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

January 24, 2012

Berns/Johnston, eds., Medievalism

Berns, Ute and Andrew James Johnston, eds. Medievalism: A Special Issue of the European Journal of English Studies, 15.2 (August 2011).

Reviewed by Amy S. Kaufman (

Scholars of medievalism are painfully aware that our area of study is marginalized in the academy, perceived as the errant sibling of Medieval Studies ‘proper’ and dismissed as the province of fans (if not fanatics). Medievalism is only just beginning to get its critical due, in part for the appeal of its cultural studies approach and interdisciplinary nature. But as more scholars make forays into our field, it is important to recognize how much work has already been done in medievalism alongside the promising potential that medievalism has as a theoretical approach, one that can enter into conversation with other critical movements and help the academy tap into the latent relevance Medieval Studies has always had for scholars of literature, media, history, and culture.

This is the message of the August 2011 Medievalism special issue of the European Journal of English Studies. In their introductory essay, “Medievalism: A Very Short Introduction,” guest editors Ute Berns and Andrew James Johnston argue that despite its marginalization and supposed lack of rigor, “medievalism looks as though it were on the brink of an intellectual take-over of the Middle Ages as an area of research and academic discussion” (p. 97). Studies of medievalism have enabled scholars to launch challenges to periodization itself, and through a combination of cultural studies and postcolonial theory, to probe the temporal and geographical borders of our present and our past—exercises which, Berns and Johnston rightly point out, allow medievalists to test historical, temporal, and academic boundaries. 

Richard Utz's contribution to the collection, “Coming to Terms with Medievalism,” serves as a kind of second introduction, one that contextualizes medievalism historically, temporally, linguistically, and theoretically. Utz argues that the term “medievalism” is a kind of  “...linguistic performance responding to particular pressures in and outside the academy as well as to the almost coeval emergence of competing terms and practices related to the study of the past” (p. 103-4). He describes the well-known split between academic ‘Medieval Studies’ and non-academic ‘medievalism’ which, though it was invented by nineteenth-century scholars, persists today. Utz adds an important distinction, however: that the boundary is temporal in nature, a division between “…academic pastist research of the ‘real’ Middle Ages and the various non-academic presentist representations of the medieval past” (p. 104, original emphasis). In other words, Utz argues, this often artificial distinction is about perceived distance. Scholars whose ‘medievalism’ comes too close to touching a past prized for its alterity are rendered academically suspect. Utz’s essay also traces the efforts of Studies in Medievalism founder Leslie J. Workman to make medievalism “an independent academic area of study”; this history, one suspects, is an effort to preserve and protect Workman’s legacy in the face of medievalism’s new popularity, for as Utz points out, previous scholars who have become enamored by the promise of a ‘New Medievalism’ “...maintained their academic aloofness towards Workman's Studies in Medievalism movement and rather attempted to operationalize the term as a weapon for transforming academic Medieval Studies according to their own progressive self-image” (p. 107). Despite his cautious historicization, Utz, like the editors, ultimately is optimistic about the fact that “hundreds of scholars have now embraced medievalism as the term that provides them with the creative space in which scholarly rigor and enjoyment, educational experience and emotion, may bridge the rigid alterity between the two non-contiguous historical moments” (p. 109).

The rest of the issue demonstrates how medievalism as an interdisciplinary approach, grounded in cultural and historical studies but also capable of embracing transhistorical theory, can shed light on a variety of literary periods and genres. The issue includes two articles on Shakespearean medievalism: Felix C.H. Sprang’s, “Never Fortune Did Play a Subtler Game: The Creation of ‘Medieval’ Narratives in Pericles and Two Noble Kinsmen” and Wolfram R. Keller’s “Shakespearean Medievalism: Conceptions of Literary Authorship in Richard II and John Lydgate’s Troy Book.” Sprang argues that “Shakespeare’s histories in particular invited early modern Londoners to position themselves as ‘modern’ vis-á-vis ancient Rome and medieval England” and that Pericles and Two Noble Kinsmen “reflect a sustained interest in explorations of ‘medieval’ modes of narration that have resulted in creative experiments with narrative and genre” (p. 116).  Sprang concludes that Shakespeare’s appropriation of a “medieval” past allowed early modern spectators to indulge in the belief that “...the ‘medieval’ characters created on stage are incapable of assuming multiple perspectives and are thus inapt to instigate a process of self-reflection,” an ideological stance Sprang identifies as defining a new, “tragicomic” genre (p. 123). Keller’s contribution, on the other hand, uses medievalism as a lens to identify one of Shakespeare’s narrative strategies. Drawing on Lydgate’s Troy Book and Shakespeare’s Richard II, Keller identifies Shakespeare’s strategies of self-concealment in the portrayal of the poet-playwright in Richard II as an inheritance from Lydgate, whose diatribes against the fickleness of women in Troy Book, Keller argues, are merely “a device that masks [Lydgate’s] own authorial changeability” (p. 133). Keller concludes that Shakespeare’s allusions pairing Richard II with Helen of Troy are therefore “a conscious—and consciously masked—medievalism on Shakespeare’s part” (p. 135-8). Particularly refreshing is the careful qualification by both contributors that early modern innovations in genre and narrative strategy have to do with perceived modernity, Sprang pointing out that Gower and Chaucer both contain tragicomic elements and that “tragicomedy as a genuinely ‘modern’ invention is, of course, yet another foundation myth” (p. 124-12), and Keller using his piece to help interrogate “the grand historical narrative that posits a radical rupture between the medieval and the early modern” (p. 129). 

