Medievalism: The Middle Ages in Modern England

By Simpson, Roger | Arthuriana, October 1, 2008 | Go to article overview

Medievalism: The Middle Ages in Modern England


Simpson, Roger, Arthuriana


MICHAEL ALEXANDER, Medievalism: The Middle Ages in Modern England. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2007. Pp. xxviii, 306. 90 b/w, 20 col. illus. isbn: 978-0-300-11061-6. $45.

-After fire destroyed St. Paul's Cathedral in 1666, it was rebuilt in a style modelled on classical antiquity. By contrast, after the Palace of Westminster burned down in 1833 it was replaced by a neo-Gothic building. Michael Alexander's book examines the nature of the cultural revolution which occurred in the interval between these events, and which continues into the present day.

His survey of the Medieval Revival is presented chronologically, ranging widely over architecture, art, historical scholarship, religion, and politics, though finding its focus in literature, particularly poetry, from Thomas Gray to Geoffrey Hill. Resolute for 'high culture' he excludes cinema except for a cursory mention in the Epilogue. He does not explain why his title confines his subject to England (why not Scotland or Britain?) even though Walter Scott is a major player in his account. Nor does he say why he suddenly stops at 1971.

In brief he outlines four periods of Medievalism. From 1760 to the 1830s, a process involving antiquarianism and the creation of neo-medieval texts culminated in Scott's historical romances-a permanent alteration in the cultural landscape. Between then and 1870 medieval ideals were at their peak, and even proposed as practical solutions to the social problems created by contemporary capitalism. The next thirty years saw this ethical impetus diffused into legend and symbolism. Finally the twentieth century has witnessed a revival by a confrontational minority (led by Chesterton) aiming to recreate a medieval social ideal.

What emerges is how very Catholic the ambience, intents, and consequences of Medievalism were. It rehabilitated nuns, friars, aves and rosaries; provided an alternative model to Enlightenment rationalism and laissez-faire economics; encouraged the Tractarians; brought painting and architecture close to pre- Reformation styles; and nurtured the diverse [Anglo-] Catholic interests of Hopkins, Chesterton, David Jones, Eric Gill, Eliot, Auden, and Waugh.

Most of this is, of course, comparatively well known, and Alexander duly cites previous research by Arthur Johnston, Kenneth Clark, and Mark Girouard. Strangely, though, he does not acknowledge Alice Chandler's A Dream of Order (1970), an authoritative analysis of the roots of Medievalism and its nineteenth-century application to social theory. …

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