Today’s post is an extract from the fabulous chapter on medieval memes by Maggie Williams and Lauren Razzore.
Read more in Medieval Afterlives in Contemporary Culture or see the home page on this site.
Medieval Memes MAGGIE M. WILLIAMS AND LAUREN C. RAZZORE — Modern pop cultural references and Internet memes make great tapestries. ( http://www.mentalfl oss.com /blogs/archives/49408) WHAT DO CHUCK NORRIS, KEANU REEVES AND THE MIDDLE AGES HAVE IN COMMON? The popular HBO series Game of Thrones broadcast a hybrid medieval/modernity onto screens across the globe. From televisions to laptops to iPads and iPhones, people revelled in the fantasy of an imagined pseudo-Middle-Ages filled with violence, sex and power. Regardless of ongoing debates about Game of Thrones ’ medievalism, its ubiquity made it ripe for use in internet memes. In one example, a still image from the show captures two young, handsome characters against the frozen landscape of the northernmost part of their world, ‘ beyond the wall ’ . A phrase appears above and below the fi gures, as if an urgent message were passing between them. The text reads: ‘ You Don ’ t Understand, They ’ re Going to Make Memes About It. ’ An internet meme consists of a still (or sometimes animated) image with a short piece of text superimposed over the scene. Meme generator websites allow users to collage together stock photographs, illustrations and original phrases, sometimes adding animation and even music. Designers select from a range of images depicting everything from Chuck Norris wielding two semi-automatic weapons to adorable cuddly kittens. Next, they can choose to build upon standardized phrases or craft their own messages to accompany the scene. Cat memes are particularly popular, and we discuss that phenomenon in greater detail below. Other examples use photos of celebrities, such as Chuck Norris or Keanu Reeves. For instance, a series of memes called ‘ Conspiracy Keanu ’ consists of a dishevelled and frightened looking Reeves in a still from the 1989 fi lm Bill and Ted ’ s Excellent Adventure . As the website Medieval Afterlives.indb 322 1/14/2015 7:08:36 PMMEDIEVAL MEMES 323 http://www.knowyourmeme.com explains, the image is juxtaposed with ‘ paranoid conjectures and absurdly philosophical questions ’ such as, ‘ What if the CIA invented dinosaurs to discourage time travel? ’ The resulting memes are ubiquitous in contemporary internet culture. In this chapter, we examine their role as visual phenomena that embody a collaborative method prevalent in digital media. ……… WHAT ’ S BEYOND THE BAYEUX TAPESTRY MEME? The Medieval History Ryan Gosling Meme is a cult favourite among medievalists of all persuasions. Taking a different approach, the Ryan Gosling meme uses modern visuals with dense verbal references to the history and culture of medieval Europe. Still shots of Canadian heartthrob Ryan Gosling are paired with humorous statements about medieval history. Originally, the Ryan Gosling ‘ Hey Girl ’ series of memes was not particular to the Middle Ages; the images first appeared on a Tumblr site called ‘ Fuck Yeah! Ryan Gosling ’ and the phrases were silly but often straightforward, such as ‘ Hey Girl, Paris just isn’t the same without you. ’ The popularity of the series soared, and several single-themed derivatives emerged, such as Feminist Ryan Gosling, which has since spawned a book, and threads devoted to everything from typography to biostatistics. Each time, the utterance begins with the phrase ‘ Hey Girl, ’ Gosling ’s come-on line that echoes the Bayeux Tapestry ’s hic . Once the image has called out to the viewer in this way, the language shifts into highly specialized content that is intended to appeal to audiences with extensive knowledge of a given subject, in this case: medieval culture. In some examples, the reference is not too difficult to decode, such as the image of Gosling on the phone with the accompanying text reading, ‘ Hey Girl, Give me a second, I ’m calling the museum to complain about the tour guide we heard use the term “ dark ages. ” ’ ( http://medievalhistorianryangosling.tumblr.com/page/4 ). Others are far more obtuse, such as the black-and-white profile shot of Gosling with stubbly facial hair that reads, ‘ Hey Girl, Do I think we should move in together? Hmmm … that ’s a toughie because you know at the moment I ’m all about Peter Abelard, so I ’m going to have to go with sic et non . ’ (http:/medievalhistorianryangosling.tumblr.com/page/5 ) The Ryan Gosling meme operates primarily on a verbal level, but without the visual imagery, the joke would fall flat. Like the Bayeux Tapestry meme, Medieval Ryan Gosling offers a collage of specialized insider knowledge about the past and broadly accessible tropes from popular culture, but in this case, the scenario is reversed. With so many dense inside jokes, the Ryan Gosling meme almost serves the opposite function of the democratizing Bayeux Tapestry meme. Medieval Ryan Gosling re-creates