Over the past few months, I have been busy participating in what has been a crash course in what I vaguely call “new medievalism”, or, neo-medievalism. Vague because the term “medievalism” has a deeply confusing history and is intertwined with everything from linguistics to academic discipline. But, beyond the semantics of what it means to be a “medievalist”, neo-medievalism is a vague field due to its vast assemblage of research areas; from film, video games, literature, politics, and religion, neo-medievalism permeates our cultural landscape in daring and unexpected ways.
If my study over these last few months has taught me anything, it is that medievalism pops up just about anywhere. It is like Godwin’s Law—except replace Nazis with a historical period. Medievalism in the Victorian period? Yes. Medievalism in World War 2? Of course. Medievalism in terrorist attacks? Obviously. Medievalism in contemporary politics? Oh, yeah! In short, medievalism will rear its head even in places where you think you are safe from an Arthurian analogy or a Chaucerian reimagining (enter, this Clickhole piece about “bedding” a Chaucer geek)
In the creative terrain, neo-medievalism can be seen most clearly in film and literature (video games as well, but my study didn’t broach that field). Though many such movies and books may use medieval images, aesthetic, or ideas to illustrate a point, I homed in on medievalism expressed unambiguously; films, then, which directly concerned themselves with the medieval, films like The Fisher King, King Arthur: The Legend of the Sword, and Monty Python and the Holy Grail alongside numerous low-budget productions utilizing the Arthurian legend in some manner. As for literature, I concerned myself with classical texts like Marriam Zimmer Bradley’s The Mists of Avalon and the assorted responses to Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales.
Concerning film, neo-medievalism expresses itself in two ways: one, through the introduction of fantastical elements—magic, time-travel, and sci-fi substitutions of otherwise well-known medieval parts— to an otherwise typical allegorical medieval narrative; these productions will often maintain the historical setting and narrative of the original but will alter it to make it seem more inclusive to modern viewers; such productions may change the gender, race, or sexual orientation of characters, introduce new enemies and allies of a fantasy-like nature to make the product more “epic” or “Tolkein-esque”, and use over-the-top twists, such as time-travel, to bridge the gap between the Middle Ages and today so as to explore or deconstruct an idea or theme of medieval texts. Such films tend to be lower-budgeted productions such as B-rated films (The Dragons of Camelot, King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table, King Arthur: Excalibur Rising, etc.) or even television programs (Arthur of the Britons).
Two, neo-medieval films sometimes advertise themselves as being an adaptive anachronism; these sorts of films are akin to The Fisher King where a medieval story has been “modernized” and all the elements are the same, but it takes place in contemporary times. Other films which fall into this temporally anachronic label are big-budget films like Michael Bay’s Transformers: The Last Knight and tend to use one or several medieval elements to craft a larger story taking inspiration from that medieval point of departure; in The Last Knight, for example, a recurrent thread of the film are Autobots helping King Arthur fend off the Saxons at Mt. Baddon and from that victory the emergence of the Arthurian legend which lingers in the modern plot of the film. In Bay’s film, medievalism acts as the narrative glue holding together a non-medieval story.
As far as the primary method literature uses for disseminating neo-medieval constructs, the foremost methodology is two-fold; one, neo-medieval literature expounds on certain medieval narrative devices—The Canterbury Tale’s story-telling mechanics, the dream visions of Piers Plowman, hagiography, etc.—while re-contextualizing it for a new purpose. This is the moment in Neil Peart’s Clockwork Lives where the assorted tales are re-defined as autobiographies granted to the protagonist by blood alchemy, quasi-visionary moments closely related to divine revelations; or, in texts like Camelot 3000 where the fantasy narrative of the source is replaced by science-fiction elements challenging ideas such as masculinity and heteronormativity. Two, in neo-medieval literature, it is not uncommon to see authors producing texts with a creative lineage to the medieval period, an idea which directly connects the modern text to the medieval by nature of some deeper linguistic or creative moment; such instances can be respectively seen in Paul Kingsnorth’s novel The Wake, where a fictionalized Old and Middle English replaces standard American English as the type which the book is set; but, we can also see such ‘deep’ literary devices in Kazuo Ishiguro’s novel The Buried Giant, where the narrative device of the book is allegory, something which directly harkens back to the predominant literary device of the Middle Ages. Taken together, both artistic directions define neo-medieval literature and offer new readers an entryway on what to expect in reading a new medieval book.
