Appeals to the medieval past have often worked to emphasize a shared humanity. And yet, these medieval imaginaries often function as Rorschach blots: one sees what one wants (or is compelled) to see. Nonetheless, at this point in time, one can regard understanding the medieval legacy—both its exemplary trends and their long shadows—as crucial to making sense of our own place in history.
Medievalism and Johan Huizinga
Medieval past is a time that produced many of the political models and cultural identities that continue to organize our world. It was the crucible in which certain dangerous ideologies were formed: the tropes of anti-Semitism, the idea of crusade, the language of whiteness.
But it was also the crucible for artistic and narrative traditions so rich that they cannot be exhausted, and a time of extraordinary innovation, movement, and opportunity. In the same way, the medievalisms predicated on it are just as varied, just as complex. In his masterwork The Waning (or Autumn) of the Middle Ages, Dutch historian Johan Huizinga surveyed the carnage and smoking ruins of Europe in 1919, reflecting on the role of medievalism in fueling and sustaining the Great War that had just concluded. He pondered: “How eagerly have we examined medieval civilization for the beginnings of modern culture … But in the search for that new emerging life, we forgot that, in history as in nature, dying and birth always keep pace with one another.”
In this work one can begin to discern its author’s growing consciousness of medievalism’s contributions to the deadly future—a future that would not make this Great War of the early 20th century “the war to end all wars”, as US President Woodrow Wilson had confidently asserted. Most of the major sentiments and trends which Huizinga attributes to late-medieval Burgundian court culture are also those of his own generation. “We newspaper-readers,” he says, cannot appreciate the power of the spoken word or the lure of images. And yet medieval imagery, along with medieval slogans, mobilized whole modern populations—as they mobilized the mob that attacked the United States Capitol on 6 January 2021.
This article comes directly from content in the video series The Medieval Legacy. Watch it now, on Wondrium.
The Medieval-manured Soil
Although ostensibly arguing for the radical alterity of the medieval psyche, Huizinga constantly analyses that of modernity. When he describes “the drive for revenge” that characterized medieval warfare, he is also describing what motivated the French to recapture Alsace-Lorraine.
When Huizinga laments “the strongly emotional character of partisanship and princely solidarity” that was advanced through medieval “party tokens, colours, emblems, devices, and mottoes,” he also reveals how stereotypes were and are distilled and infused into modern propaganda. “It is a wicked world,” he says. “The fires of hatred and violence burn brightly,” he observed.
And he would, in later life, characterize jingoistic patriotism and belligerent nationalism as the “two forces that, for good or evil, are straining and convulsing the world like a fever”.
Even if his insights were partly veiled, even from himself, Huizinga had seen that the roots of a second devastating global conflict were planted in the medieval-manured soil of the one before it.
In 1932, when a French translator finally managed to get his book published for a wider audience, he sharpened the point. “Let us,” he wrote, “read this book with the profound attention that it merits.” Let us, in our own foreboding—and promising—present, read our nuanced and complicated medieval legacy with that same attention.
Appealing to Collective Nostalgia
This medieval legacy and its appeals have worked to emphasize a shared humanity, whether by assuring us that we are better and more evolved than the people of that past or by appealing to collective nostalgia, a romantic yearning for a time of simplicity, beauty, honor, and community.
On the other, such appeals do the work of division, whether by pitting groups against one another in a contest over ownership of the past, or by turning that nostalgia into a pretext for Othering groups who do not ‘deserve’ to share in it.
In all cases, it is very hard, even for a historian to divorce these medievalisms, old and new, from the work of understanding what really happened. One has to make a conscious and always imperfect effort to distance these received ideas from the work of excavating, synthesizing, and interpreting historical evidence in order to produce useful and accurate knowledge about the era.
In Popular Culture
In the present moment there are not enough clever, playful medievalist parables like Brian Helgeland’s A Knight’s Tale, informed, like Monty Python and the Holy Grail, by careful, loving readings of medieval texts.
But happily, our own golden age of television is sustained by period dramas dependent on medieval settings or stories, or by the kind of medievalism that sustains the Star Wars franchise and the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Live-action role-playing and video gaming continue to be an extracurricular outlets for the people interested in the genre.
Less self-evident are the ways that the Internet and social media replicate and extend medieval modes of communication: the village or social media rumor-mill, the unauthorized and open-ended internet post, the interactive performances of postmodern theatre, the fan fiction—responsible for the proliferation of Arthurian romances in the 13th century—which has now given us Fifty Shades of Grey. What do these forms of medieval play accomplish and express? What do they reveal about our deepest needs and desires? What are they enabling or foreclosing? Where are they taking us? That will be a question for future scholars.
Common Questions about the Medieval Legacy
In his masterwork The Waning (or Autumn) of the Middle Ages, the Dutch historian, Johan Huizinga, surveyed the carnage and smoking ruins of Europe in 1919, reflecting on the role of medievalism in fueling and sustaining the Great War that had just concluded.
Johan Huizinga characterized jingoistic patriotism and belligerent nationalism as the “two forces that, for good or evil, are straining and convulsing the world like a fever”.
Medieval legacy and its appeals have worked to emphasize a shared humanity, whether by assuring us that we are better and more evolved than the people of that past or by appealing to collective nostalgia