Saturday, June 7, 2014

Against Some Perceived Limits on Popular Culture: A Small Case

What is often meant by the term "popular culture" is what is pushed forth in mass media, whether print, analog, or digital. It is treated as being a thing of widespread information transmission, limited to bookshelves and screens small and large, and certainly it appears in those places. The work of the Society and the work many of its members have done and still do outside the purview of the Society attest to it amply. But it is not only in them that popular culture appears, not only in them that it exists, and so it is not only in those places that the medieval, broadly understood, is figured and appropriated.

One such bit of the medieval that appears with surprising frequency and in locations that make sense once considered but are rarely considered is heraldry. The notion of identifying sigils is hardly new, of course, and hardly unrecognized as belonging to the knights in shining armor so frequently associated with the "Middle Ages." And it appears in plenty in the pop culture genre that is perhaps most prominent in refiguring the medieval: fantasy literature. Tolkien, whose work undergirds the Society (see the name) makes use of shield-borne insignia in The Lord of the Rings, notably in Gondor and Rohan. Following him, though, are such current luminaries as George R.R. Martin, whose Song of Ice and Fire novels include appendices noting the shield devices and mottoes--both heraldic features--of the various houses in play in Westeros and beyond. My own research in medievalism has focused on the works of Robin Hobb (primarily, but not exclusively), and much is made in her Farseer and Tawny Man trilogies of the badge to which narrating protagonist FitzChivalry Farseer is entitled. Other examples can be found without trouble, certainly, and how heraldic conventions are deployed--usually in much simpler form than is observed among the medievals, broadly defined--is well worth investigating.

No less deserving of attention, however, is how the heraldic appears in other facets of popular culture than those commonly regarded as being popular culture. Perhaps the most prominent example of it is in the continued use of heraldic insignia not only by the remaining successors of the medieval royalty in the United Kingdom and Commonwealth,* but among many of the militaries of the modern world. That hereditary nobility, such as is still found in the British Isles, would retain features of the cultures that generated their nobility makes sense, of course; retaining contexts that provide privileges suggests itself as a way to retain privilege. It serves a legitimating function by providing a connection back to a somewhat romanticized past in which the emblem can be used to cover the frequently less-than-pleasant deeds through which it was ostensibly earned. In that regard, it suggests that medievalism, as the deployment of the medieval, can be used as a way to embed a context of power and authority--something that other scholars have discussed at some length. Medievalism in the Postcolonial World offers examples well worth reading. The deployment contrasts sharply with that usually seen in figurations of the medieval seen in what is commonly regarded as popular culture, which usually appear as either surface-level milieu-dressing or as externalizations of inner character. And given the media attention that accrues to royal families in their own countries and those which ostensibly explicitly repudiate royal authority and titular nobility proceeding from it, the deployment and the people who enact it are very much in the purview of popular culture even understood as mass media production.

Similarly clearly within the purview of popular culture, at least in the United States,** is the military (particularly in the wake of the recent seventieth anniversary of the D-Day amphibious assault on Normandy), and the military very much continues to make use of heraldry. Despite the rejection by the United States of the social structures of titular nobility with which heraldry is linked (US Const., art. I, sec. 10), the nation maintains an Institute of Heraldry as part of its army that reports itself as authorized by law to provide heraldic emblems for all military and federal governmental bodies of the United States. It does so with the idea of fostering quick recognition of various units and the awards offered to units and to individuals, so that the deployment of the medieval in the employment of the heraldic serves both as a reassertion of the original purposes of heraldry and as an implication that the medieval is of value. It cannot be a source and symbol of pride if it is not regarded as having value, and it is used in such capacities, denoting advancement through ranks, progression of citations for excellence and valor, and unit identities including the crews of ships in the US Navy and US Coast Guard. In the latter capacities, especially, the heraldic emblems are described in traditional terms, and the symbolism of the emblems is explicitly discussed, invoking the medieval even more explicitly than the presence of heraldic emblems alone. The medieval is thus reinforced as relevant, praiseworthy, and emblematic of praiseworthiness in what is often regarded as the most "real" and "necessary" part of the existence of the United States (with, admittedly, no small degree of irony) and a part that is glamorized and valorized throughout much of the country.

Other examples can be found, certainly. Various awards ceremonies, such as one at East Carolina University that some of my other work brought to my attention, partake of the heraldic, conferring honor through explained symbolism. Graduation and commencement ceremonies, in which many members of the Society have partaken and likely hope to partake again, do so as well. Each is a part of popular culture relevant to shared experience but not frequently examined for its figuration of the medieval, and it might well behoove the Society to take a closer look at such things in carrying out its mission to explore the continued appropriation of the nebulous thing that is called "medieval."

*I hope I am using the terms correctly. If I am not, please (gently) let me know, and I will be happy to adjust. It is the kind of thing that blogged scholarship is supposed to support, as I note in "About Short-Form Medievalist Scholarship."

**I write in the US, and the US exports a fair chunk of its popular culture. I hope I may be forgiven for centering on it somewhat. And how the ideas in the paragraph play out in other countries would make for good discussion.

Works Cited
  • Davis, Kathleen, and Nadia Altschul, eds. Medievalism in the Postcolonial World. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 2009. Print.
  • East Carolina University College of Nursing. "College of Nursing Honors 2014 Hall of Fame Inductees." ECU Health Beat. East Carolina University, 26 March 2014. Web. 7 June 2014.
  • Elliott, Geoffrey B. "About Short-Form Medievalist Scholarship." Tales after Tolkien: Travels in Genre and Medievalism. Tales after Tolkien Society, 4 June 2014. Web. 6 June 2014.
  • The Institute of Heraldry. US Army, n.d. Web. 7 June 2014.
  • US Constitution. Art. I, Sec. 10.

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