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Alicia C. Montoya, Sophie van Romburgh, and Wim van Anrooij, eds., Early Modern Medievalisms
by Richard Utz

Montoya, Alicia C., Sophie van Romburgh, and Wim van Anrooij, eds. Early Modern Medievalisms: The Interplay between Scholarly Reflection and Artistic Production. Leiden and Boston: Brill. 2010. xxiv + 469 pp. ISBN 978-90-041-8766-5. $131 cloth.


This expertly edited collection of essays offers a wide range of case studies to establish the value of the quickly growing paradigm of Medievalism Studies for the early modern period. As one might expect, the editors take on the notion, inimical to their project and characteristic of much work in the field, that medievalism really should be seen as a post-Romantic phenomenon, perhaps even a phenomenon that cannot receive proper scholarly attention until after the 1840s, when the term “medievalism” enters the (English) vocabulary.  Montoya, van Romburgh, and van Anrooij make short shrift of such views, positing that, even without an actual term that comprises a more or less conscious reaction to the medieval past, early modern culture produced its own kind of medieval reception for which, in closer proximity to the medieval period itself, “what we today identify as the medieval may have continued unobserved and uninterrupted in certain fields, while being considered a thing of the (imagined) past, for good or ill, in others” (3). Moreover, since the editors not only recognize the great variety within the early modern reception of medieval culture, but are also aware of their own positions as twenty-first century critical observers of medieval reception, they opt for using the plural, early modern “medievalisms,” to speak of the subject under investigation.  With this decision, they presage a methodological and rhetorical turn recently codified for current and future work by Tyson Pugh and Angela Jane Weisl’s 2012 introductory volume to Medievalism Studies, Medievalisms: Making the Past in the Present.

Within the rich diversity of early modern medievalisms, the editors establish three major categories.  The first one, Continuities and Discontinuities, acknowledges the two most basic patterns of receiving specific features of pre-early modern culture, offering astonishingly ambivalent and paradoxical, conscious and unconscious patterns of reception.  The two first contributions, one on Petrarch’s Canzoniere (Elena Lombardi) and one on early fourteenth-century Latin love poetry (Christoph Pieper), reveal conscious and playful recourse to numerous late medieval features, even as part of a humanist and classicist poetic agenda.  The essays on the Flemish humanist Jodocus Badius Ascensius (Anne-Marie De Gendt) and on the early modern reception of the medieval myth of the Trojan ancestry of the French nation (Tiphaine Karsenti) similarly demonstrate a fusion of medievalism and humanism.  Badius, for example, in his Stultiferae Naves (1501), confirms the authority of medieval religious values by adducing classical literary texts depicting these values.  Early modern French authors, while aware of the mendacity of the medieval myths about a Franco-Trojan filiation, maintain a strong “symbolic dimension” of these medieval myths to legitimize “an imaginary counter history” in support of their country and king (108).  In the final essay in this section, Jacomien Prins shows how, in the midst of the early modern scientific rejection of the medieval world view, a late sixteenth-century Neoplatonist philosopher, Francesco Patrizi, holds on to the “re-enchanting” notion of celestial harmony by transferring music from the sciences of nature to the rhetorical arts.

In the volume’s second section, The Interplay between Scholarship and Artistic Production, the editors bring together clearly conscious, often even explicit, appropriations of medieval thought and material.  Thus, Paul J. Smith explains how François Rabelais’s career is shaped by his various adaptations of medieval subject matter to please his mid-sixteenth-century readers. Martin Spies, Waldemar Kowalski, and Pieter Mannaerts demonstrate the “medieval” in the direct service of political and religious legitimation: Spies explicates such a strategy in a medievalizing portrait of Lady Katherine Grey, which is meant to help her son be recognized as the rightful heir to the House of Suffolk.  Kowalski examines early modern epigraphs, paintings, and murals in monastery and parish churches, which publicly linked contemporary threats to the Polish nation and Catholic Church (Protestantism; Orthodox Christianity) to medieval ones (Mongols, Tatars, Jews).  Mannaerts, in a meticulous study of the seventeenth-century conflict about the “real” founder and etymological name-giver of beguines and beguinages, Lambert le Bègue or St. Begga, reveals how medievalizing strategies were functionalized in support of early modern liturgical practices.  The three final contributions to this section deal with examples of private entertainment, showing how early modern illustrators of French fairy tales mixed classical and medieval elements in a conscious effort at creating popular fantasy worlds (Daphne Hoogenboezem), how mid-eighteenth-century French fairy tales used medieval features to promote moral values such as courtly politeness (Aurélie Zygel-Basso), and how eighteenth-century French writers combined contemporary “sensibilité” with archaic medievalism in their syncretistic adaptations of Aucassin et Nicolette (Peter Damien-Grint).

