Kathleen Verduin

title.none: Ortenberg, Holy Grail (Kathleen Verduin)

identifier.other: baj9928.0707.003 07.07.03

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Kathleen Verduin, Hope College,

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 2007

identifier.citation: Ortenberg, Veronica. In Search of the Holy Grail: The Quest for the Middle Ages. London and new York: Hambledon Continuum, 2006. Pp. xv, 336. $39.95 (hb) 1-85285-383-2 (hb). ISBN: .

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 07.07.03

Ortenberg, Veronica. In Search of the Holy Grail: The Quest for the Middle Ages. London and new York: Hambledon Continuum, 2006. Pp. xv, 336. $39.95 (hb) 1-85285-383-2 (hb). ISBN: .

Reviewed by:

Kathleen Verduin
Hope College

When asked to suggest a good first book on medievalism, I am still likely to recommend Mark Girouard's The Return to Camelot: Chivalry and the English Gentleman (Yale University Press, 1981) for its winsome style and lavish illustration. But Ortenberg's In Search of the Holy Grail will now run a very close second. This is by far the most comprehensive survey of western culture's engagement with the Middle Ages that I have seen, and it is accurate, well-researched, and readable.

A medieval historian (The English Church and the Continent in the Tenth and Eleventh Centuries) now working independently in Oxford but with stints at the universities of Oxford, Durham, and Lampeter behind her as well, Ortenberg identifies herself "as a medievalist studying the perception of the Middle Ages among my contemporaries, and as a participating member of contemporary society reflecting on its roots and directions" (xiv). The most compelling chapters of her study reflect this informed observation of present-day culture, particularly in the U.K.: the dizzying ubiquity of medieval themes, settings, and artifacts in such diverse venues as the entertainment media, alternative spirituality, the Heritage Industry, even politics. Chapter 5, "The Celtic Bandwagon," for example, takes as its point of departure the Welsh city of Lampeter's sometimes bemused, sometimes aggressively participatory, accommodation of "Celticism," manifest especially in the revival of druid and wicca cults and in movements like the New Age Travellers; the local university, Ortenberg notes, "may be one of the few in Britain where the Students' Union asked the vice-chancellor and authorities to allow room on university premises for its Pagan Society, on a par with other religious groupings, and got it" (119). Her desire to make sense of these exigencies, one gathers, led Ortenberg to her project, but she admits that she quickly found herself pre-empted by the discovery that medievalism was already "an acknowledged academic subject with a well-charted history of its own over the last thirty years" (xiii). Ortenberg accordingly set herself to mastering three decades of scholarship.

The result is a compendium, an impressive digest, constructed to contextualize Ortenberg's investigations of neo-paganism, tourism, museum reproduction and theme park simulacra, fantasy fiction, and the cinema. Chapter 7, "Medieval Inspirations," culminates in an insightful analysis of medievalist mystery novels; Ortenberg's distinction between popular Hollywood productions and European "auteur" films in Chapter 8, "Camelot Goes Celluloid," seems to me particularly astute; and Chapter 9, "Selling the Middle Ages," offers an intelligent perspective on assorted exempla ranging from promotional brochures for historic sites (marketed as "mighty fortresses and romantic ruins") to ads for part-time hermits on National Trust properties. Readers of the chapters "Survival and Revival," "Gothic Thoughts," "Romantic Visions," and "King Arthur" may find little that is particularly new: her aim in these chapters, Ortenberg says, was "to bring together a synthesis of current research and thinking" for "students and general readers" (xiv). Ortenberg's study is indeed unmatched, it seems to me, as a coherent narrative of the directions of medievalism from the sixteenth century to the present. Her focus, as I have noted, is primarily on England, but she also makes frequent comparative reference to continental medievalism, from nineteenth-century Romantic nationalism to its chilling outgrowths under Nazism and in Kosovo; and if her allusions to medievalism in the United States are sketchy, they testify to a continuing need for research on that front. Throughout her study, Ortenberg pursues the question of "why, of all the available periods on offer 'on the shelf,' the Middle Ages have been so specially favoured" (xii). Her conclusions are necessarily tentative, but she cites recurring themes of escapism, anti-industrialism, social cohesion, nontraditional spiritual fulfillment, and concern for the natural environment. What is needed, Ortenberg urges in closing, is an intentional reunion between scholarly and popular medievalism, the production of "good quality, accessible history" along the lines of Eco, Ladurie, Simon Schama, or Michael Wood that will lead the general reader back from fiction and fantasy.

Reading Ortenberg's book, I confess I had the strange sensation that some twenty years of my professional life were passing before my eyes. I was of course gratified to notice, among Ortenberg's acknowledgments, her generous reference to Studies in Medievalism, the series founded by my late husband Leslie J. Workman, for which (for whom?) I labored in an ancillary role from the early 1980s until about 1998, when the editorship succeeded to the eminently qualified Tom Shippey. Ortenberg's thirty-three-page bibliography, an incontrovertible witness to her diligence, is heavily marked by titles first published in our pages, articles that in the early, unproven days of the enterprise we often bent over backwards to solicit, shape, and retain in what seems in retrospect a chronic welter of anxiety. It was comforting to see these titles enshrined so clean and absolute among Ortenberg's sources: proof, surely, that Leslie Workman's guiding vision, expressed in his editorial to the first issue of Studies in Medievalism, of the eventual exploration of medievalism "as a comprehensive cultural phenomenon, analogous to classicism or romanticism," had indeed come true.

I was therefore concerned that Ortenberg's employment of the word "medievalism" be free from ambiguity, that it should clearly denote not "the Middle Ages" or "medieval culture" but the post- medieval engagement with and construction of the Middle Ages: in Workman's apt figure, "the continuing process of creating the Middle Ages" (Leslie J. Workman's editorial to Studies in Medievalism 8 [1996]). Here, I find myself not quite satisfied: when the term appears in her text, as in phrases like "in the context of medievalism," "the taste for medievalism," "deeply attracted to medievalism," "exponents of medievalism," "manifestation of medievalism," or "appetite and market for medievalism," it remains susceptible to misreading, and on the whole I would like to have seen "medievalism" more explicitly foregrounded as a primary descriptor. But this is a minor consideration. On the whole, Ortenberg's book represents a significant advance toward the establishment of medievalism in the academic world.