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Middle Ages without borders: a conversation on medievalism

Tommaso di Carpegna Falconieri
Pierre Savy
Lila Yawn

Keynote Lectures / Lezioni magistrali / Conférences

#Medieval: “First World” medievalism and participatory culture

Andrew B.R. Elliott


L’identification par Habermas d’une « sphère publique » en tant qu’espace démocratique, ouvert et fondamentalement participatif est souvent identifiée comme le moment de l’apparition d’une sorte de conscience politique moderne . Compte tenu de son identification aux XVIIe et XVIIIe siècles, il apparaît ainsi comme une invention moderne, qu’il convient d’opposer à la féodalité implicite du Moyen Âge . Cependant, dans le même temps, on observe la reconnaissance croissante qu’une telle sphère publique appartenant aux classes moyennes prospères est « moins un signifiant de la démocratie qu'un déplacement du pouvoir vers une classe moyenne éduquée et propriétaire » . La traduction d’une sphère publique habermasienne en un environnement Web 2.0 tout aussi « démocratique » a suscité de nouvelles célébrations de la sphère en ligne apparemment participative, même si, dans le contexte de la critique que l’on vient d’énoncer, les parallèles avec un changement de pouvoir moins démocratique sont évidents. Dans ce chapitre, j'analyse l’utilisation du hashtag «#medieval» sur Instagram et Twitter en particulier pour explorer les façons dont ces mêmes voix dominantes ont localisé et construit le nouveau Moyen Âge à travers une culture dite participative. Je montrerai comment le médiéval en est venu à se créer, dans le contexte d'une culture participative plus étroite qu'on ne l'imagine habituellement, comme un phénomène de classe spécifiquement occidental qui contrôle et restreint à tout la fois nos capacités de s’y connecter.

Texte intégral

  • 7 Habermas 2015.

1This essay builds on my work in Medievalism, politics and mass media and analyses the idea of political medievalism through the prism of what I propose here as a theory of “participatory medievalism”. As a theoretical construct, the premise of participatory medievalism combines the theoretical distinctions between participatory culture (a term developed in the field of Media Studies, which is explored in the second half of this essay) and medievalism proper. In particular, the concept of participatory culture helps to explore online medievalism through a route which is largely – or in some cases wholly – unconnected to history, and which is also devoid of an explicit author. To do so the argument compares the modern concept of participatory culture with Jurgen Habermas’ earlier theorisation of the public sphere7, analysing memes and online discussion. Online medievalism, when it is participatory, raises new questions not about how a given medievalism is related to the Middle Ages, but rather their use in a broad, ahistorical sense. My discussion of the participatory, and ostensibly demotic, nature of participatory medievalism will lead me finally to pose a question not about history, but ultimately about power: who, I want to ask, actually owns online medievalism?

Medievalism and the public sphere

  • 8 Zoonen 2005, especially chapter 1.
  • 9 Gerhards – Schäfer 2010, p. 2.
  • 10 Calhoun 1992, p. 2.

2The first point to be made here concerns the internet itself, which is often seen as a democratic kind of public sphere, and one which proposes a revolutionary kind of community8. Since its widespread adoption in the late 1990s, it has often been claimed that the internet functions by opening up a digital public sphere, as a marketplace or forum of ideas, interaction and exchange9. In this respect (however partial and incomplete such a conception might be), it aligns surprisingly well with the (admittedly now outmoded) idea of a Public Sphere, as a space which establishes and permits “a democratic polity [which] depends upon both quality of discourse and quantity of participation”10. Clearly, as we shall see, when framed this way the rhetoric of the public sphere chimes neatly with much of the triumphalist celebrations of the arrival of the internet.

3As a metaphor for a kind of civic discourse made possible by interaction within a sphere marked as public, and in some senses owned by that same public, the Habermasian conception of a Public Sphere (and its reuse as a metaphor for online inclusion), is a useful way of exploring how banal and public medievalism is used, discussed and co-opted by users. Following the analogy, the chaotically public world of the internet seems to offer a similarly open, ‘public’ space to exhibit, expose and debate the various qualities, problems and values of everyday life.

  • 11 Dahlgren 1991, p. 13.

4Like Habermas’ marketplace and coffeehouses, the internet ostensibly offers an online populace a space for the discussion of politics, news and current affairs. The co-option of Habermas for Media Theory is scarcely new. From the inception of the internet, the public sphere has been adapted as a metaphor for the news media, journalistic discourse and user-generated content. Habermas himself ascribed the newfound openness of public discourse in part to the development of media (in his case, print newspapers and journals). In its more modern incarnation, Peter Dahlgren ably summarises it as “a synonym for the processes of public opinion or for the news media themselves”11.

  • 12 Habermas 2015, chap. 5.

5Similarly, when looking back at the growth of the internet from a vertically-integrated, hierarchical structure to a gradually and often reluctantly democratised world of representative social citizenship, the metaphor still seems to be prevalent. The growth of the public sphere is, as Habermas theorises, noticeable as a growth occurring in tandem with the structural reorganisation of cities which encourages the commingling of a series of predominantly bourgeois actants12. In that sense, the sphere is made up not only of those who are able and entitled to participate, but it is a sphere which is specifically designed for the exchange of shared content, and for the co-ordinated participation of those signalled as belonging to that space. Put simply, it is the public who therefore co-own it.

