The Middle Ages have had a lot of bad publicity lately.
Take, for instance, Wolf Hall, the BBC miniseries adaptation of Hilary Mantel’s Tudor novels, which appeared on Australian screens in 2015. Here the spirit of the Middle Ages is embodied in Thomas More, played with fastidious spite by Anton Lesser. In Mantel’s take on Henry VIII’s break with the Roman Church, More the urbane humanist is replaced by More the obdurate Catholic, whose protection of the Church’s authority ‘stretching back for a thousand years’ is shown to be pious, sadistic and political—a triangulation that has become received shorthand for medieval. Even More’s most defining quality, his conscience, is shown to be shot through with intransigence and a perverse pleasure in martyrdom. Far from being the Man for All Seasons, he has become the Man of the Past, superseded by his nemesis Thomas Cromwell, played with roguish appeal by Mark Rylance. The Machiavelli-reading Cromwell is Mantel’s figure of modernity. Self-made, cosmopolitan, pragmatic and sceptical (indeed almost secular), he is less ‘hammer of the monasteries’ than jackhammer to the entire creaking edifice of the pre-modern.
Cromwell finds, though, that it’s not so simple to erase the medieval from modern politics. Around him bristle mighty families whose power rests on ancient claims to land and title; street prophets who see the coming of the Antichrist in the regime he is brokering; and unctuous diplomats of Church and Holy Roman Empire, who circle menacingly, waiting to reverse their masters’ waning fortunes. And those of us anticipating the final instalment know that that over Cromwell hangs an axe, and that his tale of incipient modernity will end with the most gruesome beheading of them all.
It’s little wonder that this story has been met with acclaim in Australia, just as it has across the English-speaking world. Apart from the sheer quality of both novel and miniseries, their use of the Tudor era to depict an epochal struggle between the modern and the medieval offers an uncanny refraction of Australia’s current political moment, in which commentators everywhere keep coming across the unwelcome re-emergence in the modern of ‘medieval’ views, institutions and practices. From the time that Tony Abbott’s political star began to rise, and especially once his government took power, there’s been a corresponding exponential rise in politicians and commentators condemning government policies on climate change, marriage equality, border protection and religious education as ‘feudal’, ‘anachronistic’, ‘medieval’, ‘dark ages’, ‘pre-Copernican’ and ‘closing the drawbridge’. It’s yet to be seen whether this will continue under the prime ministership of Malcolm Turnbull, but if Liberal MP Steve Ciobo’s description of Turnbull on Lateline as ‘a Renaissance man’ is anything to go by, the epochal struggle within government ranks could well become a new theme … or else Australia could be entering a new stage in which aggressive, Cromwellian modernity becomes a new leitmotif.
The recently deposed prime minister Abbott, whose religious past had long branded him ‘the mad monk’, began to be singled out for intensive medievalising in March 2014, when his revival of the 30-years-defunct honours system—an act reminiscent of Margaret Thatcher’s conferral in 1983 of the first hereditary peerage in almost two decades—led to him being dubbed Australia’s ‘Rege Mediaevalibus’.1 This year his seemingly unfathomable awarding of a knighthood to Prince Phillip caused an avalanche of satire depicting him as a knight, including, most amusingly, as First Knight of the ‘Order of the Tin Ear’.2 None of this, however, has stopped Abbott from joining the chorus characterising the actions of Islamist groups as ‘medieval barbarism’.3
This domestic phenomenon needs to be seen in an international context, especially in the Anglophone world, since al-Qaeda’s attack on the World Trade Centre on 9/11. The notable jump in allusions to the ‘medieval’ in Australian parliamentary records dating from that time has been matched and raised in British Hansard, while George W. Bush’s call for a ‘crusade’ against Islamists in the immediate aftermath of 9/11 instituted a widespread public language of religious war. From that time the re-emergence of religion as a shaping force in global politics has led many to diagnose a global return to the Middle Ages. Some quarters of international relations theory, meanwhile, have predicted that a post-national ‘neomedieval’ world order will emerge in response to the pressures placed on the model of national sovereignty by international economic and legal organisations.4 Economic critics, too, have seen in global capitalism a return to feudalism dominated by banker overlords who preside over a modern precariat lacking even the nominal security afforded the medieval serf by feudalism’s bonds of mutual service and protection. Others, echoing the forecasts of the IR theorists, predict an eventual fragmentation and return to regional ‘fiefdoms’.
