School of English, Media Studies, and Art History, University of Queensland, Australia
¶ 1 Leave a comment on paragraph 1 4 The internet provides social conditions that allow medievalist ideas to continue to evolve in the twenty-first century. It is fertile ground for medievalist humor, and a significant proportion of that humor comes in the form of memes. Memes were first described in 1976 by Richard Dawkins as ‘units of cultural transmission.’ They are analogous to genes, replicating and mutating in response to the culture that hosts them, and passed on socially, rather than biologically. The internet provides a ready social network and an accessible set of technological tools for memes to flourish. This essay explores the ways in which internet memes foreground the social relations that structure medievalist humor.
¶ 4 Leave a comment on paragraph 4 0 On 14 October, 1066, King Harold II of England was famously killed at the Battle of Hastings by an arrow to his eye. The veracity of this story, passed down through popular history, has more recently been called into question. Chris Dennis acknowledges its iconic status while at the same time arguing that the historical evidence does not support it (Dennis, 2009, 14), while Siobhan Brownlie argues that its power as a cultural memory lies not in its ability to represent the truth, but in its ability to speak to the ongoing issue of English-French relations across time (Brownlie, 2012, 360–77). Images and ideas may indeed mean something different within different contexts and when different uses are made of them. Certainly, the reception of the image of Harold’s fatal injury in the Bayeux Tapestry has changed over time. In the pictorial epigraph above, for example, the depiction of Harold’s death is employed in a unique medium in a unique moment, giving it a unique meaning as an Internet meme. This joke would be all but incomprehensible to most readers of this publication. Those readers who recognize the humor in the image will find their pleasure in two ways: the first, because it is funny; the second, precisely because they realise they belong to a small section of the readership. While this essay will eventually explain the joke, it cannot impart the pleasure of belonging to the in-group for whose entertainment this meme was created.
¶ 5 Leave a comment on paragraph 5 3 Medievalist humor is commonly and casually distributed via the Internet, most frequently in the form of memes such as this one. Memes are those image-text combinations that are passed from one social media account to another, sometimes without changing and sometimes in long chains of variation on the same theme. Michele Knobel and Colin Lankshear argue that memes are ‘a new literary practice’ (Knobel and Lankshear, 2007, 201). If this is so, then memes have something new to tell us about our culture. Medievalist Internet memes, like other instances of medievalist humor, create comedy out of incongruity and social affinities. However, Internet memes have their own specifics of medium that mean those aspects of the humor are sharpened: incongruity, because advanced technological tools are used to create jokes about a radically pre-industrial time; and social affinities because the Internet allows specialized subcultures to connect with each other more readily and affords easy participation in this new literary practice. Medievalist Internet 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, as those images and ideas adapt and evolve over time. This essay is interested in meme theory as applied to the example of medievalist Internet humor, but also explores the utility of meme theory to conceptualizing more broadly how the Middle Ages ‘replicate’ in contemporary culture.
¶ 7 Leave a comment on paragraph 7 1 A significant proportion of the work of thinking about memes and meme theory arises from sorting through concurrent and competing definitions and ideas, so it is important I take time to be very clear what this discussion is concerned with. Richard Dawkins used the word ‘meme’ in his 1976 book The Selfish Gene, as a cultural equivalent to gene: a ‘unit of cultural transmission’ (Dawkins, 1976, 192) that replicates and evolves in the face of selective forces. Memes, like genes, ‘are subject to the evolutionary forces of variation, mutation, competition, and inheritance.’ The shaping and reshaping of memes, their evolution under the influence of these selective pressures, is dependent upon ‘the behavior of hosts, that is, people in cultures’ (Rintel, 2013, 255). The term’s uses since Dawkins have been diverse across a number of disciplines including neurology and psychology. I follow Knobel and Lankshear’s model in ‘emphasis[ing] the roles memes play within particular cultural spaces’ (Knobel and Lankshear, 2007, 201). Rather like fractal patterns, memes operate the same way whether viewed from up-close (individual Internet jokes) or further away (broad cultural ideas). This essay is concerned particularly with humorous memes on the Internet. In this medium, the word ‘meme’ is usually used interchangeably to refer to an instance of and a series of. That is, a single picture of a cat in need of a ‘cheezburger’ is a meme, just as ‘lolcats’ as a collection is a meme. For the purposes of clarity in this paper, however, I have chosen to use the terms ‘meme’ and ‘meme series’ for differentiating between the two.
