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

November 17, 2020

Toswell: Today's Medieval University

M. J. Toswell, Today’s Medieval University. Kalamazoo, MI: Arc Humanities Press, 2017. ISBN 978-1-942401-9.


Reviewed by Jesse G. Swan, University of Northern Iowa


A contribution to the Past Imperfect series, a series intended to provide an overview of specific Medieval and European topics for readers new to the topics, the small, easy to handle and easy to read on the go volume illuminates the ways today’s European and especially North American universities retain and reproduce structures and legitimating procedures that are either Medieval or are felt to be Medieval. In the course of the volume, furthermore, M. J. Toswell means to advance the centrality of faculty to the successful university.


The first of three chapters that form the body of the book establishes the basic assumptions and method. Toswell presents Medieval practices and behaviors in order to distinguish these from others that do not seem to derive from the Middle Ages, even if they might derive from older traditions. The chief connection to the Medieval is through the experience and effect of certain procedures and manners, notably in final examinations and in commencement. Other social features of the contemporary university, such as the lecture and bureaucracy, are said to derive from other periods, such as classical for the lecture, and modern for the bureaucracy. The sense of having to build up to pass a final exam or set of exams, and that these be either general or specialized, depending upon the credential sought, is attached to the social capital of commencement in that once the masters pass the student and he or she takes the degree, the student is transformed into a master for life. Such essential transformation of the self is much more Medieval than it is classical, modern, or postmodern.


After describing two basic models of the university, chapter two details five prominent structural features that today’s university either inherited from the Middle Ages or conjured for itself with its own sensibilities about the premodern. The basic organizations include that of Bologna, in which students ban together and attract masters, and that of Paris, in which masters incorporate and take on students. While both models of governance inform today’s university, the Parisian model dominates. Complementing the basic model of a group of faculty organized into a corporate body that draws students, the contemporary university resembles a Medieval university in its development and maintenance of extensive endowments and provisions for scholarships and in its provision of room and board and other sorts of physical, emotional, psychological, social, and, often, spiritual care. The fourth and fifth features of the structure of the contemporary university detailed as Medieval involve the architecture – Gothic – and the generally insular, backward looking and slow-changing disposition of those in charge. The character of the university is said to come from its structural foundation in faculty authority and control.


The Medieval structure and character of today’s university serves the basic activity of the scholars: the maintenance and advancement of learning. Like Medieval universities, contemporary universities are said to be “extremely pragmatic institutions” (84), places in which scholars, be they faculty or students, did not and do “not aspire to think deep thoughts” (88). Rather, faculty prepare students for good jobs. In pre-modern times, these were in the church and the government. Today, they are in the government and in business. The vocational motive shapes the curriculum, so that we have, in Medieval and contemporary universities alike, taking notes in lectures, meditating on knowledge, mastering of writing and living styles, and the division of general studies and specialized studies, the former usually first, followed by the latter. In all, there is a keen connection between learning and teaching. These features complement more ancient curricula, notably that of close reading, oral disputation, and rhetorically effective writing. Corporal punishment is a Medieval feature absent from today’s curriculum.


The entertaining, breezy volume concludes with a brief consideration of major features of the university not treated. Notably, the university as an economic engine, the bureaucratic nature of academic leadership, and tenure’s connection to the monastery and its ways of living are mentioned. Each of these features is quite distinct in the two periods compared. It is the similarities between the Medieval and the contemporary that the volume means to highlight.


Showing how today’s university draws from a Medieval version of the university or from a post-Medieval desire to seem abidingly Gothic is the primary way the volume supports the motivating contention that governance is the foundational shaping influence of any specific university and that a legitimate university has a governance structure that has faculty at the center of it. In a nicely expressed statement, one that catches the best of the style and spirit of the essay, Toswell declares just so:


A university that does not have its faculty at the heart of its governance structure does not have a sufficiently strong structure. It will sway to the winds of change, alter its trajectory from decade to decade, swing to the beat of the current pundit or the current craze, leap to the economic opportunity of the latest fad or enrolment proposal, lose its way among all the competing ideologies, and falter at the hurdles of the modern, the postmodern, and now the posthuman society. (73)


Jesse G. Swan

University of Northern Iowa

November 2, 2020

McKendry: Medieval Crime Fiction

Anne McKendry, Medieval Crime Fiction. A Critical Overview (Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland & Company, 2019) i-viii, 267 pp; 978-1-4766-6671-6 (print), 978-1-4766-3625-2 (eBook)


'Dial M for Medieval'


