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

August 17, 2010

Marshall, ed., Mass Market Medieval

David W. Marshall, ed., Mass Market Medieval: Essays on the Middle Ages in Popular Culture, Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2007.

Reviewed by Amy S. Kaufman

The commercial popularity of the Middle Ages and its seemingly perpetual marketability is sometimes taken for granted in studies of contemporary medievalism; we allow history’s commodification to pass by without comment on how and why the “medieval” is marketed, or more specifically, as David W. Marshall puts it in his introduction to Mass Market Medieval: Essays on the Middle Ages in Popular Culture, how “the European Middle Ages are packaged into easily consumable nuggets in a process that we might think of as shrink-wrapping time” (6). It is this aspect of medievalism—what sells about the Middle Ages, and what doesn’t—that forms the organizing query for Marshall’s diverse essay collection, which includes but also expands beyond analyzing commodification within traditional medievalist genres such as film and video games to explore heavy metal and silent film, lesson plans and tourism. Marshall’s introduction groups the essays thematically, explaining that they move from considering recent social concerns to the political uses of the Middle Ages, from politics to historiography, historiography to pedagogy, and pedagogy to the replication of medieval structures and forms. As one might imagine, there is a great deal of overlap and conversation among contributors and categories. The book is thus more network than narrative, appropriate in a volume that must address the peculiarities of medievalism via postmodernity.

Indeed, far from speaking in a unified voice about the commodification of the Middle Ages, the contributors reveal some fruitful disagreements: Paul Hardwick’s “ ‘If I Lay My Hands on the Grail’: Arthurianism and Progressive Rock,” laments the disappearance of romantically medievalist bands like King Crimson and The Moody Blues in the wake of punk rock’s cynical presentism, whereas Simon Trafford and Aleks Plukowski’s “Antichrist Superstars: The Vikings in Hard Rock and Heavy Metal,” problematizes the romantic medieval longings in music by pointing out that the “semiotic system” of medievalism can lend itself to the glorification of nationalism, hyper-masculinity, and white supremacy (65).

Medievalism is often ideologically conflicted: the contemporary longing for history can be at odds with the distance we want to place between ourselves and the ‘barbaric past.’ Marshall has paired two essays in this collection, Lesley Jacobs’s “Idealized Images of Wales in the Fiction of Edith Pargeter/Ellis Peters” and Benjamin Earl’s “Places Don’t Have to Be True to Be True: The Appropriation of King Arthur and the Cultural Value of Tourist Sites” to reveal the more nuanced problematics of the past for a postcolonial culture with medieval roots. While Earl studies a Welsh Arthurian site that seeks to authenticate its own heritage by creating a fictional medieval past in the present (“King Arthur’s Labyrinth,” as Earl tells us, is actually a series of slate mines that closed in 1970) (102), Jacobs’s author, on the other hand, attempts to locate the present in the past through historical fiction that portrays the Welsh as more compassionate and less barbaric than their English colonizers—ultimately, as Jacobs puts it, “more in line with our contemporary democratic values” (100). Both fiction and tourism must reject England in order to authenticate Wales: Jacobs’s subject does so by portraying the English as the ‘real’ and therefore unenlightened medieval people, but Earl’s tourist industry depicts the English as usurpers and latecomers, advertising Welsh culture as older and, therefore, more authentically medieval. Thus, Jacobs and Earl not only showcase the conflicted longings of medievalism both to embrace and to distance itself from the past, but they also provoke readers to ponder whether colonized peoples are better off aligning themselves with a mythic past or an ‘enlightened’ present.

Authenticity is also at stake in the contributions on education. Whereas Carl James Grindley’s “Teaching the Middle Ages” advocates a series of sobering reminders of vast medieval class divisions and crushing sexism to help elementary school classrooms dispel an ever-present “skewed and potentially harmful view of the Middle Ages, one that centers on a flapping dragon being harassed by a little boy wielding a cardboard sword” (151), Daniel T. Kline’s “Virtually Medieval” reveals paths through which educators might teach history through fantasy. Kline argues that the video game Age of Empires II: The Age of Kings contains “historical ideas and cultural implications central to the game and pertinent in the classroom, even when academically suspect” (155). Whereas Grindley’s quest is to help child educators present their students with improved historical accuracy, Kline reminds us of “the inherent ‘messiness’ of history,” and he suggests that the postmodern “mash-up” of medieval representations in Age of Empires is a more promising educational tool than are linear historical narratives with particular ideological investments (165).

As Marshall’s introduction explains, studying medievalism requires applying two sets of lenses: comparing what is retained or reformulated from the Middle Ages with the contemporary reception of its fragments. The best pieces in Mass Market Medieval apply this double lens. Hannah R. Johnson’s elegant essay, “Medieval History and Cultural Forgetting: Oppositional Ethnography in The Templar Revolution,” examines a seductive revisionist history of the  Provençal Magdalene but transcends the anticipated question of accuracy to conclude that revisionist history’s “insistence on the idea that the past has an agency, even a diffuse consciousness, is a fascinating response to postmodern agonizing about history’s fragility, its malleability in the hands of a skilled historian-narrator” (136). Alison Tara Walker’s keenly focused study of music in the silent film Häxan manages to capture the entirety of medievalism’s problematically divided attachments to the past and present by revealing the ways in which Häxan’s soundtrack struggles against its narrative, causing the film to waver between privileging the perceived emotions of the past and the ‘logical intellect’ of the present. Finally, Trafford and Pluskowski’s “Antichrist Superstars,” while conscious of the dangerous possibilities buried in the Viking imagery adopted by musicians, is also an exercise in pleasure and discovery, reminding us that some of the most passionate and creative engagement with the past can be found well outside the ivory tower.

Scholars already involved in medievalism may find a few of the other essays within Mass Market Medieval a bit diffuse and less theoretical than those listed above, but they are still useful surveys of medievalism that delineate fertile ground for future scholars. Furthermore, what the collection occasionally lacks in depth, it makes up for with an inspiring interdisciplinarity, and the range of tone and approach in its contents also makes Mass Market Medieval a useful teaching tool for introducing graduate or even undergraduate students to the study of medievalism. Marshall’s compelling inducements for studying popular medievalisms—that they “are frequently the first introduction to medieval studies” and that even pleasure “is a valid reason to pursue the field” (8)—may seem self-evident just these few years after he issued them. Papers on popular medievalism appear with great frequency at medieval studies conferences, the study of medievalism finds the occasional home in cultural studies programs, and journals like Studies in Medievalism and Arthuriana have long recognized the value of studying contemporary reproductions of the past. Still, the pleasures of both teaching and studying medievalism are so obviously enjoyed by the contributors to Mass Market Medieval that a thirst for future exploration, so often inspired by enthusiastic collections, is highly contagious to the reader.

Amy S. Kaufman
Middle Tennessee State University