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

July 17, 2019

Mills: Derek Jarman’s Medieval Modern

Robert Mills. Derek Jarman’s Medieval Modern. Cambridge: D.S. Brewer, 2018.

Reviewed by Mark Turner (

Since his death in 1994, Derek Jarman has tended to remain an uncertain figure in the culture landscape of contemporary British art and film. Still mostly known as a leading avant-garde, artist’s filmmaker, he was also a painter, writer, set designer for theatre and music video, gardener and activist. Part of the same generation as David Hockney, he never attained anything like that other queer artist’s acclaim or fortune, and he worked usually beyond the influence of major cultural institutions, not under the radar exactly, but certainly in his own terms. Because he ranged across media, Jarman can be difficult to pin down and locate in a tidy narrative of contemporary culture, and it is precisely the challenge of that untidiness that is the focus of Robert Mills’s brilliant book on the artist.

As explained in the compelling and succinct Introduction, Derek Jarman’s Medieval Modern is about many things. It is a book about Jarman, but one that differs from all others in its attempt to range across the artist’s multidisciplinary oeuvre. It is also a book about the “medieval,” how we understand this word today and the uses to which it is put. The coinage that Mills uses to such good effect is the “medieval modern,” a multifaceted use of “medievalism” that “disrupts or dissolves the boundaries of art, medium, time and discipline” (1). Mills draws on the idea of the “medieval” as “a fluid and floating category of otherness, one that operates spatially and morally as well as temporally” (1). Thus, Mills partly learns from Jarman that the “medieval” is not bounded by period, rather it is a concept that opens up the many ways of encountering the past that also speak to us in and about the present while pointing to the future, too. As he writes:
The ‘medieval modern’ of my title harnesses the temporal asynchrony that such dialogues between past and present potentially engender. As a thought experiment, it asks what happens when (with Derek Jarman, but also more broadly) we think these categories together. It forces a reflection on the mutually reinforcing differences that separate the medieval from the modern, even as it highlights their potential for overlap and continuity. Medieval with modern; medieval before modern; medieval as modern; medieval not modern – my contention is that all these permutations can be discovered in Jarman’s art. (2)
There is no singular or easy relationship between the “medieval” and the “modern” and Mills resists thinking about them through, for example, a dialectical model. These two signifiers – which are at once ideas, historical periods, artistic modes, adjectives – rub up against each other all the time, but often in disruptive or even contradictory ways. Jarman’s work helps us to see those disruptions but without a need to sort them out.
The book is organized in four chapters, which cover the breadth of Jarman’s work. Chapter 1, worth discussing a bit more at length here, explores the many ways the medieval comes into view in his films, writing and art. In part, Mills follows Carolyn Dinshaw in thinking about the ways the present “touches” the Middle Ages, and Jarman provides an excellent case study in ways of touching the past. Mills begins with a fascinating discussion of Jarman’s attitudes to religion, specifically medieval Christianity. On the one hand Jarman rails against the sexual repression, homophobia and violent, “‘murderous tradition which still contributes to legislate against us’,” but, on the other hand, medieval religion provided a deep reservoir for his imagination – saints’ lives, for example – often explored for its queer subtexts. What comes across strongly in this chapter is the sheer extent of Jarman’s engagement with the medieval, from reading primary texts (Langland, Chaucer, etc.) to academic criticism (history, art and architectural history, literary criticism), and the many, varied ways the medieval enters his work. Mills is excellent at unpicking the knotty ways the medieval threads throughout Jarman’s work. To take just one constellation of works: a music video for the Pet Shop Boys’ “It’s A Sin” references Carl Theodor Dreyer’s silent film from 1928, La Passion de Jeanne d’Arc; an unrealized script, Bob-Up-a-Down, about sexual repression; his own “Miss Crepe Suzette” drag costume for the 1975 Alternative Miss World; and numerous passing references in the diaries – each of these draws on the history and iconography of Joan of Arc specifically, using her life and story and its reimagining by others to various ends, not always with the same idea in mind.

