In Response to Paul Sturtevant

On 11 May 2018, Paul Sturtevant‘s “What if Thanos’s Plan in Avengers: Infinity War Actually Happened? It Already Did (Sort Of)” appeared in the online Washington Post. In the article, which opens with an appropriate spoiler warning, Sturtevant connects the cinema-suggested effects of rapid depopulation to the historically observed effects of rapid depopulation in one of the most prominent occasions thereof: the Black Death. The article points out the spread and indiscrimination of the plague and traces some of the notable early reactions to the pestilential wave: self-flagellation, religious tensions, hedonistic fatalism, and disruption of preexisting social hierarchies due to sudden release of material wealth and collapse of systems of production. Sturtevant goes on to point out that Europe returned to stability soon after the wave of devastation occasioned by the disease, pointing to it as a seemingly paradoxical beacon of hope against similarly destructive events that many envision coming.

I’ve had the good fortune to meet Sturtevant (head of the excellent website, The Public Medievalist) and the even better fortune to read his 2018 book, The Middle Ages in Popular Imagination (my review of which is forthcoming here and in a couple of other places), and it is always a pleasure to read his work. Having the chance to do so again in the Post is therefore welcome, and it is good to see how he continues to link contemporary mainstream cinema to the medieval. It is also good to see accessible medieval scholarship in a far-reaching platform, and it is better to see that scholarship used to promote a positive message, rather than the denigration usually meant or implied by references to the medieval (by non-medievalists, of course; those of use who dedicate ourselves to medieval studies as a field tend to see it as no less wrong-headed than the current epoch–worse in some ways, true, but better in others).

One point at which I have some small issue with the article is in the fourth- and fifth-to-last paragraphs:

The old order was indeed undone. That was not necessarily a bad thing, in Gottfried’s telling. Old class boundaries crumbled as “cheap, abundant human labor” disappeared. New technologies and new equalities arose in its place. The shortage of cheap labor helped break the system of serfdom, and promoted the growth of the middle class.

But unlike what Thanos seems to expect of the universe, the new world that rose from the ashes of the Black Death was not a more ecologically sustainable one. It did not result in reduced consumption of natural resources long term, and notably, within a handful of generations, the population of Europe rebounded completely.

The latter paragraph implies that, post-Plague, things returned very much to the way they were pre-Plague. Such rapacity as had been in place was not set aside, such population pressures as had been in place returned. But while the European middle class did arise largely in the wake of the Plague in Europe, it did not do so through the elimination of the lower socioeconomic classes; there were still many poor, many downtrodden, and those in power still wielded arbitrary, terrible authority over others. The population returned to its earlier levels, so the labor supply did, as well, and the addition or enhancement of an intervening social stratum between the highest and the lowest likely only made for another group happy to keep others “in their places”–so I have to wonder if the “equalities” in the former paragraph should read “inequalities” instead.

That is a minor point, however, against the excellent springboard for thought and consideration Sturtevant offers in his article. He points to a potential for much medievalist work to be done with the movie that gives rise to the piece, and there is no small delight in following an idea forward, even one that is voiced in a work of fiction featuring purple people in awkward poses. Too, again, the idea that the medieval points toward hope rather than a dirty, dreadful despair is a welcome message to see. There seems to be a need for it, in any event.

Help me keep the past of penury from becoming the present?

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