RedMonk | July 15, 2016

Hark Episode 3, “Getting Medieval on You”: Guest, KellyAnn Fitzpatrick

As newsletter subscribers are aware, Episode 3 of my podcast Hark, “Getting Medieval on You,” dropped the first of July. In this month’s episode, KellyAnn Fitzpatrick dropped by to get medieval on everyone. We discussed everything from Dungeons and Dragons to Zelda, Game of Thrones to Tolkien, the Arts and Craft Movement to Shrek…wait, what? Yes, that Arts and Crafts movement. Victorian England. Stephenson’s the Diamond Age. Ready Player One. The History of Rome podcast. And more. If you like references, this episode’s for you.

For those of you who don’t do podcasts, however, we offer a transcription of the episode below. Enjoy.

Stephen: Maybe it’s the location. Maybe it’s the great people who attend every year or maybe it’s just the beer. But we get a lot of proposals to talk at the Monktoberfest every year. Depending on sort of which year we’re talking about, there’ll be somewhere between 10 and 20 proposals per open slot. Competition to speak, in other words, is fierce.

Every so often, however, there is a talk that is so unique that it’s accepted even before I get around to reading the abstract. KellyAnn Fitzpatrick’s talk was one of these. I got a note one day from one of her coworkers that read, “I’ve got a proposal for you from our technical writer who’s writing her English doctoral thesis on MMORPGs.” To which my reply was a polite but non-committal “Interesting, have her send it along to the link for the CFP.”

Then the talk proposal came in and it was titled “Dungeons and Towers: Medievalism, Gaming, and the Academy.” Now let me ask you. If you were running a conference for developers and geeks, would or could you turn down a talk with that title? The answer is of course you can’t. And that’s how KellyAnn came to join the ranks of Monktoberfest speakers. She was kind enough to stop by to revisit the subject with us and to talk more broadly about medievalism, its role and its importance in media, gaming, and society today. Welcome to Hark Episode 3, “Getting Medieval on You.”

Stephen: So excellent. So, welcome to the show, KellyAnn. As we like to do to start the show, can you tell me who you are and what you do?

KellyAnn: My name is KellyAnn Fitzpatrick and I am a writer and probably, more importantly, a reader. And at present, I kind of have this like split path going on in terms of what I do. I try to be an academic and in that, I teach at the University at Albany. I teach classes and I work with the writing center. And I present at conferences for kind of academic English and medieval-related stuff and I attempt to publish. But I’m also a technical writer at a company called Apprenda and we do enterprise platform as a service.

Stephen: Indeed. Yeah, so this conversation, at least from my end, it’s, you know, originally a calling back from your Monktoberfest presentation, which touched on medievalism and gaming and so on. Which is I think for probably a not insignificant portion of our listeners, a couple of topics I think that are potentially of interest. So, you know, I guess my first question is, how did you get into what you do? Like what career path lad you down the “Hey, I teach at the University of Albany. I’m an expert on medievalism,” you know? So, how did you end up where you are?

KellyAnn: I, like many people who were at Monktoberfest, had as a child like a strong interest in the works of J.R.R. Tolkien and the videogames that kind of come out of his work. So I’m from the generation of the first Nintendo so I played “Zelda.” Before that, I played “Gauntlet” not in the arcade but on my cousin’s Tandy.

Stephen: Oh, nice.

KellyAnn: And if anyone actually remembers that, you can kind of date me there. So, between that type of kind of games that I was exposed to as a child and the things I would read, I became interested in the Middle Ages. You know I read up on it. I had some type of history class in high school that world history and we kind of covered the Middle Ages. This was kind of before the internet had this wealth of information that it does today. So I would spend a lot of time at a library looking at actual books. And, when I ended up going to college, I thought I was gonna go and be a doctor. But I got to college and I did my…

Stephen: Didn’t we all? Yeah.

KellyAnn: Yes, we all thought we were going to be a doctor or something else. I went to… I did my undergraduate at the University of Notre Dame and they have an excellent Medieval Institute there. The entire seventh floor of their library is kind of dedicated to the Medieval Institute. And they have it not only as a space but also as this kind of like cross-disciplinary program in the university.

So I thought I would be…go. You know, I would come out and go to medical school. But by the time I got through college, I decided I wanted to actually pursue Medieval Studies and kind of English jointly. So that’s kind of what set me on the track of learning more about the Middle Ages.

