Publication Date

April 2, 2024

Perspectives Section

From the Editor

While editing Thavolia Glymph’s column for this issue, I found myself pausing over the word freelancer. It’s a word with a clear medieval connotation—has lance, will travel—but subtly different from a knight-errant, which suggests the temporary wandering associated with a noble quest. A freelancer is a knight for hire. Its semantic range cannot now be separated from Akira Kurosawa’s stories of ronin and the Hollywood Western’s gunslinger. Both are linked to medieval knighthood, the former through a false equivalence between medieval Europe and “feudal” Japan and the latter more explicitly. Take, for example, Paladin, the protagonist of the television series Have Gun—Will Travel (1957–63). Paladin, from the Latin palatinus, “of the palace,” literally means “knight,” though it’s taken on more of a flavor of “righteous hero.” The word freelancer thus suggests an antiquity to contract labor, as well as a nobility. Sir DoorDasher, if you will.

There’s only the usual problem: freelancer was coined by Sir Walter Scott, first appearing in Ivanhoe (1820). For those of us who study the 19th-century reception of the Middle Ages, this discovery elicits not surprise but a rueful chuckle. Scott’s depiction of the medieval is supposedly responsible for everything from the modern Renaissance faire (when his contemporaries enthusiastically re-created Ivanhoe’s depiction of a medieval tournament) to the self-conceptions of Southern gentry in the United States (at least according to Mark Twain, who subsequently went to war with the Romantic memory of the medieval). In fact, there’s no good culturally equivalent term in premodernity. The closest medieval version of the freelancer was perhaps the condottieri of the Italian city-states, but these were, as their name suggests, contracted mercenary bands (condotta means “contract”). That term describes a collective and still carries a very medieval sense of mutual obligation. It has little relationship to individuals working odd jobs. Freelancing is a word created in a capitalist, industrializing era to describe a capitalist, industrial approach to labor. It is neither ancient nor particularly noble; it has no actual association with any knightly practice.

People often like to believe that identities with which they associate are older than they generally are. I have written about the 19th-century desire to establish—via academic arguments, folklore, and monumental architecture—a pre-Columbian European history in North America. Most of these efforts are ill-disguised racism. The insistence that Vikings discovered Massachusetts Bay, or even more southern parts of the Atlantic coast, was in large part due to the disquiet over the fact that Christopher Columbus was, by 19th-century standards, not white. But some of the insistence that things have more of a depth to their history than they actually do is an attempt to give the United States the authorizing length and richness of history enjoyed by European states.

But although it fits into the usual pattern, the popular adoption of freelancer is something unusual: it makes a labor model older than it seems through its relationship to the medieval. When it comes to economics and political systems, the premodern is much more typically seen as reviled past rather than hallowed origin. There is a strong argument that the very idea of a “feudal system” in the Anglophone world stemmed from attempts in the 17th century to differentiate parliamentary democracy and nascent capitalist labor practices from royal absolutism and serfdom.

In popular media, the Middle Ages are poorly understood and often conflated with the fantastic. As such, they make an excellent, fact-free medium for exploring and defining one’s own identity. This is how white supremacists could unironically carry the flag of a Black saint to riot in Charlottesville in 2017; it’s also one of the reasons why Dungeons and Dragons is popular in LGBTQ+ spaces. Romanticism has always been a means to escape the modern. It is not surprising that those being ground to dust under the iron heel of exploitative hedge funds and the gig economy might want to find something noble and ancient in their day-to-day experience of late-stage capitalism.

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Leland Grigoli
Leland Renato Grigoli

American Historical Association