Bonnie Effros

title.none: Emery and Morowitz, Consuming the Past (Bonnie Effros)

identifier.other: baj9928.0501.018 05.01.18

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Bonnie Effros, SUNY Binghamton,

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 2005

identifier.citation: Emery, Elizabeth, and Laura Morowitz. Consuming the Past: The Medieval Revival in fin-de-siecle France. Burlington: Ashgate, 2003. Pp. xii, 295. $100.00 0-7546-0319-9. ISBN: .

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 05.01.18

Emery, Elizabeth, and Laura Morowitz. Consuming the Past: The Medieval Revival in fin-de-siecle France. Burlington: Ashgate, 2003. Pp. xii, 295. $100.00 0-7546-0319-9. ISBN: .

Reviewed by:

Bonnie Effros
SUNY Binghamton

In their fruitful, interdisciplinary collaboration addressing the phenomenon of medievalism, literary specialist Elizabeth Emery and art historian Laura Morowitz have conceived a seamless exposition of the vagaries of the French reception of the Middle Ages in the late nineteenth century. Incorporating topics as disparate as French novels, political and historical debates in contemporary newspapers and illustrated weeklies, juried salons of art and sculpture, museum and private collections of medieval artifacts, recreations of the medieval period at the Expositions universelles, and religious architecture and pilgrimages, this monograph highlights the richness and diversity of interest in the medieval past in high and popular French culture between the Franco-Prussian war and the separation of Church and State in France in 1905. Generous in its inclusion of numerous black and white illustrations and beautifully produced, this book points to the wealth of questions that may be posed at the intersection of the pre-modern and modern past.

Building on the model of now classic interdisciplinary works dealing with art, politics, and consumerism like Rosalind Williams's Dream Worlds: Mass Consumption in Late Nineteenth-Century France (Berkeley, 1982), Debora Silverman's Art Nouveau in Fin-de-siècle France: Politics, Psychology, Style (Berkeley, 1989), and Whitney Walton's France at the Crystal Palace: Bourgeois Taste and Artisan Manufacture in the Nineteenth Century, Emery and Morowitz have embraced a sweeping definition of culture in assessing perceptions of the Middle Ages during the Third Republic. Presenting a convincing reading of the growth of positive attitudes toward the medieval period in the last quarter of the century, they argue that historians recommended the study of the Middle Ages as a cure for the wounds inflicted on the French nation following her defeat by the Prussians (19). Reinforced by Romantic nostalgia for the pre-industrial age, a burgeoning antiquities market, and advocacy for historical preservation, interest in France's medieval past cut across political lines. The strength of this work is thus its nuanced discussion of the many meanings the Middle Ages acquired for nineteenth-century scholars, artists, consumers, politicians, and devout Catholics from all parts of the political spectrum. The malleability of this once maligned epoch not only allowed it to be incorporated symbolically into the academic sphere but also facilitated its importation into domestic and public space. For both anti-clerical Republicans and supporters of the Church, the Middle Ages constituted an abundant well from which could be drawn analogies and examples by which to define the future of the French nation.

Opening against the backdrop of Romantic adulation of Gothic architecture in the first half of the nineteenth century, the book first addresses scholarly attempts to appropriate the development of this style for France and France alone (29). According to Morowitz, the draw for many symbolist artists were the so-called "primitives" of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, whom they emulated for the sake of their mystical and allegedly non-commercial approach to painting (40). The implicit critique by Puvis de Chavannes and his contemporaries of the materialism of academic or salon art nonetheless did not mean that their own careers were necessarily less lucrative (52). Related to the imitation of medieval artists, at least in sentiment, was the obsession with medieval collecting that was the rage among such well-known writers like J. K. Huysmans, Anatole France, and Emile Zola, and became the subject of many of their novels (62). As noted by Emery, journalists followed the vicissitudes of such collections closely, and clearly imputed status to those who were in the possession of such riches (70). Critics noted cynically, however, that once ensconced in the cabinets of the elite, these objects became mere bibelots. and lost the ability to shed any light on the history or development of France.

Museums, by contrast, while promoting the desire for private ownership of medieval artifacts, were understood to have powerful symbolic value for the growth of nationalism. Louis Courajod, curator of medieval and Renaissance art at the Louvre from 1880 to his death in 1896, was a strong advocate of the didactic potential of such "popular" art forms among the masses (73). These tendencies would reach their full flowering during the 1889 and 1900 Expositions universelles in Paris, where not only authentic artifacts from museums and private collections were displayed to the public to illustrate progress in the arts, but copies were also exhibited and sold to consumers who visited the fairs. As noted by Emery and Morowitz, the world exhibitions commercialized medieval objects and styles and thereby "bridged the gap between the erudite scholar, the bourgeois consumer and the private collector" (77). J. K. Huysmans complained about the inexorable blurring between museum and showroom (81); medieval reproductions became so prosaic that they even became a common style of department store and cabaret décor (119)! The mania for the possession of artifacts of the Middle Ages also fueled the depredation of medieval sites, a trend that was exacerbated by the increasingly lucrative nature of trade in such objects. This worrisome development was facilitated by the sale of church treasures as the religious orders liquidated their assets at the turn of the century; Marcel Proust decried the pillaging of France's Catholic and historical heritage (85-87), and advocated that such artifacts be retained in their original settings so as not to be hoarded in tomblike museums devoid of an authenticity or life (104). It is unfortunate that Emery and Morowitz made little reference here to the archaeological developments of the day, since such a discussion would have cast additional light on the implications of the contemporary debate in France on excavation and preservation.

Enthusiasm for medieval works was also linked to their perceived didactic value for nineteenth-century artists and artisans. Using examples of medieval stained glass windows completely removed from their architectural context, nineteenth-century craftsmen could view original models at the Musée de Cluny or the world's fairs and attempt to imitate their style or material properties (124-125). Others looked to medieval productions like tapestries for their spiritual qualities and Christians symbolism (131). The culmination of such efforts occurred in the 1900 Exposition universelle and its Paris en 1400 and Le vieux Paris exhibits, where attempts were made to recreate the spectacle of the medieval past for fair-goers (171). Bearing little relation to the Middle Ages, these events were intended to amuse guests and divert them from their everyday concerns (181). Avoiding accuracy that was characterized as too "archaeological," these entertainment venues blended desire for a simpler, more joyous time, with blatant commercialism and patriotism (204). The medieval period, long characterized as a dark time for France, was now promoted by fair organizers as a foundational aspect of the nation's heritage.

This monograph has much to recommend it to readers interested in both medievalism and the medieval period. Shedding light on the centrality of the Middle Ages in nineteenth century thought, art, entertainment, and consumerism, Emery and Morowitz suggest how understanding the reception of medieval sources and the creation of medieval fantasies may reveal much about the historical contexts in which they were conceived.