In a world caught up in crazed fandom over HBO’s medievalist-fantasy TV series Game of Thrones, for many the medieval has come to be seen as the political era par excellence. And Australians have not been backward in likening the revolving door of prime ministerial power to the show’s treacherous dynastic politics. On the night Tony Abbott was deposed, memes circulated with his face photoshopped onto images the assassinated king Joffrey Baratheon, with Turnbull ‘s face superimposed onto the accused assassin Tyrion Lannister (who is, incidentally, the show’s ironist and sceptic—in short its modern character). This view of Games of Thrones isn’t just held by the pundits, but also by leaders: US President Barack Obama, British Prime Minister David Cameron and former Australian prime minister Julia Gillard have all said that the HBO series reminds them of their working lives, though only Gillard has felt the urge to tweet in Dothraki, the adopted language of the show’s exiled female leader, Daenerys Targaryen.5
Despite being part of a global trend, the current Australian discourses of political medievalism also have a domestic pedigree, reaching back to the colonial and early federal eras, when newspapers of all stripes reached for the idiom of chivalry to evaluate the values of local politicians and statesmen. Indeed, the tradition of condemning ‘medieval’ prime ministers has been going for as long as we’ve had prime ministers: a February 1902 cartoon criticising Australia’s involvement in the Boer War has the inaugural prime minister Edmund Barton dressed as a monk baptising the baby ‘Commonwealth, born January 1, 1901’, with ‘the blud [sic] of the State Contingents’.6 The negative depiction of the Middle Ages has traditionally been the province of the Left; in the Bulletin, as the mouthpiece for federalist and Labor movements, ‘medieval’ was a byword for caste and barbaric despotism.7 But this was at least partly balanced out by the Left’s ‘positive’ medievalism, with labour unions mythologising themselves through the chivalric ideals of fraternity and service.8 The idea that Australia’s governance structures and political culture were new and yet rooted in medieval practice, as well as in ‘medieval democratic’ traditions such as the Anglo-Saxon folkmoot or Magna Carta, was expressed in political rituals and objects, as well as in public discourses. At the same time, prominent figures such as Melbourne’s Sir Redmond Barry urged Gothic Revival as the perfect architectural idiom to express the city’s political and economic ascendancy, seeing no contradiction between the Gothic’s deeply religious origins and the modernist élan he wished it to express.9
While the colonial and early federal periods witnessed far more ambivalence and debate about the legacy bequeathed to Australia by the medieval past, this seems no longer to be the case in Australian political discourse, where the positive connotations of the medieval have all but vanished. Now it stands unilaterally for backwardness, cruelty and superstition—that is, for the opposite of the modern, for all that has apparently been superseded. The historical narrative of this supercession varies in popular consciousness: sometimes it’s attributed to the Reformation, elsewhere to the emergence of the Enlightenment and scientific Reason, occasionally capitalist individualism is said to have ousted static feudalism and medieval group-think, while sometimes, less specifically, ‘the Renaissance’ is deemed the birthplace of the modern. Our point here is not to arbitrate between these accounts, but rather to point out that despite their discrepancies, large or small, the one truly stable element across them is the conceptual and rhetorical position of the medieval as the obverse term.
The fact that this term’s usage is chiefly conceptual and rhetorical rather than properly historical becomes clear when we consider that in the vast majority of political debates where ‘medieval’ or its synonyms crop up, they refer to generalised and negative notions of the medieval rather than to the factual Middle Ages. To offer just one example, when Attorney-General George Brandis last year characterised the Left as ‘medieval’ in their rejection of climate-change scepticism, he clearly wasn’t primarily concerned with whether he was accurately representing, say, the active ethos of debate within medieval Scholasticism or the robust, even adversarial, traditions of commentary fostered in medieval textual culture. Rather, by invoking the medieval as a byword for enforced unanimity he was positioning his political opponents as enemies of the post-Enlightenment values of free thought and free speech, which according to Brandis are more highly valued under the liberalism of the political Right.10 Examples such as this proliferate in all kinds of debates across the political spectrum, with two things in common: ‘medieval’ could readily be replaced by any number of non-historical adjectives (in this case ‘conformist’, ‘absolutist’, or Brandis’s other word ‘orthodox’); and it is virtually always intended as an insult.
