Tuesday, June 23, 2015

About Just Medieval Things and Related Things

I am perhaps a bit late to the party, but in some of the idle online reading I do, I recently came across Memebase's post, "Just Medieval Things." A quick search turned up a subreddit dealing with much the same thing, and the two together call to mind the older series of memes playing with the Bayeaux Tapestry. Each, with varying degrees of "accuracy," reinterprets the medieval, juxtaposing actual and perceived medievalisms with current practices in the evident pursuit of funniness (a pursuit which is sometimes successful and sometimes not). Several ideas appear to be at play in the various meme treatments, some of which can be explicated (at least tentatively), others of which require further study.

An admittedly brief initial survey suggests that the class of memes under discussion takes the form of a presentation of medieval1 artwork with text superimposed over it. The nature of the text varies somewhat across presentations, however. The older Tapestry memes tend to attempt "medieval" English2, deploying the art and seemingly older phrasing of contemporary song lyrics or references to other prevailing popular culture items such as online games. Those on Memebase and Reddit, though, tend to eschew both the phrasing-changes and the references to lyrics, presenting the images with text in contemporary modern English (with varying degrees of "correctness"3) that comment on events in the artwork in ways consistent with current standards of humorous response. Each blends the medieval and the modern to achieve humorous effect, the juxtaposition of seemingly unlike things eliciting laughter or some similar response. Each also suggests that the medieval remains sufficiently embedded in mainstream popular conception that it can be used as a referent. Jokes, after all, are not funny if they need to be explained; they can only work, they can only exert broad appeal if their contexts and references are sufficiently obvious as to need no overt effort to parse. The popularity of such memes, enduring for at least a decade if the accounts of Know Your Meme are to be accepted, is another indication that the medieval remains an important cultural touchstone. Accordingly, Helen Young's assertions that those who study the medieval are obliged to "get it right" remain in force, for even as reappropriation carried out in good fun need not operate under the auspices of rigorous scholarship, and even such scholarship can be found to be in error by later research, there is need to be vigilant against the tendency for the wide-spread to become accepted as "truth." Prevalence and influence can become blinding, as I argue in my chapter in Fantasy and Science Fiction Medievalisms: From Isaac Asimov to A Game of Thrones. Scholarship should work against such blindness--if perhaps after laughing at the joke.

Something to consider in the memes, and in similar productions such as Geoffrey Chaucer Hath a Blog and Geoffrey Chaucer Doth Tweet, is the difference of effect the various deployments of language have on the humor. What differs between describing a video game in "medieval" English--runst ryȝtlic and jumpst myȝtylic vppon þe þinges or somesuch thing4--and having "plain" text overlaying images taken from Psalters and saints' lives? For there is surely a difference in the effect if there is a difference in the construction of the joke, and one may strike the fancy more powerfully than the other--but why and how needs consideration. In the former case, is it a matter of juxtaposition alone, the "modern" concept in "older" phrasing coming off as funny because there is no way old illuminators could have known that ye daye wiðout þe longe hast ben, freonde min? In the latter, is it an issue of accessibility, "plain" language making the joke easily understood (and accounting in part, perhaps, for the selective "aging" of the "older" phrasings in other memes and in the online Chaucers, whose authors do, in fact, know better)? My own studies do not focus in such ways as will allow me to treat such questions, and I am not nearly funny enough to be able to treat them from praxis. Others will have to look into the differences and the effects of the differences.

Whatever those differences may be, however, there is a common indication--another than that the medieval remains a cultural touchstone. One thing the applicability of medieval images to situations centuries later suggests, among many possible implications, is that we who act now are still very much the same people as those who acted then, whose putative deeds are depicted in the images repurposed. If some of the particulars differ--I doubt that the medievals had much access to fat blunts5--many of them remain in place in a world where beheadings and vivisections still occur in life and in entertainment and the specters of death by plague and violence still loom large, where the images of those in power are polished and those out of it besmeared, where people work to go about the business of living from day to day with some nebulous prospect of a future reward that may or may not ever come. If we are still able to use the medieval to make sense of the world, to manipulate it in some way that makes it more palatable to us, to make light of it and so take some joy from it, it is perhaps because we are still in some ways the medievals, the "post" in which we fancy ourselves living not nearly so distant from the thing we think ourselves well and truly past. And if we are so, then it certainly behooves us to know more about who and what they were who went before. If nothing else, there is joy in it, and more such joy would be welcome.

1. Not all of the artworks used are "medieval," properly speaking; although the definition of "medieval" is flexible, as noted here, it typically does not encompass Western works from the 1600s or later. Since some of the art deployed in the memes appears to derive from those later periods, indicating a possible misunderstanding among the meme-makers, the term is somewhat fraught in this context.

2. Since the "medieval" in this case is an uneven use of informal second-person pronouns (i.e., "thee" and "thou"), rather than more "typical" medieval English fixtures such as æ, ð, and þ, or older vocabularies, it is more like early modern English than medieval. Again, there seems to be a misunderstanding of what is medieval among meme-makers.

3. "Correctness" in terms of language use is no less fraught than "medieval," and may, indeed, be more so. The prescriptive/descriptive argument is not one that need be rehashed here, however, although noting its existence seems responsible writing.

4. I am well aware I am mangling the language, despite the earlier injunction to "get things right." Take the joke.

5. If I am wrong, I would like to know. Please exploit the features of the blog and offer comments.

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