Many of the blog posts I have coming up will interact with the idea of medievalism and the medieval. Because not many people are familiar with what I mean when I talk about the medieval, I figured I could give a mini-lecture on some of the concepts I study and talk about, which will make some of my book reviews hopefully have some more context.
As many know, my background as a literary scholar is in European medieval literature, and King Arthur studies in particular. I focused my Master’s Degree research on the 15th-century work of Thomas Mallory called Le Morte d’Arthur (translated to The Death of Arthur), and in pursuing a Ph.D. program, I have been crafting my research proposals around the idea of “medievalism.” This is a fun concept. Let me explain it briefly, starting with dictionary.com’s definition:
medievalism [me*di*ae*val*ism], noun
- the spirit, practices, or methods of the Middle Ages
- devotion to or adoption of medieval ideals or practices
- a medieval belief, practice, or the like.
What does this mean more simply? Medievalism is an academic way to think and talk about how modern people interact with medieval things. As a culture, we have been fascinated with the idea of the medieval past since the medieval revival in Queen Victoria’s time, back in the 19th century. My favorite undergrad professor and current mentor said something in my first King Arthur class that I always think about: “Anything with a knight in it is medieval,” or something like that anyway; my memory is terrible for exact quotations. This is absolutely true, and I can’t help but find all the moments in books, TV, movies, music, etc., that interact with the medieval in some way.
Before learning anything else, I would guess that you have some images in your mind as I speak about these concepts—perhaps chivalric knights in shining armor, ladies in towers with flowing dresses, swordfights, masculinity on display and marvelous feats, right? If I say King Arthur, you might think about Guinevere, Merlin, Lancelot, love & betrayal or maybe Monty Python and the Holy Grail, which remains my favorite piece of cultural medievalism.
The medieval world covered a very long time, from roughly the mid 5th century (the 400s Common Era) to about Shakespeare’s time in the late 17th/early 16th century (the English Renaissance began around that time and the dates aren’t so much fixed points as suggestions). It’s hard to think about that much time, so cultural memory tends to lump all 1200ish years as one concept. That’s ok! I find it fascinating the ways in which medieval concepts are remembered, and it makes up a large bulk of my research.
Every time I read a book, watch a movie, see a show or hear a song with knights and ladies, kings and courts, I recognize the medieval, and I pay more attention. Modern fantasy, especially the branches inspired by J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, almost always qualifies as medievalism in some way. But fantasy in no way owns the monopoly on medievalism. Here are some popular examples I love:
There are so many books, shows, movies, games and even songs/bands/albums that interact with the idea of the medieval past. Do you have a favorite that comes to mind? I’d love to hear about it, if so!