Review of Ziolkowski, The American Middle Ages & Picture That: Making a Show of the Jongleur (2018)

Updated: Sep 23, 2021

Just published with The Medieval Review:



Ziolkowski, Jan M. The Juggler of Notre Dame and the Medievalizing of Modernity, volumes 3 and 4. Cambridge, UK: Open Book, 2018. pp. 492; 520. £38.95 each (hardback). ISBN: 978-1-78374-522-7; 978-1-78374-530-2. Reviewed by Richard Utz Georgia Institute of Technology richard.utz@lmc.gatech.edu There are numerous recent investigations into the manifold specific aspects of the reception of European medieval culture in North America; Kim Moreland’s 1996 The Medievalist Impulse in American Literature and M.J. Toswell and Anna Czarnowus’s 2020 Medievalism in English Canadian Culture provide insight into North American literary medievalisms; and Susan Aronstein and Tison Pugh’s new essay collection on The United States of Medievalism (2021) offers a number of fascinating case studies of modern medievalist cultural practices in cities and communities all across the United States. However, volume 3 (The American Middle Ages) of Jan Ziolkowski’s magnum opus (I reviewed volumes 1 and 2 for TMR in 2019) is the only existing book-length study that offers a reliable panoramic view of the complex tapestry of ‘American’ medievalist continuities and discontinuities, with the history of the tumbler/juggler narrative as its red thread. The American Middle Ages begins with the reception of the narrative in the 1890s by the cultured reading public of Henry Adams, who transmitted the French fin-de-siècle popularity of the medieval poem to history-hungry upper-class Yankees like himself. Not untypical of this time period, Adams worked at the intersection of the budding field of academic history and a freely associative and at times philosophizing and ruminating general cultural history, especially in his 1904 Mont Saint Michel and Chartres. His specific interest in Our Lady’s Tumbler, which he summarizes and quotes in his book in English translation, worked in concert with his overall conservative opposition to the precarious aspects of modernity. In this opposition, which motivated so many other medievalisms, he well represents the prevalent mood of his social class and educational background: He imagined the Virgin Mary, the tumbler, Gothic architecture, and medieval culture as crucial allies against accelerating cultural change. Ziolkowski unites a wealth of detail about the well-educated and powerful ‘Adams Family’, Walter Scott’s influence, and many of Henry Adams’ contemporaries to create a colorful portrait of this “self-made medievalist” (46), who found his Harvard appointment insufficiently ‘open’ to accommodate his roving spirit. He also reveals how Adams’ desire for an ancestral racial origin for the young nation made him settle on the medieval English and Normans, with whose “hard-headed and practical, [...] realistic rather than romantic” (52) mentality he felt the most immediate affinity. Ziolkowski shows how Adams’ medievalism succumbed to nativist and anti-Semitist prejudice, elements still prevalent among those who continue to adhere to a comparably narrow idea of the Middle Ages so as to oppose immigration and diversity in 2021. The subsequent chapters in The American Middle Ages offer similarly rich descriptions of the strong British impact (John Ruskin, William Morris, the Pre-Raphaelites) on United States medievalizing art, culture, and architecture; the mediating role of the Boston Bohemians (Ralph Adams Cram, Charles Elliot Norton, Robert Copeland, Fred Holland Day); and Collegiate Gothic architecture, to name only the most important ones. Volume 4 of Ziolkowski’s work, Picture That: Making a Show of the Jongleur, traces the modern path of the medieval story from literary and scholarly rewritings to music and performance, especially the opera. The genre--dominated Europe-wide by the Germanic predilections of Richard Wagner--almost seemed to invite the non-Germanic revivalist response Jules-Émile-Frédéric Massenet offered in his Le jongleur de Notre Dame. Instead of Wagner’s grandiose apocalypse in Twilight of the Gods, Massenet ends his opera (which was based on Anatole France’s adaptation) with the glory of paradise, as the simple jongleur witnesses the ascension of the Virgin Mary as he dies. Now relatively unknown, Le jongleur de Notre Dame, performed for the first time at the Opéra Garnier in Monte Carlo in 1902 and in the presence of Prince Albert I of Monaco, became a major success in the early twentieth century despite its all-male cast. Irony of ironies: The opera’s multi-decade international popularity would be due to a woman, Mary Garden, one of the most widely-celebrated divas of her time. With the support of Oscar Hammerstein I (businessman, theater impresario, composer, and grandfather of lyricist Oscar Hammerstein II), she managed to change the lead from a male tenor to a female soprano, dressed as a young man. As Ziolkowski explains: “Making the character of the medieval entertainer a woman, [...] took the soft power of high culture in a new direction. On the operatic stage as in architecture, the United States doggedly made the European Middle Ages its own, by usurping them and perhaps even improving on them” (94). In addition to her many successful performances between 1908 and 1931, Garden’s impressive business sense and smart transmedia public relations campaign amplified the subsequent destiny of the juggler/tumbler narrative. Unsurprisingly, the increased reputation of the story ‘starring’ a tumbler or juggler would also inspire dancers. Such reenactments, based on various plays and scenarios, included Mary Wigman, as early as 1917 in “Our Lady’s Dancer” in Zurich. Ziolkowski also unearthed various theatrical and dance performances on college campuses from Oberlin through San Jose State University in the first half of the twentieth century; and he discusses some examples of vaudeville reception. The second half of Picture That: Making a Show of the Jongleur performs the essential work of explaining the myriad cultural connections the medieval juggler narrative invoked each time it was rewritten or reenacted in different genres. Ziolkowski achieves something in this section that most colleagues in medievalism studies strenuously avoid: He focuses on the role of religion and the reception of medieval faith as it survives in modern Christianity and the many forms of secularized religious traditions, with each example drawing the direct and indirect connections between medieval and postmedieval piety as they appear in images/depictions of the Virgin, in grottoes and crypts, in the essential role light plays in displaying Mary’s purity and holiness, and in the widespread “cloistering” across the United States, from the purchasing and collecting of religious medievalia as valuable commodities to the rebuilding of entire cloisters in museums and private and public spaces. He also explains that, while the Great War challenged easy pre-WWI identifications of soldierly valor with medieval chivalry, the story of the juggler was able to survive, anchored as it was in the ideas of modesty, piety, and peacefulness; and he ends the volume on some observations on painted representations of the juggler and their connections with German expressionism, French piety, and American imaginations of the Gothic. The well-researched and richly interconnected insights in these volumes make them an invaluable resource for anyone interested in the afterlife of the Middle Ages. To academic medievalists, specifically, Ziolkowski’s study may serve as a healthy caveat about being aware of the interdependence of our discipline and scholarly paradigms, then and now, with broad and impactful extra-academic cultural phenomena.


Terms: Medievalism, médiévalisme, medievalismo, Mediävalismus, Mittelalter-Rezeption

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