Berit Kjærulff on "Medievalism and the post-medieval Middle Ages"
Updated: Dec 14, 2018
Berit Kjærulff (U of Aarhus) recently published a review article "Medievalism and the post-medieval Middle Ages" in Orbis Litterarum (73 : 458–70). It surveys the history of Anglophone medievalism studies since the 1970s, ending with a section on the Manifesto:
The latest major publication on medievalism is Utz’s pamphlet
Medievalism. A Manifesto (2017). This is a programmatic piece of writing that aims to reform the way scholars think of and practise their engagement with medieval culture. The pamphlet has a clear agenda, thereby reflecting the political awareness that is very prominent in medievalism studies at present. Researchers from medieval and medievalism studies are increasingly addressing the role of medievalism in public discourse, where especially right-wing organisations use it for political purposes. One example of contemporary political medievalism can be found in the promotion campaigns of the French right-wing party Front National. They have famously appropriated the figure of Joan of Arc in their campaigns, thereby juxtaposing the national saint’s struggle for French independence with their own political aims.
Medievalism scholars strive to inform people about this kind of use of medievalism and try to disassociate their field from it. Among other things, Utz’s pamphlet encourages researchers to intervene in public debate in this way.
The Manifesto also inscribes itself in the current discussion about the relevance and merits of the humanities and social studies by encouraging academics to look beyond their academic audience and write for the public. It urges academics to join forces with non-academic medieval enthusiasts and dissolve the division between them.
One interesting feature of the book is that Utz chooses to recognise the notion of research as autobiographical, as suggested by Cantor, Biddick and Carolyn Dinshaw, by including himself and his personal history explicitly in the text. From this autobiographical position, Utz encourages medieval studies scholars to engage in public debate and stresses their responsibility to provide information on what he refers to as the dark sides of medievalism. He offers three examples of instances where he believes medievalists have a responsibility to intervene. These interventions are about informing people of inexpediently charged instances of medievalism of which they would otherwise be unaware. One of his examples concerns a number of glass panels in Rhodes Hall in Atlanta, in whose images the antebellum and medieval periods are intermixed. These medieval-like pieces feature characters such as the founding father of the Confederacy and respectively a Grand Wizard and the head of the Ku Klux Klan. Utz considers it a duty of medievalists to inform the bridal couples being photographed against this backdrop of the history inherent in these medievalistic artworks (Utz, 2017, 65).
The pamphlet ends with six manifestos designated by Utz as ‘Six (Not So) Little Medievalisms’. In these, he offers his definition of medievalism and recommendations for future engagement with medieval culture. He criticises the academic tradition for making medieval studies research inaccessible linguistically, financially and hermeneutically, and he emphasises the obligation of academics to repay the society that funds their research. He encourages academics to write for a wider public and intervene in public debate. And he ends by predicting that future work in medievalism will be more co- disciplinary, inclusive, democratic and humanistic (Utz, 2017, 81–87).
Kjærulff ends her essay with this summary:
In today’s society, one very prominent type of medievalism is the militant medievalism of extreme right-wing movements. Anti-immigrant organisations such as the German PEGIDA and the multinational Soldiers of Odin appropriate medieval images such as crusaders and Vikings to further their nationalistic and anti-immigrant causes.
This gesture implies a serious politicisation of the Middle Ages which makes it necessary for medievalism scholars to take a stand. As mentioned above, medieval and medievalism researchers challenge the heavily charged medievalism of extreme right-
wing movements and draw attention to the manipulative misconceptions informing their images of the Middle Ages. As new kinds of medievalism emerge, medievalism studies assumes a new function because it can start to provide the expertise needed to inform public discourse on the Middle Ages and oppose misinformation. Thus, medievalism studies seems increasingly to be undertaking the obligations pointed out by Utz in his Manifesto, thereby becoming an important agent in public debate.