Periodically throughout Buffy the Vampire Slayer, the Crusades are invoked as a specifically medieval historical marker. They’re one of the few such real historical markers used, and the only one to come up multiple times. The use of them is twofold: to indicate that something is really old, and to invoke meaningless or gratuitous violence toward an end doomed to failure. But at one point, the Crusades stop being a quick touchpoint for history, violence, and futility and become a whole thing, and it’s not a good thing.
The Crusades, broadly, were a series of conflicts across Europe and the Middle East that involved warriors and/or pilgrims traveling to other areas to “reclaim” territory—usually violently. We’ve numbered them, named them “the Crusades” as though they were all the same or a unified thing, but they really were just a great big splat of conflict against multiple targets—not always Islamic—over hundreds of years.
The medievalism around the Crusades is historically not great. Like a lot of medieval things, they’ve been kind of mythologized and usurped for various biases and purposes—18th century French philosophers used them as examples of how religion leads to ignorance, superstition, and violence, while the Romantics like Sir Walter Scott had a tendency to use them as backdrops for tales of high chivalry. The rhetoric about Crusades has been used as a shorthand for clashes between “Western” and “Middle Eastern” cultures since at least as far back as World War I, possibly longer. We’re still doing it today. And, of course, modern white supremacists have a tendency to use symbolism associated with the Crusades for their own purposes.
While Buffy mostly doesn’t get that bad, it is super easy to accidentally slide into kinda problematic medievalism, as the show does when it gets to the Knights of Byzantium in season five.
Like much of Buffy’s medievalism, the use of the Crusades as the sole historical marker for the Middle Ages begins in the movie. Annoyed at Amilyn and his recent injury (losing an arm), Lothos scolds him: “Honestly, I don’t know how you made it through the Crusades.” Amilyn, we’re told, is 1200 years old, which puts his birth around 790 CE and his vamping probably around 820 CE (assuming he was about 30 years old at the time). The Crusade remark, then, serves two purposes: for Lothos to imply he’s too incompetent to have survived more than about 200 years (the First Crusade started in 1096), and to introduce some irony in the fact that Amilyn did live through the Crusades without the kind of traumatic injury he suffered in a car accident while attacking Pike. It also implies that the Crusades were so encompassing and violent that Amilyn being able to escape, avoid, or survive them is a miracle.
The Crusades first come up in the show early in season two, when Spike arrives just in time for the rituals of St. Vigeous, who Giles tells Buffy led a vampire crusade through the Middle East. When is left a bit fuzzy—the core Crusades spanned about 200 years. We aren’t told a lot about what exactly St. Vigeous’ crusade was about (besides vampiric mayhem), or who decided he got to be a saint and how that even works for vampires. That’s not the point, obviously; the point is to establish the Order of Aurelius as a religious, pseudo-Catholic organization that has rituals and traditions dating back to the Middle Ages. Since the writers have glommed on to the Crusades as the Only Thing That Happened in the Middle Ages (besides the Black Death, mentioned in passing in the first episode), of course a vampire “saint” would have been involved in them.
A few other references to the Crusades or crusading come up that reinforce the idea of crusades as violent and doomed to failure, or as a vague medieval historical time-marker. In “Faith, Hope, and Trick,” Trick decries “vengeance crusades” as “going out of style” and says that modern vampires “see the big picture”—as he abandons Kakistos to his fate at the hands of Buffy and Faith. They’re played for irony in “The Replacement” when Buffy agrees to stop studying to watch Duel of the Iron Fist with Riley, Xander, and Anya. “It has been a long day with the Crusades,” she says. “I can take a little break from the violence for some . . . ooh, fighting.” They’re also used a couple more times as historical markers; in “Beneath You,” Anya turns Ronnie into a Sloggoth demon, which Spike identifies as a “nasty natural predator who died out around the Crusades.” And in “End of Days,” as they’re trying to identify the Scythe, one possibility is the Axe of Dekeron, which was used to slaughter children during the Children’s Crusade.
Generally speaking, these references strip the Crusades of much of their historical context—other than “medieval”—and mash them into one great big vague event. The only crusade that’s mentioned with any specificity is the Children’s Crusade, and it’s used mostly for a macabre joke. “Maybe it’s the Axe of Dekeron, said to have been forged in hell itself,” Willow says. “Lost since the Children’s Crusade, where it was said to have killed . . . oh. Children. I hope that’s not it.”
The Children’s Crusade is, itself, an event that’s been medievalized and mythologized. The popular understanding is that around 1212 CE, a couple of boys claimed to have been visited by Jesus, who gave them a mission to convert Muslims to Christianity. They ended up with about 30,000 followers, nearly all of whom were sold into slavery or died in a shipwreck. Modern historians and medieval chroniclers alike debate whether very many children were actually involved at all, or whether it can be officially called a Crusade, having never been endorsed by the Pope, or whether any of it ever happened in the first place.
The writers don’t dig in that much, though. Their use of the Children’s Crusade specifically, rather than the Crusades more generally, is there only so that Willow can make that remark about killing children and hope that their Scythe wasn’t used for something so horrible. It is, again, a surface-level understanding of history, the knowledge that something called the Children’s Crusade happened, but without any historical contextualizing detail. It indicates that the Axe is old and that it was involved in violence—both ways that the show sees the Middle Ages in general and the Crusades in particular.
And then, of course, we have the Knights of Byzantium.