Towards the end of Chapter 1, Mills explores recent thinking about “queer time,” what Elizabeth Freeman has described as “a visceral sense of the past stubbornly lingering in the present” (29), a refusal for the past simply to go away, or be replaced, in the way linear understandings of time might suggest. According to Mills, Jarman made films that can “usefully be understood as ‘medieval’ when it comes to imagining alternatives to linear or sequential concepts of time” (37). The Garden (1990), Jarman’s exploration of Christ’s Passion, filmed in and around his cottage and garden at Dungeness on the coast of Kent (aka, “Garden of England”), highlights our “sense of estrangement from measured time,” with a soundtrack that at one point highlights the relentless monotony and tyranny of clockwork and its rhythms (35). The story of Christ is interrupted by the measured ticking of the passing of time. Such temporal disruption is also found in Edward II (1991) when a set-piece music-video style scene interrupts Marlowe’s plot (Annie Lennox memorably singing “Every Time We Say Goodbye”). By the end of the film, Mills suggests, there is a feeling of the “medieval” being co-present with the “modern,” without a distinct sense of “then” and “now.”

Chapter 2 continues to develop ideas about time and history, while also pointing to Jarman’s deep engagement with art history. Anachronism becomes a key idea here, not only the strategic ways Jarman appears to run roughshod over strict chronology and period authenticity, but also the way anachronism poses a key challenge to academic thinking and research:
Much scholarly energy has been dedicated to locating works of art and literature within the moments in which they were created, but what if the temporality of the works in question was not simply confined to the horizon of their creation? What if, in keeping with Jarman’s vision of a temporarily more capacious art history, we pursued the possibility of a Middle Ages out of bounds? (47)
In Jarman’s film Caravaggio (1986), to take one small example, a scene in which the famous painter contemplates one of his works is punctuated sonically by the sound of a steam train in the distance and “through this jarring mix of visual, verbal, and aural signifiers, audiences are confronted with a collision of different time frames” (59). In Edward II, Jarman’s ideas for the set invoke the Cloisters Museum in New York, itself a kind of “ersatz historicism,” and the action of Marlowe’s reimagined play is interrupted by a gay activist protest. There is temporal layering here which calls into question any stable notion of a settled, specific, historical moment that can be referenced directly. Sometimes through collage, sometimes through palimpsest, Jarman’s strategic unsettling of historical “accuracy” brings the viewer into the films in often demanding and unexpected ways, designed to interrogate the encounter with the past rather than smooth it over.

Ruins and gardens are at the heart of Chapter 3, with illuminating discussions of the way these two ideas overlap and intersect, in wastelands and other fragmented landscapes. Old and Middle English poetry inform Jarman’s vision of the garden – Chaucer’s The Parliament of Fowls, for example, and the Old English poem The Ruin – which often speak to feelings of loss, but also of a kind of queer love of the outcast. Jarman takes this medievally inflected way of seeing and looks at the scrappy coastal landscape which surrounds his cottage in Dungeness. The sea kale, for example, seen by others as a weedy nuisance, is recuperated by Jarman in his own garden and in his films, in a conscious effort not to weed things out and to make us pay attention to things we too often overlook. In Chapter 4, Mills links Jarman’s work to the figure of the medieval wanderer. “On the one hand, wanderers arouse a sense of dread,” Mills writes:
Fear of difference and the unknown, or anxiety about unstable borders. On the other hand, they afford a glimpse of alternative worlds and customs, giving rise to feelings of wonder or fascination. Occasionally those who have been displaced, whether forcibly or voluntarily, may also awaken in beholders a sense of pity of demands for charity. (137)
In his poems and films, Jarman shows that he knew the myths of the wanderer well, from a range of sources including poems like Chaucer’s ‘Pardoner’s Tale’ and Coleridge’s Rime of the Ancient Mariner through to Carl Jung’s psychological archetype. The figure of the displaced wanderer and the questing knight find their way into his Super8 films from the 1970s. In Corfe Film (1975), a series of long takes and tableaux, the knight’s quest is deconstructed, “exposing its structures by highlighting the essential unattainability of the object of desire – which also includes our own desire, as viewers, to extract meaning from what we see” (153). A voiceover in The Garden states: “‘I offer you a journey without direction, uncertainty, and no sweet conclusion. When the light faded, I went in search of myself. There were many paths and destinations’” (153).
Mills’s “Afterword” to the book offers a personal reflection on his thinking about Jarman’s life and work. “How are my own medievalisms bound up with Derek Jarman’s,” he asks (176). It is the supposed “errors” in Jarman – his getting historical facts wrong; his persistent use of anachronism – that Mills notices and that lead him to think critically about the strategic uses of “errors.” Furthermore, Jarman helps him to understand that history is a “situated practice” to which we all come with our own subjective dimensions. Mills first came to Jarman queerly, that is, as a young queer man and a young queer medievalist. The “queer” and the “medievalist” are ultimately not separate for Mills; in fact, they may be one and the same. Certainly, as Jarman shows us, they have much in common. “‘The Middle Ages have formed the paradise of my imagination’” (1), Jarman once wrote. That imagination, so richly opened up by Mills’s outstanding book, is neither one thing nor the other, neither just “medieval” nor “modern,” rather the more challenging, uncertain, and perhaps generative “medieval modern” that is shared with us here.