¶ 8 Leave a comment on paragraph 8 3 Internet memes are common and familiar. Arguably the most famous, cited above, is the ‘lolcats’ meme. A photograph of a smiling cat is captioned ‘I can has cheezburger?’ This meme has spawned countless replications (the ‘lolcats’ meme series) and a whole Internet-pidgin language. A quick survey of other common meme series may give a flavor of the range of humor and concerns. ‘Socially awkward penguin’ is a template meme featuring a photograph of a clumsy penguin, with space for a range of captions about socially awkward situations. ‘Chubby bubbles girl’ is a photograph of an alarmed-looking child with a bubble blower, who is repeatedly photoshopped into news or current affairs photographs for comic effect. Many meme series spawn and spread quickly in response to newsworthy events: for example the defacing of Martinez’s Ecce Homo was almost instantly turned into a series of jokes, where Christ’s face was altered on famous paintings and sculptures. ‘Texts from Hillary’ repeatedly uses a photograph of Hillary Clinton aboard AirForce One. She is wearing sunglasses and tapping nonchalantly on a mobile phone in the photograph, and the captions use Internet slang to imply she is responding to imagined texts from other people. ‘Bitch, please,’ she writes to Sarah Palin in one, mocking Palin’s audacity for suggesting they are in the same league. This meme series became so popular that Hillary Clinton herself submitted a version to the Tumblr site where it originated, a thoroughgoing participation in a popular culture practice that dissolved boundaries between audience, creator, and in this case, subject. Indeed, Internet memes are readily a participatory form of cultural expression. Audiences come to memes initially as readers, but can easily find themselves, as Hillary Clinton did, ‘engaged in content creation,’ thus occupying ‘a hybrid position as user and producer’ or ‘produser’ (Bruns, 2010, 26). The word ‘produser’ reminds us that Internet meme creation and circulation are human activities, a form of shared human expression. This is something people do together with a range of uses in mind. Henry Jenkins talks about how the term ‘viral media’ mystifies the spread of Internet phenomena such as memes. His argument is that the word choice ‘viral’ can ‘strip away the agency’ of the communities who circulate them as active individuals, not as passive recipients. Rather, his critical model understands that ‘people are making conscious decisions to aid the circulation of certain content because they see it as a meaningful contribution to their ongoing conversations’: appraising the meme’s value, framing it, appropriating, transforming, and remixing it (Usher, 2010). Produsers have needs and desires in their own specific instance of expression, meaning that memes have specialized cultural utility. These needs and desires are the evolutionary pressures that shape memes over time; and they arise out of the affordances and limitations of the chosen medium, and the cultural, temporal, and geographical specifics of the moment of expression.
¶ 9 Leave a comment on paragraph 9 1 For Dawkins, the survival and replication of a meme depends on longevity, fecundity, and fidelity (Dawkins, 1976, 194). These three aspects of meme replication have distinctive qualities in the specific medium of Internet memes, so I will consider each in turn, using some medievalist Internet memes as examples. Longevity seems an unsuitable term to apply to Internet memes: at first glance, it might appear that they are by their nature ephemeral. However, ‘enduring’ might be a relative term when thinking about the Internet. The widespread use of the Internet spans perhaps only twenty years. The meme series ‘Chuck Norris Facts’ dates back to 2004, roughly half that time span. In relative terms, this constitutes significant longevity. ‘Chuck Norris Facts’ make impossible claims about the potency of Norris’s masculinity. Know Your Meme, an Internet aggregator of memes and information about memes, cites Norris’s own favorite as: ‘They once tried to carve Chuck Norris’s face into Mount Rushmore, but the granite wasn’t hard enough for his beard’ (Demotivational Posters, 2009). A significant factor in this meme series’ longevity is its capacity to be used intertextually, particularly in memes that comment on masculinity, for example the Techno Viking meme series.
