Living in the New, New Middle Ages

In his classic essays “Living in the New Middle Ages” and “Dreaming of the Middle Ages,” republished in his Travels in Hyperreality (1984), Umberto Eco explored what he understood to be a renewed interest in the Middle Ages in North American and European culture, defined by “a curious oscillation between fantastical neomedievalism and responsible philological examination.” Like many significant twentieth-century theorists, Eco was trained as a medievalist, so he was uniquely well-placed to identify and explore manifestations of medievalism. Eco proposed the possibility of ten little Middle Ages that existed from the Renaissance to the present (the Middle Ages as ironical revisitation, as decadentism, romanticism, etc). Eco was trying to describe ten modes of framing, simulating, or referencing the historical Middle Ages in literature, art, and film.

Eco’s texts have become classic—perhaps the classic—statements on medievalism in North American academe. They established the possibility of multiple Middle Ages existing in the present, each of which was conceived as much as a studied response to the “real” Middle Ages as it was to satisfy our present needs in or for the Middle Ages. Eco’s essays showed that “the middle ages” readily transgress whatever chronological frame one imposes on them. More importantly, perhaps, they offered scholars the ability to live with the Middle Ages again in the present and to insist on the Middle Ages’ pivotal role in shaping the present—as well as the present’s pivotal role in shaping the Middle Ages.

Eco’s essays are now part of the historiography of our disciplines, and his references to the popular and academic cultures of the 1970s and 1980s are no longer our points of reference. Indeed, our current medievalisms in popular culture and our current practices and subjective positions within Medieval Studies in the academy would have been unrecognizable to Eco in the 1980s. But the myth of the Middle Ages has, arguably, intensified since Eco wrote his essays. The Middle Ages continues to haunt modernity with revivals, references, and re-creations, each an attempt to imagine our own pre-modern past. We moderns have continued to frame the Middle Ages as the other to modernity, but it is perhaps more accurate to see the Middle Ages and modernity as different sides of the same coin: the Middle Ages is modernity’s evil twin.

In the last two decades alone, one can cite many popular manifestations of medievalism such as the Harry Potter books and films, Game of Thrones on HBO, Marco Polo on Netflix, The Last Kingdom on BBC, Matt Groening’s new series Disenchantment, Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings films, the board-game Carcassone, online RPGs such as World of Warcraft, and in museology recent exhibitions such as Jerusalem 1000-1400 Every People Under Heaven and Heavenly Bodies, to say nothing of a flourishing academic interest in the art, literature, and theology of the Middle Ages.

As Eco might have suggested, we are living in a New, New Middle Ages.

Some of the contours of what I call “The New, New Middle Ages” have been established by theorists of neomedievalism (a term Eco notably used to describe his own period rather than that which followed it). A defining feature of the New, New Middle Ages has been, to cite Cory Grewell, “its marked lack of nostalgia for the [historical] Middle Ages and its self-conscious denial of history.” Here, the New, New Middle ages is defined by the creation of alternate universes borrowed from quasi-medieval contexts or tropes that are untethered to what an academic medievalist might understand as “the Middle Ages.” Unlike nineteenth-and twentieth-century medievalisms, which allowed a broadly white elite to reflect upon and engage with their own cultural and genealogical relationship to the Middle Ages, our period has seemingly “democratized” the Middle Ages.

From one perspective, as Kevin and Brent Moberly write, “the result is an egalitarian, consumerist version of the medieval in which nobility is measured by one’s purchasing power” (i.e. those with access to medievalist productions on screen). In this sense, the medium is, to an extent, the message. Living in the New, New Middle Ages is fundamentally defined by our access to representations of it in digital technology. Whether we are studying medieval objects, leafing through medieval manuscripts, or exploring the extraordinary neomedieval productions of our period, we often do it by digital means. Similarly, our New, New Middle Ages are informed by our broader intellectual changes toward globalism and away from scholarly endeavor or medievalist representation being specifically tethered to specific places as nations. One thinks of Hedley Bull’s The Anarchical Society (1977) in which he discusses a return to medieval structures of political organization, a form of the neo-medieval, universal political order essentially free of sovereignty. In the New, New Middle Ages, medievalism has gone global.

