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

January 13, 2018

Emery and Utz, eds: Medievalism

Elizabeth Emery and Richard Utz, eds. Medievalism: Key Critical Terms.  Suffolk: D.S. Brewer, 2017.

Reviewed by Micheal Crafton (

Medievalism as a scholarly pursuit is, amazingly, still somewhat controversial, however much less than, say, two decades ago and decreasingly so every year.  Yet the topic can still precipitate in some boisterous arguments with “real medievalists,” concerning the belief that it is faddish, or amateurish, or under-theorized or even over-theorized.  I say this in spite of the wonderful work and legacy of Leslie Workman and Kathleen Verduin and in spite of the amazing industry of Richard Utz, especially in his editorial production and network development.  Some people may never be convinced, but this slim (and now less expensive in paperback) volume with its thirty-two separate essays, providing a wide variety of approaches to the subject, should go a long way to bridging the gap between the ongoing debate over what counts as true medieval studies or what methods are acceptable.

This book has three very useful pieces of apparatus, as we used to say in the textbook trade.  There is a very full index that captures terms not listed elsewhere.  Also, at the end of every one of the thirty-two essays on a key critical term is a list of other key critical terms that the author considers useful and relevant, and finally there is an extraordinarily useful introductory essay that groups key critical terms together for diving deeper into cross themes, such as the divide between what is considered professional and what is considered amateur.  This opening essay is worth pausing over because Professors Emery and Utz have taken pains to briefly retell the history of medievalism from the pioneering work of Workman and Verduin to the development of Studies in Medievalism and This Year’s Work in Medievalism.  (In fact, the volume is dedicated to Kathleen Verduin.)  The rest of the introduction is occupied with threading the various key critical terms into a variety of critical theory or methodology debates.

As the authors demonstrate, however, the negotiations of history and epistemology that occur bringing together the extreme ends of the debates affords some of the best nuanced theorizing in the totality of studies on medieval subjects.  The very issue of who is authorized to speak is taken up in a series of terms: “Authenticity,” “Co-Disciplinarity,” and “Reenactment.”  But it is also taken up in such terms as “Continuity,” “Lingua,” “Simulacrum,” and even, strangely, “Purity.”  What many readers will appreciate is how the authors detail the manner in which medieval studies re-authorizes itself by casting off portions of its former self.  One example that is quite illustrative is quoted by David Matthews’s “Chaucer’s American Accent,” wherein Matthews holds up D.W. Robertson, Jr.’s A Preface to Chaucer as what was once a major pillar of medieval studies but that is now pointed out as an example of where medieval studies “went wrong” (7).  To say this method is an example of where it “went wrong” is to say that the degree of deference shown to this overly narrow reading of all medieval literature and art as a species of patristic exegesis paradigm could not be sustained and wasn’t, but the change was Copernican revolution. There was just about no greater authority than Robertson and the Princeton school, but now rarely anyone would employ this method.  So this notion of a pure form of medieval studies that could look down upon medievalism was always already a myth.

There are many gems in this slim introductory essay, but its main function is to launch readers into the essays that provide an interesting opening to medievalism by exploration of one term.  The essays, each one about eight pages long, present varying approaches to the subjects in terms of theory and method, and they are all useful and provocative.  In fact, the diversity of approach and coverage is itself instructive of the work of medievalism.  Additionally, reading the volume as a set of essays rather than as a glossary, I could see a few central themes emerging.  I would say that nearly all of them touch on one or more of these three themes: legitimacy, temporality, and methodology.  Sometimes an essay will focus a great deal on one, and sometimes the themes are marbled.

Pam Clements takes the subject of medievalism’s legitimacy on clearly, directly and forcefully in her essay “Authenticity.”  After reiterating some of the delegitimizing strategies of medieval studies, which in her economical phrasing define medievalism as “the study of necessarily inauthentic ‘medieval’ matter” (20), she begins with a systematic disclosure of the increasingly problematic nature of periodicity.  The romance of the original or the authentic has been and will remain a powerful motivator for both professional studies (with its reverence for scientific proofs of authorship or age or provenance) and amateur studies (folklore groups, for example, obsessed with the original words and forms of songs and tales).  But ultimately it must be accepted that the authentic Middle Ages is a fiction.  Once this fact is recognized, she points out, the appeal to authenticity is made along different lines, ones that must take into account not only the impossibility of some absolute authenticity but also must explore “registers” or areas of authenticity or integrity.  Tennyson’s Idylls of the King is clearly not an “authentic” medieval work in the sense of being created in the period and therefore not the subject of “authentic” medieval studies.  However, due to the evolving deconstruction of exactly what constitutes the so-called authentic Middle Ages and due to developments in cultural and critical theory, it is no longer remarkable to read medieval subjects representing 19th-century British anxiety about a collapsing empire, as in Idylls, as an authentic approach to the study of a medieval subject.  Tennyson’s reflection on the medieval subject can inform our reflection upon that same subject, thereby opening up more of what may have been the medieval world’s own reflection upon the cultural subject.

