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

April 18, 2010

What is Medievalism?

The following citations from scholarship on the subject of "Medievalism" exemplify the interdisciplinary scope and contested nature of the field:

"[Medievalism is] the study of the Middle Ages, the application of medieval models to contemporary needs, and the inspiration of the Middle Ages in all forms of art and thought." Leslie J. Workman, "Editorial," Studies in Medievalism III/1 (1987), 1.

"[M]edievalism, in origin and for the first hundred years, was an English movement. [...] In the early twentieth century, medievalism was virtually driven off the field by two things: primarily the First World War, which overwhelmingly discredited the whole ethos of 'chivalry' to which ruling classes across Europe had committed themselves; and secondly by Romanticism, a process which I have described in my article, 'Medievalism and Romanticism'.   Leslie J. Workman, "Speaking of Medievalism: An Interview with Leslie J. Workman," Medievalism in the Modern World. Essays in Honour of Leslie J. Workman, ed. Richard Utz and Tom Shippey (Turnhout: Brepols, 1998), pp. 439-40.

"The twenty-first century has been marked by claims that Western society and culture, particularly in the USA but also in Europe and Australia, is post-race. Precisely what post-race means varies, but the core of the argument is that race is no longer the most salient cause of inequality. For example, in the USA, the election of Barack Obama is taken by some as evidence that race no longer impedes opportunity by partisans on both sides of politics. The restorative nostalgia of Dragon Age players’ medievalism can be understood as a desire for post-race society redirected to the past so that the Middle Ages are imagined as a pre-race utopia. The tendency to view race as an invention of modernity – and thus absent from the Middle Ages – reflects the canons of race theory, although medieval studies scholars have argued for at least a decade that racialized thinking did occur in medieval Europe. Christian beliefs which aligned whiteness with purity and good, and darkness with sin and evil, are acknowledged to have influenced later thought, but nonetheless authorise the idea that the Middle Ages were pre-race in the ways that contemporary society is at times considered post-race. The nostalgia of fans on both sides of debates about race is at the very least enabled by such modernist assumptions."    Helen Young, "“It’s the Middle Ages, Yo!”: Race, Neo/medievalisms, and the World of Dragon Age," The Year's Work in Medievalism 27 (2012).

"Twain, Adams, Fitzgerald, and Hemingway repeatedly grapple – consciously or unconsciously, textually or subtextually – with various questions: What is the relationship between modern America and the Middle Ages? Did the Middle Ages offer a mythic golden past to which America could link itself, its abrupt beginnings in the seventeenth-century American wilderness too stark for imaginative nourishment later in its history? What is the relationship between dreaming the Middle Ages and the American Dream? Do the childlike qualities attributed to the Middle Ages bear a particular relevance to this youthful nation? Do the social and martial conventions of courtly love and chivalry offer a guide – or perhaps a reproach – to an America whose vaunted freedom renders it particularly vulnerable to abrupt changes, technological disruptions, and social upheavals? What lessons does the figure of the medieval knight have to teach nineteenth- and twentieth-century male writers and the culture in general?"   Kim Moreland, The Medievalist Impulse in American Literature: Twain, Adams, Fitzgerald, Hemingway (Charlottsville, VA: University of Virginia Press, 1996), pp. 26-27.

"In posing the relation of the terms medievalism and Romanticism, the estranged or violently obscured past of the first is balanced by the second’s implication of Jacobin hopes for a utopian future. But ‘Romanticism’ is a Janus-faced movement, always looking back even as it looks forward, anachronistically replaying and revising history even as it proleptically installs a modernity we now recognize. And the look back, always in order to look forward, can stem from conservative impulses as well as radical ones."   Elizabeth Fay, Romantic Medievalism. History and the Romantic Literary Ideal (Houndsmills, Basingstoke: Palgrave, 2002), p. 1.

There are generally understood to be two types of neomedievalism. One is the International Relations (IR) school that stems from the 1970s work of Hedley Bull. It centers around the idea that nation-states are weakening in the face of non-state actors (NGOs, multinationals, supra-national entities such as the European Union, global networks, private armies, terrorist organizations and so on), and that the global order is entering a medieval-type scenario of layered political allegiances: one in which the nation-state ceases to hold privileged sovereign power. The second type derives from the work of Umberto Eco, who (also in the 1970s) put forward the notion that we are living in cultural and political new Middle Ages, citing the end of the ‘Pax Americana’ [...] as an analog to the fall of the Roman empire. Neomedievalism for Eco is a postmodern predicament by which the contemporary can be understood as a re-enactment of the medieval, spanning a spectrum from the historically accurate and philologically responsible to pop kitsch fantasy medievalism. Over the last decade, neomedievalist studies have found fortune in the realm of pop culture, in particular examining online videogames set in pseudo-medieval fantasy worlds, often by way of Baudrillardian theories of the simulacrum.   Daniel Lukes, "Comparative Neomedievalisms: A Little Bit Medieval," postmedieval (2014), 1.