At the time, I didn’t entirely understand that the actual study of the Middle Ages, like looking at the history, you know, culture, literature necessarily tied in to the games that I played as a kid. Until I stumbled upon a couple… there were a couple of different books, a couple of different scholars that were very important for me for this. One is Tom Shippey who wrote a book called “J.R.R. Tolkien: Author of the Century” in which he talks about J.R.R. Tolkien as an author, as a product of the 20th century not necessarily the author of the 20th century. But that really, you know, kind of turned my interest to Tolkien in a more academic way. And then Tolkien himself, of course, was an Anglo-Saxon scholar. And so there are these ties to the types of work I was doing with like “Beowulf” and actual medieval literature.

And the second scholar that really kind of turned me on this path is… her name is Jane Chance and she also did a lot of work with kind of like Tolkien’s work and the images you come out of Tolkien. But she also was an Anglo-Saxonist so she’s done kind of a lot of “Beowulf.”

So you know somewhere between the end of my undergraduate and the beginning of even my graduate studies, I kind of had this in my head that this is what I wanted to do. And I’m glad I ended up this way because it ties into a lot of things that I work with now. I mean I’m surrounded by kind of technical people all the time. So the fact that part of what I study is the Middle Ages in videogames, I actually have a lot more kind of understanding of where those videogames come from and how.

Stephen: No, I can certainly see that. So that actually sort of begs the question. As you mentioned, just dating back to “Zelda” and “Gauntlet” and obviously going through to board games, you know the “Dungeons & Dragons” up to a lot of today’s present day games, “World of Warcraft” and so on. There’s obviously a lot of ties between medievalism and gaming which was again a big part of the presentation you gave at Monktoberfest. Where does that date to do, do you know? In other words where did that all start? How did these ties originally form?

KellyAnn: And I think I covered this in my Monktoberfest presentation. But even before, I think it was necessarily a videogame tie, it was like a game tie.

Stephen: Right.

KellyAnn: So “Dungeons & Dragons” is for me the big space where you have medievalism and gaming coming together in a way that becomes just very, very popular. There are like manifestations of, you know, medievalism that you can kind of see maybe hopping up in like smaller spaces. But that becomes the basis for taking this idea, not just of the Middle Ages, but of like medievalism itself. So the type of like high fantasy world of Tolkien that Tolkien kind of puts together and translating that into this game system to the point where almost anytime you see a game that has medieval components, especially the earlier ones like something like “Zelda,” there’s a dungeon in it.

Stephen: Indeed. Yeah, I remember the screenshot from the Mocktoberfest presentation. So you know that’s sort of some of the roots. Where do you think the appeal comes from? Because to be perfectly honest, and sort of I guess by way of full disclosure, when I was a kid I was very into medievalism as well. You know, loved Tolkien, read tons and tons of medieval history, took clearly not as much medieval history at undergrad as you did. But certainly, it was an area of interest.

And, I couldn’t honestly tell you sort of where that came from or what the appeal was. Right? I mean, do you have any sort of better sense of that having studied it and obviously embraced it on the game side as well? In terms of you know culturally, we look at the phenomenon like “Game of Thrones,” do you have any idea sort of where that universal appeal for the time period comes from?

KellyAnn: There are a number of theories about this. So any information I kind of you know give you on this has been talked about and debated and probably comes from people who are much smarter than myself. But one of the bigger ideas is that the Middle Ages, and even especially in the versions of the Middle Ages, in the medieval that we get kind of passed down and modified and appropriated in these types of games. It’s a break from what we’re dealing with today. It’s a break from what we consider the modern or post-modern world. So that it’s so different from what we do. That most of us get up and go to work every day.

Stephen: Right.

KellyAnn: You know, some of us get to get up and work in our pajamas which is always kind of fun.

Stephen: Guilty.

KellyAnn: But yeah. But the idea that this a break from that and that it’s a space where you get to control the position that you imagine yourself in. So, if you think about something like medieval Times, the restaurant where you go and you watch jousting. Right? Every customer who walks into medieval Times gets to wear a crown. And everyone is kind of the king, even though there is a king and a princess and things like that. But everyone is treated as if they are of this kind of like noble class within that. And they get to cheer for their knight and they get to rip apart a chicken with their hands because they won’t give you a fork.

So it’s this very fun way of imagining the Middle Ages. There’s really no space where you go and you’re like, “I’m gonna be the peasant who’s cleaning up after the horse” at medieval Times. Right? Thank goodness!

Stephen: In spite of the fact that, you know, according to the statistical probability if you look at the actual distributions of populations of the time period, if you’re gonna be anyone, you’re probably gonna be a serf. But we’ll sort of let that go.

