Michael Alexander's Medievalism: The Middle Ages in Modern England
Yale University Press, 2017
As Michael Alexander acknowledges early on in the book under review, 'Medievalism' is an awkward term. It is also a capacious one, baggy enough to conjure up all kinds of associations, including the soaring lines of Gothic architecture, the mud-spattered, Pythonesque topography of feudal society, and the chivalric Millennialism which underpins the likes of Game of Thrones et al. Originally published in 2007 and now issued in an updated paperback edition, Alexander's book considers how the concept of Medievalism came to be embedded in English culture during the mid-eighteenth century, and has subsequently flourished up to relatively recent times. As soon becomes apparent, this is primarily a consideration of “the Middle Ages in Modern England” from a literary angle, an approach which the author readily concedes. Perhaps this isn't so surprising given Alexander's academic credentials as the former holder of the Berry Chair of English Literature at the University of St Andrews and translator of several works of Old English verse. Consequently, whilst other considerations such as the social, political, religious and artistic repercussions of the 'recovery' of the Medieval in English society feature as part of the overall analysis, the written word is an ever-present thematic vehicle for moving the discussion along.
The whole account begins in the 1760s with the advent of the so-called Gothic Age and writers such as Thomas Gray, whose poem The Bard has its eponymous Welsh hero railing against Edward I’s Anglo-Norman invaders whilst prophesying the eventual return of a British dynasty to the throne — in the form of the Tudors. The beguiling effect of Gray's poetry on its eighteenth-century readership was mirrored and magnified in the epic forgeries of James McPherson, whose ancient word-smith Ossian proved an international pseudo-Gaelic hit. Similarly, Thomas Chatterton's 'discovery' of the works of the fifteen-century monk Thomas Rowley captured the imagination of a public hitherto schooled in the literary rigours of the Age of Reason, although Alexander is at pains to dismiss notions of a sudden rejection of pragmatic Augustan ways for the alluringly tenebrous delights of a vaguely Medieval past. He emphasises instead the way that this transition manifested as a gradual, if inexorable, transformation of cultural attitudes. Nevertheless, Alexander points to “the outbreak of Medievalism in the 1760s” as in part the result of “the melting away of the prestige attached by neo-classical literary theory to notions of correctitude.” In turn, this paradigm shift gave readers the licence to explore works of literature from earlier times. One of the most important and influential products of this new-found permission to excavate the accumulated archives of hitherto neglected texts was Thomas Percy's Reliques of Ancient English Poetry, first published in 1765. Percy's re-discovery, and occasional re-workings, of such important songs as The Ballad of Chevy Chase and Sir Patrick Spens inspired a whole generation of Romantic poets —including William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge— to attempt their own versions, with Wordsworth for one declaring that Percy had “absolutely redeemed” English poetry.
On the wider social stage, following the egalitarian fervour which had swept up certain portions of English society as a consequence of the outbreak of the French Revolution, news of its descent into the Terror led statesmen such as Edmund Burke to the conclusion that this sceptred isle should immunise itself from the radical mayhem of its Jacobin neighbours by revivifying its chivalric past — along with all the due observance of social hierarchy which came with it. At such a moment, Percy's Reliques naturally became all the more popular as imaginative fuel for the nation's courtly longings. By the early nineteenth century, a writer had emerged who would successfully encapsulate this appetite for medieval escapism in a series of works which, in his heyday, would make him a much celebrated and wealthy literary phenomenon. In such verse romances as The Lay of the Last Minstrel and novels including Ivanhoe, Walter Scott laid vital groundwork for much of what the Victorians would come to associate with Medievalism. In particular, Alexander highlights Scott’s development of the concept of “Merry England’: a land of minstrelsy, Christmas feasting and good old Robin Hood. Although not in the same league as Scott in terms of commercial success, near contemporaries such as Coleridge in Christabel and John Keats in The Eve of St Agnes produced poetry which further served to inflame the Medieval itch in those writers and artists who came after them.
