An Open Access Review Journal Encouraging Critical Engagement with the Continuing Process of Inventing the Middle Ages

October 5, 2015

Ashton, ed., Medieval Afterlives in Contemporary Culture

Gail Ashton, ed.  Medieval Afterlives in Contemporary Culture.  London: Bloomsbury, 2015.

Reviewed by Teresa Rupp (

The formulation of the Middle Ages as the medium aevum, “the time in the middle,” presupposes that its time is past and the era is dead.  The discipline of Medievalism Studies challenges this notion by taking modern uses of the Middle Ages as its (seemingly paradoxical) subject.  The title of this collection, Medieval Afterlives, takes this re-conceptualization one step further by stressing, as editor Gail Ashton puts it, “living medievalisms” (4; emphasis in original).   The idea is thought-provoking and the title is apt.  So apt, in fact, that Ashton already used it for an earlier essay collection, Medieval Afterlives in Popular Culture, co-edited with Daniel T. Kline and published by Palgrave MacMillan in its New Middle Ages series in 2012 (and reviewed by Medievally Speaking in 2013:  

The new Medieval Afterlives is a collection of 29 essays written by 33 contributors (a few were co-authored) divided into 5 sections.  Ashton informs us in her introduction that she took the section headings from the song titles on the album Avalon, by the British band Roxy Music (2).  So Part 1 is headed “True to Life: In the Performance,” and includes essays on present-day live performances, whether theatrical (the musical Spamalot, modern-day revivals of medieval religious drama, or the Royal Shakespeare Company’s adaptation of the Canterbury Tales), operatic (contemporary operas with medieval themes or plots), pedagogical (using medievalism in the classroom) or athletic (jousting at Medieval Times restaurants).  Part 2, titled, “To Turn You On: The Pleasures of Texts—Film, TV, Gaming,” would also seem to concern performances, but these are viewed through the medium of a screen—something that has to be “turned on.”  This section includes articles on medieval film, one specifically on film adaptations of Beowulf, on the BBC TV show Merlin and on the BBC adaptation of Canterbury Tales, on Tolkien’s afterlife both on film and in video games, and on medieval video games in general.  The song “More Than This” titles part 3, with the subtitle “Reimaginings and Reappropriations.” This section includes essays on new artistic creations with medieval inspiration, such as translations and retellings of Chaucer into various modern languages,  contemporary poetry, Young Adult novels set in the Middle Ages, and medievalist Australian literature.   Also included here are essays on the modern cult of Julian of Norwich and Margery Kempe and on Arthurian tourism.  Iconic medieval figures and texts are the subject of part 4, “Avalon: Icons and Artefacts.”  Here we find essays on Arthurian Young Adult novels, on New Age and Neopagan religions, and on the afterlives of the medieval Templar, of Malory, and of Robin Hood.  Apparently Harry Potter has become an icon like Arthur or Robin Hood also, because this section also includes an essay on medievalism and Harry Potter.  The final section, “The Space Between:  New Media and Fandom,” explores medievalist involvement in digital media, such as the world of Harry Potter fandom, digitized manuscripts, and the creation of medieval memes; this is also the place for essays on Dantean and Arthurian comics.

One could certainly quibble with some of these organizational choices.  For example, why are the comics essays in part 5? Comics are not “new media”; they’re over a century old. Why weren’t these placed in part 3, with the other “Reimaginings and Reappropriations,” or, since the comics discussed are based on Dante and the Arthurian tradition, why not in part 4, with the other “Icons and Artefacts”?  Couldn’t Julian of Norwich and Margery Kempe be better considered “Icons and Artefacts” rather  than “reimaginings and reappropriations”?  Isn’t traveling to Tintagel in search of Arthurian legends a form of performance?  Ashton admits that “the section headings are neither defining nor circumscribing” (5), which may be making a virtue out of necessity (or, to use a more contemporary image, making a bug into a feature).  But organizing a diverse collection such as this is notoriously difficult, and for the most part the categories work.

