How do we understand fictions of past?
Corporate Medievalism, its title hinting at the future guise of the university itself, asks this question in a double sense: how do we understand fictions that were actually created in the past, and how do we understand the fictions we tell ourselves about that past? These are, at heart, questions of temporality and of the self, of understanding fiction as it moves through time, and of understanding how we use those fictions to constitute our own moment. More broadly, they ask after the defining nature of Medieval Studies, for if the past is known to us only through forms of representation thickly mediated by technology, by readership, and by a sequence of historical frames, than is Medieval Studies simply a species of cultural studies committed to romance tropes? In short, do the fictions of the past allow us some legitimate passage into that past or are we, always, Modern?
Studies in Medievalism is an interdisciplinary journal concerned with the fields of medievalism, neo-medievalism, and post- medievalism. Founded by Leslie J. Workman, its previous issues have focused on medievalism in a number of contexts. Volume XXI, Corporate Medievalism, is edited by Karl Fugelso, who begins the collection with a brief introduction locating it as a reaction to the global financial crisis of 2008 and setting its goals as to clarify "the influence of corporate entities on post-medieval interpretations of the Middle Ages" (xi). The volume itself is organized in three parts. Part I, "Corporate Medievalism: Some Perspective(s)," comprises six short readings of the notion of the corporate. M. J. Toswell's essay, "Lives of Total Dedication? Medieval and Modern Corporate Identity," begins the section with a "lighthearted" comparison between medieval monastic and current corporate organization (2). Toswell summarizes sections of the Old English Monasteriales Indicia, Isidore's De ecclesiasticis officiis, as well as parts of Bede and Bernard of Clairvaux, against a sense of the modern CEO. Kevin Moberly and Brent Moberly follow with "Reincorporating the Medieval: Morality, Chivalry, and Honor in Post-Financial-Meltdown Corporate Revisionism," a serious essay that reads allusions to medieval chivalry in Stieg Larsson's The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo to discover a corporate ideology of "medievalesque ethics" (23) that they trace to early twentieth-century Guild Socialism and the writings of Alfred Marshall. Kelly Ann Fitzpatrick and Jil Hanifan's "Medievalism and Representations of Corporate Identity" continues this line of thought with a study of the social hierarchies in neo-medieval digital games such as World of Warcraft, Dragon Age, and Elder Scrolls, games that make no claim to historical accuracy but draw on a selection of fantasy tropes, which Fitzpatrick and Hanifan connect to nineteenth-century Medieval Revivalists, such as Sir Walter Scott and William Morris. Harry Brown's "Knights of the Ownership Society: Economic Inequality and Medievalist Film" reads Antoine Fuqua's King Arthur (2004), Ridley Scott's Kingdom of Heaven (2005) and Robin Hood(2010) as using medieval legend to buttress a fantasy of an economically equitable and merit-driven America. E. L. Risden's "A Corporate Neo-Beowulf: Ready or Not, Here we Come" appreciates Hal Hartley's film No Such Thing (2001) as a retelling of Beowulf. The section concludes with Lauryn S. Mayer's "Unsettled Accounts: Corporate Culture and George R. R. Martin's Fetish Medievalism," a short and exciting reading of A Song of Ice and Fire that argues for a notion of "fetish medievalism," which invokes "an irrevocably lost past that in its inaccessibility opens the space for fantasy" (59).