The Knights are deeply and purposefully medievalist in a way that the show doesn’t usually do. Sure, there are references to and mentions of medieval history or vague ideas about the Middle Ages—or, as we’ve seen, passing references. But the Knights of Byzantium directly and purposefully invoke the Middle Ages and the Crusades. I’ll do another piece on them next month, because there’s way more medievalist what-the-fuckery going on with them than just Crusades imagery, but they are the most direct, overt, and continuous Crusades reference in the entire show.
The Knights have one purpose: to find and destroy the Key in order to save the world. They have one method: violence. They are single-minded, driven, and dogmatic. They have a with-us-or-against-us mentality that does not allow for any shades of grey; they attack Buffy because she’s protecting the Key, deciding that means she’s aligned with Glory (who they call the Beast). That Buffy is trying to keep the Key away from Glory doesn’t mean anything. That the Key is in the form of a 14-year-old girl who has no intention of destroying the world doesn’t mean anything, either. Buffy won’t let them kill Dawn, so Buffy is the enemy. The enemy must be destroyed. There is no room in their mindset for anything else.
Anchoring the Knights and their mindset in the Middle Ages also leans on the idea of the medieval period as violent and dogmatic. It shoves their sort-of-Catholic, narrow-minded, attack-first-ask-questions-never tendencies onto the Middle Ages rather than situating them in the present (as though we don’t have those types of people now). They’re contrasted with Buffy’s modernism, her ability to see the shades of gray and take each situation as it comes rather than having a blanket script for how she acts. This has been her strength since season one, when she listens to Angel’s story rather than staking him the second she knows he’s a vampire. It’s another way the past rises up to threaten Buffy, as it does over and over.
Unfortunately, their choice to use medievalesque Crusader knights probably without fully understanding a lot of the rhetoric led to some super problematic symbolism. The Knights wear Templar crosses, for example; the Templars are a major cultural focus for conspiracy theories and the Crusades in general, as well as a favorite among white supremacists. Their mantra, as well—“The Key is the link. The link must be severed. Such is the will of God”—echoes a frequent translation of “Deus Vult”: “It is the will of God.” Commonly understood to come from Pope Urban II’s speech kicking off the First Crusade, “Deus Vult” has been heavily co-opted by white supremacists as a rallying cry.
It’s entirely possible, of course, that the writers (and directors, and costumers, and prop people) knew exactly what they were doing and intended to use these symbols to cast the Knights as Bad. They are, after all, a minor obstacle for Buffy in protecting Dawn and are shown to be Bad Guys—a different flavor of Bad Guy than Glory, more in a grey area, but still Bad Guys. They’re there partly to point out to Buffy that her choice is one life—Dawn’s life—against the entirety of existence. (Buffy, of course, finds a way around that by sacrificing her own life instead of Dawn’s.) But it’s just as possible that by reaching for medievalist symbols, making the Knights “feel” medieval without worrying about history, that they accidentally ended up with symbols that are also frequently used by white supremacists. I’m not in any way suggesting that the writers intended the Knights to be white supremacists or anything similar—they’re definitely not genocidal, they don’t seem to be all that sexist, and they’re not even all that interested in anything but destroying the Key. It’s just worth being aware of the modern use/misuse of these symbols and how using them in pop culture texts might add unintended subtext.
Usually, Buffy’s medievalism is harmless, if annoying to any medieval historian who might stumble across it. Most of the references to the Crusades fall into this harmless-if-annoying category, Knights of Byzantium notwithstanding. And there’s more medievalism to the Knights than “just” their Crusader imagery, and I’ll get into all of that next month.
Big thanks to Amy for thought-provoking and fact-correcting beta reading! Screencaps from kissthemgoodbye.net.
References and Further Reading
Buffy the Vampire Slayer, 1992.
“Beneath You,” season 7, episode 2, 2002.
“End of Days,” season 7, episode 21, 2003.
“Faith, Hope, and Trick,” season 3, episode 3, 1998.
“The Replacement,” season 5, episode 3, 2000.
“School Hard,” season 2, episode 3, 1997.
“Spiral,” season 5, episode 20, 2001.
“Welcome to the Hellmouth,” season 1, episode 1, 1997.
Jes Batis, “Medievalist Spectrums: Diversity and Pop Culture Medievalisms in the Classroom,” Out of the Cloister: Lone Medievalists Making the Middle Ages Matter, forthcoming.
Adam Bishop, “#DeusVult,” Whose Middle Ages, 2019.
Gary Dickson, The Children’s Crusade: Medieval History, Modern Mythistory, 2008.
Bruce Holsinger, Neomedievalism, Neoconservatism, and the War on Terror, 2007.
Andrew Holt, The World of the Crusades: A Daily Life Encyclopedia, 2019.
Amy Kaufman & Paul Sturtevant, The Devil’s Historians, 2020.
Nicholas Paul, “Modern Intolerance and the Medieval Crusades,” Whose Middle Ages, 2019.
I got to talk Jaime, Arthuriana, and how we’d “fix” the writing conundrum George R.R. Martin has found himself in with the boys over at NotACast. Check it out!
When Buffy first arrives in Sunnydale, she doesn’t want to be the Slayer, and doesn’t think there’s going to be a need for one. “How bad an evil could there be?” she asks, and the show immediately answers with a shot that descends behind the school into a sunken church, full of candles, where a large, craggy-faced vampire intones “The sleeper will wake . . . and the world will bleed” (1.1).