I wish to do more than quibble, however, with the documentation in the essays.  Ashton explains that she directed the contributors to write “in a clear lively style as free of academic apparatus as they could make it” (5).  I applaud the requirement of “clear lively style”; I cannot fathom why academic prose traditionally prefers the reverse (unclear and deadly).  I approve of writing with a distinctive authorial voice that reveals the writer’s personality.  But if by “free of academic apparatus” Ashton meant “lacking clear, complete, consistent documentation,” then we part ways.  Ashton continues, “mindful of the need to streamline a large and potentially unwieldy volume, we offer a Select Bibliography rather than the traditional catch-all to be read in conjunction with chapter endnotes and Keynote Works (see accompanying website)” (5).  This says to me that any sources used in an individual article should be cited in that article’s endnotes; the “Select Bibliography” presumably includes only significant works, perhaps those cited in multiple articles that might be seen as essential to the field.  It’s unclear to me what the difference between a “Select Bibliography” and “Keynote Works” might be.

Missing from Ashton’s description of the approach to documentation taken in this volume is any mention of parenthetical citations.  Yet several of the articles employ them along with the endnotes.  When I see a parenthetical citation, I expect it to refer to a list of Works Cited or a Reference List.  In this collection, the Select Bibliography would appear to fulfill this function—except that it doesn’t, at least not consistently.  The essays that use parenthetical citation take a variety of approaches.  Several essays use endnotes for the first reference to a source, then parenthetical citations for subsequent references, a practice mandated by no citation system that I am aware of.  Others employ other strategies. For example, some, but not all, of the works referred to parenthetically in Rogerson’s essay on the afterlives of medieval religious drama in England are listed in the Select Bibliography. It turns out that most of them are listed in a separate list of works for “Further Reading” found after the endnotes to this essay—but one, a reference to Davis 1970 (41), is in neither location.  Barrington and Hsy’s essay on “Global Chaucers” includes no endnotes; the reader is referred to the authors’ own website,  There are some parenthetical citations that do refer to works in the Select Bibliography; this, however, is divided into Primary and Secondary Sources, so the reader must first determine to which category the cited work belongs (not always easy in a work like this).  The cumulative effect of these varied approaches is confusion.  When I encounter a parenthetical reference, where should I look for its full citation—should I scan up the endnotes until I find the first reference?  Is there a list of works at the end of the essay?  Should I look in the Bibliography at the back of the book?  Perhaps it’s a “Keynote Work” and I can find it on the web, or maybe the author has her own website.  A reader might well give up long before exhausting all these possibilities.

A reader seeking to trace sources used in two of these essays would become even more frustrated. Louise D’Arcens’ “Australian Medievalism” reverses the order some of her colleagues use; she gives a parenthetical reference to a book by Brian Andrew first (178); only two pages later does she have an endnote with the full reference to Andrew’s book (180).  D’Arcens discusses two Australian novels in consecutive paragraphs (179-80).  The first one, An Australian Girl by Catherine Martin, is found in the Select Bibliography; the second, Romance of a Station by Rosa Praed, is not—but she gets an endnote.  Furthermore, D’Arcens’ endnotes are arranged last name first, which is contrary both to all style guides and to common sense—the only reason to put the last name first is when a list is alphabetical (as in a Bibliography), which footnotes and endnotes are not.  (She’s not alone in this practice—seven others in this collection also do it.)  D’Arcens uses a few websites, which she parenthetically references using this nonsensical phrase:  “(website:  see reading)” (examples on 177, 178, 179).

The worst offender, however, is Renee Ward’s essay “Harry Potter and Medievalism” (263-74).  I read this article with great anticipation, since I teach a course called “Harry Potter and the Middle Ages” and was interested not only in what she had to say but also in her sources, which might be useful for my class.  So I was extra disappointed to discover that Ward parenthetically cites works with no full reference anywhere—not in the endnotes, not in a reference list at the end of the article, not in the Select Bibliography, not on a website.  Her references to Rowling’s works, however, are a hybrid—a parenthetical reference with an endnote attached to it, like this:  (Rowling 1997, p. 77).2  I would not let one of my students get away with this kind of carelessness.

