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

May 31, 2016

Bradford: The Middle Ages in Children’s Literature

Clare Bradford, The Middle Ages in Children's Literature. Houndmills: Palgrave, 2015.
Reviewed by: Molly Brown (
A new book by Clare Bradford, author of Reading Race: Aboriginality in Australian Children’s Literature (2001), Unsettling Narratives: Postcolonial Readings of Children’s Literature (2007), and New World Orders in Contemporary Children’s Literature: Utopian Transformations (with Kerry Mallan, John Stephens and Robyn McCallum, 2008), is always something to look forward to in children’s literature circles and The Middle Ages in Children’s Literature certainly lives up to expectations. As always, Bradford's extensive knowledge of her field is immediately apparent. She discusses no fewer than 59 children's books, refers briefly to many more and leaves one in no doubt that even these represent only a tiny fraction of what she has read.

The texts focused on in this slim but dense volume range from picture books for the very young to sexually-charged YA fairy fantasy. The book is divided into thematic chapters that contrast and juxtapose works for readers from three to sixteen-going-on-thirty. In choosing to do this, Bradford somewhat daringly resists the tendency to rigid age categorization that is so much a feature of most research into children's literature and opens the door to new perspectives on the relationships between fiction for beginner readers and novels for their much older siblings or selves.

As regular readers of the excellent Palgrave Macmillan Critical Approaches to Children’s Literature series know, works within it reflect contemporary approaches to children’s and young adult literature, film and media. In keeping with this focus and with Bradford’s other work, The Middle Ages in Children’s Literature is theoretically informed while remaining accessible to the general academic reader. This is achieved largely because Bradford uses her introduction and opening chapter to show that she is not only familiar with current debates within medievalism studies, but that she is able to summarise them clearly and concisely before applying them illuminatingly to a range of well-chosen primary texts. In fact her introduction and opening chapter, “Thinking about the Middle Ages”, could profitably be read by anyone anxious to understand contemporary literary medievalism and the academic debates around it. Bradford, who is probably best known for her work on postcolonial approaches to children’s literature, also intriguingly points out that the “fields of children’s literature studies and medievalism studies have much in common” (4), since both can be perceived as occupying relatively marginalised positions in relation to the more well-established or traditional disciplines of literary and medieval studies. Yet Bradford argues that while the two newer areas of scholarship may be and all too frequently, are dismissed as light weight, these growing areas of specialization require researchers to adopt nuanced interdisciplinary approaches to understand the social functions and ideological agendas that inform the operations of both children’s books and representations of the medieval in the contemporary world. The importance of this assertion is underlined by the way in which the rest of the book shows that the socialising and pedagogical agendas so readily apparent in works for children all the more clearly demonstrate the truth of Bradford’s  claim that “rather than drawing unproblematically on a “real Middle Ages” for settings, characters and other elements of fiction, children’s authors engage with versions of the Middle Ages that are themselves mediated and contingent” and that these “ texts engage with the afterlife of the past by reimagining ancient stories, and by interpolating spectral visitations and anachronistic intertextual references into their narratives” (6-7) in ways that foreground the complexity of contemporary attitudes to and engagement with the past.

After her incisive opening chapter, Bradford goes on to examine both temporality and spatiality in relation to medievally-themed books for younger readers. The second chapter on temporality draws on the work of Elizabeth Grosz, who suggests that past and present are not discrete entities but constantly bleed into and recontextualise each other, as well as that of Caroline Dinshaw, who uses the concept of asynchrony to describe how the human desire for other ways of being may disturb concepts of linear and measurable time, freeing the past to interact in complex and suggestive ways with the present moment. Texts discussed in some detail in this chapter include Neil Gaiman’s award-winning The Graveyard Book (2008) and Charlie Fletcher’s Stoneheart trilogy (Stoneheart, 2006; Ironhand , 2007; Silvertongue, 2008), both of which use fantasy settings that combine and contrast the medieval with other periods. The chapter also briefly discusses time travel tropes, novels featuring medievalist video games and contemporary reworkings of Arthurian material, all of which could easily have been expanded into chapters in their own right.

