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

October 5, 2015

Ashton, ed., Medieval Afterlives in Contemporary Culture

Gail Ashton, ed.  Medieval Afterlives in Contemporary Culture.  London: Bloomsbury, 2015.

Reviewed by Teresa Rupp (

The formulation of the Middle Ages as the medium aevum, “the time in the middle,” presupposes that its time is past and the era is dead.  The discipline of Medievalism Studies challenges this notion by taking modern uses of the Middle Ages as its (seemingly paradoxical) subject.  The title of this collection, Medieval Afterlives, takes this re-conceptualization one step further by stressing, as editor Gail Ashton puts it, “living medievalisms” (4; emphasis in original).   The idea is thought-provoking and the title is apt.  So apt, in fact, that Ashton already used it for an earlier essay collection, Medieval Afterlives in Popular Culture, co-edited with Daniel T. Kline and published by Palgrave MacMillan in its New Middle Ages series in 2012 (and reviewed by Medievally Speaking in 2013:  

The new Medieval Afterlives is a collection of 29 essays written by 33 contributors (a few were co-authored) divided into 5 sections.  Ashton informs us in her introduction that she took the section headings from the song titles on the album Avalon, by the British band Roxy Music (2).  So Part 1 is headed “True to Life: In the Performance,” and includes essays on present-day live performances, whether theatrical (the musical Spamalot, modern-day revivals of medieval religious drama, or the Royal Shakespeare Company’s adaptation of the Canterbury Tales), operatic (contemporary operas with medieval themes or plots), pedagogical (using medievalism in the classroom) or athletic (jousting at Medieval Times restaurants).  Part 2, titled, “To Turn You On: The Pleasures of Texts—Film, TV, Gaming,” would also seem to concern performances, but these are viewed through the medium of a screen—something that has to be “turned on.”  This section includes articles on medieval film, one specifically on film adaptations of Beowulf, on the BBC TV show Merlin and on the BBC adaptation of Canterbury Tales, on Tolkien’s afterlife both on film and in video games, and on medieval video games in general.  The song “More Than This” titles part 3, with the subtitle “Reimaginings and Reappropriations.” This section includes essays on new artistic creations with medieval inspiration, such as translations and retellings of Chaucer into various modern languages,  contemporary poetry, Young Adult novels set in the Middle Ages, and medievalist Australian literature.   Also included here are essays on the modern cult of Julian of Norwich and Margery Kempe and on Arthurian tourism.  Iconic medieval figures and texts are the subject of part 4, “Avalon: Icons and Artefacts.”  Here we find essays on Arthurian Young Adult novels, on New Age and Neopagan religions, and on the afterlives of the medieval Templar, of Malory, and of Robin Hood.  Apparently Harry Potter has become an icon like Arthur or Robin Hood also, because this section also includes an essay on medievalism and Harry Potter.  The final section, “The Space Between:  New Media and Fandom,” explores medievalist involvement in digital media, such as the world of Harry Potter fandom, digitized manuscripts, and the creation of medieval memes; this is also the place for essays on Dantean and Arthurian comics.

One could certainly quibble with some of these organizational choices.  For example, why are the comics essays in part 5? Comics are not “new media”; they’re over a century old. Why weren’t these placed in part 3, with the other “Reimaginings and Reappropriations,” or, since the comics discussed are based on Dante and the Arthurian tradition, why not in part 4, with the other “Icons and Artefacts”?  Couldn’t Julian of Norwich and Margery Kempe be better considered “Icons and Artefacts” rather  than “reimaginings and reappropriations”?  Isn’t traveling to Tintagel in search of Arthurian legends a form of performance?  Ashton admits that “the section headings are neither defining nor circumscribing” (5), which may be making a virtue out of necessity (or, to use a more contemporary image, making a bug into a feature).  But organizing a diverse collection such as this is notoriously difficult, and for the most part the categories work.

I wish to do more than quibble, however, with the documentation in the essays.  Ashton explains that she directed the contributors to write “in a clear lively style as free of academic apparatus as they could make it” (5).  I applaud the requirement of “clear lively style”; I cannot fathom why academic prose traditionally prefers the reverse (unclear and deadly).  I approve of writing with a distinctive authorial voice that reveals the writer’s personality.  But if by “free of academic apparatus” Ashton meant “lacking clear, complete, consistent documentation,” then we part ways.  Ashton continues, “mindful of the need to streamline a large and potentially unwieldy volume, we offer a Select Bibliography rather than the traditional catch-all to be read in conjunction with chapter endnotes and Keynote Works (see accompanying website)” (5).  This says to me that any sources used in an individual article should be cited in that article’s endnotes; the “Select Bibliography” presumably includes only significant works, perhaps those cited in multiple articles that might be seen as essential to the field.  It’s unclear to me what the difference between a “Select Bibliography” and “Keynote Works” might be.

