social and artistic reasons, and what we can learn about later societies by their understanding of the Middle Ages. We will be looking at art, literature and yes, even video games as we explore how the medieval became modern. In the wake of Black Lives Matter, this work feels even more timely and important.

I’m looking forward to rolling this class out – see you in September!

knight v snail royal ms 10
What medieval chivalry often was is actually downright WEIRD! Knight v Snail, from the Smithfield Decretals, southern France (probably Toulouse), with marginal scenes added in England (London), c. 1300-c. 1340, British Library Royal MS 10 E IV, f. 107r.

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