18.09.24, Bildhauer, The Middle Ages in the Modern World

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Kevin Uhalde

The Medieval Review 18.09.24

Bildhauer, Bettina and Chris Jones, eds. . The Middle Ages in the Modern World: Twenty-first century perspectives. Oxford: OUP for British Academy, 2017. pp. xx, 364. ISBN: 978-0-19-726614-4 (hardback).

Reviewed by:
Kevin Uhalde
Ohio University

This collection includes seven papers from a 2013 conference that subsequently became a biennial conference series, The Middle Ages in the Modern World, or MAMO (https://themamo.org/). The other eight essays were separately commissioned. All are well-edited and stylistically-polished, with ample references to scholarship and primary sources, and many include good illustrations and even color plates. They are interdisciplinary in the best way, the authors and their subjects representing a wide range of disciplines, both academic and non-academic. More importantly, they are accessible to others from across those disciplines, with minimal use of technical or specialist language. Though not aimed at an undergraduate or popular audience, this collection has much to offer students of medieval history, literature, and art, cinema and popular culture, and archival and curatorial practices.

The overall quality of the scholarship is high, while certain recurring themes make the volume cohere. One is fluidity, characteristic of historical medieval cultures as well as contemporary forms of medievalism. Related to fluidity is translation between languages, time, and place as well as across oral, written, and visual media. And then there is medievalism's ambivalence when it comes to modern use-and-abuse of the Middle Ages. Numerous essays throughout the book show that no agenda--whether nationalist, Loyalist, Republican, Fascist, Communist, Marxist, conservative, radical, liberal, or queer--can either fail to find medieval justification or succeed at controlling medievalism for themselves. Although the essays are sensibly divided into three sections, a great strength of the book is the coherence all of them share together.

An introduction by the editors (1-24) provides a concise and useful overview of medievalism as phenomenon and field of study from Petrarch to the present. Part I ("Medievalism in Politics and History") opens with an essay by Bruce Holsinger, "Thorkel Farserk Goes for a Swim: Climate Change, the Medieval Optimum, and the Perils of Amateurism" (27-44). In a style reminiscent of Stephen Jay Gould's best essays, Holsinger explains how an anecdote from the 13th-century Book of Settlements, which climatologist Hubert Lamb used (or misused) to illustrate his explanation of the Medieval Warm Period, supplies fodder for those who would deny human-caused climate change--for example, Oklahoma's Senator James Inhofe, "the master medievalist among climate denialists" (41). The culprits of "misplaced amateurism and weak interdisciplinarity" (44) are not only politicians, however: Lamb's own credulity when it came to a literary text was something he would not have broached when it came to "scientific" data.

"'The North Remembers': The Uses and Abuses of the Middle Ages in Irish Political Culture" (45-72) is an interdisciplinary collaboration between Eamon Byers, Stephen Kelly, and Kath Stevenson. Despite reference to The Game of Thrones, the essay mainly investigates contemporary legacies of three historical figures--Cú Chulainn of The Táin, the Red Hand of Ulster, and Saint Patrick. What makes the search compelling is that more recent historical memories and events tend to overshadow Ireland's medieval legacy. Yet these potent symbols are successfully appropriated in often contradictory ways by rival groups, as a variety of images, including several color reproductions of memorial murals in Belfast, help attest.

The remaining two essays in this section focus specifically on history and historians. Patrick Geary, who has written extensively about medieval history and nationalism, does so again in "Writing the Nation: Historians and National Identities from the Nineteenth to the Twenty-First Centuries" (73-86). Historians beginning in the 19th century are found for the most part no longer giving popular audiences the kind of history they want, leaving it instead to non-professionals.

In "War, Church, Empire and the Medieval in British Histories for Children," Andrew Lynch rambles through a wide selection of children's histories written between 1750 and 1910. Where and when they identify the Middle Ages is obviously of interest, as is how they structure their narratives (answer: monarchical reigns). While there is interesting variety in the way these histories tell their stories, most surprising is the polemical rivalry Lynch discovers among them.

