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

August 10, 2021

The Green Knight, dir. David Lowery (2021)


Grappling with the Green Knight: David Lowery's The Green Knight

Reviewed by:

Kevin J. Harty, La Salle University

3.5/4 STARS


An initial voice-over promises us a tale, and students of Chaucer know that good medieval tales contain both sentence and solaas, so does David Lowery’s mesmerizing, multi-layered adaptation of what is arguably the finest romance from medieval England, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.

            In Lowery’s film, simply called The Green Knight, we meet a young Gawain (Dev Patel) on Christmas morn fresh from the brothel and on his way to mass at the castle—presumably Camelot.  The film never tells us that the King (Sean Harris) is Arthur, that his sister (Sarita Choudhury) is Morgan Le Fay, or that his Queen (Kate Dickie) is Guinevere—but it is easy enough to infer so, and it ultimately makes no difference one way or another if we are indeed in Camelot.  The film is a coming-of-age story of Gawain, a child of privilege—he is nephew to this king and son to this king’s sister—who has yet to perform any deeds of derring-do.  At best, he seems to manage trips to the brothel, where he loses his boots (and more), and to the tavern, where he brawls rather than battles.  He is not yet a knight, nor does he seem to be anyone’s squire.  At the film’s beginning, we would then seem to have Gawain the Slacker.

            While the court is set to celebrate Christmas, vestiges of the old pagan religion survive, often thanks to the practices of the women of the court.  There is a version of a roundtable, around which sit knights who, we are told, are living legends.  While Gawain sits in their company, he is more at home with his brothel and tavern friends, especially his bedmate, Essel (Alicia Vikander), who craves more respectability than her social station will ever allow. Whether Gawain is in love or simply in lust with her is not always clear.

            Heirless, the King looks with affection on his nephew, hoping for great promise from him, but, again, Gawain has no tales yet to tell.  It is a time of peace, though hard-won peace, as the King boasts of his slaughter of the Saxons—later we see a vast battlefield littered with rotting corpses—thanks to the efforts of his brothers in arms. But the feast requires a tale—we have come a long way, yet are back to where we started, a pattern of interlacement that Lowery repeats throughout his film. And Gawain has no tale to tell, though, as in the poem, something even better than a tale, a game, will soon present itself when a huge Green Knight (Ralph Ineson), looking somewhat like a gigantic version of Groot from the Guardians of the Galaxy franchise, barges into the court and proposes a game of exchanges—tit-for-tat: someone chops off my head, and, in a year, I chop off theirs. Those knights of legend want no part of the bargain, but, surprisingly (perhaps even to himself), Gawain accepts the challenge and decapitates the verdant visitor with the King’s sword (Excalibur?). The visitor promptly retrieves his head, reminds all present of what is to happen at the Green Chapel in a year, and rides off leaving his massive green axe behind.  With feasting set to commence, the King reminds Gawain that what has just happened “is only a game.”

            But homo ludens is nothing if not complicated.  Gawain spends much of the ensuing year in the brothel or in the tavern, though two Punch and Judy shows remind everyone what awaits him.  As in the poem, Gawain is suitably armed, with the Queen chanting the passage about the five fives as he dons a coat of chainmail, a Bishop (Donncha Crowley) blessing his shield bearing an inner image of the Virgin, a pentangle—previously seen hanging conspicuously around the King’s neck—affixed to the other side, and a green sash—the first of two—given to him by his mother to protect him from harm. Somewhat incongruously, Gawain even poses for his portrait, profile right in a ludicrous stance of a victor returning from the wars—the painter, further complicating the anachronism, is an unidentified woman.