  • 13 See, for instance, Hobbins 2009, p. 129 ff.
  • 14 Cited in Sandhu 2007, p. 63. I am grateful to Dr Méadhbh McIvor for suggesting the counter-public (...)

6Of course, Habermas’ theory was not without resistance. Many critics reject the historical compression and lack of nuance inherent within Habermas’ concept of the Public Sphere, and especially in his dismissal of the complexity and variety of the Middle Ages in order to posit the seventeenth century as an emergent space of public consciousness13. Ten years after the publication of The structural transformation of the public sphere, Alexander Kluge and Oskar Negt released Public sphere and experience, which critiqued the Habermasian concept as one which “ignored the existence of other public spheres and reflected and protected the specific interests of the bourgeoisie”14.

  • 15 Sandu 2007, p. 64.
  • 16 Calhoun 1992; Hill – Montag 2000.

7Taking into account those other publics, the idea of the counter-public sphere quickly began to be hypothesised as a sphere which operates against the dominant model of the bourgeois actants, though even in this more inclusive model the link between economic power as capital and freedom through expression becomes a real problem of agency and voice. As Sandhu notes, “The material world becomes, and remains in liberal democratic commentaries, something best ruminated upon from above”15. More damningly, the realisation that the Public Sphere has never really existed in actuality16 means that it functions largely as a normative conceptualisation of the possibilities of that space, which are only ever theoretical, and do not bequeath any real sense of democratic participation.

  • 17 Sparks 2001, p. 76.

8Thus, once we take into account these oppositions, it becomes fairly obvious that the democracy which, according to Habermas, inheres in the public sphere is only one side of the story. In reality, a public sphere is neither public nor open to all: the pseudo-historical approach of Habermas’ theoretical contention is undermined by the recognition that the real power of participation is in reality only granted to a select few, and in any case is easily coerced into a pseudo-democratic model of exchange. It is also at the mercy of those with the most cultural and economic capital. As Colin Sparks describes it, “the classical bourgeois public sphere that Habermas identified in eighteenth-century England was only tenuously connected even to the most minimal forms of democratic politics”17.

9Even so, what I propose here is that such criticisms of the Public Sphere are the same criticisms that can be applied to the ostensibly inclusive nature of participatory culture. Applying Habermas’ theory of the public sphere to internet medievalisms thus makes a great deal of sense, since it allows for a frank admission of the drawbacks and dark underside of both. What seems to be a public and open space for social exchange is in reality constrained by the very structural imbalances of power which it ignores. In short, its ostensible openness masks the extent to which it is simultaneously closed. Even if the translation of an experience of medieval culture to an always-on and seemingly open internet culture looks like it is creating a new Public Sphere or a Creative Commons, once we begin to ask questions about who in practical terms gets to own and control those internet medievalisms, the rates of participation reveal more or less the same power imbalances as the offline world.

Banal medievalism

  • 18 Elliott 2017a, p. 16-19.

10Many of these questions become clearer when exploring online medievalism through its ahistorical mode, that which I have elsewhere termed ‘banal medievalism’18. In the world of online medievalism, I suggest that there are (at least) two varieties of medievalism at work in the support of these ideologies.

  • 19 Marshall 2007, p. 3-5.
  • 20 D’Arcens – Lynch 2014; Matthews 2015; Matthews 2011; Wollenberg 2018; Holsinger 2007; Carpegna Fal (...)

11The first group, which we can call ‘overt medievalisms’, are more closely related to medieval studies proper, since they cover those instances which are deliberate references to medieval precursors as something tangible, agreed-upon, and identifiably medieval. This group overlaps considerably with what David Marshall has usefully termed “genealogical medievalism”19. Very often the clearest examples of these kinds of ‘officially sanctioned’ uses of the past are most obvious when they are used by fascist dictatorships to reach back into a seemingly distant past. Through their attempts to legitimize current abuses of power, they anchor the present as a logical inheritor and descendent of a medieval precursor. In so doing, they point backwards to a recognizable and concrete element of the Middle Ages as a point of reference from which to triangulate or negotiate fraught modern identities. Such uses are complex, but have been discussed in depth by several critics of medievalism, such as Louise D’Arcens, David Matthews, Daniel Wollenberg, Bruce Holsinger, Tommaso di Carpegna Falconieri and others20.

12The second form, banal medievalism – references to the Middle Ages in which there is no real historical intention – is more insidious, and often difficult to theorise because individual examples rarely share any obvious similarities. In their banal mode, medievalisms are often deployed without context, and most often they are used not in order to approximate the present with a medieval past, but rather the reverse process. Instead of sending the present back into the past, the banal medievalism brings the medieval world in direct contact with – and alongside – the present. In these cases, the medievalism is not banal in the sense of lacking power or impact, but in the sense that such medievalisms most often pass unnoticed as references to the past, and are accepted as innocuous or atemporal references to a phenomenon understood by all.

  • 21 Holsinger 2007.
  • 22 Holsinger 2007, p. V-VI.
  • 23 Holsinger 2007, p. 15.

