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

September 21, 2018

Falconieri & Facchini, Medievalismi italiani

Tommaso di Carpegna Falconieri and Riccardo Facchini, eds. Medievalismi italiani (secoli XIX–XXI). Rome: Gangemi, 2018.
Reviewed by Jennifer Rushworth (
This is a glossy volume with a number of black-and-white illustrations that brings together nine essays on a variety of topics related to modern Italian medievalism. The focus here is on medievalism in a socio-political sphere. Consequently, rather than essays either on literary topics or on multi-media medievalism (ever popular subjects within the field), the contributors turn their attention—and the reader’s—to what we might term civic medievalism in the relatively recent past. Emblematic in this regard is Davide Iacono’s essay on the construction of Mussolini as a noble and heroic condottiero, with a corresponding investigation of the fascist fascination of and investment in medievalist thinking (pp. 53–66). This volume thus brings to light an often ugly side of medievalism: namely, the uses or misuses of medievalism for dubious political ends.
Nonetheless, the juxtaposition of essays also demonstrates overall the very different uses and very wide appeal of medievalist tropes and imagery across the Italian political spectrum over time. In this regard the proposed plural of the title—medievalismi—is very apt. One of the editors proposes two guiding threads within this plurality to aid the reader: cities and Catholicism (p. 20). These are not only the two poles around which the collected essays gravitate, but they are also argued to be more generally key distinctive sites of Italian medievalism. A further suggested feature, unique to this tradition, is the position of the Middle Ages in Italy as typically overshadowed by both the Classical era and the bright lights of the Renaissance. This perspective perhaps helps to explain the relative neglect of medievalism as a scholarly area of study in Italy, especially compared to other countries such as the USA, the UK, or France. Equally, however, Italian medievalism also often overlooks any strict divide between the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, with many purportedly medievalist myths (for instance, the aforementioned ideal of the condottiero) drawing on aspects of both periods.
Following these two threads, on the cities side Francesco Pirani treats the development of maritime republics both as a concept and as a progressively fixed four-part canon (namely, Amalfi, Pisa, Genoa, and Venice), with an emphasis on shifting perceptions from the Risorgimento to fascism and beyond (pp. 131–48). The irony that these republics are perceived as such only once they have lost this distinct status does not go unremarked (cf. p. 144). Meanwhile, Francesca Roversi Monaco studies anniversary celebrations of the University of Bologna masterminded by Giosuè Carducci in 1888 and revived in 1988 (pp. 149–62). In this essay, particular attention is paid to the specific context of each commemoration, the first being played out against a backdrop of a newly unified Italy and the latter, instead, taking place on a more European stage. The question of the ethnic identity of the Longobards (so-called ‘barbari’ [barbarians]), discussed by Stella Losasso, belongs also to this civic thread, relying as it does on archaeological evidence of past settlements and their burial sites (pp. 75–92). Losasso’s conclusion that the Middle Ages are characterized by ‘una cultura “creola”’ [a ‘creole’ culture] is welcome for its embracing of multiculturalism (p. 92), especially since her essay begins with a reminder that ‘il racconto e la percezione del passato dipendano dalla temperie culturale in cui sono prodotti’ [the narration and the perception of the past rely upon the cultural climate in which they are produced] (p. 75).
The question of religion, in contrast, is most important to the work of Riccardo Facchini and Sonia Merli respectively. Facchini considers the medievalist tendencies of traditionalists in the wake of the Second Vatican Council; for these, the Middle Ages represented an ideal age of Catholic power and omnipresence (pp. 29–51). He also assesses the adoption of the crusades as a lens through which to view contemporary conflicts, noting that prior to the Islamophobia of the early twenty-first century, the model of the crusades was used rather either as an anti-Communist weapon or more broadly as an argument in favour of greater Catholic militancy. Merli instead investigates the myths of templars and templarism up until quite recently, both within the Catholic Church and in relation to tourism and popular medievalism more broadly (pp. 93–114). She thus connects religious ritual to specific urban sites, including the marketing of Caggiano, for instance, as a templar town, ‘“città dei templari”’ (pp. 108–9). It is, however, Geraldine Leardi’s short contribution on the Hagia Sophia that weaves the two guiding threads most closely together, in an essay that adds orientalism to the medievalist mix by considering the representation of this building in the work of specific late nineteenth-century Italian visitors (in particular, the writer Edmondo De Amicis and the painter Cesare Biseo: pp. 67–74).
Chapters two to nine (that is, from Facchini to Roversi Monaco; in fact the chapters are unnumbered, and incidentally do seem to be rather oddly ordered alphabetically by name of contributor) offer meticulously researched case studies of different moments of medieval inspiration in modern Italian history. Collectively, they act as a persuasive reminder of the necessarily interdisciplinary nature of the study of medievalism, drawing on a diverse range of subjects: history, politics, religion, archaeology, and architecture (this list is not exhaustive, but represents the principal areas to be found in this volume). The volume is additionally notable for the space it devotes not only to the work of female academics, but also for its attentiveness to women’s history, thanks in particular to Maria Chiara Pepa’s study of the adoption of the medieval guerriera Marzia Ubaldini as a role model for and by female Risorgimento activists (pp. 115–130). Beyond their status as illustrative examples of broader patterns of medievalism, these chapters will individually be useful to historians of various movements and myths, and each doubtless represents the tip of the iceberg of larger research topics for each contributor. From this perspective, the volume acts as a tantalizing taster of current foci within the burgeoning field of Italian medievalism, although it is inevitably not comprehensive.
More general in appeal and international in scope is the opening essay (chapter one in my numbering) by Tommaso di Carpegna Falconieri on ‘Medievalismi: il posto dell’Italia’ [Medievalisms: The Place of Italy] (pp. 9–28). In this essay, Carpegna Falconieri is explicitly in dialogue with recent Anglo-American scholarship within the field of medievalism, especially works by Richard Utz and David Matthews. Within this context, some of his claims—for instance, the argument that medievalism and medieval studies must be understood to be porous, interconnected, and dehierarchized—are, accordingly, not necessarily surprising to an Anglophone readership, although they are very passionately and elegantly put. More provocative and unsettling is Carpegna Falconieri’s fair criticism of the field of medievalism as too often monolingually Anglophone, with a concomitant neglect of Italian sources and studies, especially those written in Italian and not available in translation (see p. 15 for an excoriating critique of the current ‘imperialismo culturale anglosassone’ [Anglosaxon cultural imperialism] within academia). This neglect is, of course, not helped by the status of Italian medievalism within Italy as a not yet well-recognized or well-defined field of study.
Nonetheless, this same neglect may in itself be an opportunity, presenting untilled land with rich fruits still be harvested. The conditions are not themselves promising; Carpegna Falconieri rehearses familiar though crucial arguments about the underfunding of universities, the decline of the humanities, and a disconnect between academia and the general public, all problems that may be acute in but are certainly not unique to Italy. Notwithstanding, he does identify some already established sites of medievalism within the Italian academic landscape (in particular, Bari, Turin, and Bologna), and the location of the contributors themselves suggest a few more (especially Urbino). The overall sense is, then, that this volume promises a rich future for the study of medievalism in Italy, whilst also reminding us of the need to encourage greater internationalism in this sphere.
Jennifer Rushworth
University College London

