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

May 31, 2016

Polack: Langue[dot]doc 1305

Gillian Polack, Langue [dot] doc 1305. Satalyte Publishing, 2014.

Reviewed by: Alexandra Garner (

If there’s one thing Gillian Polack’s recent novel Langue [dot] doc 1305 doesn’t do, it’s romanticize the Middle Ages. There are no lofty knights or princesses in this book, no un-reproachable characters, no perfectly constructed allegorical narratives.

Rather, Polack depicts with startling authenticity exactly how unromantic the oft-imagined but rarely realized medieval period is and, with parallel bleakness, comment on the state of academia and the appreciation for scholasticism and the humanities in modern society. These two aspects of her novel are skillfully represented through the theme of the novel, the synchronous journey.

Polack’s protagonist, Dr. Artemisia Wormwood, is immediately sympathetic both as a struggling academic—a medieval hagiographer specializing in something no other character seems to care about or even understand (sound familiar?)—and as a caring sister to Lucia, who is dying of cancer from lack of funding for treatment.

Artemisia accepts a last-minute offer to accompany a team back to St-Guilhem-le-désert in 1035 on a time-travelling scientific exhibition, which she accepts in hopes she can save her sister’s life, and also because, as is enduringly the case in academia, there are no jobs for her. Once in Languedoc in 1305, though, life challenges Artemisia in different ways. Polack strategically engages separately with the townspeople and Artemisia’s group until the two narratives collide, and the medieval landscape that serves as the setting for these challenges is enthralling, inscrutable, and ephemeral.

Langue [dot] doc 1305 truly defamiliarizes the reader to the Middle Ages. One might from the opening chapters expect Artemisia to become a literary Indiana Jones for the medieval period, but this pipedream—“I need a medievalist. Right away” (19)—is nothing but that, as antagonistic characters expertly knock Artemisia’s skillset, discipline, and even character down several pegs. She is the sole historian on this fantastic voyage to medieval Languedoc, and Artemisia knows just enough to be marginally more helpful than, say, the meteorologist on the expedition. Despite this, her insights, language skills, and advice are consistently demeaned and ignored, an almost inconceivably ignorant move by the rest of the TimeBot team.

The other scholars and characters are intriguing but more so infuriating. Of note are antagonists Dr. Sylvia Smith, who appears to be in some sort of unspoken competition for dominance against both herself and Artemisia, and Dr. Luke Mann, the megalomaniacal head of the exhibition, a hyperbolically arrogant and narcissistic leader. Artemisia has several romantic interests on the team, though these are by no means central to the plot.

Throughout the narrative, despite being the team’s only viable expert on the Middle Ages, her warnings about not interfering with the people, cultures, and environment around them are systematically ignored. The other scholars respond to her briefings about critical people, events, and trends that affect them in this time with derision and indifference. Rather than respect the period and its people, the scientists one by one make their mark on the townspeople, creating tensions and fears that drive the medieval people to question the motives of their visitors.

The weight of the novel is balanced among Artemisia’s efforts to educate her team and regulate their impact on the surrounding areas and on historical record, offset by the goings on of the town St-Guilhem-le-désert and its inhabitants, especially Artemisia’s synchronous pilgrim compatriot, Guilhem, as he attempts to dissuade the townspeople that these newcomers living in the caves nearby are no threat despite them stealing priceless artifacts, dyeing the water different colors, not wearing properly respectful clothing, interacting improperly with people, and doing all manner of other things that disturb the quotidian lives of the people of St-Guilhem-le-désert. As this tension grows, Artemisia and Guilhem occasionally meet to discuss the differences between their people and learn from each other, preventing any major disputes from erupting between the inharmonious groups.

The pace of the novel is relaxed and meandering, while its tone is serious more often than lighthearted. The scientific efforts of the rest of the team are perpetually vague and ancillary, and their work fades into insignificance compared to Artemisia’s own discursive briefings on the culture and history of the area. Except for the notion that Artemisia and Guilhem are walking the same path at different points in time, there seems to be no obvious course to the story, allowing for a type of sandbox adventure to unfold. Insights into the team are interspersed with vignettes of people from St-Guilhem-le-désert, some of which seem haphazard and distinct from the main narrative. It is a fractured, incomplete depiction of this town and its people, and adds verisimilitude to the novel’s endeavor to present a “real” Middle Ages, though of course is still essentially an imagined one.

The novel keeps the reader guessing, often from repeated use of unfamiliar concepts and languages, but also because up until the last few chapters of the novel, it is unclear how the story will end—beyond them eventually (hopefully!) returning home. When the book’s climactic event does occur, the reader is left with a sense of exactly how alike and dissimilar 14th century Languedoc is to the industrialized 21st century, and the repercussions authentically engender sympathy from the reader.

Langue [dot] doc 1305 is a challenging novel in that it engages with the reader in many ways, attempting to deconstruct modern perceptions of medieval life, start a discourse about the place of scholasticism and the humanities in a modern economy, problematize the role of history in the making of the present and vice versa, and establish a sense of universality to certain great questions and experiences.

Not being something I might have otherwise come across, I feel greatly appreciative of the opportunity to read and review this novel. Reading it was challenging, enlightening, and overwhelmingly positive. I would recommend this book to fans of time-travel narratives, medievalists, amateur historians, and civilians alike. The experience of being transported, like Artemisia, back to an unfamiliar, sometimes-hostile Middle Ages is a thrilling and complicated one, to be sure.

Alexandra Garner

Bowling Green State University