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

April 18, 2012

Postmedieval: A Journal of Medieval Cultural Studies

Postmedieval: A Journal of Medieval Cultural Studies. Ed. Eileen Joy and Myra Seaman (Palgrave, 2010--)

Reviewed by Carol L. Robinson (

It cannot be helped: the drive to compare/contrast the efforts of BABEL Working Group (founded in 2004) with those of International Society for the Study of Medievalism (founded in 1976). It involves a desire to examine the efforts made by each group both, within the confines of the International Congress on Medieval Studies (Kalamazoo, MI) and without. Moreover, it is propelled by the primal need to analyze the periodical grind produced by each: the older, more stately Studies in Medievalism with the younger, more flamboyant Postmedieval: A Journal of Medieval Cultural Studies. I must confess: writing this makes me feel as though I'm torn in loyalties between my uncle's father and his niece's daughter; however, the intellectual possibilities that each offer are equally important, equally exciting.

Studies in Medievalism has traveled a long and exhaustive journey from its days as a young whipper-snapper marginalized to high-cliffed edges of critical studies. In its journey, it has strived to shun "bad" labels in order to gain respect and dignity: "popular culture," "sci-fi/fantasy" and other allusions to what was formerly considered to be "shallow" scholarship. The mission has been to identify, define and theorize over instances of medievalism(s) in a wide variety of artistic media. As stated on its homepage by Tom Shippey:
Medievalism is the study of responses to the Middle Ages at all periods since a sense of the mediaeval began to develop. Such responses include, but are not restricted to, the activities of scholars, historians and philologists in rediscovering medieval materials; the ways in which such materials were and are used by political groups intent on self-definition or self-legitimation; and artistic creations, whether literary, visual or musical, based on whatever has been or is thought to have been recovered from the medieval centuries. The Middle Ages remain present, moreover, in the modern consciousness, both through scholarship and through popular media such as film, video games, poster art, TV series and comic strips, and these media are also a legitimate object of study, if often intertwined with more traditionally scholarly topics. Studies in Medievalism presents an interdisciplinary medium of exchange for researchers in all fields relating to the post-medieval study of the Middle Ages, and to the influence of that study on later society world-wide. (
Leslie J. Workman, the official founder of what has come to be called the International Society for the Study of Medievalism, began discussions of medievalism as a concept in the 1970s at the annual International Congress on Medieval Studies (Western Michigan University). He was adamant to distinguish this study from studies of either Romanticism or works solely and directly from the Middle Ages. As Elizabeth Emery argues, "The brilliance of Workman’s definition [of medievalism] lies less in identifying medievalism as a method (the OED also does this), than in acknowledging the extent to which the 'Middle Ages' is itself an artificial construct, changing in accordance with the individual or the society imagining it" ("Medievalism and the Middle Ages," Studies in Medievalism XVII: 79). Workman and other founding members of this society, as I understand it, had an strenuous battle in gaining respect and acceptance by the general academy for studies of medievalism(s). The original agenda, as I recall, was to promote carefully constructed comparison/contrast analyses post-medieval works from all over the globe with authentic medieval works preserved from the Middle Ages of Europe. It was an agenda designed to respond to a hierarchical system of scholarly study.

BABEL Working Group, however, strives to be: "...a non-hierarchical scholarly collective and post-institutional desiring-assemblage with no leaders or followers, no top and no bottom, and only a middle," and its "chief commitment is the cultivation of a more mindful being-together with others who work alongside us in the ruined towers of the post-historical university" ( The aims of the journal itself are a little clearer: "medieval studies that aims to bring the medieval and modern into productive critical relation," working