            Suitably accoutered, Gawain sets out on his journey to the Green Chapel passing through a countryside littered with dead corpses—perhaps those of Saxons earlier killed by the King to achieve peace at any cost.  That journey contains four encounters.  The first is with a Scavenger (Barry Keoghan), who alternately taunts and guides Gawain, and eventually betrays him after asking for “a little kindness” for supposedly pointing him in the direction of the Green Chapel.  Their encounter represents the second exchange in the film, both anticipating further ones and raising a question about whether gifts are ever given freely, or only with the hope of receiving something in return.  The Scavenger and his companions ambush Gawain, steal his horse, break his shield, ride off with the great green battle axe and the green sash, and leave him bound and gagged on the floor of the forest. In a frenzy, thanks to a quick 360o camera pan, Gawain imagines his corpse rotting away months later in the forest.  But Gawain’s sword is still to hand, and he manages to cut the ropes that bind him and free himself.

Gawain then encounters a red fox, an animal rich in symbolism in the medieval bestiary and crucial to the original poem, who becomes his vulpine sidekick, as he journeys on, next encountering a race of giants—digital special effects are de rigueur in action-adventure films, after all—and finally a woman named Winifred (Erin Kellyman), who has lost her head.  The original poem simply notes in passing that Gawain’s passage to the Green Castle takes him near Holyhead, site of St. Winifred’s Well. 

Winifred may have been a 7th century Welsh “honorary martyr.” Legend and later medieval vitae have it that she refused the advances of a suitor, choosing instead to become a nun. Enraged, the suitor cut off her head which fell into a spring or well that became a source of miraculous healings.  Winifred’s head was, however, quickly restored to its rightful place by St. Beuno, who also called down God’s justice on the suitor who was in turn just as quickly swallowed up by the earth. Winifred then lived a happy conventual life, establishing several monastic communities for women.  Wells associated with her cult can still be found today in Shropshire and Cheshire.

            Winifred’s presence in the film is appropriate because of her beheading (hers is the second decapitation tale in the film), because of the price she is willing to pay to maintain her chastity (Gawain has already given his away rather cheaply, and will do so again), and because of an exchange she has with Gawain when she asks him to retrieve her head from the spring and he asks what she will give him in return.  Gawain has yet to sort out the difference between being selfish and being selfless.

            Nearly at his wit’s end, Gawain stumbles upon a castle where he is welcomed by a gracious Lord (Joel Edgerton), his equally gracious Lady (Alicia Vikander, who, in an interesting case of double casting, also plays Essel), and an unidentified Blindfolded Woman (Helena Browne), who like all the film’s women is more prescient than her blindfold should allow. Events play out at the castle in a pattern familiar enough to those who have read the poem. The Lord of the castle hunts and promises to exchange whatever his trophy is with Gawain’s, as the Lady of the castle hunts Gawain. The Lord produces a dead wild boar and the red fox in a sack; Gawain offers a kiss, though he has also had from the Lady of the castle a second protective green sash and a masturbatory ejaculation that proves he is “no knight.” Embarrassed and ashamed, Gawain flees the safety of the castle—castles have never been all that safe here or earlier in the film—and reaches the Green Chapel where Lowery offers viewers two possible outcomes for Gawain’s encounter with his green nemesis, after the fox, instead of a servant from the castle as in the poem, offers him a coward’s way out of his bargain with the Green Knight. 

In the poem, Gawain flinches, but eventually submits to the axe.  In the film, Gawain (or so it would at first seem) repeatedly refuses the blow and runs away returning to the now-ailing King’s court—there is a suggestion here in Lowery’s film of a parallel to the plight of the Fisher King in the Grail legend—only to succeed him to the throne, have a son by Essel, abandon her, marry a Princess (Megan Tieran) who bears him only daughters, renew the King’s wars, suffer utter defeat, and sit on his throne as his castle’s walls collapse around him.

            In an alternate ending, Gawain is initially hesitant, but submits, only to be spared by the Green Knight as the credits roll.  By posing two very different outcomes, Lowery suggests that Gawain has a clear choice to make, and that choices have consequences.  In a pattern that we have seen him follow before, Gawain can be selfish, and the consequences will be disastrous for more than himself, or he can be selfless, and he can save himself and presumably prove that he has grown up. In the film’s opening scene in the brothel, someone calls out “you a knight yet?”