¶ 11 Leave a comment on paragraph 11 2 Techno Viking is a meme series based on a YouTube clip that was circulated widely and rapidly after a Berlin street parade. In it, a muscular, shirtless man wearing a Mjollnir pendant pushes a bully aside, points him away sternly, then begins to dance. Know Your Meme records a peak period of interest in Techno Viking around 2008, and the original YouTube clip has in excess of 16 million views at the time of writing. Techno Viking’s hypermasculine, Nordic appearance accords with our contemporary conceptions of what Vikings are, no matter what the historical record tells us: uncompromising, warrior-like, perhaps irrational, certainly a little frightening, and worthy of sneaking admiration. The humor in the meme series appears to arise from incongruity. Techno Viking is hard and strong as a Viking should be, but he dances to techno music, which is associated with effeminacy and gay culture (not to mention its associations with radically postmedieval technology). Techno Viking is a man so manly, he doesn’t fear being associated with unmanly things. Within this framework a Chuck Norris-Techno Viking intertextual meme was born. That intertextuality allows both memes to extend their relevance and reveals a kind of longevity, even for something as seemingly transitory as Internet humor.
¶ 12 Leave a comment on paragraph 12 1 Fecundity is associated with two things: good raw material that lends itself to circulation and recirculation; and a fertile context for that circulation. In late 2011, Bethesda Games released the medievalist fantasy videogame Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim. The lead-up to the game involved a great deal of social media activity by gamers (including myself), such as countdowns, shares of pre-release news articles, reviews, screenshots, and so on. This kind of behavior on social media about the impending release of a significant videogame is common and unsurprising: gamers are often if not always technologically savvy people who are comfortable with social media and fluent in what to say and how to say things on the Internet. Fecundity in this first instance then is related to a knowledgeable set of individuals prepared to replicate and circulate material. The constant online conversation about the game provided a fertile spawning ground for the definitive Skyrim meme series that followed.
¶ 14 Leave a comment on paragraph 14 1 Over a long period of play, it becomes apparent that many of the city guards will say to the player, ‘I used to be an adventurer like you. Then I took an arrow in the knee.’ The joke became a talking point among the already established channels of Skyrim discussion, and the meme series followed immediately. In the example above, Marlon Brando’s famous line from On the Waterfront, ‘I could have been a contender,’ is modified by the Skyrim phrase, ‘Then I took an arrow in the knee.’ The choice of intertext here heightens the humor: one of the most famous and significant acknowledgements of dashed hopes in popular culture is matched with a current joke about rationalizations for failure, refracted through a medievalist spin on the ‘old war wound’ trope.
¶ 15 Leave a comment on paragraph 15 1 Fidelity, most critics agree, is about replicatability: the ease with which replication can occur (Rintel, 2013, 256). Obviously, this factor is influenced by technical affordances (Jenkins, via Usher, 2010), a reason that Internet memes replicate quickly and spread widely. One of the most recognizable and numerous memes on the Internet is the Demotivational Poster meme series, which are often called ‘demotivators.’ Originally a parody of corporate motivational posters, they feature a standard template (black frame, photograph, large caption and small sub-caption) for making a statement that is usually (but not always) an example of ‘comical pessimism.’
¶ 17 Leave a comment on paragraph 17 1 Know Your Meme calls the demotivator ‘among the most prevalent cases of image macros in existence today’ (Demotivational Posters, 2009). Part of their prevalence is due to ease of replication. Obviously, this is a very simple format, and there are numerous demotivator makers on the Internet. In the example above, a series of images associated with the popular perception of Vikings — a ship, a fire, an axe, a helmet with wings — are framed by a simple joke about excessive revenge. The medievalist humor comes from the idea of the irrational pre-modern, especially violent medieval figures such as Vikings who are a little bit admirable because they are dangerous. Framed within the demotivator, the meme is revealed as a joke from a modern perspective about a pre-modern figure who has never seen a corporate motivational poster. The frame of the poster, then, is also a frame of modern knowingness, containing and constraining the Viking who has his back to us, and who we know can neither hear nor take a joke.
¶ 18 Leave a comment on paragraph 18 6 In arguing that fidelity is reducible to replicatability, I am following a number of critics in the field; but in fact Dawkins seemed slightly stumped by the idea of fidelity when he advanced his idea that memes are analogous to genes. The problem is that genes copy with absolute fidelity but, as Scott Atran tells us, memes ‘rarely copy with anything close to absolute fidelity’ (Atran, 2001, 356): in fact, a meme is only interesting and worth passing on if it changes, if it puts ideas in play rather than simply replaying them. Atran gets around this possible fatal conundrum in the analogy by extending Dawkins’s metaphor, arguing that what memes share is not ‘‘‘syntactic structure” (phenotype), but the underlying … “semantic structure” (genotype)’ (Atran, 2001, 357). To explain the difference between phenotype and genotype, he offers the example of West Side Story‘s relationship to Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. The stories share the same genotype, that is, the same DNA. They display however, a different phenotype, that is, a different expression of that DNA. So in the example above, the genotype is visible in the meme’s design (the corporate motivational poster), but the meme expresses a different sentiment for different purposes. The meaning of the design has evolved over time, under the influence of its users. This process is adaptation in its most broadly conceived sense: the meme adapts to (or more correctly is adapted to) its medium and its moment.