Jenna Mead (


Anne McKendry's new book, Medieval Crime Fiction. A Critical Overview, came in as one of five nominees shortlisted for this year's Edgar Allan Poe Award (popularly called the Edgars) in the Critical/Biography category. This is two kinds of big deal. Australians have made rare but distinguished appearances at the Edgars. Charlotte Jay [pseud. Geraldine Halls] took out the inaugural Best Novel of the Year, 1954, with Beat Not the Bones; Raymond Chandler reached Jay's benchmark, in the following year, with The Long Goodbye. The Edgar for Best Critical/Biographical Work has been awarded since 1977 and McKendry is the first Australian in the category, so her book is already a stand-out. More critically, though, the Edgars are awarded by crime fiction's learned society, the Mystery Writers of America. These are the people who know what's what and where the bodies are buried. So, a hat-tip from the MWA is a prize in and of itself.


McKendry is a medievalist with a PhD and another book behind her, meaning that she has dibs on her subject matter and the experience to produce this first critical overview of the surprisingly popular genre of medieval crime fiction. The genre is now too extensive for a short book like this one and so McKendry's study is strictly limited to crime fiction and medieval western Europe. 'Critical overview' means this isn't just a survey but an analysis of the origin, forms, strengths and limitations of the genre. Medieval crime fiction arrives as a serious object of inquiry.


Definition is essential in this kind of book and McKendry clears the ground with a crisp distinction between crime fiction written by medievals (another topic entirely) and crime fiction written through the medieval world and its inhabitants. As a genre, it is unique in combining 'medievalism, the historical novel and crime fiction' (42). The paradigm is Umberto Eco's The Name of the Rose (1980 in Italian, 1983 in English) though Edith Parteger, aka 'Ellis Peters,' predates Eco with a series of 20 novels (1974-1995), featuring Brother Cadfael, the Benedictine monk turned sleuth.


Prime face, medieval crime fiction just should not work. Crime fiction's traditional drivers are the highly developed ratiocination of Edgar Allan Poe's Auguste Dupin and the forensic science typified by autopsy, and they're mobilized by the twin régimes of modernity and secularization. (Witness the egregious failure that is G. K. Chesterton's Father Brown.) Its spaces resonate as accessible and authentic for us. It's the social and political economies of late capitalism that produce the apparatus of the police procedural, the anguished subjectivity of the hard-boiled private investigator, the gutsy smarts of the feminist operator. Though crime fiction is capacious, its language, conventions and emotional registers are immediately recognizable and permanent fixtures on backlists and the next wave of bestsellers.


McKendry turns to Umberto Eco to theorize the medievalism that gives these books their edge: the characters, temporality, locations, set-up. We have been dreaming of the Middle Ages, he argues in Travels in Hyperreality, since becoming modern; in postmodernity, we live in a neomedieval age; we need only to decide which version of the Middle Ages we invoke and he gives us ten options, ten medieval imaginaries. The cultural work of medievalism, Eco surmises, is to negotiate a way through our anxieties. It's the ubiquity of medievalism — evidenced wherever we need a medieval past — that substantiates the credibility of Eco's insights.


From here, McKendry's overview opens out to map just how medieval crime fiction works, usefully illustrated from numerous of the more than 150 authors currently publishing in the genre. Five of her six chapters are thematic and her method is to identify in medieval crime fiction what is recognizable from traditional crime fiction. The hard-boiled detective epitomised by Raymond Chandler's Philip Marlowe — operating as a loner, pitted against corrupted systems of law, trawling the mean streets, trusting no-one, for whom failure is normal and justice is piecemeal — is instantly identifiable in the ex-crusaders, ex-Templars, lawyers, surgeons, scribes, bookmakers, peddlers and bailiffs who hunt criminals and solve crimes in the secular world of Eco's 'barbaric' Middle Ages.


Institutionalized corruption is often represented by deceitful sheriffs and/or the intricate and fast-paced alliances of medieval politics and/or the operations of ecclesiastical imperium — each with its own kind of decadence — threatening the social order and treating justice as their first casualty. Power, money, greed, the ethics of cruel: we've seen it all before. This is where the medieval crime writer's dedication to research either persuades or, less successfully, overpowers the crime plot. As McKendry convincingly shows, the constant here is the medieval detective, male or female, secular or religious, who is the reader's likeable, empathetic, occasionally infuriating guide through the lived experience of the medieval world. This relationship with the reader works because medievalism is a two-way street between the past and the present. Peter Tremayne's Sister Fidelma is a proto-feminist detective; Paul C. Doherty's Brother Athelstan may be a reluctant detective but he is innately egalitarian; Caroline Roe's Isaac the Blind, the genre's only major Jewish detective, is a liberal, astutely tracking the fragility of Jewish-Muslim-Christian tolerance under pressure from religious extremism and consequent migration.


