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

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

January 26, 2021

Dell, Neo-Liberal Decolonisation

Neo-Liberal ‘Decolonisation’ and Medieval Studies in UK and Australian Universities


Helen Dell


There will always be changes in university curricula but I was recently dumbfounded by reading that many hundreds of years of medieval and early modern English literature would be dumped from the English Degree at the University of Leicester, UK. Below is an excerpt from the rationale offered by the university:


The aim of our proposals are to offer a suite of undergraduate degrees to provide modules that students expect of an English degree, as well as a range of modules which are excitingly innovative and thematically driven: a chronological literary history, a selection of modules on race, ethnicity, sexuality and diversity, a decolonised curriculum, and new employability modules.


The proposed change is to refocus and strengthen English by closing English language (which includes the BA English with English Language and the MA English Language and Linguistics), to cease teaching medieval English and to reduce the size of Early Modern Literature, and to develop new employability modules in education, publishing and the creative industries. (courtesy of David Clark).


It is difficult to understand how removing a huge swathe of the most magnificent literature in the English language from an English curriculum will strengthen the course. But most egregious of all is to provide shelter for the changes under the deceitful guise of decolonisation. It is difficult to take seriously the outraged denial from a university spokesperson, that “There is absolutely no truth to the suggestion that certain modules are being eliminated for being too white.” The word “decolonisation” is an all too obvious dog-whistle to that effect, with the apparent intention of silencing anyone afraid of being classed as racist for criticising the changes which academics close to the scene are calling a cost-cutting exercise. Even more importantly, ‘decolonisation’ is too crucial a concept to be casually misapplied.


And, as some have noticed, the either/or logic is flawed. Dr Christine Rauer, a lecturer at the University of St Andrews, told MailOnline: “It's hard to see why race, ethnicity, sexuality and diversity can't be taught alongside Chaucer and Beowulf.” This was similar to the response on Twitter of David Clark who teaches medieval literature (among other things) at Leicester:


I’m bemused by the implication none of us already teaches/writes about race, ethnicity, gender, sexuality, or decolonising the curriculum: or that our areas aren’t relevant to the discussion (@dragonista99).


English down under

Leicester University’s strategy offers one way to prevent people from studying literature: cutting huge chunks out of the curriculum and attempting to bemuse and deter potential critics with loaded words. Another way to make literature inaccessible is to make it prohibitively expensive. This is the strategy employed by the Liberal, i.e. conservative Government currently in power here in Australia to deter potential critics, as Australian journalist Michelle Grattan argued in The Conversation in June 2020:


Finally, there does seem to be an ideological tinge to the policy, notably in the treatment of the humanities. The cost for these courses will rise by a massive 113%. … . There is an anti-intellectual streak in this government, with ministers unsympathetic towards universities, which many of them see as breeding grounds for left-leaning activists.


The argument of the then Minister for Education, Dan Tehan, was that the government wished to attract students to those courses which would feed them into the jobs the economy required. In June, 2020, he announced changes to funding rates for university courses as part of a plan to create “job ready graduates,” hiking up fees for courses deemed less like to lead to jobs and bringing down fees for those leading more speedily to employment. On June 19, Peter Hurley wrote, also in The Conversation:


Under the new plan, students doing teaching, nursing, clinical psychology, English and languages will pay 46% less for their degree from next year. Students in agriculture and maths will pay 62% less, while those studying science, health, architecture, environmental science, IT, and engineering will be 20% better off. But the student contribution for the humanities will go up by 113%, and the costs for law and commerce will jump by 28%. The rationale is to encourage students to select courses with the best employment outcomes.


The statistics did not, however, bear out Tehan’s pronouncements:


Of the study areas where the government is proposing students contribute more, law graduates (95.8%) and business graduates (95.5%) are employed at rates above the average. Humanities graduates are employed at a rate of 91.1% (above science and maths) (Hurley).


Michelle Grattan and Peter Hurley both write for The Conversation, a “collaboration between academics and journalists” whose motto is “Academic rigour, journalistic flair.” Both saw through the bias in Tehan’s (and the government’s) arguments. As numerous responses to the proposed Leicester changes also make clear, studying literature, studying the humanities, teaches you to think for yourself, teaches you to pay attention. You learn to spot the inconsistencies, the illogicality, the loaded words with which the dishonest attempt to paper over their real intentions. Listening attentively to people talking is a large part of the work and the pleasure of literature and drama.


But over and above these considerations, there is something almost blasphemous about a system which attempts to bribe and bully students to place themselves, not where their hearts lead them but where financial constraints force them. (Students in the Humanities at Australian Universities may find themselves shouldering a lifelong debt). Where is there here any hint of the idea of a vocation, a calling? I don’t wish to sound too romantic. People have to live, have to earn money to feed themselves and their kids, and communities need doctors, architects, nurses, etc. But there is more to life and to education than being fed into the machine of economic requirements or even social needs. The best doctors, architects and nurses etc. are those who want to be.