the ivory towers of academia in cyberspace, only offering access to those in the know. Judgemental Medieval Saint ( http://www.quickmeme.com/Judgemental-Medieval-Saint ) operates similarly, but with a lesser-known image paired with more accessible language. Using a photograph of a sixteenth-century reliquary bust, probably depicting a companion of St Ursula, the meme departs from a relatively obscure visual image. New digital images of the work appeared on the internet in 2011, when the sculpture was included in the travelling exhibition, Treasures of Heaven . Once juxtaposed with reproachful statements like, ‘ yes, of course it ’s a sin, ’ the memes reinvent the emotional impact of the figure. For its original audiences, the woman ’ s slightly cocked chin and slanted eyes probably suggested sympathy, an invitation to intercede in prayer. But, somehow the addition of phrases like ‘ You ’re going out looking like that? ’ and ‘ O Rly? ’ transform the same expression into a condescending semi-snarl. The same dynamic between image and text can be said to characterize Medieval Gangsta( http://www.quickmeme.com /Medieval-Gangsta/?upcoming). In this example, a brownskinned man stands in a modern office wearing a striped t-shirt and chain mail. He gazes knowingly at the viewer while throwing a gang sign with his left hand. Behind him, we can see stark cubicles and the dreaded talkative co-worker approaching. Captions offer such mash-ups as ‘ Sippin on … mead and juice ’ , a reference to the Snoop Dogg song ‘ Gin and Juice ’ , and ‘ Dr. Tre … Buchet ’ , a pun on the hip hop mogul Dr Dre and the medieval war machine, the trebuchet. Here, there is a playful exchange between the man ’s undoubtedly medieval attire, and some very familiar references to contemporary culture (e.g. hip-hop). There is also a sense of shared misery in the banality of the modern workplace. We are clearly observing a set of office mates goofing off at work, but we are not made to feel unwelcome. On the contrary, the figure in chain mail makes eye contact with us, perhaps giving us a look of gentle chastisement, as if we were the practical joker now taking his picture. The whole tone is irreverent, and both visual and verbal references to the European Middle Ages are quite understandable. The text complicates matters a bit, but rarely sidesteps into the densely specialized texts of something like Medieval Ryan Gosling . The imagery of the chain mail recurs in another significant meme: Medieval Kitty. In the image, a green-eyed cat gazes off to the left with a chain mail hood photo-shopped over its head. Users have added any number of tag lines, in English, Spanish, Arabic and a range of other languages. One of our favourite examples declares: ‘ Come at me bro, I would own you. ’ This coupling of a cat picture with nonsensical text borders on the meme genre known as a LOLcat. Beginning with an early example called ‘ I Can Has Cheezburger?, ’ the LOLcat phenomenon was instrumental to the development of medieval memes. The original LOLcat (Laugh/ing-Out-Loud-cat) portrayed a fl uffy grey cat with the title phrase emblazoned in broken English across the top and bottom of the frame. It gained rapid popularity and remains among the pantheon of early internet memes. Recently, LOLcat memes have even crossed into the world of ‘ high art, ’ appearing in a 2012 exhibition at the Framer ’ s Gallery in London. The show featured original works by designers, photographers, illustrators, and other artists, and it was called ‘ LOLCAT – TEH EXHIBISHUN. ’ In another interesting case, the popularity of internet cat memes has spawned a renewed interest in historical imagery of cats (and mice). At first, researchers discovered nineteenth century photographs by Harry Whittier Frees that depicted cats in amusing scenarios. Some were wearing human clothing, others played on see-saws or drank from tea cups at elegantly set tables. From there, such established historical institutions as the British Library began to publicize earlier images of cats – particularly those that appear in the margins of medieval manuscripts. The title of the BL ’s blog post? ‘ Lolcats of the Middle Ages. ’ What interests us the most about the phenomenon of the medieval meme is its inherent inclusivity. With the exception of some highly specialized examples (such as the Ryan Gosling meme), many medieval memes allow professionally trained medievalists and ‘ amateurs ’ open access to the same jokes. As the case of the LOLcats demonstrates, scholars, artists, historians and the general public are presently involved in a genuine dialogue about the links between past and present visual cultures. Surely, that kind of conversation is invaluable, and we hope to see it continue and develop in the future. To quote literary historian Carolyn Dinshaw, such broad interest in medieval culture should make us think about ‘ the sources of scholarly research and knowledge, and the potentials for opening them up ’ .