Friday, May 18, 2007

Getting Medieval on Podictionary

Yesterday's Podictionary mentions the Wordhoard in Charles Hodgson's podcast on the word "medieval." At the end of the podcast, he mentions the phrase "going medieval," and that Urbandictionary attributes the first usage of it to Pulp Fiction (though if I remember correctly, the exact phrasing in the film is "get medieval on his ass." Hodgson discusses that usage, and suggests two factors:
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.


  1. A weird error caused this posting not to have a comment button. I've since repaired that. In the meantime, Steve Muhlberger responded in the previous comment thread to THIS post thusly:

    "What I wanted to say is, how much talk about Camelot was there before Kennedy was shot. I was in my early teens but I don't remember Kennedy being wildly popular before the assassination."

  2. Your memory is right on this one. When sitting in my poli sci classes in undergrad, I remember reading that Kennedy's popularity rating was at its height during the election, at which time Kennedy appears to have had a plurality rather than a simple majority. Elsewhere, I've seen that statistic challenged by people who argue that Kennedy approval spiked just after the Cuban Missile Crisis, and he enjoyed a brief moment of majority support among the American people.

    Of course, the actual figures are probably irrelevant (and possibly impossible to reconcile between 1960's polling data and our 21st century expectation of non-stop tracking polls) to the question, which is this: Was the living JFK popular? And the answer seems clear: He was a deeply unpopular president, with had influential pockets of popularity.

    I don't think, however, that the contemporary view that Kennedy was a popular president can be chalked up simply to a refusal to speak ill of the dead. Instead, I think it speaks to the power of myth to alter our perception of reality.

    I have spoken to many, many people who "remember" that the Camelot mythology was applied to Kennedy before his death ... a memory that is false, since the Camelot/Kennedy myth was invented by Life magazine in an interview with his widow, entitled "For President Kennedy: An Epilogue."

    Which, of course, is a tribute to the deep resonance of the Arthurian myth, and the power of medievalism in the contemporary world. Kennedy is an unlikely figure for the hero of the Democratic Party -- but King Arthur, on the other hand, is ahistorical, and can be molded to fit any circumstance.

  3. Didn't the Broadway musical Camelot also play into the Kennedy-Arthur mythologizing?

  4. It did. I it's Peter Carroll in It Seemed like Nothing Happened* who points out that many of the things we attribute to the 1960s, and especially as the gifts of Kennedy's Camelot, really belonged to the 1970s. Er ... speaking of Camelot, have you all read Peter David's amusing King Arthur in NY and DC books?

    *what? I can't occasionally read US history?

  5. The OED has the meaning "Exhibiting the severity or illiberality ascribed to a former age; cruel, barbarous" dated to 1883, so I don't view Tarantino's usage as completely new, but rather a twist on an older meaning.

  6. The idea for using Arthurian legend came when Jackie Kennedy told Theodore White (of Life Magazine, not the other T.H. White) that Camelot was JFK's favorite musical.

    As I recall, Kennedy was friends in college with someone involved in the creation of the musical, but I can't remember the details at the moment.

    After the Life Magazine spread (which contained an extremely banal quote from the lyrics of the musical), of course, productions of Camelot capitalized on the connection.

    In case anyone cares, I was in my high school production of Camelot, with dual roles of Sir Sagramore and a stuntman. We had a fencing club, so all the sword fighting scenes in our production were very real, resulting in one sort of injury or another each night. One of my clearest memories is of Lancelot failing to pull his punch quick enough, and actually punching me in the nose pretty hard. At that moment, as I lay on the ground, my chainmail-armored head having twacked the floor with some force, and blood flowing from my nose, I heard someone say loudly from the back, "That was so fake!"

    A real actor suffers for his art.

  7. Excellent way to leave some knowledge. The question that I ask myself is what caused something like this to happen or be written?