Lowery has then made a film that is less in keeping with the plot of the poem and more with its themes, and, as such, it succeeds in ways that the two previous film adaptations of the poem failed.  Stephen Weeks’ 1973 Gawain and the Green Knight is perhaps most memorable for Murray Head (remember him?) as Gawain’s terrible hairdo; Weeks’ 1983 remake, Sword of the Valiant, for its iridescent Green Knight played by, of all people, Sean Connery.

More importantly, Lowery has given us a Gawain for today.  As Kaufman and Sturtevant convincingly argue in their The Devil’s Historian, extremists of various stripes consistently abuse the medieval past, recreating a Middle Ages that never was to suit their agendas.  Gawain may indeed represent the flower of knighthood, but such flowers are often depicted as blonde and blue-eyed, or some other markedly Caucasian variation thereof, to shore up fictional ideas of Anglo-Saxon racial purity and superiority.  When I saw Lowery’s film, I was also treated to a trailer for The Last Duel, a film based on the last trial by combat fought in France in 1386, starring the all-American duo of Matt Damon and Ben Affleck (who has subsequently been replaced by Adam Driver). Medieval knights don’t come much more red, white, and blue than they do. But Lowery has made some bold casting choices, especially for Gawain and his Mother.  Neither plays easily into any political miscasting of the medieval. 

Some critics in the trades and dailies seemed hard pressed to know how to react to Lowery’s film, often comparing it to other medieval or Arthurian films.  In the New York Times, A.O. Scott, for instance, situated The Green Knight, somewhat incongruously, between The Seventh Seal and Monty Python and the Holy Grail. If Lowery’s film has any connections with earlier attempts to bring the medieval to the screen, it would be with Ridley Scott’s 2010 Robin Hood, which attempted to show how a yoeman archer might have become Robin Hood, and with Guy Ritchie’s King Arthur: Legend of the Sword, which attempted to show how an orphaned grifter might have become King Arthur. But Lowery’s film is much better than either of these two films in exploring how the storied Gawain did, or did not, rightfully become so storied, and how the Middle Ages were anything but a perverted fairy tale establishing Anglo-Saxon racial superiority.

            Lowery’s film also earns points for its strong depiction of women.  The Mother—be she Morgan Le Fay or not—is clearly empowered by the vestiges of the old pagan ways.  And the Lady of the castle is not only a temptress playing out her role in what is “only a game,” but also an accomplished scholar.  She owns an impressive library of manuscripts. She can read and write, and even compose—indeed, she literally composes one chapter in the tale of Gawain when he sexually assaults him, proving he is “no knight.” She also produces a second portrait of Gawain—anachronistically with what is in essence a camera obscura—which hangs scowling behind him in the less than noble alternate ending Lowery first posits for Gawain’s quest.

            Technically, Lowery’s film is flawless.  The cinematography is breath- taking.  The sound and music—a blend of medieval and post-modern—are first-rate.  Location shots in Ireland use landscapes and multiple sites in Wicklow and Tipperary, where the 12th century Cahir Castle serves as the location of the King’s court—as it did for John Boorman in his 1981 film Excalibur. Arthurians may continue to debate whether there are indeed any good Arthurian films, or, if there are, which are their favorites. Elsewhere, I have argued that there are indeed good Arthurian films, and I have readily added David Lowery’s The Green Knight, telling as it does a tale of Gawain full of both sentence and solaas, to my list of such films.

 Kevin J. Harty

The Green Knight, David Lowery: director/writer/editor, photography by Andrew Droz Palermo, design by Jade Healy, costumes by Malgosia Turzanska, music by Daniel Hart. A24 Films, 2021. 140 minutes.

July 29, 2021

The Dig, dir. Simon Stone

The Dig. Directed by Simon Stone, 2021

Reviewed by Kristen Carella


I shall begin with what this review is not about.  It is not about the film’s historical veracity (or lack thereof), nor the proper crediting of Basil Brown for the mid twentieth-century excavation of the Sutton Hoo graves.  It is not about the book upon which the film is based.  Most of all, it is not about the sixth- and seventh-century treasures unearthed at this crucially important site for our understanding of early medieval English history.  Rather, this review focuses on the film itself as a literary artifact, taken as a piece of historical fiction that emerged in 2021, during a particularly fraught moment in the history of early medieval English Studies.


