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

July 11, 2013

Ashton and Kline, eds: Medieval Afterlives in Popular Culture

Gail Ashton and Daniel T. Kline, eds. Medieval Afterlives in Popular Culture. New York: Palgrave MacMillan, 2012.

Reviewed by: Lisa M. Horton (

One of the great challenges in our continuing study of medievalism is the vexed question of definitions. Such an intensely dynamic field resists such limitation; between the variability of language and the continual evolution of the discipline, a mere definition cannot adequately encapsulate such a wonderfully disparate whole. A wide range of attempts at definition appears on this very site and speaks to our tendency to solve the conundrum by redefining “medievalism” with every new study.

In Gail Ashton and Daniel T. Kline’s edited collection of essays, Medieval Afterlives in Popular Culture, the editors set themselves an even more daunting task. Beyond contextualizing the volume within definitions of medievalism, they also must deal with another leviathan of reception theory: popular culture studies. Attempting to summarize or even effectively to tether such a large collection to any through-line of theme is ambitious, but the editorial introduction rises to this challenge with notable, if mixed, success. Nevertheless, even the first stages of the introduction indicate an apparent cognitive disconnect among these extremely varied essays, as the editors begin with a prĂ©cis of news headlines from March 20, 2013. The connection between the text of the book and its title remains nebulous until the editors point out, “if the world we’ve just described seems neither comforting nor even, perhaps, familiar, then we could always turn and look to the past. And so we do.”[1]

Embracing what is possibly the broadest available demarcations (postmedieval reception of the medieval) while resisting the siren song of periodicity, Ashton and Kline are interested in how contemporary culture requisitions and deploys artifacts of character, story, plot, and theme not always or necessarily from bona fide medieval histories and literatures but from such artifacts that contemporary culture perceives to be medieval. They explain, “if we had to choose a keyword for our dreams and theories of medievalisms, it would be ‘provisional.’ And the plural we cite throughout this piece intersects those notions precisely because [emphasis theirs] it inhabits all these interstices at once even as it stakes a claim for its own ground, its own difficult processes.”[2] Not that this is straightforward thematic plurality, if that is not inherently paradoxical; the volume also embraces the plurality of vision that such a diverse collection invites. They continue, “we are, perhaps, increasingly uneasy with our constructions of the medieval, and with good reason. So much depends upon context and so much, too, on perspective.”[3] Indeed, the various medieval simulacra examined in this volume are neither strenuously academic in origin nor are they entirely “popular.” There may be occasional overtly academic impulses in the productions of Monty Python (examined in Kline’s essay) and in the young adult fiction of Kevin Crosley-Holland (explored by Philippa Semper’s essay), possibly even in the work of H. P. Lovecraft (Brantley L. Bryant’s essay), but hardly in 1960s French period TV drama (Richard Utz’s essay) or the Shrek movies (Kathleen Coyne Kelly’s essay). Kline's "Acephalic History: A Bataillian Reading of Monty Python and the Holy Grail" discusses the central significance of the decapitated establishment academic in Jones's and Gilliam's twisted filmic vision of the medieval. Semper explores the difficulty of chronological setting in contemporary retellings of Arthurian legend and how Crosley-Holland has employed layered characterizations in an attempt to solve this conundrum. Bryant examines the 1923 short story "The Rats in the Walls" revealing that  H. P. Lovecraft engages to include a short medieval history as a mediation between the ancient and the contemporary. Utz, in "Robin Hood, Frenched," explains how the French television program Thierry la Fronde (1963-1966) achieved enthusiastic popularity through the translation and reinterpretation of the popular 1950s British television retelling of The Adventures of Robin Hood. Kelly maintains, in her essay "The Medieval Entertainment Channel: The Shrek Quartet," that the blurring of boundaries and the explorations of interrelationships in these Dreamworks animated films results from a "queering of time"--the conflation of the medieval with all other recognizable periods--in this supremely self-aware series. Simultaneously, classifying under contemporary popular culture the reading journals of Virginia Woolf (Steve Ellis’s essay), the 1969 medievalist play cycle of Dario Fo (Louis D’Arcens’s essay), and the film Frozen River (Robert S. Sturges’s essay), seems a significant stretch. Ellis explores Virginia Woolf's preoccupation, during the final period of her life, with the work of Dante. D'Arcens argues that as Fo recreates and reinterprets the popular culture of the middle ages in his Mistero Buffo, he appropriates it as a radical, leftist, modernist, and, most importantly, accessible vision. Sturges draws a comparison between the 2008 independently-produced picture Frozen River and the Towneley Second Shepherd's Play, pointing out striking similarities despite the absence of any indicators of intentional emulation. The commonality among these representations of medievalisms is difference; by incorporating such varied constructions, again, the collection emphasizes the strength of a diffuse identity.