Missing from Ashton’s description of the approach to documentation taken in this volume is any mention of parenthetical citations.  Yet several of the articles employ them along with the endnotes.  When I see a parenthetical citation, I expect it to refer to a list of Works Cited or a Reference List.  In this collection, the Select Bibliography would appear to fulfill this function—except that it doesn’t, at least not consistently.  The essays that use parenthetical citation take a variety of approaches.  Several essays use endnotes for the first reference to a source, then parenthetical citations for subsequent references, a practice mandated by no citation system that I am aware of.  Others employ other strategies. For example, some, but not all, of the works referred to parenthetically in Rogerson’s essay on the afterlives of medieval religious drama in England are listed in the Select Bibliography. It turns out that most of them are listed in a separate list of works for “Further Reading” found after the endnotes to this essay—but one, a reference to Davis 1970 (41), is in neither location.  Barrington and Hsy’s essay on “Global Chaucers” includes no endnotes; the reader is referred to the authors’ own website,  There are some parenthetical citations that do refer to works in the Select Bibliography; this, however, is divided into Primary and Secondary Sources, so the reader must first determine to which category the cited work belongs (not always easy in a work like this).  The cumulative effect of these varied approaches is confusion.  When I encounter a parenthetical reference, where should I look for its full citation—should I scan up the endnotes until I find the first reference?  Is there a list of works at the end of the essay?  Should I look in the Bibliography at the back of the book?  Perhaps it’s a “Keynote Work” and I can find it on the web, or maybe the author has her own website.  A reader might well give up long before exhausting all these possibilities.

A reader seeking to trace sources used in two of these essays would become even more frustrated. Louise D’Arcens’ “Australian Medievalism” reverses the order some of her colleagues use; she gives a parenthetical reference to a book by Brian Andrew first (178); only two pages later does she have an endnote with the full reference to Andrew’s book (180).  D’Arcens discusses two Australian novels in consecutive paragraphs (179-80).  The first one, An Australian Girl by Catherine Martin, is found in the Select Bibliography; the second, Romance of a Station by Rosa Praed, is not—but she gets an endnote.  Furthermore, D’Arcens’ endnotes are arranged last name first, which is contrary both to all style guides and to common sense—the only reason to put the last name first is when a list is alphabetical (as in a Bibliography), which footnotes and endnotes are not.  (She’s not alone in this practice—seven others in this collection also do it.)  D’Arcens uses a few websites, which she parenthetically references using this nonsensical phrase:  “(website:  see reading)” (examples on 177, 178, 179).

The worst offender, however, is Renee Ward’s essay “Harry Potter and Medievalism” (263-74).  I read this article with great anticipation, since I teach a course called “Harry Potter and the Middle Ages” and was interested not only in what she had to say but also in her sources, which might be useful for my class.  So I was extra disappointed to discover that Ward parenthetically cites works with no full reference anywhere—not in the endnotes, not in a reference list at the end of the article, not in the Select Bibliography, not on a website.  Her references to Rowling’s works, however, are a hybrid—a parenthetical reference with an endnote attached to it, like this:  (Rowling 1997, p. 77).2  I would not let one of my students get away with this kind of carelessness.

These criticisms may seen nitpicky, but proper documentation is a sine qua non of careful scholarship—no matter how “clear and lively” the style.  It is part of an editor’s job to be nitpicky; this editor needed to edit with a heavier hand.  From a book that costs 100 euros, I expect better.

I also expected better of the book’s accompanying website.  Ashton claims that “the print volume and accompanying integral website are conceived together, as part of a consciously more associative, less authoritative, dialogue” (5; emphasis in original).  It might be associative and less authoritative, but it’s not very well done.  The URL provided in the introduction,, takes you to the publisher’s page to purchase the book.  On that page, under the heading “Online Resources,” are six links: “Introduction and Medievalist Poem”; “Medieval Mystery Plays”; “Favourite Medievalisms”; “Blogs, Interviews, Reviews”; “Keynote Works, Libraries and Manuscripts”; and “Medieval Heritage and Pilgrimage Walks.”   All turn out to be PDFs—essentially, text files (well, all except “Medieval Mystery Plays,” which yielded a “not found” error).  None of the PDFs has menus at the top or any internal links, so the user has no idea of what’s contained in the file without laboriously paging down.  And I do mean “laboriously”—these files range from 20 pages to 58 pages long.  Moreover, web references found in the PDFs are not formatted as links, so what’s the point of putting this material on the web?  Although there is some interesting and valuable material buried in these files, it is poorly formatted and poorly organized.  The companion website is, to say the least, a missed opportunity.