These criticisms may seen nitpicky, but proper documentation is a sine qua non of careful scholarship—no matter how “clear and lively” the style.  It is part of an editor’s job to be nitpicky; this editor needed to edit with a heavier hand.  From a book that costs 100 euros, I expect better.

I also expected better of the book’s accompanying website.  Ashton claims that “the print volume and accompanying integral website are conceived together, as part of a consciously more associative, less authoritative, dialogue” (5; emphasis in original).  It might be associative and less authoritative, but it’s not very well done.  The URL provided in the introduction,, takes you to the publisher’s page to purchase the book.  On that page, under the heading “Online Resources,” are six links: “Introduction and Medievalist Poem”; “Medieval Mystery Plays”; “Favourite Medievalisms”; “Blogs, Interviews, Reviews”; “Keynote Works, Libraries and Manuscripts”; and “Medieval Heritage and Pilgrimage Walks.”   All turn out to be PDFs—essentially, text files (well, all except “Medieval Mystery Plays,” which yielded a “not found” error).  None of the PDFs has menus at the top or any internal links, so the user has no idea of what’s contained in the file without laboriously paging down.  And I do mean “laboriously”—these files range from 20 pages to 58 pages long.  Moreover, web references found in the PDFs are not formatted as links, so what’s the point of putting this material on the web?  Although there is some interesting and valuable material buried in these files, it is poorly formatted and poorly organized.  The companion website is, to say the least, a missed opportunity.

Despite the weaknesses of the documentation and the website, I found the essays themselves to be stimulating and informative.  The strength of Medieval Afterlives is its variety and breadth.  The contributors find medieval afterlives in traditional media, like literature, theatre, and film, as well as new media, such as comic books and video games.  Literary examples include Young Adult fiction (Angela Jane Weisl, “Coming of Age in the Middle Ages:  The Quest for Identify in Medieval Novels for Young Adults,” 167-76; Ann F. Howey, “Medievalism and Heriodism in Arthurian Literature for Young People,” 213-222).  Performance is broadly defined to encompass not only plays and operas but also classroom teaching and jousting.  European and American medievalisms are well represented, but geographical diversity is provided by essays on medievalism in Australia (by Louise D’Arcens, 177-86) and on translations of Chaucer into Danish, Afrikaans, Turkish, Brazilian Portuguese and Mandarin Chinese (Candace Barrington and Jonathan Hsy, “Global Chaucers,” 147-156). Other essays demonstrate that medievalism can be found in unexpected spaces, such as tourism (Fiona Tolhurst, “Julian of Norwich and Margery Kempe as Contemporary Cult Figures,” 187-99; Laurie A. Finke and Susan Aronstein, “Conjuring the Ghosts of Camelot:  Tintagel and the Medievalism of Heritage Tourism,” 200-210) and religion (Karolyn Kinane, “New Age and Neopagan Medievalisms,” 223-33).

The essays also take a variety of approaches to these various media and genres.  Some are descriptive, such as Lesley Coote’s “Survey of Twenty-First Century ‘Medieval’ Film” (103-113).  Others are explanatory, such as Daniel T. Kline’s “Contemporary Neo-Medieval Digital Gaming:  An Overview of Genre” (93-102).  I now know the differences between Role-Playing games (RPG), Real-Time Strategy (RTS) and Turn-Based Strategy  (TBS) games, Action-Adventure games, and Simulation games (sims),  and how medieval games fit into the categories.  Similarly, Amanda K. Allen’s “Social Networking, Participatory Culture and the Fandom World of Harry Potter” (277-290) serves as an introduction to the types of texts created by fans, including fanfiction, Wizard Wrock (fan-created music), fanvids (fan-created music), fan-created images and GIFs, and role-playing, both LARP (live-action role-playing) and internet-based.  A Star Trek fan in my youth, I was aware of the existence of fan fiction, but my vocabulary has now been enriched by the terms “fanon” (fans’ additions to the authorial canon), “ship” (short for relationship), OTP (one true pairing), AU (alternate universe), and OOC (out of character).  Still other essays are interpretive. Rogerson, for example, argues in “Medieval Religious Plays in England” (32-47) that present-day performances of the York and Chester mystery plays can answer questions about their original performance.  In “Medieval Times: Tournaments and Jousting in Twenty-First-Century North America” (67-77), Elizabeth Emery argues that these practices “reveal a particularly North American fascination with the Middle Ages, marked by anxieties about class, gender and economics” (68).