September 14, 2018

Parker: Dragon Lords

Eleanor Parker, Dragon Lords: The History and Legends of Viking England (London: I. B. Tauris, 2018)

Reviewed by Felix Taylor (

‘Then the Lord said unto me, Out of the north shall an evil break forth upon all the inhabitants of the land’ (Jeremiah 1:14). With this prophetic biblical verse early medieval writers were able to provide an authoritative explanation for the Viking invasions that were carried out from the late eight century onwards; the arrival of these barbarians signalled a form of divine retribution. According to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle flaming dragons, lightning, and whirlwinds were seen raging across the sky before what was probably the first planned Viking raid, on the Holy Island of Lindisfarne in 793. ‘These signs were followed by great famine,’ the Chronicle continues, ‘and a little after those … the ravaging of heathen men destroyed God’s church’. In Dragon Lords Eleanor Parker, Clerk of Oxford and medieval lecturer at Brasenose College, provides a detailed and entertaining overview of how the subsequent invasions of northern and eastern England were received, explained and at times justified by post-Conquest writers. The book is a well-balanced account that considers perspectives from both sides of the North Sea.

Much of the first half of Dragon Lords is concerned appropriately with the raids on the coast of East Anglia. Parker tackles the various representations of St. Edmund, once king of that south-easterly region until his most gruesome death in 869 at the hands of the men most of the texts refer to as Danes. Her job is made all the more difficult by the fact that almost no records survive of his life or reign, but what she does manage to capture is the general flavour of the subsequent narratives which later rose up around Edmund related by Abbo of Fleury and other writers of the early medieval period. According to one such tale the Danes shoot Edmund full of arrows and hide his severed head in a wood. The head is guarded by a wolf until Edmund’s men eventually find and re-attach it to their fallen king’s body. In later works it is said that the spirit of Edmund appeared to Svein Forkbeard and killed him; the Danish king had apparently raised taxes for unjust reasons and Edmund rightly defended his people. Geoffrey of Wells later venerates Edmund as a maker of miracles in his largely-fictional hagiography De Infantia S. Eadmundi in the twelfth century.

