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Medievalism: The Middle Ages in Modern England
Yale University Press, 2007
352 pp., 65.00
In Medievalism: The Middle Ages in Modern England, Michael Alexander has written a superb study, showing how differing versions of the Middle Ages helped shape the art, architecture, and literature of modern England. This is a subject of enormous scope; yet rather than march his readers through an exhaustive survey, Alexander provides a witty overview of representative painters, architects, and writers whose medievalism helped them negotiate their modernity. Printed on good heavy paper and handsomely illustrated, the book nicely complements Alexander's sprightly commentary.
The former chair of the English department at St. Andrews, Alexander traces the modern fascination with things medieval to the late 18th century, to the antiquarianism of Horace Walpole and Thomas Percy, Macpherson's Ossian (1760), and Burke's rococo elegy to Marie Antoinette in his Reflections on the French Revolution (1790-91):
Oh! What a revolution! And what a heart I must have to contemplate without emotion that elevation and that fall! … little did I dream that I should have lived to see such disasters fallen upon her in a nation of gallant men, in a nation of men of honour, and of cavaliers. I thought ten thousand swords must have leaped from their scabbards to avenge even a look that threatened her with insult. But the age of chivalry is gone. That of sophisters, economists, and calculators, has succeeded and the glory of Europe is extinguished for ever.
This pitting of the present against an exemplary past set the stage for Sir Walter Scott, Pugin, the Pre-Raphaelites, Ruskin, and the Gothic Revival. If the age of chivalry was gone in France, it could be revived in England. As Alexander remarks, "the Medieval Revival was always interested in how people should live now in the present as well as how they had lived in the past." The revival could simply have been an episode in the history of nostalgia—always compounded by the ambivalent legacy of the English Reformation—but, ...