17.07.11 D'Arcens, Comic Medievalism

Main Article Content

Timothy Miller

The Medieval Review 17.07.11

D'Arcens, Louise. Comic Medievalism: Laughing at the Middle Ages. Medievalism, IV. Cambridge: D. S. Brewer, 2014. pp. x, 209. ISBN: 9781843843801 (hardback).

Reviewed by:
Timothy Miller
Sarah Lawrence College

A slender and unassuming volume, Comic Medievalism nevertheless cements Louise D'Arcens's place as one of the most important voices in the study of medievalism. Increasingly prolific on the subject, she has also recently edited The Cambridge Companion to Medievalism (2016), and this monograph was published almost concurrently with her related editorial project Comic Medievalisms, a special section of the journal postmedieval (issue 5.2, Summer 2014, 116-214). Although Comic Medievalism represents the product of only a single author in contrast to this other collaborative effort with its panoply of critical perspectives, the monograph is surely just as deserving as the journal issue of a plural in its title. Medievalism, for D'Arcens, is never a homogenous singular, even if, as she argues throughout the book, a chain of laughter may link the diverse and discordant manifestations of our "citation, interpretation or recreation of the Middle Ages," her preferred definition of medievalism (3). Comic Medievalism provides conscientious and, in most cases, sorely needed consideration of a diverse subset of comic medievalist texts and traditions: in seven short chapters, respectively, Don Quixote; Chaucer's reception in the long eighteenth century; Dario Fo's far-left theatrical performances; nineteenth-century burlesque; contemporary film; educational documentary; and heritage tourism. In this slim but wide-ranging volume, D'Arcens convincingly demonstrates that humor is never an incidental feature of these engagements with the Middle Ages, but an under-explored dimension of medievalism as a cluster of movements and moments, the study of which can also "shed valuable light on the affective range of our relationship to the medieval past" (6). The central question that occupies D'Arcens is not so much "what's so funny about the Middle Ages?", but rather, "who is laughing at the Middle Ages, and why?" An important introduction establishes the parameters that will guide the study, titled "Laughing at, with and in the Middle Ages": these three prepositions--"at, with, and in"--define a loose and often overlapping typology. Cleverly riffing on both the importance of laughter to Umberto Eco's Name of the Rose and the institutionalization of medievalism to his scholarly legacy (through the profound influence of his essay "Dreaming of the Middle Ages," with its "Ten Little Middle Ages"), D'Arcens identifies three little comic medievalisms of her own: "Representations featuring a Middle Ages that is risible" for one reason or another, a Middle Ages to be laughed at; representations that collapse "temporal distinctions between the Middle Ages and later epochs" and foster "a comic identification with the period"; and, finally, representations "whose resilient folk comedy offers a model for modern forms of comic resistance, enabling us to laugh with the Middle Ages" (9-10). D'Arcens outlines how each of these types of comic medievalism carries its own model of history and indeed understanding of human nature, noting that humor can function either to divide or link the present and the past. More generally, the introduction has useful things to say about subjects ranging from the relationship between anachronism and incongruity humor to the self-reflexivity or "meta-medievalist" character evident in so many medievalist representations (17). The book's first chapter--"The Cervantean Paradigm: Comedy, Madness, and Meta-Medievalism in Don Quixote--serves as a kind of counterpart to or extension of the introduction, together constituting the first of the book's four parts, each of which contains two paired chapters. Unexpectedly, and speaking to the counterintuitive inventiveness that will persist throughout the book even D'Arcens covers familiar works, the opening paragraph of this chapter begins not with Cervantes but rather with an account of a scene from Ben Stiller's 1996 comedy film The Cable Guy, in which misadventures at a Medieval Times restaurant function to offer a "brutally comic take on medievalism as a form of delusion" (23). In Stiller's representation of a quixotic antihero, as first in Cervantes, D'Arcens finds an "ambivalence towards the Middle Ages" that she deems a possibly "constitutive feature of medievalist comic forms" (18). Cervantes, D'Arcens argues, laughs equally at medievalism itself, an impulse