Part II, "Interpretations," presents five longer essays that leave the issue of corporate culture to explore medievalism overall. The first three essays study scholarship on the Middle Ages. Eduardo Henrik Aubert's "Historicizing Neumatic Notation: Medieval Neumes as Cultural Artifacts of Early Modern Times" writes an archeology of early medieval musical notation. In a quick but well-documented overview, Aubert argues that neumes were invisible until the second half of the seventeenth and third quarter of the eighteenth century. In the nineteenth century, he suggests, they became recognized as a structured sign system linked to the coherent period called the Middle Ages; thus, the study of neumes is in fact the study of the signs of history. Michael R. Kightley's very fine essay, "Hereward the Dane and the English, But Not the Saxon: Kingsley's Racial Anglo-Saxonism," examines nineteenth-century Cambridge medieval historian and popular romance writer Charles Kingsley's theories of gender, racial purity, degradation, devolution, and English identity. Helen Brookman's "From Romance to Ritual: Jessie L. Weston's Gawain," focuses on Jessie Laidlay Weston's turn of the twentieth-century career in scholarly and popular Arthurian Studies, particularly her early analytic works and translations, and her project to rehabilitate Gawain as "a scholarly rebellion, a moral exoneration, and a search for origins" (137). The essay is particularly interesting for its recognition of Weston's role as a woman scholar working without institutional support but successfully challenging the academy.
The section ends with two essays on medievalism in film. "The Cinematic Sign of the Grail," by J. Rubén Valdés Miyares, reviews how the grail has been adapted to film from Thomas Edison's 1904 commission of Edwin S. Porter's film verison of Wagner's Parsifal, through Steven Spielberg's The Raiders of the Lost Arc (1981), to Chad Burn's Pendragon: Sword of His Father (2008). Felice Lifshitz's "Destructive Dominae: Women and Vengeance in Medievalist Films" takes up this question of representational difference by reading Fritz Lang's 1924 Die Nibelungen and John Boorman's 1981 Excalibur to argue that "Medievalist films fed a reactionary twentieth-century fantasy that power in the hands of woman was power misplaced" (163). Lifshitz's essay returns us to the Arthurian manuscripts to discover "the mutli- vocality" of the medieval female character in the source texts compared to the "modern monotone" she discovers in film (164).
In Part III, "Response," Pamela Clements and Carol L. Robinson pull together the implications of medievalism and neo-medievalism from essays across Studies in Medievalism in their concluding study, "Neo-medievalism Unplugged." The essay advances an idea from their earlier essay, "Living with Neo-medievalism" (Studies in Medievalism, vol. XVIII), that of using Medieval Studies to unplug from current information systems so as to achieve a new perspective on pedagogy, academic professionalism, history, and culture.
The notion of unplugging the medieval signifier from the mainframe of modernity proves a difficult challenge for the essays collected here. Corporate Medievalism often remains beguiled by modernity's signal. For example, Aubert's essay attempts to remap period as within a sign system; however, he subscribes to a very totalizing notion of the medieval and the modern, asserting that eighteenth-century music history "centered on a new conception of man," so that "the introduction of human beings and their historicity in the epistemological horizon broke the closed domain of the representational sign and made authors question how (differently) signs functioned to people in the course of their historical development" (75). The language is freighted with a deeply modern sense of historical narrative. A few of the essays in the volume-- those of Miyares, Lifshitz, and Mayer--recognize that medieval primary sources potentially trouble the narrative of modernity through what Lifshitz terms the "the mutli-vocality" of the past, but overall the essays in the initial section of the book never disturb our received notions of economic production and organization before the sixteenth century, and the essays in the second section focus on nineteenth- and twentieth-century scholarship. In this, Corporate Medievalism presents a missed opportunity to think about representation outside the confines of the modern narrative of history.
Still, Corporate Medievalism teaches us a great deal about the fictions of the past. Overall, it presents an exciting and thoughtful selection of essays on medievalist tropes in modern and twenty-first century scholarship and fantasy fiction. In this, it reminds us how difficult it is to unplug from modern historicity, to sever to trunk line of modernity's master narrative and let the fictions of the Middle Ages branch out where they will at the expense of any total understanding of the passage of time. As long as we remain plugged into modernity, we ride its bandwidth in an ever forward and never backward view of history. In this, Medieval Studies remains either a secondary herald of the triumph of the Modernity or a tertiary species of cultural studies documenting how that triumph came to pass. Unplugging from Modernity's matrix would allow us some glimpse of fictional temporality outside of this master narrative of temporal progression. Corporate Medievalism suggests that such a view is hard won but valuable. Until we achieve it, the fictions we tell of the past define us as having always been modern.