In its wide-ranging scope, intelligent organization and encouraging accessibility, this book is also an excellent teaching resource. The data is both cogent and thorough. The underlying arguments for medieval crime fiction as a genre are persuasive, not only from the trajectory of McKendry's scrutiny but also from the sheer heft of the data. The methodology is as instructive as the analysis and students, coming to the genre for the first time, or teachers looking, for points of entry into a field they intuit as a creative and expansive version of medievalism, will find their reading fully supported. McKendry's taxonomy gies us the low-down on an emergent field.


Medieval Crime Fiction has a lot of smart things to say about this genre but absolutely spot-on is to emphasise the allure of the medieval past, with its intriguing characters, tangible details and persistent cruelties, its traction in picking up on today's cultural anxieties and, above all, the challenge to the triumph of forensic science and technology. Yes, medieval crime shows off its writers' hardcore research into bottomless historical detail; yes, there's an essential anachronism in the whole business of medieval detective work; yes, perhaps authenticity is at risk from postmodern scepticism among other ironies. But the detective, whatever his or her secular or religious garb, operating inside or outside the religious house or royal court, in the world of business, commerce or the landed gentry, on the street or in the back alley, offers readers the satisfying nostalgia of a thinking, feeling, personable sherlock sharing the intimacy of needing, sometimes desperately, to solve the crime, restore order, and offer redemption to fallible characters ranging from the (often) nuanced to the (sometimes) corny. For all its historical apparatus, medieval crime fiction translates the past into a compelling, if usually conservative, emotional logic. Sobering, isn't it? We're drowning in metadata and Goodreads tells us we're reaching for medieval crime fiction that has none of that.  


Jenna Mead


Jenna Mead is Senior Honorary Research Fellow at the University of Western Australia and is currently co-editing Geoffrey chaucer's Treatise on the Astrolabe for Cambridge University Press. Her latest contribution to medievalism studies is an essay on medievalism and Indigenous ceremonial in the Gulf country of northern Australia: ‘Medievalism on Country,’ in The Global South and Literature, ed. Russell West-Pavlov, Cambridge University Press, 2018.  

November 1, 2020

Russo: 'Girls Make Better Kings'


“Girls Make Better Kings”: Queer YA Literature Saves Camelot


Keith C. Russo (


The duology Once & Future and Sword in the Stars stands as a lamppost between many worlds, illuminating the crossroads of a never-ending loop of neomedieval reiterations of the Arthurian legend, and by whose light the reader witnesses the authors champion teenagers of every LGBTQAIP+ type, joust at hyper-capitalism and racial genocide, and even venture into combatting ableism. Medieval literature is perceptible in the distant landscape while we peer into twenty-first century young adult literature, warmed by the conscious perception of deja vu winking at those that already know other medievalisms and medieval texts. Amy Rose Capetta and Cory McCarthy negotiate their position within a multiplicity of medievalisms to construct a more equitable version of Arthur. Simultaneously and in a myriad of ways, this innovation becomes the medieval, allowing a reader’s imaginations to replace history and legend. Indeed, the novels insist that the Arthurian legends must be rewritten for each new age in order to disrupt the Arthurian canon as a means to preserve it.


Initially set in our future, in which humanity has destroyed Earth and lives among the stars, the books belong to the space fantasy young adult section. But because Arthurian medievalisms must discourse with a hundred other versions, even as they continue the medieval process of reproducing its stories by using established auctoritas and infusing them with a new spark, it becomes useful to investigate the provenance of this medievalism by reading backward through the most recent versions in the play of reiterations. While one might be tempted to think of Arthurian space fantasy as C.S. Lewis’s moralistic re-envisioning of the Fisher King story, That Hideous Strength, or as Camelot 3000, the erstwhile Arthurian DC Comic series, these books come closer to Mary Stewart’s Crystal Cave and the Adventures of Merlin television series in their bildungsroman of Merlin and Arthur. The Mists of Avalon’s determined protest against masculinist heteronormativity in Arthuriana permeates the books with more than a soupçon of Monty Python and the Holy Grail because metafictional hilarity substitutes our tolerant future for the Middle Ages when the teenaged space-knights become the legendary characters. However, Once & Future is more deeply indebted to T.H. White, whom Capetta and McCarthy thank in the Acknowledgements of the first book for “showing us that the Arthurian legend could be high-spirited, funny, sad, and resistance literature” (Once & Future 351). They are also a direct reaction against recent depictions, like when Cory McCarthy says in an interview, “Guy Ritchie’s King Arthur was the last straw” in the shelving of a long-time desire “to do a girl King Arthur.” It is not difficult to understand why the former hyper-masculine version would be answered by the “rainbow knights,” who seek to dismantle the prejudices of our own time and the Middles Ages.