The third chapter concentrates on spatiality, which like temporality, is the focus of considerable critical attention in the field of contemporary literary studies. In fact the two are very difficult to separate since as Bradford admits, time and space are unthinkable without reference to each other. Employing the terms linked to what has been described as the “spatial turn” in literary and cultural studies in the second half of the twentieth century, Bradford shows how medieval spaces and artefacts continue to resonate in contemporary children’s literature and uses the work of Michel Foucault and David Harvey to show that medievalist spaces and places in work written for children are “inescapably hybrid” (63). The chapter also looks closely at the manor house and its functions in works as disparate as Edith Nesbit’s The Wouldbegoods (1901), Lucy Boston’s The Stones of Green Knowe (1976) and Meg Rosoff’s How I Live Now (2004), showing how the “protagonists of these novels inhabit their own time and space while calling on the symbolic resonances of ancient buildings, artefacts and gardens” (70). The second part of the chapter then illustrates how the current reinvention of the gothic reconceptualises the past in line with modern sensibilities. The final section on transnational medievalisms then entertainingly explores the transformations of the medieval in works written in countries like Canada or the United States in which physical traces of the European Middle Ages are few and far between. Interestingly, of course, American and Australian scholars, such as Bradford herself, are particularly active in medievalism studies and one wonders if the peculiarities of contemporary constructions of medievalism are not more vividly apparent to those working in spaces less cluttered with the material remnants and cultural echoes of the historical medieval period.

Chapters four, five and six of The Middle Ages in Children’s Literature concentrate in Bradford’s own words on “medieval embodiment” (9). Chapter four considers the extraordinary prevalence of non-normative or disabled bodies in medievalist fiction and film. The idea that a medieval setting may make it easier to allow disabled characters to escape the role of inspirational sidekick and take centre stage as protagonists in their own right is one I had not considered before and I found it very plausible. I was also utterly convinced by her argument that “medieval texts, at a remove from modernity offer a less perilous context in which to represent disabilities” (106) in that events that might result in disability can be reassuringly distanced. Chapter five, titled “Monstrous Bodies, Medievalist Inflexions”, uses monster theory in general and Jacques Derrida’s concept of the monster as the herald of change and futurity in particular to explore the roles of dark fairies, vampires, dragons and werewolves in current young adult fantasy. In examining works by writers such as Holly Black, Maggie Stiefvater, Melissa Marr and Stephenie Meyer as well as films like John Ajvide Lindqvist”s Let the Right One In (2007) and Sue Bursztynski”s Wolfborn (2010), Bradford is able to show that such texts disrupt unthinking binaries and instead require “a radical reconfiguration of the distinction between normality and monstrosity” (131). Chapter six, “Medievalist Animals and their Humans”, uses Bruno Latour’s version of actor-network theory to explore new literary conceptualisations “of the alliances, networks and exchanges which exist between humans and non-humans” (134). The chapter raises pertinent issues in relation to the way children’s books can encourage resistant readings of modernity, though I found myself wishing that Bradford had linked her conclusions a little more clearly to the rise of postmodern concerns with multiple perspectives and eco-conscious decision making.

The final chapter deals with comic presentations of the Middle Ages, a topic also recently explored in Louise D’Arcens’s lively Comic Medievalism:Laughing at the Middle Ages (2014) . The chapter brings together a wide range of texts including Babette Cole’s picture book parody, Princess Smartypants (1986), Terry Deary’s non-fictional Horrible Histories series, DreamWorks’s animated film How to Train Your Dragon (2010), Terry Pratchett’s comic fantasy The Wee Free Men (2003) and Catherine Jinks’s historical novel Pagan’s Crusade (1992). In considering all of these, Bradford deftly demonstrates that while there are different modes of comic medievalism, most of them do not simply make fun of the past, but instead use humour to denaturalise and interrogate both past and current practices, raising questions such as “what constitutes masculinity, what the past means in the present and the ethical implications of laughing at the Middle Ages” (179).

Given the scope of this wide-ranging study, it is perhaps inevitable that the reader should occasionally feel that provocative issues are raised but not fully explored or that limiting discussion of a complex work to one small aspect such as the central character’s relationship with his horse is to give a frustratingly limited perspective on it. I would also have liked to see a slightly longer introduction that did a little more to help readers to see how the different chapters speak to each other and how the work as a whole challenges dominant conceptions of medievalism in children’s literature as either nostalgic, jingoistic or both, but these are minor quibbles about what is a magisterial overview of a large and complex field. In Bradford’s all too brief conclusion, she quotes Umberto Eco’s assertion that the Middle Ages constitute a time and place “in which we still live” (181) and her book methodically teases out the complexities of this contention while also reinforcing its validity. The Middle Ages in Children’s Literature undoubtedly deserves a place on the bookshelf of anyone seriously interested in either children’s literature or medievalism.

Molly Brown

University of Pretoria (South Africa)