Blurred Lines, Medieval Margins, and the Voice of the Ordinary Man

This post grew out of a paper I gave a few weeks ago at a conference in Bristol, and a short conversation sparked off by some fascinating tweets by Dr Sjoerd Levelt (who’s awesome, by the way, and you should follow him if you don’t already). I thought it’d be a snap to write, but for some reason it kept getting longer and messier, until I sat down to watch Kirsty Wark’s documentary Blurred Lines. It’s still up on Iplayer and I thoroughly recommend it, though it’s not easy viewing.

The documentary explores whether the internet has made misogyny more socially acceptable. What came across strongly was that a lot of men were deeply invested in presenting themselves as ‘ordinary’ and insisting that they spoke with the common voice. This was most obvious in Wark’s interview of the ex-editor of Loaded magazine, who felt that his magazine had simply expressed what ‘working-class white males’ already felt. He’s presumably playing heavily on his ‘my dad was a coal miner’ credentials here, rather than his ‘but I went to university and made a shitload’ credentials.

A little later Rod Liddle took up the baton for poor oppressed white men, explaining that threats and verbal abuse on the internet are “distressing to all of us”. But, you know, especially him. He wanted you to know that, and he launched into a detailed catalogue of all the internet abuse he personally had risen above (if I’d ‘risen above’ my GCSE revision the way he’d ‘risen above’ these insults I’d still be collecting the A* grades). Anyway, this led in to a delightfully oblivious encounter between him and Wark. Liddle complained bitterly that someone on the internet had told him he looked “like a drug-addled middle-aged lesbian,” but he, bravely, chose to ignore such slurs. “That’s quite insulting to lesbians,” pointed out Wark, presumably hoping he’d recognise that this insult derives its power from the idea that being a middle-aged heterosexual man is innately better than being a lesbian.

The implication completely passed Liddle by.

Now, I was struggling with this, because it’s hard to watch without ranting at the TV.  Liddle wanted both to claim both the voice of ‘everyman’ and to make it all about himself – to the extent that he couldn’t even recognise that he’d managed to derive offence from a comment designed to stigmatize a whole group of women. The take-away message from him and from several other men (and women) Wark interviewed was simple: if you find it offensive, it’s because you’re taking things too seriously. All of this misogynistic communication on twitter, in Lads’ mags, in stand-up shows, in computer games – it’s all just a joke. Non-traditional media, and especially the internet, are outside the rules that bind serious communication. What you see there can’t be analysed seriously, because it was never intended seriously.

This was the point where I started thinking back to the medieval manuscripts I’d been trying to write about. This image comes from a manuscript copied in about 1430, by a Yorkshireman called Robert Thornton.

Lincoln, Cathedral Library, MS 91, f. 52v.

Lincoln, Cathedral Library, MS 91, f. 52v.

On twitter, Dr Levelt had started off a conversation about marginalia like this image, and he’d linked to the very cute drawings in the manuscript he’d been working on. Even amongst academics, these types of marginal drawings go by no more technical term than ‘doodles’. A fellow medievalist blogger sums up the general view:

“the thing about medieval doodles is they look just like modern doodles.”

It’s hard not to engage, not to feel we’ve been given a glimpse of the ordinary medieval reader, drawing something spontaneous, personal, and endearingly messy. Just as the internet is a more democratic, immediate, equal kind of communication than traditional print media with its inbuilt economic, educational and social privilege restricting authorship to the few, so too are the margins of medieval books. These doodles escape historical context and academic analysis, looking the the same in 1430 as in 2014. 

Or do they?

I admit, I love it when people engage with medieval manuscripts and I’d a darn sight rather you were smiling over Robert Thornton’s doodles of knights than Rod Liddle’s Spectator column. It’s true that you can make a case for Thornton, the ‘ordinary’ man. His Latin is a bit dodgy and his handwriting isn’t very professional. But he’s also monumentally privileged, educationally and socially and financially (a bit like someone who went to university and got into journalism, I guess).