Actually, on a facts bent, as long as we’re sort of talking about that. As you’ve brought up, and I think you used the example of dungeons being equated with medievalism in spite of the fact that they pre-date and post-date the period. As somebody who is academically an expert in the field, you know has studied it a great deal, does the sort of factual departures, and I’m not even talking about things like dragons which don’t exist. But, in other words the liberties, I guess, that some of the games or sort of other media take with the period. I mean does that bug you at all? Is that something that you’re fine with as a fictional liberty? Like from an academic standpoint, how does that strike you?

KellyAnn: It strikes me as good that we can take something like the Middle Ages and change it and alter it. There are a number of different ways to kind of approach that. For instance, if I were teaching a course on medieval history, I would probably be horrified by it in some ways. In that, if I walked in the first day of classes, say it was like an undergrad class on medieval history, some of the kind of preconceptions that I would expect from my students about what the Middle Ages are could be difficult to deal with. Right?

So the idea that they’re always associating the Middle Ages with like princesses and dragons that don’t exist and dungeons.

Stephen: Right, right.

KellyAnn: And there is like a school of thought that looks at that and is just kind of banging their heads against the wall. Like “No, this is not what the Middle Ages are. This is exactly what it is.” But there’s also the argument that the term medieval itself is a construct. It’s something that even within the realms of academia that we’ve kind of put together. Not that we can’t point to kind of what we would think of as a period in history and maybe point to like this happened on this date. But, there’s no event where it was announced to the world that the Middle Ages have started.

Stephen: Right.

KellyAnn: Or the Middle Ages have ended so, you know, therefore everyone go out and be modern.

Stephen: Yeah, yeah, yeah.

KellyAnn: So from that point of view, it suddenly becomes less disturbing. Even if you’re teaching something like history to think of the Middle Ages and the medieval as something that is kind of taken off and changed by people. And to me, the interesting thing is what we do with it.

Stephen: Right.

KellyAnn: For…

Stephen: Go ahead.

KellyAnn: For instance, in the 19th century, the idea of Medieval Studies itself like as a contract, construct and as a discipline. I mean that’s very much in a response to like this 19th century need to kind of categorize things and understand them and give this kind of empirical view of the world. And videogames are very much a 20th and 21st century way of taking the Middle Ages and using it as a response, I think.

Stephen: Yeah, so that actually so let’s… We’ll come back to the modern incorporation or modern, I guess, iteration of medievalism. But let’s go back to Tolkien for just a second. So, from a history standpoint, you know how did he sort of arrive on that? Obviously, he was a sort of linguist by trade. But, you know, was he one of the first to pick up on a lot of the history and incorporate it? Or is this… You know, was he drawing on traditions of other storytellers? In other words, how did that first get going that medievalism became sort of a “thing” so to speak, from a fictional narrative standpoint?

KellyAnn: Yeah. So Tolkien is… He’s born at the end of the 19th century and he’s very much a product of the 19th century. Both in that he becomes a linguist, he becomes a philologist. And philology has its own kind of like history. And it’s something that was still going on and have been a profession that he could enter into when he came of age.

But it also means that, you know, when young Tolkien decided to start reading, he could read things like William Morris especially. So he inherits this kind of like 19th-century medievalism and there is a very big, what we call the “Medieval Revival” in Britain in the 19th century. And William Morris is one of the author’s that he like cites directly as someone he had read. That he actually tries to… when he’s maybe like in his late teens, he tries to write a story after the style of William Morris. And for those of you who… Like I don’t know if you’re familiar with William Morris?

Stephen: I am not.

KellyAnn: He was this 19th-century kind of like polymath. He did everything. Like he wrote, he painted. He started a publishing company, the Kelmscott Press. Morris & Company, the kind of if you’ve ever heard of that, the type of design firm, Morris & Company, that’s what he started as well.

Stephen: Interesting. Okay.

KellyAnn: He’s part of what is known as the Arts and Crafts Movement.

Stephen: Okay.

KellyAnn: Which…

Stephen: I was gonna say Kate’s a big fan of that so.

KellyAnn: Well it’s great. And in the context of kind of like 19th century Britain, if you can imagine what we often think of when we think of like Victorian décor. And you can think of maybe of a lot of like frills and lace. And things kind of being produced at a time when the Industrial Revolution is in full swing. So a lot of the decor that people would have in their homes like furniture would be like mass produced, the result of factories, like coming out of factories. And the decor itself often being very cluttered.

Stephen: Mm-hmm.

KellyAnn: Morris and other people kind of involved in this Arts and Crafts Movement look at that and they’re like, you know, “This is terrible. We’re getting all this horrible, cheap furniture and everything is cluttered.”