¶ 20 Leave a comment on paragraph 20 1 The Bayeux Tapestry, housed in Musée de la Tapisserie de Bayeux in Basse-Normandie, France, is a seventy-metre medieval embroidery depicting events leading up to the Norman conquest of England in 1066. In 2003, this pictorial historical record was adapted into a different medium: an e-card generator called ‘The Historic Tale Construction Kit.’ Countless memes have now been produced and circulated, using a set series of figures from the Bayeux Tapestry and a font that resembles the Bayeux Tapestry font. These memes can be read as multiple small scale adaptations of the Bayeux Tapestry, performing social and cultural work that is sometimes not intelligible due the specificity of its produsers’ needs.
¶ 21 Leave a comment on paragraph 21 0 The Bayeux Tapestry meme series (hereafter the BT series) can be seen to fulfil Dawkins’s criteria for ongoing survival and replication. It has longevity, having already survived ten years. In fact, it seems its longevity is related to its cyclical popularity. Know Your Meme records that activity in this meme series peaks every year around October and November, at the anniversary commemorations of the Battle of Hastings (Medieval Macros, 2009). Its longevity is also due to its readiness for intertextuality: most of the memes in the series employ an intertext for comic purposes. The fitness and choice of intertexts appears to be related to the most likely set of produsers replicating and circulating the meme, that is, to the meme’s fecundity. Its fecundity relies on knowledgeable and Internet savvy affinity groups, particularly those involved in ‘geek’ culture. Geeks, according to J. A. McArthur, are ‘intelligent experts’ who gain expertise ‘by will and determination’ on topics important to them (McArthur, 2009, 62), while Kendall notes that in the formative years of the Internet those who gained power were more likely to be ‘associated with a university or working in a technical field’ (Kendall, 2000, 259). The purview of geek cultural is diverse, but observable key interests are technology and the fantastic — computers, videogames, Internet culture, fantasy novels and movies, comic book superheroes, and so on — with other notable interests in fact-based disciplines such as science and history. Any cursory visit to the ThinkGeek merchandise website (http://www.thinkgeek.com), which Wired magazine claims has an annual turnover in excess of $50 million (Honan, 2010), reveals what kind of concerns structure geek-inflected affinity groups: merchandise under categories such as ‘Tolkien,’ ‘Game of Thrones,’ or ‘Mad Scientist’; objects such as ‘Japanese nanotechnology pets,’ ‘helix pantyhose,’ and ‘hand-forged feasting utensils (leather belt sheath included).’ Geek interest in the medieval comes through the entrenched medievalism of the fantastic (whether in books, movies, or videogames) and interest in historical facts (especially in re-creationism). Their confluence of interests makes them a fit set of produsers for the spread of the BT series, including the software designers who made and then mirrored the technology necessary for its replication. The BT series’ fidelity is rooted in ease of replication. The original construction kit closed in 2011, but its importance was recognised by software developer Johannes Jander, who recreated it and made it available at Bildwirkerey von Bayeux. Jander’s stated purpose in this regard was to ‘preserve one of the first meme generators on the web’ (Jander, 2011). The memes are incredibly easy to produce. The figures are selected from a sidebar, dropped and dragged onto the background, and can be manipulated readily (made larger or smaller, flipped left or right). Adding text is a matter of clicking on the background and typing, and text may also be moved, resized, or produced in different colors. No specialized knowledge of technology is necessary, and each meme has a uniform appearance that is clearly borrowed from the Bayeux Tapestry. Different expressions of the same medieval image can be produced simply and in line with individual interests.
