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

June 14, 2011

Brush, ed., Mapping Medievalism at the Canadian Frontier

Kathryn Brush, ed., Mapping Medievalism at the Canadian Frontier. London, ON: Museum London & McIntosh Gallery, 2010.
Reviewed by Richard Utz (
In 2012 it will be 20 years that I attended my first Medievalism conference at the University of South Florida in Tampa. Then, as a European greenhorn who thought that growing up among the remnants of medieval architecture automatically conferred authority on me to speak of the Middle Ages, I voiced some glib doubts about the location for the conference among palm trees and close to Busch Gardens. The conference participants and their papers convinced me otherwise. In fact, shortly after the conference I began looking for, and seeing, the medieval even in the most quotidian situations. Then, after that initial phase, when King Arthur Flour, Merlin’s Mufflers, and the most recent Robin Hood movie had lost their quick and easy attraction, I realized that what would, in the end, sustain my scholarly interest in medievalism had to do with some of the less immediately obvious, albeit omnipresent, traces of the medieval, those diachronic continuities that inform, more or less consciously, postmedieval language, social interaction, memory, and national, regional, and other group identities. Mapping Medievalism at the Canadian Frontier manages a full-scale investigation into such intricate questions and demonstrates the relevance of medievalism studies in new and exiting ways. I am particularly impressed by the broad range of sources – visual records, travel narratives, literary accounts, the history of ideas, gender studies – brought to bear upon the process through which the Upper Canadian frontier (or Ontario frontier) was conceptualized as a New World Middle Ages in numerous different ways. Although the editor modestly states that this collaborative project should only be seen as “an initial foray into a large and expansive topic” (p. 18), I believe the volume not only enriches existing readings of the mythology of the Canadian frontier, but also showcases an exemplary interdisciplinary methodology for future studies in medievalism.
Clare Feagan examines the castellated nature and placement (in the middle of the forest) of Upper Canada’s courthouse (London, ON; built between 1827 and 1829) and concludes that the building was meant to celebrate its planners’ European architectural and political heritage as well as the terrifying (“wild”) aspects displayed in Gothic novels. Hillary Walker Gugan extends Feagan’s observations to the ways in which artists among the British colonists used the conventions of their own European pasts to render the Canadian wilderness acceptable and accessible. Thus, city views of the New World, including the new London, ON, and its Thames River, were marketing Ontario in the first half of the nineteenth century as an idealistic mix of picturesque medieval-inspired and industrial features to attract prospective emigrants back in Britain. Similarly, as Megan Arnott intimates, scholarly medievalism and heritage/tourism medievalism in southwestern Ontario conspired to recognize early medieval Vinland in the Great Lakes Region in the second half of the nineteenth and the twentieth century. 
According to Simon Bentley, medieval and colonial modes also created a fruitful combination for the construction of leadership in Upper Canada. Colonel Thomas Talbot (1771-1853), for example, displayed a particular predilection for pre-modern (feudal) leadership and a pioneer lifestyle. Talbot’s specific masculinist medievalism becomes visible in his own understanding of manly aventure, i.e., the conquest of foreign lands and the creation of vast estates. Ahlia Moussa provides a feminine counter perspective to Colonel Talbot’s, British author, activist, art historian and literary scholar Anna Jameson’s (1794-1860) travel narratives, which are also imbued with nineteenth-century medievalist sentiment. She, however, viewed the medieval chivalric traditions as the beginning of the modification and enlargement of the woman’s sphere and used her own anthropological observations on Native women and frontier women to critique the artificiality of Victorian ideals of women. In her descriptions, Euro-Canadian female settlers, who had to perform physical labor, appear as “moderately liberated, but genteel and feminine” (p. 64). If Jameson’s medievalizing travel narratives launched her literary career, the colonial fantasy of reviving an idealized medieval age had a similarly positive effect on the career of landscape painter Frederick Arthur Verner (1836-1928). As Erin Rothstein elucidates, Verner’s depictions of a Canadian medieval wilderness expose the nostalgic and conservative side of the nineteenth-century return to medievalia.
Stephani Radu and Emma Arenson both reveal how the comparative scholarly examination of the production methods, themes, and form elements of medieval and pre-contact material objects was often based on stereotypes generally governing the discourse describing these objects. Such comparisons, for example, made early European settlers apply the term “castle” to the palisaded Iroquoian settlements in an effort to speak of an unfamiliar technology of construction. Similarly, according to Rebecca Gera, the descriptions on maps and in various travel narratives (Gera calls them “Canadian Romances”) of the Canadian landscape resemble medieval European ideas of uncharted wilderness areas. Other nineteenth-century readings of the medieval wilderness (Chateaubriand, Ruskin, Scott, the Gothic novel) have all left recognizable traces in how early Canadians imaginatively filled the “empty spaces” to create a unique national geography and identity. Finally, as Kathryn Brush explains in her own essay, in the early decades of the twentieth century the visual celebrations of Canada’s “untamed” landscape by painters Tom Thomson (1877-1917) and other members of the Canadian “Group of Seven” (E.H. MacDonald, Arthur Lismer, Frederick Varley, Frank Johnston, Franklin Carmichael, A.Y. Jackson, and Lawren Harris) still carry the imprint of medievalism. However, rather than being intentional medievalists by incorporating visual references to Canada’s “real” Middle Ages, Thomson and his fellow painters continued to work with the “diverse medievalisms that had already been grafted onto Ontario’s wilderness during the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries” (p. 156).
The museum exhibit catalogue genre, with its need for concise and fairly jargon-free exposition, proved an enabling obstacle for the contributors to this volume. While all of them had to condense information, especially the various contexts framing their specific projects, they did so responsibly, fully aware of seminal work on medievalism, and always with their audiences in mind. The result is a truly original achievement, one that locates medievalism across disciplinary, geographical, and cultural boundaries and teases it out of material culture as well as the realm of ideas. Not always obvious to contemporary observers of Canadian culture, the traces of medievalism revealed in these meticulously researched, expertly edited, and beautifully illustrated essays will invite others to delve deeper into the omnipresent forms of the reception of medievalia within the cultural construct now known as Ontario. Kathryn Brush’s valuable volume certainly has renewed my enthusiasm about identifying and investigating medievalisms in my own surroundings, the somewhat unlikely international Mecca of medievalists, Kalamazoo, Michigan, USA.  
Richard Utz, Western Michigan University