Teaching and Learning Medievalism in Popular Culture as History Education

Mark Helmsing and Andrew Vardas-Doane
George Mason University, Fairfax VA

Although the period in human history we call the medieval period ended around the year 1500 CE, we are surrounded by medievalism in our lives today. For most history and social studies educators, a claim such as this does not make sense. We accept the end of the medieval period with the Renaissance, ushering in what we teach our students as the early modern period in our human history. Historians and educators position the medieval period, as a “middle” period used to demarcate Western history, occurs after the end of ancient history and before the period in which we currently live (Arnold, 2008). And yet, as we explain in this paper, medievalism—the icons, images, tropes, and representations of how humans think of that time period—permeates our lives today. Learning to understand medievalism in relation to the broadly defined medieval period and from the specific construct of the European Middle Ages enables our students to develop a sharper sense of periodization and significance within their broader historical thinking.

Because of the elision between fact and fiction, reality and fantasy, history and social studies educators should take seriously the need to point out medievalism with their students and strive to make more visible and explicit the historical inspiration for such representations. In the first half of this article we provide some ways of thinking about medievalism. In the second half of this article we take these aspects of historical thinking related to medievalism and examine how they work in a popular video game and film franchise, Assassin’s Creed, a form of medieval world building that is popular amongst adolescents and young adults (Gilbert, 2017; Hammar, 2017). Our aim with this article to encourage educators to consider some implications for history and social studies educators related to the intersections of popular culture and medievalism as history education.

Approaching Medievalism for Historical Thinking

To assume that the medieval is irrelevant or antiquated, or to discount how medievalism effects our contemporary thought and shapes so many images and ideas in popular culture, is to neglect the significance of properly understanding and accounting for historical periodization (Cole & Smith, 2010). One may think that historical periodization is cut-and-dry as a commonplace of historical thinking. Say “medieval” and we think of courtly love, knights in shining armor, kings and queens residing in large castles (often with moats and drawbridges). My (Author 1) thinking about medievalism as an issue worthy of considering in relation to historical thinking occurred in early 2017 when I spent a semester away from my university duties teaching 7th graders. The topic of the HBO television series Game of Thrones came up in conversation one day and a student remarked that he thought “it must have been awful living back then.” It took me a few seconds to realize that he was engaging in two aspects of historical thinking. First, he assumed that the time period in which the Game of Thrones world is set was a long time ago, ostensibly linking it to the history of the Middle Ages. Secondly, and more importantly (or pressingly, depending on how you look at it), the student was conflating the imaginary fantasy world of Game of Thrones—and entirely fictional world and text—with ‘actually existing’ medieval history from real life. When I pressed him on the matter he said that of course he knew the dragons and White Walkers were not real, but that he assumed what he saw on the television series was what life was like “back then, with all of the kings and stuff.” This conversation set me about to think about what it is we may need to be more explicit about in our curriculum and pedagogy to help students not only to separate fact from fiction, works of fantasy from works of history, but also to help our students be more perspicacious and attentive to when, how, and why aspects of medievalism appear to us throughout art, literature, music, film, theater, and popular culture at large. In this section we offer some reasons for why history and social studies educators should investigate (both professionally for their own historical thinking and with their students) aspects of medievalism and the medieval world.

Examples of Encountering Medievalism in Popular Culture

            First, we need to help our students see that we engage with medievalism when we consume media about actually existing persons and events from the medieval period, as in Kingdom of Heaven (2005), a feature film about the Crusades in the 12th century, or in Pippin (1972/2013), a Broadway musical about the eldest son of Charlemagne in the 8th and 9th centuries. Yet we also engage with medievalism when we consume media that is speculative fiction and fantasies using icons, images, tropes, and representations of the medieval world, as in Game of Thrones, a massively popular book and television series about feudal royal houses warring with each other, or in King Arthur: Legend of the Sword (2017), only the latest of several feature films inspired by the Arthurian legends of Camelot, the Round Table, and the Lady in the Lake.