Possibly the most famous Viking still known today – and not simply because of his star turn in the History channel’s recent television series Vikings – is Ragnar ‘shaggy breeches’ Lothbrok. Parker dedicates an entire chapter to Ragnar’s reputation in England, as well as the characters and violent deaths of two of his (eight) sons Ivar and Ubbe. The name Ragnar never even appears in English sources, just ‘Lothbrok’, with the exception of an enigmatic St Ragner whose relics were discovered in Northampton, and occasionally his name is mistranslated as ‘loathsome brook’ (odiosus rivus). De Infantia depicts Ragnar and his ‘hateful progeny’ as inversions of Edmund, but in a bizarre account by Roger of Wendover Ragnar is an inquisitive, yet harmless Dane who desires to learn hunting and hawking at Edmund’s court. He is killed out of envy by a huntsman, thus providing a reason for Ivar and Ubbe to plot revenge.

Parker then turns her focus to Siward, the Danish warrior and politician who ruled Northumbria in the time of Cnut, and neatly ties off what is known about him as a historical figure before moving to the more spurious and fantastical accounts of his life. Like Cnut, Siward and his son Waltheof – later made a saint post-Conquest – sought to retain their Danish identity through poetry and the Norse byname ‘digri’ (the strong). Parker heads swiftly into dragon-slaying territory with Gesta antecessorum, Gesta Herwardi and the Anglo-Norman romance Roman de Waldef in which Siward boasts ursine ancestry and is given assistance by an Odinic old man on a Northumbrian mound.

What is most fascinating about Dragon Lords are the tales of almost-willing integration in various periods between the English and their heathen adversaries. According to the monk Byrhtferth, St Oswald, Archbishop of York and Bishop of Worcester, and his uncle Oda, Archbishop of Canterbury, were descended from the very same band of Danes who had hidden Edmund’s head in the woods. A young Oda ‘despite his father’s fierce opposition’ was accepted into the Christian church and later baptised, and it has even been suggested by Antonia Gransden that he may have encouraged St Edmund’s cult in atonement for his father’s actions. Cnut, however, at one time king over all England, Denmark, Norway, and some of Sweden, established himself as both Viking warlord and devout Christian ruler, providing patronage to both English monasteries and Old Norse poetry alike (see, for instance, Sigvatr Þórðarson’s Knútsdrapa). In an extraordinary episode recounted in the late tenth- or eleventh-century Historia de Sancto Cuthberto, after the Viking conquest of York St. Cuthbert materialises and marks out a young Danish slave-boy Guthred (presumably Guthfrith) as the newly-anointed king of the city. The location of the crowning ceremony is a burial mound, evoking Norse king-making customs, and serves to further complicate the event.

These instances and more provide a highly nuanced and de-polarising account of the Vikings in England. Through a combination of rigorous scholarship and a wise tendency to bring out the more entertaining and often supernatural aspects of the sources, Dragon Lords presents a much more complex and engaging view of Anglo-Danish relations and helps to dispel the popular invaders/invaded dualism that most would automatically assume. Religious and cultural integration ere surprisingly quick, and both the English and the Norse went on to provide their own accounts and justifications for the invasions, which in later centuries contributed to saint cults and the foundations myths of a Danish right to rule. Parker presents excerpts from primary texts in the original languages and provides her own translations: a blessing for the layman, and, like the book as a whole, suitably scholarly for the well-versed medievalist.

Felix Taylor
St Hugh's College, Oxford

August 29, 2018

Spencer-Hall: Medieval Saints and Modern Screens

Alicia Spencer-Hall, Medieval Saints and Modern Screens: Divine Visions as Cinematic Experience. Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2017.

Reviewed by Daisy Black (

Three pages into Medieval Saints and Modern Screens, we are greeted with a dissection of the sensory processes involved in the interaction between a reader and a book:

‘Even in the most superficially two-dimensional interaction between reader and book, for instance, we find the visual (the words on the page), the haptic (turning the page), the imaginative and intellectual (processing the words’ meaning), and even the olfactory (the smell of the book).’ (p. 13).

