Mass Market Medieval: Essays on the Middle Ages in Popular Culture

Article excerpt

DAVID W. MARSHALL, ed. Mass Market Medieval: Essays on the Middle Ages in Popular Culture. Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2007. 800-253-2187. Pp. x, 205. ISBN: 978-0-7864-2922-6. $35.

Mass Market Medieval is a collection of thirteen original essays that investigate the role of the Middle Ages as an object of consumption in popular culture. The current popularity of the medieval in popular culture has been fueled, David Marshall notes in his introduction to the volume, by rapid technological innovation and experimentation in cable television, home video, and electronic games. Taking as its point of departure the 'hyper-consumerism' (6) of contemporary mass culture, this volume argues that technological progress has encouraged a commodification of the past that packages the European Middle Ages into 'easily consumable nuggets' in what Marshall calls 'shrink-wrapping time' (6), a process indicated iconically on the book's cover by the bar code, in the shape of an Alfred E. Neuman grin, peeking out through the visor of a medieval helmet.

Marshall links the essays in the volume with recent work on medievalism in popular culture, beginning in 1976 with Leslie Workman's founding of the journal Studies in Medievalism. However, my own informal survey of the table of contents of that journal suggests that it is really more like 1994 before scholars of medievalism turn their attention away from the elite literature and art of the nineteenth and twentieth century toward genres of popular and even mass culture. Before that, I suspect, the study of popular culture was a bit more disreputable. William Morris, C.S. Lewis, and Walker Percy were more likely to be found in the pages of that journal before 1995 than Monty Python, Rick Wakeman, and Dungeons and Dragons. Even since 1995 most of the work on popular culture has been done in film. Marshall's introduction economically sketches this more recent scholarship.

The editor has done an admirable job of selecting essays that cover different media. There is only one essay on film-the virtually unknown Swedish silent film Häxan. Other essays look at television, rock music, detective fiction, tourism, conspiracy theory, lesson plans, and gaming. Rather than divide the essays up into pre-established sound bites, the editor chose to allow them to affiliate loosely with one another around five 'functions' he argues the medieval serves within popular culture: essays explore the ways in which the medieval exposes contemporary social concerns, the way it engages with contemporary political issues, the question of how medieval history is rendered for popular consumption, the pedagogical uses of the medieval, and the ways in which the medieval structures the products of popular culture. …