To end on a personal note, my own life has been enriched by an education and work spent in the study and practice of literature and music. As a reader, a writer, a singer, listener and teacher, I have known a love and enjoyment greater than I could have imagined possible when I first left school. That love and enjoyment was, to a great extent, the gift of my teachers at different universities in Melbourne: Melbourne, Monash and LaTrobe. My thanks to all of them and to everyone who helped, encouraged and inspired me along the way. I can only offer the hope for an education so blessed to all those entering universities now.


Helen Dell

Honorary Research Fellow, English and Theatre Studies

School of Culture and Communication, University of Melbourne

Dennison: Heaven Sent

Kara Dennison, Heaven Sent, The Black Archive, 21. Edinburgh: Obverse Books, 2018.

Reviewed by Gayle Fallon (

Kara Dennison’s Heaven Sent stands as the 21st installment in The Black Archive, a series commissioned by Obverse Books. The series offers book-length studies of single Doctor Who episodes. Contributions to the Archive span the television show’s impressive airing history, including episodes in the first long series run from 1963-1989 as well as the latest episodes in the current run of the rebooted series that began in 2005. Heaven Sent is an extended exploration of the eponymous 2015 episode starring Peter Capaldi’s Twelfth Doctor.[1] This episode is set inside a medievalesque clockwork castle that contextualizes an astronomically long, recursive journey through countless instances of confession and reincarnation. Dennison does not focus on medieval symbols or spirituality specifically in her book, but her analysis of the castle setting and the episode’s treatment of confession and rebirth (both physical and spiritual) is likely to draw the attention of anyone whose research interests include medievalism.

Like Dennison’s book, this review must include a short summary of the primary material at hand. The episode focuses almost solely upon the character development of one of the most complex psyches in television history. At the beginning of the episode, the Doctor appears in a teleportation chamber that has placed him inside his own Confession Dial, a piece of Time Lord technology meant to record a last will and testament. The Doctor’s Confession Dial contains a moated clockwork castle filled with shifting, labyrinthine corridors and rooms. The only other creature in the castle is a faceless specter-like figure called “the Veil,” who lumbers after the Doctor as he tries to escape the Dial. As the Doctor flees through various parts of the castle, he finds clues that, he eventually realizes, he must have left for himself in the past. The Doctor learns that the Veil is impeded by confession and that self-disclosure can spark a shift in the castle’s clockwork mechanism. Every time the Doctor confesses a secret, the castle rearranges its floorplan. When the Veil finally reaches the Doctor, its touch is so injurious that the Time Lord must crawl back to the teleportation chamber in which he first arrived and use his dying body’s energy to reactivate the teleportation device. The Doctor burns himself away and is reincarnated by the chamber, only to navigate a reset castle configuration once again. It becomes clear that the Confession Dial is being used as a torture mechanism by Time Lords hoping to glean information about a nebulous prophecy involving the Hybrid, an unidentified creature that will stand over the ruins of the Doctor’s home planet. The Doctor, ever stubborn, becomes intent on escaping the Dial instead of satisfying the Time Lords. Consequently, the cycle lasts a veritable eternity for the Doctor: over four and a half billion years.[2] During this time, once during every reset, the Doctor manages to punch an Azbantium[3] wall labeled “HOME” in the subterranean heart of the castle. This wall, the Doctor believes, hides a pathway out of the Dial. Ultimately, the Doctor pummels his way through the Azbantium and absconds with his unconfessed secret. He later tells the Time Lords who trapped him in the Dial that the Hybrid foretold in the prophecy is “Me.”[4]

Dennison reads Heaven Sent through Jungian symbolism, beginning the first chapter with a comparison between the Doctor’s multi-storied castle and Carl Jung’s depiction of the human psyche as a house.[5] The connection between the castle and Jung’s house is evident, as the Doctor’s castle maps loosely onto Jung’s construct. The top of the castle, where the Doctor observes the stars and calculates how much time has passed in the Dial, does seem to be the highest point of the engineering-oriented Twelfth Doctor’s conscious mind, while some of the lower parts of the castle could easily be read as reflections of the Doctor’s subconscious. Dennison is quick to note, though, that the shifts in the castle following the Doctor’s confessions, coupled with the inscrutable positions of several of the interior rooms in the structure, complicate the Jungian house model. The Doctor’s movement through his own psyche is therefore not vertical as in Jung’s illustration but confusingly “staggered” (16). Like the mutable spaces of the castle, the Doctor’s mind is more difficult to map than the domestic pathways of human thought. The ambiguities of this clockwork space contain a puzzle that only the Doctor can hope to fathom. [6] This is a perfect bespoke challenge for Capaldi’s Twelfth Doctor, “an incarnation that is not only willing to turn inward and analyse himself, but really quite desperate to” (23). This self-reflection is achieved through the innumerable confessions the Doctor makes to stall the Veil.