But another question arises: if the medieval is everything we believe we’ve left behind, why is there so much talk of its return? In a world convulsed by war, inequality, oppression, religious extremism and continued intolerance towards ethnic and sexual minorities, we find ourselves contemplating the fragility of our modern myths of progress. Yet according to the logic of this reckoning, modernity and its maladies aren’t seen to be the problem. Rather, for today’s commentariat, as for Mantel’s Thomas Cromwell (and his modern avatar, Malcolm Turnbull), the cause of the problem is the persistence of the medieval, which comes to stand for what should have been killed off but remains frustratingly, even frighteningly, revenant, the zombie that keeps coming at us despite the axe lodged in its rotting neck.
As noted earlier, the Australian figure in whom medievalism has been most insistently identified is former prime minister Abbott. This characterisation has not been limited to the Left. In his 2008 memoir, Peter Costello wrote about Abbott that he ‘always saw himself as something of a romantic figure, a Don Quixote ready to take on lost causes and fight for great principles’.11 It was perhaps inevitable when Abbott declared his aesthetic (and implicitly ideological) objection to wind farms that Costello’s Quixotic Abbott would be ripe for a return; and so in June this year Rocco Fazzari, who had previously satirised Abbott as ‘Rege Mediaevalibus’, depicted the prime minister astride a steed, in Speedoes and bike helmet, smashing wind turbines with a lance while coal generators billow black smoke over the landscape.12 This vision of Abbott tilting at windmills is a comedic one, and portrays him as something of a delusional knight errant living in a lost Middle Ages. Looked at more closely, though, the case of Abbott shows us that medievalism as a modern phenomenon does not consist solely of the practice of arbitrarily deeming policies and practices ‘medieval’. There has been a genuine strain of medievalism in contemporary Australian politics, and Abbott has been its main champion. Given what we know now about Abbott’s intellectual and spiritual commitments as prime minister, it is worth pondering the extent and breadth of his medievalism. It goes much deeper than simply awarding a knighthood to Prince Philip.
As the cartoonists have rightly intuited, the concept of the knight itself does help us understand Abbott, as it corresponds directly with his Catholic and Cold War political foundations. In the same section of Costello’s book, the former federal treasurer also declared that Abbott ‘used to tell me proudly that he had learned all of his economics at the feet of [Catholic anti-communist activist] Bob Santamaria. I was horrified.’13 Don Quixote and Santa, then: two crusaders who deployed a medieval imaginary of a glorious, chivalric Christendom to drive their quests. Don Quixote, of course, was seeking to protect his fantasised pure lady, his Dulcinea, and in the process ennoble himself and his vision of a glorious past. Santamaria was seeking to protect Catholicism and Australia from the ravages of both liberalism and communism, seeing the Holy Roman Church as the only international organisation capable of conquering these dark forces. Costello’s marriage of Quixote and Santamaria in his description of Abbot, however comical and derisive he intended it to be, actually offers an acute insight into Abbott’s desire for the Middle Ages.
Some commentators, most particularly David Marr, weighing the ‘values Abbott’ against the ‘politics Abbott’, have read the former PM ultimately as a political animal, driven by the pleasures of the fight; indeed, as libidinally pugilistic. In his rightly lauded essay Marr writes: ‘The Abbott that matters is Politics Abbott … His values have never stood in his way.’14 This Abbott is a scrappy fighter, who will do whatever it takes to gain and keep power. What this account misses, however, along with Waleed Aly’s statement that ‘[Abbott’s] political conservatism means he understands the folly of trying to recreate the past’,15 is the deep sense of the long past that underscores politics as Abbott sees it, and which has been the glue between his politics and his values. This became more apparent once he came to power, and remained conspicuous right up to his resignation speech, which concluded by invoking a historical tradition of Christian service, citing ‘the first Christian service ever preached here in Australia’ by Richard Johnson, which parsed the theme ‘What shall I render unto the Lord for all his blessings to me?’ In Battlelines Abbott recounted the lessons of his childhood reading about heroic figures ‘in which duty and honour held the day’.16Abbott may well have presented to us as a devious and savvy political operator, but there is a notion of chivalric honour that has always lain beneath his political performance, one that has its eyes on a cosmic prize.