Candace Barrington’s article, “Grieving American Civil War Dead: General Hitchcock’s Hermetic Interpretation of Chaucer’s Book of the Duchess,” is an interesting single case study of medievalism in the late nineteenth century that, despite its narrow focus, has broad implications for understanding how medievalism generates from personal and cultural experience and extends its influence into the academy. Barrington traces the encounter Civil War general turned literary scholar Ethan Allen Hitchcock had with Chaucer’s Book of the Duchess. Though the interpretive trend contemporaneous with Hitchcock was biographical criticism, his work insists that Chaucer’s poem is neither historical nor biographical but is instead allegorical and spiritual. Hitchcock identifies the poem as the “mental journey of the poet himself, in the very spirit of Christianity, into what may be called the spiritual world” (p. 145). Barrington’s elegant argument develops with a dose of her own biographical and historical analysis: Allen’s experience with loss in the Civil War, she argues, reflects the postbellum American “hunt for what lay outside the visible realm,” a search that became “more desperate with the slaughter of over 600,000 Union and Confederate soldiers as well as 50,000 civilians” (p. 151). Barrington sees American medievalism “naturally” following from the nation’s governing interest in death and what lay beyond it (p. 152).  Her examination of the academic reception of a text as a kind of medievalism reminds us that the medieval scholarship we take for granted can and should be contextualized through medievalism’s revealing lens.

The last two articles in the collection turn to a more ‘traditional’ landscape in medievalism studies, examinations of medievalism in television and film. Elke Koch’s “Magic, Media, and Alterity in Catweazle” surveys medievalism in the 1970s British animated television serial Catweazle, a children’s show about a medieval wizard who accidentally transports himself to the (1970s) present. Rather than belittle the Middle Ages in favor of technology, Koch argues, Catweazle puts both magic and technology under suspicion (p. 160-1). Koch discusses the many possible connections and conflicted attitudes toward the past that young viewers might experience with the show, but her analysis picks up speed when she turns from audience reception to the implications of the hero’s alterity: “Catweazle comments on the possibility of relating to history,” she concludes (p. 163). Then again, perhaps “impossibility” is a better word, for Koch ultimately argues that “[i]n the personification of Catweazle, the past is lovable, but impossible to keep and to integrate” (p. 164).

Margitta Rouse’s “ ‘Hit Men on Holiday Get All Medieval’: Media Theory and Multiple Temporalities in Martin McDonagh’s In Bruges” finishes this collection with a savvy, nuanced discussion of McDonagh's 2008 gangster film In Bruges, which follows the misadventures of contemporary assassins Ken and Ray through a city that clings to its medieval past. Rouse’s complex thesis notes that “medievalism in McDonagh's film lays bare various cinematic constructions of the medieval—e.g. the medieval as evil or as a lost ideal. Moreover, the film destabilizes the binary opposition between the medieval past and the postmodern present” (p. 172). Rouse highlights the ways in which the film uses medieval iconography to underscore the unique ability of the postmodern viewer to interpret medieval signs. Rouse’s essay also includes a convincing challenge to Walter Benjamin’s definition of the “auratic” qualities of modern media against “an essentialized notion of medieval artwork” by concluding that “In Bruges addresses medieval culture not as a multipurpose ‘distancing device’ for the contemporary, but as a means of examining conflicting responses to the medieval heritage, which allows a dialogic relationship between the (premodern) past and the (post)modern present” (p. 178-9). Rouse’s essay is perhaps the collection’s best example of the critical potential medievalism has when it is applied as a theoretical approach: understanding how to determine what medievalism is, and the many ways in which the Middle Ages can be read and received, surely is an irreplaceable key to unraveling the allusions and signs in McDonagh’s film.

A few minor errata lurk in this collection: “loosing” for “losing’ (p. 109), a comma error (p. 116), “with” for “to” (p. 117), and a misplaced “do” (p. 122). The major project, however, that the Medievalism special issue undertakes is an important and timely intervention in the field. Each contributor explores medievalism by contextualizing it through time, genre, and literary inheritance, all the while remaining carefully self-conscious in a decidedly rigorous analysis of the periodization, audience reception, and historical context that too many other studies take for granted.

Amy S. Kaufman
Middle Tennessee State University