The demolition begins with the co-protagonist, Ari Azar—written by McCarthy while Capetta wrote Merlin’s chapters—is a brown-skinned teenage girl orphaned from the quarantined world of Ketch and adopted by two mothers and their son, Kay. She is also the forty-second incarnation of the quondam et futurus rex because she is inhabited by the spirit of King Arthur. The device of the soul of Arthur cyclically repeating a version of the tragedy of le Morte Darthur is not more disruptive than any other contemporary medievalisms, until we consider that Arthur has chosen a girl in a future that is tolerant of all relationships between people. Ari meets her cohort—a “panoply of queerness” that reflects the reality of the authors—as children prior to the opening of the novels on the planet of Lionel, a global medieval faire that features a knight camp.  Guinevere, queen of Lionel when the novels open, and Ari marry and explicitly consummate it for more than just political reasons. The other post-medieval “knights” are Val, short for Percival, a Black genderfluid femboy, known by he/him, whose brother Lamarak identifies as non-binary, preferring the pronouns they/them. Kay is the only cis-gendered heterosexual character, and Jordan is an asexual female knight sworn to protect Gwen from all harm. Merlin, the other co-protagonist—who has been aging backwards from the proto-typical old wizard in the time of Camelot to a hormonal teenager in the future—attempts in every “cycle” or generation to “Find Arthur / Train Arthur / Nudge Arthur onto the nearest throne” and “[d]efeat the greatest evil in the world and Unite all of mankind” (O&F 24). As always, Merlin is trying to encourage Arthur to be the perfect king. But in this version, the humanist progressivism of White is adapted to the authors’ message of inclusivity and tolerance of people of all orientations and identities. as well as depicting displaced refugees, non-patriarchal families, and the differently abled. Unsurprisingly, Merlin is the link between the past, our present, and the future. 


Capetta and McCarthy retain Merlin as the authorial avatar, like White, Stewart, Malory, and authors as far back as Geoffrey of Monmouth, exploring the agendae of the moment and structuring the temporality of the narrative through him. The revision from canon versions is that this Merlin is simultaneously the reader’s avatar, too. Merlin makes several gendering mistakes early in Once & Future, like when he finds out Lamarak is present in this cycle of Arthur, Merlin refers to this knight as “he.” Kay corrects Merlin: “Lam is fluid. They,” to which Merlin apologizes, saying, “I come from a society with a history of gender assumptions based on physical markers, aesthetics…et cetera” (O&F 42). Contemporary readers uninitiated in the language of inclusive identities have a representative by which the audience might be tutored, much like White’s Wart. Merlin begins as inept student of gender identity and interaction but explores his love and attraction for Val throughout the duology. Proving Jes Battis correct that “magic is always gendered, sometimes transgendered” in young adult fantasy, Merlin’s elaborate magical shield around the planet Lionel—which is repelling the Evil Empire of hyper capitalism, the Mercer Corporation—collapses when he resists the urge to kiss Val in O&F. Merlin is only fulfilled when he expresses his desire for Val, linking Merlin to Kathryn Bond Stockton’s idea of a “gay child” who is “born backward” from the moment of their straight self’s death, which is usually after childhood. Merlin is always depicted in comparable temporal anomalies, but now it signifies his true self being set free rather than being entrapped in a cave by heterosexual romantic desire. Furthermore, the storyline reveals that his magic is also what makes him age backwards, until he becomes a teenager struggling with his sexual curiosity. Maria Sachiko Cecire unites all Queer theories in children’s fantasy by demonstrating the link between Bond’s and Carolyn Dinshaw’s ideas, saying “how amateurs’ promiscuous pairings of past and present can buck the expectations of linear temporality and produce queer alternatives.” The medievalism either works to imitate or disrupt the previous versions, but usually is reacting against the most recent medievalisms that deal in the same subject matter and the authentically pre-modern material. And, instead of recapitulating the tragedy of Camelot, through Merlin’s overlap between queerness, magic, and time, the authors have, I believe unwittingly, revived Merlin Silvestris as well as Merlin Ambrosius, who appears to sort out gender identities and social norms in the Roman de Silence.