And for Morris, he actually turned to the idea of the Middle Ages in terms of design. So he saw the Middle Ages as this space where you could kind of pull out these more like clean designs. And the way things were produced were not on this mass scale. That they were done by hand through these like kind of artisanal craftsmen. And that the labor involved…and this was very important for him because he was also a socialist. The labor involved in a craftsman creating a chair is very different than the number of people in a factory who are maybe putting different pieces of the chair together.

Stephen: Yeah, yeah.

KellyAnn: So for him, he has this idea, very, very polymathic understanding of the world and what he did with it. But one of the things he also did was he wrote. And he wrote travel narratives of his own travels. He did translations. And then towards the end of his life, he started writing what he called these kind of romances that were these part fantasy, part semi-historical fiction narratives, and these influenced J.R.R. Tolkien a lot.

Stephen: That’s actually, that’s… Particularly the angle that resonates with me, well, there are several, but the idea of the Arts and Crafts movement. And essentially almost a rejection of industrial production actually reminds me of I wanna say it’s “The Diamond Age” by Neal Stephenson. You know, it’s essentially a world where they have, sort of I guess the term we would use today would be 3D printing. So you can 3D print basically anything. And yet, you still have craftsmen which they call “Vickies,” obviously harkening back to Victorian England who manufacture things by hand. And there is a value attached to that. You know, just as being distinct from things that are sort of mass produced by 3D printing.

But that’s obviously an aside and not necessarily on the topic of medievalism. But going back to sort of the Tolkien topic. So Tolkien fed into, I assume and maybe this is a direct link or maybe it’s indirect, Gary Gygax and the foundation of “Dungeons & Dragons.” Do you know how to trace that? What the direct influence was or lack thereof?

KellyAnn: There… I mean and I’m not an expert on kind of the exact places where “Dungeons & Dragons” is pulling from Tolkien. But to look at the different types of what we would consider like races involved like elves and dwarves. And then the one that is probably the biggest giveaway would be what in “Dungeons & Dragons” would be a halfling.

Stephen: Mm-hmm. Yeah, yeah, yeah.

KellyAnn: Because using the word hobbit would be probably something actionable by law.

Stephen: Yeah. So similar but legally distinct, shall we say?

KellyAnn: Yes, very legally, legally distinct.

Stephen: Yeah. So, yeah. It’s always interesting to me because it’s one of those things that are obviously trends and fads that come up from time to time. And, you know, each generation has its time period that they may sort of focus on. But sort of the interesting part of medievalism for me is that it really is pretty enduring. Right?

It seems like… you know, I can remember reading, oh, god. They had to be published I guess in the late 1800s. It was books that were in my grandmother’s house growing up, crusader tales and things like that. All the way through “Dungeons & Dragons” and obviously we have the sort of mass-produced media today like “Game of Thrones.” And it’s all sort of very, very medieval. So, it’s had a longevity that I don’t know that I would have expected sort of given the time period.

KellyAnn: It does and there’s the argument that medievalism existed before the middle ages ended.

Stephen: Gosh, that’s excellent. How so?

KellyAnn: Yeah. Well, a great example of this would be the Tudors and that’s another topic that has kind of been taken up and re-imagined in popular culture like with the series “The Tudors” about Henry VIII of England. But Henry VIII’s father, Henry II, and this is probably like late 15th century, early 16th century we’re talking about then. He actually ends the War of the Roses in England, which you’ve had different factions fighting over who is gonna be king. The Lancaster and York are the two names that kind of get thrown out. And interestingly enough, another aside, that is one of the basis for “Game of Thrones,” right?

Stephen: Yeah. Yeah. Right. Yeah.

KellyAnn: The War of the Roses in England. And you can see the name was translated. Like “Lannister” for Lancaster and “Stark” for York and things like that. That’s an entire other study, right?

Stephen: Of course, yeah.

KellyAnn: But when Henry VII, he claims the crown by conquest. Basically, he kind of has a claim on the throne through blood. There are a whole bunch of people that have a claim to the crown ahead of him but he wins. His armies are triumphant. So, he gets to be, you know, King of England. And he does a very smart thing in that he marries the York princess, Elizabeth of York. So he kind of like ties the two houses together in some ways.

But the other thing he does is he really plays up on Arthurian legend. In that he, he names his first son Arthur. And you know as much as possible goes… you know, relies on the legends of like King Arthur and claiming descendency from King Arthur which is always the thing to do in England, if you can.

And his son, Henry VIII takes this up in that he… There is this giant round table in Winchester and you can kind of go see. It’s hanging up on the wall. I think it dates from one of the Edwards, like Edward II or III or whatnot in terms of when it was made. But he has it repainted in Tudor colors with a giant Tudor Rose in the middle of it. So that the Tudors themselves in terms of establishing their own legitimacy to the English throne use this older idea of King Arthur which is like going back to even a perceived earlier time in what we would consider to be the Middle Ages.