Religion and ritual are another way that Buffy contrasts a threatening, medievalist past with Buffy’s present. Greg Erickson has pointed out that the vast majority of pseudo-religious ritual in the show is practiced by the bad guys (mostly vampires). I’d add to his analysis that these rituals are almost always meant to bring back something from the past, something that threatens the main characters or the entire world, and, at least in the early seasons, they carry heavy overtones of Catholicism, which is frequently associated with the Middle Ages.
This is most obvious in Season One and the early part of Season Two. The Master, trapped in a sunken church, preaches from the pulpit with the Book of Aurelius (an enormous, dusty tome), reading out prophecies in language heavily reminiscent of the King James Bible:
“And there will be a time of crisis, of worlds hanging in the balance. And in this time shall come the Anointed, the Master’s great warrior. And the Slayer will not know him, will not stop him, and he will lead her into Hell.” As it is written, so shall it be. “Five will die, and from their ashes the Anointed shall rise. The Brethren of Aurelius shall greet him and usher him to his immortal destiny.” As it is written, so shall it be.“Never Kill a Boy on the First Date,” 1.5
His repetition echoes the sort of gnomic phrasing we see in the Bible, particularly Revelation, or in medieval literature; gnomic repetition shows up a lot in early English poetry.
The ritual of the Harvest also carries heavy Catholic connotations; Stacey Abbot points out the echoes of Communion and Ash Wednesday in the ritual to link the Master and Luke. In the commentary track for this episode, David Greenwalt mentions that he expected much more pushback on this scene because of its “Satanicness . . . and obvious homoeroticism.” Satanism is often portrayed as a reversal or perversion of Catholic rite, with upside-down crosses and blood sacrifices.
The Master, like so many others after him, aims to open the Hellmouth and bring back the primordial demons, the ones that ruled the world before mankind came—“like a plague of locusts,” Luke says, reciting from the Book of Aurelius and echoing the Biblical books of Exodus and Revelation (1.1). The Hellmouth always requires a ritual, but it’s never the same one. The Master opened it by breaking the spell holding him in the church; the Sisterhood of Jhe uses relics and times their attempt with the astral cycle; the Vahrall demons need different relics and plan to sacrifice themselves. In each case, their aim is to return the Earth to its pre-human origins and wipe out humankind.
Buffy defeating the Master is a triumph of the modern over the ancient, of free will over prophecy, of youth over age, and of snappy banter over stuffiness. “You were destined to die! It was written!” he rages when Buffy comes to stop him from opening the Hellmouth. “What can I say?” she responds. “I flunked the written” (1.12).
The pseudo-Catholic ritual continues in the early part of Season Two, when the remaining members of the Order of Aurelius attempt to resurrect the Master; their leader in this endeavor is Absalom, a vampire whose style borrows from both the elevated, King-James-style language and American Evangelical preaching. The ritual in this case is a blood sacrifice, requiring the deaths of those who were physically closest to the Master when he died; much more than that, we don’t know because Buffy kills the vampires before they can get more than one line into the chanting part of the ritual.
Later, the Order observes the Feast of St. Vigeous, who Giles says led a vampire crusade through “Edessa, Haran, and points east.” The ritual involves a vigil and Gregorian-style chanting that’s meant to culminate in a night of massive bloodshed and feeding. In this case, it isn’t Buffy who stops it, but Spike, who thinks the ritual is stupid and impulsively goes after Buffy two nights before the Feast. When he’s chastised for ruining the Feast, he kills the Anointed and demands “a little less ritual and a little more fun around here” (2.3). Spike has already by this point shown himself to be a more modern vampire than the other Brethren; while one claims to have been at the Crucifixion, Spike laughs and says he was at Woodstock, which was “a weird gig” (2.3). Abbott argues that it’s Spike’s very modernness and flexibility that allows him to outlast the Order and ultimately join Buffy and the Scoobies in their fight against evil.
The Order of Aurelius is, in itself, a medieval order, founded sometime in the 12th century by Aurelius. They worship the Old Ones, the primordial demon/gods, and live by a set of rules they believe make them elite, following the prophecies of Aurelius. That their rituals and methods of worship borrow from twisted Catholic ones, and that one of their revered ancestors went on Crusade, deepens this medievalist link. The Order is a medievalist threat, reaching back to attempt to revive an even older threat—but failing, brought down by more “hip,” modern people like Spike and Buffy.
Spike himself isn’t above a bit of ritual, though; when he finds a way to cure Drusilla from her mysterious ailment, he works with it. It requires decoding a manuscript in a Latin code, plundering a reliquary for a cross with the key to decoding it, and a ritual (complete with inverted cross) involving blood transference between Dru and Angel, along with some ritual chanting—in a church, with incense, in front of a stained-glass window.
What’s interesting is that Spike does his chanting in English, whereas most of the ritual language and magic in the show is done in (bad) Latin. Occasionally, other non-English languages will be used (Sumerian and Romanian, for instance), but Latin is much more common. Darren Lester notes that Latin is seen as an “educated” language because of its association with Catholicism and the Middle Ages. Many of the grimoires and other such books of magic used in the show are dated to the Middle Ages. Latin as the magical language is pretty common for fantasy works that take place in a version of our world, mostly for these same reasons—Latin has associations with history, education, and religion. Likewise, when the magic system allows for anyone who can use the words to cast the spells (rather than some innate power being necessary), a non-English spell-casting language is very useful for making it safe to just talk.