Anyone who loves studying and teaching the Middle Ages and medievalism will find something of value in this collection.  I expect that even readers considerably more in tune with contemporary popular culture than I will be exposed to new varieties of medievalism.  Maybe someone knows a lot about movies but is unfamiliar with video games; someone else might be a serious Harry Potter fan but never picked up a graphic novel.  Although only one essay is explicitly pedagogical—Meriem Pagès’ “You Can’t Do This to Disney!  Popular Medievalisms in the Classroom” (58-66), anyone who uses medievalism in their classes will find a wealth of potential material in this collection.   Whenever I came across something useful for my own teaching or research, or just a striking sentence, I marked the page with a post-it flag; by the time I’d finished, the top edge of my book was bristling with flags.

Ashton celebrates the “open access” to knowledge of the “democratic electronic dialogues that proliferate all over the web” (4).  This attitude informs the approach taken by the scope of this volume and by its willingness to challenge some of the stuffier customs of  academic culture.  I am very sympathetic to this attitude.  I think scholarship should be inclusive, not exclusionary; welcoming, not offputting.  But that does not preclude providing careful, proper documentation or producing a well-designed and well-executed website.  Ashton notes that the hallmarks of the virtual world are “collaboration, interdisciplinary, popular” (4).  Medieval Afterlives achieves two out of three—but then why do the educational backgrounds of the contributors show such disciplinary homogeneity?  Perusal of the contributor biographies (333-38), supplemented with a little google searching, reveals that of the 33 authors in the collection, 30 either work in or were trained the field of literature.  Ashton hints at a volume two (7); perhaps next time she could invite a historian or two to participate.  She ends her introduction by hoping the reader has an “open heart and creative mind” (7), which I think is a good recipe for any student, teacher, or scholar.

Teresa Rupp
Mount St. Mary’s University

September 18, 2015

Matthews: Medievalism: A Critical History

David Matthews. Medievalism: A Critical History. D.S. Brewer: Cambridge, 2015.

Reviewed by Julia M. Smith (

In his well-researched book, Medievalism: A Critical History, David Matthews provides a foundational study for the multidisciplinary field of medievalism studies. As a foundational study, Matthews focuses on explaining the similarities and differences between medievalism and medieval studies.  Should the two forms of scholarship be severed into two separate disciplines or treated equally within one comprehensive discipline? Medievalism is defined as “the  ‘process of creating the Middle Ages’ and ‘the study not of the Middle Ages themselves but of the scholars, artists, and writers who…constructed the idea of the Middle Ages that we inherited’” (7), a definition provided by Leslie J. Workman. In contrast, medieval studies concerns just “the period’s literatures, languages, history, architecture, wars, religions and people, from peasants to popes” (1). As recent conference presentations and journals such as Studies in Medievalism can attest, the study of the medieval era is routinely juxtaposed with studies of the uptake of the Middle Ages after the era ended.  The teaching of medieval studies has likewise been affected. Rather than have students read chivalric texts alone, professors and scholars often provide students with an opportunity to see how these stories, themes, and ideals manifest in current remediated works based on Robin Hood, White Queen, and Game of Thrones (film, television shows, graphic novels and books).

