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

August 3, 2015

Oexle: Die Gegenwart des Mittelalters

Otto Gerhard Oexle, Die Gegenwart des Mittelalters. Berlin: Akademie Verlag, 2015.

Reviewed by Richard Utz (

This delightful cahier of 45 pages, published under the auspices of the Berlin-Brandenburgische Akademie der Wissenschaften, offers a revised version of a paper Otto Gerhard Oexle originally presented at the Academy's Mittelalterzentrum in 2012. To speak about the "Presence" or "Contemporaneity" of the Middle Ages, Oexle addresses three general areas:

1) An immediate presence visible in remains and monuments: Oexle quickly summarizes what we know about the fascination we moderns have with historical objects and buildings, and he likens the immediacy ("Unmittelbarkeit") of the pleasure experienced by lay visitors with that experienced by professional historians. He also underlines how his own early paleographic and codicological contact with material medievalia served as prime incentive for seeking future pleasurable moments through historic discovery.

2) The concept of a "Middle Age" as invented by late medieval (he does not use "Renaissance") humanists: This second section, which demonstrates the wealth of knowledge Oexle has gathered during a lifetime of study, advances two main observations: That the humanists' conceptualization of the medium aevum or media aetas is an invention, and that, epistemologically speaking, this invention is itself an attribution of meaning ("Sinnzuweisung" or "Bedeutungszuweisung") anchored in its own historical and cultural contexts. As a way of structuring historical time, this attribution of meaning rendered history comprehensible, imaginable, and teachable, but its semantic longevity has made it impossible for historians to advance perhaps different, more appropriate periodizations and ways of imagining historical development. For example, the strict semantic separation between the Middle Ages and Modernity allows historians of modernity to disregard pre-modern/postmedieval completely. Thus, important early modern transitional changes are obliterated from consideration. The invention of the Middle Ages as a distinct historical period is only fully achieved when Enlightenment thinkers conceive of a "new time" ("Neuzeit"/modern age) that needs both a dark age against which an enlightened age can shine all the more brightly, and a pre-industrial world during which humans were safely rooted in allegedly natural orders (family, relatives, village, parish, etc.). "The Middle Ages," Oexle writes, "is the only era in western history that is perceived to exist within such a dichotomy. We are dealing with two conflicting forms of perception, which are mutually antagonistic and complementary, constituting both the interest in and the emphatically declaimed rejection of the Middle Ages" (17; my translation).         

3) The concept of the "Middle Ages" as invented by modernity: Oexle first rejects simplistic categorizations of entire periods as exclusively friendly (Romanticism) or inimical (Enlightenment) to medieval culture. He then declares that the term “reception” (Mittelalter-Rezeption) does not appropriately describe the process by which modernity simply (passively) receives, but (actively) visits its own desire for identity upon the predecessor period in an act of cultural memorialization. Even if Oexle claims otherwise, this distinction is a clear disciplinary slight towards colleagues in Germanistik, whom he denies the methodological preparation to dealing with modern medievalisms. It seems that only historians can appropriately deal with the various modernist attributions of meaning to the Middle Ages. Finally, Oexle dedicates not even two pages to the nineteenth-century’s active remembering of medieval culture (Victor Hugo; the Pre-Raphaelites) to move on to twentieth-century medievalism in music and architecture. This rhetorical move inverts David Matthews’ recent focus on a canonical nineteenth-century medievalism on the one hand and a “residual” medievalism in the twentieth century on the other (Medievalism. A Critical History, 2015, 140-65). Oexle, perhaps because he focuses almost exclusively on developments in Germany (and France), does not confirm Matthews’ claim of a medieval revival central to nineteenth-century (British) culture and a consequent abating of medievalism as a dominant cultural force. Instead, he follows the findings of Annette Kreutziger-Herr (Im Schatzhaus der Erinnerung: Die Musik des Mittelalters in der Neuzeit, 2008; Ein Traum vom Mittelalter: Die Wiederentdeckung mittelalterlicher Musik in der Neuzeit, 2003), mentions the “explosion” (27) of an imaginary Middle Ages in the works of Stefan George, Hermann Hesse, and Thomas Mann, and describes the medievalism of the Bauhaus (Walter Gropius, Bruno Taut, Peter Behrens). It is only when he discusses examples of twentieth-century architecture (Kaiser-Wilhelm-Memorial Church, Berlin; Wertheim department store, Berlin; Hoechst administration building, Frankfurt) that he acknowledges (and seems to agree with Matthews) that most of these buildings are only residually, and barely recognizably, ‘medieval’.