Religion in Buffy is frequently Catholic-based, heavily ritualized, and constantly undercut by the main characters. “Note to self,” Buffy says when Giles explains what a reliquary is, “religion: freaky.” A modern version of Christianity only appears once, and it turns out Riley is a regular churchgoer. In this case, a vampire stands in the church and demands to know where the thing he was afraid of is—“You know, the Lord?” (4.16). Medieval religion is co-opted by the bad guys, and modern religion is ineffectual and empty. It’s worth mentioning that Wicca, the religion Willow (ostensibly, but not really—see Christie Golden’s “Where’s the Religion in Willow’s Wicca”) follows, is also medievalist, in that the core of Wicca and other such New Age religions tend to reach back to a perceived pre-Christian time of Norse and Celtic paganism, often flavored with other traditions such as Greek and Babylonian (for more on this, see Karolyn Kinane’s “New Age and Neopagan Medievalisms”). By linking magic to religion, especially premodern religions, especially medieval Catholicism, Buffy again leans on the medieval past for authority and threat.
Thanks as always to Lo for thoughtful beta-reading. Screenshots and promo images from whedonverse.us.
References and Further Reading
“Darla,” Angel season 2, episode 7, 2000.
“Doomed,” season 4, episode 11, 2000.
“The Harvest,” season 1, episode 2, 1997.
Commentary on “The Harvest,” Season One DVDs, 2002.
“Never Kill a Boy on the First Date,” season 1, episode 5, 1997.
“Prophecy Girl,” season 1, episode 12, 1997.
“School Hard,” season 2, episode 3, 1997.
“Welcome to the Hellmouth,” season 1, episode 1, 1997.
“What’s My Line, Part 2,” season 2, episode 10, 1997.
“When She Was Bad,” season 2, episode 1, 1997.
“Who Are You,” season 4, episode 16, 2000.
“The Zeppo,” season 3, episode 13, 1999.
Stacey Abbott, “A Little Less Ritual and a Little More Fun: The Modern Vampire in Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” Slayage vol. 1, no. 3, 2001.
Greg Erickson, “‘Religion Freaky’ or ‘A Bunch of Men Who Died?’: The (A)Theology of Buffy,” Slayage vol. 4, no. 1-2, 2004.
Christie Golden, “Where’s the Religion in Willow’s Wicca?” Seven Seasons of Buffy, 2003.
Karolyn Kinane, “New Age and Neopagan Medievalisms,” Medieval Afterlives in Contemporary Culture, 2015.
Darren Lester, “‘Don’t Speak Latin in Front of the Books’: Latin as Lingua Franca of Magic in Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” Slayage vol. 12, no. 2, 2014.
I was delighted and honored to join Merry and Clint of the Learned Hands podcast (official podcast of the Westerosi Bar Association) to discuss chivalry and medievalism in A Song of Ice and Fire.
Much of Buffy’s medievalism is the Dark Ages medieval, the lurking threat in the dark, the past that won’t stay buried coming to eat you (literally). But, as several critics have pointed out, Buffy herself has a lot in common with the medieval knight/warrior—Susan Butvin Sainato traces how Buffy fits in with the tradition of the “chivalric defender,” while David Fritts compares her to Beowulf. The monsters might be medieval, but as Buffy tells a little boy, “there’s also real heroes that fight monsters. And that’s me.”
As a medievalist, chivalric-coded hero, Buffy uses weaponry that tends heavily toward the pre-modern and medievally-coded as well. Whether the weapons in question are medieval in any kind of truly historical sense makes no difference; all they have to do is feel medieval in order to invoke that sense of age and tradition. We see Buffy use everything from stakes to bladed weapons—to the Scythe, which is both—but very rarely anything that could be considered modern. From the beginning, Buffy rejects the idea of firearms as useful or effective weapons; when Willow suggests calling the police after her first encounter with vampires, Buffy says “They couldn’t handle it even if they did show up. They’d only come with guns.”
Practically speaking, and as my husband has pointed out (repeatedly, and loudly), a 12-gauge to the face would, if not kill, at least incapacitate a vampire long enough to stake him. So why is the show so resistant to its heroine using modern weaponry?
The most obvious explanation is that Joss Whedon hates guns. But clearly that doesn’t stop him in other circumstances—Wesley in Angel, the entirety of Firefly, lots of Dollhouse, for example. It probably also has to do with optics; adults having guns is one thing, but even pre-Columbine, Joss et al. couldn’t have gotten away with a sixteen-year-old schoolgirl wielding a firearm. As it is, they invented vamp-face so we wouldn’t see a sixteen-year-old girl stabbing human-looking people through the heart every week (as Joss put it, “when they are clearly monsters, it takes it to a level of fantasy that is safer”).
Although the need for premodern weapons may have been born out of practicality and late-90s TV-show mores, that doesn’t mean that the specific choices for weapons are any less medievalist.
Buffy starts, of course, with stakes (which, among other things, gives us Buffy scholars lots of room for puns). Stakes as weapons to kill vampires have trickled down from medieval European folklore (where they were used to incapacitate, not kill) into literature (like Dracula) and on into pop culture. Buffy does away with most of the ritual around staking vampires and boils it down to (in Buffy’s words) “bam, boom, stick, poof.” As Maggie Walsh says when learning Buffy is the Slayer, “and you, if I understand correctly, poke them with a sharp stick.” Stakes are, fundamentally, the most basic, most ancient of human tools—a sharpened stick. For the most part, they’re disposable and tend to disappear with the staked vamp’s ashes; Buffy goes through them like popcorn, and we periodically see her or the Scoobies sharpening stakes for her.