she also identifies as early as Chaucer's parodic Tale of Sir Thopas. This chapter can stand alone as an independent contribution to Cervantes scholarship, but proves especially important to D'Arcens in articulating her ideas about the self-reflexivity of comic medievalism, and the form's inability finally to separate itself entirely from that which it seeks to mock. For instance, speaking primarily of verbal parody in Don Quixote, D'Arcens points out that "its aim to ridicule medieval culture is achieved through the use, and thereby the continuation or even revival, or medieval forms" (31), thus, in her model, laughing both at and in the Middle Ages. In D'Arcens's interpretation, the book stands as a kind of template for future comic medievalism in necessarily incorporating what it seeks to critique (35). I would have liked to have seen further clarification of how such strategies and consequences uniquely distinguish medievalism rather than characterizing parody as a form more generally, but the argument remains a provocative one. The second section on "Comic Recovery" contains a pair of essays exploring poles of comic medievalism as different from one another on the surface as the reception of Chaucer in Augustan literature and Dario Fo's radical Marxist theater. The first of these convincingly demonstrates the degree to which the recovery of Chaucer's language during the variegated revival(s) of interest in his work in the eighteenth century, long since waxing unintelligible, was bound up with a recovery of this Joking Bard's humor or, more precisely, his wit. (A consideration of the Middle English meanings of the word "wit" may have been instructive in this chapter, as the drift from Chaucer to Addison and Pope is revealing.) As she surveys innumerable imitations, modernizations, bowdlerizations, and other treatments of Chaucer's works, D'Arcens traces how an unconcealed ambivalence towards medieval crudity or vulgarity often accompanied efforts to "rescue" Chaucer and his humor from his own derided cultural milieu. Of course, Chaucer's reception has already been studied at great length by scholars of medievalism, and this chapter may be the least innovative in the book; this is not because the chapter is flawed, but because D'Arcens's other chapters unearth so much more that is radically new. To its credit, however, the chapter does emphasize very well one of D'Arcens's major points that comic medievalism can serve as "a vehicle for commentary on the present as well as the past" (6), in that "the medieval and the modern collapse into one another in a way that ultimately comments on the modern" (36): the eighteenth-century poets who circulate the rusted currency that Chaucer has become do so in order to define their own modernity (67). Leaving Chaucer far behind, the next chapter bears the irresistible title "Medievalist Farce as Anti-Totalitarian Weapon," and analyzes the Italian Marxist performer and playwright Dario Fo's "conception of a Middle Ages in which anarchic folk humour had the power to exposes the abuses and hypocrisies of those in power" (10). For Fo, D'Arcens argues, the medieval is both an object for derision in its oppressiveness and simultaneously a source for a modern political practice through the (supposed) anti-authoritarian resistance represented in medieval folk culture--an image of a folk culture that Fo would choose to identify with and continue in his own Gramscian reinterpretations of medieval drama and the giullare or jester figure. This tour-de-force of a chapter, which expertly refines material from a previously published article, stands as the real centerpiece of Comic Medievalism, and contains the line at which I laughed the most in a marvelously witty book: "Mistero Buffo is best thought of as accidentally Bakhtinian" (78). Finally, the concluding movement of this chapter usefully brings Fo into dialogue with his countryman and critic Pier Paolo Pasolini, another towering figure in the history of comic medievalism. D'Arcens's examination of "the compelling relationship between medievalism, comedy, and political resistance" (87) in this third chapter abruptly gives way to a second half of the book that may at first read like a deflation or at least digression into far less "serious" territory, so radically different become the texts that occupy her. Yet D'Arcens succeeds in making her case anew each chapter that even apparently lackadaisical and/or ephemeral forms of comic medievalism are quite serious matters indeed, and with consequences for our wider understanding of medievalism itself. For example, the fourth chapter--"Pre-Modern Camp and Faerie Legshows: Travestying the