"There are two ways that medieval studies can be didactically justified as of central and consistent importance in education and culture. First, we can say the medieval heritage is very rich today in a prominent set of ideas and institutions, such as the Catholic Church, the university, Anglo-American law, parliamentary government, romantic love, heroism, just war, the spiritual capacity of little as well as elite people, and the cherishing of classical literatures and languages. That this heritage ought to be consciously identified, cultivated, and refined is commonly asserted. Secondly, we can say less conventionally that medievalism civilization stands toward our postmodern culture as the conjunctive other, the intriguing shadow, the marginally distinctive double, the secret sharer of our dreams and anxieties. This view means that the Middle Ages are much like our culture of today, but exhibit just enough variations to disturb us and force us to question some of our values and behavior patterns and to propose some alternatives or at least modifications. The difference is relatively small, but all the more provocative for that."   Norman Cantor, Inventing the Middle Ages (New York: Morrow, 1991), p. 47.

"Four distinct models of medieval reception can be determined:
(1) The productive, i.e., creative reception of the Middle Ages: subject matter, works, themes, and even medievalism authors are creatively re-formed into a new work;
(2) The reproductive reception of the Middle Ages: the original form of medieval works is reconstructed in a manner viewed as 'authentic,' as in musical productions or renovations (for example, paintings and monuments).
(3) The academic reception of the Middle Ages: medieval authors, works, events, etc., are investigated and interpreted according to the critical methods that are unique to each respective academic discipline;
(4) The political-ideological reception of the Middle Ages: medieval works, themes, 'ideas' or persons are used and 'reworked' for political purposes in the broadest sense, e.g., for legitimization or for debunking (in this regard, one need only recall the concept 'crusade' and the ideology associated with it)."    Francis G. Gentry and Ulrich Müller, "The Reception of the Middle Ages in Germany: An Overview," Studies in Medievalism III/4 (Spring 1991), p. 401.

"Medieval philology is the mourning for a text, the patient labor of this mourning. It is the quest for an anterior perfection that is always bygone, that unique moment in which the presumed voice of the author was linked to the hand of the first scribe, dictating the authentic, first, and original version, which will disintegrate in the hands of all the numerous, careless individuals copying a literature in the vernacular. [...] Philology is a bourgeois, paternalist, and hygienist system of thought about the family; it cherishes filiation, tracks down adulterers, and is afraid of contamination. It is thought based on what is wrong (the variant being a form of deviant behavior), and it is the basis for a positive methodology. Bernard Cerquiglini, In Praise of the Variant, trans. Betsy Wing (Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1999), pp. 34 and 49.

"In what ways can the study of the Middle Ages teach us to historicize the field of critical theory? Which is another way of asking: to what extent do our own strategies and desires determine the questions we pose and the answers we give? We cannot escape the obligation to clarify our own agendas. We can do so only by recognizing the degree to which the inquiring subject stands in a compromising position: on the one hand, involved in an enterprise that, since the Renaissance, has assumed the disinterestedness of knowledge, the objectivity of philological science: on the other, participating as a socially contextualized being in a network of predetermined subjectivities such as sex, social position, or ethnic origin."    R. Howard Bloch and Stephen G. Nichols, "Introduction," Medievalism and the Modernist Temper, ed. R. Howard Bloch and Stephen G. Nichols (Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1996), p.5.