Confession is the result of the Doctor unraveling his own mind and the key to both his literal and metaphorical freedom. The refusal to confess fully and be absolved, Dennison observes, fashions the Dial into a sort of sci-fi purgatory that fosters character development in lieu of admission to paradise. Dennison cites the links among purgatorial temporal loops, confession, and character development in several other instances of pop culture: Stephen King’s short story “That Feeling, You Can Only Say What It Is in French” is a poignant example. The revelation of a temporal loop in the works Dennison mentions is always accompanied by a sense of dawning horror, usually experienced by protagonist and audience member simultaneously. Temporal loops tend to serve as climactic revelations, narrative ends in themselves, as characters discover that they are being punished for sins from which they have not been absolved. In Dennison’s analysis, the Doctor’s temporal loop, though certainly horrific, exists to achieve a more omphalic end: the loop drives the Doctor to acknowledge and explore his Jungian Shadow self. A confrontation with his Shadow self, Dennison explains, is possible only through confession and is catalyzed by the deadly Veil: “[W]ith the Veil, we do not see the Doctor’s fear and hatred of his own darker tendencies manifest. Rather, we see a creeping, rotting terror whose job is to bring those fears and darker tendencies to the surface in his own words. [The Veil] isn’t technically his Shadow herself—but she does give it form” (31). Additionally, the Veil prompts confession at the threat of imminent death. She is a slow-moving Danse Macabre, reminding the Doctor of his mortality and failures. Yet, she also makes the promise of reincarnation the ironic method by which the Doctor can continue to encounter a mortal self that is, for all intents and purposes, immortal given its ability to rematerialize in the Confession Dial and to regenerate in the wider universe (31). The Veil, like an exceptionally dour priest, confirms the link between a confession and rebirth that will lead to the fulfilment of a greater plan.

Dennison stresses that the Time Lords intentionally facilitate the Doctor’s reincarnations as a way to coax confession from an extremely defiant individual (37). The structure of the castle itself thus becomes a microcosmic gesture—if not to divinity, then to a certain kind of intelligent design that uses resurrection to realize a goal. It is interesting, however, that Dennison steers clear of Christian associations with resurrection and incarnation, associations we might expect with a castle that contains purgatorial punishment and appears in an episode named Heaven Sent. In fact, Dennison seems to purposefully avoid the word resurrection (and also reincarnation) in reference to what happens to the Doctor in the teleportation chamber, preferring instead terms like “‘rebooting’” and even “‘rebirth,’” which she carefully surrounds with quibble marks (37, 40). She suggests at one point that Moffat may be referencing something more akin to samsara in this episode, given the cyclical nature of the temporal loop and the nearly ineluctable integrity of the Dial mechanism (33). Though the Time Lords’ machinations are unsuccessful, the character development that stems from endless “reboots” in this castle is profound—the Doctor is changed at last, Dennison argues, into someone who accepts both the persona of the Doctor and whatever parts of himself remain that cannot be absorbed into that persona (84). This acceptance is a spiritual rebirth or resurrection, of sorts, that enables the Doctor to move on from past grievances. Dennison’s commentary tacitly highlights the fact that the rematerialized Doctor is no self-sacrificing Christ figure associated with spiritual redemption; he is, nevertheless, fully equipped to save the tangible, physical universe in episodes to come.

Though the author does not focus directly on the medieval connotations that arise from the castle setting and its contextualization of confession and rebirth, Dennison’s work is nonetheless valuable to those investigating medieval echoes in Doctor Who. Any reading of the medieval motifs in this episode would be incomplete without a careful consideration of how those motifs interact with Jungian symbolism. Furthermore, Dennison’s analysis offers an astonishingly comprehensive portrait of a mind that, prior to reading Heaven Sent, I would have described as incomprehensible.

Gayle Fallon

Auburn University

[1] This episode is written by Steven Moffat and directed by Rachel Talalay. At the time of publication, Heaven Sent ranks second in IMDb user ratings for all episodes in the rebooted series. It is second only to the episode Blink (2007).

[2] Those outside the Dial do not experience this length of time.

[3] This fictional substance is harder than diamonds.

[4] Dennison marks that this is capitalized in Moffat’s script (8). Whovians will recognize the ambiguity here—the Doctor’s final revelatory confession is enigmatic, as this pronoun could refer to the Doctor, to the immortal character Mayor Me/Ashildr, or to combinations of characters, such as the Doctor and Clara. We learn that the Hybrid is likely the Doctor and Clara in the next episode (Hell Bent), though later characters, such as Sacha Dhawan’s version of the Master, seem to fulfill at least parts of the Gallifreyan prophecy, as well.

[5] Dennison references Richard and Clara Winston’s English translation of Jung’s Memories, Dreams, Reflections (1963).

[6] Those who study medievalism may also draw some tenuous connections between the clockwork space of the Confession Dial and Johannes de Sacrobosco’s idea of the machina mundi in his thirteenth-century astronomy textbook Tractatus de sphæra.