Monday, January 23, 2012

The Medieval Image in the 21st Century

On Saturday, I went to Cambridge for the Magdalene College Triennial Festival Symposium, which this year was entitled 'The Medieval Image in the Twenty-First Century'. It was held in the beautiful Cripps building (pictured) which was suitably 'new' medieval.

I tweeted some thoughts on the papers during the day (#medievalimage) but I thought I would pull together some of my notes and observations from the symposium.

As the symposium's title might suggest, many of the papers focused on image and vision. Jaqueline Tasioulas gave an interesting paper on the physical effect of falling in love, focusing on Chaucer's awareness of the dangers of the gaze and contemporary optical theory. Charles Moseley and Bill Burgwinkle discussed some differences between medieval and modern ways of seeing; Burgwinkle illustrated his keynote talk with some brilliant but very gory images of the death and torture of saints from BN Francais 51, reading them through contemporary film theory.

Others focused more on medievalism: the term 'neo-medieval' was heard several times throughout the day. Carolyn Dinshaw spoke very interestingly about twentieth- and twenty-first-century images of medieval green men (whom she referred to as 'vegetable men'), beginning her talk with reference to Kingsley Amis' The Green Man (1969) and ending with the ubiquitous green 'man', Kermit the Frog.

Nora Berend's paper offered an analysis of the reappearance of the cult of King Stephen of Hungary and his crown in twenty-first century conservative Hungarian politics: her talk reminded me of the brilliant work by Bruce Holsinger along with many other medievalists of the 'neo-medieval' turn in world politics over the last decade.

Lesley Coote focused in her paper on the use of CGI in the TV adaptation of Ken Follett's The Pillars of the Earth, suggesting that CGI techniques make the modern viewer feel as though they are really there, thus producing a 'fake real', filling the gaps in a fragmented, postmodern idea of history. Coote's paper made me wonder about medieval tourism, which has shifted from touring castle ruins towards a more interactive historical tourism, for example the atmosphere at Medieval Times. Have our changing ideas of historical tourism (from ruins to interaction) come about alongside this use of modern cinematic effects to recreate the medieval for modern viewers?

Kathleen Biddick's fantastic keynote built on her previous work in the fields of medivalism and postcolonial studies to offer an overview of medievalism in the twenty-first century. Her talk made fascinating use of 'modern medieval' resources such as Skyrim, as she suggested that the shift in medievalism since 2000 has been towards a more global Middle Ages. What I found most fascinating from her talk, was the persuasive idea (which Biddick borrowed from Nezar Alsayyad and Ananya Roy's 2006 article 'Medieval Modernity: On Citizenship and Urbanism in a Global Era') of the medieval as a 'transhistorical analytical category' - thus a medieval whose meaning is divorced from its period implications.

Following Biddick's talk, I wondered about the economics involved in medievalism. Biddick ended her keynote with an advert for a house for sale: a medieval building, which was advertised as having an original medieval great hall, but with high-tech conveniences. Biddick remarked that this could all be yours, for £1.5million. Is it the case that we have to be wealthy (or educationally privileged) in order to access the Middle Ages? Other papers mentioned the importance of financial donations in order to preserve medieval artefacts, such as the manuscripts housed in Cambridge's Fitzwilliam Museum. Furthermore, many of the artefacts and stories we have that survive from the Middle Ages concern the wealthy. To what extent is our modern-day relationship with the Middle Ages governed by cash?

A particular highlight was the performance of a Middle Scots poem specially commissioned to be set to music for the Festival, and which was performed by a cellist and counter-tenor (whose names I unfortunately cannot remember). The piece was haunting: at once medievalist and utterly modernist.

Overall, it was a fantastic day of very well-balanced papers, which meshed together brilliantly. It would have been nice to have had more time to draw the day's themes together - this was a small conference, and so a useful discussion could have been held following the papers. However, I think most people made use of the opportunity to talk over a drink after the symposium had ended, and I have certainly come away feeling positive and enthused about the ongoing scholarship in the field of medievalism studies.



Nezar Alsayyad and Ananya Roy, 'Medieval Modernity: On Citizenship and Urbanism in a Global Era', Space and Polity 10.1 (2006): pp. 1-20. (accessible online at


The image of the Cripps Court Orangery was taken by Deryck Chan (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 ( or GFDL (], via Wikimedia Commons. The picture of Kermit the Frog was taken by Eva Rinaldi (Flickr: Kermit) [CC-BY-SA-2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons.


  1. As I read your summary of the symposium I realised I was thinking about the topics as they relate to me in my world right now. An example of being able to comprehend something only through what I already know not being able to go with it as something other. So yes, access whether it is priviliged by money or through an RPG is so important to think about.

    1. Merrian, I completely agree: I think that it is impossible to imagine the Middle Ages (or indeed anything) without relating it to what we know. I was specifically struck during the symposium by the multiple, yet throwaway, references to money - for buying and preserving artefacts, or recreating the medieval through CGI.

      It seems that buying the medieval now (for example a medieval house) is so astonishingly expensive - I have been wondering if the appeal of the 'modern' Middle Ages today is implicitly connected with its expense - expensive to recreate, expensive to own, and (what with the focus on royalty and high status people) it has become, itself, a history of the wealthy.

  2. Yes, the points you make about buying the middle-ages and it being presented as a narrative of power and wealth really resonate for me. The English Arts & Crafts movement with it's own re-working of the middle ages and handcrafting in the end was about wealthy people buying beautiful objects and reinforced that history and it stories and objects are for the well off.