13As Bruce Holsinger has argued, such is the case with a concept like ‘crusade’21. Despite the backlash against George W. Bush’s use of the term in the immediate aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, terms like ‘crusade’ and the orientalist logic on which they are predicated formed a key part of a broader neomedievalist rhetoric which, as Holsinger demonstrates, prominently featured in the discourse throughout the fraught neoconservative-led War on Terror22. Indeed, ‘crusades’ continued to be deployed throughout the Bush administration not as conscious references to a medieval war, but as a generic concept used to encompass a whole host of ideas with which the term is associated, and which divided the world into the ‘modern’ and the ‘medieval’. These are politically powerful and expedient terms which mapped geopolitics onto popular history. As Holsinger concludes, the effect of this use of crusade rhetoric “has been a mass enlistment of all things medieval into a global conflict in which the Middle Ages function as a reservoir of unconsidered analogy and reductive propaganda”23.

  • 24 Finke – Shichtman 2013, p. 6.

14In this insistent usage, then, even a deliberately historical referent like ‘crusade’ can, when used to describe a present phenomenon, pass almost unnoticed from genealogical to banal medievalism. The transition from intentional to accidental implies that medievalisms are built on a fundamental elasticity of temporal frames which can be overridden in the furtherance of a specific presentist concern, such as national identity. Indeed, Laurie Finke and Martin Shichtman convincingly argue that these kinds of medievalisms always rely on complex “forms of nostalgia that become a means to forge political communities of all kinds, but most particularly, the community of the nation”24. Such a shift thus suggests that medievalists ought to refocus attention away from the direct referent of a given medievalism, and onto the context in which it is used as well as the mechanisms by which that medievalism is disseminated.

Medievalism squared

  • 25 Finke – Shichtman 2004; Carpegna Falconieri 2011; Carpegna Falconieri 2020b; D’Arcens – Lynch 2014 (...)

15In fact, once the analysis of political medievalisms takes into account the mechanisms of their reproduction, as Martin Shichtman, Laurie Finke, Tommaso di Carpegna Falconieri, Louise D’Arcens, David Matthews, Daniel Wollenberg, Richard Utz, Bruce Holsinger, and others have done25, it becomes obvious that many of these instances have very little to do with the Middle Ages, but are being used in order to attract (or even manufacture) a given public.

16There consequently arises an admittedly rather crude, but nevertheless useful, rule: the further away from the past-as-history that we get, the more is required from us as readers to decode that past. What this means for social media, framed in terms of cultural theory, is that the viewer/reader/spectator is bound up in the decoding of a specific text, whose meaning is dependent on the spectator herself. This is, then, to stray away from the territory of history, and into that of participatory culture.

  • 26 Larrington 2016, p. 1.
  • 27 Sturtevant 2018, p. 3.
  • 28 For more on this process, see Carroll 2018, p. 20.

17To take an example, it is clear that a medieval intertext like, say, Game of Thrones is not really referring very much to the Middle Ages at all, even if it is rooted in a pseudo-medievalist fantasy. As Carolyne Larrington observes, the series “constructs its fantasy out of familiar building blocks: familiar, that is, to us medieval scholars. These blocks are chiselled out of the historical and imaginary medieval past”26. As such, the series uses the medieval past as a kind of fantasy, not a historical reality. It relies on generic knowledge, or vague recollections about things which might seem to be suitably medieval27. This is because it is not based on the Middle Ages, but on the kinds of things a public audience might associate with the Middle Ages today28.

  • 29 Larrington 2016 p. 32; Carroll 2018, chap. 2.
  • 30 See also Sturtevant 2018, chap. 6.
  • 31 Elliott 2011, chap. 2.

18Relying on public associations of medievalism thus creates shortcuts and tropes. In trying to communicate that Brienne of Tarth is a knight who can hold her own in an overwhelmingly masculine world, for example, Martin and the showrunners have some of their work already done for them. They do not have to construct Brienne’s character from scratch: all they have to do is show that Brienne can act like a knight, doing all the things which knights do29. How do we know what a knight is, looks like, and what he does? We have a set of images available throughout more than a century of cinema which tells us what that looks like30. I’ve called this process a ‘historicon’ before, to talk about an image which is familiar from the narrative cinema and which connotes or communicates a historical period31.

  • 32 Kaufman 2010.

19The medievalism of Brienne is consequently not a direct reference back to the past, but a reference built on and rooted in another medievalism, in a long line of succession. This secondary kind of medievalism is embedded within contemporary ideas about the Middle Ages. Amy Kaufman calls this “medievalism squared”, or medievalism “doubled back upon itself”32.

20So, following this logic, what it means is that the image of the Middle Ages is not an innocent one in itself, but an amalgamation of a series of other images generated incessantly and insistently through a variety of popular-cultural forms. Of course, they are not precisely the same in all cases: different viewers will have encountered different examples at different times and in different combinations. However, it is the most prevalent ones which survive. So the next question is: how do these images become prevalent?

Medievalism and identity politics

  • 33 Meikle – Young 2012, p. 2.

21A part of the answer to this lies in the widespread adoption of the internet, and the concomitant infrastructural improvements in both reliability and reach. Given the extraordinarily rapid growth of bandwidth and technology, many engagements with popular culture begin or end with the internet. The statistics in this respect are truly staggering. “On average, 45 per cent of our waking hours are spent with media (an average of 7 hours and 5 minutes), and by using more than one kind of media at the same time, we cram in an average of 8 hours and 48 minutes of media time every day (Ofcom 2010a: 1-2). The media are no longer just what we watch, listen to or read – the media are now what we do”33.