Mark W. Turner

King’s College London

July 1, 2019

Felce: William Morris and the Icelandic Sagas

Ian Felce. William Morris and the Icelandic Sagas. Woodbridge: D.S. Brewer, 2018.

Reviewed by William Biel (

Ian Felce’s William Morris and the Icelandic Sagas concerns itself with Morris’ developing concept of heroism, for Morris meaning the ways which men in particular might and should lead a politically engaged life. The focus remains squarely upon Morris’ art, but that focus is thoroughly contextualized by the public goals Morris aimed to serve through creative production. Felce gives a nuanced and persuasive account of Morris’ personal development toward atheism and socialism through his reading and rewriting of medieval Icelandic literature.

Felce situates the book as a corrective to prior work on Morris, which he finds draws inaccurate conclusions because of those writers’ lack of familiarity with Old Norse. Felce challenges scholars who he believes, lacking the necessary training to compare Morris’ texts with their sources, offer erroneous explanations for Morris’ creative output. Felce takes especial issue with two kinds of criticism, that which he finds over-emphasizes Morris’ marital problems and that which unproductively questions Morris’ skill as a translator. In the first case Felce objects to suggestions that Morris’ attraction to Old Norse was primarily an escape from the stress of his wife, Jane’s, possible affair with Dante Rosetti. Felce convincingly demonstrates Morris’ interest in Old Norse from adolescence onward, before even meeting Jane, and his partnership with Eiríkur Magnússon, Morris’ Icelandic tutor, as forces unto themselves. Felce does not deny some impact on Morris due to his wife’s intimacy with Rosetti, but he emphasizes the sagas attracted Morris for their own virtues, providing an opportunity to grow artistically and philosophically, and not merely as a distraction from problems at home. As to the quality of Morris’ work, Felce suggests criticism that either apologizes for or attacks Morris’ skill as a translator fails to uncover the motivations behind Morris’ choice of style. Felce sees Morris moving toward increasingly hyper-literal translation in an effort to present medieval Iceland as a kindred culture to Victorian England. In so doing, Morris hoped to inspire communal values aligned with his own socialism. Felce believes Morris honestly miscalculated the linguistic skill of his readership, and thus the extent to which they might identify with saga age Icelanders. Thus, Felce undertakes close comparison of Morris’ translations alongside their Old Norse sources to reveal nuances of Morris’ inner life and public commitments lacking in other scholarship.