The arguments in Professor Clements essay are buttressed by many others in the volume.  Certainly Gwendolyn Morgan’s essay on “Authority” and Jonathan Hsy’s on “Co-Disciplinarity,” provide wonderful and self-reflexive approaches to legitimacy and methodology, as does “Reenactment” by Michael Cramer.  Cramer addresses the reflexivity in a dramatic and perhaps personal way by ventriloquizing the criticism of reenactors, calling them “weird” and “nerds” and “dorks” (207).  Lauryn S. Mayer’s essay on “Simulacrum” is also very effective in making the legitimacy case especially in something of a post-modern sense after the manner of Baudrillard.  One of my personal favorites entries is “Genealogy” by Zrinka Stahuljak.  The topic of genealogy is a rich one from the outset, to be sure, and this essay starts off by revisiting Foucault’s famous essay “Nietzsche, Genealogy, History” and its myriad disruptions of what had been the scholarly assumptions of the meaning of this term.  In a brief and impressive display of Foucauldian epistemological disruption, the essay narrows in on George Duby’s 1953 classic La société aux XIe et XIIe siècles dans la région mâconnaise.  Stahuljak reads Duby’s work with respect and care in order to demonstrate that he was Foucauldian ahead of his time in demonstrating a decoupling of genealogy with biology.  This essay does what many in this vein do: they help the reader understand the term in question and then demonstrate that the approach in medievalism not only troubles a naïve understanding of historicity but also shows the utility of medievalism as a methodological tool.  Medieval studies is really not complete without medievalism and vice versa.

On the other two themes that I mentioned at the outset, temporality and methodology, there are many excellent essays as well.  I would highly recommend the essay on “Presentism” by Louise D’Arcens.  Not only does she present the struggle with legitimacy concerns viz-a-viz medieval alterity, but also she reads three different texts that would seem to demonstrate three different approaches to the strange dual-consciousness of this work.  The first one is exemplified in A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court and its many iterations, representing a nearly total superiority of the modern over the old; the second is illustrated by Jean-Marie Poiré’s Les Visiteurs, using the medieval world as a satire of modernity; and finally, the third approach is demonstrated by Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure (1989), an exploration of time travel so outrageous that it “queries all models of temporality” (186).

One of the most enjoyable and perhaps eminently teachable essays is Karl Fugelso’s on the key term “Continuity.”  After his disarmingly clear opening definition—“To qualify as a legitimate focus for the study of medievalism a subject must refer to the Middle Ages, yet stand apart from the period” (53)—he proceeds to analyze three illustrations of Dante’s Inferno Canto 13: one, a fourteenth-century Italian manuscript, Holkham Miscellanae 48; two, William Blake’s 1824 version, unfinished; and three, Seymour Chast’s 2010 graphic novel Dante’s Divine Comedy.  By analyzing what in each illustration seems to represent as medieval or not medieval in terms of style, he proposes what might be considered a methodology for quantifying the presence of the medieval.  But what it ultimately allows him to demonstrate is the difficulty of proving continuity or even discontinuity, and how we too are imbricated in the hermeneutic enterprise.

I will close this review with one final observation.  Among the essays for the terms, one finds a variety in scope or focus of analysis.  While the majority of the essays address issues across the realms of time, some do not.  Zrinka Stahuljak’s essay on “Genealogy,” for example, focuses almost exclusively on medieval subjects; whereas Elizabeth Fay’s essay on “Troubadour” treats nearly nothing but post-medieval subjects.  One will find very little about the troubadour poets in the latter but rather a great deal about Renaissance, Romantic, and Victorian appropriations of troubadour ideas or conceits.  While this variety to me is interesting and enjoyable, it is something that readers or rather users of this book as a glossary should be aware of.  I firmly believe this book will prove quite useful to students, professors, and the general reader.  The variety of ideas, approaches, and subjects touched upon is stunning and will reward careful reading.

Micheal Crafton
University of West Georgia