The film itself would seem to invite this approach.  Historical figures are portrayed with substantial liberty: No records indicate that Basil was accidentally interred while excavating the Sutton Hoo site, nor does any evidence suggest that British archaeologist Stuart Piggott was gay, for example.  Moreover, Basil’s motivations for engaging in this endeavor remain somewhat ambiguous (at first, he seems motivated primarily by higher pay, then later by more personal concerns).  Strikingly, the Sutton Hoo treasures themselves—stunning artifacts by any measure—barely appear on screen at all.  Mostly, we see only glimpses of them while still partially unearthed, mere outlines in the soil from which the dust is painstakingly brushed away before gently being placed in moss-softened containers and toted away to a location we never see.  We are never presented with the glittering treasures upon which to feast our eyes; they are always underground or offscreen.  Perhaps ironically, the film ends by telling us that the treasures were interred again, this time in the London Underground to protect them from the Luftwaffe bombings of World War II.


Whether self-consciously or not, The Dig was released just as the UK saw the dissolution of several prominent archaeology departments and the reduction of medieval studies faculty across the country.  Regrettably, these moves came despite a number of spectacular finds that penetrated popular news media, including the discovery of the Staffordshire Hoard (2009), a site on par with the Sutton Hoo grave itself, and the DNA analysis of the so-called “Birka Warrior” (2017) which demonstrated conclusively that the paradigm example of a Viking warrior’s grave housed a woman, thus challenging age-old assumptions about gender in the medieval past.  If anything, early medieval archaeology has become more exciting since the Sutton Hoo find, not less; though this fact has not been reflected in decisions about funding in higher education, especially in the UK.


During this time also, early medieval English studies itself was—and still is—striving to address charges of longstanding elitism, racism, misogyny, sexual predation, and LGBTQ-phobia within its ranks.  As an initial gesture, the International Society of Anglo-Saxonists (ISAS) changed its name to the International Society for the Study of Early Medieval England (ISSEME, for which I  currently serve as Executive Director) to underscore its wish to separate itself from white supremacist misappropriation of the term “Anglo-Saxon.”  ISSEME has since undertaken to lay out a program of reform which we hope will take root throughout the field.  There is much more to be said on this topic that extends beyond the scope of this review.  Suffice to say that The Dig emerged at a time of deep anxiety surrounding early medieval English studies.


Against this backdrop, The Dig cannot help but raise meaningful questions, especially for those of us who have dedicated our life to research in this area, not the least of which is: What are we actually doing?


An overarching theme of The Dig is the role the past plays in the present, and—a related matter—to whom the past belongs.  The impetus for the excavation is Mrs. Pretty, who explains to Basil that she and her late husband bought the property with the hope of discovering what was in the mounds.  Basil comes around only slowly, eventually settling on the mound she recommended as the focus of his dig.  The remainder of the movie is about the excavation itself and dramatic interactions between the individuals involved in it.  Notably, this main narrative thread is punctuated with periodic scenes of burial and inundation that, while not bearing directly on the arc of the story, serve to contextualize it. 


Some of these images are loaded.  The excavation progresses as the Second World War is poised to begin, and we are confronted with images of military preparations.  Significantly, we are given a glimpse of British soldiers burying the Gladstone Memorial with sandbags to protect it from anticipated Nazi air raids.  As the camera pans across the Memorial, it focuses briefly on two of the four, smaller allegorical figures at the main statue’s base, namely those representing “education” and “courage.”  This gesture, an act of burying a cultural “treasure” cannot be understood, I would argue, as separate from the medieval act of burying treasure at Sutton Hoo.  People continue to bury treasures.  The past is always present, to be sure. 