22In the twenty-first century, then, the western world has witnessed a radical shift in the ways in which media is accessed, consumed and shared. This shift in consumption is characterised by a radical flattening of both the content being consumed and the mode, channel or vehicle which is doing the consuming.

23This flattening out of information hierarchies has led to some more nefarious uses of the Middle Ages. In those instances where the Middle Ages seem to offer a ‘usable past’, in a world of memes and hashtags, medievalisms can be used to fabricate a medievalist past which resonates with a range of identity politics. It is because the Middle Ages can mean so much that in recent years we have seen a huge rise in the kinds of medievalism which can be conjured up in the service of a specific political identity.

24Indeed, and here we enter into some rather dark territory, a lot of politically-inclined groups really do seem to like the newfound flexibility of such a conception of the Middle Ages. In particular, as indicated above, the Middle Ages have become among the most favoured sites of identity among far-right, alt-right and overtly neo-Nazi groups.

  • 34 See, for instance, Kaufman 2014; Kaufman 2017; Young 2017; Harland 2017.

25A recent series of articles appearing in The Public Medievalist has brought to light the extent to which this cultural mapping of ideas onto a region has led to some complex misappropriations of the medieval past. A recurring motif throughout The Public Medievalist’s series on race, for instance, foregrounded the common link between medievalism and far-right or white supremacist groups34. One of the key points emerging is that the Middle Ages, both as a period of history but also as a prevalent cultural myth, has always been a useful idea which can be used by a specific ideological cause in the service of an often entirely unconnected notion.

  • 35 Parker 2014, p. 344, n. 6.
  • 36 Harland 2017.

26A concrete example, alluded to above, is the deep-rooted and often mysterious connection between National Socialism in Germany and the vaguely interpreted medieval past. Perhaps most notable among these Nazi initiatives was Himmler’s alleged visit to Spain in 1940 on a quest to find the Holy Grail35. More overtly medieval concepts included, as Harland notes, Hitler’s creation of the Ahnenerbe as a kind of “archaeological strike force […] who were sent to Poland, the Ukraine and Russia in the wake of the Blitzkrieg to capture items from ‘Germanic antiquity’ that could be used to justify the German Wehrmacht’s advance”36.

  • 37 Wollenberg 2018; Wollenberg 2014.

27Likewise, ideas about the Middle Ages have even been used in defence of mass murder in the case of Anders Behring Breivik, the Norwegian who in 2011 launched what he called a new crusade, killing 77 unarmed people, mostly teenagers. The list goes on: the English Defence League, the True Finns, the Soldiers of Odin, and the so-called alt-right and neo-Nazis have all at some stage or another claimed legitimacy from medieval ideas37.

28The point here is not, of course, to suggest that all appropriations of the medieval are somehow related to National Socialism or the Far Right. Rather, the point is the reverse: that the Middle Ages have always appealed to contemporary politics, and that even the most modern of these regimes can find useful material in the vast and multifaceted medieval culture available to us.


29Consequently, there are two mechanisms through which the online Middle Ages are reconfigured, each relying on what I have termed here participatory medievalism.

  • 38 Cited in Hogg 1992, p. 15.

30The first takes place at the level of the themes broached, the use of medieval symbols which have been corralled into broader ideological discourses, and the formalized academic study of the Middle Ages. At this level, the thematic similarities with earlier forms of white supremacist medievalism are evident, as several scholars already mentioned have made clear. The second level, however, is not rooted in the kinds of medievalism in themselves, but the fact that they are transmitted through the internet. Because of the openness of the modern internet, the ability to generate an audience through memes, blogs, and social media means that many of the political medievalisms under discussion work by restricting that openness to form an in-group. In its simplest form, the in-group is described as a result of perceived or actual commonalities across individuals. As William McDougall defined it as early as 1921, individual opinion is not a pre-existing entity, but an ongoing negotiation influenced by what he terms the “group mind”, which he defines as a powerful extrinsic mode of thinking informed by a series of other external factors. In particular, he describes group psychology as being an essential part of identity, claiming that “the fundamental conditions for collective mental life were a common object of mental activity, a common mode of feeling in regard to it, and some degree of reciprocal influence between the members of the group”38.

  • 39 Hogg 1992, p. 16.
  • 40 Pentina – Tarafdar 2014, p. 215.

31In forming such groups, then, the “group spirit” is formed by two dialogical processes, namely “the acquisition of knowledge of the group and formation of some sentiment of attachment to the group”39. These two processes, it might be noted, operate in opposite directions. The former, the acquisition of knowledge, takes its information from the outside and feeds it into the group; the latter recirculates that information and uses it to forge strong links between members of the group itself. The power of these offline groups has, since the invention of the internet, only been intensified. Despite the greater social distance between users – the reach of the group has been exponentially increased through the capacity of social media to provide “timely and relevant information that is socially curated by like-minded network participants”40.

  • 41 Rheingold 2000.
  • 42 Turkle 2011; Boyd 2014.