            Secondly, we and our students engage with medievalism when we encounter phrases, concepts, and iconographies that remain embedded in Western thought long after the end of the medieval period. For example, when teaching about torture that occurred in the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq or the Guantánamo Bay detention camp in Cuba, we may describe documented examples of torture as “medieval” in their barbarity, despite the fact that much of what we think of as medieval torture did not actually exist until the Tudor period that began with the end of medievalism in the 1500s (Matthews, 2015). To use another example, our notions of chivalry, courtship, and courtly love are concepts that took on distinctive forms as part of a complex code of rules and conduct in the medieval period (Emery & Utz, 2017). These concepts remain in our thought today, as evidenced by news headlines such as “Chivalry isn’t dead” (Fuller-Hall, 2018) and “Stanford professor puts desire in a medieval context” (Marian, 2013). Educators can select some medieval phrases, concepts, and iconographies for students to identify in our current social and political discourse, helping students map these concepts back to the actually existing historical medieval world. For example, in their edited volume Medievalism: Key Critical Terms, Emery and Utz (2017) survey the significance of terms such as feast, gothic, heresy, humor, love, purity, and troubadour, connecting how these concepts existed within the medieval world and how they have maintained their medieval legacy in our contemporary cultures. In investigating these and other concepts of the medieval, students are able to examine the continuity and change of the history of medieval thought in our world. In some cases, regrettably, medieval concepts, ideas, and iconography are taken up to promote repellant nationalist, racist, and supremacist beliefs, such as the adoption of the Templar Knights and runes with Norse warrior mythology and other medieval marks used to signify racial purity by white supremacists (Devega, 2017; Livingstone, 2017; Weill, 2018). Such uses and abuses should also be interrogated and critiqued in history and social studies education, ranging from how we describe something as violent or regressive as being “medieval” to invoking language and associations to the Crusades as Holy Wars with jihads and ISIS/ISIL.

            Thirdly, educators and students should realize we place ourselves within contemporary medieval worlds that we often visit in the present, such as medieval fairs and Renaissance fairs or “Ren Fests,” which are anachronistic for many reasons, least of which is that they visually blur and blend the High Middle Ages with Elizabethan England and the European Renaissance. I (Author 1) studied the history of the Middle Ages as a sixth-grade student in a project-based social studies unit where I and my fellow classmates created and hosted a “medieval faire” for the entire school (my contribution was learning to walk on stilts and recite ballads and folk poems). A popular choice for some high school history and/or British literature classes, Renaissance fairs allow visitors to dress in robes, boots, and bodices and converse with strolling troubadours and jolly court jesters. When I (Author 1) taught high school social studies and English courses, I chaperoned a number of field trips to such fairs, often cringing at what I perceived as historically inaccurate cross-periodizations of Elizabethan England, medieval France, and 17th century swashbuckling seafarers and pirates. Nonetheless, watching students marvel at medieval blacksmiths and singing troubadours may make up for the lack of precise periodization.

We also consume medievalism when we cheer on jousting knights while feasting on drumsticks and drinking frothy ales at one of the Medieval Times Dinner and TournamentÒ locations throughout Canada and the United States, notable for their scripted performance’s references to the medieval worlds of the Iberian Peninsula in the characters of King Don Carlos, Princes Catalina, and Lord Ulrich. These and other examples of medieval worldbuilding at public events and themed amusement parks offer ample opportunities for educators to have their students challenge the accuracy, veracity, and legibility of medieval representations in these spaces, calling upon students to think critically (and historically) about how such places and spaces evoke and ‘use’ medievalism.

             Finally, medievalism and fantasy as a genre for fiction and popular culture is fully entangled. The many dragons, elves, and giants in the fantasy franchise Dungeons & DragonsÒ have no existing evidence in historical fact, but the bards, monks, and paladins of the fantasy role-playing game are based on actually existing classes of people in the medieval period. Indeed, paladins, (with a name that derives from Palantine, a Latin word for servant) were high-ranking warriors in Charlemagne’s court (Freeman, 2017). The paladins did not, however, roll multi-sided dice when engaged in battle to the best of historians’ knowledge. Because representations of fire-breathing dragons often appear in literature and other mass media in landscapes occupied with castles, villages, dense forests, and feudal farms and fields. In the following section, we investigate the play of the medieval in one example: Assassin’s Creed.

Overview of Assassin’s Creed

With a global gaming market of $70.6 billion in 2012 to a soaring $121.7 in 2017, the market for games and gamers is climbing at an exponential rate. Projections for 2021 peak at over $180 billion dollars spent worldwide. Of the games produced and developed, many carry a medieval theme that draws millions of players each year. One game, Assassin’s Creed serves as an example of how our students may confront medievalism in their everyday lives. Operating as a medieval historical and science fiction twist on real-world events, Assassin’s Creed has sparked a franchise that as of September 2016 has sold over 100 million copies (Makuch, 2016). The latest of ten installments, Assassin’s Creed: Origins ranked as the eighth bestselling game of 2017. Therefore, based upon these numbers and our anecdotal experience of having middle and high school students express their fandom for the video games series and its film adaptation, we use it as an example of popular culture primed for some historical thinking about medievalism.