By why Gladstone?  In 2020, calls for the Gladstone Statue’s removal became vehement as part of the global movement to topple racist monuments in the wake of protests following the murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis, MN police.  After all, Gladstone “Opposed the abolition of slavery and, upon the abolition, helped his father obtain over £100,000 in reimbursements for the 2,508 slaves he owned across nine plantations in the Caribbean. The Gladstones were one the world’s largest slave owning families.”[1] In 2020, Gladstone’s family expressed that they would not oppose to the statue’s removal.[2]


What is the message here?


One is tempted to pair it alongside archaeologist Charles Phillips’s repeated assertions throughout the film that the Anglo-Saxons “…were not savages!  They had art!  They had culture!” and that “The Dark Ages are no longer dark!”  His repeated statements to this effect come across like special pleading by someone with a definite agenda.  This image of Gladstone alongside these comments invokes those who appropriate and politicize the past for racist and/or political purposes, namely, to bulwark white supremacy.  Here, one detects inklings of so-called “Anglo-Saxonism,” a racist ideology that casts the inhabitants of early medieval England as racially and culturally superior.  In The Dig, this gesture is attributed to the academic elite whose appropriation of the past ranges from self-serving, e.g., competing against one another for possession of the grave goods in their museum, to political, e.g., the “glory” of an imagined “Anglo-Saxon” past that might resonate with a British government on the brink of war, a government which often described the Nazis as “Huns,” i.e., as non-Germanic outsiders invading Europe. 


This latter description is fundamentally racist:


The original Huns were a nomadic tribe, probably originating from Mongolia, who, under the leadership of Attila, terrorised the Roman empire in the mid-5th century, extorting large sums of money with menaces. Considered by Rome to be the ultimate of all savage ‘Barbarians’, Attila the Hun was referred to as the ‘Scourge of God’. Throughout the Middle Ages, Attila was regularly depicted in art as the antichrist and his army as a horde of demons. In the mid-19th century, the Hun was resurrected as an Asiatic foe at the same time the British empire came to view China as a direct threat. And then, in the early months of World War I, the allies applied the term ‘Hun’ to the forces of Germany and Austro-Hungary in order to conjure up images of a bestial foe. This can be seen, most notably, in a series of striking ‘Beat Back the Hun’ / ‘Halt the Hun’ posters, designed to persuade the American people to buy war bonds, in which the enemy is shown as a blood-crazed barbarian.[3]


Conversely, the British were portrayed as “Anglo-Saxons” in line with an age-old myth of English racial superiority that dates back at least as far as the sixteenth century, if not earlier.  This particular white supremacist view of history is often referred to as “Anglo-Saxonism” (a fascist political ideology),[4] as distinct from Anglo-Saxon studies, now typically referred to by scholars as “early medieval English studies” (an academic field of research).


A basic feature of Anglo-Saxonism is the false belief that the past belongs to some people and, decidedly, not to others; and that “Englishness” is somehow an inherited trait characterized by racial superiority.  In The Dig, the question of who possesses the object of excavation comes up repeatedly.  Very importantly, the Sutton Hoo treasures do not belong, literally or figuratively, to the academics portrayed in the film nor to the government.  Literally—and this is asserted periodically throughout the film—they belong to Mrs. Pretty, who repeatedly insists that Basil maintain a prominent role in the excavation.


To whom do the treasures belong figuratively? 


The answer to this question is a major theme of The Dig and centers on the character of Basil Brown.  Basil is not formally educated.  His interests are wide-ranging and include, most notably, a penchant not just for archaeology but—as is emphasized repeatedly in the film—astronomy as well.  At one point, he tells Mrs. Pretty that he has written a book entitled A Guide to Astronomical Maps and Charts in order to “make them accessible to ordinary men.”  Basil’s gaze is directed as much toward the cosmos beyond as to the earth below and, at least in the case of his book, aimed at bridging the gap between academic discourse and the common folk.  His interests are personal and local; they are driven by a passion for the object of study itself in a way that sets him apart from the academics who barge in with motivations that, in contrast, range from careerist to nationalist.  Basil’s expertise derives as much from self-study and hands-on experience as from folk wisdom (for example, he tells Mrs. Pretty that he learned from his grandfather how to look at a handful of soil and tell you what part of Suffolk it came from). 


