Kathleen Verduin

title.none: Weisl, The Persistence of Medievalism (Kathleen Verduin)

identifier.other: baj9928.0407.007 04.07.07

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Kathleen Verduin, Hope College,

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 2004

identifier.citation: Weisl, Angela Jane. The Persistence of Medievalism: Narrative Adventures in Contemporary Cultures. Series: The New Middle Ages. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2003. Pp. ix, 277. $60.00 0-312-23968-8. ISBN: .

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 04.07.07

Weisl, Angela Jane. The Persistence of Medievalism: Narrative Adventures in Contemporary Cultures. Series: The New Middle Ages. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2003. Pp. ix, 277. $60.00 0-312-23968-8. ISBN: .

Reviewed by:

Kathleen Verduin
Hope College

"If the 'real' Middle Ages are divided from us by time, distance, and language, popular culture provides us a contemporary Middle Ages from which we are not separated, to which we respond in all the immediacy of the present" (31). Weisl pursues this proposition through serious and insightful examination (prejudice against popcult studies dies hard in the academy, but one could hardly dismiss this book as lightweight) of medieval narrative patterns in two major forms of American public culture, professional sport and the entertainment industry.

Chapter 1, "From Big Mac to Saint Mark: Saints, Relics, and the Pilgrimage to Cooperstown," traces baseball icon Mark McGwire's elevation to near-sainthood, the hagiographical dimension of his much-retold personal story, the reverent collection of "relics" (balls, bats, cards, jerseys) by a cult of fans, the National Baseball Hall of Fame's status as pilgrimage site. In Chapter 2, "The Confessions of Wade Boggs: The Confessions of Saint Augustine, Sports Sex Scandals, and Medieval Narrative Genres," Weisl reads Boggs as a knightly figure (renowned for deeds of prowess, rendered magical by his eighty-four superstitions) gone wrong, perceptible no longer through the medium of epic but susceptible to definition by other medieval genres, the fabliau (his girlfriend Margo Adams sold her story to Penthouse) and the redemptive Augustinian confession. Chapter 3, "Where Many Have Gone Before: Gender and Genre in Star Trek," and Chapter 4, "Rexque Quondam [the foreseeable] Futurus: Star Wars and the Commerce of Arthurian Romance," project these media blockbusters as medieval romance (the genre more viable in science fiction, Weisl asserts, than in the Harlequins)--though without the troubling conflicts of medieval prototypes, flesh versus spirit, "private desire" versus "public duty" (28).

I found Weisl's study informative, well-researched, and often entertaining; she is a knowledgeable medievalist, and it is always refreshing when the laptop goes along to the stadium or the movie theatre. But what accounts for this strange bridging of a five-hundred-year gap in time, Weisl's contention that "the medieval period continues to inform contemporary culture in a variety of ways, both in the form of its productions and the audience's response" (29)? Are we to assume some sort of unbroken, if underground, continuum between ourselves and the medieval past? The author herself struggles with this question, variously suggesting "nostalgia for a culture more popularly than mass produced and more actively than passively consumed" (4), a contemporary slide from literacy toward a more premodern system of iconic symbols (7), a populist reassertion of folk and regional discourse (presumably still rooted in the medieval period) against the snobbery of Modernism and an all-devouring monopoly culture (7-10). As an intersection between the "intellectual" (historically referenced) and popular, appropriations of medieval (primarily narrative) patterns in our own time make some strides, Weisl suggests, toward reunion of high and low, individual and community: "desire for a continuity with certain past forms and assumptions, desire to impose fixed structures of meaning on that which is elusive and ambiguous, desire for a transcendent liminality in a quotidian and often alienating world, and desire to reinforce comforting, if problematic, values of the past within the seemingly modern forms of the here and now" (15).

Yet the question of how popular culture gains access to the Middle Ages remains rather prominently vexed. As Weisl acknowledges, popular spins on McGwire or Boggs, as well as the Star Trek and Star Wars series, reflect absolutely no awareness of contemporary medieval studies, especially in these productions' uncritical reliance on the traditional canon and perpetuation of racial and gender paradigms "that can no longer be intellectually articulated" (19); indeed, the reiteration of medieval narrative often seems "unwitting" rather than intentional, she admits, "flawed" rather than accurate. So where is this reiteration coming from? Weisl invokes Umberto Eco's well known "Dreaming of the Middle Ages" in her introduction and acknowledges that "[t]he Middle Ages that helps construct the culture of the present is essentially the received Middle Ages, a collection of ideas generated from what people think the Middle Ages may have been rather than what they were" (29): but she allows that it is "impossible to know what relationship the creators of these modern texts (literary and otherwise) have to the Middle Ages" (30).

It seems to me, however, that reconstruction of this relationship is not impossible, at least in a general sense, but remains obscured by Weisl's apparent interpretation of the word "medievalism" as "the Middle Ages" or "medieval culture." One can hardly blame Weisl for having absorbed this acceptation, which remains distressingly common in academic discourse: but her project might have been greatly enhanced by awareness of "medievalism" as defined by the late Leslie J. Workman, "the continuing process of creating the Middle Ages"--the sum total of all that has been thought or uttered about the Middle Ages, perhaps better analogous to "orientalism" (and I look forward to John Ganim's forthcoming book on both). There exists a considerable scholarly literature on the centuries of medievalism, in this sense of the word, that mediate between the Middle Ages and Weisl's provocative data. One might invoke, for example, the cult of Arthurian chivalry that infused so many Victorian and early twentieth-century institutions (discussed by Mark Girouard, Debra Mancoff, Alan Lupack, Kim Moreland, Andrew Mathis, and many others); or the romantic neo-Catholicism ("mass and maypole") inspiring renewed interest in religious pilgrimage in the nineteenth century (recently researched by Elizabeth Emery and Laura Morowitz); or the transmission of these modes through literature, the visual and performing arts, and ultimately the early cinema (discussed by Kevin Harty and many others).

As the former associate editor of the Studies in Medievalism series (it's fair I should show my hand), I naturally regret as well the book's apparent ignorance of that series, of its annual conferences, or of its two decades of regular programs at the International Congress on Medieval Studies (where Weisl says her project was inspired). Nevertheless, I welcome Weisl's study as a substantial contribution to the growing scholarship on "medievalism" in what I insist to be the accurate sense: for medievalists and students of medievalism alike, her work has much to offer.