Tracing the origins of celebrity, from medieval divas to Kris Jenner

Celebrity culture existed long before the stage, screen, and social media. Famous people, who elicited Kardashian-level feelings of love and hate in the public, were present centuries ago... though they share qualities with stars today, say scholars Irina Dumitrescu and Sharon Marcus.

Celebrities who provoked Kardashian-level feelings of love and hate were around centuries ago, say scholars

The rise of celebrity is nothing new. Forms of celebrity have been traced back to virtually every society with technological means, and scholar Irina Dumitrescu says that, as with polarizing figures like Kardashian matriarch Kris Jenner, saints and monarchs of the medieval period prompted strong feelings in people, from love to hate. (Evan Agostini/Invision/AP)

*Originally published on June 30, 2022.

Celebrities have always been with us. From antiquity, through the medieval ages, right up to the present social media moment, charismatic and controversial individuals have drawn praise and scorn from a fascinated public. 

Scholars say that many share striking parallels with famous people from our own period. 

Take Sharon Marcus' perspective on 19th-century American folk hero Davy Crockett. 

"I could tell you the story of Davy Crockett in a way that would make it sound exactly like Donald Trump:  someone who kind of comes out of nowhere, brags about his sexual exploits, brags about being a racist, dresses funny, has weird hair, has a ghostwritten autobiography that says he's better than he is, says that it sells more copies than it did. Keeps running for office, often failing, but then eventually succeeds," said Marcus, the author of The Drama of Celebrity.

Sharon Marcus says former U.S. President Donald Trump and all-American folk hero Davy Crockett carry themselves as rebels breaking all the rules. 'It's a U.S. hucksterism that has been part of U.S. politics for a very long time.' (Brandon Bell/Getty Images/AP Photo)

Marcus suggests that while most people see celebrities as a product, in reality, it's a process —"a very open-ended process." She sees a shifting, complex exchange at work in the creation of celebrity. A kind of triangle between the person, the public, and the media.   

Enter Kris Jenner

In writer Irina Dumitrescu's view, for any celebrity to maintain fame, there's one relationship that takes priority — the connection they establish with the public. 

"You cannot have a celebrity without people who are interested in them. It doesn't exist," said Dumitrescu, professor of Medieval English at the University of Bonn.

She notes that some celebrities seek the power that fame brings. One 12th century monarch reminds Dumitrescu of the matriarch of the Kardashian family.

"Eleanor of Aquitaine was a very powerfully-born and well-educated woman who was the Queen of France and Queen of England, and the mother of two kings of England. She placed her daughters in brilliant marriages around the continent. She's sometimes considered to have been responsible for the rise of courtly love through her patronage of troubadours. That's a little bit debated, but she certainly seems to have been culturally very active and politically active."

Eleanor of Aquitaine, the wife of King Louis VII of France and later of Henry II of England, circa 1150. She was considered one of the most powerful and influential figures of the Middle Ages, famous for a vast estate that she inherited at the age of 15. (Hulton Archive/Getty Images )

"She reminds me a great deal of Kris Jenner, because she's one of these people who really used her children as pawns in her attempt to gain and consolidate power. In very pointed ways, I think this is one of the reasons Kris Jenner is so disturbing to people today. She operates like a medieval queen."

Dumitrescu says Jenner might well have thrived in 12th century or 13th century circles of power.

"So there's this sense of an extremely powerful, influential, meddlesome woman who is both admired and hated in and after her time."

Guests in this episode:

Irina Dumitrescu is a writer, co-host of the LRB podcast Encounters with Medieval Women, and a professor of Medieval English at the University of Bonn.

Sharon Marcus is author of The Drama of Celebrity and the Orlando Harriman Professor of English and Comparative Literature at Columbia University. (Princeton University Press, 2019)

*This episode was produced by Lisa Godfrey.

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