Sometimes, however, it is not through a piece of literature in which the medieval is channeled, but through a project. Sometimes, parts of a medieval text are adapted into an artistic project re-enacting or translating sections of a text into something which a modern audience can understand. This is where projects such as Pilgrim’s Prize come into play.
At its core, Pilgrim’s Prize was an academic contest started by Harry Bailey. Student volunteers were assigned parts of Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales to re-imagine. Such re-imaginings could take any medium the student wanted; a podcast, a YouTube video, a Snapchat story, (etc.) and take the form of whatever narrative the student desired (a Wild West re-imagining, a radio show, spoken word poetry, etc.). Students would then present their project as a revised Chaucerian tale—the tale as Chaucer told it but updated for modern aesthetics and tastes in mind.
Other neo-medieval projects that home in on an aspect of medieval texts and repackage them for a new audience, is a student project called “The Gorre Department of Transportation”. Created as an artistic rendition of Gorre, the website recreates Chretien de Tray’s classic foreboding land as a contemporary department of transportation in a state or province. With the source material heavily invested in narratives of travel—Lancelot’s progression through the area of Gorre one of the delights of reading Chretien’s Arthurian narratives— the idea of a comedic representation of the highlights of this literary locale act as a crash-course on the specifics of a seldom read tale for those unacquainted to the story. Filled with “testimonies” from characters from the story along with “travel adversaries” from those natural elements which happened in the narrative, such a project reminds us that sometimes-neo-medieval expresses itself in benign but hilarious ways.
In the political realm, neo-medievalism is often seen in far Right-wing circles. Members of the Alt-Right appropriate the aesthetic, history, and culture of the medieval and classical periods for their own White Supremacist agenda. Iconography such as busts of Roman emperors, crusade era slogans (“Deus Vault” or God’s Will), house emblems and sigils, and even the armor of ancient and medieval warriors can be seen worn or brandished by such extremists. The idea here is an attempt by the Right to revise history into being an all-White affair; the goal is to erase the ethnic difference that existed in the Middle Ages and maintain the illusion that nothing of significance happened in those areas of the world inhabited by non-White populations. Thus, fascist groups (which will not be named here) become intent on enacting a role-playing fantasy by using a revised history that they themselves have created.
Medievalism in politics did not begin with the Alt-right, however. People will remember when George Bush Jr. described the “War on Terror” as a “great crusade” harkening back to the religious crusades of the Middle Ages. Likewise, in today’s increasingly Rightist world, assorted fundamentalist religious organizations such as the Islamic State promote bastardized ideas of medievalism with both their rhetoric and symbolism. Then, mythologies such as King Arthur and the popular conception of Vikings become fodder for ultra-nationalist Nativists seeking to ethnically define certain “White” territories. In North America, the medieval roots of the Alt-Right—not to mention the so-called “Knights of the Ku Klux Klan” which appropriates medieval ideas of roles in their ranks—only appear new with the decline of anti-fascist politics. In fact, medievalism is old and dates to the founding of the United States when Thomas Jefferson considered adding the great Anglo-Saxon leaders Horsa and Hengist to the great seal.
In the end, neo-medievalism is a wide and tangled field. There is no single way to create a new medieval text. Because medievalism influences both the artistic and political, its mutations are too numerous to accurately list without years of study. Suffice it to say, medievalism underpins identity on both the micro and macro scale, challenges us to think about history, ethnicity, and art. For better or worse, the medieval and postmodernity are here to say and so we as involved citizens must reconcile with its presence one way or another.