Part II ("Practicing medievalism") opens with "'Adventure? What Is That?' On Iwein" (30-54), originally published in German by the novelist Felicitas Hoppe, whose adaptation of Hartmann von Aue's Iwein or the Knight with the Lion appeared in 2008. Beginning with the author's childhood memory of a drawing of a womanly-looking knight, the essay explores the degree to which medieval stories may refashioned yet remain medieval. Quoting the historian Valentin Groebner, Hoppe sees history as "a wishing machine" and medievalism as "the purest ideal with a dangerous false bottom" (107). Hartmann's story of Iwein translates well for a modern audience because it relies on the audience not knowing what to expect of knights.

James Robinson is also concerned with translating for a modern audience in "Saints' Cults and Celebrity: The Medieval Legacy" (119-133). Robinson co-curated a successful international exhibit, Treasures of Heaven: Saints, Relics and Devotion in Medieval Europe. The essay here draws entertaining connections between saints' cults and those of modern celebrities: Pope John Paul II, Elvis Presley, Mother Theresa, and Princess Diana.

Composer and musician Graham Coatman's essay, "Is Medieval Music the New Avant-Garde? The Wilful, the Wayward and the Playful" (134-151) tries to account for the interest in medieval music from the early twentieth century onward. The examples are widely varied, including parallels within the visual arts, and no single answer is possible. But Coatman highlights the tendency, especially in more recent music, toward appropriation and free selection, which may point to a stylistic sympathy with medieval music, in addition to more familiar qualities such as exoticism and minimalism.

Fani Gargova investigates the twentieth-century relationship between medievalism and nationalism in "Medievalism, Byzantinism, and Bulgarian Politics through the Archival Lens" (152-167). After an introduction to archival practices that stresses the importance of accurate, descriptive, and widely-shared metadata, Gargova presents a case study from interwar Bulgaria. Photos and other archival material now preserved in Sofia, Vienna, and Washington, D.C. document a scholarly network dating back to field surveys in 1914/15 led by Bogdan Filov, future prime minister of Bulgaria and a staunch Axis ally. Gargova's inquiry demonstrates well how "the spheres of medievalism, scholarship, and political power intersect" (166).

In "Digital Mouvance: Once and Future Medieval Poetry Remediated in the Modern World" (168-185), Chris Jones appraises the "new medieval revival" (172) in British and Irish poetry since Seamus Heaney's 1999 Beowulf. It includes both translations and adaptations of medieval texts, as well as original poetry that somehow resembles or refers to medieval literature. Jones argues for textual fluidity (mouvance) marking a shared aspect of medieval and twenty-first century textual cultures, as well as facilitating "digital remediation" of medieval literature. He offers a demonstration in two projects: one, transposing Heaney's translations of Robert Henryson's Fables to an iPad application, featuring readings and scholarly commentary; another, adapting riddles from the Old English Exeter Book into Twitter messages ("twiddles").

Tommaso di Carpegna Falconieri and Lila Yawn's "Forging 'Medieval' Identities: Fortini's Calendimaggio and Pasolini's Trilogy of Life" (186-215) explores two examples of Italian medievalism, in which towns and the popolo are the focus. Arnaldo Fortini, a local scholar and Fascist mayor of Assisi, helped create the Calendimaggio festival in 1927. Through decades of changing fortunes, it has remained a "rowdy, erudite, dreamlike celebration of the Middle Ages" (188), evoking nostalgia for a medieval town "far more beautiful and alive than its modern analogue" (192). Pier Paolo Pasolini, too, was moved by nostalgia, especially for "humanity in an ancient, natural state" (206). Pasolini discovered modern survivals of the medieval popolo in settings for his Trilogy of Life films, including proletarian Naples for Il Decameron (Florence was too bourgeois) and Ethiopa, Yemen, and Nepal for Il fiore delle Mille e una note.

Medievalism's ambivalence when it comes to political agendas carries over into Part III ("Medievalism in literature and culture") and Elizabeth Robertson's "Chaucer's and Wordsworth's Vivid Daisies" (219-238). Both conservative and radical authors in the Romantic age enlisted medieval tropes, particularly chivalric quests and the figure of the troubadour. Robertson identifies a third, Chaucerian form of medieval influence on the Romantic poets. Through a close reading of Wordsworth's poems To the Daisy, Chaucer's Prologue to the Legend of Good Women, and other texts, Robertson argues for an "ambient ecopoetics (227) that provides a new language for expressing the human relationship to the natural world.