By way of a diversion from charting Medievalism’s increasing sway over the emerging Victorian literary imagination, Alexander considers the case of Augustus Welby Pugin and the way in which his architectural and religious convictions enabled him to offer thought-provoking comparisons between the built environment of his own day and that of the Middle Ages. Pugin’s considerable impact on nineteenth-century architecture has been more than adequately documented and analysed before, a fact which Alexander acknowledges. He also points out —in one of the exasperated lecturer’s asides which crop up throughout the book — that the aim of his study is to “link, correct and supplement received accounts of various aspects of the Medieval Revival rather than to rehearse those accounts.” For that reason, “Pugin’s achievements as an architect are not reviewed here.” Suitably chastened, we move on to learn that in his lifetime, Pugin’s ardent Catholicism meant that he was in effect disqualified from being spoken of in the same breath as other leading lights of the Medieval Revival such as Thomas Carlyle, John Ruskin and William Morris. Indeed, they themselves never acknowledged this master craftsman and designer who “had already achieved in many fields what they were to advocate, before they had begun to advocate it.” Undaunted by the social and professional disadvantages attendant upon his faith, Pugin was as dedicated to his religious beliefs as he was to his convictions about what constituted architectural and design excellence. His book Contrasts: or, a parallel between the noble edifices of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, and similar buildings of the present day: showing the present decay of taste is a damning indictment of the graceless urban edifices of the nineteenth century as compared with the Gothic structures of the Medieval past. In a typical example of the kind of condemnatory juxtapositions that Pugin uses to illustrate his argument, the reader is invited to consider a plate showing a starkly laid out Poor House of the nineteenth century, constructed in the true spirit of Benthamite utilitarian expediency, with, directly beneath it on the page, an organically assembled “Antient Poor Hoyse” (sic) of the Middle Ages with its air of charitable quietude. Ask yourself, Pugin is effectively saying, how such a fall from grace could have occurred. As Alexander points out, though, Contrasts is more than just a despairing tut at the state of contemporary urban architecture in comparison with its medieval precursor. In addition, it combines several other ingredients such as “witty polemical cartoon, architectural satire and a polarised moral vision of a prophetic, revolutionary and Romantic kind.” By including these elements, the book is able to highlight some of the more socially aware aspects of Medieval Revivalism, such as a concern for the impact of nineteenth century industrialisation on individuals and communities, along with the spiritual cost involved. As for the building project with which Pugin is most associated, namely the reconstruction of the Palace of Westminster following the fire of 1834, Alexander points out that the idea of the nation’s Gothic past as an ideological reference point upon which to build a case for the legitimacy and longevity of our governing institutions had informed the decision to construct the Palace in the style that we know today –- ‘Gothic’ being understood in the 1830s as a term synonymous with the venerable status of constitutional law rather than as purely to do with architecture. Not that, as far as Pugin was concerned, he and Sir Charles Barry had ended up actually giving the nation its Gothic shrine, the new Palace being, in his opinion, “All Grecian, sir; Tudor details on a classic body.”
By the 1840s the idea of Medievalism as an abiding, if at times nebulous, yardstick of communal harmony which could be used to measure the moral and spiritual health of Victorian society was a recurrent theme in some of the most prominent social commentary of the day. For Carlyle in Past and Present, written in 1843, the modern factory worker was worse off than the medieval labourer when one considered the former’s insecure livelihood in contrast to the latter’s feudal obligations to his lord, which at least ensured him a reciprocal, and lifelong, measure of security and protection. In Ruskin’s case, it was the type of repetitive, menial labour that the factory hand carried out, compared to the skilful and deliberative craft of his medieval counterpart, which rendered the nineteenth century worker a disposable component of the mechanised production process. Into this mix of voices critical of contemporary social and working relationships —which, ethically, fell well short of those found in the Middle Ages— Alexander adds Benjamin Disraeli who, in his novels, famously highlighted the disparity between master and workman as a symptom of the Condition of England, “two nations between whom there is no intercourse and no sympathy; who are as ignorant of each other’s habits, thoughts, and feelings, as if they were dwellers in different zones, or inhabitants of different planets.” With Disraeli, more so than with Carlyle and Ruskin, there is an emphasis on the time-honoured role of the Church in securing “the social welfare of the PEOPLE,” which had in his day, he felt, fallen into abeyance. In effect, Victorian society was not living up to the splendours and obligations of its medieval Christian past. That longing for a rapprochement with the pre-Reformation religious landscape would precipitate perhaps one of the best-known theological crisis points during the whole of the nineteenth century in the shape of the Oxford Movement, with its call for a return to the catholic doctrines of the early church. One of its chief protagonists, John Henry (later Cardinal) Newman, readily acknowledged the literary influence of Walter Scott on the Movement, inasmuch as he had “turned men’s minds in the direction of the middle ages.”