Oexle’s essay ends rather abruptly, just when I was hoping for some thoughts about examples of medievalism in the more recent “Gegenwart,” anything after the early twentieth century. However, all we are left with is the assertion that the quantity of medievalist “remnants” and “monuments” we can discern has increased, an observation David Matthews attributes to medievalism’s move away from cultural centrality to marginality since the nineteenth century. While this question remains unresolved in this essay, Oexle does present ample evidence that medievalist historians can make valuable contributions to understanding modernity (“Moderne”), a term he appears to equate with contemporaneity (“Gegenwart”). Postmodernity, computer and video games, and even movies never enter Oexle’s consideration, perhaps simply a generational issue.

Richard Utz
Georgia Institute of Technology

August 2, 2015

Wood: The Modern Origins of the Early Middle Ages

The Modern Origins of the Early Middle AgesIan Wood. The Modern Origins of the Early Middle Ages. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013.

Reviewed by Melanie Maddox (

In The Modern Origins of the Early Middle Ages, Professor Ian Wood of Leeds University writes with noble erudition about the time period from the Fall of Rome to the early Middle Ages (AD 300-700) and considers how scholars have viewed the role of the time period in shaping Europe. Part of the book’s lofty goal is to respond to Charles Clarke, the United Kingdom’s former Education Secretary (2002-2004). The preface references a quote attributed to Clarke as saying “I don’t mind there being some medievalists around for ornamental purposes but there is no reason for the state to pay for them” (vii). In response, Wood vehemently disagrees and states that indeed pre-modern history is important. Most particularly when one considers how it has been “exploited” through the centuries to describe disturbing events or to prove or disprove historical views (vii-viii). In fact one only has to turn on the evening news to see terms like barbaric, medieval and crusaders being used to describe troubles in the Middle East. This is just one way in which one can see the past being ill-used (vii). Wood points out that the period AD 300-700 has been important in arguments surrounding “aristocratic privilege” and “despotism in the eighteenth century,” as well as “class conflict, exploitation by foreign powers, and nationalism in the nineteenth” and “limits of Germany and the nature of Europe in the twentieth” (viii). The preface goes on to acknowledge that those who choose to write about history are not only influenced by their understanding of the past, but also by their current experiences and external influences. One example given of this was Michael Wallace-Hadrill’s work on “the early medieval past and its Germanic barbarians” and how Wallace-Hadrill’s “wartime experiences” might have influenced his understanding of history (x). For anyone who has studied or taught a course on modern Europe it is clear that the past does matter, because it is the basis of “European identity” (xi) and is used as part of the construct to explain how European states achieved and perceived the form they have today.

The book consists of sixteen chapters that lead the reader through historical perceptions of the Fall of Rome, the arrival of the barbarians and the use of this history beginning with the eighteenth century. By the end of book, Wood has shown that our perceptions of our shared European past do not only come from our knowledge of events in the past, but that “historical discourse [also] comes out of cultural, social and political circumstances” (327). Wood shows in these chapters of the book how Rome’s fall and the arrival of the barbarians have been used “through debates of the rights of the French nobility, the origins of democracy, the oppression of indigenous populations … calls for religious revival, the creation of the German nation, the establishment of German frontiers, and … the … search for European unity” (327). Each of Wood’s chapters are densely packed with discussion of scholars and their works.