So, even then you have this idea of medievalism, this looking to the past. This idea that you can find this knightly or courtly or chivalric tradition. And use it as a basis for anything is happening even then.

Stephen: So would you say that’s one of the reasons I guess that would keep medievalism and sort of medievalism-themed media, be that games or TV or movies you know, competitive an environment? Like looking at games is just one example. Games like “World of Warcraft” more than hold their own, at least from what I can tell as a casual observer, against the “Calls of Duty” things like “Grand Theft Auto” which are certainly big titles in and of themselves. But medievalism is again basically very competitive in that environment. So do you think it’s basically that sort of look to the past, that escapism again that keeps it on…well, yeah, that keeps it sort of a first-tier option as far as media goes?

KellyAnn: I think so. And, the other element that kind of works into that, especially in other…even outside of gaming and definitely within gaming is the possibility of magic.

Stephen: Okay.

KellyAnn: Right? So, one thing that you can do in “World of Warcraft” and other types of games like “Dark Souls,” there’s always some type of sorcerer…

Stephen: Right, right, right, right.

KellyAnn: …or mage. You know, there are these elements of magic that you don’t necessarily find something like in a first person modern day shooter.

Stephen: Yeah, yeah, actually it’s funny you bring that up because I just read “Ready Player One.” In “Ready Player One,” it’s this sort of large virtual universe is one of the settings. And they have to sort of explicitly define in any given region, “Does magic work here or not? Does technology work here or not?”

So you can have Tolkien-like worlds where no technology is allowed but magic works. You can have “Blade Runner” worlds where technology works and magic doesn’t. You can have other areas where they both work at the same time. So yeah, it’s… I don’t know, the interplay is, again not being a gamer. It’s always one of those things that’s sort of more academically interesting to me. But yeah, like I said, I think it’s just very curious to see. Like I said the longevity of the material because it’s… You know, sort of on paper, you’d think, “Hey, kids are typically obsessed with things that are new.” Right? In other words, well for a lot of good reasons, political correctness among them, you don’t see things like cowboys and Indians anymore. There’s not too many kids who are interested in being cowboys. But, they are still interested in being knights and going on quests, which, yeah, I find that really interesting.

KellyAnn: Yeah and it’s something especially for kids that gets tied into the whole idea of fairy tales as well. So, like Disney culture. There’s an excellent article that I read while I was completing my dissertation. And it talks about how in the kind of Disney realm, in just, you know, talking about the films and specifically the princess movies, which there are many of. That if you ask the typical person on the street, how to describe all these different things, the term medieval comes up to describe almost all the fairy tales and all of the princesses. Even if it’s one that’s not even necessarily in a medieval context or a medieval setting.

Stephen: Interesting. Okay.

KellyAnn: Yes. So if you think back just kind of like the new classic and new Disney movies, something like “Sleeping Beauty”is it’s set very firmly something in the 14th century. Right?

Stephen: Yeah. I was gonna say you don’t think of it that way but that’s absolutely true.

KellyAnn: Yeah. In that, you can make the argument that this is a medieval fairytale. But if you look at something like “Snow White” or “Cinderella,” which is “Cinderella” is very much more 19th century in context. Even that gets branded as medieval or like associated with the Middle Ages for a lot of people. To the point where something like the princess or the idea of the princess being rescued and all the other kind of like tropes that kind of go with it are… they become these medieval tropes. So you can’t really go through much of the fairytale culture without getting some idea or glimmer or redirection to the medieval.

Stephen: So what do you think… You know, sort of when we think about those medieval tropes, right? In other words obviously, one of the things about tropes is they are to some degree narratively helpful in that they are constructs that a reader or a listener or a viewer will understand, sort of instinctively. They have some frame of reference to deal with. But on the flip side, they’re also at risk of course of becoming clichés. Right? “Okay, yes, it’s been done a thousand times. I’ve seen this. Like give me something new.” Are there aspects to medievalism that you think are sort of undermined, not undermined but sort of under, I don’t know, underappreciated, not yet discovered that may yet emerge?

In other words, when you’ve been sort of doing… well when you were doing your undergrad research, were there aspects to it that have yet to be embraced? I’m thinking of things like “Game of Thrones.” Right? “Game of Thrones” obviously incorporates a lot of the standard tropes, you know, dragons, sort of magic and things of that nature. But also is for example, exploring currency issues in sort of one of the plot lines and so on. So are there things like that you’ve studied that you think have yet to emerge but will begin to pop up in medieval media moving forward?

