Getting Medieval On Your Asteroid

Prefatory note: On December 25, 2012, The New York Times published an article about a company’s plans to mine asteroids for precious metals. This resulted in some entertaining and thought-provoking discussions with Nicole Archambeau, the resident medieval historian at my house. Nicole offered to convert her thoughts into a guest blog post for Leaping Robot. Here it is…

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The Bayeux Tapestry depicting Halley’s Comet in the 11th century; today some people propose mining asteroids or spent comets.

It may seem odd for a medieval historian, but I love a good article on space research and exploration. So when I saw the headline “A Start-Up Sees a Gold Rush Among the Stars” on Christmas day, I looked forward to the article, like an unexpected present. But this was a present obscured by its wrapping paper. And as I read the article, I realized an unlikely similarity between space exploration and medieval history – news coverage that subtly mocks and misleads in favor of the easy joke.

Inaccurate comparisons with fiction bedevil both fields. As I read the article on asteroid mining, I wondered why the author highlighted the movie Avatar, which primarily focuses on the interaction of living species. Yes, James Cameron is one of Planetary Resources advisers, but asteroid mining would hardly encounter problems seen in the movie and there were many other advisers to choose from. Worse yet was the logical fallacy used to end the article on a titillating note. Nothing about the company or its website suggests they work on Armageddon-style asteroids on a collision course with Earth, but the author forced it in there. The article brought up fictional planets and Earth’s destruction at the expense of interesting questions about the commercial and scientific nature of asteroid mining. Planetary Resources and their backers (many from Google) want to mine asteroids for metals in the platinum family – why are these metals so important that the expense and difficulty of off-planet mining makes sense and will pay off? What could these metals be used for? As a reader with little background in science but lots of curiosity, spare me the movie references and tell me what’s at stake.

I see this technique frequently when authors bring up Game of Thrones, Braveheart, Monty Python and the Holy Grail, and The Da Vinci Code to discuss artifacts and issues in the Middle Ages. While this pattern is starting to change (another NYT article by Karen Jones is a refreshing example of how every article doesn’t have to have a movie reference), that change is slow.  Journalists recently did some good work with a papyrus discovery that suggested Jesus had a wife, but even the NYT article ended with – no surprise – Dan Brown and barely addressed the impact such a text could have on Catholic hierarchy.

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Witch-burning “medieval” peasants shown in the 1975 film Monty Python and the Holy Grail

More unfair, however, is a subtle undermining of topics like medieval history and space exploration by mixing any serious discussion with puns and kitschy references. In Johnson’s article, even the critic he spoke to didn’t think Planetary Resources’ project would fail, just that it would take longer and be more expensive than estimated. Hardly a reason to indirectly question the seriousness of the project with a tired Star Trek reference.

Medievalists experience this undermining all the time, though it’s usually much darker. While the adjective ‘medieval’ often appears alongside ‘fairy-tale’, which undermines its historical reality, phrases like ‘medieval’ and ‘dark ages’ are often used to suggest something is dirty, ugly, violent and ignorant. For example, an article about the Taliban described them as ruling Afghanistan with “medieval brutality, denying women education or health care.” Women were not denied health care in medieval Europe or the Mediterranean as if they all lived under a fundamentalist sect. And some prominent American schools denied women access until within my lifetime (including Westpoint and Caltech). But labeling the Taliban’s brutality “medieval” isn’t just wrong; it undermines the validity of medieval history in popular culture. I feel the impact of this when I tell people I’m a medieval historian and almost always hear about how interested they are in torture and witches.

So while the easy joke or movie reference may seem like it makes an article more fun for the audience, it more often oversimplifies and leads to shallow questioning. Planetary Resources is a for-profit company that does not have the same idealistic goals as a 1960s television program. The Taliban is very much a 21st century community, not a medieval one. By replacing thoughtful analysis with puns and pop culture, we belittle exactly what we as authors want our audiences to engage with and instead allow them to dismiss it as fiction.

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