¶ 22 Leave a comment on paragraph 22 2 Humor is one of the most significant ways that the medieval is kept in play in popular culture, and it is certainly the reason that the BT series continues to circulate. As is the case with a lot of medievalist humor, many of the laughs in Internet memes come from the incongruity of medieval and modern rubbing against each other. We understand the medieval as a period of observable and tactile technology and superstitious ignorance of science, characterized by a life circumscribed by village and church. The technology that enables the production and circulation of this meme is, by contrast, invisible and intangible, borne out of complex and ingenious science, and able to connect people globally with previously unimaginable speed and clarity. Much of the humor, then, is in the contrast between the knowing present and the unknowing (primitive, ignorant) past. For example, the Bayeux Tapestry version of Google allows searches for ‘portraits’ instead of images, ‘guilds’ instead of groups, and instead of a ‘go’ button has one marked ‘hie thee hence’: the medieval past is funny because the radical difference in technology between then and now is extrapolated to mean a radical difference in understanding of the world.
¶ 23 Leave a comment on paragraph 23 0 But there is an added layer to the humor of Internet memes at play here. Knobel and Lankshear argue that meme research should not be simply ‘an examination of reading and production processes at the level of static, fixed-in-time texts.’ Memes are, they write, ‘thoroughly social in that they require networked human “hosts” in order to survive.’ The study of Internet memes, then, is more fruitful if it focuses on the social practices by which memes are composed, shared, understood, and laughed about (Knobel and Lankshear, 2007, 219). McArthur suggests that the Internet is ‘more than a medium; it is a social space through which personal and social identities are constructed, given meaning, and shared’ (McArthur, 2009, 62). What is important about the humor in Internet memes, then, is it relies on the ‘networks of shared interests, experiences, habits, worldviews and the like that pick up on or use texts, events, phenomena, icons, cultural artefacts, etc., in particular if not socially idiosyncratic ways’ (Knobel and Lankshear, 2007, 220). The cross-referencing that goes on in memes taps into ‘affinity spaces’: spaces where intertextuality is recognized and appreciated (Knobel and Lankshear, 2007, 213). Humor has different functions in ‘mediated interactions’ (such as social media, email, etc.) because it can create bonds through shared interests or sense of humor or specialized knowledge where other visible means of common ground (such as dress, for example) are unavailable (Hancock, 2004, 58). Because the Internet allows subcultural groups to ‘affiliate across location and time constraints’ (McArthur, 2009, 59), its associated media can cater in specialized ways for narrow tastes.
¶ 24 Leave a comment on paragraph 24 0 I contend, then, that it is actually at a confluence of two things — incongruity and social affinity — where a great deal of medievalist Internet humor operates. And while that is perhaps not unusual for medievalist humor (or indeed many kinds of humor), it is amplified in Internet memes. What follows is a closer examination of some examples of the BT series, and some thoughts about adaptation, pheontypes and genotypes, and medievalism. There are many, many examples in the BT series, as any Google search will reveal. I have chosen three that represent common themes or use common intertexts.
¶ 26 Leave a comment on paragraph 26 2 Fake medieval language is one of the key ways this meme is made humorous. This and other examples of the meme do not represent serious attempts to recreate actual medieval language; rather they use a simulacrum rendered solely through word choice: archaic words such as ‘good morrow,’ ‘beseech,’ ‘thou art,’ and ‘tis.’ Other examples of this meme on the same theme function similarly: ‘bosoms or be gone with thee,’ ‘mammaries or fare thee well,’ ‘expose thine teats or remove thineself,’ ‘bare thy bosoms or make hasty egress.’ These memes all reference another Internet meme: the phrase ‘tits or gtfo’ (get the fuck out). This expression initially gained popularity on bulletin board systems and imageboard sites such as 4chan, as a request that users who claimed to be women actually prove they were not male ‘trolls,’ within the context of an early Internet community for whom one of the ‘rules’ was held to be ‘there are no girls on the Internet.’ In each of these BT memes, the same figure of a woman is used. She is covered from head to toe in clothes that hide any feminine bodily attributes, just as the gender of Internet users goes undisclosed within the medium. Other users are presumed to have bodies ‘and that those bodies, if seen, would reveal important information’ (Kendall, 2000, 260). This BT meme, then, primarily addresses those with knowledge of the history of certain aspects of Internet culture, and it is for them that the humor is most effective. However, the meme by no means excludes another audience, one that finds humor in the imagined contrast between past and present sexual manners and morality. For this audience, the joke arises from the medieval people speaking in their strange ‘olde-worlde’ language the thoughts of a modern audience, which perceives itself to be liberated from the male-to-female courtesy of times past. Of course, the irony here is that the kind of misogyny and exclusion of women represented in a phrase such as ‘tits or gtfo’ is that it is such an old-fashioned, conservative, and reactionary expression of gender roles, no matter how it is said, and not a marker of a modern liberated mindset at all. So the difference between then and now is revealed here to be at least in part imagined, propaganda told by the present to the present about the past, to secure a sense of modern superiority through knowingness.