But as fundamental and disposable as stakes are, there’s one in particular that’s treated like a ritual weapon or heirloom—Mr. Pointy. Kendra refers to it as her “lucky stake” and says she’s killed many vampires with it when she gives it to Buffy. Fritts links this bestowing to Unferth giving Hrunting to Beowulf and points out that lots of epics, including Beowulf, include named weapons with special powers or significance. This is a tradition handed down into fantasy literature, partly because fantasy, especially high or epic fantasy, is usually heavily medievalist. Buffy slightly undermines this trope here, both because Mr. Pointy is a stake, not a sword, and because Buffy (gently) teases Kendra for naming her stake. “Remind me to get you a stuffed animal,” she says. But while Buffy doesn’t use Mr. Pointy after her fight with Angelus, she saves it, jokes about bronzing it, and refers to it as a comfort object. While Mr. Pointy is just a stake (Kendra never claims it has special powers), it becomes important because of its associations.
Interestingly, we only occasionally see Buffy fight with anything other than a stake, and the other weapons tend to disappear pretty quickly. In “Angel,” she trains with a quarterstaff (which she finds hilarious—“Giles, twentieth century? I’m not going to be fighting Friar Tuck”); in “Anne,” she fights with a hunga munga that she takes from one of the demons; and in “The Gift” she uses Olaf the Troll’s hammer (which has interesting connotations about Thor and Mjölnir that I don’t have space for here).
But like any good chivalric figure, Buffy also fights with swords. Swords are strongly medieval-coded and frequently heroically-coded due to their association with knighthood. Swords are the weapons of warriors, the elite, not just anybody; there’s a reason “torches and pitchforks” is a joke about the peasantry gathering into a mob. We never see Buffy training with a sword, though Giles demonstrates that he’s proficient. Part of her Slayer powers seem to include the ability to pick up fighting techniques extremely quickly, though—witness her one single quarterstaff training session with Giles, where she puts him on the floor in seconds.
The first time Buffy uses a sword—in Season Two, to kill Acathla and stop Angelus—it’s one that can be traced directly back to the Middle Ages. It belonged to, or at least was blessed by, a “virtuous knight”—the one who stabbed Acathla and turned him into rock in the first place. Like Mr. Pointy, the unnamed sword is presented to Buffy by Kendra, though it is meant specifically for this task—to kill Angelus and render Acathla dormant again. It’s a reverse Arthurian motif. Only the worthy can pull the sword out of Acathla and send the world to Hell, but the hero has to put the sword back. Conveniently, it’s a very small sword, which prevents Sarah Michelle Gellar from looking ridiculous swinging it around.
Swords pop up infrequently in the show, usually associated with demons or groups who are also medieval-coded. The vampire acolytes of Lord Balthazar, “El Eliminati,” a 15th century “duelist cult,” wear tabards and fight with a sword and a dagger—“both pointy,” Buffy remarks to Wesley. (Trick mocks one of them for it—“Why do they always gotta be using swords? It’s called an Uzi, you chump. Could have saved your ass right about now.”) One of the demons in the opening number of “Once More with Feeling” has a sword, as does another demon in “Older and Far Away.” And of course the Knights of Byzantium, who I’ll have a lot more to say about in another essay, wear chain coifs and leather armor and ride horses. (One of them is even named Dante Chevalier. The Buffy writers are not subtle.)
And then there’s the Scythe, which has a head resembling a bardiche and a stake on the back end and is made of very shiny steel. We don’t get to spend a lot of time with it, but it’s one of the few truly magical weapons in the show. It’s also wildly anachronistic, since it dates back to the same prehistory as the Shadowmen and Sineya. But that’s how the aesthetics of fantasy medievalism work; history is fuzzy, compacted, a mess of “the past” with little or no true historicism to it.
Every so often, Buffy or one of the others do use something modern and ballistic, and there’s usually a serious thematic reason behind it; they’re never used casually. Stevie Simkin has done some really good work on exploring guns and fragile masculinity, and I strongly suggest checking that out.
But for the most part, weapons are another way medievalism shines through in Buffy. “These traditions have been handed down through the ages,” Giles says as justification for his (short) quarterstaff lesson. Doug Petrie, one of the writers, notes that Buffy’s weapons “are, by their nature, medieval,” and notes an “emotional connection” to these sorts of weapons. Medieval or medieval-coded weapons do tend to be linked in the popular imagination to a sort of knightly heroism. And since Buffy, in so many ways, also echoes the ideals of romantic, chivalric heroism, it makes perfect sense for the writers to put these sorts of weapons in her hands. Petrie continues, “Weapons often reflect the character who uses them,” and Buffy, in her liminal space between modern and ancient/medieval, uses weapons that reflect that dichotomy, as well.
Thanks again to Lo and Jill for beta-reading. Screencaps from the Whedonverse.us archive and kissthemgoodbye.net. I also found the transcript archive at foreverdreaming.org very helpful.
References and Further Reading
“Angel,” season 1, episode 7, 1997.
“Anne,” season 3, episode 1, 1998.
“Bad Girls,” season 3, episode 14, 1999.
“Becoming, Part One,” season 2, episode 21, 1998.