In that poem, patriarchal avarice disinherits women, resulting in Cador using heteronormative marriage as a way to bully Eufemie into raising their female child as a male heir, saying, “Since my sweet, our flesh is one, /let our will be one as well” (Roche-Mahdi 1721-2). Because Cador “restrains” her noble female Nature and insists on mis-gendering his progeny, she is literally silenced in every agentive way, except being the greatest of knights. While the allegorical Nature of Silence is an essentialism that contemporary gender theory rejects, denying Silence’s true self makes her life miserable and awkward, culminating in a rape accusation that can only be rectified by Merlin. Silence is only able to catch him because she is a chaste woman, disproving the allegations by Queen Eufemme. But beyond this revelation, Merlin laughs at King Evan because he is fooled by the wife’s accusation when her illicit lover is dressed as a nun by which to tryst with her. He also reveals Silence’s true sex saying, “Only the clothes are masculine” (6537). This is the laughing Merlin, descended from the Vita Merlini, who is the arbiter of the truth of a situation, usually as the author employs dramatic irony. In Monmouth’s work, Merlin laughs at Rhydderch for being cuckolded by his wife, Ganeida. In an attempt to discredit the accusations, she dresses a boy up as a girl so that he will mispredict the boy’s death. As in the Vita, a bound feral Merlin in Silence laughs at a king dishonored by a faithless queen and ridicules judging people by their clothes. The irony of transvestite chicanery disappears in Merlin’s gaze. Unfortunately, Maistre Heldris uses Silence’s new-found correct assignment of gender to perfunctorily force the character into a heteronormative marriage. Merlin reestablishes patriarchal “nature” over nurture in Silence, but he proves to an audience conditioned to be receptive by the Capetta’s and McCarthy’s encouraging development of the Silvestris that Nature is the freedom to be “born this way.”


Similarly, when the rainbow knights travel through time to medieval “Camelot,” they are forced into a binary system of genders and heteronormativity and into the roles of the Arthurian canon, all of which is mostly expressed through their clothes. Ari is forced to become Lancelot, complete with breaking the first King Arthur’s heart by publicly courting Gweneviere, the one from the future posing as the legendary queen. The medievalism replaces the medieval legend when young Merlin realizes that Ari and Gwen “were the original love story of the Western canon, two girls from the future hidden in the folds of the past” (Sword in the Stars 86). While perhaps overstating the case for the primacy of Lancelot and Gweneviere, hiding their genders confirms Jody Norton’s thoughts that “Children are harmed by the male and female stereotypes developed in traditional literature,” especially when they are taught to suppress their own.  Ari asks Lam at one point in the second book: “how are you doing with the constant misgendering?” to which the non-binary character replies, “It’s breaking me.” However, Lamarack finds solace in counseling a girl named Roran who he tells Ari: “He’s trans. But he doesn’t know that word or that there are so many more like him. Or that one day someone like him won’t be stuffed into a dress, made to feel like he’s come out all wrong….I did get to give Roran hope—which fills me with joy” (SitS 59). Lamarack stays in the past, as their brother, Val, jokes, “to start humanity’s first GSA” (SitS 157). The reason Capetta and McCarthy chose to reinvent Camelot is because “When we go to schools: there are GSAs of queer kids; there are only token characters in most books in young adult” genre and the Round Table is “western civilization’s first fictive nod to equality.” Young adult Arthurian fantasy allows a space for inclusivity, despite the genre’s borrowing from two canons that stifled gender choice and identity as well as the agency of female characters. This medievalism replicates medieval authorship by adapting the story to the contemporary needs, but it also knowingly plays with the Arthuriana to reconstruct it into a simulacrum of past, present, and perhaps future.


The ending reconciles the two Merlin problem first raised by Gerald of Wales, completes the epicycle of medievalism continually replacing the medieval, and uses Cher’s “If I could Turn back Time” to defeat Nimue’s attempt to prevent the fulfilling of the quest. Completing the cycle of replacement, Merlin fashions a new sword named Kairos for Ari when they return to the future. The sword is in an amusement park on Earth’s moon called CAMELOT, Mercer’s false corporate medievalism—recalling Disney World’s Sword in the Stone in the Magic Kingdom—and can only be drawn by Ari and Gwen together, united and free to express their love. In an epilogue, the authors’ voices can be heard in the characters, when a happily queer Merlin explores the library on Ketch, which contains a collection of Arthuriana medievalisms curated by Val. He thinks, “the stories were never just a string of pretty words on a page or attractive strangers on a screen. They climbed inside your head, reordered things. Tore up parts of you by the roots and planted new ideas. Magic, really” (SitS 344). Merlin and the others being proud of their true identities is the magic that changes the world, defeats evil, and rehabilitates the aspects of the Arthurian legend that we now find problematic. It seems that love is the true power of Camelot, the power that compels authors like Capetta and McCarthy to repeatedly reimagine the legends and make them relevant to each era.


Keith C. Russo

Independent Scholar