The Medieval Review 16.11.40

D'Arcens, Louise, ed. The Cambridge Companion to Medievalism. Cambridge Companions to Culture. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2016. pp. xii, 242. . $29.99/£18.99 (hardback). ISBN: 978-1-107-45165-0 (paperback).

Reviewed by:

David Clark
University of Leicester

Medievalism (dubbed neomedievalism by some) is a rapidly burgeoning research field, defined succinctly in Louise D'Arcens' introduction to the volume under review as "the reception, interpretation or recreation of the European Middle Ages in post-medieval cultures" (1). Long confined to studies of pre-twentieth century medievalist scholars, artists, and poets, medievalist research has more recently expanded to embrace both more contemporary figures and also a greater range of topics, including medievalist music, film, comic books, graphic novels, gaming, fanfiction, and so on. Most of these areas are represented in this Companion, which comprises fourteen chapters and D'Arcens' introduction, which clearly explains the volume's aims and summarizes its contents whilst ably surveying the field and discussing the complexities and disputed aspects of academic medievalism. It is both an interdisciplinary and an international collection, though the majority of the contributors (eight) are based in the United States; of the remainder, four hail from Australia and three from the United Kingdom.

As D'Arcens points out, medievalism now features in many university curricula and this volume is aimed at students as well as scholars, and "seeks to provide orientation to some of the main forms in which the Middle Ages have been adapted and interpreted, and to some milestones in the development of medievalism over the past centuries" (1-2). D'Arcens acknowledges the challenges posed by the geographical, chronological, and methodological breadth of the field, and the uneasy status of the "West" within this global project. Inevitably there are things to quarrel with in this collection, as well as omissions. However, any serious student or researcher in this field will find it both useful and provocative.

D'Arcens notes that defenders of medievalism tend to use one of three arguments: that, despite inaccuracies and exaggeration, "medievalist texts can nevertheless capture the 'true essence' of the medieval world"; that they can act as a kind of "gateway drug" to "draw people towards a serious study of the historical Middle Ages"; or, alternatively, that they can usefully reveal "as much...about the time and place [of production as they do] about medieval Europe" (6). The majority of the contributions that follow adopt the third view (though Bildhauer's chapter invokes the gateway drug argument [59]).

Chris Jones surveys "Medievalism in British poetry" and makes it clear just how influential medieval texts and ideas have been on a variety of practising poets as well as key Modernist figures. As he points out, "The New Medieval Poetry is widespread, vibrant and happening now" (25), and the work of most of its practitioners still awaits extended analysis. Jones's chapter is notable as the only one to pay any real attention to Old English medievalism (Old Norse medievalism is given short shrift), and this is a regrettable gap in the collection, given the amount of work being done in this area. The Further Reading section could be usefully supplemented by books such as Anglo-Saxon Culture and the Modern Imagination (ed. David Clark and Nicholas Perkins, Woodbridge: Boydell, 2010), to which Jones contributed a chapter on Beowulf films and Heaney's translation.

John M. Ganim discusses "the memory and reinvention of the Middle Ages in the built environment including town planning and urban design" (29). Just as modernist and postmodernist theory is often influenced by (or constructed in opposition to) medieval thinkers, so too modern and postmodern architects frequently allude to the medieval past in their projects. Bettina Bildhauer briefly surveys a number of medievalist films, including Disney-Pixar's Brave (2012). Helen Dell investigates "the fantasy of authenticity" in medieval music and explores the use made by scholars of figures like Augustine and Boethius and the theory of the harmony of the spheres, and the effects this has had on early music performance. She concludes with an eye-opening section on Varg Vikernes's inversion of Tolkienian medievalism in the Heavy Metal genre.

Daniel Kline invokes Carolyn Dinshaw's discussion of amateur medievalism and "temporal heterogeneity" (75) in his exploration of participatory medievalism, role-playing, and digital gaming, with their alarming collection of acronyms such as MMORPGs and LARPs. As he points out, "Participatory medievalisms, whether table-top, digital, or face-to-face, make time queer...rendering temporality itself malleable and infinitely replayable." (86) (I note a small error in his statement that Beowulf: The Game "borrows from the Anglo-Saxon epic": in fact, it is based primarily on Robert Zemeckis's film Beowulf and was developed alongside it and released at the same time [2007].) Kline invokes Tison Pugh's chapter "Queer Medievalisms" and this is a good example of how many of the contributors have read and make cross-references to the other chapters in the collection, which contributes to the coherence of the volume.

The next two chapters survey medievalism in the early modern period (Mike Rodman Jones), and the romantic era (Clare Simmons). Richard Utz contributes a chapter on "Academic medievalism and nationalism" and what one could call the "Philological project." Andrew Lynch writes on medievalism and "the ideology of war." As he observes, "That medievalist war can mean both stateless disorder and the foundation of nationhood and right order shows how complex and unstable a sign it still is, however simple and certain its applications are often meant to be" (149).

Redressing the tendency to confine the discussion of medievalism to European contexts, Nadia Altschul examines postcolonial medievalism in Spanish America, focussing on Domingo Sarmiento, José Victorino Lastarria, and Andrés Bello; Bruce Holsinger explicates international relations theory and the development of neomedievalist politics; Candace Barrington explores "Global medievalism and translation," using as a case study Ufuoma Overo-Tarimo's Nigerian adaptation of Chaucer's Miller's Tale. Barrington's conclusion bears repetition and reflection: she sees such non-Western appropriations of medieval texts as "the rightful heir of a global Middle Ages--global not because all the world shares the same historiographic periods as the European West, but because the European West was shaped by the rest of the world in ways yet to be fully examined" (193).

Stephanie Trigg's chapter explores "popular, scholarly, and theoretical medievalist temporalities" (207), asking questions such as '"How do we make the past meaningful and comprehensible in the present? How do we conceptualise temporal difference? How do we see ourselves 'moving' back to the past and forward again into the present? And what kind of expertise do we need to make that journey?" (196). Finally, Tison Pugh contributes a case study of the subversive medievalist film Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975) in his chapter on "Queer Medievalisms." He provides convincing and amusing evidence that "the queerness of medievalism arises in the disruptions to gender and sexuality that accrue when one travels imaginatively back to the Middle Ages" (222).

This is a well-produced volume with few typographical errors, and it constitutes a valuable addition to the Cambridge Companions series. Its paperback price puts it within the reach of most students, and its range and the quality of most of its contributions makes it a desirable addition to the shelves of any medievalist scholar. It is to be hoped that it will inspire fuller explorations of the countless intriguing medievalist works it surveys.

Copyright (c) 2016 David Clark

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