¶ 28 Leave a comment on paragraph 28 5 Another incongruity repeatedly evidenced in the BT series is the contrast between high culture and the low culture intertexts it references. The Bayeux Tapestry is a historical artefact, kept behind glass and in low light in a museum expressly named after it. The Museum itself calls the tapestry a ‘unique world heritage masterpiece’ (Tapisserie de Bayeux, 2013), it is part of the UNESCO Mémoire du monde register, and it is studied by scholars in painstaking detail through a variety of specialist critical lenses. That is, it is clearly marked as a text of high cultural value. Many memes in the BT series employ an almost gleeful irreverence for the Bayeux Tapestry, by putting it into conversation with acknowledged b-grade popular culture artefacts. The example above references the 2006 action movie Snakes on a Plane. As the title may indicate, this is a movie that revels in its artlessness. Burr writes that it evidences all the ‘low-down values of junk cinema’ and praises it for being ‘honest bilge’ (Burr, 2006). Snakes on a Plane was partly famous for the extreme Internet hype that proceeded it, including a commitment from the creators to respond to fan input, a practice that resulted in the most famous and cited line from the film as spoken by actor Samuel L. Jackson: ‘I have had it with these motherfucking snakes on this motherfucking plane’ (Ellis et al., 2006). Snakes on a Plane, then, is clearly marked as a text of low cultural value (if not a metonym for low cultural value). The Serpents on a Vessel meme (and others like it) seems to have as one of its goals the perversion of the dignity of the medieval source, especially through swearing that is marked by class and race: Dawson argues that ‘motherfucker’ is ‘an all-purpose baseline word of the black idiom’ (Dawson, 2009, 8). Typically, it is the supporters of high culture who pass judgement on low culture texts. The disdain about low cultural forms adapting high cultural texts, for instance, is often displayed in charged rhetoric: infidelity, betrayal, deformation, violation, vulgarization, desecration (Stam, 2005, 54). We are often encouraged to think that the low-culture adaptors are meant to be shamed by such rhetoric, but this meme suggests pleasure in vulgarization: a deliberate and targeted bathetic contrast between world class and b-grade, between enduring and shallow, between specialist and populist. Such a practice ultimately raises questions about who gets to speak about and define the medieval across certain media at certain times.
¶ 30 Leave a comment on paragraph 30 1 Many memes in the BT series centre around geek subculture, where very clear affinity spaces open up: movies, video games, comics, and so on. Geek affinity spaces that I have identified in the BT series include Batman, Pokemon, Skyrim, Star Wars, Transformers, and The Sims, and there are many, many more that I simply do not understand because of the limits of my own knowledge. Ye Avengers references Marvel’s Avengers comic book series. The Marvel universe, as it is called, constitutes an affinity space for a substantial subculture and this meme capitalizes on Marvel readers’ existing knowledge. This is a standard geek intertextual meme: employing material that is significant to the subculture in a context that allows readers to view it from a new perspective that renders it humorous, in this case contrasting through incongruous difference. The selection and placement of figures is the first way humor is generated, and it is only those who know the Marvel universe who can tell the figures apart from one another given the captions are not positioned to identify them: Hawkeye is the figure with the bow; Black Widow is the only female figure available in the meme generator; Hulk is enlarged; Iron Man is flying; Captain America has a shield; Thor wears a cape. The buildings from the Bayeux Tapestry have been assembled close and high around the frame: this is clearly New York, what Richard Reynolds calls the ‘inevitable milieu’ of comics superhero narratives, ‘a city which signifies all cities, and, more specifically, all modern cities, since the city itself is one of the signs of modernity’ (Reynolds, 1994, 19). Again, these images mark an affinity space — comic book readers know New York when they see it — as well as a humorous incongruity: medieval buildings are used to represent the modern city that is all modern cities.