Plot Structure of Assassin’s Creed

            Released in 2007, the first Assassin’s Creed game features a character, Desmond Miles, who is kidnapped by Absergo Industries. This multinational corporate conglomerate forces Desmond to use a device called an animus to (re)live the memories of his ancestors through memories stored in his genes. He is thrown back in time to the twelfth century following the Third Crusade to Masyaf Castle (an actual medieval castle in present-day Syria) where he must live out the life of his ancestor who belongs to the Assassin Order. The plot revolves around a historical conflict between the Assassins and the Knights Templar, suggesting that students actively confront historical markers and significance about the Knights Templar, the Crusades, and Holy Wars in medieval Europe and what we now identify as the Middle East. In the video game, the goal of the Templars is to create world peace by subjugating the human race who they believe are incapable of ruling themselves without barbarism. The assassins fight against this stripping of free will and believe in the progression of new ideas and individuality. As a character in the game, the player progresses the storyline of his forefather, learning more about the history of the world and the conflict between the two factions (IGN, 2012).

As the player continues through the game, Desmond finds out Absergo Industries is the modern face of the Knights Templar who are attempting to have Desmond lead them to ancient objects of power called Pieces of Eden. These artifacts were created by a primeval race of Homo sapiens divinus, a highly advanced humanoid species. This race, termed the Isu, genetically modified the homo genus species in order to create a force of slave-labor. Using the Pieces of Eden, devices interacting with neurotransmitters in the minds of humans, they controlled humans until Adam and Eve escaped and began humanity as it is known today. The epic battle between the Templars and Assassin Order exists as a repercussion to the fall of the Isu and the eventual use of Pieces of Eden by humans against humans. The Templars, believing freedom leads to chaos, hope to use the artifacts to eliminate autonomy. The Assassins exist to prevent that dream from becoming a reality (Assassin’s Creed Wiki, 2018).

Problematizing the Knights Templar in Assassin’s Creed

Using the Assassin’s Creed plotline as a teaching tool for exploring medievalism encourages teachers and students to enact a critical media literacy with existing historical thinking skills and approaches. Throughout the gameplay, many deaths of actually existing historical figures are changed to assassinations to keep in with the themed narrative of the storyline. Acknowledging this plot device as an adaptation of history helps students identify historical errors, but also to be alert to when popular culture gets the history of the Middle Ages right and when it gets it wrong. Shifting students’ historical perspectives to view a real military order, the Knights Templar, portrayed as a power-hungry collection of world dominating fanatics can confuse and inspire conspiracy where no evidence is evident. The disbanding of the Knights Templars in 1312 at the behest of Pope Clement V marks the end of their historical timeline, despite, however, their continued presence in (questionable) usage amongst contemporary subgroups and populations as mentioned earlier in this article. This, unsurprisingly, takes on what we deem to be a concerningly problematic stance within the video game. The assassinations necessary to complete the game are made out to be necessary evils in order to protect the human race from the Templars. The historical record from the Middle Ages informs us that the real ‘assassins’ were a small Muslim Shiite sect, the Nizari Ismailis. Known as heretics by both Sunnis and Shiites, this group’s origin can be traced to immediately preceding the First Crusade during the crisis of the Fatamid Caliphate (Liebel, 2009).

Contextualizing History in Assassin’s Creed

Almost all the historical content in the movie is a complete fabrication. Claims that major players in history such as Alexander the Great, Napoleon Bonaparte, Mahatma Gandhi, and Genghis Khan used Pieces of Eden to further their agendas can leave players questioning their understanding of historical reality. There are, however, two accurate representations that can be used in the social studies classroom to help further students’ understanding of medieval times and see medievalism in action.

First, as mentioned previously, students can learn about the real Masyaf Castle. This castle exists in partial ruin and is in modern day Syria near the Mediterranean Sea. It served as a base of operations of sorts for a guild of assassins identified as the Nizari Ismailis during and following the Third Crusade (1189-1192 CE). The game’s developers worked tirelessly to make their depictions of main cities (Jerusalem, Acre, and Damascus) as accurate as possible. Ubisoft hired a team of historians to advise on their gameplay and narrativization to make sure the layout and worldbuilding appear historically suitable. Using the game as an exploration and inquiry tool would be an application of critical media literacy for exploring medievalism in popular culture.