While his work is not exhaustive (and it can’t be), Matthews chooses to explore the field at points where strong interest and movement in medievalism erupted rather than a linear progression through a history of the field. As Matthews puts it, he offers “a meta-commentary on the study of medievalism of a kind which up until now has been lacking” (ix). To discuss the multi-disciplinary nature of the medievalism, his book is arranged around specific cultural themes such as time, space, self, and scholarship. The book also focuses on several main historical eras—1600s acquisition of antiquities, 1840s rise of interest in the medieval during the Victorian era, WWI, and decline of medieval studies in late 20th century concurrent to a rise in interest in medievalism.  These classifications point to moments where medievalism gained traction in the public sphere--art, architecture, film, literature.  In other words, audiences less familiar with the material may be initially confused by the sheer number of ways medievalism can be arranged, but that is the point: “one major problem that confronts medievalism studies is the sheer diversity of material” (35).

For scholars uncertain of the parameters, which make up medievalism as a discipline, Matthews has advice.  He argues that thus far, medievalism as a discipline and its specific methods of inquiry have not been defined. Rather medievalism typically operates more as a study of a subject such as medievalist art or medievalist architecture.  Some effort has been made to describe medievalism as a discipline by Umberto Eco; however Eco’s classifications are not clearly defined and blur into one another.  In addition, Eco appears to be taking a tongue-in-cheek approach to the concept.  In response to the need to classify the possibilities and limitations of medievalism, Matthews treats the subject as a “discourse, which can appear to greater or lesser degrees in cultural works” (37).  He proposes that scholarship might view studies of the Middle Ages “as it was,” “as it might have been,” “as it never was,” and “a cultural production, essentially of its own time, looks back to the Middle Ages with greater or lesser explicitness”  (37-8). These categories help to show how the Middle Ages have been constructed, taken up and used throughout history and explains how medievalism and medieval studies might be regarded as a blend of scholarship rather than two fully distinct entities. 

Matthews further proposes two specific types or themes to clarify how the medieval gets viewed and taken up: the grotesque/gothic medieval and the romantic medieval. According to Matthews, the grotesque/gothic medieval emerged starting in the 16th century. In the 16th century, scholars divided historical eras into Antiquity, Middle Ages, and Modernity.  Since the Middle Ages came before the religious reformations, this middle ground in history was viewed as a dark, barbaric, and violent time.  The perception of the Middles Ages as dark and violent continues into modern usage; Matthews gives the example of a British court case in which the judge declared sadomasochistic sex as ‘medieval’ torture and thus the woman who resisted it was a victim in need of saving.  The second category, romantic medieval,  “is the Middle Ages of romance, of chivalric deeds, but also of simple communitarian living and humanly organized labour, a pastoral time when the cash nexus was unknown, a time of intense romantic love” (25). A romantic Middle Ages appeals especially to groups (especially during the Victorian era and the 60s and 70s) who are seeking answers to civic issues such as industrialization by looking back to the earlier social and political infrastructures of the Middle Ages.

The rest of the book treats medievalism as a method of cultural studies, which allows the work to break from the disciple/not a discipline question, since cultural studies is consider an anti-discipline (178). Each remaining chapter 2-5 takes on different aspects of cultural studies that has been affected by interest in the medieval: time, space, self, the canon. 

In particular, time poses some interesting issues.  In the 16th century, “the Middle Ages is not entirely a period, a chronological era with fixed boundaries, but rather something that might come back, something that continues to exist in some places though it has been eradicated in others” (46).  The ‘middleness’ of the era between antiquity and modernity increased the fear of the Middle Ages as dark, dangerous, and barbaric, as mentioned earlier. By the 1800s, the fear that the Middle Ages will come back had faded and instead, a nostalgia for era increased. This change can be signified by the change in terminology. The period was originally called gothic, but later in the Victorian age, the term the Latin term, “medium aevum.” The nostalgia can be seen especially in time travel narratives of the 1880s and 1890s, where characters either went back in time to the Middle Ages or went forward in time to find a new medieval-esque life.