. . . to develop a present-minded medieval studies in which contemporary events, issues, ideas, problems, objects, and texts serve as triggers for critical investigations of the Middle Ages. Further, we are concerned to illuminate the deep historical structures–mental, linguistic, social, cultural, aesthetic, religious, political, sexual, and the like–that underlie contemporary thought and life, and therefore, we are also interested in attending to the question of the relation of the medieval to the modern (and vice versa) in different times and places. We want to also demonstrate the important value of medieval studies and the longest possible historical perspectives to the ongoing development of contemporary critical and cultural theories that remain under-historicized. Finally, we will advocate for and support the continuing development, from any and all disciplinary directions, of historicist, materialist, comparatist, and theoretical approaches to the subjects of the Middle Ages. (
Postmedieval has not only demonstrated itself to be highly active, but the scholarship is both engaging and endowed with a combined heritage of both established and developing research ideologies. Indeed, as the BABEL Working Group recognizes one "prod" to their work:
. . . has been the longer-standing field of studies in medievalism, which has also been called medievalism studies and medieval cultural studies: most broadly speaking, scholars working in this field [... ], have been concerned with the reception and representation of the Middle Ages across various periods, genres, and media, and they have been especially concerned as well with all of the ways in which the Middle Ages have been invented and constructed by writers and scholars from the Renaissance forward, and with the genealogies of the professional academic discipline of medieval studies, which is often at pains to distinguish itself from a “medievalism” believed to not be concerned enough with a so-called “real” medieval history. (
The initial reviews of Postmedieval are out, and the general response to the first issue (Vol. 1, Issue 1/2: When Did We Become Post/human?) has been extremely positive, and rightly so. Indeed, Postmedieval has just been awarded by the Prose Awards "Best New Journal in Humanities and Social Sciences" (2011).

The thought and research put into most of these articles published thus far has clearly been no less than brilliant. With two years' worth of issues (two issues in 2010 and three more in 2011) published, plans for fourteen more issues (2012-2015) are fully planned and under pro-active development. Issues 1-2 of Volume 1 (2010) address the cyberpunk concepts put forth by Katherine Hayles' book, How We Became Posthuman: Virtual Bodies in Cybernetics, Literature, and Informatics in a medievalist light. The next and final issue for the first volume responds to Bruce Holsinger's The Premodern Condition: Medievalism and the Making of Theory. Volume 2 (2011) is comprised of three issues: one on the animal as both co-habitant of this earth as well as allegory of posthumanism, one on medievalism and nostalgia, and the third on critical trends. The 2012 issues (Volume 3) promise to be more theoretically eclectic: on becoming media, as well as media and the sense of temporal embodiment and historicity, on open topics that include a cluster on disease and disability studies, on cognitive theory and neurological medievalisms, and the fourth issue seems to be a grande finale of the five senses. Volume 4 (2013) promises to cover such topics as: ecocriticism, transcultural Middle Ages, a theme centered upon fault and blame, and the premodern flesh. Volume 5 (2014) covers erotohistoriographies, the Middle Ages and the Holocaust, and philological futures of Humanism. Finally, the plans for Volume 6 (2015) appear to be centered upon issues of race and poetics. The energy put forth by this journal is, and promises to continue to be, electrochemically nebular!

Many of the articles deal with large issues, condensed from the book-length studies they deserve to become reduced to these intensely dense, essay-length, yet almost-preliminary, analyses. For example, while in her Response Essay, "Medievalism and its Discontents," Renèe R. Trilling does not closely examine the vast amount of scholarship to be done on medievalist nostalgia, that is perhaps because it IS so vast--and complex. As she points out:

The contradictory mechanisms of nostalgia by which the medieval has been popularized and commodified in the West are a source of both endless possibility and perennial frustration for medievalists. The kitsch and self-conscious irony of a Medieval Times or a Jorvik Viking Centre threaten to devalue the objects of our study as serious intellectual enterprises; to the world outside academia, the study of monasticism, for example, is forever colored by Monty Python’s self-flagellating monks. Such an approach pushes toward an absolute separation of the Middle Ages as not only past, but also the realm of fantasy, where those self-flagellating monks exist comfortably alongside wizards and dragons. It insists on the alterity of the Middle Ages from the perspective of modernity (or, more accurately, postmodernity), and in doing so reinforces the claims of periodization that underwrite the possibilities for humor and fantasy in the first place. (Postmedieval, Volume 2.2:220)
This is the very dilemma by which the International Society for the Study of Medievalism was confronted in the 1970s, one that required the development of a carefully constructed map that pointed away from popular culture studies, that pointed away from fantasy/science fiction studies, and toward the above mentioned careful plotted path (now a road) of a kind of archeological exploration of objects yet to be properly identified and understood: to disengage from those "claims of periodization that underwrite the possibilities for humor and fantasy in the first place" in order to see the object in and of itself, apart from time and space, as it is still deeply intertwined within time and space.

