Clare A. Simmons. Popular Medievalism in Romantic-Era Britain

By Duggett, Tom | Wordsworth Circle, Autumn 2012 | Go to article overview

Clare A. Simmons. Popular Medievalism in Romantic-Era Britain


Duggett, Tom, Wordsworth Circle


Clare A. Simmons. Popular Medievalism in Romantic-Era Britain

(Palgrave Macmillan, 2011) 246. $89/54 [pounds sterling]

Clare Simmons's Popular Medievalism in the Romantic-Era Britain brings an important perspective to bear on the Romantic rage for the past. Simmons notes that "medievalism," being a Victorian coinage, is usually discussed in the Victorian context and is usually conceived as in Ruskin, where the Romantic "zeitgeisty" notion of the three great "ages" of history takes a cultural and ethical turn to produce "Classicalism, Medievalism, and Modernism" (2). By going back to before Victorian medievalism and its obsession with duty, Simmons recovers other more "popular" ways of conceiving medieval period. As she says: "The subject of this study is popular medievalism, or the imaginative use of the past in creating a vision of what Britain should be in the future by looking back to the origins--as always, real or imagined--of British rights as conceived by those who did not have full political rights at a time when the right to participate actively in the political process depended on property and gender. In the Romantic era, popular medievalism uses the Middle Ages as a way to challenge class structures rather than to justify them." (6)

The Introduction is mainly about definition. Simmons distinguishes medievalism from gothicism and antiquarianism --and from "medieval," a term crucially lacking the (Victorian, Ruskinian) "ism" that denotes ideological and emotional investment (11). Problems begin with the opening etymology (through Washington Irving and others) which reveals why "medievalism" was not an available category in the Romantic era. However, the anachronism is germane to the Simmon's interest in anachronism as such--in how medievalism (and all its "vague" history) operates as the historicizing discourse that underwrites the emergence of modernity. It is also licensed by Simmon's interest in the immemorialist view of law and national identity, which takes the first written record not as an innovation but as a record of pre-existing tradition. In this fashion, the apparent self-evidence and assurance with which "medieval" and "medievalism" enter the written record seems to reflect the preexistence of a recognizable cultural formation of comparativist study of the middle ages. "Medieval" was coined in 1829 to give Latinate "new dignity" to the Gentleman's Magazine's long-standing craze for mouldering antiquity, and "would-be medievalism" named an already elicited reinvention of medieval tradition by 1865 (1-2).(Perhaps significantly, Simmons shows that the first attestation of the term, from 1849, is American: a vision of old-world literature drowning the young republic in "toryism, feudalism, medievalism, all manners of retrogradism and rottenness in opinion" [qtd. 2].) Medievalism was a state of mind before it had a name. Indeed, Simmons claims that "[m]edievalist works can be found almost as soon as writers and readers are able to identify themselves as not part of the middle ages" (6), citing Caxton's edition of Malory in the 1480s.

The first chapter looks at the 18th century reinvention of Druidism, especially Stukeley's, and its reception in Blake and Wordsworth. Unlike Stukeley's view of archbishops as arch-druids, Wordsworth's "Salisbury Plain" poems expressed hostility to Druidism and priesthood generally and shifts towards a view of Druids as prehistoric lawgivers in continuity with the present. Chapter two pivots towards medievalism as such, and considers Percy, Scott, Burns, Moore, and Hemans in opposition against (elite) antiquarianism and (popular) "national melody." Simmons here shows clearly the "popular" paradox at the heart of the antiquarian ballad-collection project, at least in its Percy/Scott form of creative antiquarianism, since the people and oral tradition were constructed by scholarly discourse as the medium for the preservation of a lost elite culture--indeed an ideal medium inasmuch as their supposed inability to invent allowed transmission rather than reinvention (64-5). …

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