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13.07.03, Pugh and Weisl, Medievalisms

13.07.03, Pugh and Weisl, Medievalisms

This coauthored volume may very well be the first book on medievalism(s) I would be happy to recommend to someone new to medievalism studies. Because of the subaltern status of medievalism studies in relation to its dominant academic sister, medieval studies, early practitioners avoided writing this kind of book and limited their work to more narrowly defined case studies or programmatic introductions to journal issues and essay collections. Then, within the last decade, numerous book-length projects deepened our knowledge of certain larger thematic or theoretical aspects: Kathleen Biddick (The Shock of Medievalism, 1998), John Ganim (Medievalism and Orientalism, 2005), Nicholas Haydock (Movie Medievalism, 2008), Bruce Holsinger (The Premodern Condition, 2005), Erin Felicia Labbie (Lacan's Medievalism, 2006), Clare Simmons (Popular Medievalism in Romantic-Era Britain, 2011), and Louise D'Arcens (Old Songs in the Timeless Land: Medievalism in Australian Literature, 2011), etc. Even the only study at least somewhat comparable to the volume under review, Michael Alexander's Medievalism: The Middle Ages in Modern England (2007), limits its scope to the reception of medieval culture in England since 1760. Thus, Medievalisms comes at a kairotic moment in the history of medievalism studies.

Pugh and Weisl, intimately familiar as they are with the history and development of medievalism studies, succeed at filling the gaps left open by their predecessors' work. Similar to faculty in a humanities department creating a traditional curriculum, they adopt a "coverage" model for their broader approach to speaking about medievalism[s], including chapters on major authors and figures (Dante; Arthur; Robin Hood), major genres or discourses (literature; movies; politics), and major audiences or groups (children's literature; experiential medievalisms). Within these larger categories, they cover examples from various periods (Renaissance through contemporary), include essential theoretical considerations (anachronism, pleasure, consumption, iconicity, etc.), and adduce information from academic and popular sources (performances, personal interviews, player's guides). Thus, the authors deliver on their promise, made in the introductory chapter, that medievalisms, through their "various modes of meaning," invite us "both to explore and ignore history, to create a magical Middle Ages reflective of our unique desires, building our very own selves through a relationship with history that is simultaneously the past and the magical past that we wish it might have been" (10). This very well expresses my own goals with teaching and researching medievalisms, and Pugh and Weisl have me convinced that their well rounded, clear, and refreshingly concise book will find its place in advanced undergraduate and graduate classrooms in the English-speaking world.

The individual chapters, hybrids between case studies and surveys, all succeed in providing valuable pieces of the mosaic that is medievalism: a reception history of often contradictory views demonstrates Dante's "malleability in the cultural imaginary" (7); postmedieval authors reveal their anxieties of influence when they engage with their medieval or medievalizing forebears in often conflicting ways, as when Shakespeare lauds Chaucer, but Twain ridicules Scott; fantasies of innocence, childrens' and the medieval period's own, abound in literature for children; the mythical masculinities of medieval outlaw (Robin) and king (Arthur) offer fascinating views on how gender identity moves throughout history; filmmakers betray their idiosyncratic dreams of the medieval past by their use of anachronism; the transcendent nature of music and art provides an opportunity for overcoming the real temporal chasm separating postmedieval from medieval subjects; games and reenactments, similarly, offer an escape from the "chronological coincidence" of one's actual life to "live anew in a past deemed intrinsically more satisfying than the present" (9); and mostly negative and dark images of the medieval period emerge from the violence and conflict associated with premodern laws and anti-democratic political organizational forms.

Despite its inclusiveness of time periods, themes, genres, and approaches, this volume is concerned first and foremost with Anglo-American issues. This is not a problem per se. After all, two professors of English at U.S. universities, writing for an Anglo-American publisher, have every right and incentive to concentrate on Anglo-American matters and readerships. However, such a focus might become problematic when the study tacitly continues the notion, once confirmed as communis opinio by Leslie J. Workman, that medievalism, "in origin and for the first hundred years" was "an English movement". [1] Existing scholarship would indeed indicate that the term "medi[a]evalism" may well be an original (conservative) English coinage responding to the dozens of -isms ("Romanticism," "liberalism," "republicanism," "socialism," "feminism," and "nationalism") which moved from the European continent to the British Isles and North America in the nineteenth century. However, patterns of reception of medieval culture since the Middle Ages exist in all other European nations, regions, and languages just as well.

These continental patterns, instead of seeing a unique "English" continuity between the Middle Ages and postmedieval times in law, government, and language, were more often than not shaped by particularly disruptive events such as the French Revolution (instead of a "Glorious" or "Sensible," i.e., allegedly bloodless one), which changed the way the French viewed medieval customs and mentalities. One might even surmise that it is because of such traumatic national events that it was the French Annales School (and not scholars from Oxbridge) whose representatives advanced the theory of a "long Middle Ages," whose "durée" ended concurrently with the end of the Ancien Régime. Similarly, Germany, Italy, Spain, and others had disruptive historical events that shaped their appreciations of the medieval past. The English term entered several continental languages as a loan translation at different historical moments and with various intensities, but "médiévalisme," "Medievalismus," or "medievalismo" imply distinct semantic nuances. Thus, when Pugh and Weisl pick Robin Hood and Arthur over, let's say, Wilhelm Tell, Joan of Arc, or Charlemagne, their readers are deprived of the historical, cultural, and linguistic discontinuities these figures would have introduced to the otherwise more continuity driven narratives of medieval reception. Similarly, the chapter on Dante abounds with discussions of his Anglo-American translators (from Henry Boyd through Mark Musa), admirers (from Coleridge through Gloria Naylor), and illustrators (Sandow Birk, Marcus Sanders), but silences the Italian reception, in which Dante's approaches the status of a saint. The chapter on "Literary Medievalisms" lists Boethius, Chrétien, Marie de France, Christine de Pizan, and Boccaccio, but then affords substantial space only to the likes of Chaucer, Spenser, Shakespeare, Milton, Walpole, Shelley, Keats, Scott, Twain, Fitzgerald, and Hemingway. This tendency continues throughout the later chapters.