 A study of medieval spaces demonstrates the extent to which the Middle Ages has been constructed throughout history.  As Matthews puts it, “What we actually visit, I suggest, when we go to medieval places, is the contemporary version of a historical site which we can only experience in its modernity” (68).  Essentially medieval spaces are not authentically medieval. Many have had to be reconstructed or renovated extensively due to destruction or wear, such as Notre Dame and Warsaw’s Old Town. Other spaces were never genuinely medieval to begin with, since they were built by modern or contemporary agents like Old Saint Mary’s Cathedral, Sydney.  Still other spaces must be rescued from being ‘medieval’ such as Katine, an improvised  village in Africa.

Matthews turns to questions of the medieval self. He studies historical re-enactments of the Middle Ages beginning in the 1800s. These re-enactments encourage a perception that medievalising the self can be potentially liberating. In contrast, medievalism has also been studied as sites of repressions: colonizing by the rich.  Ultimately medievalising the self demonstrates preferences of style and solutions for dilemmas faced in modern world. While re-enactors enjoy their activities, none of those interviewed by Matthews would want to actually travel back in time, since hygiene and health are much better now.

The last couple of chapters discuss the boundaries or limitations that might be imposed on medievalism: canon and history (118). Matthews states, “if medievalism really is an endemic theme or set of themes in European culture, then it can never be made concrete as a single discipline (as the study of romanticism can be)” (120).  According to Matthews historical and cultural accounting, medievalism has never really entered into the canon. While medievalist works have gained enormous popularity, they have not been seen as influential on canonical writers or regarded as high art themselves. The enduring legacy of medievalism is one of childhood to modernity as seen in works by Tolkien and Lewis rather than enduring works of art for adults.

Throughout this study, Matthews seeks to offer a starting place for those who wish to study and define medievalism. He does so by ultimately addressing the question of discipline and boundaries. Where does medievalism start? How do we know what we are doing is medievalism and not something else? To address these concerns, Matthews puts forth the idea that without medievalism, the study of the Middle Ages would not be possible. The two fields co-exist, since medievalism is the “process of creating the Middle Ages…all such study of the Middle Ages (by definition) has gone on after the Middle Ages” (172).  To make medievalism a coherent study, Matthews further advocates for medievalism to embrace cultural studies in order allay anxieties rather than to fight for a separate discipline; medievalism and medieval studies need to acknowledge their dual existence.

Julia M. Smith
Georgia Institute of Technology

September 7, 2015

Toswell: Borges, The Unacknowledged Medievalist

M.J. Toswell. Borges, The Unacknowledged Medievalist: Old English and Old Norse in His Life and Work. London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2014.

Reviewed by Daniel de Paula Valentim Hutchins (

In this concise study of the influence of medievalism on the life and writing of Jorge Luis Borges (1889-1996),  M. J. Toswell offers not only copious documentation of Borges’s lifelong fascination with Old English and Old Norse but also several compelling reasons for reconsidering Borges’s work in light of these connections. Though it may come as no surprise to even the casual reader of Borges that he was in dialogue with medievalism – his adaptation of a medieval bestiary, The Book of Imaginary Beings (1957), is the best known but not the only explicit example of this dialogue in his work – Toswell digs deeper than others have before in exploring these connections and plumbing them for a better understanding of Borges as a writer.

For example, early in her introduction, Toswell claims that Borges “partakes of a profoundly medieval attitude to authority. [For Borges], texts derive each from the other, and aspiring to originality is always a mistake – despite the popularity of the idea in the modern era” (5). The non-medievalist reading these lines (and perhaps many medievalists as well) may be struck by how close Toswell’s characterization of a “medieval attitude” resembles Derridean poststructuralism: positing an origin or ascribing a total completeness to a text is ultimately a wishful fantasy; the logos can never be fully present. A bit later in her introduction, Toswell explains how the Anglo-Saxon word for poet, scop, meant a “shaper” or “maker,” one who mixes the words which result in a poem. She proceeds to compare this idea of poetry with Borges’s title for a collection of critical essays, El Hacedor, or literally translated from Spanish, The Maker (9).

