The Medieval Review 17.03.03


Fugelso, Karl, Joshua Davies, and Sarah Salih, eds. Studies in Medievalism XXV: Medievalism and Modernity . Studies in Medievalism, 25. Woodbridge: D.S.Brewer, 2016. pp. 218. $99.00 (hardback). ISBN: 978-1-84384-437-2 (hardback).



Reviewed by:


Andrew B.R. Elliott
University of Lincoln (UK)
aelliott@lincoln.ac.uk

This year's Studies in Medievalism addresses the fraught issue of writing about medievalism from within modernity. Noting the absence of direct critiques of the role played by modernity in discussions of medievalism, Karl Fugelso's editorial introduction explains that the collection will interrogate how "medievalism complicates, disrupts, denies, or otherwise relates to modernity" (xi).

In this respect, of course, it enters some very difficult territory from the outset. As the editor acknowledges, there is a sense in which all communication about the past is, in one way or another, itself a "product of modernity" which risks "trap[ping] the responses within it" (xi). Thus, to try to engage with modernity in discussions of medievalism, as though at arm's length rather than as part of that same modernist discourse, is disingenuous unless the writers explicitly recognize their own place within it. Without such acknowledgement, any distinctions between the 'medieval' and the 'modern' are revealed to be predicated on precisely the same periodising instinct which is implicit in the terms of the debate.

Given these thorny issues, the thirteen essays comprising this collection are to be applauded and admired for confronting such complexities with clarity, playfulness, and aplomb. The book is divided into two parts, with the first five essays offering "Some Perspectives" and the second part addressing "Medievalist Visions." One of the most striking aspects of the editors' arrangement of such a wide range of topics is the book's capacity to offer thoughtful and sincere discussions of medievalisms across a range of modern fields, disciplines, media and cultural contexts, and within a range of different methodological positions. The resulting collection forms a sophisticated and careful arrangement of ideas which challenge, but never disorientate, the reader. Instead, their differing perspectives on modern medievalisms create an ongoing dialogue within, between, and across the contributions. There is much food for thought here, and a great many valuable contributions for discussions which will doubtless carry on beyond the book's publication.

Part I begins, somewhat paradoxically, with the end, in John Lance Griffith's "Medievalism at the End of History" which analyses the medievalisms of Jean-Marie Poiré's 2001 film Just Visiting. The essay makes a convincing argument for the reconsideration of a film often dismissed by critics (including myself, as the footnote on p. 2 points out). Seen through the prism of historical pessimism, Griffith's analysis situates the film within "a branch of medievalism that deals not with adapted medieval texts or medieval history, but, rather, imagines the medieval and the modern world co-existing" (2). Such a co-existence thus offers a "therapeutic space" (3) capable of containing both medieval optimism (5) and modern pessimism (6-7).

Similar ideas about the overflow of the medieval into the modern also inform Katherine A. Brown's essay which explores remix culture, demonstrating that modern phenomena like sampling and borrowing are not the exclusive preserve of (post)modernity, but are rather a continuation of medieval 'restoration' (12). As Brown notes, "the process of rewriting as a convention of medieval literature has been noted by countless scholars of the Western Middle Ages" (12), and thus it is "precisely this type of renewal which permeates popular culture in the form of film and television-series remakes, and especially in music sampling" (15). Given the similarities between the two processes of restoration and remixing, Brown's thoughtful contribution shows that the supposed clash between medievalism and modernity might not be a conflict at all, but when viewed side-by-side, they are revealed to be working according to the same rules and processes.

Mike Horswell's essay on "Crusader Medievalism" treads more familiar ground in its recognition that the medieval terms we use in modernity can often unwittingly frame--and thus constrain--the terms of the debate, but it leads to a new conclusion. That terms like 'crusade' occupy an awkward position wherein meaning is derived from two irreconcilable contexts and temporal aporia is scarcely controversial. What is new in Horswell's argument is his subtle acknowledgement that "both modernity and medievalism carry inherently a sense of chronological distance and difference--now and then" (19), which means that overlaying the medieval onto modernity causes temporal ruptures which inescapably shape our experience of both timeframes.

Such an overlaying of temporal frames also informs Pedro Martins' fascinating insight into António Sardinha's twentieth-century medievalisms. For Sardinha, Martins argues, the restoration of medievalisms such as honour and nobility (33) functioned as a revolt against Enlightenment Republicanism not via the formulation of new modernist forms, but by a call for a wholesale return to medievalism superimposed onto modernity (35). A similar instinct also pervades Lisa Narbone's discussion of the Spanish novelist, Mercedes Rubio, and her use of another set of medievalisms, in this case Wagner's Parsifal, as a means of recalling the medieval in order to 'fix' modernity. Again, it is by overlaying medievalism onto modernity that Rubio seeks to combine the temporal frames rather than to separate them. The result is a complex intertemporality that is characterized by a mutual borrowing in the creation of new medievalisms (43).

The second group of essays, "Medievalist Visions," emerged from a 2013 exhibition at Kings College, London. The introduction by Sarah Salih and Joshua Davies promises a set of essays which "trace how works of medievalism confound a traditional sense of historical periodicity" (50), and offer a genuine challenge to a historical sense of the closed, completed Middle Ages in favour of medievalism as the continuing process of creating the Middle Ages, to use Leslie Workman's now classic phrase.