Standing alone without an educator to intervene in offering some historical contextualization, Assassin’s Creed is, unsurprisingly, a weak classroom resource for history and social studies educators. As an example of medievalism for our students in the 21st century, it offers much to consider, deconstruct, and critique. We argue the game can be used as a springboard for students interested in history resulting from their engagement in the game’s fictitious portrayals of historical events through elements of historical fantasy and fiction. We urge educators to be cautious in discounting the game’s appeal to student, suggesting instead that educators become more alert to which aspects of medievalism appeal to our students and to find out how and why. Expanding upon this foundation and using the inaccurate storyline as a method for introducing historical accuracies could be exciting for students. With ten games set in time periods ranging from Ptolemaic Egypt to the American and French Revolutions to the Industrial Revolution and the Russian Revolution, a curriculum created around something akin to “The Truth Behind the Assassin’s Creed Histories” could be an engaging and productive avenue for educators. The curriculum would have the added benefit of exploring historically accurate renditions of cities such as London, Venice, Florence, Alexandria, Memphis, Jerusalem, Spain, Istanbul, and Paris.

In closing, we offer a final thought from medievalist Jeffrey Jerome Cohen. The idea of the medieval and its immortal memorialization and representation across our cultural, political, and experiential encounters in everyday life can cultivate in students the idea that the medieval is “alluringly strange” and also “discomfortingly familiar” (Cohen, 2000, p. 3). It is something we hope will keep our students’ interests in the past alive.

References

Arnold, J.H. (2008). What is medieval history? Cambridge, MA: Polity Press.

Assassin’s Creed Wiki. (2018). Retrieved from http://assassinscreed.wikia.com/wiki/Assassin%27s_Creed_Wiki

Cohen, J.J. (Ed.) (2000). The postcolonial Middle Ages. New York, NY: Palgrave Macmillan.

Cole, A. & Smith, D.V. (Eds.) (2010). The legitimacy of the Middle Ages: On the unwritten history of theory. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Devega, C. (2017, December 1). Alt-right catches knight fever—but medieval scholars strike back. Salon. Online.

Emery, E. & Utz, R. (2017). Medievalism: Key critical terms. Rochester, NY: D.S. Brewer.

Freeman, E. (2017). Charles the Great, or just plain Charles: Was Charlemagne a great medieval leader? Agora, 52(1), 10-19.

Fuller-Hall, S. (2018, February 13). Chivalry isn’t dead. The Sundial. Online.

Gilbert, L. (2017). “The past is your playground”: The challenges and possibilities of Assassin’s Creed: Syndicate for social education. Theory & Research in Social Education, 45(1), 145-155.

Hammar, E.L. (2017).  Counter-hegemonic commemorative play: Marginalized pasts and the politics of memory in the digital game Assassin’s Creed: Freedom Cry. Rethinking History, 21(3), 372-395.

IGN. (2012, October 26). Assassin’s Creed in 5 minutes [Video file]. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Rnfg1rDmNIw

Kain, E. (2018, January 19). The best-selling video games of 2017. Retrieved from https://www.forbes.com/sites/erikkain/2018/01/19/the-best-selling-video-games-of-2017/#31d639366226

Kim, D. (2017, August 28). Teaching Medieval Studies in a time of white supremacy. In the Middle. Online.

Liebl, V. (2009). The caliphate. Middle Eastern Studies, 45(3), 373-391.

Livingstone, J. (2017, August 15). Racism, medievalism, and the white supremacists of Charlottesville. The New Republic. Online.

Makuch, E. (2016). Assassin’s Creed Franchise Reaches 100 Million Copies Sold. Retrieved from https://www.gamespot.com/articles/assassins-creed-franchise-reaches-100-million-copi/1100-6443544/

Marian, V. (2013, February 11). Stanford professor puts desire in a medieval context. The Stanford Report. Online.

Matthews, D. (2015). Medievalism: A critical history. Rochester, NY: D.S. Brewer.

Sapieha, C. (2015). How historians and artists crafted a ‘highly authentic impression’ of London for Assassin’s Creed Syndicate. Retrieved from https://business.financialpost.com/technology/gaming/how-historians-and-artists-crafted-a-highly-authentic-impression-of-london-for-assassins-creed-syndicate Weill, K. (2018, July 27). The alt-right is taking over Renaissance fairs. Daily Beast. Online.


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