"The belief that the skills of a discipline are neutral methods rather than complex systems of representation encourages the illusion that disciplines, which are skill-centered, are themselves different; the belief also devalues the skills. It has been my aim to show that the skills of traditional medieval scholarship -- the essence of the tradition now confronted by innovation -- are not timeless, transhistorical, and unchanging. Rather, they are the products of the ages in which they were devised and are personal as well as professional ways of speaking; contemporary criticism, likewise, is not only a new collection of critical languages but also a new group of persons speaking languages of their own. The traditional skills of our disciplines, which are the means of maintaining discipline, cannot be dispensed with; nor can the history of the scholarly disciplines that they have shaped be ignored. The skills must be renewed and the history must be deconstructed or 'dismantled' to enable 'a more intimate kind of knowing' in which we find another way of knowing ourselves and our predecessors, and of speaking their languages, as well as our own, in the conversation through which we know the Middle Ages."   Allen J. Frantzen, "Prologue: Documents and Monuments: Difference and Interdisciplinarity in the Study of Medieval Culture," Speaking Two Languages: Traditional Disciplines and Contemporary Theory in medievalism Studies, ed. Allen J. Frantzen (Albany, NY: SUNY Press, 1991), p. 32-33.

"What, then, does New Medievalism mean? I will offer you two versions. First, it means study of the Middle Ages in the light of what literary scholars call, by ellipsis, 'theory' -- that is, the literary and cultural theories associated with thinkers such as Derrida and Michel Foucault. [...] More specifically, New Medievalism means Postmodern Medievalism, study of the Middle Ages from a consciously held postmodern perspective, a point of view which distinguishes itself from modernity, or what I have proposed to call the Long Renaissance."   William D. Paden, "'New Medievalism' and 'Medievalism'," The Year's Work in Medievalism X (1995), 232-33.

"The Middle Ages are virtually unique among major periods or areas of historical study in being entirely the creation of scholars. Since the term 'Middle Ages' in one of its many forms was first coined by Italian humanists, successive cultural revolutions down to and the including the advent of Romanticism at the end of the eighteenth century found it desirable to adopt and enlarge the term for their own proposes. It is axiomatic that every generation has to write its own history of the past, and this is especially true in the case of the Middle Ages. It follows that medievalism, the study of this process, is a necessary part of the study of the Middle Ages. [] [M]edievalism, being concerned with process rather than product, is a particularly fruitful area of several forms of postmodern criticism. Since the establishment of Studies in Medievalism, other forms of medievalism, particularly critical approaches, have emerged -- in Germany, Mittelalter-Rezeption, which takes its name and inspiration from the reception theory of Hans Robert Jauss, and in the United States a new approach to the Middle Ages inspired by Paul Zumthor, whose Parler du Moyen Age (1980), appeared in this country in 1986 as Speaking of the Middle Ages, with an introduction by Eugene Vance."   Leslie J. Workman, "Medievalism," The Year's Work in Medievalism X (1995), 227.

"Das Mittelalter hat Konjunktur, in Deutschland wie in anderen Ländern, deren Zivilisation der abendländischen Tradition verpflichtet ist. [...] Wer die Arbeit der verschiedenen Disziplinen mustert, kann den Eindruck gewinnen, daß die Hinterlassenschaft des Mittelalters seit den Anfängen der Mediävistik in der ersten Hälfte Des 19. Jahrhunderts nicht mehr mit der Intensität umgewendet und befragt worden ist wie heute. Zwei Denkfiguren bestimmen die Struktur der Fragestellungen: Alterität und Kontinuität."   Joachim Heinzle, "Einleitung: Modernes Mittelalter," Modernes Mittelalter. Neue Bilder einer populären Epoche, ed. Joachim Heinzle (Frankfurt a.M.: Insel, 1994), pp. 9-10.

"In the vast picture of darkness that is the Grand Siècle's rejection of everything medieval, a lone beacon of light is offered by Madame de Sévigné's radiant medievalism. For Marie de Rabutin-Chantal, marquise de Sévigné, did not merely love the medieval: she lived it and embodied it, in every sense of the word. 'Going medieval' was for her not a conscious choice -- as we would have it today -- a life-style, but her very identity. In this sense, her medievalism was part of a distinctly aristocratic engagement with the Middle Ages that was eclipsed by the Ancien Régime and the break with the feudal past brought about by the French Revolution."   Alicia C. Montoya, "Madame de Sévigné's Aristocratic Medievalism," in Makers of the Middle Ages. Essays in Honor or William Calin, ed. Richard Utz and Elizabeth Emery (Kalamazoo, MI: Studies in Medievalism, 2011), p.7

"The Methods used to establish medieval studies as an academic discipline in the nineteenth century are well known and can be summarized as follows. In order to separate and elevate themselves from popular studies of medieval culture, the new academic medievalists of the nineteenth century designated their practices, influenced by positivism, as scientific and eschewed what they regarded as less-positivist, 'nonscientific' practices, labeling them medievalism. They isolated medieval artifacts from complex historical sediments and studied them as if they were fossils."   Kathleen Biddick, The Shock of Medievalism (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1998), pp. 1-2.

