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

September 18, 2015

Matthews: Medievalism: A Critical History

David Matthews. Medievalism: A Critical History. D.S. Brewer: Cambridge, 2015.

Reviewed by Julia M. Smith (

In his well-researched book, Medievalism: A Critical History, David Matthews provides a foundational study for the multidisciplinary field of medievalism studies. As a foundational study, Matthews focuses on explaining the similarities and differences between medievalism and medieval studies.  Should the two forms of scholarship be severed into two separate disciplines or treated equally within one comprehensive discipline? Medievalism is defined as “the  ‘process of creating the Middle Ages’ and ‘the study not of the Middle Ages themselves but of the scholars, artists, and writers who…constructed the idea of the Middle Ages that we inherited’” (7), a definition provided by Leslie J. Workman. In contrast, medieval studies concerns just “the period’s literatures, languages, history, architecture, wars, religions and people, from peasants to popes” (1). As recent conference presentations and journals such as Studies in Medievalism can attest, the study of the medieval era is routinely juxtaposed with studies of the uptake of the Middle Ages after the era ended.  The teaching of medieval studies has likewise been affected. Rather than have students read chivalric texts alone, professors and scholars often provide students with an opportunity to see how these stories, themes, and ideals manifest in current remediated works based on Robin Hood, White Queen, and Game of Thrones (film, television shows, graphic novels and books).

While his work is not exhaustive (and it can’t be), Matthews chooses to explore the field at points where strong interest and movement in medievalism erupted rather than a linear progression through a history of the field. As Matthews puts it, he offers “a meta-commentary on the study of medievalism of a kind which up until now has been lacking” (ix). To discuss the multi-disciplinary nature of the medievalism, his book is arranged around specific cultural themes such as time, space, self, and scholarship. The book also focuses on several main historical eras—1600s acquisition of antiquities, 1840s rise of interest in the medieval during the Victorian era, WWI, and decline of medieval studies in late 20th century concurrent to a rise in interest in medievalism.  These classifications point to moments where medievalism gained traction in the public sphere--art, architecture, film, literature.  In other words, audiences less familiar with the material may be initially confused by the sheer number of ways medievalism can be arranged, but that is the point: “one major problem that confronts medievalism studies is the sheer diversity of material” (35).

For scholars uncertain of the parameters, which make up medievalism as a discipline, Matthews has advice.  He argues that thus far, medievalism as a discipline and its specific methods of inquiry have not been defined. Rather medievalism typically operates more as a study of a subject such as medievalist art or medievalist architecture.  Some effort has been made to describe medievalism as a discipline by Umberto Eco; however Eco’s classifications are not clearly defined and blur into one another.  In addition, Eco appears to be taking a tongue-in-cheek approach to the concept.  In response to the need to classify the possibilities and limitations of medievalism, Matthews treats the subject as a “discourse, which can appear to greater or lesser degrees in cultural works” (37).  He proposes that scholarship might view studies of the Middle Ages “as it was,” “as it might have been,” “as it never was,” and “a cultural production, essentially of its own time, looks back to the Middle Ages with greater or lesser explicitness”  (37-8). These categories help to show how the Middle Ages have been constructed, taken up and used throughout history and explains how medievalism and medieval studies might be regarded as a blend of scholarship rather than two fully distinct entities. 

Matthews further proposes two specific types or themes to clarify how the medieval gets viewed and taken up: the grotesque/gothic medieval and the romantic medieval. According to Matthews, the grotesque/gothic medieval emerged starting in the 16th century. In the 16th century, scholars divided historical eras into Antiquity, Middle Ages, and Modernity.  Since the Middle Ages came before the religious reformations, this middle ground in history was viewed as a dark, barbaric, and violent time.  The perception of the Middles Ages as dark and violent continues into modern usage; Matthews gives the example of a British court case in which the judge declared sadomasochistic sex as ‘medieval’ torture and thus the woman who resisted it was a victim in need of saving.  The second category, romantic medieval,  “is the Middle Ages of romance, of chivalric deeds, but also of simple communitarian living and humanly organized labour, a pastoral time when the cash nexus was unknown, a time of intense romantic love” (25). A romantic Middle Ages appeals especially to groups (especially during the Victorian era and the 60s and 70s) who are seeking answers to civic issues such as industrialization by looking back to the earlier social and political infrastructures of the Middle Ages.