For me, moments like this in Toswell’s work, moments in which she takes an insight about the influence of medievalism on Borges and uses that insight to transform my understanding of both Borges as a writer and of medievalism itself, are by far the most exciting and successful parts of the work. After reading passages from Toswell’s book like the one above I found myself going back to my favorite Borges short stories and rereading them with a new eye. And, indeed, though her close reading is acute and her research meticulous, I found myself a bit disappointed (unfairly, perhaps) that rather than anchor her book with these moments of keen lucidity, Toswell instead chose a more straightforward philological approach, unfolding her analysis first through biography and later through the overlapping facets of Borges’s career as a writer and public intellectual: poet, scholar, and “fabulist” (i.e. author of prose fiction).

Chapter one is a brief introduction in which Toswell outlines her chapters and presents her main thesis; namely, that Borges’s lifelong interest in Germanic medievalism, “including both Old English and Old Norse” was not a mere hobby (as Borges himself, on more than one occasion, fondly called it) but, rather, remains a crucial key for unlocking the meaning of Borges’s work (10). Chapter two undertakes to situate the historical Borges in the literary and cultural landscape that brought him into being as a major world writer of the twentieth century. To Toswell’s credit, however, rather than offering us a biography of Borges that takes us from childhood to adulthood, she begins with a close look at the author’s gravestone, located in Geneva in the Cimetiére Plainpalais. On one side of Borges’s gravestone is a quote from an Old English poem, The Battle of Maldon, “Our spirit must be sterner, our heart the braver, our soul the greater as our power diminishes” (14). For the other side, Borges (with the help of María Kodoma, the person who knew him best for the last twenty years of his life and who he married a few months before his death) chose a line from the Old Norse Völsungassaga, “He takes the sword Gram and lays it naked between them” (15). Toswell’s decision to begin with Borges’s gravestone is not only stylish, it also emphasizes the importance of medievalism in his life and work.

Two important facts about Borges: first, he was one-quarter English. His paternal grandmother was named Frances “Fanny” Haslam and hailed from Northumbria (16). Thus, Borges was raised in a bilingual household and spoke, wrote, and read English as naturally as he did Spanish, benefiting from this father’s expansive English-language library which included, “the early works of H.G. Wells, Rudyard Kipling, G.K. Chesterton, and especially Robert Louis Stevenson” (16-17). Adding to this cosmopolitanism, in 1914 when he was fifteen the entire family moved from Buenos Aires to Geneva and he thus spent his high school years at a French language school, the Collège Calvin. Second fact: when Borges was fifty years old, he went blind. His father had gone blind when Borges was a teenager (16). Though Borges had a wide knowledge of medievalism by this point and, indeed, had already incorporated many ideas, themes, kennings, and plot-lines from medieval writings into his short fiction and poetry, it was not until his blindness that he began to publish, always collaboratively (at that point, how could he work otherwise?), serious scholarship on medieval subjects, beginning with the study, co-written with María Esther Vasquez, Literaturas Germánicas Medievales or Medieval Germanic Literatures (20). As Toswell writes elsewhere, rather poetically:
Borges connects his blindness to his speaking of Old English, a blunt tongue which should perhaps not delight him as much as it does. His memory he describes as failing, his life as repetitious and cyclical. Nonetheless, there is hope, and he can access the possibilities of the universe. Old English seems, paradoxically since it is largely a dead language, to offer him access to that universe. (35)

Chapter three deepens and expands the case for the influence of medievalism in Borges’s poetry, focusing on the theme of heroism and the “construction of a hero” – a typology firmly held in place for him in works like Beowulf as well as the many sagas and poems of the Old English and Old Norse traditions. But there are other influences as well: references to Draupnir, the great gold ring of the Norse gods, and to the idea that toenails and fingernails continue to grow after death, which Toswell, following Joseph Tyler, wants to tie to “the Norse mythological idea of a ship made from the fingernails of the dead appearing at Ragnarok” (32). When it came to his knowledge of medievalism, Borges was not a tourist or hobbyist. He showed the same enthusiasm for footnotes, curiosities, and other often overlooked ephemera as he did for a major canonical work like Beowulf.