Arguing that sensual engagement is a fundamental quality of hagiographic literature, the book goes on, with each soft crackle of the printed page, to make a compelling case for text as a visual, tactile and cinematic medium.  Noting that studies have for some time been likening the narratives of female saints to screenplays, films, and even pornography, Spencer-Hall takes this argument to the next level.  Medieval Saints is an innovative exploration of the themes, topics and desires expressed in medieval saints’ vitae and in modern visual cultures.  Claiming that ‘mysticism, or at least a desire for mysticism […] continues to exist in and as cinema’ (p. 12), it offers a striking interrogation of the thirteenth-century Latin biographies of the holy women of Liège.

The introduction ‘Ecstatic Cinema, Cinematic Ecstasy’ provides a welcome history of the religious women of thirteenth-century Brabant-Liège.  This covers the socio-economic factors leading to the growth of non-monastic female spiritual communities as well as their relationship to the male, clerical powers which advised, and ultimately defined them through writing vitae of certain exemplary women.  The problems caused by our own scholarly projections upon this comparatively under-studied area – most particularly the propensity to group holy women under the homogenising label ‘beguine’ – become an important focus here.  Spencer-Hall also stakes out alternative ways of theorising the relationship between subject and object, gaze and agency, arguing for the possibility of a mutual, agape-ic gaze.  This kind of exchange, she finds, is as present in the modern cinema-goer’s gaze at a screen as it is in medieval visionaries encountering God.  While discussions of mutuality in spectatorship and performance are also currently emerging in early drama criticism, this theorization successfully challenges Mulvey’s often-reproduced yet under-challenged theories of cinematic spectatorship as always inherently objectifying.  Shared elements between hagiographic and cinematic processes and genres support Spencer-Hall’s challenge.  These include the repetition of recognisable themes, tropes, events and patterns; the inter-textual and inter-visual incorporation of prior texts and images; claims of authenticity and the imitation of reality; the role of both as popular cultural sources and the possibility for transcendence offered by both medieval female mysticism and modern cinematic and digital cultures.

Drawing parallels between the ways in which the ‘truth claims’ of photography, film and saint biography are destabilised by their own authorial construction, the first chapter interrogates how both the photograph and the saint’s life appear to operate outside linear time.  This proves a useful way to explain medieval conceptions of earthly time and eternal sacred time.  Temporal and a-temporal forms, Spencer-Hall argues, intersect in the visions of Margaret of Ypres, Ida of Léau, Juliana of Mont-Cornillon and Elisabeth of Spalbeek, all of whom interact with figures from the biblical past.  The apparent ability of film, with its ability to preserve, repeat and rewind events is then linked to the deaths and resuscitations of Christina Mirabilis through a striking discussion of Nolan’s 2008 film The Dark Knight.  Spencer-Hall reads Heath Ledger’s Joker and Christina as purgatorial bodies existing between presence and absence.  Through a series of close readings of the vitae of Lutgard of Aywières and Alice of Schaerbeek, Spencer-Hall highlights the ways percussive textual elements and repetition similarly work to temporally dislocate their audiences.  This constitutes a refreshing development of theoretical approaches which have until now chiefly examined religious temporality in relation to figures such as St Augustine, whose works explicitly address theologies of time.

The second chapter engages with current discussions concerning medieval optics, embodied spectatorship and the power dynamics at play in theories of intromission and extromission.  Its primary focus is the concept of sight as mutual touch; particularly when the ‘object’ gazed upon by the saint is God.  Providing a useful overview of medieval vision, including Bacon’s model of synthesis and its origin in Arab scientist Alhazen’s work Kitab al-manaziŕ, Spencer-Hall highlights how much this differs from the modern ocular-centric view of the active, objectifying ‘male gaze’.  Engaging with theories of embodied cinematic spectatorship, she considers how Beatrice of Nazareth, Juliana of Mont-Cornillon and Margaret of Ypres achieve spiritual, synesthetic and often viscerally physical fusion with the objects of their visions.   As modern DNA research shows that manuscripts retain traces of all who touch them (including parchment makers, scribes, readers and the animal whose skin bears the text) Spencer-Hall makes a compelling case for the academic textual gaze as equally subject to the embodied synthesis of touch.  This provides an interesting development of arguments concerning the medieval body-as-vellum, and will no doubt provide fertile ground for the newest work emerging on the queer qualities of manuscripts.[i]

