Back to the Future: The Birth of Modern Medievalism in England and America

  • Susan Aronstein
Part of the Studies in Arthurian and Courtly Cultures book series (SACC)


As the citizens of a technological and secular first world—the modern society of a putative global village produced by access to the Internet and a humanist education—we have a long and historically ambivalent relationship with our medieval past. For citizens of America, a country founded in opposition to the social and political structures, rooted in the Middle Ages, of aristocratic and monarchical England, this relationship becomes even more problematic. On the one hand, the Middle Ages became, almost from the very moment the Renaissance recognized they were past, synonymous with the barbaric, the violent, and the superstitious— “modernity’s common, rejected … past,” antithetical to the values of rational, humane, and democratic discourse.1 On the other hand, the romance of the medieval has historically provided Western culture with the site of a lost ideal and a past to which the modern must return in order to ensure its future.2 As “moderns,” particularly modern Americans, we are schizophrenic about our medieval past; we are also obsessed with it. From the early modern period to the present, western Europe—and in its time, America—has experienced what Umberto Eco argues is a continuous return to the Middle Ages, a return that he identifies as a quest for origins: “looking at the Middle Ages means looking at our infancy, in the same way that a doctor, to understand our present state of health, looks at our childhood, or in the same way that a psychoanalyst, to understand our present neuroses, makes a careful investigation of the primal scene.”3


Early Modern Period Medieval Text Democratic Discourse Primal Scene Medieval History 


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    Kathleen Davis, “Time Behind the Veil: The Media, The Middle Ages, and Orientalism Now,” in The Postcolonial Middle Ages ed. Jefferey Jerome Cohen (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2000), p. 109 [105–122].Google Scholar
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    Morton Bloomfield, “Reflections of a Medievalist: America, Medievalism, and the Middle Ages,” in Medievalism in American Culture p. 27 [13–29].Google Scholar
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    Alice Chandler, A Dream of Order: The Medieval Ideal in Nineteenth-Century English Literature (Lincoln: Lincoln University Press, 1970), p. 1.Google Scholar
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    Thomas Bulfinch, The Age of Chivalry (Boston: S.W. Tilton, 1884), p. 6.Google Scholar
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    William Bryant Forbush, The Boy Problem (Norwood, MA: Plimpton Press, 1901; 1913), p. 67.Google Scholar

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© Susan Aronstein 2005

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  • Susan Aronstein

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