the idea that people were brutal during the Middle Ages (think Vikings, think beheadings);
and also the fact that we pronounce medieval to sound like the word evil, even though there is no etymological connection.
I think the first point he makes merits some teasing out. When the gangster in Pulp Fiction uses the word "medieval," there is nothing particularly medieval about the context. We see no references to medieval literature, history, weaponry, culture, etc. Yet somehow the audience is expected to understand what the phrase "getting medieval" means -- it means inhuman brutality or the kind only a gangster/rape victim can possibly stomach. We are also not shown the violence performed, even though at this point the film has already shown about every form of violence imaginable. In this way, to "get medieval" is to become violent beyond imagination, and beyond the ability of a film to depict. The audience is supposed to fill in the blanks and provide the "medieval" punishments in their own minds.
What's so important about this is that the audience understands this. I have never heard of someone leaving the theater saying, "what does that mean?" I saw the movie in Korea, and my sense of it was that the audience understood what was meant, so the reference is not so culturally specific that only Americans (or Europeans) will get it.
This impulse to define the violent other as medieval is part of what I refer to as ahistorical medievalism. Ahistorical medievalism is never about the actual Middle Ages, but is instead about the here and now. The medieval is either a utopian time that prefigures our own (such as Life magazine's depiction of the Kennedy administration as Camelot, or the Ku Klux Klan's mythology of the Klansman as a noble Anglo-Saxon battling the forces of the interloping foreign Normans), or it is about a time in our distant past that was brutal and primative, acting as a foil against our enlightened times.
Ahistorical medievalism taps into what is important about the medieval -- the here and now. Let's compare, shall we? Was the 20th century (the one in which Pulp Fiction was released) less violent than the historical Middle Ages? Just looking at four events of the 2oth century, we end up with estimates of:
- WWI: 15 million
- Russian Civil War: 9 million
- Soviet Union: 20 million
- WWII: 55 million (possibly some overlap with the numbers in Stalin's Soviet Union)
That's a lot of dead people -- and we aren't counting the oppressed. By any standard, the 20th century was one of the most brutal times in history.In this case, is Pulp Fiction trying to depict itself as analogous to or foil to the the medieval world? In many ways, this usage tries to have it both ways. By the time the phrase is used, we've seen all sorts of violence in the film: shootings, armed robbery, rape, boxing to the death, broken kneecaps, drug overdose, etc. The film simultaneously others this violence by referring to it as "fiction" and "medieval," yet at the same time depicts a world we have experienced and understood as our own. The violence of Pulp Fiction is both strange and familiar, and so the invocation of the term "medieval" is also meant to render the coming escalation of violence as both strange and familiar.
The upshot is that, although we usually equate the medieval with the violent with the intention of implicitly praising ourselves as peace-loving, the fact that we are using it to describe our own contemporary world implies that we recognize ourselves as the barbarians, constantly failing to live according to the standards we profess. Whether intentionally or not (and usually it is not), when we refer to something today as "medieval" we critique ourselves, and find our own world wanting.