32Indeed, as early as 1993, internet critics like Howard Rheingold could be found describing a protean form of participatory culture in precisely these terms, not as disconnected users, but as networks of people which he notably termed “virtual communities”, crossing the new frontiers of the internet as a form of “digital homesteading”41. With the development of faster and more pervasive connection tools and infrastructure, the opening up of the internet beyond a select group of digital pioneers has led to what Sherry Turkle terms being “alone together”, wherein formerly isolated individuals can find communities online42.

33Nancy Baym describes such a strong group mentality within certain communities:

  • 43 Baym 2015, p. 81.

Many online groups develop a strong sense of group membership. They serve as the basis for the creation of new relationships […] members of these groups often describe them as ‘communities’ […] transcend[ing] time and distance to create meaningful new social formations43.

34Accordingly, as an expression of online solidarity, the in-group transforms the ways in which marginalized far right groups conceive of and talk to one another. The Group Mind thus circulates within a shared interest built not around feeling but powerful social formations. It is in this way that we can say that these kinds of online medievalisms do not reach their target audiences, but through hashtags, RSS feeds, blogs and followers, they create their own publics.


  • 44 Eco 1987.

35One of the most obvious, and powerful ways in which the medieval comes to create its own audience is seen in the ways in which it is able to structure itself around self-organising in- and out-groups. Part of this power comes from the structure of the internet, which requires participation through tools like social networking. Examples of medieval memes offer some very clear examples of this process, demonstrating how social media medievalism requires the wholesale abandonment of any kind of historicity in favour of the playful and the social. In this mode, the medieval becomes a plaything of social media, and the past becomes anchored to the present only in its unconscious capacity to act as a repository for a pre-modern world of barbarism, primitive mindsets, violence and dirt: what Umberto Eco memorably terms “shaggy medievalism”44.

  • 45 Wilkins 2014, p. 200-201.

36It does not, as it happens, matter very much whether the memes are accurate in their invocation of medieval history (in fact, often the reverse is true, and the more deliberately anachronistic the meme is, the funnier it becomes): what matters is that the viewer/user is able instantly to decode the meaning of that image. As Kim Wilkins writes, medievalist memes “are sometimes clever, sometimes foolish, often full of uncouth language and themes, and taken as a whole may seem pointless or perhaps even offensive. But their volume and wide dissemination mean that they are a key way that medieval images and ideas are expressed in the twenty-first century”45.

37This “sometimes clever, sometimes foolish” aspect of medieval memes is found, to quote only one example of literally thousands, in memes built on a digitised version of the Bayeux Tapestry, in which the original narrative explication is substituted for familiar lyrics, slogans or catchphrases from the modern era. Figure 1 shows, for instance, which plays on the rules of the Bayeux Tapestry to create a complex joke about different timelines.

Fig. 1 – Bayeux Tapestry Doctor Who meme

Fig. 1 – Bayeux Tapestry Doctor Who meme

38Though definitely playful and foolish in intent, there is actually some quite complex cultural decoding at work here. The deliberate crossing of temporal planes at work in this image requires an ability to read ‘against the grain’, and demands a familiarity with both the high cultural product of the Bayeux Tapestry and its Anglo-Norman historical context as well as a familiarity with popular culture and 21st-century British television.

Fig. 2 – Knight Facebook Like

Fig. 2 – Knight Facebook Like

39The same goes with Figure 2, the overwriting of a twenty-first-century idea of the Facebook ‘like’ with high chivalry of the medieval era. The humour comes from the incongruity. Of course, it is possible to find the image funny without detailed knowledge of both of these contexts, but in order to understand the meme’s central incongruity and why it is funny, it is important to be able to decode both discourses simultaneously.

Fig. 3 – Bayeux Tapestry Game of Thrones

Fig. 3 – Bayeux Tapestry Game of Thrones

40A similar set of skills is needed to decode Figure 3, in which another familiar text, Game of Thrones, is communicated through the Bayeux Tapestry. Here, again, a complex set of skills is at work. Memes like these are playing on a complex ability to read two levels at the same time. The complexity of meanings is compounded by the fact that the mixture of medievalism is a deliberate one which emerges from no less an authority than the Northern Irish tourist board itself, playing on the success of the series to boost their tourism.

  • 46 Shifman 2014, p. 15.
  • 47 D’Arcens 2014, p. 8.

41Thus, as Limor Shifman writes, “While memes are seemingly trivial and mundane artifacts, they actually reflect deep social and cultural structures. In many senses, internet memes can be treated as (post)modern folklore, in which shared norms and values are constructed through cultural artifacts”46. The meme is able to capture a genuinely funny and ludic element of the past, but one which, like folklore, is dependent on and reveals the audience member’s historical knowledge. As such, memes play into the broader issues of comic medievalism: the ability to laugh at the past requires knowing something about that past, since “comic medievalism is inevitably bound up with theories of temporality, which determine not just how we view the past, but how we view its relationship to the present”47.

  • 48 Shifman 2014, p. 15.