Middle Ages on the Nineteenth-Century Stage"--aims to remedy the lack of attention D'Arcens perceives in previous discussions of camp to "its intersection with a historicist sensibility" (93). By proposing and then analyzing the surprisingly sophisticated semiotics of a wider phenomenon she calls "medievalist burlesque" in the nineteenth century (98-99)--"They sat incongruously at the cusp of antiquarian fetishism and populist anachronism" (103)--D'Arcens directs our attention to an understudied chapter in the history of medievalism on stage and indeed nineteenth-century medievalism itself, still perhaps the most studied era of medieval revivalism. Chapter Five, taking up medievalist cinema, again demonstrates how D'Arcens is able to apply deeply serious strategies of reading to pop cultural phenomena others might see as hopelessly superficial: she proposes that her conception of the "comic archaeology" common to so many such films can supply "a supple heuristic for understanding the unique coalescence of comic method, satiric intent and historical mise-en-scène in much comic medievalist cinema" (114-115). A key point here is that medievalist film can represent a media archaeology colliding high and low culture, and "in which theatre, television and cinema are all sedimented" (117). Although the book as a whole emphasizes Anglophone works, this chapter--which proves fantastically, even frenetically wide-ranging--also covers films in French, Italian, Swedish, and Russian. Most readers, however, will likely be most impressed with the originality of the final two chapters of the book, which move away from fictional representations of the Middle Ages--still the most common subject for scholars of medievalism -- in order to tackle manifestations of "edutainment" including the medieval heritage tourism industry and recent British "jocumentaries" (including Tony Robinson's Worst Jobs in History, Terry Jones's Medieval Lives, and the BBC's Horrible Histories). Whereas, for instance, assessments of Cervantes on medieval romance, Chaucer's reception history, and Monty Python's reimagination of Arthurian legend have not been lacking, I had never before encountered a critical study of the affective rhetoric of stench at the Jorvik Viking Centre, nor do I expect we will need to see another! By "jocumentary" D'Arcens means "those forms which use comic technique while simultaneously appealing to the cultural weight accorded their historical content and [...] the pedagogical authority vested in television documentary as a genre" (141), and the decision to include these fascinating manifestations of medievalism alongside the more familiar fictions productively expands the scope not only of Comic Medievalism but the field itself. No doubt the tremendous range of texts and diversity of historical periods that D'Arcens has ambitiously chosen to include in this short book could open it to accusations of dilettantism, and specialist scholars of the eras in which the book lingers longest may prove justified in a few quibbles. Nevertheless, on the whole I found the study nuanced, rarely overreaching, and exceedingly perspicacious in its tracking of the dance between nostalgia and irony in comic medievalism, the confliction inherent in simultaneous movement away from and towards identification with an imagined Middle Ages, ultimate engine of the works' comedy. Methodologically, D'Arcens moves easily between close readings of particular passages and composite applications of high-powered theorizing. If her choices of particular objects for analysis may sometimes seem idiosyncratic, she openly admits that her book covers only some of the many forms that "comic medievalism" continues to take, and intends only to make a first concerted effort to understand the phenomenon as a phenomenon. Comic Medievalism appeared as the fourth entry in D.S. Brewer's still relatively new but rapidly expanding series dedicated to "Medievalism"; now, with around a dozen volumes out, the series has quickly become a beacon for the study of medievalism. But D'Arcens's book has much to offer scholars of other fields, and its potential contribution to humor studies as an interdisciplinary and trans-historical formulation should not be neglected: by her book's conclusion, D'Arcens has demonstrated the pressing need for further consideration of a specifically "historicist humour -- laughing at the past as 'other' to the modern," and additional "analysis of the social values implicit within comic representations of the past" (8). This fine book can provide not only the inspiration for such an enterprise, but also a model for success in the endeavor.

Article Details