Around the time in the 1830s when members of the Oxford Movement had started to issue their increasingly controversial Tracts for the Times, a major medievalist revival in poetry revolving around Arthurian legend began to gather pace, taking as its foundational text Thomas Malory's fifteenth century Le Morte d’Arthur. Published between 1859 and 1885, Idyllsof the King by Alfred, Lord Tennyson is perhaps the most famous example of this genre, full of suitably Victorian ideals of chivalry, honour and manhood. Fittingly, the Poet Laureate dedicated the finished work to the late, lamented Prince Consort, leading Algernon Swinburne to christen it Le Morte d’Albert. The Idylls, along with other poems by Tennyson in a similar vein, such as The Lady of Shalott, proved to be inspirational subject matter for the Pre-Raphaelites, whose self-styled collective title for themselves was, in itself, a comment on their rejection of Renaissance Classicism in favour of medieval creative integrity. Unsurprisingly, given his earlier vow not to simply repackage familiar tales about the characters who feature in the story of the Medieval Revival, Alexander steers clear of plunging into the whole Pre-Raphaelite saga. However, to appreciate the fascination that Dante Gabriel Rossetti et al had with the artistic and spiritual world of the Middle Ages (as they interpreted it) we are given a whistle-stop tour of the origins of the Brotherhood, the artists who influenced them (most notably the group of German Romantic painters known as The Nazarenes) and an overview of the Brotherhood’s impact on the cultural milieu of their day. One only has to look at Ford Madox Brown’sChaucer at the Court of Edward III, William Holman Hunt’s The Eve of St Agnes or Edward Burne Jones’ The Beguiling of Merlin to see the medievalist longings in their work, added to which Rossetti in his verse and, to some extent, in his romantic liaisons comported himself like a love-sick troubadour. One of Rossetti's most renowned protégés, William Morris, would prove to be much more didactically earnest about the socio-cultural lessons that could be learned from the Middle Ages than the other members of the Brotherhood. Unlike his brethren, Morris was never much of a painter, directing his talents instead into verse, arts and crafts, and politics. In appearance the very image of some disgruntled, lion-headed monarch ruling over a medieval realm, Morris composed romances such as The Defence of Guenevere, produced the magnificent Kelmscott Chaucer and designed tapestries and stained glass which would not have looked out of place at the fourteenth century Burgundian Court. In a much more politically activist sense than Ruskin, Morris also lamented the fate of the working man compared to that of his more fulfilled medieval ancestor.
In contrast to Morris’s heartfelt earnestness, the aesthetes who drifted through the Grosvenor Gallery at the end of the nineteenth century saw medievalism as a ragbag of theatrical gewgaws to be toyed with and discarded at will. The posturing pretence that went with this attitude was lampooned by Gilbert and Sullivan in their comic opera Patience when that Hierophant of the Beautiful, Reginald Bunthorne, secretly admits to the title character that:
"I am not fond of uttering platitudes In stained-glass attitudes. In short, my medievalism’s affectation, Born of a morbid love of admiration."
If Bunthorne’s medieval affectations made audiences snigger at the faddish ways of fin-de-siècle dilettanti, Aubrey Beardsley’s illustrations for Le Morte d'Arthur revealed an altogether more disturbing, erotic side to aestheticism. In Beardsley’s work medievalism becomes an attenuated genre in which gaunt, impassive figures peer out of a darkly decadent landscape —all a very long way from the sunlit glades of Walter Scott’s Merry England.