The contributors to the final section of the volume, Conceptualizing the Medieval, are engaged in providing a kind of meta-perspective on early modern medievalisms.  Here, we encounter case studies in which early modern subjects, for example the Dutch humanist historian Janus Dousa (Coen Maas) or the French Abbé Jean-Joseph Rive (Andrea Worm), look down on the medieval period in general while at the same time greatly admiring specific aspects of the bygone period (martial virtue and manuscript illumination, respectively).  Joost Keizer, Mette Bruun, and Adam Shear, finally, discuss three particularly intricate functionalizations of the medieval by early modern artists and scholars.  Keizer makes the intriguing claim that Michelangelo, under pressure to give religion, not verisimilitude or naturalism, priority in his artistic expression, may have turned to an imagined medieval visual technique, which already many of his contemporaries recognized as pre-Renaissance.  Mette Bruun debates the question whether Jean Mabillon, an eminent figure in late seventeenth-century French intellectual life and one of the founding fathers of textual criticism and diplomatics, can be said to have had a medievalist agenda.  As an adherent to the monastic tradition, Bruun argues, Mabillon does “not operate with a pronounced concept of the Middle Ages, largely speaking not even with the term Middle Ages, and he does not see himself as a medievalist” (444), despite his deep interest in manuscript studies and pre-modern culture.  Shear, in the final essay of the volume, offers a final complication of the concept of early modern medievalism by expounding the particular construction of the “medieval” in early modern Jewish thought.  As in Bruun’s essay, which already exemplifies how religion aims to bridge the temporal chasm between the medieval and the postmedieval, Shear shows that eighteenth-century Jewish thinkers did not conceive their own philosophy as a radical break from medieval Jewish thought.  Rather, they viewed themselves as intimately connected to the Middle Ages and imagined it as something like a “golden age,” where a serious attempt at reconciling reason and revelation had been made.

The editors of Early Modern Medievalisms deserve high praise for assembling excellent individual contributions representative of a wide range of topics and methodological approaches. Moreover, they should be congratulated on producing a meticulously edited volume.  However, the editors did not succeed at bringing all contributors on board with their overall conceptual goals.  In fact, it is ironic that the very distinction made by the editors about early modern medievalisms regarding continuity/discontinuity and conscious/unconscious uses of the “medieval” also applies to the contributors of this collection: the introduction (i.e., the editors) and several of the contributors to the volume show that they are aware of the international negotiations at the heart of Medievalism Studies. The introduction, in fact, bases its arguments exclusively on these negotiations (Bloch/Nichols; Petersen; Simmons; Workman).  Damien-Grint, himself editor of a well received essay collection on Medievalism and ‘manière gothique’ in Enlightenment France (2006), and Bruun, who has negotiated similar topics in a special issue of UNIversitas (Falling into Medievalism, 2006) and various publications for Copenhagen University’s Centre for the Study of the Cultural Heritage of Medieval Rituals, manage to connect their essays convincingly with the editors’ premises.  Zygel-Basso (Ganim; Glencross; Montoya) and Hoogenboezem (Damien-Grint; Pupil; Sermain) do so to some degree.  All others indicate almost no (Shear; Maas) or no conversancy with the research paradigm the title and editors’ introduction propose on the first 15 pages.

