Someone is Wrong on the Internet

Sometimes it’s uncanny how efficient the internet is at feeding me examples of people being Wrong on the Internet which exactly and closely pertain to some new field I’ve just started reading in. In this case, the history of emotions. I’ve encountered the Weeping Charlemagne Problem before, of course, and am very pleased to hear that Rachel Moss is working on an article about weeping/fainting and hyper-masculinity (mentioned here). But right now I’m wading through a bunch of more theoretical history-of-emotions stuff, partly for my thesis (I think? I at least have to rule out the stuff that isn’t useful, and hopefully some of it is) and partly for conferences.

What does the internet do but deliver me this post (original now deleted). I quote from the OP, who has deleted their post presumably because they were swamped by responses from ‘like’ to ANGRY HISTORIANS.

Barbara Tuchman says the widespread apparently juvenile behavior of medieval Europe should be considered in light of the fact that most of active society was in fact people in their teens and twenties

Which on the one hand is like one of those things that’s obvious once it’s pointed out

But also its funny to think there was a whole historians’ tradition of being like “why were medieval kings so overemotional” until Tuchman clears her throat and goes… “Ahem… Have you ever met an eighteen year old boy” and then everyone’s like “oooooh”

I looked it up, Tuchman was a popular historian in the 70s and this idea must come from her book on the 14th century, ‘A Distant Mirror’. If you follow the link above, the version of the post I linked to has a smack-down appended, with actual information on medieval demographics, and this rather nice conclusion from Tumblr user slashmarks:

Like, I want to ask you why you think “haha teenagers are stupid” is a funny joke (if you are an adult and so mature, why do spend your free time mocking teenagers srsly?) but I also want to point out that this narrative of the middle ages, like all other narratives that claim people in the past were not people like US, has a specific political agenda.

It’s meant to enforce the idea that the age of imperialism and exploration was one of enlightenment that led to the glorious beacon that western civilization is supposed to be today; it’s also meant to emphasize the supposed reasonableness, intelligence and benevolence of today’s rulers. I understand people are reblogging it because of the jokes, but you’re unknowingly perpetuating propaganda and you should be aware of that.

I have a few things to say to that. The first is: yes, this. A+, good work, please circulate this message from the Public Wrongness department of Mistakes College.

The second is: I know where this comes from, because the pre-reading for ‘Emotions in Medieval Media’ at UNIL included Rosenwein’s historiography article ‘Worrying about emotions’. We can blame, among others, Johan Huizinga (1919), Lucien Febvre (1941), and perhaps especially Norbert Elias (1939 trans. into English in the 70s) for the notion that the Middle Ages were ‘wild, cruel, prone to violent outbreaks and abandoned to the joy of the moment’ (Elias, quoted in Rosenwein, 2002), although it seems like the flat-out statistically wrong claim about age is Tuchman’s own doing.

The third thing I have to say is: this stuff is dangerous. Tumblr user slashmarks is right about the narrative of progression, but in order to have that narrative of civilising progress you have to assume certain constants. In the case of the “teenage kings acting out” theory you need to assume:

  • That the experience of late adolescence is purely biological and in no way related to cultural constructions of status, adulthood and responsibility
  • That emotions stay the same over time (people get upset about the same sorts of things, and in response to the same external and biological stimuli)
  • That responses to emotions are consistent throughout time. That displays of anger constitute a loss of control. All the time. Everywhere.
  • That maturity (especially mature male socialisation) looks the same in all times and places.

Not to mention the peculiar assumption that grown men aren’t prone to outbursts of anger, violence or petty revenge. Presumably Barbara Tuchman had not tried telling a grown man “no” or “you’re wrong” lately when she wrote that book. But ‘men are rational and in control, except when they make manly displays of appropriate violence” is one of those perpetual assumptions of modern society that we persist in believing despite all evidence to the contrary.

But it’s the assumed constants that are dangerous. Those assumed constants underpin so many persistent racist notions, such as, to pick one, the peculiar notion that “Men in a state of nature, uncivilized nations and children, have a great fondness for colors in their utmost brightness” (Goethe) – a belief which explains any number of things from the boringness of modern western men’s formalwear to the exoticisation of Asian clothing/textiles to, I suspect, the distaste expressed in my small town in NSW when someone painted their house a shade of Green that would have been quite normal in Greece. Or another ever-popular instance of Wrong on the Internet, the belief that when chief Raoni of the Kayapo (Brazil) people was photographed crying at a protest against a dam on the Amazon (2011) this was because he was utterly devastated and in a state of despair. In fact, Raoni at the time retained a strong determination to fight the government’s decision: he was photographed crying as he was reunited with a family member, and this is reportedly a commonplace aspect of Kayapo reunion customs. And since we’re talking about crying, I hope we all notice that the same logic which leaves Tuchman going “hah, silly emotional medievals” also underpins the idea that there must be absolutely no “falling in love or crying” in Serious Intellectual Environs (Go see menysnowballes for more on that).

