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

October 19, 2011

Ferré, ed., Médiévalisme: Modernité du Moyen Âge

French Medievalism and Its Discontents: Testimony from the Proceedings of a Conference

Vincent Ferré, ed., Médiévalisme: Modernité du Moyen Âge. Paris: L'Harmattan, 2010.

Reviewed by William Calin ( 

Vincent Ferré, "Introduction (I). Médiévalisme et théorie: pourquoi maintenant?": 7-25.  This is the longest and most important essay in the collection.  Ferré observes pertinently that, although work – good work – on the presence of the Middle Ages in the post-medieval cultures has been published in France, going back to the Poitiers La Licorne collection of 1982, the term médiévalisme, employed in our sense of "medievalism," dates from 2007. Ferré modestly avoids a personal plaudit; nevertheless, it would appear that he introduced the neologism into French.  He offers a rich, five-page (21-5) bibliography of French medievalism – specifically the works cited in his essay.  Ferré is fully aware of the Anglo-American origins of the field; he gives full credit to Studies in Medievalism and to leaders in the discipline: Leslie Workman, followed, in alphabetical order, by Karl Fugelso, David Metzger, Tom Shippey, Claire Simmons, and Richard Utz.  Finally, and of special importance, Ferré discusses the place of theory in medievalism.  Recognizing the pride of place awarded theory in volumes 17, 18, and 19 of Studies in Medievalism (ed. Fugelso), he calls for a similar reflection in France.  It is that theoretical reflection which dominates the Metz-Malbrouck colloquium of November 2009, the volume under review being the proceedings of that conference.

Comment: An important, path-breaking study.  Bravo!  Among the most active figures in American medievalism, Ferré ought perhaps to have cited also Gwendolyn Morgan.  He did not probably because, in addition to her scholarly publications, he is not acquainted with the journal The Year's Work in Medievalism, which has evolved, under the editorship of Morgan, M. Jane Toswell, and now Edward Risden, into a venue of important, refereed scholarly articles.  It is also a pity that Ferré said nothing about American contributions to French medievalism.  Here the leading figure is Elizabeth Emery, who, scrutinizing the late nineteenth century, brought about a paradigm shift in our understanding of the reception of the Middle Ages in France.  These recommendations are not meant, in any way, to question the quality of this superbly crafted, innovative essay.

 Éric Necker, "Introduction (2). Le château de Malbrouck, un château médiéval d'aujourd'hui": 27-32.  The conference took place in Metz, and in this restored castle in Lorraine.  Malbrouck itself is significant.  A fortified castle built late in the fifteenth century when the fortification structures were already out-of-date, it testifies to cultural nostalgia (late-medieval medievalism?).  The ruins were tastefully restored in the 1990's, so that Malbrouck now responds to our images of the Middle Ages, whatever they may be. 
Comment: A good contribution.

Jeff Rider, "L'utilité du Moyen Âge": 35-45.  Rider distinguishes between the historicist or scholarly representation of the Middle Ages and the popular, anachronistic, medievalist representation.  In both cases the outcome is largely the same: to imagine a world which is not ours yet one where we could have lived and which acts upon our being-in-the-world today.  "For historicism, the Middle Ages is a historical concept; for medievalism, it is a style" (42). 
Comment: A good, challenging essay.  One can respond that the historicist historians also partake of medievalism, and consequently that medievalism should not be limited to the aesthetic.  I should also have liked some scholarly references other than citations from Paul Ricoeur.

Gil Bartholeyns, "Le passé sans l'histoire. Vers une anthropologie culturelle du temps": 47-60.  In an intelligent, challenging essay Bartholeyns discusses the significant presence of the past, including the Middle Ages, in cinema.  He argues that film makers do not seek to reconstitute history in a quest for "realism."  Instead, they create their own world of "reality" as part of their creative, aesthetic search for a human truth which will transcend history.  In theoretical terms, next to history and memory, he places a third domain: the past without history, the a-historical past in antithesis to historical reality.  This would be an aesthetic past which nurtures creativity and play.

Thomas Honegger, "(Heroic) Fantasy and the Middle Ages: Strange Bedfellows or an Ideal Cast?": 61-71.  Honegger argues persuasively and with finesse that the Middle Ages serves as a "temporal fantasy" (62) offered to modern readers by Lewis, Tolkien, and the author of the Conan the Barbarian series.  He concentrates on the knight as the typical medieval secular figure, combining strength and courtliness.  The knight is perceived to be a figure for non-alienated men and to be the high representative of hierarchical order.  Modern fantasy then shares certain core characteristics of romance: wandering, obscured identity, idealization, the marvelous or supernatural, and narrative delay.
Comment: When Honegger gives as an example of narrative delay the interlace pattern in Chrétien de Troyes (68), he should have cited instead the Lancelot-Grail Prose Cycle.  Chrétien only begins the process which will be expanded and perfected by later writers.

