Friday, July 15, 2016

A Response to Michael Livingston's "Getting Medieval on George R.R. Martin"

A couple of days ago, after news broke of the Society's nomination for a World Fantasy Award (about which more here), Kris Swank directed some attention to Michael Livingston's 16 July 2015 article, "Getting Medieval on George R.R. Martin," available here. In the piece, Livingston explores the question of the authenticity of Martin's medievalism (something that has been of substantial concern for the Society, as no small amount of its work makes clear). To do so, he offers a working definition of medieval and examples of what he regards as being authentically medieval--which is, for him, less a mater of historical factual accuracy than a matter of what might be described as accuracy of attitude. Armed with such a definition, deriving in part from the example of the 2001 Heath Ledger vehicle A Knight's Tale, he argues that Martin's work is authentically medieval, albeit with a decidedly anachronistic mixture of elements. In effect, Livingston argues that Martin's work does well at presenting the medieval specifically because it is medievalist (as scholars understand the term and as Livingston points out), rather than medieval.

Livingston presents a number of good points in the article. He is correct in noting that the refiguration of ideas from earlier periods is something authentically medieval; much of the extant literature is refigurations of earlier works, and the school of Robertsonian criticism works from the idea that medieval literature reads as interpretation and figuration of patristic writings. He is correct, too, in pointing out that what Martin presents helps his audiences to understand themselves--and, by extension, those who study Martin and his audiences to understand the audiences. And he does not do badly at all to move towards the idea that "medieval" is a fluid category--something else that has been noted in this webspace.

Where Livingston--"a Professor of Medieval Literature at The Citadel," per the article's author blurb--does do badly is in repeating the comment that the real medieval, insofar as we can know it, is dull and boring. The position seems inappropriate for one in the profession of professing the medieval to take; were it truly boring, none of us would study it who do, and from what I have seen of medievalists, we do not find it dull. Even by contemporary standards, there is much about which to be excited in the medieval, whether it be in the form of cat pictures taken from manuscript illuminations or in the Tarantino-prefiguring of Malory (how often are the Round Table knights so covered in gore that they cannot be identified?), or in the very Chaucer Livingston lauds (since fart jokes continue to play well for many audiences, and Mel Brooks's appropriation of red-hot pokers shoved into orifices draws laughs decades on). That such constructions as Martin's make use of the medieval and both borrow from and reinforce ideas about the medieval that are not as factually accurate as they might be--and that medieval scholars themselves indulge in such activities, largely because they often amuse--does not mean that those of us who are in the know ought to contribute to the misconceptions--and for a professor of medieval studies to claim that his own field of study is boring serves to reinforce the erroneous thought that our forebears were somehow less than we are. They were not, although there are matters about which we know far more than they--but they knew far more than most of us about more than a few things, as well. To write them off as dull and to imply that they need "enhancement" elides that, doing them and us a disservice.

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