KellyAnn: I don’t and I don’t know if I can think of something that I have studied that I haven’t seen pop up somewhere. But one kind of image of the Middle Ages that I think I would like to see more would be more of what we get through “Monty Python and the Holy Grail” which is this very almost like disjointed version of the medieval narrative. Right?

And if you can kind of look back at it, it’s like it kind of has a story. Arthur is going to find the Holy Grail. But all these other things just kind of like pop up and thrown in and very clearly are being used to talk about other things. For instance, there’s the… Arthur shows up at this kind of farm. Right?

Stephen: Mm-hmm.

KellyAnn: This is the one where he’s being questioned as, “Well, what do you mean you’re the king?” So you’re very much talking about these kind of leader politics being re-represented in this. What is allegedly this movie about King Arthur and the Middle Ages. So, that where it’s just very clearly pointing out this is how we’re using the Middle Ages kind of forward our own agendas or our own ideas. And doing it in this very just disjointed way. I think I’d like to see more that or I think we’re hopefully going to see a little bit more of that where it’s not necessarily the simplistic, relying on of tropes but actually turning these tropes on their heads.

Stephen: Yeah, which actually is a perfect segue to the next question, which is, why should we today continue to study medievalism, right? And obviously, I have my own sort of answer to this as somebody who is certainly not an expert in medieval history but somebody who is a fan of history generally. But I’m curious, for somebody who is very well-versed in this particular time period, what are the things you think it offers obviously beyond the entertainment value that make it a subject that is worth us studying and really understanding in a fundamental way today?

KellyAnn: I’m very curious to hear what your answer is.

Stephen: Well, we can… I can go first if you like.

KellyAnn: Yeah, please.

Stephen: Yeah. I mean I think from my perspective, always having some distance from a historical standpoint is useful. One of the really interesting things, I think… I don’t know if you’ve listened to the “History of Rome” podcast but one of the things I thought was fascinating about that, aside from the fact that I thought I was somewhat versed in Roman history before I started listening to that. And as it turned out, I was not at all. I’d forgotten – I’d either forgotten or not known most of it. So, for anybody listening to this if you haven’t listened to that podcast, I would highly recommend it.

But anyhow, one of the interesting things that essentially Mike Duncan sets up in that podcast is how essentially the decline of Rome leads to essentially the formation of feudal states. Which obviously later give rise to what we would consider the medieval power structure. Right? You know, feudal lords and serfs and so on. And that transition from basically the large, centralized Roman Republic to feudal states is one that, as I said, I frankly had not understood very well.

But also, I think it offers some very interesting and important lessons for us today. Because you know it’s… Comparisons between the decline of the Roman Empire and sot of the United States are in my opinion and I would… Actually, I know this for a fact. He wrote about it. Mike Duncan’s as well I think are overblown. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t parallels and there aren’t a lot of lessons to be learned in terms of okay, this is what happened to a republic that made certain decisions. This is where we ended up.

And studying the history of the medieval period, these are some of the long-term ramifications. Right? In terms of disruptions to commerce, disruptions to learning. Frankly higher rates of death really across the board from infant mortality all the way to adult mortality. So I think it is, from my perspective, just again certainly not being an expert but just knowing what I know of the medieval period. I think that there are a lot of important, illustrative lessons in terms of where things end up, you know, if you make certain decisions along the way. So, that’s certainly one reason, I think. You know, I’m sure there are hundreds but that’s certainly one reason I would imagine the medieval period is still very much worth studying. But yeah, like I said I’m curious to hear what you have to say.

KellyAnn: Yeah and that’s well said. I’m glad I made you go first. I think you said it better than I would have. And then just to kind of add to that train of thinking. Not only like the fall of Rome and you can kind of see the rise of these feudal states. But within the medieval period, we actually see the decline of feudalism and this nascent capitalism, the beginning of like our economic system as we have it.

Stephen: Right.

KellyAnn: So like that in terms of going back to history and seeing what we have in terms of record, there’s definitely some stuff worth there. But also, in terms of just kind of like history of nations and how nations rise and fall, the Middle Ages has that as well. Towards the end of the Middle Ages and early Renaissance, of course, we have in Europe especially religious wars. Right?

Stephen: Mm-hmm. Yup.

KellyAnn: So you have Protestants and Catholics. Not that many people that even I know who aren’t necessarily academics go back to that and understand how much fighting within Christianity there actually was.

Stephen: Oh, yeah, absolutely.

KellyAnn: They do know there is a drink called “Bloody Mary” but not necessarily that it’s named after a Queen of England who was a Catholic and put a number of Protestants to death. So there’s a lot in history for us to kind of go back and learn and we can kind of draw parallels to as well.