The book follows a chronological structure across which Felce traces Morris’ poetic and philosophical evolution. The introduction provides Morris’ general biography oriented around his meeting Eiríkur Magnússon and his subsequent period (1868-76) translating and adapting Old Norse works. Chapter 1 contrasts Morris’ earlier inspiration primarily from the Arthurian Grail quest with his turn toward the sagas as a creative wellspring. Felce outlines Morris’ initial attraction to the transcendentalism of the Grail legend, which by 1868 becomes increasingly frustrated as Morris moves toward atheism. “The Lovers of Gudrun” from The Earthly Paradise represents a turning point in which Morris adapts Laxdæla saga’s love triangle into a quest structure familiar from Arthuriana, but it rejects the transcendental in favor of the existential. The Kiartan of Morris’ “Lovers” finds ennoblement by recognizing the Edenic world of his early days as tragically devoid of meaning, but enduring nonetheless. Chapter 2 highlights Morris’ infidelity to his sources in ethical rather than linguistic terms, that is to say, in his treatment of honor and shame as conveyed by Old Norse níð: both “malice” and “perversion.” Felce acknowledges obscenity legislation necessarily affected Morris’ translation, but argues Morris was also personally uncomfortable with the brutality to which saga protagonists are often motivated in order to defend their sense of heteronormative masculinity. Seeing such sexual violence as petty cruelty, Morris’ versions of saga heroes rather serve more abstract moral concepts approved by Morris and his audience. One example comes from The Story of Kormak. In the Old Norse original, Kormáks saga, Kormak defeats an opponent, Bersi the Dueller, by wounding him in the buttocks with his sword. The saga understands Kormak thus symbolically implies Bersi is the willing recipient of a male-male sex act, slandering Bersi as a pervert. Bersi’s wife, Steingerd, consequently leaves him. Morris removes the sexual connotations and shame directed at Bersi in his translation. But he also retains Steingerd divorcing him, including the saga’s tone of moral approval over her choice, though it now seems odd and harsh to a modern audience. As such, Felce suggests that Morris’ characters sometimes suffer from a misalignment between their motivations and actions. However, Felce stresses Morris shows no self-awareness of this infidelity, but rather believed himself to be magnifying an underlying heroic ethos in the saga for his Victorian audience.

The first two chapters therefore provide a baseline for Morris’ idiosyncratic conception of his sources, against which the growth of his later work can be contextualized. Chapter 3 studies Morris’ exploration of heroic endurance through an ethics of incapacity. Morris’ treatment of Grettir the Strong dwells on the outlaw’s firm resolve despite decreasing physical ability and social debility. Grettir’s resilience sharpens the existential courage Morris attributes to Kiartan in “Lovers.” Chapter 4 addresses Morris’ progressively literal style in his translation of Heimskringla. Felce proposes Morris wanted to show his English audience how similar medieval Iceland and Victorian England were — or rather, could be. Morris thought the way of life depicted by the sagas manifested the socialist values he wanted to see reform England. He therefore hoped to reveal the two places as sibling cultures by stressing similar linguistic forms, appealing to ancient virtues to awaken a socialist conscience in his audience. But, Felce says, Morris misjudged how alienating his archaic style would be to his readers. Chapter 5 continues to develop the themes running through the first three chapters, seeing in Sigurd the Volsung Morris’ mature concept of the “deedful measure.” Felce takes Morris’ “deedfulness” as an approval of acting spontaneously by embracing life’s brevity. Against spontaneous Sigurd are gathered foes motivated by fear of death. Sigurd’s opponents foolishly try preserving a status quo that cannot last and thereby unwittingly hasten universal ruin. For Morris, the contrast means heroic action is only possible when dedicated to a common good that celebrates both human potential and frailty, without possibility of eternal salvation. Chapter 6 attends to Morris’ original fiction inspired by rather than directly translated from medieval literature. Morris turns from a historical Iceland to an imagined world based on Continental Germanic tribes, yet still exalting the heroic ideals developed through the translations. Felce suggests Morris’ embrace of a wholly fictional world helped inspire 20th century medievalist writers, such as C.S. Lewis and Tolkien.

Felce displays easy facility with Old Norse, critical for his comparisons with Morris’ translations. Felce also increases the accessibility of his own readings with footnotes offering his own translations of Norse passages. This apparatus extends to prose re-orderings of difficult skaldic verses, a quite useful inclusion. The only possible critique comes to mind regarding the book’s structure: the chronological structure of the book leaves Chapter 4 slightly out of place. The subject of Morris’ literal translation style seems more thematically akin to the contents of Chapters 1 and 2. As the fourth chapter, it breaks the arc between Grettir’s heroism through incapacity to Sigurd’s deedfulness as an embrace of frailty and transitory human life. This is, though, merely a consequence of the organizational program, which is otherwise sensible and serviceable.