42Clearly, here, meme culture offers an immediately obvious mode through which the self can be broadcast. Memes reflect, perhaps, a more user-friendly mode of internet culture, which allows for the manipulation of images with posted text comments without the high barriers to entry which other modes might require (such as, for instance, coding, or knowledge of html). Memes allow for easily digestible chunks of information to be rapidly disseminated, by virtue of being simply copied-and-pasted, or shared with other users via ‘Like’ or ‘Share’ functions, which repost the exact same information onto others’ newsfeeds. As Limor Shifman observes, the use of memes allows for a high degree of fidelity in the initial message, permitting them to “reflect deep social and cultural structures”, replicating those structures both rapidly and widely among other users48. As such they co-author culture through a message which is co-written by the user as much as the originator.

43The result, according to Shifman, is that:

  • 49 Shifman 2014, p. 4.

like many Web 2.0 applications, memes diffuse from person to person, but shape and reflect general social mindsets. The term describes cultural reproduction as driven by various means of copying and imitation – practices that have become essential in contemporary digital culture. In this environment, user-driven imitation and remixing are not just prevalent practices: they have become highly valued pillars of a so-called participatory culture49.

Filter bubbles

  • 50 Pariser 2011, p. 16.
  • 51 McLuhan 1997.

44The power of such memes is also consolidated by powerful algorithms deployed by social media sites to arouse the attention of their subscribers, and which use search history and website tracking to tailor content to the users’ pre-established predilections and taste. The result is thus a vicious cycle according to which what the user sees will determine more of what that user will see in the future. This cycle has famously been termed a “filter bubble” by internet scholar Eli Pariser, according to which the algorithms’ “personalization can lead you down a road to a kind of informational determinism in which what you’ve clicked on in the past determines what you see next – a Web history you’re doomed to repeat. You can get stuck in a static, ever-narrowing version of yourself – an endless you-loop”50. As a direct result of the filter bubble, the media become (following Marshall McLuhan’s now rather dated terminology), extensions of the self51.

45The Filter Bubble is a theory which recognizes that one of the most powerful aspects of social networks is its ability to structure our ways of seeing the world through the reliance on algorithms dedicated to confirmation bias. As Pariser writes:

  • 52 Pariser 2011, p. 2.

Most of us assume that when we google a term, we all see the same results […] But since December 2009, this is no longer true. Now you get the result that Google’s algorithm suggests is best for you in particular – and someone else may see something entirely different52.

  • 53 Bruns – Jacobs 2006, p. 5.

46This gives rise, he argues, to “a kind of one-way mirror, reflecting your own interests” in an increasingly narcissistic echo-chamber. What this means for social media, as most users know, is that the more a given user’s interests coincide with a member of her network, the more of their content she will see. When coupled with such a filter bubble, memes can even compound the effect of the in-group community, precisely because they are designed to be playful and easily copied from one user to another. Each iteration is thus encoded with the implicit approval of the person reusing, copying or sharing that meme. As a direct result, these memes create their own audience, defining and shaping each user’s online world, redefining the horizons of their online experience53.

47For the purposes of online extremism, then, what has changed in the era of User-Generated Online content is not the deployment of medievalisms to refer to contemporary positions in the present, but the mechanisms by and through which those medievalisms are deployed. Not only is the information provided tailored precisely to confirm pre-existing beliefs (which psychologists call “confirmation bias”), but also the lowered barriers of entry mean that the authors of such information are no longer necessarily bound to the same demands of fact-checking and authority as the journalists, authors, and opinion leaders of the past.

48This admixture of amateur writing and tailored content thus makes participatory culture the perfect petri dish for the formation of extreme opinions which are unlikely to encounter dissenting voices and which are not subject to any rigorous editorial filters. Hence, exactly the same process as that seen above is repeated. The proliferation of a series of memes or Facebook posts seems to reflect an open and democratic group, but in reality the circle is closed, self-selecting and dangerously exclusive, since it sets in motion an in-group which is inevitably defined by a putative ‘out-group’. Offering seemingly insurmountable evidence for their racial intolerance, users of these sites can only see reinforcements of their own dominant patterns of thought. They literally see a different world to those outside of the in-group.

  • 54 Dijck 2013, p. 21.

49This in-group is made still more powerful given that they are constructed by the social network itself: it is a group which is only made possible by a culture of connectivity which allows each user to post, share and comment in order to demonstrate a level of ‘opting in’ which masquerades as participation extending beyond digital culture and into everyday life. Such a culture of connectivity or convergence creates a closed system which Jose van Dijck calls an “ecosystem of connective media – a system that nourishes and, in turn, is nourished by social and cultural norms that simultaneously evolve in our everyday world”54.

50As a result:

  • 55 Jacobs – Rushkoff in Bruns – Jacobs 2006, p. 245.

Rather than acting as a forum for dispassionate deliberation, pockets of political opinion can emerge, and participants of such blog cults positively reinforce their own ideal without consulting alternative arguments. In such an environment, blogs are no renaissance in communication […] but merely an instrument of apartheid for individual perspectives”55.

  • 56 In brief, the theory of technological determinism is the (tenacious) idea that a given technologic (...)
  • 57 Harper 2017, p. 1425.

51Obviously, some of these terms and expressions are suggestive of technological determinism56. However, this is not the point: it is not that these technologies are controlling their users in any real sense, nor even that they do things in a certain way because of the organisation of those technologies. Rather, the arrangement of those technologies, and in some senses the architecture of the internet itself, is arranged to privilege a certain way of using the Middle Ages in the perpetuation of a certain – often narrowly defined – idea of that past. They do not control us, but the user-generated Middle Ages nevertheless collocate and structure our online experiences of that past57.