My own approach to medievalism here is much in the spirit of Eco’s essays. I want to comment briefly on six new Middle Ages that have surfaced in our culture in the past thirty years or so. None are without exceptions or contradictions. Although I write as a scholar of medieval art and architecture, I will draw from academic and more popular manifestations of the Middle Ages during the Middle Ages and afterward. However much such broad appraisals threaten our insistence on “the real Middle Ages” and “Medievalism” as different areas of endeavor, both manifestly produce the Middle Ages for us, and studying them together illustrates some fruitful continuities.

The Medieval-Modern Middle Ages

A recurrent strategy of the New, New Middle Ages has been to decisively juxtapose the Middle Ages and its art with that of the modern present. In doing so, artists explore the Middle Ages “out of time,” to cite Alexander Nagel’s study, Medieval Modern. Consider Janet Cardiff’s 40 Part Motet: a beautiful gallery installation of 40 speakers set at head height upon stands that each play a singular vocal track from Thomas Tallis’s sixteenth-century motet, Spem in alium.


Here, in the secular space of the Art Gallery of Ontario where I first encountered it, or the Cloisters Museum in New York where it would also appear, we experience a digital recreation of the sonic experience of medieval music, becoming, as subjects, the singular focus of sacred music. But, even when experienced within the neo-medieval settings of the Cloisters, Cardiff’s work is not a work of nostalgia; it does nothing to contextualize its own medievalism. Rather, it is a deliberate temporal and thematic conjunction of digital technology and medieval song, a contrast of modern and medieval modes. We can point to a number of similar approaches in recent art practice, such as Ryan Callanan’s Stormtrooper Crucifixion (2018) installation at St. Stephen Walbrook in London, which substituted a Star Wars stormtrooper for the crucified body of Christ hung on a cross.


But the most impactful example of the medieval-modern Middle Ages was the gorgeous Heavenly Bodies: Fashion and the Catholic Imagination show at the Met 5th Ave and the Cloisters Museum, NY (2018) which aimed to “examine fashion’s ongoing engagement with the devotional practices and traditions of Catholicism.” At the Cloisters, works of haute couture took their natural place aside resplendent works of medieval religious and funerary art. Entering the galleries, the viewer was confronted by a symmetrical composition of Viktor and Rolf’s extraordinary dress flanked by twelfth-century wooden Romanesque statues of the Virgin and Child: the Morgan and Montvianeix Madonnas (which are often attributed to the same twelfth-century atelier).


Now missing much of their original polychromy, these Madonnas suggested little of their original vibrancy, although recent technical analysis has shown that they were painted with rich blue robes lined with gold. The pairing of Romanesque art with modern fashion posed an implicit challenge to our modernist conceptions of an apparently dark, superstitious and gloomy Middle Ages. Instead, Heavenly Bodies reengaged the extraordinary glamour of medieval religious art and with the Virgin Mary herself, whose sartorial elegance is expressed through her imported textiles and jewelry. The Virgin Mary emerged as something like a runway model in the show, a comparison that is no sense unfitting to a medievalist who is familiar with Marian miracle collections or texts such as John of Garland’s Epithalamium which emphasize the radiant beauty of the Virgin and her status as mistress of the quadrivium.

The premiere installation of the show featured a juxtaposition of a 1967 Balenciaga wedding dress in the Fuentidueña Chapel.


Positioned below the hanging Romanesque crucifix, the installation re-enacted Christianity’s central moment in which the Virgin—now clad in Balenciaga—is positioned in her conventional place below and to the right of Christ, gazing upward at the death of her son. The viewer had to move to the right to glimpse the Virgin’s face, which was deliberately obscured. In doing so the viewer played the part of John who traditionally was positioned to Christ’s left side in crucifixion iconography. These kinds of deliberate conjunctions of medieval and modern in the Heavenly Bodies exhibition expose fundamental continuities in a way that academic prose never could. Writ large here was not just the roots of modern fashion in medieval liturgical art, but the claim that our very conception of spectacle is tremendously indebted to the arts, music, and liturgy of the Catholic past.

The Subjective Middle Ages, or, My Own Private Middle Ages

The New, New Middle Ages is also defined by a subjective investment on the part of its protagonists, students, and mythmakers. In the opening pages of Richard Utz’s Medievalism, A Manifesto (2017), he states that “the more open negotiation of one’s affective and personal motivations to learning about medievalia is perhaps the most important difference between the prevailing notion of the Middle Ages roughly fifty years ago and our contemporary notion.” What attracts us to the Middle Ages, anyway? And are there common subject positions that have informed medievalist enquiry all along? Are medievalists bound by deeper orientations?

