Medievalism is a term used by academics and writers. But what does it mean? Why are the Middle Ages so important? This post aims to explore medievalism and why we must study medieval history.
What Is Medievalism?
The term ‘medievalism’ refers to the artistic and scholarly expression of the medieval. It also refers to the individuals who adapt ‘medieval’ beliefs and practices.
Therefore, we must understand medievalism as a manifestation in modernity that reminds us of our bygone past. A relevant example of medievalism is the Romantic and Gothic movement.
For those wanting to read a ‘medieval Gothic’ novel, try ‘The Hunchback of Notre-Dame’ by Victor Hugo. Not only is it a gripping read, but it’s also an intellectual investigation into medieval French culture and what matters to the human heart.
How Are The Middle Ages Relevant Today?
Medieval history occupied around a thousand years of history. Not only that, but the movements that blossomed out of it, such as the Renaissance and the Enlightenment, could not have occurred without the medieval foundations.
For example, St. Thomas Aquinas’ principles on ‘just war theory’ influences modern conceptions of whether we justify a war. Although Aquinas is not the only philosopher to discuss warfare, he is remarkable due to his influence and the legacy he left behind.
The Western University is also a medieval invention. The citadels of scholarship, such as the University of Paris or Bologna, stand today, although in different forms.
Another interesting development is cartography. Medieval maps are beautiful. Not just because of aesthetic merits, but because they depict the curious nature of humans, and their desire to know more about the world they inhabit.
However, the middle ages are relevant today in three vital fields: religion, science and art.
The former is self-explanatory: our understanding of Islam and Christianity fostered over the medieval period. Islam, in particular, embarked on a Golden Age of scientific and economic discovery. Leading Christian saints were groundbreaking, almost revolutionary in their approach to human knowledge. You may recognise St. Severinus Boethius, who wrote on Christology and the Holy Trinity.
As for science, think about gunpowder and geography. Gunpowder, originating in China, had spread through most of Eurasia by the end of the 13th century. Not only did its invention revolutionise warfare, it also contributed to the scientific understanding of chemistry.
As for geography, we must consider travel and trade. Although present in the Ancient World, particularly on the historic Silk Road, the Middle Ages saw alternative routes emerge. The famous Venetian, Marco Polo, travelled far.
Geography also matters in warfare. It’s worth charting the conquests of the Vikings in Europe, or the Mongol invasions. As for navies, we knew the Chola dynasty as one of the greatest navies of their time, from 300 BC to 1279 AD.
And finally, a curious field in medieval science is alchemy. You may recognise Nicolas Flamel. Exciting rumours emerged after his death, that he discovered the philosopher’s stone. Although that is up for speculation, Flamel was one of many alchemists who gained fame from the Middle Ages.
However, one spectacular figure was St Albert The Great, or Albertus Magnus. He’s credited with the discovery of arsenic, a chemical element.
He also worked in astrology and proposed the field as a Christian form of knowledge. In The Mirror Of Astronomy, (Speculum Astronomiae) Magnus engaged with astrology, and argued that terrestrial creatures lack the divinity of God’s grace.
Although Speculum Astronomiae is outdated, it’s a fantastic reminder that medieval individuals, like ourselves, gazed at the stars.
As for art, analyze the Bayeux tapestry in Normandy, France. Or the Old English poem Beowulf. The medieval period is crucial to the evolution of art. This is especially relevant regarding architecture. The Gothic period responsible for the Notre-Dame in Paris and Cologne Cathedral is still a point of fascination from scholars today.
Stained glass is a high point of medieval art. A fantastic example of it is the Saint-Chapelle in Paris, France. What makes stained glass poetic is the utilization of natural light. As ‘light’ is a significant motif in Christian literature, stained glass represents the light of God.
However, that is not the only magnificent aspect of medieval art. Handwriting, printing and illustration deserve a mention, particularly the illuminated manuscripts. If you visit the Piccolomini Library at Siena’s Cathedral in Italy, you’ll see the gorgeous and decorated pages of medieval literature. Whilst you are there, go down to the crypt to witness Sienese frescoes from the 13th century.