Myriam White-Le Goff, "Quel Moyen Âge dans l'édition pour la jeunesse?": 73-83.  In this chapter the author scrutinizes deftly and insightfully the place of medieval literature in French children's literature.  The largest segment includes chansons de geste and courtly romance.  There are certain publishers who aim for an accurate modern translation of the medieval texts, respecting their integrity.  The majority, however, expurgate, revise, and entirely rewrite, usually without notifying the reader.  And, since we are dealing with literature meant for the schools in a resolutely secular educational establishment, the ties with religion are cut as much as is possible.  The result is a literature without savor, texture, and the power of suggestion.  However, the literature inspires young people's imagination anyway, especially when the heroes are youths growing up such as Perceval and Huon de Bordeaux.  If the Middle Ages is associated with childhood, this is not a bad thing for children and for creative writers.
Comment: The term "family romance" comes from Freud before it was adopted by Marthe Robert (80-1).

Anne Larue, "Le médiévalisme entre hypnose numérique et conservatisme rétro": 87-96.  In this, the worst essay in the collection, Larue indulges in an early-phase feminist and populist diatribe.  Against all the evil unleashed upon the world in the 1980s by the "United Patriarchy" (88), "le backlash" against the progressive impulses of the preceding decade, "medievalism undertakes a hidden struggle on the terrain of the imaginary . . . a counter-discourse in fantasy which . . . contains a force of denunciation against the imposed ideology" (88, 89).  "La Fantasy" offers hope and consolation.  Larue denounces high culture in all its manifestations, including the literature published by Gallimard, the leading press in France.  It is on the Web, on medfan sites, that true masterpieces, appreciated by a true public, will be disseminated.  As Larue sees it, "meditation on the soul and on God . . . [are] retrograde religious values belonging to patriarchal America" (91) and "vampires in the forest, werewolves, women, all that folklore . . . kept secret for millennia, all this explodes today" (90).
Comment: Explodes indeed.  This contribution demonstrates why conference proceedings have to be refereed by external evaluators.

Jean-François Thull, "L'inspiration médiévale des Pères de l'Europe contemporaine: l'exemple de Jean de Pange": 97-109.  In this moving, profoundly Humanist chapter, Thull evokes the memory of a scholar and intellectual from Lorraine, who partook of and contributed to a current of thought after the Great War, one which imagined an integrated, unified Europe based on the example of Charlemagne and his Carolingian Empire.  The Middle Ages was the model for this line of thinking, because of Charlemagne and because of what was thought to be medieval Christian spirituality and unity.  Just as Lotharingia bridges France and Germany, so also the new Europe could bridge, and serve as a counter-example to, the United States and the Soviet Union.

Véronique Dominguez, "D'Oberammergau au Jeu d'Adam: le sacré à l'épreuve du médiévalisme": 113-23.  She discusses two modern translators of the twelfth-century Jeu d'Adam and how they help shape the meaning of the medieval text and of the several stagings of the play in the twentieth century.  She sees an element of tragedy in the text.  Dominguez believes that, although the Oberammergau passion play appears to the public to be solidly anchored in the Middle Ages, in fact its mythology is not medieval at all.  The German play dates from the seventeenth century and was rewritten in the nineteenth.  More to the point, it relies upon the amateur status of the actors, the confusion between the actor and the spectator and between the stage and the auditorium, and the play conceived as a ritual act, a Mass which unites the Christian community and excludes others.
Comment: All these Oberammergau practices which Dominguez denounces can be envisaged as typically medieval and as inherent in medieval theater, whether it be the French mystery plays or the English miracle plays.  The performance itself as quasi-sacred liturgy uniting the spectators in a Christian community is a splendid insight which can be applied to medieval sacred drama.  Dominguez states that, concerning Oberammergau, she relied upon three books: two in English and one in French, all three, in my opinion, hostile to the Bavarian passion play.  She evidently missed the dozen and more books in German devoted to Oberammergau.  They would have given her a richer, more complex, and more nuanced perspective.

Michèle Gally, "L'aura du Moyen Âge sur la scène contemporaine": 125-37.  In a rich, complex, and nuanced essay, Gally scrutinizes the problematic of adopting medieval romance to our contemporary stage, with two central questions: how to treat material from a world distant in time and reeling with alterity, and how to adapt for the stage material from vast, interlaced, multiple-character and multiple-plot narratives.  The obstacles offer, of course, genuine possibilities for creativity.  Gally recognizes the importance of the staging and how the director shapes in a major way the audience response.  She examines these questions by way of two French stagings of a play by Tankred Dorst: Merlin oder das wüste Land (Merlin ou La terre dévastée), one by Rodolphe Dana, the other by Jorge Lavelli.  Gally insists upon the resolute modernism of Dorst and his adapters, strangely congruent with the Middle Ages.