Felce convincingly argues for a more nuanced perspective on Morris’ art, attendant to the complexity of his life. Felce thereby recovers an inner life for Morris motivating his public aims in ways unnoticed by prior scholarship. De-emphasizing the impact of Jane’s involvement with Rosetti recasts Morris’ work as all the more politically committed. Felce depicts Morris as a founder of modern English language Old Norse studies, providing a potential history of the field rooted more in social justice than national-colonial projects. Old Norse studies, and medievalists in general, can always benefit from such a project of recovery. By that same project, Felce points to ways scholars of nineteenth century art might draw connections between creative output and political engagement by Morris and his contemporaries. Studies of twentieth-century fantasy can also be enriched by more fully understanding the intellectual tradition behind writers such as Tolkien.

William Biel
University of Connecticut

May 17, 2019

Orgelfinger, Joan of Arc

Gail Orgelfinger, Joan of Arc in the English Imagination, 1429-1829 (University Park, PA: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2019).
Reviewed by Michael Evans

Here lies Joan of Arc, the which
Some count saint, and some count witch;
Some count man, and something more;
Some count maid, and some a whore.
Such was Thomas Fuller’s summary of the conflicting English views of Joan of Arc in his 1642 work The Profane State. Fuller refers to some interpretations of Joan that will be familiar to modern readers, but reminds us of other aspects of Joan’s reputation among the English, such as the idea (which was used by Shakespeare in 1 Henry VI) that, far from being a virgin saint, Joan claimed to be pregnant in an attempt to have her execution delayed.
While twentieth-century (re)interpretations of Joan’s story in the Anglophone world, such as Shaw’s Saint Joan (1923) and the Hollywood movie starring Ingrid Bergman (1948) are well-known, there is a long and important back-story, and this relatively neglected period in the shaping of England’s view of Joan is the subject of Orgelfinger’s book, as she traces the evolution of this view from Joan’s death in 1431 to the late Romantic era 400 years later.
Orgelfinger sets out to challenge the perception that English attitudes toward Joan evolved in a steady and predictable way, from hostility to the “witch” and “whore” who opposed their forces in the Hundred Years’ War to sympathy in later centuries; “from heretic, to innocent believer, and, in due course, saint” (p. 7, quoting Ardis Butterfield). This process seemed to reach its culmination in the early 1920s, when, following her canonization in 1920 and in the midst of post-WW1 Francophilia, a statue of “Sancta Joanna de Arc” was set up in Winchester Cathedral in 1923 as “a slight act of reparation” by England toward its French ally (p. 3). Orgelfinger frames her book around this statue, returning to it in her “Afterword”, where she also cites Shaw’s reference to it in Saint Joan. However, she argues that the evolution of Joan’s image in England is far more complex than a linear process of rehabilitation and reparation, with contradictory views of her held (often by the same author) in all periods from the fifteenth century to the early nineteenth.
The book is structured around five thematic (and broadly chronological) chapters. Chapter 1 addresses what Joan of Arc knew about the English, and her attitudes toward them, arguing that Joan showed little animus toward the English as a people, and that their attitudes toward her were far from unremittingly hostile. Chapter 2 examines fifteenth-century and early modern English accounts of Joan, up to the early seventeenth century. Chapter 3 examines early modern attempts to locate Joan within the history of “Amazons”, “viragos” and other active or warlike women. Chapter 4 is devoted to Joan’s portrayal as “Joan la Puzel” in Shakespeare’s Henry VI, Part 1 (which Orgelfinger argues was influenced by the recent execution of Mary Stuart, who represented, like Joan, a Catholic and female challenge to England), and eighteenth-century representations of her in illustrated editions of the works of Shakespeare. Chapter 5 addresses the “domestication” of Joan in history and literature in the Romantic period in response to the French Revolution and early feminist writers such as Mary Wollstonecraft.