Chapter one sets the stage for the book by considering the period AD 300-700 and its importance to how Europeans view their inheritance from the Roman past and the emergence of the “barbarian kingdoms.” Wood notes the differing interpretations of political, cultural and other changes during this time period focusing on three main viewpoints: 1. that of the “Romanists” (those that focus on “the internal history of the Roman Empire”), 2. the “Germanists” (those that focus on “the contributions of the barbarians”), and 3. the Ecclesiastical or the “triumph of Christianity” school (8). The chapter discusses how each of these three viewpoints have played a role in different countries in Europe and have been approached by different scholars. The chapter ends with an outline by Wood on what the book will and will not consider, while he notes his aim of explaining why differing discourses on the time period’s history have developed as they have, by considering the “whole tradition of historiography” as it relates to the three main viewpoints above (18). Keeping this aim in mind, the scholars focused on in chapters two through fifteen are briefly mentioned below.

Chapter two starts the process of reviewing the historiography by analyzing the role of eighteenth-century authors like Henri, comte de Boulainvilliers and abbé Jean-Baptiste Du Bos in the interpretation of the Franks and their role in the creation of the state of France. Wood makes the point that “the French found it less easy to decide whether to see themselves as heirs of Rome or Germania,” leading them to devote themselves to deliberations over the end of Rome and the arrival of the barbarians (19). The chapter carefully contrasts the work of Boulainvilliers and Du Bos, noting the support of the former for the “Germanists” and the latter for the “Romanists”.

Due to the depth and breadth of the information covered in chapters three through fifteen, I will only briefly outline some particularly interesting points of scholars discussed in chapters six and nine. One of the key points that emerges from this book is that not only are a country’s political views influenced by its understanding of the past, but also scholars’ views of history are affected by the political events they experience. Chapter six starts with the historical period following Napoleon’s defeat where the Restorationist François Guizot used his writings as public instructions on history and Augustin Thierry employed his knowledge of writing styles in the novels by contemporaries like Walter Scott and the use of language to complete histories of “the oppressed classes” for both the Frankish invasion of Gaul and the invasion of England by the Normans (102 and 112). Both men’s approaches are not surprising given that François Guizot was a politician and historian, while Augustin Thierry was a self-described plebeian and historian of the middle class (100). Guizot and Thierry are just two of the historians mentioned in the chapter that helped to move mid-nineteenth century discussions into “terms of nation, class and race” (94).

Chapter nine studies the German tradition of considering “language, literature and law” and their roles as another available source for historians (154). The chapter places German scholarship and its use, language, law and literature within the context of German efforts to understand the past through nationalistic discourse during the nineteenth century (154). The “patriotic” drive for the “promotion of German history,” provided academia with one of the most well-known series ever to be created, the Monumenta Germaniae Historica. The chapter goes on to discuss that even though the Monumenta was a project to promote the nation of Germany, many of the political elite were conservative in nature and mistrustful of academia in general. The Monumenta would not have endured to take its place in historiography without the efforts of Georg Heinrich Pertz, biographer of Karl Freiherr vom Stein. Pertz’s commitment to the early edition, as well as the work of Theodor Mommsen and Bruno Krusch, helped the Monumenta to reach its place in academia, but Wood notes that one should still be cautious in assigning too much significance to the early editions, along with Pertz’s place as the creator of something new in the way of collecting and editing texts, due to the existence of editorial practice from at least “seventeenth-century France” (159).

Chapter sixteen, the book’s conclusion, shifts away from discussing academic debates on “the notion of Europe” to portrayals focused on a wider general audience; this being done by exhibits, books, television and other forms of media (310). Wood addresses these strategies and their use to interact with a wider audience regarding the debates over the “end of Rome” (312). Each of the outlets has introduced Rome’s end in a less rigorous way, but also opened the door for non-academic institutions like businesses and governments to have more of a say in the history they finance (312). Wood points out that the “Movers and Shakers” found in a 1999 review article by Guy Halsall could indeed be related to the “Germanists” and “Romanists” discussed in earlier chapters. “‘Movers’ were those who placed a great deal of emphasis on the impact of incoming barbarians, while ‘Shakers’ were those who saw the ‘tensions and changes within the Roman Empire’” (311). This final chapter goes on to discuss some of the more multidisciplinary approaches to the discussion of barbarian ethnicity. Exhibitions discussed also show that in the twentieth century collaborative efforts across borders demonstrated cooperation between the countries of Europe (including those of the east) in communicating a shared past. One of the most interesting contributions in the chapter’s discussion of museum exhibits and their role in promoting historical imaginings of individual countries is the consideration of how exhibits promoted by governments use the display of a common past to promote a united history for their citizens, the European Union or even the “reintegration of Central Europe into the Western European tradition” (325). The book ends by raising the point of “policing the discourses;” recognizing that the history of both objects and the early Middle Ages “have been interpreted and reinterpreted through various discourses,” and abused by not only historians (whether amateur or professional) but also politicians and archaeologists (327). Wood notes that multiple discourses by both professionals and laymen are important to weighing the legitimacy of current and past interpretations of history (329).

