A Critical History
Boydell and Brewer 2017
NBN SeminarNew Books in British StudiesNew Books in European StudiesNew Books in HistoryNew Books in Intellectual HistoryNew Books in Peoples & PlacesNew Books in Politics & SocietyNew Books Network July 6, 2017 Carl Nellis
A revealing exploration of representative modes of medievalism, Medievalism: A Critical History (Boydell & Brewer; hardcover 2015, paperback 2017), by David Matthews, examines the people, institutions, and moments that have driven societies around the world to reimagine and revive a medieval past. Eschewing shallow comprehensiveness, David Matthews instead offers a careful and extended handling of significant moments of medieval revival.
From Sir Walter Scott and Cardinal Newman embracing structures of medieval ceremony in the early nineteen century to today’s medieval reenactments and medieval markets that employ touristic capital by celebrating a medieval inheritance, Matthews explores the positive vision of the romantic middle ages. Imagined as a world of chivalry and preindustrial economy defined by courtesy and noblesse, the romantic medieval offers connection to the land, more primitive, and more peaceful, social relations, to those who long for a world before industrialism and global capitalism. Following the interlaced negative vision of the grotesque middle ages–a world of barbarity and violence, of cruelty, ignorance, superstition, and narrow parochialism–the argument examines the ways in which communities and thinkers recover both grim and grand visions of the medieval, also exploring aspects medievalism that fall outside this neat binary.
Medievalism: A Critical History moves deftly from examinations of medieval recovery in statecraft, aesthetics, art, literature, architecture, and the scholarly discipline of medieval studies. Matthews shows that an investment in the medieval has often reached far beyond academic interest in historical detail or popular interest in knights and castles. He pays particular attention to what is here called civic medievalism–attempts by writers and thinkers to recover that part of the middle ages that encouraged trade, labor, and industry, an interest on the part of statesmen and business leaders who find in the middle ages a worthy model of infrastructural expansion and open commerce. Likewise, with careful eye on ways in which being “medieval” can serve as a condemnation, Matthews pays close attention to how the idea of being medieval in the present day has the power to both attract and repel those who see an unevenness of time in our present world.
Discussing the ways in which various writers and communities have employed these modes of medievalism to great effect, Medievalism: A Critical History asks readers to consider why we employ the past to do work in the present, and how the pursuit of recovering the past makes that very past a malleable thing. Careful not to exaggerate the significance of medievalism in moments when it was merely one stream of many, while also directing attention to ways in which interest in the medieval world has been underrecognized, David Matthews makes a commendably searching and scholarly contribution to the study of medievalism.
Carl Nellis is an academic editor and writing instructor who researches contemporary American community formation around appropriations of medieval European culture. You can learn more about Carl’s work and request an editorial consultation at carlnellis.wordpress.com.