Beyond plurality of theme and perspective, the editors profess additional pedagogical motivations: to explore how contemporary perceptions and receptions can fuel student interest, accessibility, and engagement both with medievalism and with the medieval. Ashton and Kline remark, “almost all [of the texts produced by and within medievalisms] have a strong online presence while a number of them parody and play against other texts and ideologies, both contemporary and versions of the medieval. As a result, many of these medieval or neo-medieval afterlives enjoy cult status.  So, too, they are hugely popular in terms of student uptake; indeed, some of our students more immediately recognize the contemporary afterlife than the medieval ‘original’.”[4] Indicative of this pedagogical potential of this approach, the essay by Candace Barrington examines how contemporary students cope with and interpret, or attempt to elide, the overt anti-Semitism of Chaucer’s Prioress in instructor-assigned YouTube reenactments of The Prioress’ Tale posted between October 2006 and October 2011. Though none of the other essays in the collection directly address student work, there remains a potential attraction for students in an examination of medievalism in contemporary media through such vehicles as Torchwood (Ashton’s essay), Disney (Andrew Lynch’s essay), reality TV (Angela Jane Weisl’s essay), and Shrek (Kelly’s essay). Ashton undertakes to identify the BBC Doctor Who spin-off Torchwood as a contemporary vehicle for quest-style medieval romance. Lynch describes the complex origins of Disney's animated Robin Hood (1973) and attempts somewhat to redeem what is considered a critical failure in the studio's history by illuminating profound complexities in the film's thematic subtext. Weisl examines the performative nature of weeping in reality television and draws fascinating parallels to medieval social performance in hagiographic texts, Dante's Purgatorio, and The Book of Margery Kempe.

As with any essay collection, some entries seem more clearly aligned than others with the overall message of the whole despite the stated breadth of that message. As the editors aver, “we look to illuminate both medieval and contemporary popular culture in surprising and productive ways, to interrogate the various directions through which medievalisms [sic] reinterprets and reconceptualizes the medieval and is compelled to reconstitute a past that is at once familiar and profoundly different.”[5] Certainly, many of the contemporary outlets for the reception of the medieval as enumerated here are rather startling, and their interruption or mediation between contemporary and medieval perceptions create productively unpredictable refractions. Ashton and Kline advise, “we may well need to reconstruct our critical vocabulary and the academic apparatus we employ to discuss theories, forms, techniques, and effects.”[6] Just as medievalism itself keeps evolving, the texts and media that disseminate the medieval to contemporary culture are in a constant state of flux.

Overall, the collection of essays in this volume demonstrate the variety of texts, theories, perspectives, and media available for study as, in broadest terms, medievalism. One or two of these essays explicitly validate  the volume’s title in their work, such as “reading” a contemporary remix of a 1960s reinterpretation of a 1950s interpretation of medieval legend. Several represent the interdisciplinarity that is poised to provide revitalization into the future of the field. Others suggest new vistas of exploration and application beyond the more obviously medieval-influenced popular culture “texts.” Altogether, they provide a fascinating cross-section of culture wherein to examine the afterlives of the medieval.

Lisa M. Horton
University of Minnesota - Duluth

[1] Ashton and Kline, 4.
[2] Ibid., 5.
[3] Ibid.
[4] Ibid., 9.
[5] Ibid., 6.
[6] Ibid., 9.