The Modern Origins of the Early Middle Ages is a tour de force of a scholar who has continually provided academia with important works ranging from the end of the Roman Empire to the beginning of the early Middle Ages. My biggest reaction in answer to the book’s purpose of responding to the claim that “medieval history is purely ornamental,” is that Professor Wood has written a book that will provide scholars with a seminal work for generations to come, but will unfortunately swamp the non-academic reader (i.e. those individuals like Charles Clarke most in need of such an essential and insightful lesson). 

Melanie Maddox
The Citadel

July 17, 2015

Pugh: Queer Chivalry

Tison Pugh, Queer Chivalry: Medievalism and the Myth of White Masculinity in Southern Literature. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2013.

Reviewed by Randy P. Schiff (

As the massive criticism of Confederate flags that followed the June 17, 2015 massacre of nine African-American innocents at the Emanuel African Methodist Church in Charleston, South Carolina makes clear, symbols of Southern militarism remain a volatile force in America. The most recognizable Confederate flag, the Battle Flag of the Army of North Virginia, elicits such powerful responses because it is so overdetermined, communicating not just the history of violent rebellion and its defeat, but also racist resistance to Reconstruction and integration, nostalgic notions of Southern honor and history, and acute regionalist affect. In Queer Chivalry: Medievalism and the Myth of White Masculinity in Southern Literature, Tison Pugh offers a powerful study of fantasies related to the medieval militarist ideology of chivalry inflecting literary treatments of “white southern masculinity” (1) in post-1950s US Southern fiction. Offering both a broad vision of romantic medievalism’s seminal role in Southern literature and a range of engaging individual analyses, Pugh’s monograph will please readers of medieval and modern literature alike.

In his introduction, Pugh deftly deploys myth to analyze the ideological forces of history, gender, race, and sexuality that converge in what he calls Southern literature’s “queer chivalry” (10). For Pugh, queer theory, in calling attention to the normalization of various identity categories, illuminates pervasive chivalric notions of Southern masculinity that have become “silently naturalized” (5). Discussing Mark Twain’s seminal assessment of Southern progress being held back by “the Sir Walter Disease,” which caused so many Southerners to devote themselves to the factitious medieval chivalry featured in Scott’s romantic novels, Pugh locates “queer potential” in the masculinities of a Southern culture whose anxieties about military defeat generated a romanticized affiliation with knighthood (17). Pugh envisions chivalric identities as “queering forces” that promise “subversive potential” while disrupting norms of manhood (20).

Pugh’s second chapter provides a foundational literary historical frame by juxtaposing Twain’s diagnosis of a “Sir Walter disease” with the “ambivalent medievalism” of his 1889 novel A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court (29). Pugh holds that Twain’s time-traveling protagonist Hank Morgan’s privileged white heteronormativity is revealed by his simultaneous attraction to, and rejection of, the homosocial relationships that saturate King Arthur’s sixth-century realm: Morgan’s frequent reference to the Arthurian knights as “white Indians” offers a racialized version of his anxiety about hybridity that parallels his gendered discomfort with a homosocially “queer” chivalric world (30). Pugh reads Morgan’s extermination of a world that he had yearned to improve as a refusal of what Frederick Jameson calls a “dialectical” view of history, which demands that past and present mutually penetrate each other, in constant and dynamic dialogue (31). Pugh makes a compelling case for the novel’s homoerotic tensions, which he contextualizes through analysis of the tensions generated by nineteenth-century “romantic sex-same friendships” and through reference to Twain’s familiarity with homosocial environments (42). Besides noting Morgan’s enthusiastic creation of a “Man-Factory” and his commentary on the knights’ “physical attractiveness” (47), Pugh shows that Clarence often overshadows Morgan’s eventual wife, Sandy: Morgan’s thoughts turn to this “boy” when he requires rescue (44), and he imagines himself a “mother” with whom Clarence produced a newspaper (45). Most intriguingly, Pugh sees the specter of homoeroticism in Morgan’s excessive “denunciation of male bonds” when he finally marries the Sandy whom he initially debased as “savage” (39): by “going native” and marrying Sandy, Morgan temporarily wards off the anxiety of a world that prioritizes homosocial bonds. Tragically, Morgan’s refusal to dialectically adapt to such a queer world leads him only to his final murderous rampage, as industrial capitalism fantastically kills off the chivalry that haunted the modern South.