"What, to begin with, is the nature of the signifying field in which medievalist historiography, as a mode of sublimation, takes place? I use the term 'sublimation' to refer to the problem addressed by Freud of how the creation of art and other forms of cultural 'achievement' may be understood in relation to desire. The movie Babe will help us to an initial sketch of what is at stake in the relation of the signifier to desire and memory.   Babe is, first of all, a film with a recognizably medievalist agenda. It celebrates love between master and servant (these days, animals have to stand in for the peasants), and rural life as the scene in which such love might be rediscovered. It expresses distaste for technology, focused especially on communications in the form of a Fax machine, but also recuperates the Fax, as well as discipline, training, technique. These figures recall the master tropes of anti-utilitarian medievalism in the nineteenth century. So does the film's insistent association of meaningless speech with commercialism and disbelief in the remarkable, and its association of meaningful speech with Babe's taciturn but loving farmer--a man behind the times who nonetheless is able to succeed because he recognizes the distinctive gifts of his animals, even when they want to do the work of the 'other' (even, that is, when the pig Babe wants to do the work of a sheep dog."   Louise Fradenburg, "'So That We May Speak of Them': Enjoying the Middle Ages," New Literary History 28.2 (1997) 205-30.

"Along the spectrum between these diametrically opposed valuations, creole medievalism challenges the traditional binarisms of imperial discourse. On contemporary Réunion especially, creole medievalism joins a myriad of other strategies for representing postcolonial society. While medievalism can never veer too far from the imperial conditions that brought memories of distant times to Réunion, creative claims on the Middle Ages hold out the possibility of moving beyond colonial dualities (civilization/savagery, inclusion/exclusion, etc.). The productive powers of hybridity, syncretism, and métissage extend to the Middle Ages themselves, prompting further critique of their ideological alignment with simplified "positives" and "negatives." Altogether, then, "creole medievalism" designates a proliferating set of contradictory claims born of numerous dislocations between Réunion and France, and between past and present. Creole medievalism ultimately functions in at least three clearly identifiable ways: in support of homogenous national history, in opposition to that history, and in mixed formations that defy singular conclusions."   Michelle R. Warren, Creole Medievalism. Colonial France and Joseph Bédier's Middle Ages (Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 2011), p. xii.

"Studies we might define under the heading of medievalism, where we examine representation of the medieval or definitions of the medieval, suffer from just such a circuit, an illness of causality one might say, as we seek to consider the effects of a particular image of the medieval and its causes, whether historical, aesthetic, or even cosmological. But medievalism offers a potentially more powerful theoretical position tha[n] that of the New Historicism in that medievalism is not about defining a particular truth about the Middle Ages, but rather about defining the truth of a Middle Ages, a point of impasse that is the subject of representation across periods, media, genres, and theories. Medievalism acknowledges the fictional structure of history, going beyond simple historical understandings, to focus instead on a mythic structure that ties us to history."   Richard Glejzer, "Medievalism and New Historicism," The Year's Work in Medievalism X (1995), 220-21. 

"The history of the term ‘medievalism’ can be said to be a linguistic performance responding to particular pressures in and outside the academy as well as to the almost coeval emergence of competing terms and practices related to the study of the past. […] This gradual process of the semantic narrowing of the vocabulary used between the early eighteenth and the early twentieth century to describe the medieval period as well as those who read, discuss, edit, and publish medieval texts is indicative of the recognition of temporality and historicity Reinhart Koselleck diagnoses as a central signpost for modern thought. The process is inextricably linked with the institutionalization and academization of receiving the Middle Ages and it increases the sense of historical and methodological distance between the modern investigating subjects, the medievalists, and their subject of investigation, medieval culture. In fact, it now becomes academic medievalists’ very raison d’être to insist, in specialty areas such as ‘Medieval Philology,’ ‘Medieval History,’ ‘Medieval Art History,’ and ‘Medieval Studies,’ on seeing distanced and unenthusiastic work as synonymous with professionalism. By the end of the nineteenth century, strict boundaries emerge between academic pastist research of the ‘real’ Middle Ages and the various non-academic presentist representations of the medieval past."   Richard Utz, "Coming to Terms with Medievalism," European Journal of English Studies 15/2 (2011), 104-5.