These Anglo-American thematic choices also naturally determine Pugh and Weisl's selection of criticism and theory. Although they use several international sources in English translation (Hans Magnus Enzensberger's Zig Zag, for example, albeit without marking it as a translation and mentioning its translator, Linda H. Rugg) or English essays that abridge infinitely more complex monographic treatments (compare, for example, Annette Kreutziger-Herr's essay on "Imagining Medieval Music" in the 2005 issue of Studies in Medievalism with her magisterial 2003 book, Ein Traum vom Mittelalter: Die Wiederentdeckung mittelalterlicher Musik in der Neuzeit), the vast amount of valuable work produced by the members of the Francophone "Modernités médiévales," the scores of volumes of German "Mittelalter-Rezeption" (WorldCat lists more than 800 German titles under the term!), or Tommaso di Carpegna Falconieri's 2011 Medioevo Militante, an Italian study essential to understanding the political implications of medievalism, have not found inclusion. To do justice to the authors, Umberto Eco's seminal work is an exception to this tendency. Furthermore, there is a fascinating section comparing the American and European forms of jousting: "If European jousting is concerned with preserving the continent's medieval history, American jousting values the ferociousness and masculine bravado that comes with that history while divesting its meaning. If the former privileges authentic armor and fighting technique along with pageantry, the latter seems to prefer collisions, flying knights, and smashed lances" (132). I am not sure I fully agree with such a far reaching statement, especially when one considers the strong regional differences in the U.S. history of dueling, but it is this kind of comparison that helps students become more observing of, and sensitive to, cultural difference.

If the inclusion of non-Anglo-American material would have added further justification for adding the plural -s to "medievalism" in the title of the study, so would have a chapter on medievalism and religion. While the authors speak of religious architecture, the Antioch Chalice, Dante's Divine Comedy, Hildegard von Bingen, Chris Newby's 1993 movie The Anchoress, and the afterlife of liturgical music and performance, neither Catholicism, which formed and institutionalized during the medieval period, nor Protestantism, which came about in critical reformational response to medieval Catholicism, receive any sustained critical attention. This is unfortunate because religious movements have over the centuries developed some of the most sophisticated strategies for bridging the otherwise noncontiguous historical moments of Christ's birth and death, saints' miracles, the writings of church fathers, church councils, Thomas Aquinas' synthesis between faith and reason, or Martin Luther's views on transubstantiation, to name but a few examples, with their adherents' postmedieval lifetimes. Prayer, ritual, mnemonic and rhetorical devices, visual communication, architecture, and aesthetics all play essential roles in overcoming the temporal and cultural gaps which would otherwise make us discard with beliefs that hail from five hundred, one thousand, or two thousand years ago. For example, in 1992, when the Bishop of Regensburg, Bavaria, finally decided to end the more than 600 year old anti-Jewish pilgrimage called "Deggendorfer Gnad," local and regional resistance against the Bishop's interference remained strong. Although the historical basis for the tradition, one of the many false accusations of Jewish desecrations of the host, had begun to be exposed as early as in the eighteenth, and commonly and openly since the beginning of the twentieth century, hundreds of bridging devices, alleged miracles, school plays, community organizations, buildings, rituals, songs, processions, devotional objects, economic advantages, and family histories surrounding the "Gnad" had made it an integral part of the small town's identity. That is the reason why it took a scandalous 27 years after the end of the Second Vatican Council, which did much to repair the problematic relationship between Catholicism and Judaism, to finally discontinue the pilgrimage. Religion, thus, is a powerful part of medievalism's domain, and scholars of medievalism should devote critical attention to it, even at the danger of offending readers or church officials in the process.

I realize, of course, that adding an independent chapter on religious medievalisms and including more examples and scholarly voices from the non-Anglo-American world would extend Pugh and Weisl's book beyond its current length and undermine one of its most attractive features as an introductory study, namely its student-friendly compactness. Even without the desired additions I discussed above, the book is a transformational contribution to the field and will undoubtedly attract new practitioners. Should there be a revised second edition in the future, however, I would also suggest that the editor of Beowulf, Klaeber, be given back his correct first name. While he used both "Friedrich" and "Frederick" as he moved back and forth between Berlin and Minneapolis, and "Fr." because it abbreviated the German and English versions of his name for publication purposes, "Franz" was never among the options.



[1] "Speaking of Medievalism: An Interview with Leslie J. Workman," in: Medievalism in the Modern World: Essays in Honour of Leslie Workman, ed. Richard Utz and Tom Shippey (Turnhout: Brepols, 1998), pp. 433-49, here p. 439.