David Matthews' Medievalism: A Critical History and Medievalism: Key Critical Terms edited by Elizabeth Emery and Richard Utz are valuable resources for both newcomers to the field and experienced practitioners, whether theoretical or recreational. Matthews offers a fresh overview and compelling meta-commentary on the history and practice of medievalism, focusing on its uneasy relationship with medieval studies. Emery and Utz provide an encyclopedia of essential vocabulary (e.g., authenticity, gothic, primitive) written by leading scholars, often accompanied by brief but engaging case studies. Both volumes are marked by the topical, innovative, and solid scholarship that characterizes the Medievalism series edited by Karl Fugelso and Chris Jones. And both are gorgeous books featuring useful illustrations, and eye-catching artistic covers by graphic designer Simon Loxley. The studies work quite well in tandem, providing an historical analytical survey of medievalism and a handy reference guide--with both offering a number of fruitful topics ripe for further scholarly exploration.
Matthews' account of the history and contemporary status of medievalism is both highly readable (he is an elegant stylist) and frequently provocative. Offering an overview of primarily Anglophone medievalism from its origins in the sixteenth century to current popular and canonical manifestations, Matthews convincingly maintains that the Medieval Revival in 1840s Britain, flourishing in a period of social unrest and revolution, "was unique and never to be repeated" (xi). The mid-nineteenth century also saw the rise of medieval studies, professionalized and institutionalized between 1870 and 1925, a period coinciding with the decline of broad interest in medievalism. In the late twentieth and now early twenty-first centuries, one finds a decline in academic medieval studies coinciding with a rise again in public engagement with medievalism, especially in popular culture. For the future health of the profession, Matthews convincingly maintains that medieval studies needs to more closely link itself with medievalism studies. And the latter could use some disciplinary focus, relying more coherently on cultural studies (itself a malleable and flexible theoretical field).
Medievalismis most useful for Matthews' effort to define his terms and to account for our interest in the medieval past. Based on Leslie Workman's definition, medievalism is both the "process of creating the Middle Ages" and "the constructed idea of the Middle Ages." The cover reproduction of John Everett Millais' The Knight Errant (1870), depicting a nude woman chained to a tree being rescued by a knight in shining armor who has killed her captor, iconically encapsulates two dominant conceptions of the Middle Ages pervasive in medievalism of all ages: the gothic grotesque (violent, dark, barbaric, primitive) and the romantic (chivalric, pastoral, pre-industrial, communal). The long-held contradictory, dualistic conception of the Middle Ages in part accounts for its pervasive cultural appeal as a time both worse (supporting an historical narrative of progress) and better (often appealing to forces of conservatism). In short, the medieval represents a bewildering array of associations ranging from retrograde religion to the carnivalesque, illicit sexuality to sublime spirituality.
The Middle Ages, however, is conceived of less as a chronological time period than as an ideological construct, useful in times of social or political crisis and change. Medievalism has historically flourished as a cultural response to social unrest and revolution and in the resultant quest for national self-definition. Although perceived to reflect the effort to reinforce the status quo by appealing to hierarchical feudal order, the invocation of medievalism is not wholly conservative. The Middle Ages is also imagined as embodying communal socialism, a lost world of workers' rights and liberties, before the advent of capitalism, or indeed industrialism. Matthews describes these functions as relevant to the mid-nineteenth century, but similar contemporary ailments (technological advancements, social upheaval, questions of national self-identity) perhaps account for the resurgence in popular interest in the medieval in the early twenty-first century.
Matthews also explores how we contact the medieval through reenactment, role-play, and tourism, focusing on the hyperreal slippage and palimpsestic nature of efforts to embody the past. He suggests that groups such as the SCA (Society for Creative Anachronism) provide not only the opportunity for self-fashioning but also provide a substitute for church or workplace (i.e., trade unions) communities. But if medievalism is well entrenched in popular culture, Matthews finds less evidence of its influence in modern high art or canonical literature. His tentative suggestion is that medieval culture suffers from infantilisation and that the idea of the medieval continues to be a (repressed) construct against which all forms of modernity, dating back to the sixteenth century, are measured.
One might assume by the title that Key Critical Terms, a project inspired by the late Leslie Workman, would be a handy reference guide to cover one's secondary-source backside when invoking the idea of, for instance, simulacrum or presentism. But the collection of thirty essays is intended as far more than a theoretical primer since key terms such as medieval, medieval studies, neomedievalism, and medievalism itself are missing (nonetheless, several topics, including "Authenticity," "Middle," "Modernity," "Gothic," and "Lingua" address the problems of terminology). Instead, the essays address subjects seminal to both the theory and practice of medievalism and problematic vocabulary related to larger theoretical constructs (Marxism, gender studies, culturalism) utilized by medievalism studies. The reader is left with a firm grounding in the depth and scope of the scholarly field and various recreational pursuits of both amateurs and specialists. Ranging from "Archive" (the indeterminacy of archival resources) to "Troubador" (their influence on the Romantics), the topics address common misconceptions of medieval cultural practices ("Christianity," "Heresy," "Genealogy," "Love"); aspects of performance medievalism ("Gesture," "Feast," "Resonance," "Spectacle," "Reenactment"); theoretical lenses ("Trauma," "Play," "Memory," "Transfer"); ideological uses of medievalism ("Myth," "Purity"); and characteristics of medievalism ("Humor"; "Co-disciplinarity"). Indeed, the range of interests reflected in Key Critical Terms attests to the eclectic vitality of medievalism studies and captures the intellectual excitement of this burgeoning field. Most of the essays, purposefully and tantalizingly brief, will no doubt provide inspiration for further research and consideration. As with Matthews' study, a central concern throughout is the relationship between academic medieval studies and medievalism studies and practice, and the blurring of traditional boundaries between these fields--to the intellectual and imaginative benefit of both.