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

December 16, 2014

D’Arcens and Lynch (eds): International Medievalism and Popular Culture

Louise D’ Arcens and Andrew Lynch (eds). International Medievalism and Popular Culture. New York: Cambria, 2014. 261pp.

Review by: Molly Brown (

In one of the essays in this volume, Helen Hickey and Stephanie Trigg comment that “nothing is easier to mock than medieval aspirations under the harsh light of colonial sunshine” (94). The opposition established in this wry comment on the appearance of the United Tinsmiths marching through the early twentieth-century streets of Melbourne dressed in full or partial suits of armour is reflected throughout this collection in which contemporary scholars associated with the global South focus their attention on a range of tropes and issues conventionally linked to a Northern past. The resulting polarization throws new light on both post-colonial and medieval concerns, allowing two once othered discourses to interact in unexpected and illuminating ways.

The editors acknowledge that achieving this exhilarating creative synergy was precisely their intention. In their introduction they refer to the significance of what Caroline Dinshaw has recently termed atemporal encounters in which “different time frames or temporal systems collid[e]” and argue that the recursive presence of the medieval within the modern not only blurs temporal distinctions, but actually “creates a cultural topography in which national boundaries are redrawn or erased, and familiar polarities and spatial coordinates no longer apply” (xii). In this way the volume becomes a celebration of the multitemporal potentialities inherent in a variety of perspectives on how medievalism may be seen to permeate and in some cases, articulate socio-political aspects of modernity and even postmodernity. 

The current proliferation of volumes of thematically-linked academic essays has been fuelled at least in part, by a postmodern predilection for heteroglossia, but all too often, a form that should facilitate unexpected insights and stimulating differences collapses instead into works in which the individual components talk past instead of to each other. Thanks to the editors’ clear sense and lucid articulation of the importance of the new topography they aim to explore, the essays in  International Medievalism and Popular Culture are given the freedom to range widely without any threat to the essential coherence of the collection as a whole.

International Medievalism and Popular Culture contains twelve essays on subjects ranging from medievalism and contemporary Middle Eastern politics to the presentation of dragons and teenage wizards in fantasies for younger readers. Such is the current rage for specialization that many readers are likely to turn only to those essays directly related to their own interests, but  those who do this will not fully appreciate the strength of the collection as a whole, since all of these essays are linked by a nuanced understanding of how concepts of the medieval commonly infuse and enter into dialogue with responses to the contemporary.

Appropriately enough, the opening essay by Clare Monagle addresses crucial issues of sovereignty and neomedievalism by revisiting the seminal work of an earlier Australian political theorist, Hedley Bull. Bull argued as early as 1977 that the once-dominant concept of the national state was in decline before later suggesting in The Anarchical Society (1995) that this decline would lead to what he called the New Medievalism, a secular version of the system of overlapping or segmented authority presented by him as characteristic of medieval Christendom. Monagle deftly acknowledges the significance of Bull’s work, while also revealing that it may be read as rooted in anxiety about all non-modern forms of political life, so that the “actions of socialist and third world states, the actions of terrorists, and the political formations of primitive societies prior to invasion and colonisation, as well as the political cultures of the Western Middle Ages themselves…are all yoked under the analogy of the medieval, flattened into a disturbing past and a futurological otherness” (12).In this way, Monagle is able to show that the concept of New Medievalism as applied by neoconservatives leads to a refusal to consider the “specificity of the other’s historicity” (13) allowing al Qaeda, for instance, to be presented as the medievalised enemy.

This tendency to use the medieval as a lens through which to examine and even counteract current East West conflicts is illuminatingly developed in Louise D’Arcens analysis of three films by Riddley Scott. D’Arcens, who is widely known for her work on medievalism in Australian and international contexts, argues persuasively that Scott uses his films to explore subjects too sensitive to address more directly, so that in a startling reversal, Robin Hood’s tactics of resistance against his Norman oppressors (Robin Hood, 2010) can be seen to echo the ground-level activities of al Qaeda and the central figure in Body of Lies (2008) “rather than seeking a better Aussie-style multicultural life for all, goes to ground, quite possibly to become a high-skill terrorist” (249). Intriguingly, American medievalist, John Ganim shows that it is not merely the western gaze that projects medieval memes onto contemporary conflicts but that great Islamic medieval figures such as Saladin, Ibn Khaldun and Ibn Battuta have become powerful symbols for those anxious to modernise the Islamic world from within. Each of these medieval figures has been used in various contexts and in various Arab states to evoke tradition, but the tradition concerned is one of “Golden Age cosmopolitanism, of geographic mobility before the borders of nation-states, and of often improvisational inventiveness” (71).