For another (more detailed) example, in their introduction to the most recently published issue of Postmedieval (Volume 3, Issue 1, 2012: Becoming Media), Co-Editors Jen Boyle and Martin Foys explain:

One of the things we admire about these essays is the sheer range of media they perceive: the tangible and reproducible media Arne historicizes; the epistemological and phenomenological dialectics between media forms Whitney and Julia formulate; the virtual ephemerality of performative and material media Seeta and Eddie discover; and finally, the complete collapse of media into divine immediation Eugene proposes. At many points in these essays, one kind of media becomes others. As they become, the media and what they communicate run along a continuum of informational material and material abnegation. (5)
This issue examines the "oscillating, in-between space -- a space fraught with cross pressures of how we used to do things and how we ought to do things" (1). These pressures affect anything from multimedia/multi-modal communication to the copyright entanglements that prevent such glorious, and potentially vastly (in both direction and breadth) branched Ents from developing beyond initial germination/gestation: from dance, to water writing, to mass reproduction, to cooking while judging, modernizing mysticism and practices of mediation, to re-creation/re-examination of the essay. The last contribution in the issue--an examination of the transition from the study of the 'book of nature' of medieval times to a study of a book made from nature-- seems to set much of the tone for the entire issue: recognizing more traditional definitions of "essay" from "the French verb essayer, meaning to try, to attempt and to experiment," Whitney Anne Trettien moves us to recognize that "it also essays an awareness of its own mediation, inventing readers to share in the exegetical fever of archival discovery that inspired it" (97). Seeta Chaganti examines the late-medieval danse macabre as "a multimedia phenomenon," of virtual space and how that phenomenon might have affected conception and perceptions of John Lydgate's Dance of Death. Julia Reinhard Lupton seems to make a similar examination of the mystical in her comparison of Hanna Woolley's seventeenth-century cookbook with the writings of Hannah Arendt to examine scenes of judgement. In another article, E. J. Christie examines contemporary technological innovations in "water writing" in light of the manifestation of fluidity as metaphor in literature ranging from Ancient times to today, particularly as medieval Biblical vestigia. As he suggests in his conclusion, "The prevalence of the ‘writ in water’ metaphor in contemporary discourses about information, and especially transient information, raises interesting questions about the nature and perception of media in the history of this metaphor" (42). Arne R. Flaten invokes the materialist theory set forth in Walter Benjamin's well-read essay "The Work of Art in the Age of mechanical Reproduction" (1936) to examine the transition from medieval methods of copying into to more contemporary modes of mass production, such as via Gutenberg's printing press, while still maintaining aesthetic power. "New types of media in art are catalysts, results, reflections and conspirators," he writes, and such media (he continues), "emerge as necessary solutions to persistent problems and as reactions to economic exigencies; they respond to scientific developments or discoveries, and reflect social shifts; they appropriate new technologies from disparate disciplines, and repurpose modes of creative expression" (57). Eugene Thacker's essay takes yet another twist upon mediation/media to further examine mysticism through various methods of mediation, particularly in light of Meister Eckhard and John Ruusbroec, arguing (among other points), that they offer contemporary thinkers "a way of reconsidering a problem that is at once mystical and metaphysical--the problem of the anthropocentrism of thought" (94). Like Trettien's contribution, Thacker's essay helps to set the tone of the entire issue: each is a medium between mediation and mysticism. The issue concludes with a comprehensive review of several books; however, what strikes me as most inspiring is the co-editors concluding wish of what this issue could have been, and should have been permitted to become: "This volume archives the media of these becoming and unbecoming essays, and then it archives itself as another artifact of that remediation. A collection in print that should become other media, but has not, does not, really, . . . yet" (5).

While Studies in Medievalism continues in publishing upon a well-paved road of annual hard-bound publication that explores genre, media, theory, and history of medievalism(s), Postmedieval seems to be responding with a newly formed, widening and spring-like dirt path that pushes the boundaries of theories about the historicity, identity, definition, media and genre of medievalism(s). Both Postmedieval and Studies in Medievalism ring loudly of the several decades of research and thought put forth by scholars who have contributed to either one or both publications. Both declare, through their collective rhetoric, a developed sophistication and established scholarship. (Moreover, a glance at the Editorial Boards of both Postmedieval and Studies in Medievalism, as well as the names of contributors and editors, points to a deeper family tie between the two organizations and their periodical works.) How ironic, then, that the once seemingly radical Studies in Medievalism--which has done a great deal to help forge the way for the flowing fluidic studies of postmedievalisms--is now the more conservative, strongly structured establishment of medievalism studies. Older generation of medievalism scholars: meet the new generation, maybe even your new best friends, and be proud.

Carol L. Robinson, Kent State University at Trumbull