Chapter four focuses on Borges’s scholarly work on medievalism (including a short, meaty section on Dante) but begins with a personal anecdote from 2010 in which Toswell recalls her work translating another one of Borges’s scholarly works, Antiguas Literaturas Germánicas (Ancient Germanic Literatures), from Spanish to English while on board a freighter ship going around the world. Here is a glimpse of a different book, one that lives along the margins of the one I am reviewing: a memoir by Toswell that shows the intersections of the personal and scholarly in her work and life. In the following passage, Toswell relates how she is hard at work on the translation of Antiguas Literaturas Germánicas when her freighter, some distance from Kuala Lampur, encounters very rough seas.
In a somewhat hallucinatory state, as I rolled back and forth across my single bed trying in vain to jam a toe somewhere to give myself some leverage, I realized that this situation called for Borges. And so, my first contribution to the scholarly study in English of Borges’ study of Old English and Old Norse medievalism was accomplished with a following surge (and a tornado wandering about) in the Persian Sea heading south to the Indian Ocean. By the time we were off the coast of Sri Lanka ten miserable days later, arriving in calm seas with a pleasant following wind, my first draft was complete. As we neared Kuala Lumpur, while passing through the notorious Straits of Malacca, I finished a second draft and some introductory material. (48)
What better state than a hallucinatory one to work on Borges, after all? Here we can see an easy and, indeed, perfectly organic homeostasis between the critical and the autobiographical. And why not? Doesn’t every work of criticism double as a kind of memoir for its author? Aren’t all our best, most creative ideas haunted, in a sense, by the manifold life experiences that brought them into being? Indeed, Toswell’s book succeeds because of the work she does to show us this same trend in Borges’s writing, the way his lifelong fascination with medievalism overflowed into his criticism, fiction, and poetry.

Chapter five, “Borges the Fabulist,” (which also begins with another anecdote from Toswell’s life) continues to make the point that a more holistic, more in-depth appreciation for Borges’s medievalism makes us better readers of his writing in general and, in this case, his short fiction in particular. Toswell’s treatments of stories like, “Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote,” “Brodie’s Report,” and especially “Funes, The Memorious” (Funes, El Memorioso, also translated to English as “Funes, His Memory”), open up new sightlines for close reading and interpretation. In this last story, Toswell focuses on the themes of memory and of organizing knowledge. Borges, she reminds us, was, among many other things, a professional librarian (73). For Toswell, the character of Ireneo Funes, a Uruguayan son of a washerwoman who is bucked off a horse, crippled, and emerges from this horrible ordeal with a total recall memory, stands in for Pliny, whose Historia Naturalis Funes borrows, early in the story, from our first-person narrator, Bernardo Juan Francisco. “Organizing knowledge, and getting it set in place so that all of humanity would be properly organized to worship God: these were typical medieval preoccupations, and Borges would have known it” (73). Furthermore, Toswell adds that, “The short story depends heavily on Pliny’s Historia Naturalis, a natural history rediscovered and copied in the medieval period, and its dependence on Pliny is remarkably medieval” (73). The themes of memory and knowledge so prevalent in this story can be found throughout Borges’s prose fiction writing. Toswell’s work here is to uncover and correctly identify an outsized vein of thematic content in those writings that was inspired by medievalism and its outsized presence in Borges’s imaginative life.

Chapter six of the book functions as a conclusion, encapsulating all that has come before it by, once again, splitting Borges three ways: poet, scholar, and writer of prose fiction. For those of us who have read and taught Borges, Toswell’s book may offer an uncanny sense of encountering an old friend under new circumstances, a mix of the strange and the familiar. For scholars of medieval studies who have yet to read Borges, Toswell’s analysis of how Borges used (and, in a sense, lived) medievalism will serve as a sustained and earnest argument for why you should do so immediately.

Daniel de Paula Valentim Hutchins
Texas Tech University