I’ve written before about the way movies about the middle ages tend to present the era as one of just fundamental lawlessness, when individual might was the thing that mattered most. And, of course, that’s pretty much nonsense. The early middle ages — and you could probably generalise this to periods of lawlessness generally — was a time when people thought very much in terms of collective identity and regarded the possibility of destabilising violence as something very real and very, very dangerous. There’s a lot of caution and compromise going around.
But, of course, people who make movies about the early middle ages aren’t really making movies about the early middle ages, they’re making movies about primal humanity, and in their minds, primal humanity is brutal and rapey rather than clannish and, er, well, rapey-but-in-a-less-obvious-more-insidious-way.
I was just thinking about this in the context of post-apocalyptic narratives, your Mad Maxes and so forth. Like the typical Viking movie, most of these are individualistic narratives (although, stick a pin in this, they’re often about characters who are individualists against a tribalist backdrop), and they tend to feature groups that are largely composed of BDSM bandits rather than, say, Amishy farmers. They have a lot in common with the stories we tell about the early middle ages, which makes sense because in a lot of ways you can consider that era a post-apocalyptic one.
But if we can think about the early middle ages (and lots of other periods in history) as post-apocalyptic, you’d think that we would then conclude that we can come to some conclusions about what post-apocalyptic societies would be like by looking at the history of the early middle ages. Instead, we seem to be mainly basing our sense of the early middle ages on stock “uncivilised” narratives.
I wonder if this is something to do with people’s unwilling to acknowledge that hardworking communities of farmers and what have you are actually not such great guys on the whole. They have form in terms of organised violence against other communities, not respecting people’s autonomy, the whole bit. The Magnificent Seven notwithstanding, it’s the farmers you want to look out for. Those guys are mean.