Unlike the early modern subjects they investigate, these contributors may not claim to be pre-Romantic or to have no access to current scholarship.  More than one of them (Keizer), for example, should have been familiar with the essays in Konrad Eisenbichler’s 2008 collection on Renaissance Medievalisms, which discusses early modern apocalyptic history, enlightenment-inflected hermeneutics, antiquarianism, natural history, medical and theatrical humanism, metaphysics, the Sephardic intellectual tradition, poetry, alchemy and chemistry, and pedagogy, i.e., numerous matters of interest to the authors in Early Modern Medievalisms.  It seems that the editors, all three of whom abstain from adding an essay of their own to the volume, may not have provided their contributors with sufficient programmatic guidance and bibliographic background to incorporate their contributions more successfully into the overarching theoretical frame established in the introduction.  In fact, the introduction reads like a valiant post-hoc effort at subsuming all essays into that theoretical frame, but more connectivities should have been created at the front end and throughout the collection.

One final observation: The editors claim that, “[c]ontrary to studies of modern medievalism that tend to pay attention to more or less celebratory or approving uses of the medieval,” they forge new paths in the field by representing “discourses that explicitly rejected the medieval” (4).  It is difficult to verify this impression exactly, but even a quick look at some of the central publications in Medievalism Studies across the disciplines, for example Kathleen Biddick’s The Shock of Medievalism (1998), Jacques Heers, Le Moyen Age, une imposture (1999), Annette Kreutziger-Herr’s, Ein Traum vom Mittelalter: Die Wiederentdeckung mittelalterlicher Musik in der Neuzeit (2003), Bruce Holsinger’s The Pre-Modern Condition: Medievalism and the Making of Theory (2005), Stephanie Wodianka’s, Zwischen Mythos und Geschichte: Ästhetik, Medialität und Kurturspezifik der Mittelalterkonjunktur (2009), Kathryn Brush’s Mapping Medievalism at the Canadian Frontier (2010), and Tommaso di Carpegna Falconieri’s Medioevo militante. La politica di oggi alle prese con barbari e crociati (2001), would suggest that scholars have, in fact, engaged with a host of receptions critical as well as approving of the medieval past.  The recently published forum sections on “Medievalism and the Corporate” in vols. 21 (2012) and 22 (2013) of Studies in Medievalism (ed. Karl Fugelso) and several of the essays in Carol Robinson and Pamela Clements’ collection on Neomedievalism in the Media (2012) confirm this observation for the present and the recent past.

In the end, some of the manifest disconnect between the more and the less conscious practitioners of Medievalism Studies may simply be a function of the contributors’ national, cultural, linguistic, and disciplinary foundations.  Just as the invention, use, and dissemination of the terms “medieval” and “Middle Ages” influenced their critical use and semantic codification since the mid-nineteenth century, so the existence and popular and academic use of “medievalism” and “Medievalism Studies” has affected the various academic traditions also represented in the volume under review: practitioners from English-speaking countries or with close ties to scholarship from these countries have the most direct and long-standing connection with “medievalism.” This terminological proximity, together with the (at least imagined) absence of radically disruptive historical moments (a “glorious” instead of a “bloody” French revolution, for example), has contributed to the dominance of “English” scholars in Medievalism Studies; in the Francophone world, “médiévalisme” in its academic use has only recently spread due to the very visible activities of the colleagues of “Modernités médiévales” (, an organization which, however, limits its sphere of interest to post-Romantic medievalisms; and in the German-speaking tradition, “Mediävalismus” may never reach acceptance because it competes with the established and more scholarly sounding “Mittelalter-Rezeption” (although “Mittelalter-Rezeption” and “medievalism” have been used as synonyms at least since the 1995 conference at Castle Kaprun, Austria, jointly organized by Ulrich Müller and Leslie J. Workman).  Thus, it is fascinating to see how, despite the unequaled global availability of bibliographic information, numerous annual international conferences, and the existence of international multilingual review journals like The Medieval Review, the “longue durée” of well-anchored paradigms and their terminologies still separates scholars engaged in the same or similar work.  Medievalism Studies, as Early Modern Medievalisms confirms, is no exception to this state of affairs.  


Richard Utz

Georgia Institute of Technology




Cite as:

Richard Utz, "Alicia C. Montoya, Sophie van Romburgh, and Wim van Anrooij, eds., Early Modern Medievalisms ," Spenser Review 43.2.38 (Fall 2013). Accessed May 25th, 2018.
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