¶ 31 Leave a comment on paragraph 31 0 Depending on the affinity spaces a reader belongs to, there is also an evident failure in humor in this meme. The attempt to medievalize the Avengers’ names has achieved little success. The creator has only managed to substitute a word that is almost equivalent in its meaning (‘Fellow’ for ‘Man’), makes little sense as a substitution (‘Incredulous’ for ‘Incredible’: surely ‘Credulous’ would be much more amusing), or has changed word order to achieve a slightly formal effect, not sufficiently clever to invoke laughter (‘Eye of Hawk’ for Hawkeye; ‘Widow of Black’ for Black Widow and, most disappointingly, ‘American Captain’ for Captain America). For my taste, the real humor here is in the fact that Thor’s name has been left as Thor. The Thor in this meme has been remediated by Marvel, which draws randomly and inconsistently from Eddic literature and instead pictures Asgard as a foreign planet that owes more to a cold-war 1960s science-fiction aesthetic. Did the creator of this meme recognize that Thor’s name was already medieval, and thus left it standing to explicitly strip back Marvel’s remediation? Or did he or she fail to recognize the medieval source and was simply unable to think of a way to make it sound suitably ‘olde worlde’ through word substitution or order? This meme may show that humor can arise among knowing members of overlapping affinity spaces, just as easily as it can arise from the knowing members of an affinity space laughing at the knowing members of another.
¶ 33 Leave a comment on paragraph 33 1 All the information necessary to understand the pictorial epigraph to this essay has, by now, been revealed. Immediate recognition comes in the form of the demotivator design: this tells us there will be a caption and a punchline, most likely cynical or parodic. The next point of recognition is that the meme fits within the BT series. However, I note that the picture of Harold is not one of the images available on the meme generator: the epigraph’s image of Harold has been copied and pasted out of a photograph of the actual Bayeux Tapestry. I would argue that, even though it hasn’t used the dedicated meme generator, it still clearly belongs to BT series. For many readers of the BT series, this meme might be their first encounter with the ‘real’ Bayeux Tapestry, an interesting phenomenon that reverses the chronology of adaptation and ensures that later encounters with an originary text are colored by the adaptation (Bonner and Jacobs, 2011, 39). That is, with no knowledge of the Bayeux Tapestry but with knowledge of the BT series, recognition and legibility are still available. However, for this meme to derive its maximum humor, one must understand both the BT series and the Bayeux Tapestry itself: we must understand that this image is an iconic image of the Norman conquest that suggests that the ‘real’ medieval was much more violent and awful than our contemporary adaptations. That recognition of the brutality of medieval warfare is at the root of the Skyrim ‘arrow in the knee’ joke in this example. ‘Bitch, please,’ Harold says, borrowing that expression of exasperation with somebody’s audacity that the Internet in turn borrowed from African-American ‘gangsta’ counterculture. A range of knowledges is being drawn on in this meme, creating an in-group and an out-group: those who are in the affinity space and those who are not. Sean Rintel tells us that in-groups ‘have always demonstrated their cohesion through restricted code’ (Rintel, 2013, 267), and this meme certainly demonstrates that contention. The understanding that other readers are excluded provides an added pleasure to the humor that arises from making the social connection.
¶ 34 Leave a comment on paragraph 34 1 Through the BT meme series, the Bayeux Tapestry has found a new life, at least in popular culture. Its multiplicity of variously positioned figures, its simple design, its distinctive font, and its clear markers of pre-modernity render it what Thierry Groensteen might call an ‘adaptogenic’ text (cited in Hutcheon, 2012, 15). It invites remediation, particularly humorous remediation, and thus has become one of the fittest medieval artworks to survive, adapting to a wholly new medium in a wholly new moment. The BT series reminds us that the enduring appeal of contemporary popular medievalism is driven in part by its use in humor: perhaps not as emphatically as its use in fantasy, but certainly the high visibility and repeated citation of Monty Python and the Holy Grail, the high penetration of comical Vikings and knights in children’s entertainment, or the thriving subgenre of parodic medievalist fantasy have played their part in ensuring the circulation, replication, and remediation of medieval images and ideas across media. Contemporary medievalism is shaped by medium and moment. For instance, horned helmets are prevalent in popular culture’s representations of Vikings despite a strong (and exasperated) counter-discourse from historians. These horns were an evolutionary modification, under the selective pressures of nineteenth-century opera designers, that register a unique moment (the heroic nationalism of the period) and a unique medium (the larger-than-life opera stage). Viking horns have persisted ever since, especially in comedy, but are now being challenged by a new moment and in new media (the turn towards gritty realism in television and videogames, for instance).