Stephen: Yeah. Yeah, I think it’s, it’s… Unfortunately, it’s always a sad commentary. But the Santayana quote that “Those who can’t learn from history are doomed to repeat it” really does seem to be true. You know, I don’t know. I guess the older I get, or whatever it is maybe I’m just getting old and curmudgeonly, but it really is.

You see these patterns sort of play out. And when you have a period of transition between one time period and another, right? So in other words, we go from sort of history of Rome and that goes back, that transitions out to the medieval period where we have a much more fragmented, much more sort of nation state. You know in many cases, sort of warlord type of distribution of power, distribution of economic systems and the consequences of that. Like I said, I think there’s a lot to be learned there. But we have to pay attention to those lessons which is always the trick.

KellyAnn: Yeah. And then we go back to your original question of, “Why should we study medievalism,” right?

Stephen: Yup.

KellyAnn: So not just the medieval period but the manifestations of the medieval over and over again. I think it’s vitally important to understand the way that we are using these tropes in our own kind of rhetoric and arguments today.

And just one of the easier examples is the trope that we have is that men go out and fight and women should be at home.

Stephen: Right.

KellyAnn: I mean that’s something that we locate in the Middle Ages often with… “Rescuing the princess from the dragon” is probably one of my favorite fairy tale medieval tropes. That’s something that gets held up and used to perpetuate different types of gender roles. Even in something like Tolkien, and I love Tolkien and I grew up loving Tolkien, but I’m reading about him. I’m like this is a story about boys. I don’t wanna to be the elf princess who sits around or the one woman who gets to go and pretend, you know dress up as a man and fight. I want to be Gandalf.

Stephen: Right, right, right.

KellyAnn: Right? So that’s definitely something where medievalism is not going away. And if we just kind of let it happen without being critical of it in any way, shape, or form, there’s a lot of danger there.

Stephen: Yeah and I hadn’t really thought about that. But I think it’s been interesting I guess to see… I think you said this earlier, to essentially turn it on its head in some degrees. Like in other words I’m thinking when you were talking princess and rescued by the prince, it made me think of “Shrek.” Right?

KellyAnn: Mm-hmm.

Stephen: Where you have obviously a comical retelling but a comical, like, “All right, well let’s turn this trope and let’s turn it around.” Actually, the princess is quite capable and doesn’t need to be rescued theoretically and so on. So I think, yeah, it is interesting to think about how medievalism has obviously influenced many of the movies that a lot of us saw as kids in Disney movies. And what that passes on to us in the form of things that we don’t even think about. We just take for granted.

KellyAnn: Yeah.

Stephen: Like, “Oh, a princess in a castle, must be rescued.” Well, why? You know, is that essentially a gender stereotype that we want to persist or is that something that is not helpful that we need to retire?

KellyAnn: Yeah and “Shrek” is a great example, I’m glad you brought it up. Because that’s… In my field, we kind of look at that as a movement in medievalism that gets categorized under the name of neo-medievalism, which is a term that is still in development. But the idea of to take these tropes and turn them on their head and see the idea of the medieval being constantly reinvented and “Shrek” is a good example for it. As you point out, it takes the “rescue the princess” element and turns it on its head.

But probably one of the most pointed ideas in that movie is that Fiona, the princess, she’s patiently waiting in that castle. Because it’s kind of like she’s been told that this is how this needs to be even though she is this very capable princess. She almost goes through it as a ritual and then when she… It’s not gonna work out that way, she actually kind of gets to come into her own.

Stephen: Yeah. Yeah. No. Like I said, I think history is always very useful I think for… you know, as a way of removing ourselves from a situation and allowing to view it critically. Right? Because sometimes obviously it can be difficult to evaluate current culture sort of in a self-critical way. Right?

Because you get caught up in “Oh, I know somebody like that” or “that’s like my parent.” You’re basically too close to it. So by removing sort of… or introducing distance via different time periods, like I said, I think you have the opportunity to use it as a mechanism to shine a light on things that are present day. You know, that maybe, well at least according to narrative hundreds or thousands of years removed from the actual events.

But anyway, okay. So we’re sort of getting close. One question I want to get in before we wrap up here. As somebody who obviously is a gamer today, I wanted to make sure to sort of touch on that at least. Since we’re talking about medievalism and gaming, what do you think the role of gaming is? So we’ve been talking about medievalism as a way of learning about ourselves and learning about different aspect to our society. What role do you see gaming playing either through medievalism or on just its own?

KellyAnn: That’s a big question.

Stephen: It is.