No discussion of art in the Middle Ages is complete without mentioning the literature. From the Old English poem ‘The Wanderer’ to Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, the literature of the Middle Ages is beautiful. It’s important to look beyond England when considering medieval literature, however.
We must mention the impact of Muslim writings, particularly the Koran. In Jewish poetry, the Medieval Hebrew writings of rabbi Dunash ha-Levi ben Labrat are relevant today. And there is The Divine Comedy by Dante, considered by some the finest work of allegory ever written.
Not all medieval art is religious. The Old French fabliau stories were comical, characterized by risque sexual material and satirical language. Also, chivalry romances thrived in the Middle Ages, with fictional works such as Tristan and Iseult. Poems such as Romance Of The Rose gained notoriety and fame.
Overall, medieval art represents the skills and passions of the Middle Ages that helped build the world today.
Why defend Medieval ways of thinking, especially regarding science? Isn’t the modern world more sophisticated and better?
Whether our current reality is better than the ‘medieval’ worlds is difficult to debate. Modernity does not exist without the medieval. If you think history is one of ‘progress’, then you must take the Middle Ages seriously.
Without it, the modern world would not exist as we know it. Therefore, the medieval deserves appreciation, not scorn. One can study the Middle Ages and still enjoy the delights of the Enlightenment.
It’s tempting to list the pitfalls of the modern world and argue that the medieval past is preferable. It’s difficult to argue that modernity is superior or worse than the Middle Ages, because the modern world is still growing. However, we can look at our medieval past and learn valuable lessons from it, to better equip ourselves for the future.
The Middle Ages were also an exercise in patience. We see this in architecture, where the great cathedrals of Europe took centuries to build.
How Can Medievalism Prepare Us For The Challenges Of The Information Age?
In terms of politics, our medieval past helps us understand biological weapons and terrorism. During the Black Death, people would use plague-infested bodies against their enemies, hoping they would catch the deadly virus. As for terrorism, it is worth studying The Order of the Assassins in the 11th century. Whilst our understanding of biological warfare and terrorism has developed, it is crucial that we know that they aren’t only modern.
Warfare developed throughout the medieval period, and trade and travel. Look at the exploits of Marco Polo or Genghis Khan, and you’ll understand how medieval people weaponized and understood land.
The Middle Ages also offer a curious warning lesson to the people of today. As many characterise the medieval with witch trails and absurd legal systems, medievalism cautions us to not fall to dogma. In today’s ‘information age’, we have ‘cancel culture.’ The outrage from a Twitter argument can lead to a ‘pile-on.’
The person in question may lose their job and reputation. These actions use dogmatic reasoning for justification: that the person was bad and deserved it. Because of that, studying the Middle Ages reminds us of the people we don’t want to become.
The assumption that the Middle Ages were full of ‘backward’ and ‘ignorant’ people is limiting, as is the implication that modern society is ‘progressive’ and ‘advanced.’ As said earlier, society has advanced since the Middle Ages. However, it is naïve to pretend that the world is so developed and forward-looking that we will never repeat the mistakes made in the Middle Ages.
Because of that, let medievalism act as a lesson for how similar we are to our Middle Ages counterparts.
Is Medievalism Just An Event In Western European Studies?
Yes and no. A significant portion of scholarship in the Middle Ages relates to Western European countries like France and England. As medievalism influenced later literature, it makes sense that the ‘medieval’ is seen as Western.
However, there is plenty of scholarship done regarding Asia, particularly Japan. Outside of East Asia, you can read about the emergence of Islam in the Middle East, and how South Asia and North Africa developed over the Middle Ages.
Another fascinating topic is Byzantium History, and the fall of Constantinople. Because of that, the term ‘medieval’ is only limiting if you let it be so.