“The Freshman,” season 4, episode 1, 1999.
“The Gift,” season 5, episode 22, 2001.
“Gingerbread,” season 3, episode 11, 1999.
“The Harvest,” season 1, episode 2, 1997.
“Helpless,” season 3, episode 12, 1999.
“Killed by Death,” season 2, episode 18, 1998.
“A New Man,” season 4, episode 12, 2000.
“Welcome to the Hellmouth” commentary track.
“Weapons,” Buffy the Vampire Slayer: Season Three DVD featurette.
David Fritts, “Warrior Heroes: Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Beowulf,” Slayage vol. 5, no. 1, 2005.
Susan Butvin Sainato, “Not Your Typical Knight: The Emerging On-Screen Defender,” in The Medieval Hero on Screen, 2004.
Stevie Simkin, “‘You Hold Your Gun Like a Sissy Girl’: Firearms and Anxious Masculinity in Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” Slayage vol. 3, no. 3, 2003.
The word Gothic is a loaded term. It was designed to be. The Gothic, as an aesthetic and a literary form, is deeply medievalist—in that it recasts the Middle Ages as a place and time of darkness, of threat, of ugliness that we modern folk (or the Renaissance folk who coined it) need to resist or overcome.
“Gothic,” of course comes from the Goths, a Germanic group who attacked the Roman Empire in the late Classical era. But the word was originally applied to a medieval architectural style in particular and the Middle Ages in general—as a pejorative. The Goths, of course, didn’t build the cathedrals and such that the Renaissance art historians slapped the “gothic” label on. As Jerrold Hogle puts it, “Gothic has long been a term used to project modern concerns into a deliberately vague, even fictionalized past”—it’s “an exploitation of the emptied-out past to symbolize and disguise present concerns, including prejudices.”
Which is the essence of medievalism in a nutshell.
The early Gothic—think Horace Walpole—was rife with “Dark Age” medievalism. They looked into the past and saw dirt, plague, rampaging barbarians, superstition, active suppression of anything resembling science—you know, the usual. They saw themselves as way more advanced, smarter, and better-dressed than their medieval forebears. And the literature reflected that. The past, especially past authorities such as the Church and rigid patriarchy, is a direct threat to the heroes and heroines of Gothic literature. In some cases, as in Dracula, that threat is an immortal, ongoing one that must be stopped from destroying the current society and despoiling its women.
This is also a core theme of Buffy, as I went over in the intro to this series. The past—as blurry as Buffy’s understanding of history is—is a constant threat, a constant intrusion, into Buffy’s life both as a Slayer and as a girl. Buffy isn’t fully a Gothic text, of course. It’s got a lot of other stuff going on in it—second- and third-wave feminism, Romance, the perils of being a modern teenager, Satanic panic—but it clearly borrows from and pays tribute to the Gothic, partially just by being a show with heavy horror elements.
My purpose here isn’t to discuss at any length how Buffy is a Gothic text; that’s already been pretty well handled by Buffy-studies academics. Erin Hollis and Anna Free have discussed how Buffy and Angel use, subvert, and question Gothic tropes and themes. Elizabeth Gilliland has explored how Buffy is a Gothic heroine and her love interests reflect different aspects of herself and her internal conflicts. Michelle Callendar breaks down how Dracula and Buffy share similar cultural anxieties around female agency, technology, and exogamy. Renee Coulombe argues that Buffy is more of a critique or interrogation of the Gothic than truly Gothic itself, while Emily Gray says Buffy is a postmodern Gothic—except in the way it handles the Willow/Tara relationship. And that’s not nearly all of them.
So, yeah, you don’t need me for that bit.
What I do want to focus on is how Buffy’s medievalism is almost always Gothic in nature—in that its “medieval” (again, fuzzy) is frequently a site of horror and danger encroaching on Buffy’s modern world. It’s a central premise of the film; all the flashback scenes are vaguely medieval, and in one of them, the Slayer dies. Lothos himself, according to the Buffy “The Origin” comic (which sort of replaced the film as canon chronology), was born sometime in the 11th or 12th century. He is a medieval monster, stalking the Slayer across time into the 20th century, when she finally destroys him using modern girl-coded technology (a hairspray flamethrower).
We have less information on the Master, the show-verse version of Lothos, but he’s probably older than Lothos; by the 1600s, he’s already lost his human face and looks more like a bat (as seen in Angel’s “Darla”). Both the Master and Lothos have aesthetics that are extremely and theatrically Gothic, from Lothos’ spotlit coffin full of blood(?) to the Master’s underground, candlelit church lair. Luke’s preparations for the Harvest, likewise, are very feudal and liturgical (and homoerotic, but that’s a different essay), fitting in with the Master’s overall medievalist-Gothic schtick (and I’ll talk more about the religious aspect in another essay).
Interestingly, in “The Wish,” the Master has moved away from medievalist and religious and into industrial goth. Of course, scientific attempts to undermine the “natural order” of life and death are also a staple of Gothic fiction (see Frankenstein); in these cases, the future is also a threat.
In season two, Spike demands “a little less ritual and a little more fun,” doing away with the lingering medievalist threat of the Master’s Order of Aurelius and the Anointed, but that doesn’t mean that the medieval doesn’t still edge its way in throughout the rest of the series. Later in season two, in fact, Angelus attempts to wake Acathla, a demon who was last active in the Middle Ages. We know this because it was “a virtuous knight” who killed him before he could suck the world into hell, and the knight’s sword is still standing in the stone remains of the demon. We’re back to ritual here, too, as Angelus works to figure out the exact formula that will wake Acathla and end the world. And it’s Spike, again, who refuses to go along with it and helps Buffy stop him.