Thornton’s other ‘doodles’ or ‘scribbles’ show us what use he made of the marginal spaces in his book. The drawing of knights serves as a crude front cover to a story about exactly the same subject. Thornton copies a version of the story of King Arthur’s death, the Alliterative Morte Arthur. Carefully, he adds a rubricated title at the top of the page and a rubricated copy of his own family motto at the bottom, as if to point out that the story of King Arthur also belongs to him. At the end of the text, he identifies himself even more strongly with the hero of the story, providing poignant, self-aggrandizing epitaphs for both the fictional king and for himself, suggesting they come as a pair.

This is actually pretty disturbing, once you know that the Morte Arthur is one of the darkest versions of the story, with a weak, incestuous king surrounded by gratuitously violent knights, one of whom (his own son) threatens to rape the queen. Robert Thornton – the same man who doodled that endearing, personal, child-like drawing – identified with this world. And he wasn’t identifying with it from a position of innocence or as an outsider: he was himself a knight and a landowner, a member of that powerful class. Like Liddle, like Daubney, he has no hesitation in presenting himself both as ‘everyman,’ the voice in the margins who says what everyone else is thinking, and as the centre of attention, Robert Thorton, up there with King Arthur.

Yet we forget Thornton’s privilege, even those of us who are trained academics, because we want to believe that a voice that speaks to us from the margins is a voice that speaks as ‘everyman’. We want to believe that, in the open spaces of communication such as this, such as the internet, we can all discount the complicated structures of analysis that we know we need for proper, serious communication.

With Thornton, as – I would suggest – with the ‘working-class white males’ Daubney referrerd to reading Loaded, we’re not looking at the disenfranchised discovering a voice for themselves on the margins of a culture. We’re looking at people who were accustomed to slapping their names on things to mark ownership. And we’ve been fooled into accepting that what we’re seeing is the voice of the ‘ordinary man’.

I don’t have anything clever to say in response to Wark’s documentary, but I do feel disturbed to notice how easily we academics forget about privilege when it looks conveniently close to the sort of open, digital culture we’re so keen to romanticise as a space for equal debate.

So is there something special about the internet that facilitates misogyny? Or is it that we fetishize the idea of the ‘ordinary man’ who speaks directly to us, who is separate from all of these complicated ideas about privilege and oppression, who just happens to get his voice heard above everyone else’s? When Rod Liddle fails to see how anonymous threats on twitter might affect women more than men, when he fails to see that the insult directed at him as an individual is also directed at an entire class of women and uses him to reinforce their oppression, I can’t help feeling we’ve made very little progress in 600 years.

Note (skip this unless you want random musings on textual analysis)

This post is already a monster, but I wanted to note that some of my thoughts came from comparisons to print culture, specifically eighteenthc-century print culture. On twitter, Dr Angela McShane and Professor Joanne Bailey shared images of eighteenth-century printed books that had been ‘doodled’ in by their owners, which you can see at the V&A site and here. It was the V&A site that interested me most. Although to me, honestly, these doodles look much of an artistic quality with the medieval ones, the scholar working on the book treated them as examples of sophisticated participation in textual culture. This made me think of the famous instructions to the reader in Tristram Shandy, since Sterne’s invitation to his readers to doodle a picture of Widow Wadman is generally taken by scholars as a subtle literary joke, and taken seriously. I’m not going to draw any conclusions from this, or rabbit on further, but I did find it striking that we seem, as scholars, to be taking print culture much more seriously than we take more open-access cultures, and I wonder if we’re not missing something here.

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6 thoughts on “Blurred Lines, Medieval Margins, and the Voice of the Ordinary Man

    • Thank you! I reckon people would’ve lost the will to live if it’d been longer. But one day I’ll learn to write more clearly and then I’ll feel more confident to write longer pieces. 😀

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