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

October 12, 2017

Utz: Medievalism

Utz, Richard.  Medievalism: A Manifesto.  Kalamazoo, MI: Arc Humanities Press, 2016.

Reviewed by Ryan Harper (

For those who have followed Richard Utz and his recent work, Medievalism: A Manifesto will likely seem quite familiar.  Significant chunks of the material here have appeared in one form or another in publications and presentations Utz has produced over the past several years, perhaps most notably in his 2015 plenary at the International Congress on Medieval Studies. This is not by any means a negative, however, since this volume is not intended to present new scholarship; rather, it is an exercise in interconnection, wherein Dr. Utz pulls multiple threads of thought together in an effort to weave them into a coherent argument about medievalism as a scholarly discipline.

His focus here is not on particular scholarship, but on the practice of scholarship, and the ways in which formal scholarship can better engage both popular and embedded medievalism in the larger cultural imagination.  The result is a slim, “unapologetically political” manifesto that opens with an overview of what Utz sees as the current and potential roles of professional scholars in a broader cultural conversation about the medieval era and its echoes. He follows this with three “intervention” case studies in which he puts some of those ideas into practice, and concludes with a series of short manifestos.

Chapters one and two are devoted to the argument that scholars should involve themselves more deeply in the personal, experiential, and experimental aspects of medievalism. Chapter One, “What’s Love Got to Do with It? Our Middle Ages, Ourselves,” is largely aimed at the academic self. It focuses on professional medieval scholarship, specifically the tension between the personal love of the literature, history and culture of the era (which draws most of us to the study of the Middle Ages in the first place), and the scholarly pose, which de-emphasizes such subjective or affective connections with that same material. In dialogue with Jacques Le Goff, Kathleen Biddick, Norman Cantor, Leslie J. Workman and many others, Utz traces this tension from the late nineteenth century through the present. His key intellectual player here, however, is Carolyn Dinshaw. Throughout the chapter, he references and returns to Dinshaw’s How Soon is Now as a kind of model of a potential resolution of this tension between the “amateur” and the professional, through its proposed queering of the rigid temporality that is a core element of professional medieval scholarship.

Chapter two is broader, in the sense that it is more about moving beyond the academic self and connecting with the scholarly “other” represented by the enthusiasts, amateurs, and dilettantes who nurture their interests in the Middle Ages outside the formal academy.  His leading example is a pair of responses to the Society for Creative Anachronism (published in an article for Maxim magazine), which are used to illustrate a kind of wariness on the part of academics toward the public medievalist imagination. In this case, such amateur medievalism is seen as both good, in the sense that it supports and justifies an ongoing scholarly engagement, and bad, in the sense that this sort of affective re-enactment offers little epistemological value. In pushing against this conception of the amateur, Utz explores the same basic tensions as the first chapter, but from a more hands-on perspective, this time offering examples of effective collaboration and dialogue between professional scholars and the larger enthusiast community, including the BABEL Working Group (a “non-hierarchical scholarly collective”) and the Guedelon project to build a medieval castle from scratch in Burgundy. Such projects, he argues, allow spaces for scholars and enthusiasts to work together to understand both the material culture of the Middle Ages as well as the echoes and traces of it that we see re-imagined in present popular culture.

The next three chapters are each a sort of practical intellectual exercise, which he calls an “intervention,” intended to “reconnect the academic and non-academic engagement with the medieval past and its continuing presence in meaningful ways” (36).

The first intervention is building on David Matthews’ assertion that medievalism is tied to the present moment through residual elements of a past that remain active in the larger common culture, and the example that Utz riffs on throughout the chapter is the idea of the ill-blowing East wind in his native Bavaria. For Utz, this wind, a known meteorological phenomenon, stands, as a cultural phenomenon, for a “century-long fear of foreign invasion from the East” (44). What follows is a dense discussion of German politics in that region during the twentieth century, tied into the use of long-running medieval open air folk pageant (in which a brave knight rescues a damsel by slaying an evil dragon from the border forests of the East) as a kind of conceptual vehicle for German identity politics in different eras. In his conclusion to this chapter, he asserts that scholars have an obligation to publicly expose and discuss these uses of the medieval past as vehicles for present ideologies through this kind of residual medievalism.

In his second intervention, he looks to his present home city, and tackles the medievalism incorporated into the myth of the Old South in an examination of the history and cultural context of Atlanta’s Rhodes Hall. Built in the very early twentieth century, this large private mansion, intended as a kind of castle and built with the medieval clearly in mind, “conflate[s] and conjoin[s] the medieval and the ante-bellum past as one and the same” (60), creating a situation in which, he suggests, the “potentially dark side of medievalism” (66) should be actively engaged and exposed.

The third intervention works on a slightly different temporal frame, and considers the role of faith as a kind of bridge between the past and present. Utz here first asks why “so few scholars of medievalism delve into the enduring presence and influence of religion” (71), and then himself delves into the temporal peculiarities of Christianity, in terms of both faith (the temporal collapse implied by the Eucharist) and form (ritual practices and liturgy maintained over time) that can complicate such enquiries. He offers examples of ways in which other scholars have tackled these questions, before concluding, as with his earlier chapters, that it is a scholarly obligation to “investigate and historicize religion and theology" (78).

His concluding chapter is made up of no less than six short manifestos, all largely preoccupied with moving beyond what he calls the “pastism” of contemporary medieval scholarship, and reimagining the ways in which scholars envision and engage with medievalism as both a cultural presence and a field of study.  These manifestos range from an assertion that medieval studies are themselves a form of medievalism, to a full re-imagining of the professional scholar as a public figure, engaged in broader discourse beyond a small coterie of specialists.

In this final chapter, and in the volume overall, Utz seems in some ways to be late to his own party. This is not unexpected—as a driving force in the study of medievalism, he has been vocal about these issues for some time, and the ideas themselves have evolved in a relatively public manner. However, some of the more pointed comments about the nature of the profession (particularly those about the “protection of tenure” and the “protective ivory tower walls”) seem to have been written by someone occupying a very comfortable chair.

Nonetheless, there are some thought-provoking ideas here, worth serious consideration, but the volume itself is less than ideal as a vehicle for those ideas. It is dense and bookish, even for a volume intended mostly for members of the academy, in the sense that the references come thick and fast, and he covers his material in a very short space, which creates the continual sense of rushing through.  The interventions themselves are tightly packed bundles of ideas and observations that don’t always come together as a cohesive whole. This comes, in part, from the brevity and concision of the volume; I expect that doubling the length would greatly improve the argument by allowing these ideas a bit more breathing room, and the connections could be more deeply and clearly made. The matter of length, however, seems to be the result of the imprint; the Past Imperfect series presents concise paperback overviews rather than weighty tomes. It’s an unfortunate mismatch, but the volume as presented is worth a read nonetheless.

Ryan Harper, American Public University