Corneliu Dragomirescu, "Cinéma médiéval: trios niveaux de sens d'une expression ambiguë": 139-51.  In a not especially original contribution, Dragomirescu takes the side of creative directors against the scholars who accuse them of being anachronistic.  He discusses films whose plots are located in the Middle ages; films set in the Middle Ages where we see projected images, something like cinema itself; and medieval themes and motifs in modern cinema, such as Fisher King, Knightriders, and Pulp Fiction.
Comment: Dragomirescu cites the medieval poet as "Chrétien de Troie" [Chrétien of Troy], which does little to reassure us as to his command of the medieval Urstoff.

Mónica Ann Walker Vadillo, "Comic Books Featuring the Middle Ages": 153-63.  Walker Vadillo offers an overview of comic strips set in the Middle Ages.  She emphasizes the fact that the protagonists are painted as exemplars of noble chivalry, in contrast to historical reality.
Comment: She cites a strip which treats of England in 1193, "when Christianity began displacing the original religions of the Isles" (154).  She also cites as scholarly authority dubious material on the Web.

Gérard Chandès, "Réplicateurs visuels et sonores du monde néo-médiéval": 167-75.  In a challenging, thought-provoking, path-breaking essay, Chandès argues "that the Middle Ages can be visually and verbally represented by basic forms linked to sensory perception of space and self-perception of the body" (167).  Other historical periods lack these simple forms.  Among the replicators he cites the circle, the cross, and the crenel.  He then discusses the phonology of the verbal replicator "oyez."
Comment: Chandès assumes the final grapheme "z" to be unpronounced.  In the Middle Ages it was pronounced and often still is in British and American legal proceedings.

Céline Checchetto, "Médiévalismes d'une sémiose: Le Moyen Âge en chanson": 177-88.  In a penetrating study, Checchetto observes that song is or ought to be envisaged as partaking of several different approaches, including "text, music, voice, interpretation, orchestration, iconography, and scenography" (178), thus forming a semiotic network.  These contribute to a new field of study: cantologie.  Among the medieval intertextualities we find the text itself, the music (early instruments, Gregorian modalities, rhythmic modes, polyphony), and the pictorial: the medieval "look" performers may adopt.  We can consequently term the medievalisms in song as a "medieval transsemiotic" (185). 
Comment: An illuminating contribution.  But do we really need cantologie?  Well . . . why not?  Academics have a right to their jargon, and "cantology" is no worse than "medievalism" itself.

My conclusion:  As is inevitable with non-refereed conference proceedings, this is a mixed bag.  The weaker papers suffer from amateurism.  Indices of amateurism include inadequate footnotes or the absence of footnotes altogether.  Also, the mass of critical work on medievalism, especially in English, demands engagement with the preceding scholarship.  Unlike Ferré himself, the contributors are, for the most part, unacquainted with Studies in Medievalism; The Year's Work in Medievalism remains terra incognita.  In addition, they can make mistakes concerning the Middle Ages.  And, as a simple matter of course, scholars have to know the relevant lingue di cultura: English, French, German, and Italian.  And there can be no place in scholarship for the crude expression of one's ideological loves and hates.

It is also true that traces of amateurism are to be expected in what is, after all, in France a new discipline.  Especially heartening is the high quality of the majority of the essays: powerfully intelligent, innovative, insightful, and making a genuine contribution to the field.  The theoretical turn called for by Ferré has been answered, and answered brilliantly.

Significantly, most of the essays concentrate on the twentieth century and on popular culture.  Given that American medievalism has been expanding in precisely that direction, it is normal that French médiévalistes would do the same.  The insights from the majority of papers in this collection are superb – innovative and thought-provoking in the best tradition of cultural criticism.  However, Anglo-American medievalism, under the aegis of Leslie Workman, began with a concentration on high culture: above all, literature, but also music, the fine arts, architecture, and the life of the mind in general.  It also began scrutinizing the past, from the Renaissance on, with special attention accorded the nineteenth century, when the Middle Ages emerged as a counter weight to classicism as a potential and actual norm and model.  Major books by Alice Chandler, Kim Moreland, and others created a paradigm shift in English studies comparable to Emery's work on France.  It is to be hoped that French equivalents will come to the fore and enrich the domain of pre-twentieth-century literary medievalism in the way that a number of studies in this volume have done for the popular culture of our contemporary world.    

William Calin, University of Florida