The past belongs to Basil as much as anyone, even though he doesn’t own the property he’s excavating, hold an academic degree, or represent government interests.  On a more basic level, he knows the soil, he is of the land; it belongs to him because he has studied it and he understands it.  Soon after he first learns that he’s lost control of the project, we see him lying symbolically in the partially excavated ship in a fetal position, as if the earth itself were a womb.  Likewise, at one point early in the excavation, the mound caves in on him.  Basil becomes the object of his own excavation. After he is pulled out, his skin appears to be the same color as the soil, as if he’s one with the earth itself.  Later, he reports to Mrs. Pretty that while unconscious beneath the soil, he had a vision, or rather felt the presence of his grandfather. 


As such, then, the treasures belong to Basil; not individually, not as property, and certainly not as the common patrimony of some imagined racial/ethnic identity.  Rather, the treasures belong to Basil as the common heritage of all those, specialists or non-specialists, who seek knowledge for its own sake.  For Basil, digging into the earth in search of the past is one and the same gesture as gazing through a telescope into the cosmos.  The Sutton Hoo treasures he helps to unearth belong to him in the same sense that a star belongs to the astronomer who names it: These things are shared commonly by all who look on them with a sense of wonder.  This kind of “belonging” is inclusive, not exclusive.  This kind of belonging is fundamentally different from the academic archaeologists in the film who seek to possess the treasure and appropriate it for specific personal and political agendas.


It is important to understand that Basil is not falling into the ideological trap of seeking “origins,” racial, cultural, or otherwise.  What motivates him to excavate the site is a desire to situate himself in the universe between past and future.  This gesture can best be understood, at least on one level, as a spiritual endeavor.  Over the course of the film, it becomes increasingly clear that Mrs. Pretty is dying.  Her conversations with Basil link the continuous, interwoven scenes of his excavation of the mound during the day with scenes of him looking through his telescope at night. 


At one point, soon after the recovery of a dead RAF pilot whose plane crashed into the water near the excavation, Mrs. Pretty—no doubt pondering her own impending mortality—asks Basil about the religious significance of the site:


Mrs. Pretty:      The people who buried that ship.  What did they believe?


Basil Brown:    Well, they were sailing somewhere, weren’t they?  Down to the                                               underworld or up to the stars.


Mrs. Pretty:      Wherever we go when we die?


The question (to the extent it is a question at all) is left mostly unanswered until the final scene, where Mrs. Pretty—who is by then certainly dying—sits upright in the excavated ship, presumably in the position of the person originally entombed there.  The young Robert Pretty imagines the grave as a starship, which he and Basil are guiding toward Orion’s belt.  Robert tells a story to his mother, cast as a star queen, who must leave her child behind, but who can see him from above and follow the events of his life until they meet again.  The story is Robert’s thinly veiled attempt to come to terms with his mother’s imminent death: The excavated ship, recast as a starship, provides a means for him to grapple with this difficult truth.  This, too, is a spiritual gesture; and, albeit from a child’s perspective, one that reflects Basil’s more mature pursuit of essentially similar questions.  This scene, I would argue, gets at the heart of what the film is about.  Ultimately, these kind of questions—about who we are, life, and death—are why humans have always dug in the dirt after the past and looked through glass toward the heavens.


A base “desire for origins” has, and sometimes still does, motivate the study of the past.  Early medieval English studies, including but by no means limited to archaeology, has at times been misappropriated and weaponized by white supremacists both inside and outside of academics to justify the noxious myth of an ethnically “pure” identity.  A recent example is the disturbing proposal by certain, right-wing American politicians including Marjorie Taylor Greene to form an “America First Caucus” aimed at protecting what she calls “Anglo-Saxon political traditions.”  No doubt, what Greene has in mind bears a far closer resemblance to the Third Reich than to any period in southern Britain between the mid-fifth and the mid-eleventh centuries.  I could point to more such examples.  This kind misappropriation has no place in medieval studies.