Chapter three focuses on the relationship between hagiographer and saint via modern processes of ‘celebrification’.  Focusing on Jacques of Vitry and Marie of Oignies, this highlights how the hagiographer manipulated Marie’s vita to produce ‘an A-list holy icon’ (p. 147).  Examining Marie as a textual product enables Spencer-Hall to consider the functions that product was designed to perform – in this case, as Crusade propaganda, as a model of holy behaviour for other laywomen and as a means of advancing Jacques’ own ecclesiastical career.  The discussion of the utility of saint’s lives as legitimising models for other women is one of the most exciting aspects of this book.  Margery Kempe’s attempt to mirror the events, actions, tropes and tears of her own life with those of Marie are analysed alongside the auto-celebrification processes employed by ‘reality’ stars such as Paris Hilton and Kim Kardashian-West.  The discussion of Kempe and Kardashian-West’s ‘ugly crying’ hints at transtemporal and misogynist resistance towards women ‘taking up space’ with their emotions.  Meanwhile, the popular disgust engendered by both women’s manufacturing of their own divine/secular fame produces a striking insight into why both have tended to generate a range of emotive responses in their popular and academic audiences.

Throughout, Spencer-Hall calls attention to the textual and physical labour involved in saint/star-creation.  Towards the chapter’s close, she reveals the mechanics of her own academic process, reminding us that, although Kempe failed in her bid for holy auto-celebritization, she still holds currency as an academic celebrity.  If we are to continue with the theme of utility, it would be fair to suggest that this chapter is likely to be highly useful to teachers of medieval devotional culture and of Kempe due to its perceptive use of current celebrity culture to examine the complex processes involved in saint-formation.[ii]   Yet it also provokes a larger discussion of academic critical processes by identifying how academics themselves act as fannish agents of celebrification.

The final chapter considers the collapsed times inherent in medieval visionaries’ access to ‘the communion of saints’ via the lens of online virtual spaces.  Through a series of interviews with Christians who practice their faith online in the virtual environment Second Life (SL), Spencer-Hall examines the experiences of saints who were able to ‘log in’ to the spiritual realm and even, like Elisabeth of Spalbeek and Marie of Lille, encounter one another there.  This provides a welcome re-examination of the immersiveness of medieval devotional practices; in particular, the individual’s desire to insert themselves into major events from the Bible.  This is particularly resonant in the discussion of a virtual crucifixion, which encourages its users to undergo a virtual form of imitatio Christi.  A useful resource might be found here by those working on liturgical drama as well as later lay religious performances, which likewise encouraged participants and audiences to immerse themselves in biblical chronologies.

The parallels between modern and medieval forms of media experience were a little less cohesive here than in some of the earlier chapters.  This was partly because the more accessible online community environments do not as comfortably align with what the monograph’s prior discussion of Kempe had convincingly demonstrated was the highly exclusive, barely accessible position of hagiographically-sanctioned female visionary.   Nevertheless, the chapter’s analysis of the collapse between avatar and individual, creator and reader and between audience and performance calls for a thorough reconsideration of the kinds of terminology we use to describe hagiographical, textual and performance production forms.  The subversive potential of the virtual is never far away; particularly when medieval spiritual and modern online environments are used to bypass (male) clerical gatekeeping of the Eucharist.

Medieval studies, and more recently, medievalism, have long considered themselves among the most interdisciplinary fields.  This work, however, manages to reach something beyond that.  Probing the interconnections between medieval women and their biographers as well as between texts, times, celebrities and media, Medieval Saints constitutes a rare example of someone working outside medievalism producing an important and insightful comparative reading of medieval and modern popular and spiritual cultures.

Medieval Saints produces a robust response to decades of neglect of hagiographical sources.  Through her trans-temporal, transmedia study, Spencer-Hall repeatedly demonstrates how much the narratives of holy women might contribute to a number of studies outside the direct field of hagiography, including lay theology; the theorisation of vision and time; discussions of medieval self-creation; textual production and performance studies.  While the lives of these women have frequently been marginalised in scholarship Spencer-Hall powerfully demonstrates their immediacy and relevance for our current times.

One of the most interesting approaches adopted by Spencer-Hall is the critical decision to reflect on the process of constructing her own argument, including which texts the book privileges and excises, which forms of visual and textual encounter are interrogated, and how the author’s own perspective has shaped the work.  By exposing the (wo)man behind the curtain, the monograph makes important progress in the movement away from the misleading pretence of practising objectivity in historical criticism; recognising that all historical approaches are informed by the values, perspectives, bodies, and even pop-cultural backgrounds of the historian.  While Medieval Saints and Modern Screens provides a solid argument for cinematic and saintly encounters as forms of bodily transcendence, the academic body remains something we cannot honestly claim to transcend.

[i] See the forthcoming essays contained in Roberta Magnani and Diane Watt, ed., ‘Queer Manuscripts’, postmedieval 9.3 (2018).
[ii] There is of course, some irony in that, given time, the memory and significance of these reality stars will be usurped by other figures.

Daisy Black
University of Wolverhampton