What About The Italian Renaissance? Was That Part Of Medieval History?
The answer to this question depends on what historian you ask. The Italian Renaissance covers the years from 1300 to 1600. Technically, a significant portion of the Renaissance is also medieval history.
However, key traits of the Renaissance, such as Classical-era aesthetics and humanism philosophy, are not ‘‘medieval’. However, medieval history is the catalyst for the Renaissance.
Another period to discuss is Early Modernity, which we associate with discovery, science and expeditions. Because of that, the Renaissance has one foot in the medieval, and the other in modernity. Medievalism in fiction and academia is like that as well: it uses the medieval past to explain modern-day phenomena.
What Are Good Examples Of Medievalism In Fiction?
The most well-known fictional work of medievalism is J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings. Other works include Harry Potter by J. K. Rowling and The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco. Television shows like Hannibal and Buffy the Vampire Slayer (there is an episode where Willow dresses up as Joan of Arc) used medieval theology and ideas to deepen characterisation and to add rich symbolism.
The term ‘medievalism’ is loose and applies to a variety of fiction. This includes commercials and music. For example, the album Antichrist Superstar by Marilyn Manson has apocalyptic motifs and twisted Gothic aesthetics. You can analyse many horror movies, including Tim Burton’s Sleepy Hollow.
However, no post about medievalism is complete without mentioning Game of Thrones, or A Song Of Ice and Fire. George R. R. Martin draws on British medieval history through modern lenses. That being said, Martin also comments on medievalism in fiction.
Ruling is hard. This was maybe my answer to Tolkien, whom, as much as I admire him, I do quibble with. Lord of the Rings had a very medieval philosophy: that if the king was a good man, the land would prosper. We look at real history and it’s not that simple. Tolkien can say that Aragorn became king and reigned for a hundred years, and he was wise and good. But Tolkien doesn’t ask the question: What was Aragorn’s tax policy? Did he maintain a standing army? What did he do in times of flood and famine? And what about all these orcs? By the end of the war, Sauron is gone but all of the orcs aren’t gone – they’re in the mountains. Did Aragorn pursue a policy of systematic genocide and kill them? Even the little baby orcs, in their little orc cradles?
The war that Tolkien wrote about was a war for the fate of civilization and the future of humanity, and that’s become the template. I’m not sure that it’s a good template, though. The Tolkien model led generations of fantasy writers to produce these endless series of dark lords and their evil minions who are all very ugly and wear black clothes. But the vast majority of wars throughout history are not like that.
A problem GRRM had with Tolkien is the implication that Aragorn is automatically a ‘good’ king because Return Of The King said so. Throughout the five published entries of ASOIAF, Martin shows that ruling is hard, and the politics one must navigate to survive. He uses medieval aesthetics and imagery to explore philosophical truths about power.
In GOT, you’ll witness tournaments, archery, basic weapons and clothing, castles, feasts and royalty. Whilst they are not unique to the Middle Ages, we often associate them with it. However, such aesthetics are used to convey profound wisdom regarding politics and power.
For example, the brilliant scene where Tyrion Lannister ‘confesses’ his sins before his father. The scene is not about how ‘medieval’ GOT is, but about Tyrion’s pain and mistreatment from his family and a legal system that ought to protect him.
We empathise with Tyrion’s anger at facing betrayal from everyone in the Throne Room. Although ASOIAF and GOT base characters and events off the Middle Ages, the politics in it are relevant.
If you want a comedic interpretation of the Middle Ages, you can’t go wrong with Monty Python And The Holy Grail.
If you are writing fiction with a medieval slant, use the Middle Ages to explore human nature and the fundamental truths about reality that never change.
Covering a thousand years, the Middle Ages is both exciting and terrifying. We can’t simplify the Middle Ages. However, we can use our medieval past to better our understanding of the world, especially in the arts and the languages people use. Let us continue our inquiry into the medieval, and why it still fascinates us, centuries later.
Read: Medieval Literature Recommendations
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