Turning to Flannery O’Connor’s fiction, Pugh explores how her characters’ paths to spiritual “revelation” are hindered by experimentation with chivalric models of identity (54). After demonstrating O’Connor’s abiding literary interest in medieval hermeneutics (59) and her use of both chivalric and hagiographic imagery to critique “medievalized” masculinity in the post-Civil War South (60), Pugh investigates the emptiness and “narcissism” in many of O’Connor’s self-sacrificial characters (632). Pugh engagingly analyzes “archaic” modes of chivalrous masculinity as limiting Old Dudley’s ability to form friendships outside of his racial, gendered, and regional comfort zone (67-68), and rivetingly reads the grotesque, self-destructive deflation of the past-obsessed General Sash’s “fantasy of phallic power” (70). After discussing O’Connor’s fascination with the “redemptive possibilities” of homosexuality as a mode of intimacy that, in breaking through the ego’s defenses, allows characters to escape “solipsism” and achieve spiritual progress (75), Pugh shows how Asbury in “The Enduring Chill” embodies a homosexuality that both alienates and liberates (77), and studies the shocking movement in The Violent Bear It Away from Tarwater’s anal rape to a spiritual road which transcends what O’Connor sees as the usually pre-spiritual world of sexuality (81).

Investigating the acutely “antichivalric” and “antisouthern” Ignatius J. Reilly of John Kennedy Toole’s A Confederacy of Dunces, Pugh turns to a comic work centered in a “queer masculinity” devoted to the doubly alienating pursuits of masturbation and “esoteric” medievalism (83). Highlighting Toole’s status as a Southern homosexual who obtained a master’s degree in medieval and Renaissance literature (84), Pugh suggests that Toole’s sense of alienation from his conservative milieu colors his allegorical presentation of a medievalist Reilly struggling against a “fallen modern world” (89). Fashioning himself a “defender” of “Boethian” ethics bringing order to his chaotic day (90) and a “Crusader” and “Arthurian” knight battling present “relativism” (91), Reilly inhabits an intensely literary world structured by the genres of medieval drama and exemplum (92). After introducing Reilly’s twin madcap efforts to start an African-American uprising at a Levi’s factory and organize a “homosexual infiltration of world governments,” Pugh asserts that systematic critique of society’s conflation of religion and commerce forms the novel’s true allegorical center (93). In a chapter featuring much thought-provoking analysis of allegory’s destabilizing power (95), Pugh cannily observes that Toole’s novel’s “pleasure” depends upon readers identifying with a decidedly “queer” narrator in a manner that recalls how medieval allegories “seduce” readers into identifying with “faceless” first-person narrators (100). Describing the novels “masturbatory thrill of embodying allegories” (102), Reilly strikingly critiques white southern chivalry by combining social and academic solipsism in his use of semen-stained sheets as a banner for his “Crusade” (104). Reilly’s redemption ensures that Toole’s opus remains essentially comic. Moving us from Reilly’s disturbingly bestial and adolescently pornographic desires, to his spiritual and personal growth produced by becoming the “rescued-damsel-in-distress in a medieval romance” (111), Pugh suggests that Toole’s medievalist masturbatory fantasies help him transcend the constraints of southern chivalric masculinity (111).