Web 2.0

  • 58 Jenkins 2006.

52Moving towards a conclusion, it can be suggested from the above that the confluence of the digital public sphere and the original suggestion about medievalisms as a Habermasian public sphere rely entirely on the idea of participatory medievalism. These playful (and sometimes not-so-playful) medievalisms open up the rarefied world of the Middle Ages, flattening out the hierarchical structure of publishing to create the kind of convergence culture which Henry Jenkins argues characterises the internet58.

  • 59 O’Reilly 2004.

53In order to critique the digital public sphere, then, it is first necessary to highlight the key flaws in the triumphalist rhetoric of Web 2.0. Web 2.0, a term popularised by self-styled digital guru Tim O’Reilly, describes the opening up of web tools for online publishing to mass audiences, which often makes problematic claims to have heralded a User-Generated revolution in the media. In his now famous article from 2004, “What is Web 2.0?”, O’Reilly claimed that the new world of user-generated content (UGC) “harnessed collective intelligence,” and that open source software had changed the infrastructure of the web in a move toward “collective, net-enabled intelligence. […] Anyone can add a project, anyone can download and use the code”. The internet had become, for O’Reilly, an organic software adoption process relying entirely on viral marketing”59.

  • 60 Lovink 2015, p. 1.

54O’Reilly’s enthusiasm proved to be infectious, bringing about a range of futurist predictions opted in cyber-optimism. Geert Lovink neatly describes this cyber-optimism as a kind of digital utopianism according to which the internet held the “potential to overcome the asymmetries of top-down broadcast media – and even representative democracy itself. The horsepower of the many would dissolve the rusty institutions bit by bit”60. Thus, the celebratory tone of internet studies saw user-generated networks as the David to the media industries’ Goliath. The similarities with the ways in which Habermas and others talk of the public sphere – including its inherent exclusion – are once again striking.

  • 61 Curran – Seaton 2010, p. 276.

55Indeed, it is tempting to see social media in this way, as heralding a new era of genuine e-democracy, and bringing about a social revolution which wrests control from the powerful mass media and places it before each of us to be used from the ‘bottom-up’. However, such a view simply is not the case. The ability to contribute to a discussion is not the same as the ability to shape that discussion, and neither does it necessarily imply ownership of the platform on which those discussions take place. Most of all, however, the claims of universal access overlooked the striking fact that most of the world is simply not able to join these debates. Large swathes of the world remain unconnected, or else unable to participate in the debates of the Anglophone world. James Curran and Jean Seaton note that “the imbalance of power and resources in the offline world structure the online world […] it is a self-deluding fantasy to imagine that the dialogue of the internet is bringing all parts of the world closer together in mutual understanding”61.

56In fact, as suggested in the introduction, once we begin to look closely at who is participating in this participatory culture, we can immediately see that this highly selective kind of participatory culture, touted as a democracy, requires precisely the same kinds of social capital as Habermas’ Public Sphere. As mentioned earlier, Habermas describes the emergence of a public sphere as a world in which the reorganisation of the city from the seventeenth century onwards prompted a new mode of political participation, in which the information from ‘the elites’ would trickle down through to everyday discussion.

  • 62 Curran in Dahlgren 1991, p. 28.

57Again, however, we can find in James Curran’s ideas about the restrictions of the internet a powerful cautionary note62. To loosely paraphrase Curran’s argument, he suggests that the audience is itself constituted by the media discussion taking place. These discussions take place offline as well as online. Just as the seemingly open public square of the early-modern city was the forum of political discussion, so too are the open squares of online forums becoming sites of discussion rooted in a fundamental informational asymmetry.

  • 63 Augé 1995, p. 78.
  • 64 Augé 1995, p. 79.
  • 65 York 2001, p. 126.

58These spaces thus risk becoming virtual versions of what Marc Augé famously termed “non-lieux”, or non-spaces. These are “spaces which are not themselves anthropological places […] instead these are listed, classified, promoted to the status of ‘places of memory’, and assigned to a circumscribed and specific position”63. They are, Augé continues, “like palimpsests on which the scrambled game of identity and relations is ceaselessly rewritten”64. As Neil York suggests, rather provocatively, they are the products of a society whose memory is a collective pastiche, formed as much by one component as another and in a pattern almost impossible to discern, much less control”65. If the meaning of medieval history or culture can be decided upon by public reaction to it, then the theoretically democratising User-Generated Revolution of Web 2.0 has exponentially increased the voices which can change that narrative, but only within a narrowly prescribed group of participants.


59In this context, arguments about the Public Sphere, the digital network, and the medievalisms communicated through participatory networks all face similar questions not about their validity as medievalisms, but who precisely gets to own and contribute to those communicative strategies. The question of participatory medievalism is not about the past itself, but who gets to own and control that past. Like Habermas’ public sphere, a seemingly open democratisation of political discussion is – when taking into account its real participants – revealed in fact to be closed to outsiders, to those without the political, cultural, or economic capital required to be able to participate in it.

