I got a lot of reactions to the Tolkien article in last week’s Newsreel. Most of them wondered what Tolkien has to do with medieval studies. Middle earth isn’t exactly historical, and even the commentary and metaphor in it isn’t a commentary on medieval events, but on ones contemporary to the author. So why do we, as scholars, care? It’s a good question, and the answer has to do with the study of medievalism, a growing field in the scholarship, and one that’s getting more interesting day by day.
The modern world is obsessed with the medieval. Our televisions and movie theatres are full of it, as well our literature and news. Game of Thrones presents a world of medieval fantasy for our entertainment, and the Dark Knight Rises is full of medieval themes and imagery, including a knight in armor, though it isn’t exactly shining. The Royal Wedding took over the news and World of Warcraft is one of the most popular video games in the world, with the only things close to eclipsing it also taking place in a medieval world. None of these things are even close to true approximations of what medieval life is like, but instead represent our reaction to the medieval, displaying what we think are the most important qualities of the medieval idea.
Medievalism is the study of these phenomena in a number of different forms. Here are three kinds of medievalism, from the Medieval Electronic Multimedia Organization, one of the leading academic societies in the field.
Experimental contemporary “medievalist” narratives that contain stereotyped medieval characterizations and plots infused with an awareness, exploration and elevation of individual unconsciousness and consciousness: medieval romances, for example, with psychological depth. The values in such works are Modernist (full of angst and a sense of the futile) combated by an idealized “happy” and/or more “simple” life of the Middle Ages. They are fictions that imply historical discontinuity, rejecting traditional values and assumptions.
More “medieval” than Modern Medievalism in that they are contemporary “medieval” narratives that recognize an inability to understand the past any than one can understand the future. Thus, they are more authentic to medieval values and assumptions in that they recognize the infiltration of modernist ideology and reject it. Fragments of a fragmented history, a synergism of histories, seamless and constantly changing histories that strike us as “medieval.”
Involves contemporary “medieval” narratives that purport to merge (or even replace) reality as much as possible. There is no longer a sense of the futile and is thus more playful and in greater denial of reality. Neomedievalism engages alternative realities of the Middle Ages, generating the illusion into which one may escape or even interact with and control—be it through a movie or a video game. Already fragmented histories are purposed as further fragmented, destroyed and rebuilt to suit whimsical fancy, particularly in video games, where the illusion of control is most complete. Surrealism becomes less of a fantasy or nightmare and more of an illusion of reality that might even be controlled. The idea of the contemporary person existing in the Middle Ages, such as Mark Twain’s Sir Boss (A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court) is no longer an absurdity, or rather, it is no less absurd than the idea of fantasizing and even reliving the Middle Ages. It is a seriously gleeful embrace of the absurd.
How we perceive the medieval in popular culture affects our study of it, but I think there’s a I think there are other powerful reasons to study medievalism. It reflects our relationship with history, showing how we feel about it and the parts of it we want to reflect on. I also don’t think there’s any doubt that this is a big part of what inspires people to study the middle ages. I can admit that it was D&D that got me interested in the medieval world. How abut you? What’s your favourite piece of medieval media?
Jim Tigwell is a writer at large who plays far too many video-games. Writing about D&D and other games at TPK, you can find him on Twitter as @ConceptCrucible, or play with him on Steam. Up, up, down, down, left, right, B, A, start.