Besides monsters dating back to the Middle Ages such as Moloch, the Gentlemen, and even Anyanka, Buffy also struggles with and against the extremely patriarchal Watchers’ Council, whose traditions are also often dated to the Middle Ages. The Cruciamentum, for example, is said to date back 1200 years. Quentin Travers calls it a “time-honored rite of passage”; Giles calls it “an archaic exercise in cruelty.” (My guess is it’s a way to get rid of Slayers who might be getting too old and powerful and starting to question authority.) Patriarchal dominance as tradition and history is a common theme for the Gothic, especially when it puts the heroine in immediate danger, as the Council does Buffy during the Cruciamentum. Not only does the trial put her and her mother in active danger, it requires Giles betraying her trust and violating her bodily autonomy (by injecting her with drugs to lessen her Slayer power). The Council is all about control, as Buffy points out to them when she asks for their help with Glory. Ultimately, the Council is wiped out by an even older threat—the First Evil itself.
As a Gothic heroine, Buffy is frequently haunted by the past, which introduces threats that disrupt her way of life and her desires to be a “normal” girl. And yet she can never truly escape from the ancient and medieval past, since her power is rooted in them. (There’s something to be said about the fact that, of all the Slayers in the show, Buffy, the young white woman, is the one to break free of the past, and not, say Kendra, but that’s an entirely different essay for sure.) Riley’s Initiative buddy Forrest might dismiss the existence of the Slayer as “medieval folklore garbage kooks dream up to explain the stuff we deal with every day” (that “stuff” being, well, demons and vampires), but Buffy is far more deeply involved with the “medieval folklore” than Forrest could imagine. She inhabits a liminal space between rejecting the past and relying on it, which is about as Gothic as it gets.
Thanks to Lo and Rhiannon for beta-reading and suggestions! Screencaps from the Whedonverse.us photo galleries.
References and Further Reading
“Becoming, Part One,” Buffy the Vampire Slayer, season 2, episode 21, 1998.
“Checkpoint,” Buffy the Vampire Slayer, season 5, episode 12, 2001.
“Darla,” Angel, season 2, episode 7, 2000.
“Doomed,” Buffy the Vampire Slayer, season 4, episode 11, 2000.
“The Harvest,” Buffy the Vampire Slayer, season 1, episode 2, 1997.
“Helpless,” Buffy the Vampire Slayer, season 3, episode 12, 1999.
“The Origin: Part Two,” Buffy the Vampire Slayer comics,1999.
“School Hard,” Buffy the Vampire Slayer, season 2, episode 3, 1997.
“The Wish,” Buffy the Vampire Slayer, season 3, episode 9, 1998.
Buffy the Vampire Slayer, 1992.
Michelle Callendar, “Bram Stoker’s Buffy: Traditional Gothic and Contemporary Culture,” Slayage vol. 1, no. 3, 2001.
E.J. Clery, “The Genesis of ‘Gothic’ Fiction,” in The Cambridge Companion to Gothic Literature, 2002.
Renee Coulombe, “‘I Had It All Wrong’: New Vampires, Grrrl Heroes and the Third Wave Body in Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” in Nostalgia or Perversion?: Gothic Rewriting from the Eighteenth Century Until the Present Day, 2007.
Anna Free, “Re-vamping the Gothic in Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” Australian Screen Education vol. 46, 2007.
Elizabeth Gilliland, “Double Trouble: Gothic Shadows and Self-Discovery in Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” Slayage vol. 16, no. 1, 2018.
Emily Gray, “Writing ‘Lesbian, Gay-Type Lovers’: Buffy, Postmodern Gothic, and Interruptions to the Lesbian Cliché,” in New Directions in 21st-century Gothic: The Gothic Compass, 2015.
Leigh Harbin, “‘You Know You Wanna Dance’: Buffy the Vampire Slayer as Contemporary Gothic Heroine,” Studies in the Humanities vol. 31, no. 2, 2005.
Jerrold Hogle, “Introduction,” in The Cambridge Companion to Gothic Literature, 2002.
Erin Hollis, “Revisiting the Gothic: Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel as Contemporary Gothic,” in Critical Insights: Good & Evil, 2012.
I am very excited to announce that Where Shadow Meets Grendel: Medievalism in the Works of Neil Gaiman is now forthcoming from the University of Iowa Press for a 2023 release date.
This week, I’m pleased to join Emmett of the NotACast for a special episode on medievalism in A Song of Ice and Fire and other fun topics. The episode releases for patrons beginning today (May 13) and will be available for the general public on Monday (May 17).
Not too long ago, I was considering writing a book on Buffy the Vampire Slayer and medievalism. It seemed like the next logical thing after doing Medievalism in A Song of Ice and Fire and Game of Thrones; after all, I wrote my Master’s thesis on Buffy and work on Slayage and did some PhD work under the late Dr. David Lavery, the father of Buffy studies.
Unfortunately, as I rewatched the series in preparation for putting together a proposal, I discovered that there just wasn’t really enough there there. Not enough for a book, at any rate. Too much for a journal article if I wanted to tackle all of it; not enough if I took it in individual bits.