60The situation is made worse, however, by the fact that it is so often described as being open (whereby common wisdom insists that “anyone can publish anything online at the click of a button”). The insistence on the fundamental democracy of the internet serves to mask the fact that it is not at all as open as has been suggested. Moreover, not only is the participatory medievalism of the internet not democratic in its true sense, but the wresting of power has opened it up to further ideological distortions. For the purposes of medievalisms, the fact that they are often transmitted through these memes, these filter bubbles, and as part of an asymmetrical ‘public sphere’ has important ramifications. The question of ownership is, here, important.

61What I am arguing here through my discussion of participatory medievalism is that the very thing which has made the Middle Ages highly relevant to modern discourse and study has also poisoned the chalice, precisely because it is so tempting to conceptualise the internet and online medievalism as though it were a Public Sphere. This misconception is an understandable reflection of popular and public opinion, but it occludes the most important facet of that: namely, that they are partial and incomplete snapshots capturing only the most privileged digital citizens.

62Internet memes, blogs, and social media have created a world which is inherently ludic and participatory, which invites the co-authoring of content. In this environment, internet medievalisms are an important way of keeping the past alive and ensuring its relevance to a wide range of users. However, although there is now a greater chance for any and all to discuss and play with the medieval past, it has to be remembered that it is a playfulness which is born of – and trapped in – a fundamental informational asymmetry.


1 Habermas 2015.

2 Calhoun 1992, p. 2.

3 Lewis 2001, p. 23.

4 Habermas 2015.

5 Calhoun 1992, p. 2.

6 Lewis 2001, p. 23.

7 Habermas 2015.

8 Zoonen 2005, especially chapter 1.

9 Gerhards – Schäfer 2010, p. 2.

10 Calhoun 1992, p. 2.

11 Dahlgren 1991, p. 13.

12 Habermas 2015, chap. 5.

13 See, for instance, Hobbins 2009, p. 129 ff.

14 Cited in Sandhu 2007, p. 63. I am grateful to Dr Méadhbh McIvor for suggesting the counter-public sphere as a means of contextualising resistance to the problematic overtones of Habermas’ ideas about the Public Sphere.

15 Sandu 2007, p. 64.

16 Calhoun 1992; Hill – Montag 2000.

17 Sparks 2001, p. 76.

18 Elliott 2017a, p. 16-19.

19 Marshall 2007, p. 3-5.

20 D’Arcens – Lynch 2014; Matthews 2015; Matthews 2011; Wollenberg 2018; Holsinger 2007; Carpegna Falconieri 2011 and 2020b.

21 Holsinger 2007.

22 Holsinger 2007, p. V-VI.

23 Holsinger 2007, p. 15.

24 Finke – Shichtman 2013, p. 6.

25 Finke – Shichtman 2004; Carpegna Falconieri 2011; Carpegna Falconieri 2020b; D’Arcens – Lynch 2014; Matthews 2015; Wollenberg 2018; Utz 2017; Holsinger 2007.

26 Larrington 2016, p. 1.

27 Sturtevant 2018, p. 3.

28 For more on this process, see Carroll 2018, p. 20.

29 Larrington 2016 p. 32; Carroll 2018, chap. 2.

30 See also Sturtevant 2018, chap. 6.

31 Elliott 2011, chap. 2.

32 Kaufman 2010.

33 Meikle – Young 2012, p. 2.

34 See, for instance, Kaufman 2014; Kaufman 2017; Young 2017; Harland 2017.

35 Parker 2014, p. 344, n. 6.

36 Harland 2017.

37 Wollenberg 2018; Wollenberg 2014.

38 Cited in Hogg 1992, p. 15.

39 Hogg 1992, p. 16.

40 Pentina – Tarafdar 2014, p. 215.

41 Rheingold 2000.

42 Turkle 2011; Boyd 2014.

43 Baym 2015, p. 81.

44 Eco 1987.

45 Wilkins 2014, p. 200-201.

46 Shifman 2014, p. 15.

47 D’Arcens 2014, p. 8.

48 Shifman 2014, p. 15.

49 Shifman 2014, p. 4.

50 Pariser 2011, p. 16.

51 McLuhan 1997.

52 Pariser 2011, p. 2.

53 Bruns – Jacobs 2006, p. 5.

54 Dijck 2013, p. 21.

55 Jacobs – Rushkoff in Bruns – Jacobs 2006, p. 245.

56 In brief, the theory of technological determinism is the (tenacious) idea that a given technological change, or medium, correlates to a specific result in how audiences use that technology. For instance, a technological determinist standpoint would suggest that Facebook has made us all start broadcasting our lives: the reality, as several media theorists have comprehensively demonstrated, is not at all the case. Instead, we are driven by the Social Construction of Technology – that is, we develop the tools and technologies which we need for any given moment. For more on this, see chapter one of Winston 2002; Winston 1996.

57 Harper 2017, p. 1425.

58 Jenkins 2006.

59 O’Reilly 2004.

60 Lovink 2015, p. 1.

61 Curran – Seaton 2010, p. 276.

62 Curran in Dahlgren 1991, p. 28.

63 Augé 1995, p. 78.

64 Augé 1995, p. 79.

65 York 2001, p. 126.

Table des illustrations

Titre Fig. 1 – Bayeux Tapestry Doctor Who meme
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Titre Fig. 2 – Knight Facebook Like
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Titre Fig. 3 – Bayeux Tapestry Game of Thrones
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