Although, as Alexander asserts, by the 1890s “Victorian medievalism had lost its vitality,” that didn’t mean that the Medieval Revival per se was a completely spent force. Instead, around the 1900s the whole movement seems to have suddenly got a second wind and regenerated itself as a force for imbuing English culture with a sense of its own historic vitality, a phenomenon best exemplified by the writings of GK Chesterton. At this point in the book Alexander’s erudition and well-paced prose style really come into their own, as he presents an absorbing overview of how Chesterton’s “intelligence, bounce and social idealism” informed his own brand of medievalism. Chesterton combined a love of old England with liberal democratic instincts to produce a body of work which won him popular esteem and censure in equal measure. Some of that censure came from within the ranks of the modernists, with TS Eliot, for one, claiming that he found Chesterton’s prose style “exasperating to the last degree of endurance.” Not that Eliot’s disdain meant that he could not share Chesterton’s interest in medievalism, no matter how synonymous it may have been, in its communitarian tendencies, with the Victorian pieties against which modernism was rebelling. As Alexander points out, Eliot’s best known work, The Waste Land, is permeated with references to medieval literature, with its title derived from Malory’s Le Morte D’Arthur, its dedication lifted from Dante’s Purgatorio and its first line echoing Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. The poem’s dedicatee, Ezra Pound, was himself steeped in the troubadour poetry of medieval Provence, while his Cantos honoured the likes of Piero della Francesca, Guido Cavalcanti, and Fra Angelico. The type of modernism, then, dealt in by Eliot and Pound may have rejected the veneer of Romantic sentiment with which the Victorians and some of their more populist Edwardian successors had coated all things medievalist, but the Middle Ages as a historical period remained a rich source of inspiration.
As the twentieth century progressed, modernism’s affinities with the medieval took on a distinctly sacralised, Catholic bent in the work of artists such as David Jones and Eric Gill. Their membership of the Guild of St Joseph and St Dominic, a Roman Catholic art colony established in the village of Ditchling, Sussex, saw them immersed in a craft community based upon an Edenic vision of a pre-industrial world. Jones’ major poetic works, In Parenthesis and The Anathemata, are both imbued with echoes of medieval chivalric and religious symbolism, whilst Gill’s admiration for medieval sculpture is evident in much of his best work. Medieval Christianity as a source of allegorical fantasy literature would, in the middle decades of the twentieth century, fuel the Narnia books of C.S.Lewis, whose close friend and fellow Inkling J.R.R. Tolkien also produced his own quasi-medieval realm, in the shape of Middle-Earth, complete with its very own intricate folklore and various battling archetypes. Other well-known figures from the last century whom Alexander sees as having an affinity with or curiosity about the medieval —which, at one time or another, surfaced in their work— include W. H. Auden, Evelyn Waugh, Seamus Heaney and Geoffrey Hill. The latter’s Mercian Hymns juxtapose the rule of Offa, the eighth century Anglo-Saxon king, with Hill’s own childhood in the West Midlands.
All in all, then, Alexander’s book is an absorbing account of medievalism as a cultural trope which caught hold of the English imagination in the eighteenth century and never quite thereafter released its grip. Much of medievalism’s attraction seems to lie in its essentially hazy, comforting indeterminacy. It represents, in effect, a time, locale, or society that exists just beyond the perceptual field of traceable, determinate history, and is all the more conceptually malleable for that. In this nebulous medieval world nobility, piety, integrity, honour, and Christian charity pervade every aspect of life. No wonder that the Medieval Revival, when it began, was such a beguiling movement in a post-Enlightenment England which was fast heading towards the utilitarian confines of a densely industrialised nation. The Medieval Period is a halcyon realm long lost to us, but at the same time forever close at hand. --Mark Jones
 Not strictly ever a member of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood but a close and artistically influential friend to many of them. --Mark Jones