Pugh’s fifth chapter focuses on Robert Penn Warren’s intense engagement with history. Warren’s transformation from an agrarianist and segregationist to a member of the 1960s Civil Rights movement led to his insistence that only by confronting its history might Southerners transcend the “bigotries and stereotypes” of a “mythologized past” (113). Dwelling on the “whitewashing” involved in the United States’s 1978 restoration of Confederate President Jefferson Davis’s citizenship and Warren’s insistence that Davis would have thought such a pardon dishonorable (114), Pugh argues that Warren’s historicizing literature features a “queer manhood” generated by the contradictions between violent reality and romantic nostalgia in Southern culture’s ongoing “Lost Cause” (115). Launching into a breathtaking reading of Warren’s A Place to Come To, Pugh explores the queer potential of the heterosexual Jed Tewksbury, who, in choosing Dante and spirituality over his father’s empty chivalry, reorients white southern masculinity (116). Pugh powerfully interprets Jed’s father Buck’s penis as bearing the “weight of southern patriarchy” (118). Dying in an overdetermined, quasi-mythical pose—drunk, by a wagon with mules, holding his penis while urinating—Buck figures the “power of the phallus” and its “patriarchal legacy” (117). His militarist father’s empty “phallic authority” is also figured in the material practice of Confederate swords as family heirlooms (118). After removing himself from Alabama, Jed symbolically exorcises his father by performing a “minstrel show,” complete with “comic phallus” prop, that reenacts his father’s death (120). Such aesthetic catharsis is framed by Jed’s larger project of escaping southern chivalric provincialism through an academic medievalism that he links with medieval knighthood and Classical heroism (122). Pugh turns to courtly love to explore the ambivalence of the “timeless” in Warren’s novel (124): much as chivalry’s brutality exposes the contradictions of Southern medievalism, so does courtly love’s simultaneous transcendence and carnality reveal that the desire to escape time’s limits can be liberating, but can only be limited, temporary (127). Tracking Jed’s moral development as ascension from his “dehumanizing” analysis of Rose’s sexuality into a romanticized vagina and a merely “animal,” empty anus (130), to his later cultivation of a “meaningful relationship” with a fully humanized Dauphine (135), Pugh compellingly reads Jed’s rejection of idealized “timelessness” (131) as enabling a mature appreciation of history that he can pass on to his son (135).

Pugh’s penultimate chapter surveys the “queer quests” pursued by characters seeking to “overcome[e] sexual otherness” in Walker Percy’s novels. Pugh intriguingly explores the intensely Catholic Percy’s modern Lancelot as a knight whose quest for an “unholy grail” is linked to his view of “overtly sexual” women as breaching “southern decorum” (149). Such narcissistic chivalry in Lancelot leads to a murderous rage that might have been prevented by looking to “saintly” rather than chivalric models (151). Reading Aunt Emily in The Moviegoer as linked with the “erect” masculinity of an Edward the Black Prince whose masculinity Binx cannot “incarnate” (157), Pugh follows Percy’s critique of the “value system in which he was raised” (157): that Aunt Emily only gets along with Binx once she realizes that he cannot meet her chivalric ideals offers one model of escaping the constraints of southern chivalric masculinism (159). Pugh also offers a powerful reading of Percy’s Thomas More’s linkage of the “Sir Walter disease” with dangerous militarism in The Thanatos Syndrome: such romantic medievalism sent Confederates to die as if they were “Catholic knights” seeking “the infidel” (168).

Pugh closes his delightful monograph with an epilogue analyzing Ellen Gilchrist’s resignification of southern chivalry in The Annunciation. After reflecting on the “repudiation” of women within the narratives of white southern masculinity that form the bulk of his analysis (176), Pugh turns to Gilchrist to see an alternatively gendered chivalric South. Gilchrist’s character Amanda McCamrey escapes a stifling New Orleans by turning to medieval history, and eventually commits herself to translating the work of a female medieval French poet (181). Both by rejecting her “romantic” lover’s treatment of her as a passive “princess” (181) and by realizing that translating the past will not allow her to truly escape the South (182), Amanda prepares herself, both through her “pregnancy” and through her newfound self-confidence, for a brighter future (183). Amanda’s rewriting of southern chivalry offers an uplifting ending to Pugh’s fascinating study of the fraught medievalism in much Southern literature.

Randy P. Schiff
SUNY Buffalo