Despite the weaknesses of the documentation and the website, I found the essays themselves to be stimulating and informative.  The strength of Medieval Afterlives is its variety and breadth.  The contributors find medieval afterlives in traditional media, like literature, theatre, and film, as well as new media, such as comic books and video games.  Literary examples include Young Adult fiction (Angela Jane Weisl, “Coming of Age in the Middle Ages:  The Quest for Identify in Medieval Novels for Young Adults,” 167-76; Ann F. Howey, “Medievalism and Heriodism in Arthurian Literature for Young People,” 213-222).  Performance is broadly defined to encompass not only plays and operas but also classroom teaching and jousting.  European and American medievalisms are well represented, but geographical diversity is provided by essays on medievalism in Australia (by Louise D’Arcens, 177-86) and on translations of Chaucer into Danish, Afrikaans, Turkish, Brazilian Portuguese and Mandarin Chinese (Candace Barrington and Jonathan Hsy, “Global Chaucers,” 147-156). Other essays demonstrate that medievalism can be found in unexpected spaces, such as tourism (Fiona Tolhurst, “Julian of Norwich and Margery Kempe as Contemporary Cult Figures,” 187-99; Laurie A. Finke and Susan Aronstein, “Conjuring the Ghosts of Camelot:  Tintagel and the Medievalism of Heritage Tourism,” 200-210) and religion (Karolyn Kinane, “New Age and Neopagan Medievalisms,” 223-33).

The essays also take a variety of approaches to these various media and genres.  Some are descriptive, such as Lesley Coote’s “Survey of Twenty-First Century ‘Medieval’ Film” (103-113).  Others are explanatory, such as Daniel T. Kline’s “Contemporary Neo-Medieval Digital Gaming:  An Overview of Genre” (93-102).  I now know the differences between Role-Playing games (RPG), Real-Time Strategy (RTS) and Turn-Based Strategy  (TBS) games, Action-Adventure games, and Simulation games (sims),  and how medieval games fit into the categories.  Similarly, Amanda K. Allen’s “Social Networking, Participatory Culture and the Fandom World of Harry Potter” (277-290) serves as an introduction to the types of texts created by fans, including fanfiction, Wizard Wrock (fan-created music), fanvids (fan-created music), fan-created images and GIFs, and role-playing, both LARP (live-action role-playing) and internet-based.  A Star Trek fan in my youth, I was aware of the existence of fan fiction, but my vocabulary has now been enriched by the terms “fanon” (fans’ additions to the authorial canon), “ship” (short for relationship), OTP (one true pairing), AU (alternate universe), and OOC (out of character).  Still other essays are interpretive. Rogerson, for example, argues in “Medieval Religious Plays in England” (32-47) that present-day performances of the York and Chester mystery plays can answer questions about their original performance.  In “Medieval Times: Tournaments and Jousting in Twenty-First-Century North America” (67-77), Elizabeth Emery argues that these practices “reveal a particularly North American fascination with the Middle Ages, marked by anxieties about class, gender and economics” (68).

Anyone who loves studying and teaching the Middle Ages and medievalism will find something of value in this collection.  I expect that even readers considerably more in tune with contemporary popular culture than I will be exposed to new varieties of medievalism.  Maybe someone knows a lot about movies but is unfamiliar with video games; someone else might be a serious Harry Potter fan but never picked up a graphic novel.  Although only one essay is explicitly pedagogical—Meriem Pagès’ “You Can’t Do This to Disney!  Popular Medievalisms in the Classroom” (58-66), anyone who uses medievalism in their classes will find a wealth of potential material in this collection.   Whenever I came across something useful for my own teaching or research, or just a striking sentence, I marked the page with a post-it flag; by the time I’d finished, the top edge of my book was bristling with flags.

Ashton celebrates the “open access” to knowledge of the “democratic electronic dialogues that proliferate all over the web” (4).  This attitude informs the approach taken by the scope of this volume and by its willingness to challenge some of the stuffier customs of  academic culture.  I am very sympathetic to this attitude.  I think scholarship should be inclusive, not exclusionary; welcoming, not offputting.  But that does not preclude providing careful, proper documentation or producing a well-designed and well-executed website.  Ashton notes that the hallmarks of the virtual world are “collaboration, interdisciplinary, popular” (4).  Medieval Afterlives achieves two out of three—but then why do the educational backgrounds of the contributors show such disciplinary homogeneity?  Perusal of the contributor biographies (333-38), supplemented with a little google searching, reveals that of the 33 authors in the collection, 30 either work in or were trained the field of literature.  Ashton hints at a volume two (7); perhaps next time she could invite a historian or two to participate.  She ends her introduction by hoping the reader has an “open heart and creative mind” (7), which I think is a good recipe for any student, teacher, or scholar.

Teresa Rupp
Mount St. Mary’s University