Today I want to talk about medievalism, and more specifically, dirtbag medievalism, a kind of popular medievalism that I don’t think has been fully described as of yet.
What’s medievalism? Good question. Medievalism is not the Middle Ages, but wide-ranging imaginative recreations and reinterpretations of it. Umberto Eco, for instance, describes “Ten Little Middle Ages” in his essay about medievalism, a taxonomy that includes the serious stuff (nationalism! tradition!) along with things like Conan the Barbarian and pop astrology which are also serious but definitely not in the same way.
Dirtbag medievalism begins, let’s say, with Conan the Barbarian; it is a kind of meta-medievalism, distilled through the internet and pop culture. Dirtbag medievalism does not care much about anything that actually happened in Europe between the sixth century and the sixteenth; it cares about the idea of the medieval. While other forms of medievalism are driven by a desire for some type of connection with the medieval past that is both intimate and authentic, the dirtbag medieval is not particularly burdened by either of these things. Dirtbag medievalism is a vibe.
To be very clear, I do not mean “dirtbag” in a fully pejorative sense. Rather, I want to index yearning, bravado, and tentativeness best encapsulated by Wheatus’s 2000 alt-pop classic Teenage Dirtbag. I’m thinking, too, of Daniel Lavery’s classic “Dirtbag” series for the dearly departed The Toast. Of Bart Simpson on a skateboard in a suit of armor.
A dirtbag is certainly not the best thing one could be, but it’s probably not the worst, either.
Some key features of Dirtbag Medievalism:
1. Dirtbag medievalism is commercial, and it wants to be noticed. Its conspicuous marketability pops up as early as nineteenth-century gothic novels and really flourishes when it comes to mid-twentieth century paperback editions of same, but I’m also talking about the stalwarts of kitch like Medieval Times. Dirtbag medievalism loves a themed beverage and a turkey leg. Is it accurate? Who cares if it’s big and fun! (Ancillary to the gothic novel point, I’d be willing to make the case that Horace Walpole’s Strawberry Hill is, among other things, an early if somewhat rarified example of dirtbag medievalism, medievalism of all stripes often bearing a close relationship to camp.)
2. Because it is a creature of mass media, dirtbag medievalism finds you, even when it purports to be a source of arcane knowledge. Dirtbag medievalism is buying a deck of tarot cards and an incense burner shaped like a dragon at Spenser Gifts, because you’re fifteen and you’re already at the mall and Katie’s mom isn’t coming to pick you up until 3:30.
3. Dirtbag medievalism is accessible. It is not about nuance. Medieval TikTok is an example, a joyful one, of dirtbag medievalism. Historical fashion Instagram is not.
4. Dirtbag medievalism might gesture toward historical accuracy, but it is not too worried about it. In this, it is closely Eco’s concept of the Middle Ages as pretext, but if one were to dispense with the medieval allusions or settings, the dirtbag medieval would lose much of its interest.
Sometimes, as in the case of Tolkien enthusiasts or avid D&D players the medievalism takes on its own standards of authenticity and the historical referent becomes largely superfluous (Tolkien’s novels, in the first instance, are not dirtbag medievalism, however).
5. Dirtbag medievalism is exciting, it wants to thrill you. The Iron Dragon roller coaster at Cedar Point owes its branding to Dirtbag Medievalism. Disney traffics in a wide array of medievalisms, but mostly just the villainesses, dark inverses of the princesses, are dirtbag
6. Dirtbag medievalism, like all medievalisms, is very often more about the present telling on itself than the past.
7. Dirtbag medievalism, in contrast to some other forms of medievalism, does not aspire to cultural authority or, if it does, it situates itself in opposition to dominant forms of authority. Hence the appeal of gothic script to teenagers starting heavy metal bands.
8. Dirtbag medievalism is ideologically porous. Because of this it can be a gateway into more strident forms of ideologically motivated medievalism. Dan Brown’s books (a prime example of dirtbag medievalism) offer a version thinking about the medieval past that’s a short jump to much darker places
9. Dirtbag medievalism is affectively earnest but it is not primarily educational. Tomie de Paola’s beloved children’s book Strega Nona is not an example of dirtbag medievalism. Mussgorsky’s the Hut of Baba Yaga section from Pictures at an Exhibition is not dirtbag medievalism, but ELP’s prog rock rendition of it definitely is.
10. Dirtbag medievalism can be a matter of intention or reception but it is more often the later. The writers of Big Bang Theory including a joke about the Miller’s Tale is dirtbag medievalism, but probably not received as such. Conversely, the music of Led Zeppelin is intended and received as such. Scary intense Scandinavian black metal is probably not intended as such, but enjoyed in a suburban basement, it may well be.
Ultimately, though, like most forms of medievalism, and most ways of loving the past, dirtbag medievalism is weird and recursive and personal. It shifts around to meet our immediate and often fairly embarrassing needs and desires, making it hard to pin down in list form.
And here, in closing, is where I should admit that my interest in this phenomenon is partly personal: whatever lofty reasons I might offer for the fact that I teach and research medieval English literature as an adult, the fact remains that my earliest impressions of the Middle Ages were shaped by the detritus of a 90s suburban childhood and an adolescence throughout much of which I rocked a look that could charitably be described as “mall goth.”
The dirtbag medieval is a key part of my scholarly genealogy and I see no particular reason to disavow it. I was just a teenage dirtbag, baby, and I have the chain-mail gloves purchased at my local Ren Faire to prove it. Listen to Iron Maiden, maybe, with me?
Megan L. Cook still wears a cape on select social occasions.