On Desecration and Revolt: Then and Now

Like most people, I spent yesterday evening glued to the news from Washington. The unprecedented scenes from the US capitol reminded me a lot of moments of violent desecration during medieval uprisings. Pictures of that guy lounging on the dais in a ‘Viking’ helmet (Vikings didn’t wear horned helmets, btw) and the other guy with his legs up on Nancy Pelosi’s desk made me think of the Parisian mob led by the merchant Étienne Marcel, which forced its way into the royal palace in 1358. After listening to a fiery speech outlining their grievances, the mob invaded the Dauphin’s bedchamber, killed two of his friends before his eyes, and made him wear one of their red-and-blue partisan hoods. Chroniclers and other contemporaries, including many who had previously sympathised with Marcel’s cause, found these acts profoundly shocking. As with yesterday’s events in Washington, this was a literal invasion of the inner sanctum of government and civic tradition. The inviolable had been violated.

That it was meant to be so, both yesterday and in 1358, I do not doubt. There were many carnivalesque elements to yesterday’s violence, in a way familiar to historians of some medieval uprisings. Inversion of the normal order of things — a half-naked cosplayer in a senator’s chair, a prince in plebeian garb – is a characteristic of rebellion. These acts are fun for the rebels, of course (if rather less so for those of us concerned for the Republic’s future). That’s part of why they do them. But they are also symbolically and performatively transgressive. They breach not only written laws and rules, but also unspoken social norms and boundaries. Rebels are aware of this. They seek both to overturn the old order and to instate a new one: a France in which the prince visibly sided with the people; an America in which one can make oneself at home in the House of Representatives.

In medieval revolts, these moments of violent desecration were usually the point of no return, after which authorities refused to forgive and forget, opting instead for exemplary punishment and sanguinary vengeance. [1] Of Marcel’s palace invasion, the chronicler Jean de Venette wrote ‘But alas! Why did they commit such crimes? For such evil – and so much of it – came out of this excess, so many men were killed, and so many villages laid waste that it cannot be described’. It took another five months, during which he probably incited and certainly took advantage of the Jacquerie revolt to protect himself, but Marcel had sealed his fate when he defiled the prince’s bedroom. He was murdered at the hands of an angry royalist mob on 31 July, and the Dauphin entered Paris to rapturous crowds two days later. The prince forgave his now loyal subjects, but only after spectacularly executing Marcel’s co-conspirators for treason. He had them publicly and painfully killed two by two, every other day for a week, in the middle of Paris. The castellan of the Louvre, who had insulted the royal family, supposedly had his tongue torn out. Another was thrown into an oubliette.

Yesterday’s invasion may cause lasting damage to the Republican party. The American historian Heather Cox Richardson calls it a gut punch. But it will not incite the kind of wholesale extirpation of the rebels and their cause that happened in medieval uprisings after violent desecrations. I don’t say that because we no longer tear out people’s tongues or throw them into oubliettes, but because the social position of the insurrectionists as white people will insulate them from the full potential of punishment. Medieval rebellions were undertaken by non-noble people in a rigorously hierarchical social structure in which nobles and non-nobles were explicitly separate and unequal. Disregarding the inviolability of that distinction was in many ways their worst crime. Contemporary American social hierarchies are more flexible, but more importantly they are based on different distinctions, especially race. As many people (including Cox Richardson) have commented, if yesterday’s rioters had been Black or Muslim, authorities would have responded with much greater force. Yesterday’s insurgent violence reified some social norms, perhaps our most pernicious ones, even as it desecrated others.

[1] The French historian Vincent Challet shows this in ‘Violence as a Political Language: The Uses and Misuses of Violence in Late Medieval French and English Popular Rebellions’ in Justine Firnhaber-Baker and Dirk Schoenaers (eds), The Routledge History Handbook of Medieval Revolt (Abingdon, 2017), 279-91.