Academic journal article Anglican and Episcopal History

Medievalism: The Middle Ages in Modern England

Academic journal article Anglican and Episcopal History

Medievalism: The Middle Ages in Modern England

Article excerpt

Medievalism: The Middle Ages in Modern England. By Michael Alexander (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2007, Pp. xxviii, 306. $45.00.)

Kenneth Clark famously began his The Gothic Revival (1928) by expressing regret that his subject had "left so little on which our eyes can rest without pain" (7). Such sentiments are far removed from the spirit of Michael Alexander's new book. The author clearly revels in his topic, not only esteeming the movement's aesthetic legacy, but sharing some of its animating values, especially as regards social thought. Like the best revivalist literature, the text has an engagingly springy cadence which holds the reader's attention throughout.

Literature is at the heart of the book, the controlling theme being the interplay between the scholarly recovery of medieval texts (from the late eighteenth century onwards) and the growth of a neo-medievalist sensibility amongst contemporary writers. It also persuasively argues that, at least until the end of World War One, the stages discernible in literary evolution either pre-empt, or elucidate, developments in politics, theology and the visual arts (the illustrations of the latter are especially plentiful and apposite).

Alexander begins his account in the 1760s when the republication of early English texts (albeit quite freely edited) by Bishop Thomas Percy and the penning by Horace Walpole of fiction inspired by medieval examples began to make interest in the Middle Ages a fashionable hobby. The sense of freedom from the rigidity of neo-classical literary conventions that such works inspired in pre-Victorian authors tends to be best known to us today through the macabre and fantastic conceits of Gothic novels, works which at best bore a passing resemblance to historical realities. However the author eschews investigation of this, a fairly well trodden, scholarly path, and instead explores how an early search of romantic tales for evidence of the chivalric age's "facts and manners" (104) inspired writers and readers to imaginatively reinhabit that era through works like Walter Scott's verse epic Marmion (1808). The intricate relationship between the sensibilities awakened by this process and the values which later inspired the theologian John Henry Newman, the architect Augustus Pugin, the critic John Ruskin, and others to seek the reshaping of English religion, society and cityscapes are then deftly unpacked. …

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