Ireland returns in Conor McCarthy's "Time, Place, Language and Translation: Ciaran Carson's The Infernoand The Táin" (239-253). Beyond identifying Dante's hell with his own North Belfast ("claustrophobic, cramped and medieval" [240]), Carson committed to preserving the original poem's terza rimaalso while utilizing a vast, heterogeneous vocabulary. The result is a "Babel-like Inferno [that] engages not only with Dante's text, but also with the imaginative world described by that text" (245). Though Carson's Táinhas been criticized for not being politically sensitive enough, McCarthy detects a "subtext" in its vocabulary and exploitation of place lore (dindsenchas) from the original text. Translation again creates an "imaginative space," neither medieval nor modern, but "freed from the constraints of space and time" (246).

In "Visuality, Violence and the Return of the Middle Ages: Quentin Tarantino's Inglourious Basterds as an Adaptation of the Nibelungen Story" (254-275) Bildhauer reveals Tarantino as a medievalist filmmaker. After tracing a genealogy from the medieval sources through Wagner's Ring cycle and twentieth-century film adaptations to several of Tarantino's films, Bildhauer makes two arguments. First, Tarantino follows the Middle High German Song of the Nibelungs and Fritz Lang's Nibelungen in emphasizing the "power and uncontrollability of visual signs" (260-262), whether crosses or swastikas. Where medieval scholars find anxiety over the transition from orality to written culture (Jones' fluidity in the earlier essay), film celebrates a return to visual media--"cinema as cathedral" (268). Second, Kriemheld in Song of the Nibelungs and Shosanna in Inglourious Basterds both propel "a tale of revenge in all its glory and self-defeating nature" (270). Thus Tarantino "tells a history of the persistence of the repressed Middle Ages that disrupts any illusions that modernity has developed more civilised behavior" (260).

The final two essays range much more widely over contemporary culture in order to snatch glimpses of medievalism informing a variety of media. The concept of medievalism itself is most fluid in these essays, overlapping with other biases, identities, and motives. Carolyn Dinshaw ("Black Skin, Green Masks: Medieval Foliate Heads, Racial Trauma, and Queer World-Making" [276-304]) uses the figure known (since 1939) as the Green Man as a touchstone for analyzing "human/non-human relations" in an array of contemporary phenomena that include the annual Burning Man festival, a collective known as the Radical Faeries, and a 1980 novel called The Girl Green as Elderflower. Each finds people wrestling in rather different ways with a guilty awareness of the "histories of subjugation and devaluation" (277)--a post-colonial awareness that invites comparison with Robert's essay on Chaucer/Wordsworth.

Compared to "Western medievalisms," finally, Roland Betancourt proposes that "the Byzantine comes to serve as a dialectic wrench to mediate new media and the technological as a parallel to our own world" (307). In "The Medium Is the Byzantine: Popular Culture and the Byzantine" (305-338), Betancourt searches out "silent dialogues" the Byzantine inspires in examples--ranging from album covers to music videos to decorations on New York City's Rockefeller Center--that are sometimes signified by "decorative excess and extravagance" (309), other times by "a non-machine aesthetic," which Betancourt explains as "an important double-bind in the logic of the Byzantine" (322). The "logic of the Byzantine" seems slippery, coming to include Francis of Assisi and Diocletian's Palace along with more conventional Byzantine figures and images, and at the end Betancourt refers to Lady Gaga's "embrace of the medieval" and the "internal medievalisms" in her video.

Fluidity, however, has been shown repeatedly to mark both medieval culture and cultures of medievalism, so why not the Byzantine as well. Such fluidity was manifest at the 2018 Met Gala, opening at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City in May, while I was reading and writing about this rewarding collection of essays. The theme was "Heavenly Bodies: Fashion and the Catholic Imagination" (https://www.vogue.com/tag/event/met-gala). I hope someone at the next MAMO conference takes on "the Catholic Imagination," because it looks awfully medieval.

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