The narrative of historical progress is, in many respects, wrong. In others, though, it’s fairly reasonable to say that the world at large and certainly European society is doing better right now than it was one hundred, two hundred, a thousand years ago. I’m a woman, I have mental health problems and interesting genetic complications that might make childbearing particularly unfun; I’m queer, I quite like my education, and I’ve benefited from very recent social mobility in my family. In most of the respects that matter to me (education, autonomy, social opportunity, kissing-ladies-opportunities, health) I am not only happy to have been born after the invention of penicillin but would take the 21st century over the mid-20th and am lookin’ forward to better changes still. And if I were sentenced to time travel, of all possible centuries I would not pick any medieval centuries, unless I could be very certain of landing up in a nunnery.

The problem with the narrative of historical progress is not just that it’s false pattern-spotting (although it is). It’s not just that it leads to patronising the people of the past (the ever-witty Gillian Pollack deals with this by staring her students down and saying solemnly, “I’m sorry about your ancestors”). It’s that the veneer of “progress” rests on so. damn. many. assumed constants. It’s the constants that are dangerous. If you assume something is vertically constant through time (always true of europeans, say) you’re particularly likely to assume that things is horizontally constant across cultures, and god forbid you have to consider the non-European past! If you assume that teenage boys behave the same way everywhere, at all times, you miss all kinds of things – class, race, gender, intra-community variation, as well as the global bigger picture. Even if it were true that 14th c decisions were made by late adolescent noblemen, it would be dangerous to assume that late adolescent peasants behaved the same way.

Here’s where I think it is important – possibly even imperative – that the teaching of history and historical literature be done with some attention to contemporary problems and context. Obviously I, a medievalist, want my students to appreciate the genius of medieval writers and the fun of medieval texts. But that’s not good enough. Learning that the medieval past was not brutal and/or childlike is not good enough. Not unless at some point, the value of those assumed constants is brought into question.

I do this a lot with gender stereotyping: the Eve/Mary dichotomy looks, on the surface, a lot like the modern Madonna/whore trope, but if you dig into it, medieval assumptions about women and sexuality don’t map neatly onto 19th c + ones. For starters, the idea that women are naturally less inclined toward sex and/or sexual sin has no traction in the Middle Ages. Getting students’ heads around how that could be true while the culture still produces a virginity complex that looks very familiar is a hard slog. But important. Because “women have always been suppressed by the notion we are innately sexless” (another fact I have seen spouted on the internet, by bloggers with gender studies degrees who ought to know better) is just not true. The patriarchy works in weird and complicated ways! Historical change is not linear!

If your goal is to teach students to critique the dominant paradigm, especially with a view to racist implications of, say, the association of emotional control with (male) maturity… maybe you could do better than starting with the Middle Ages. Probably you could, if you were an expert in something other than medieval literature. But for better or worse, I am an expert in medieval literature. And I have found – as a teacher, yes, but also personally – that students, audiences who might push back against identifiably modern-political syllabi, may be more willing to tackle a concept like the construction of gender, or the changing face of masculinity, or the status of particular emotions, if they can do so in the “safe” past.

If I were teaching modern lit, I might get into arguments with students (we have at least one such young man in the department) about whether sexism is a legitimate concern. But fortunately for me, many many people agree that the Middle Ages were sexist! Even people who think there is, say, no structural gender problem anywhere in academia. In fact, “the middle ages were sexist” is part of the narrative of progress which justifies the claim that feminism is now irrelevant. Perhaps many students come through my classes and never think further than 1500. But, I strongly suspect, a reasonable number learn not only some tools for analysing  #issueathand, but also something about the constructed nature of the assumed constants.

I can’t speak for whether they then go on to, for instance, question colonialist paradigms. I can say it worked on me. I can’t say my medieval studies major was particularly race-aware (it wasn’t), and obviously I have needed to do a bunch of independent work and reading on some issues (eg: nothing in medieval european history prepared me to process the politics/emotional charge surrounding black women’s hair, esp in the US, which I fell over in Star Trek fandom in 2009). But I can tell you I am instantly suspicious of anyone whose criticism of x-non-western-culture rests on perceived barbarism: I don’t need a degree in the culture in question to know that if the assertion would be equally applicable to the “dark ages” in Europe (eg: constant raiding. I have heard people being condescending about pre-colonoisation Maori society on the basis of constant raiding), the speaker is probably full of it. I can spot the “noble savage” fallacy as applied to indigenous peoples outside of Europe and as applied to the Celts.

The tools I learned in that period, and exercised on medieval texts and contexts, did not immediately translate into a political stance re: modern society. But they gave me foundations. And they taught me the basic concept of “socially constructed phenomena”. How things that seem like an absolute given now, and an obvious explanation for the past, might be completely incomprehensible in the past. I cut my teeth on medieval texts, and they taught me to question the assumed cultural constants. I’m not an expert in anything except medieval texts, now, but I have a set of tools for spotting egregious generalisations and narratives that privilege the modern, mostly-white dominantly-male western Zeitgeist. I learned them to understand the past. I use them to navigate the present (and the past, because of that pesky PhD).

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