That said, to imagine that the study of the past—and the study of early medieval England in particular (academic or otherwise)—is often, or typically driven by racist cooptation and misappropriation is also false.  Any such claim equivocates Anglo-Saxonism (a fascist, white supremacist ideology) with any other possible motivation for exploring the medieval past, including the legitimate academic study of early medieval England.  It is important to distinguish between these pursuits, if only so that people of good will can be on guard against the former.


The past provides a context for the present and is inextricably linked with our journey into the future.  That context need not be formative, nor is it hopelessly condemned to racist, misogynistic, or LGBTQ-phobic attempts at identity formation.  What supersedes any misguided, misappropriating “desire for origins” is a desire for knowledge in its most distilled form; a desire to understand one’s place in the universe on multiple levels, including spiritually—as Basil Brown’s character in The Dig exemplifies—both with respect for the past as well as for the future.  This kind of gesture—which includes but is not limited to academic inquiry—represents the best kind of human endeavor.  After all, the past and the earth that contains it, like the stars and the heavens that contain them, belong to everyone in common, and to all who have the courage to look deeper.                                                 

Kristen Carella

March 11, 2021

Kaufman/Sturtevant, The Devil's Historians

Review of Amy S. Kaufman and Paul B. Sturtevant, The Devil’s Historians: How Modern Extremists Abuse the Medieval Past (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2020), 198 pages.

Reviewed by: Wendy J. Turner


This is a fascinating book covering a large swath of both the sub-field of medieval studies called “Medievalism” and the new field within historical studies called “Future History.” Medievalism is the study of how contemporary society uses, and in this case “abuses,” the medieval past. Future history is both the study of how we use the past, all of our past, in our contemporary view of the future as well as how we preserve the past for the future. Kaufman and Sturtevant have created an eye-opening study of how extremists “promoting white supremacy, religious violence, racism, homophobia, and patriarchal oppression” (p. 151) have used an altered version of the Middle Ages to undergird and promote their ideas. Carole Rawcliffe has traced much of the start of this alteration to “the scholars and sanitary campaigners of Victorian England (Rawclffe, Urban Bodies: Communal Health in Late Medieval English Towns and Cities (Woodbridge: Boydell, 2013), p. 12, see chapter one, “Less Mud-Slinging and More Facts”). No matter the start, the use and abuse of medieval terminology, ideals, symbols, and religions have been coopted by contemporary people to illustrate or foment their own ideas; they want to strike a chord with their listeners and medieval tropes serve that purpose.


Kaufman and Sturtevant have a depth here of contemporary U.S. politics in this volume that will appeal to many who have followed the recent election of 2020, but they have not limited themselves to the United States. They cover politics and political movements, especially extremists’ movements, in many other countries across the globe. Featured movements from India, the Middle East, China, Africa, and others around the world are illustrated in their use of medieval European imagery and tropes to get across the point that they are the bravest or most dominant or godliest and so on. They use images of knights, princesses, Joan of Arc, St. George and his dragon, other dragons, swords, Celtic knots, and other biblical elements that evoke an army of God. They often use medievalism images alongside real medieval images—rearranging medieval ideas to suit their own notion of what the Middle Ages was or should have been.


The authors do chronicle the long fight that medieval historians have put up against such rewriting and misunderstanding. “As far back as the 1980s, scholars like Morton W. Bloomfield and Eugene D. Genovese were reflecting on the ways southern American slaveholders indulged in a fantasy of neomedieval ‘feudalism’ to justify slavery and racism” (p.92). 


This is an important overview of both extremism in society today and its use of medieval symbols, folktales, and rewritten history by these groups to justify everything from degradation of women to racism to the arbitrary construct of two genders. I found the writing to be a little “chatty,” at times, distracting from an otherwise important argument. I think my students, though, would find it engaging and honest. While here and there, the text becomes a little overbearing if not preachy, it is high time someone pushed back against what has become a predominately untrue image of the Middle Ages.


Wendy J. Turner

Augusta University