The rest of the book treats medievalism as a method of cultural studies, which allows the work to break from the disciple/not a discipline question, since cultural studies is consider an anti-discipline (178). Each remaining chapter 2-5 takes on different aspects of cultural studies that has been affected by interest in the medieval: time, space, self, the canon. 

In particular, time poses some interesting issues.  In the 16th century, “the Middle Ages is not entirely a period, a chronological era with fixed boundaries, but rather something that might come back, something that continues to exist in some places though it has been eradicated in others” (46).  The ‘middleness’ of the era between antiquity and modernity increased the fear of the Middle Ages as dark, dangerous, and barbaric, as mentioned earlier. By the 1800s, the fear that the Middle Ages will come back had faded and instead, a nostalgia for era increased. This change can be signified by the change in terminology. The period was originally called gothic, but later in the Victorian age, the term the Latin term, “medium aevum.” The nostalgia can be seen especially in time travel narratives of the 1880s and 1890s, where characters either went back in time to the Middle Ages or went forward in time to find a new medieval-esque life.

 A study of medieval spaces demonstrates the extent to which the Middle Ages has been constructed throughout history.  As Matthews puts it, “What we actually visit, I suggest, when we go to medieval places, is the contemporary version of a historical site which we can only experience in its modernity” (68).  Essentially medieval spaces are not authentically medieval. Many have had to be reconstructed or renovated extensively due to destruction or wear, such as Notre Dame and Warsaw’s Old Town. Other spaces were never genuinely medieval to begin with, since they were built by modern or contemporary agents like Old Saint Mary’s Cathedral, Sydney.  Still other spaces must be rescued from being ‘medieval’ such as Katine, an improvised  village in Africa.

Matthews turns to questions of the medieval self. He studies historical re-enactments of the Middle Ages beginning in the 1800s. These re-enactments encourage a perception that medievalising the self can be potentially liberating. In contrast, medievalism has also been studied as sites of repressions: colonizing by the rich.  Ultimately medievalising the self demonstrates preferences of style and solutions for dilemmas faced in modern world. While re-enactors enjoy their activities, none of those interviewed by Matthews would want to actually travel back in time, since hygiene and health are much better now.

The last couple of chapters discuss the boundaries or limitations that might be imposed on medievalism: canon and history (118). Matthews states, “if medievalism really is an endemic theme or set of themes in European culture, then it can never be made concrete as a single discipline (as the study of romanticism can be)” (120).  According to Matthews historical and cultural accounting, medievalism has never really entered into the canon. While medievalist works have gained enormous popularity, they have not been seen as influential on canonical writers or regarded as high art themselves. The enduring legacy of medievalism is one of childhood to modernity as seen in works by Tolkien and Lewis rather than enduring works of art for adults.

Throughout this study, Matthews seeks to offer a starting place for those who wish to study and define medievalism. He does so by ultimately addressing the question of discipline and boundaries. Where does medievalism start? How do we know what we are doing is medievalism and not something else? To address these concerns, Matthews puts forth the idea that without medievalism, the study of the Middle Ages would not be possible. The two fields co-exist, since medievalism is the “process of creating the Middle Ages…all such study of the Middle Ages (by definition) has gone on after the Middle Ages” (172).  To make medievalism a coherent study, Matthews further advocates for medievalism to embrace cultural studies in order allay anxieties rather than to fight for a separate discipline; medievalism and medieval studies need to acknowledge their dual existence.

Julia M. Smith
Georgia Institute of Technology