If medievalism can allow for multiple interpretations of the othered Orient, a second group of essays from International Medievalism and Popular Culture focuses on how the medieval may help, in Chantal Bourgault du Coudray’s words “to reinstate values that are essential to the reinvention of a subjective experience that challenges the gendered dynamics of Cartesian thought” (153). Du Coudray’s positive re-visioning of the story of Red Riding Hood refreshingly undermines standard readings of the story as one that restricts the feminine and promotes patriarchal authority. Laurie Ormond’s study of witch hunters in contemporary fantasy fiction makes an interesting companion piece to Du Coudray’s essay in that it draws on a similar body of theory, but uses it to infer that while fantasy fiction rarely elides sexual violence against women and therefore resists conventions that systematically downplay the trauma this causes, such works cannot be seen as legitimate forms of feminist protest because they also conform too readily to enduring cultural stereotypes grounded in “an essentialist understanding of female vulnerability that accompanies the figure of the monstrous and deviant rapist” (177). Nicholas Haydock, on the other hand, discusses Julia Kristeva’s   Murder in Byzantium in which a modern scholar is drawn into an enhanced understanding of the First Crusade by an interest in the writing of the Byzantine princess Anna Komnene. Stephen Knight observes in his engaging conclusion to the collection that the reverse pilgrimage described by Haydock  both “claims the Medieval for the Middle-East” and simultaneously uses “forms of abjection seen across time as reason at war with meaning, but also as access to the other”(249).

This idea of accessing otherness is crucial to any assessment of International Medievalism and Popular Culture since it demonstrates not only that the oriental and the woman can both be simultaneously othered and affirmed by competing medievalisms, but so also may the child, who  as modern theorists have noted, has much in common with both. Clare Bradford’s essay, “Here Be Dragons”, argues that dragon stories promote a ludic engagement with texts in that they offer images of delightful alterity, while in no way deluding young readers about the precise boundaries of the fictional and the real. Instead she suggests that by drawing attention to “the codes, conventions and cultural meanings that inform dragon narratives….[such stories] teach interpretive strategies, conducting a kind of training in reading the medieval” (221). In ‘The Battle for Reality’, on the other hand, Helen Dell makes a thought-provoking contribution to the interpretation of the animosity felt towards Harry Potter by the religious right. Rather than glibly dismissing this as an instance of either hysterical fanaticism or neoconservative distrust of the imagination, Dell carefully teases out the implications of a logocentric world view in which words are both frighteningly potent and dangerously vulnerable to change. This leads her to conclude suggestively that “J.K. Rowling with her free-wheeling, ‘unbaptized’ imagination and her blithe disregard for the potency of words together with her immense popularity, presents conservatives with the gravest of threats – the threat to reality” (33).

While a Southern sensibility infuses almost all the essays in this volume, it is particularly apparent in what might be seen as the three most overtly Australian essays in the book. The first of these is Karen Hall’s exploration of medieval influences and connections in the work of four contemporary Australian artists: Alexia Sinclair, G.W. Bot, Irene Barberis, and Laith Mc Gregor. The second is Helen Hickey and Stephanie Trigg’s nuanced study of the ways in which organised labour in late nineteenth and early twentieth century Melbourne consciously positioned itself in relation to medieval chivalry in ways that are both reminiscent of and different from the strategies used by  the international Knights of Labour. The third is Anne McKendry’s analysis of how Mel Gibson, Heath Ledger and Russell Crowe flavour the medieval-themed films, Braveheart (1995), A Knight’s Tale (2001) and Robin Hood (2010), with an Australian sense of mateship expressed in terms of a distinctively egalitarian sense of male bonding, which she argues also “functions as an unidentified – yet discernible factor in the appeal these characters have for broader international audiences” (198). Each of these articles is remarkable for foregrounding the fact that concepts of medievalism do not simply feed into contemporary life, but  in complex reflexive processes, are themselves altered and shaped by current conventions and modes of expression.

If one were of a mind to quibble, one might wish for more chapters like those described in the previous paragraph, analyses that are both unequivocally local and yet suggestive of broader global patterns. It would certainly have been intriguing to have had articles by scholars firmly located in other areas of the global South to sharpen awareness of what Australian and global medievalism have in common and also give a clearer indication of what differentiates them. I confess too that I found the grouping of illustrations at the end of chapters annoying as it required one to riffle continuously backward and forward, especially in chapters like that by Karen Hall where an appreciation of images was central to an understanding of her argument. In addition, I suspect that the casual reader might also have appreciated the listing of full titles in the table of contents so that it would not be necessary to turn to the first page of each essay in order to get a clear indication of its subject matter. Despite these minor qualms, however, International Medievalism and Popular Culture is an intelligently edited, original and suggestive collection that is sure to be of interest to anyone working in the fields of either postcolonial studies or contemporary medievalism. 

Molly Brown
University of Pretoria
South Africa