But really, that’s what these mini-essays have been about/for. Taking on smaller chunks of thematic material (for some definitions of “small”—looking at you, three-part series on Brienne and Jaime) and digging into them.
So let’s talk about Buffy and history. Specifically medieval history.
The 1992 film telegraphs the weird relationship the entire series has with history from the opening moments, which feature the unnamed Slayer and her Watcher in wildly anachronistic outfits under the caption “Europe: The Dark Ages.” This is then contrasted with present-day Buffy with her cheerleading team in “Southern California: The Lite Ages.” The movie doesn’t explain the origins of the Slayer beyond her role in fighting vampires “since the dawn of mankind.” But if that’s the case, why are we starting in (a Ren faire version of) the Middle Ages?
In fact, for the most part, the movie and the show don’t really deal with actual historical events older than about 200 years (for example, the 1900 CE Boxer Rebellion), and everything else is pretty much either vaguely medieval or vaguely pre-historical. Generally speaking, events before 1753, when Liam is turned to Angelus, are dated by century rather than exact year (with a couple of exceptions, but the dates tend to seem arbitrary and not linked to a specific event—there’s no reason Moloch had to be book-trapped in 1418 CE, for example).
Matthew Pateman has argued that this shallow and vague view of history is to be expected because of Buffy’s setting—a generic contemporary America that “exists in a continual state of the present; de-historicized, skimming the past with no real attachment to it except to allusion and nostalgia”—and also Buffy herself, who frequently expresses disinterest in history except when it provides the tools for her to fight the monster of the week. The movie-Buffy complains that a teacher told her she had “no sense of history,” while Giles puts it more gently: “She lives very much in the now. And history, of course, is very much about the, uh, the then” (“Angel”). Buffy’s job as a Slayer is immediate and focused on now, but her role as a Slayer is rooted in a mythological history spanning back to “prehistory,” when Sineya was made into the First Slayer. That makes for some interesting tension between now and then, history and contemporary.
This vagueness also slides the show’s use of the Middle Ages firmly over into the “neomedievalism” category—it’s not particularly worried about any sort of historical accuracy, using popular beliefs about or understanding of the Middle Ages to fill in the holes rather than making any solid claims about the historically medieval. The Buffy writers weren’t trying for historical accuracy; history is a backdrop—an intrusion, as Pateman put it—for Buffy’s world and her very modern struggles. This is probably clearest in the movie, where Buffy keeps dreaming about her previous fights with vampires in general and Lothos in particular, and in season one, with the Master’s ostentatiously medievalesque pseudo-religiosity. Buffy wants to date, and be a cheerleader, and go to prom; the monsters want to return the world to the primordial time when they were in charge and humans didn’t exist, effectively ending dating and cheerleading and proms entirely.
And yet history is important to the whole conceit of the show. History is how authority is conveyed; as Bruce McClelland has put it, “nothing legitimates like the past.” Buffy’s authority as the Slayer comes from the mystical history of the Slayers, dating back to pre-history. In the movie, in fact, she is reincarnated, not just a different girl chosen in each generation; Buffy has always been the Slayer. The struggle between humans and demons is even older than the Slayer. As Giles explains in “The Harvest”:
This world is older than any of you know. Contrary to popular mythology, it did not begin as a paradise. For untold eons, demons walked the Earth. They made it their home, their . . . their Hell. But in time they lost their purchase on this reality. The way was made for mortal animals, for, for man. All that remains of the old ones are vestiges, certain magicks, certain creatures.
Giles, in particular, frequently invokes the history of things to impress on Buffy how much responsibility she carries—not just in fighting the demons and vampires, but in continuing long-established traditions.
Age is power, but it is also a threat. Buffy fights not only vampires, demons, and the occasional god, but the very traditions that make her who she is. She quits the patriarchally-controlling, less-than-helpful, and ancient Watchers Council, and even before that, she rejects most of their rules for Slayers. In season seven, the core theme is about doing away with the ancient and the binding—Buffy fights and seriously weakens the First Evil and eliminates the one-girl-in-all-the-world tradition that has been in place since the Shadowmen forced a demon into Sineya’s body and created the line of Slayers.
Buffy’s relationship with history is fraught. It’s necessary for establishing a long mythological tradition and giving Buffy her power, but the past is an active threat to the present. Buffy is a thoroughly modern girl in a role that requires the use of medieval-coded weaponry and submission to a male authority. Sometimes the past is a blurry watercolor of difference, and sometimes the writers use Buffy’s fuzzy grasp of history as a punchline (see, for example, her attempt at explaining the Viking discovery of America 400 years late in “Checkpoint”). But it’s this very fraughtness that creates a fascinating stew of medievalism that I’ll spend the next couple of months teasing out and focusing in on.
Buffy the Vampire Slayer, 1992.
“Angel.” Buffy the Vampire Slayer season 1, episode 7, 1997.
“Checkpoint.” Buffy the Vampire Slayer season 5, episode 12, 2001.
“The Harvest.” Buffy the Vampire Slayer season 1, episode 2, 1997.
“I Robot, You Jane.” Buffy the Vampire Slayer season 1, episode 8, 1997.
Bruce McClelland, “By Whose Authority?: The Magical Tradition, Violence, and the Legitimization of the Vampire Slayer,” Slayage vol. 1, no. 1, 2001.
Matthew Pateman, The Aesthetics of Culture in Buffy the Vampire Slayer, McFarland, 2006.