¶ 35 Leave a comment on paragraph 35 3 Medievalism, then, is a meme in itself, subject to the evolutionary pressures that are a result of the activity of people in culture. While the DNA remains the same (is the thing that is recognizably adapted), it can be expressed in different ways for different purposes. Atran’s formulation of cultural genotype and phenotype might be quite useful here, provided we avoid the tremendous pitfall of saying that contemporary medievalism adapts a medieval essence or ‘spirit’: that is certainly not my argument. A spirit implies something homogenous and whole, whereas DNA is more like a set of instructions, a sequence made of many complex interacting parts. The difference between spirit and DNA is analogous to the difference between curation and evolution. A medieval spirit is something distilled that is able to be preserved or replicated faithfully, remaining somehow separate from its influences over time. Medieval DNA has undergone selection, replication, recombination, and so on, all resulting in different phenotypes (that influenced its success), but with a clear line of heredity. The differences in expression allow us to analyse the texts not in terms of a privileged original and a devalued copy, but in terms of how that DNA has responded to the conditions of its expression over time, in different media at different moments. The Middle Ages continue to replicate, memetically, and medievalist Internet humor is one of the ways this process of adaptation and evolution is manifested.
About the Author
¶ 36 Leave a comment on paragraph 36 0 Kim Wilkins lectures in the Writing, Editing, and Publishing program in the School of English, Media Studies, and Art History at the University of Queensland. Her research is concerned predominantly with medievalism in popular media, and with the theory and practice of genre fiction. She is also a novelist who has published more than twenty books in fifteen languages (E-mail: email@example.com).
¶ 37 Leave a comment on paragraph 37 0 1. The meme may of course also be referencing the recent film of the same name. As is the case with many memes, provenance is unclear so the date of creation is not available. Nonetheless, the points I make should still hold.
- ¶ 38 Leave a comment on paragraph 38 0
- The meme may of course also be referencing the recent film of the same name. As is the case with many memes, provenance is unclear so the date of creation is not available. Nonetheless, the points I make should still hold.
¶ 40 Leave a comment on paragraph 40 0 Bonner, F., and J. Jacobs. 2011. The First Encounter: Observations on the Chronology of Encounter with some Adaptations of Lewis Carroll’s Alice books. Convergence 17(1): 37–48.
¶ 44 Leave a comment on paragraph 44 0 Burr, T. 2006. ‘Snakes’ Strikes the Right Chord. The Boston Globe. August. (http://www.boston.com/ae/movies/articles/2006/08/19/snakes_strikes_the_right_chord/?page=full).
¶ 52 Leave a comment on paragraph 52 0 Foys, M.K. 2009. Pulling the Arrow Out: The Legend of Harold’s Death and the Bayeux Tapestry. In The Bayeux Tapestry: New Interpretations, eds. M. K. Foys, K.E. Overby and D. Terkla, 158–175. Woodbridge, UK: The Boydell Press.
¶ 55 Leave a comment on paragraph 55 0 Honan, M. 2010. Inside ThinkGeek, Where Mythical Meat Can Make Millions. Wired Magazine 18:10. September. (http://www.wired.com/magazine/2010/09/mf_thinkgeek/all/1).
¶ 58 Leave a comment on paragraph 58 0 Knobel, M. and Lankshear, C. 2007. Online Memes, Affinities, and Cultural Production. In New Literacies Sampler, eds. M. Knobel and C. Lankshear, 199–227. Bern, Switzerland: Peter Lang.
¶ 60 Leave a comment on paragraph 60 0 Medieval Macros/Bayeux Tapestry Parodies. 2009. (Last updated May 2013). Know Your Meme. June. (http://knowyourmeme.com/memes/medieval-macros-bayeux-tapestry-parodies).
¶ 62 Leave a comment on paragraph 62 0 Rintel, S. 2013. Crisis Memes: The Importance of Templatability to Internet culture and Freedom of Expression. Australasian Journal of Popular Culture 2(2): 253–71.
¶ 63 Leave a comment on paragraph 63 0 Stam, R. 2005. Introduction: The Theory and Practice of Adaptation. In Literature and Film: A Guide to the Theory and Practice of Film Adaptation, eds. R. Stam and A. Raengo, 1–52. Malden: Blackwell.
¶ 65 Leave a comment on paragraph 65 0 Usher, N. 2010. ‘Why Spreadable doesn’t equal viral: A conversation with Henry Jenkins.’ November. (http://www.niemanlab.org/2010/11/why-spreadable-doesnt-equal-viral-a-conversation-with-henry-jenkins).