Sunday, January 17, 2016

Thoughts about Koontz's Stance against the Medieval

Some time ago,1 I posted "Thoughts about Why We Still Look to the Medieval," laying out some potential reasons that the loosely-defined period retains the social cachet it does. In that piece, I note some antagonism towards the medieval, writing that
There is certainly reason to abjure the medieval....Those nations that have formed as a result of throwing off colonial yokes, in whole or in part, could scarcely be blamed for repudiating the trappings of those nations [including the commonly understood medieval] which held them in thrall as peripheries to a colonial/imperial core. Less formal, but perhaps more pervasive, is the ongoing search for novelty, the drive to have the next, new thing--which suggests excision of the old. Similar and more explicit is the frequent throwing-off of inherited trappings, casting aside older standards and methods in favor of quicker and more convenient ways of doing things and more equitable social structures. Each works against the continued re-presentation of the medieval, and each is a substantial thread in the tapestry of contemporary popular culture in the United States and elsewhere.
As I have continued to work in other areas than my scholarship since then, though, I have several times noted the repetition of "medieval" within works as a derogatory term. It is something to which I pay some attention--sensibly, since I claim to work as a medievalist and I do some small amount to produce work that attends to how the medieval is portrayed and presented. Thus, when I saw "medieval" repeatedly used as a derisive term in Dean Koontz's bestselling 2015 novel Ashley Bell,2 and not entirely correctly so, I was obliged to wonder why it would be--since the earlier comments about "reason to abjure the medieval" seem not to apply; the character making the derogatory observation comes not so much from a post-colonized population as a still-colonial, and he is engaged in what amounts to colonialist activity as he does so.

Figuring out why "medieval" would carry such negative valence demands examining the situations in which the word is thus used. Two instances in Koontz's novel come to mind. In the first, SOC Paxton Thorpe3 surveys a town where his assigned targets reside, describing its buildings as "crudely constructed, as if no engineer existed in [the] country with more than a medieval education" (Ch. 21).4 In the second, Thorpe continues to survey the town, noting that  it "was in some respects medieval. No sewage system. No septic tanks. No indoor plumbing except, in a few cases, a hand pump in the kitchen sink, tapping a private well. There would be an open-air communal latrine just beyond the last buildings, basically ditches and a series of baffles, where people relieved themselves or to which they carried their products" (Ch. 37). In both cases, the medieval is equated with dilapidation and filth, with shoddiness and stink, and with a lack of working building and plumbing technologies.

In neither case is the equation accurate. For one, the engineering knowledge of the medievals was substantial. The castles that still dot the British Isles attest to it, for example, with NJG Pounds attesting to the sophistication of many of their physical structures and even casual glances at the many structures that have endured centuries of turmoil, deliberate work toward reduction, and the workings of weather revealing the excellence of their construction. The many medieval cathedrals and churches that continue to stand throughout Europe are similarly revelatory of the engineering knowledge held among the people of the European Middle Ages, for even if they are actively maintained, they still have to have been built exceptionally well to be able to sustain such maintenance across centuries. And the siege equipment marshaled by the medieval engineers was far from simple; trebuchets, catapults, and ballistae are not simple to use effectively, or to construct in the field, yet medieval engineers did so, and not seldom. A "medieval education" for an engineer, then, may not be what a modern builder would find most useful, but it is hardly to be equated with results in "crudely constructed" mud-brick-and-stucco structures falling into ruin.

Similarly, while medieval sanitation in many places was not good--if not so poor as is commonly assumed, as Caroline M. Barron explains well (255-61)--poor sanitation is hardly unique to the medieval. Indoor plumbing only began to be widely available in the Western world in the eighteenth century--well after even the later ends of the medieval I have elsewhere argued ("More"). I recall my maternal grandmother talking about finally having a house with an indoor flushing toilet, and I recall my paternal grandmother reminiscing about early married and parental life in a house that lacked any toilet other than an outhouse--the latter happening after even the Korean War ended, so decidedly far from the medieval in even its most extreme extensions. I sympathize entirely with the regard for indoor plumbing, of course, but the assertion that its lack is "medieval" rather than, say, nineteenth-century or Biblical--and the Judeo-Christian Scriptures discuss proper waste disposal (KJV Deut. 23:12-13 comes to mind)--is disingenuous.

That a privileged character in a privileged (because mainstream) text makes comments that inaccurately equate the medieval with the backward and objectionable, (probably) inadvertently serving colonialist and ultimately racist ends as Kathleen Davis and Nadia Altschul assert in their introduction to Medievalism in the Postcolonial World, bespeaks the prevalence of the view that the medieval is "bad." It also bespeaks an idea of "good" as a particular level of personal and household technology, which seems a dangerous one. This is not to say that the technology is in itself necessarily a bad thing,5 although such arguments could be made and the relevant questions should certainly be considered. It is to say, however, that the incorrect figuration of the medieval that Koontz presents through the thoughts of SOC Thorpe--which positioning endorses them as the results of right thinking, since, as an elite warrior, Thorpe is supposed to encapsulate much of the idealized virtue of the United States; what he does is supposed to be a goal to which others aspire--serves to advance a particular view of how things ought to be. The view is one that makes a number of assumptions that should be interrogated closely, including for why a false medieval is used as the counterpoint against which they are advanced.

  1. I apologize that I have taken as long as I have to draft another piece for this webspace. Contributions from others are always welcome.
  2. With formal academic work paying as well as it normally does, other means to secure income must be found. Some of them involve reading bestsellers and wondering why they are so.
  3. Notably, Koontz does not use the descriptor for the character, although information about how to refer to such a person is readily available and, given the prominence of special operations personnel in popular culture, hardly inaccessible to readers.
  4. Because I am working from an ebook, I cannot be sure that pagination is consistent. Hence citation by chapter numbers.
  5. Clearly not, given the composition and dissemination of this piece wholly online.
Works Cited
  • Barron, Caroline M. London in the Later Middle Ages: Government and People, 1200-1500. New York: Oxford UP, 2007. Print.
  • Davis, Kathleen, and Nadia Altschul. Introduction. Medievalism in the Postcolonial World. Eds. Kathleen Davis and Nadia Altschul. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 2009. Print. 1-25.
  • Elliott, Geoffrey B. "More about Short-Form Medievalist Scholarship." Tales after Tolkien: Travels in Genre and Medievalism. Tales after Tolkien Society,5 June 2014. Web. 17 January 2016.
  • ---."Thoughts about Why We Still Look to the Medieval." Tales after Tolkien: Travels in Genre and Medievalism. Tales after Tolkien Society, 24 June 2014. Web. 17 January 2016.
  • The Holy Bible: King James Version., 2000. Web. 17 January 2016.
  • Koontz, Dean. Ashley Bell. New York: Bantam, 2015. Ebook.
  • Pounds, NJG. The Medieval Castle in England and Wales: A Social and Political History. New York: Cambridge UP, 2005. Print.