Battlelines was no glib title. It was the title of a warrior, a knight, for whom the sacred and the secular are intermingled. Crusaders were fighters, yet they understood their violence to be sanctified by the holiness of the mission. Santamaria, Abbott’s earliest political Godfather, was known for deploying underhand, potentially undemocratic, tactics to achieve his political ends. This could be justified, however, due to the necessity and the urgency of the cause. Abbott called Santamaria a ‘political crusader’, and in a Catholic context this means much more than a campaigner or an activist. Rather, the use of the term ‘crusader’ implies a necessary relationship between the doing of dirty deeds in the world and the achievement of sacred outcomes. What was at stake for Santamaria, and has remained so for Abbott, is nothing less than the success of Christian civilisation. Yes Abbott has ever been a political animal, but one who considers himself to have a Catholic soul engaged in a fight for human history.
In Battlelines Abbott declares his three key foundations to be honour, duty and Christianity. When these three concepts are imbricated they are medieval. This is not the orientalised ‘medieval’ in which Abbott places Islamists—a time-space some commentators have referred to as the ‘mid-evil’17—but a distinctly European Middle Ages. Our European medieval imaginaries have two interrelated sides. On the one hand, we imagine Medieval Europe as a time of the Church, of Gothic cathedrals and great theologians. On the other, it looms as a place of romance and chivalry, of the sacred quest. In the chivalric economy, the knight is bonded to his lord through an oath of devotion. Abbott has been wedded to both forms of the Middle Ages as a source of political nourishment. When he declared Prince Philip ‘a great servant of Australia’ he was implicitly, and typically, venerating these medieval concepts of devotion and duty. Abbott’s devotion to Cardinal George Pell, the most princely of Australian Catholics, has also revealed a love of the monarchical and the feudal. Pell has done more than any other post–Vatican II leader in Australia to claw back the liberalising and pastoral reforms of that epochal council.
In his medievalism Abbott has been part of a larger international conservative Catholic movement that has no hesitation in playing hard politics if it means that souls will be saved and liberal pluralism overturned. John Paul II is the heroic figure here, the pope who saved the Soviet Union from its godlessness, was embraced warmly by US Republican president Ronald Reagan, and who made pro-life campaigns a clarion call for conservative Catholics. The 1980s was a crucial moment for conservative Catholics in the developed world. In places such as Australia, Canada and the United States the old sectarianism that had made Catholicism a minority with marginalised status fell away. Rather than seeing Protestants as the enemy in a sectarian turf war, conservative Catholics began to realise that they had more in common with evangelical Christians than they did with left-wing ‘social justice’ Catholics. And what they had in common was a passionate belief that liberty ultimately meant the freedom to worship God as one saw fit.
This is why Abbott’s medievalism, his erstwhile traditional conservatism, is real and has seemed radical. His love of chivalry and of faith, that is, his medievalism, resulted in some very modern alliances. The combination of the happy-clappy evangelicalism of Scott Morrison with the ‘traditional’ Catholicism of Kevin Andrews would have been unthinkable 20 years ago. They could not have existed in the same party, and there is a good chance that neither of them would have found much comfort in the Liberal Party. But in the medievalist fantasies of Abbott, in which he has been fighting ultimately for the Christian soul of Australia, he has more in common with passionate evangelical Christians than with left-leaning or progressive liberal Catholics (including his successor, Turnbull) who are comfortable with homosexuality and the legality of abortion, are not quite sure whether or not the Virgin Mary was a virgin, and do not really mind if the Eucharist is merely bread.
His vision even—or perhaps especially—departs from that of today’s most prominent medievalist Catholic, Pope Francis I. In his recent encyclical Laudato Si’: On Care for Our Common Home, Francis (whose name is in any case something of a giveaway) calls for social justice and environmental stewardship by invoking the starkly different medieval legacy of St Francis of Assisi, hero of the Italian Left. Although hagiographies of St Francis emphasise his love of the ideals of chivalry, his legendary love of nature and of the poor was matched by his unease with institutional authority and his rejection of feudal inequality. Whatever the Pontiff’s limitations, his Franciscan Middle Ages remind us that medievalism need not be synonymous with conservatism. This throws into stark relief the ideological commitments underpinning Abbott’s brand of medievalism.
