The Medieval Looks Back: A Response to Troubled Vision

  • Sarah Salih
Part of the The New Middle Ages book series (TNMA)


In British newspapers of May 9, 2003, Charles Clarke, the UK Secretary of State for Education, was reported to have remarked: “I don’t mind there being some medievalists around for ornamental purposes, but there is no reason for the state to pay for them.”1 Although it emerged that the minister was misquoted (he had intended to disparage humanities research in general, rather than medieval studies in particular), the idea that the period and its students might be regarded as ornamental is strangely reso¬nant. An ornamental Middle Ages is an unthreatening object: under the gaze of modernity, it sits meek and static on its shelf, representing all that is not modern and therefore to be disavowed. As Arthur Lindley argues, “the dominant mode of medieval film…is fabular…we automatically privilege the current signified over the medieval signifier.”2 In popular dis¬course, the medieval is thus an object that is never allowed to represent itself, as we see also in the use of “medieval” to refer to such distinctly modern phenomena as radical Islam. Thinking we know what the medieval is, we fail to look at it, and so the most effective medieval films are, for me, those exceptions to Lindley’s analysis such as Monty Python and the Holy Grail or A Knight’s Tale, which disrupt the comfort of gazing at an unprob-lematic notion of the medieval.3 It is a pleasure to respond here to a collection of essays that presents to our sight a “medieval” that is not ornamental, a medieval that looks back at its observers and has the poten¬tial to disrupt our ways of seeing.


British Library British Newspaper Film Theory Trouble Vision Human Flesh 
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  1. 2.
    Arthur Lindley, “The Ahistoricism of Medieval Film,” Screening the Past 3 (1998), published online at Scholar
  2. 4.
    Gail McMurray Gibson, Theater of Devotion: East Anglian Drama and Society in the Late Middle Ages (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1989), pp. 86–87.Google Scholar
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    See, for example, Miriam Hansen, Babel and Babylon: Spectatorship in American Silent Film (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1991).Google Scholar
  4. 6.
    The folio is reproduced in color in Alixe Bovey, Monsters and Grotesques in Medieval Manuscripts (London: British Library, 2002), fig. 16. Text from The Defective Version of Mandeville’s Travels, ed. M.C. Seymour, Early English Text Society, original series 319 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002), p. 87, ll. 6–12. Further references will be included in parentheses in the text.Google Scholar
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    Iain Macleod Higgins, Writing East: The “Travels” of Sir John Mandeville (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1997), pp. 192–93Google Scholar
  6. Linda Lomperis, “Medieval Travel Writing and the Question of Race,” Journal of Medieval and Early Modern Studies 31.1 (2001): 147–64.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
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    Sarah Salih, “Idols and Simulacra: Paganity, Hybridity and Representation in Mandeville’s Travels,” in The Monstrous Middle Ages, ed. Bettina Bildhauer and Robert Mills (Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 2003), p. 123 and fig. 13 (pp. 113–33).Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Emma Campbell and Robert Mills 2004

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  • Sarah Salih

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