A few weeks ago, while I was busy with various things including signing an open letter written by my colleague*, I discovered in passing that a very small group of people I’d never met or spoken to were getting quite het up about my teaching of Medieval romance. This was, naturally, a bit of a surprise. My students seemed broadly quite positive about the course, so I put it to the back of my mind. But, this morning, I saw something on David Perry’s blog – Islamophobic rallies in Prague were attended by participants wearing the costumes of medieval Crusaders – and something suddenly clicked for me.
The criticism I’d received had come from a Change.org petition (I’m not sure whether to be insulted or pleased it’s only got 94 signatures, or rather less than a full lecture hall). The main critique focussed on our open letter, but I also came to a criticism – apparently written under the misapprehension that I’m a history lecturer, but clearly referring to my course:
“A more legitimate concern in academia should be that a history lecturer calling for this act of censorship thinks Medieval romance perpetuates Islamophobia – a breathtaking a-historicism that really should have alarm bells ringing.”
At the time, I was bemused.
Did the writers think Islamophobia didn’t exist in the Middle Ages? Did they not realise that the Crusades took place between Christians and Muslims? Did they think Islam didn’t exist? Or was the issue that I was commenting on these romances as texts that have continued to shape our cultural imagination, rather than dusty historical documents that could not possibly have any influence on present day Islamophobia?
I suspected it was largely the last issue. Medieval romances have a peculiar status in popular imagination. If you ask most people to name a medieval story or a medieval author, they’ll come up with Chaucer. But if you start telling them the plots of medieval romances, they’ll recognise quite a lot of these before they even get close to recognising the plot of, say, The Book of the Duchess or The Prioress’s Tale. And I’m not just talking about the well-known Arthurian legends, or the Robin Hood stories. There’s a children’s picture book, which was one of my big brother’s favourite stories, which retells the tale of the Middle English romance Robert of Sicily, a text so obscure to medievalists that I often have to go through the plot when I talk about it at conferences. The plots and tropes of medieval romances are hidden in plain sight.
By contrast, history is quite regularly cited on all sides of the debate over Islamic/Christian relations (or Islamic/Western relations). President Obama has been heard to refer to the Crusades as an example of Islamophobic warfare; one response – which also claimed the Catholic Church had “almost nothing to do with” the Inquisition – was to label these wars as “a defensive Christian reaction against Muslim madmen of the Middle Ages”. While I applaud the alliteration, and look eagerly forward for the Don Draper spoof it suggests to me, ‘Muslim madmen’ isn’t exactly the most nuanced idea, and nor is it new – and this continuity is what the fiction shows us.
Medieval romances portray Islamic (or ‘Saracen’) opponents as raging, intemperate, unchecked by Christian piety. The Siege of Milan, for example, opens with a description of Saracen atrocities perfectly calculated to enrage Christian listeners:
“The Sultan, Arabas the strong
Warred against Christendom with wrong,
In Tuscany, towns did he win,
And stuffed them full of heathen kin,
The images that there should be,
Both the Cross, and the noble Mary,
He burned them in a fire.
And then his idols he set up there,
In the churches and abbeys that there were.”
The passage is crammed with clichés. Brute force? Check. Moral absolutes? Check. Desecration of religious icons and pyromaniac destruction of culture? Check. Idol worship? Check. You get the picture. This isn’t a sober historical account of cultural conflict – and I like to imagine hard-bitten Crusaders, permanently sun-burned from years living cheek-by-jowl with their Muslim opposite numbers, sniggering heartily into their beards at the idea of Islamic idol-worshippers. But my absolute favourite detail comes in the middle lines: like a Daily Mail columnist on a slow news day, the writer crams in a topical reference to the dangers of immigration, with the hyperbolic image of Tuscan cities crammed with ‘heathen kin’. THESE MUSLIM EXTREMISTS BURNED A CHURCH: NOW THEY’RE BRINGING THEIR FAMILIES TO YOUR HOLIDAY VILLA!
Is the history of the Crusades that has seeped into cultural consciousness, or is it the fiction? Images of enemy foreigners, dark-skinned, brutal, impressively strong, and ferociously determined to crush out Christianity and insinuate foreign ‘kin’ into European cities, echo through Medieval romances. Long after we stopped thinking about Medieval romance, we continued to consume stories in which the enemies and anti-heroes are cast from the same mould, part of the same set of tropes.
It’s not hard to see that narratives like the one I quoted above are perpetuating an Islamophobic perspective. But, when we fail to trace contemporary tropes of Islamophobia back to their medieval sources, we miss a crucial part of the narrative.
When the Siege of Milan was likely written, some time around 1400, the world it described was already far in the past. The simplicity of noble, Christian Crusaders and brutal Saracen invaders offers both distraction from much messier contemporary conflicts (the early shadows of the Wars of the Roses, the violent inter-Christian battles with France), and also a covert message about England itself. Like the Daily Mail, the romance seeks to externalise the threat of disorder, to personify it as belonging to foreign aggressors. But at this time, the desecration of church images of ‘the Cross and the noble Mary’ – iconoclasm, that is – was a threat much closer to home. The Lollards, the heretical sect who became prominent towards the end of the fourteenth century, posed a real threat to the statues, icons, and paintings that enriched medieval churches across the country. For readers of this romance in the fifteenth century, the idea of destructive, iconoclastic violence is unmistakably mapped onto earlier images of religious warfare, of Saracen enemies, as if to insist that such a threat could only come from outside.
I suspect we want to believe that a medieval world capable of the brutality of the Crusades was motivated by simple, ideological hatred. Yes, such brutality – witnessed by historical records – is appalling, but these people were not like us. The murky, conflicted and submerged fears I see in this medieval romance make me question that assumption. This fiction allows its readers to externalise those conflicted, nagging fears that come from within and to give them simpler, more tangible forms, to translate them into stark archetypes of good and evil. It does not merely reflect a past society that hated and feared Islam; it reflects a past society that exploited the idea of hatred and fear of Islam for its own ends. This, for some people, is a disturbing idea, an idea that must be slapped down as ‘a-historical’. If we accept that medieval Christendom was motivated by something more cynical, more complex, than burning religious ideology and passionate conviction, then we’re faced with the disturbing possibility that we are, truly, not so very different from the Crusaders who committed those atrocities.
The image at the top of my post shows armies neatly identified by their respective religious symbols: the cross for the Christian crusaders; the crescent for their Muslim opponents. But underneath this image, in pointed contrast to its militaristic aggression, is an image you might read as cultural exchange, or at least as an interesting contrast to the scene above. It shows two people sitting in a military tent – perhaps during a lull in the fighting – playing a game of chess.