KellyAnn: I think it probably has a big answer. The super short answer is that gaming right now it’s a commodity. Right?

Stephen: Mm-hmm.

KellyAnn: It’s something that is commercialized and for the most part kind of sold and bought. And the industry that drives it is one that is mostly driving for profit. That’s the simple answer. So that the reason we keep seeing medieval style games is because people will pay for them. Right?

That said, I almost suspect that if we stopped making them, people would make their own.

Stephen: Yeah.

KellyAnn: That there is a phenomenon in and of itself separate from this exchange of goods that people would use as a way to kind of create them on their own. And, I think people already do that.

The other answer is the idea of gamifying things is becoming very prolific outside of just the industry of game production. To the point that where any time we’re talking about teaching, we’re talking about how we can work some type of gamification into that or training or anything like that. There are entire fields of study around game theory. So it’s a very big field. And I’m glad about that because it’s, to me, a very interesting one.

Stephen: Yeah. So last question from me then. How do… when you know, people making movies, people making TV shows, people making games that are medieval in nature, how do they… How do you think or how do you know they educate themselves? Like how do they get up to speed? Because a lot of them are just writers. They don’t know anything about the time period. What is the interplay there? In other words, how do experts like yourselves connect with people in those disciplines? And make sure that, all right, you’re not gonna adhere necessarily to the , you’re not gonna replicate the setting exactly. But don’t make obvious mistakes and hey, here are some things you haven’t taken advantage of?

KellyAnn: That’s a good question too. The idea is, is the job of a film to be historically accurate? Especially if it’s based on something that’s like fictional. And the best example I can think of that is like “The Lord of the Rings” and “The Hobbit” movies where it’s not necessarily historical accuracy but attempting to somehow be authentic to Tolkien. But at the same way, translate it into this other type of field. I know that that when those films were made, there were a number of Tolkien experts brought in, probably experts that I don’t… that I can’t even think about. Like how do we make this armor?

Stephen: Yeah, yeah.

KellyAnn: How do we make these weapons? How do we put together a fighting style?

Stephen: Yep.

KellyAnn: So it’s not necessarily just historical accuracy but all these other types of things we tend look at and be like “Is this authentic or is it not?” So I guess it really depends on the purpose of the project and what we consider to be accurate. If we’re thinking of history or if we’re thinking of being close and true to somebody else’s vision or work.

That said, I do know in terms of game development often there’s a role given a name something like the “Lore Master” whose job is to at least make sure that in…

Stephen: Lore Master. That’s awesome!

KellyAnn: I know. I love that. I think that’s what I might want to be when I grow up. But their job is to make sure there is some type of integrity at least within the world they are creating.

Stephen: Sure.

KellyAnn: To have that type of like internal logic be held whether or not it is tied to something on the outside.

Stephen: Yeah. Sure, sure.

KellyAnn: I think that’s what we tend to see. Like we would look at a film or game and be like “This makes no sense” or “This at least has a coherent vision.”

Stephen: Well, that has to be difficult too because I’m sure in many of the fictional worlds there are people who know them a lot better than the writers do. Because they obsess over it in the way that writers… You know, writers have a job of advancing narrative and worrying about characters. But fans can be obsessive in a totally, totally different way.

KellyAnn: Yes. The cliché example of that is at Star Trek Convention like…

Stephen: Yeah.

KellyAnn: Trekkies know more about it than like the actors.

Stephen: That’s right. That’s right. I hadn’t even thought of that. All right. So this has been great. I have one last question for you and that question is what animal are you most frightened of?

KellyAnn: Aside from humans…

Stephen: Aside from humans.

KellyAnn: Because I have to qualify it that way. I think mosquitoes.

Stephen: Mosquitoes? Disease bearers you mean?

KellyAnn: Yeah, disease bearers.

Stephen: Yeah.

KellyAnn: I mean we’ve got malaria pretty much dealt with. We have quinine. We have like tonic and our gin and tonic and everything like that but…

Stephen: True.

KellyAnn: All these other things that mosquitos can spread are kind of frightening.

Stephen: Yeah, the Zika virus is terrifying.

KellyAnn: Yeah.

Stephen: Yeah. Okay. That’s pretty fair. With that, KellyAnn, thank you so much for being on Hark.

KellyAnn: Thank you.

Stephen: Thanks again for listening to Hark. As a reminder, you can find us in Google Play, iTunes, Pocket Cast, and Stitcher. You can also listen directly or find links to all the above by heading over to If you have questions, feedback, or suggestions, you can hit us up on Twitter @harkpodcast or via email at We’ll be back next month with episode four and until then, enjoy your time.