The first essay in the cluster, by Salih herself, offers an insightful and profound exploration of the ways in which invisible medievalisms sit underneath, beside and around us, in variously unacknowledged positions which sometimes nevertheless rupture the surface of modernity. Using the example of medieval London and its invisible medievalisms like the London Stone, Salih demonstrates how the invisibility of the medieval is rendered visible by striking, yet unwitting, neomedievalisms like the Shard as modern cathedral. A detailed analysis of these neomedievalisms leads her eventually to conclude, playfully, that there are an "infinite number of medieval Londons" (55), unacknowledged, elusive and invisible, yet encountered with every step.

Louise D'Arcens continues Salih's thesis, identifying a surprising range of mundane medievalisms littering controversial French novelist Michel Houellebecq's use of William Morris in his novel The Map And The Territory. Morris and his Arts and Crafts movement appear both on the surface of Houellebecq's novel as well as informing their subtexts. However, D'Arcens carefully shows how these medievalisms are not abstracted from the Middle Ages directly, but instead refracted through the modernist prism of a nineteenth-century re-articulation of the period. As such, the rejection of the medieval by neoliberalism's insistence on technological obsolescence, commercialism and disposability, according to D'Arcens, also brings about a paradoxical but insistent return of the medieval through a wistful and nostalgic, but economically convenient, search for authenticity (88), a tension only partly explored by the novelist himself, but adroitly exposed by D'Arcens.

The following three essays all explore similar interactions between the medieval and the modern through performances of the former taking place in the latter. Edward Breen's essay on performing medieval music highlights the ways in which interpretations of the past are just as reliant on modernity, and explores the ensuing conflict of authenticity (113). Likewise, Catherine A.M. Clarke's essay on her collaboration with the artist Nayan Kulkarnis to create an installation in Chester demonstrates how modern creativity can publicly "call attention to concerns about history, authority, and imagination" (116). Joshua Davies' essay on public art and cultural memory equally explores the role of imagination in curating and containing the medieval within the confines, and under the interpretive gaze, of modernity. Beginning with Ruth Evans' argument that "the past exists in the form it does because it has been archived in a certain way", Davies works through the implications of such archiving practices for public art, and their influence on later ideas about the past as these artworks themselves become part of the archives for future generations (156).

For me, however, it is James L. Smith's discussion of the medievalism of moral panic which is the standout essay of the whole collection, as it is one which ably demonstrates some of the most pressing issues at the root of modernity's attempts to grapple with the spectre of medievalism. The essay discusses the medievalism of moral panics over, variously, Charlie Hebdo, the 'medieval savagery' of IS and Islamic terrorism, descriptions of the London Riots as a Peasants' Revolt, and the reliance on a journalistic staple of the medieval mob. These discussions are not only timely and topical, but they are treated sensitively and intriguingly as medievalisms inescapably bound up in a particular modernist perspective. Smith's essay adopts an interdisciplinary and creative framework which is clear and cogent, but which allows for a lively (yet tragically serious) discussion of the ways in which the medieval is harnessed within a powerful engine of modernity. Though the terms might be medievalisms, Smith shows how the moral panics themselves are part of an irredeemably modern phenomenon, and one which depends utterly on a modern infrastructure both to manufacture and to disseminate the contagious fear on which it relies (170-171).

The remaining two essays of the collection, by Michelle M. Sauer and Paddy Molloy, explore the ways in which the medieval world comes into contact, and collision, with modernity in the form of modern anchorholds and illustration (respectively). While rooted firmly in the same kinds of questions as the other essays, these final two contributions offer much food for thought since they explore the ways in which the complexities of medieval culture are simplified for public consumption, but are nevertheless contingent on the same kinds of interpretive practices as the other examples. In this way, visions of the past afford only partial insights into the Middle Ages, and only from the standpoint of modernity, a complexity which requires no less scholarly negotiation than other, more traditional, academic forms.

Taken together, then, the essays of this collection offer enormous value for the ongoing discussions of medievalism which are rapidly gaining ground in the academy. The editors have carefully collated and assembled an impressive range of voices on a complex subject, and the insights of the contributions emerge, collectively, as a superb meditation on important historiographical questions often masked by the process of interpreting the past. The modernity of the title is, as the scholars themselves often acknowledge, difficult to perceive by those of us (i.e. all of us) who are trapped within it, but Fugelso et al have carefully crafted a way for the writers (and thus the readers) to look around themselves and to situate themselves within a specific historical period, rather than pretend to examine medievalism from a pseudo-objective standpoint, outside of temporality.

Of course, the collection is not without its flaws. In order to include such a wide range of perspectives, the thirteen essays have been restricted to a little over ten pages apiece, which necessarily means that more time is devoted to exposition than to interpretation. Similarly, the focus of the piece on medievalism and modernity suggests an inevitable conflict between the two, a conflict only explicitly rejected by Brown, Salih, D'Arcens, Smith and Molloy. Perhaps the biggest critique is, rather unfairly, the omission of what the essay does not even set out to address, namely the potential differences between modernity and postmodernity, which do risk being conflated in some of the essays. Given that the opening essay begins with Fukuyama's controversial 'end of history' theory (which relies on the perceived superimposition of postmodernity onto modernity), it is clear that a construct like modernity is only rendered visible by the equally hypothetical construct of postmodernity. Nevertheless, given that its aim was exclusively focused on modernity, such criticisms are admittedly unfair. As part of an ongoing discussion between a range of eloquent and lively contributors, Fugelso, Salih and Davies have produced a valuable, nuanced and worthy volume which deserves to find a wide readership among medievalists of all stripes.



Copyright (c) 2017 Andrew B.R. Elliott



Give Now

ISSN: 1096-746X | Administrator Login