Medievalism, as we’ve shown, almost always expresses more about modernity than it does about the historical Middle Ages. When we describe things as medieval, for better or for worse, we are usually casting the period and its practices as being in opposition to the present. Hence we have become used to seeing forms of fundamentalism and terrorist violence described as medieval, in as much as they seem other to ourselves, and we must place them outside time. For Abbott the Middle Ages have offered an antidote to modernity, a happily illiberal time of Church, monarchy and chivalry. This is the logic in which Prince Philip’s knighthood—an anathema to Catholics on the Left—makes some sense. It is a way of speaking to a past of hierarchy, loyalty and institutionality, as Abbott sees it. While for Thomas More such a collusion would have been impossible, the Protestant–Catholic divide, as corrosive as it once was, obtains no more in the medievalist framework of Abbott’s cabinet. What has mattered more for Abbott, and for much of his cabinet, is a commitment to the shared Western Christian values that makes politics a servant of God. Whether this will continue, or how it will be managed, in Malcolm Turnbull’s cabinet is a story still unfolding. But between the flurry of allusions to him as ‘Machiavellian’, the fulminations of the pro-Abbott shock-jocks, and reports of resentful plotting among the conservatives in his government, Turnbull has never seemed more like Mantel’s Cromwell who, readers will remember, is haunted always by More’s downfall. If Turnbull himself is aware of the parallel, he can only hope that he is able to bind his enemies close … and that if there are any changes of leadership ahead, the instrument is the ballot box and not the executioner’s blade.
1 Rocco Fazzaro, ‘Tony Abbott, rege mediaevalibus’, Age, 27 March 2014.
2 See Louise D’Arcens, ‘Satire returns to the dark ages to make sense of modern machinations’, Sydney Morning Herald, 1 February 2015.
3 See <http://www.openaustralia.org.au/debates/?id=2014-08-26.41.1>.
4 Clare Monagle, ‘Sovereignty and “Neo-Mediaevalism”: Hedley Bull’s The Anarchical Society and International Relations Theory’, in Louise D’Arcens and Andrew Lynch (eds), International Medievalism and Popular Culture, Cambria Press, Amherst, NY, 2014.
5 Lenore Taylor, ‘Julia Gillard’s Dothraki tweets translated’, Guardian Australia, 29 May 2013.
6 Bulletin, 11 February 1902.
7 Louise D’Arcens, Old Songs in the Timeless Land: Medievalism in Australian Literature 1840–1910, UWAP, Nedlands, WA, 2012, pp. 142–4.
8 Helen Hickey and Stephanie Trigg, ‘Medievalism on the Streets: Tinsmiths, Knights, and the International Labour Movement’, in D’Arcens and Lynch, pp. 83–105.
9 ‘The halls of Europe’, Age, 10 September 1866.
10 Brendan O’Neill, ‘The state should never be the arbiter of what people think’: interview with George Brandis, Spiked, 17 April 2014.
11 Peter Costello, The Costello Memoirs, Melbourne University Press, Melbourne, 2008, p. 55
12 Elizabeth Farrelly, ‘Windmills can’t blow away a love of the land’, Sydney Morning Herald, 17 June 2015.
13 Costello, The Costello Memoirs, p. 55.
14 David Marr, ‘Political Animal: The Making of Tony Abbott’, Quarterly Essay 47 (2012), p. 92.
15 Waleed Aly, ‘Inside Tony Abbott’s Mind: This Is Serious’, Monthly, July 2013.
16 Tony Abbott, Battlelines, Melbourne University Press, Melbourne, 2009, p. 7.
17 See Nickolas Haydock, ‘Introduction: “The Unseen Cross upon the Breast”: Medievalism, Orientalism, and Discontent’, in Nickolas Haydock and E.L. Risden, Hollywood in the Holy Land: Essays on Film Depictions of the Crusades and Christian–Muslim Clashes, McFarland, Jefferson, NC, 2009, p. 13.