Orgelfinger’s approach reveals that there was no time when English opinions about Joan were not mixed and contradictory. Even in the immediate aftermath of her execution there were English observers who expressed doubts over the legitimacy of her condemnation and burning, such the Englishman who declared “we have burned a saint,” even though they had expressed fear and hatred of her during her brief military career. At the other end of the period covered in the book, David Hume (Orgelfinger includes Scottish authors in her survey of “English” responses to Joan) expressed contradictory opinions of Joan. As an Enlightenment thinker, he could not credit her with either a demonic of divine mission, crediting her success to religious “enthusiasm”, which he classed alongside “superstition” as one of “two species of false religion.”  Yet, “Hume writes without irony, that she persevered ‘till, by the final expulsion of the English, she had brought all her prophecies to their full completion’” (p. 143). English writers often tried to shift responsibility onto the French, claiming, for example, that Joan was a fraud put forward for propagandistic reasons by Charles VII, or that she was betrayed by men within her own ranks when captured at Compiègne by the Burgundians. Conversely, others lamented the absence of clemency toward Joan by her English captors.  Orgelfinger also identifies many examples of English commentators who praised Joan for her courage and enterprise.
The breadth of Orgelfinger’s scholarship is impressive, and it is hard to do justice in a brief review to the range of themes she is able to cover in less than 170 pages. One key motif that runs through the work is unease over Joan’s dressing as a man. Orgelfinger subtitles her introduction “those cursed breeches,” a reference to an anonymous article in The Gentleman’s Magazine in 1737 in which the author expressed the opinion that the English “would have spared Joan’s Life, but they insisted on her laying aside those cursed Breeches, of which she was so obstinately fond” (p. 3).
The chapter on depictions of Joan of Shakespeare’s 1 Henry VI is particularly interesting in this respect. The author argues that this play was rarely performed in the eighteenth century, yet Joan was frequently depicted in this period in illustrated editions of the works of Shakespeare, testifying to the interest in her in England at the time. Despite the fact that historical sources describe Joan wearing armor or dressing as a man, she is often feminized in these images, which frequently purported to depict famous actresses of the time in the role, wearing dresses that would hardly be appropriate garb in warfare.  Even when depicted in armor, Joan is often feminized, wearing her hair long and in one instance showing “slim and shapely calves and dainty feet” (p. 118). Yet, while rendering her an attractive and feminine adversary, illustrators also played up Shakespeare’s depiction of her as a sorceress who associated with demons; the moment when her demonic companions desert her was a favorite subject. John Thurston in 1826 illustrated the execution of Joan with a stack of smoking armor, accompanying York’s line “Break thou in pieces and consume to ashes, Thou foul accursed minister of hell!” (p. 124, figure 12). Joan’s feminine clothes, and even Joan herself, have disappeared from the scene.
Orgelfinger addresses similar themes in her final chapter, aptly titled “’Tom Paine in Petticoats’: Domesticating Joan of Arc,” which addresses English / British verdicts on Joan during the Enlightenment and Romantic eras. The quotation in the chapter title is drawn from Coleridge’s critique of Robert Southey’s 1796 epic poem Joan of Arc, which written in the light of the French Revolution. Where once Joan had been viewed as a witch and heretic on account of her refusal to wear women’s clothes, she was now trivialized by association with female garments. References to petticoats were often used to denigrate women who aspired to political commentary or activism, as in Horace Walpole’s description of Mary Wollstonecraft as a “hyena in petticoats.” (p. 130). As in the depictions of Shakespeare’s Joan la Puzel, these contradict the historical Joan’s wearing male clothes, and exist awkwardly alongside eighteenth-century references to Joan’s “cursed breeches.”
Orgelfinger’s work is a thoroughly researched and welcome addition to the scholarship on the post-medieval reception of Joan of Arc. She offers valuable new insights by focusing on British views of Joan before the performance of Shaw Saint Joan, and by challenging over-simplified narratives of England’s rehabilitation of her former adversary.
Michael Evans  
Delta College