These questions strike us as uncomfortable ones, perhaps best suited to a psychiatrist’s study because they challenge a tradition of aesthetic disinterestedness that stretches deep into the eighteenth century, when the history of art, Medieval Studies and medievalism began. Intrinsic to the methods of archaeological and philological study is a removal of the self, of our subjective and erotic interests in the medieval object or text. However, much of our work now—and much of my own over the past few years—has been engaged with why we as moderns have looked to the Middle Ages; how it satisfies us as a historical subject; and how we have shaped it to fulfill our own particular needs.

A valuable intervention has been Robert Mills’ new book on the artist and filmmaker, Derek Jarman. Jarman’s work engaged closely with the Middle Ages, perhaps nowhere more explicitly than in his film Edward II (1991) which offers a queer updating of the narrative to represent a kind of vilification of homosexuality in the historical context of the AIDS crisis.


Mills states,

Too often professional medievalists don’t readily divulge their positionality as subjects … conversely … more than once in writing this book I have found myself identifying with, or seeing myself partly reflected in, some fragments of Jarman’s artistic output. History will always be passionate and interested, directed at transforming the world through what we know. Yet the pressure remains to make our work conform to some Gold Standard of objectivity.

Of course, what we witness in Medieval Studies is also manifest in some of our general art historical writing, such as Michael Ann Holly’s The Melancholy Art (2013) which not only asks how and why we write art history but also demands a subjective investment on the part of the historian in her historical period. Denying disinterestedness, historical research (and arguably historical representation generally) is inspired by individual trajectories of mourning for past periods, monuments and contexts that are frequently detached from broader academic or religious agendas. While we understand that this mourning is impossible to fulfill or satiate, we also understand the createdness of our New, New Middle Ages and some of the questions that its perpetual re-creation seeks to answer.

The Racial Middle Ages, or the New Crusade

Eco was of course fully aware of the employment of the Middle Ages as a place to project current constructions of nationalism and race. It had, in fact, served this function from its very beginning, when the Renaissance formulators of the Gothic established the myth of the northern Goths sacking the classical heritage of Rome. But it is notable that Eco emphasized the nineteenth rather than the twentieth century in his critique, “when the medieval model was taken as a political utopia, a celebration of past grandeur to be opposed to the miseries of national enslavement and foreign domination.” Eco did not explore the fact that the Third Reich likewise employed the Middle Ages to promote their own agendas, including the display of medieval art. As William Diebold has recently shown, the Third Reich staged exhibitions of medieval art at the 1940-42 Deutsche Grosse (German Greatness) exhibition in Munich, Prague, Brussels and elsewhere that exhibited medieval art to express a continuity between past and present German “greatness.”

Some readers will be aware that such adaptations of the Middle Ages for racially-oriented agendas have not left us. Much attention has been paid to the far right’s recent use of medieval imagery (in America as well as abroad) to advance or articulate what it perceives as a return to a racially and religiously segregated Middle Ages. Academic medievalists have naturally sought to clarify (and thus distance) Medieval Studies’ position on such politics. Any good medievalist will argue that, while the Middle Ages proper did witness acts of horrifying intolerance, segregation and open warfare, it was far from a racially or religiously homogenous period.

In so far as race and culture is concerned, our orientations in the New, New Middle Ages point eastward. As Bruce Holsinger has pointed out, the post-911 rhetoric of the American “War on Terror” adopted and manipulated the religious and geographical binaries of the medieval rhetoric of the crusade, a rhetoric that was also referenced in Osama Bin Laden’s statement that “This battle is not between al-Qaeda and the U.S. This is a battle of Muslims against the global crusaders…. [George] Bush stated that the world has to be divided in two: Bush and his supporters, and any country that doesn’t get into the global crusade is with the terrorists.” Living in the New, New Middle Ages means living within a period of crusade, a complex renegotiation of the political and religious relationships between “West” and “East.”

Many of our popular medievalisms respond directly to this context, whether the overt political, geographical and racial orientalisms of televisions series such as Game of Thrones and Marco Polo or the more historical, cinematic versions of the crusade such as Ridley Scott’s Kingdom of Heaven (2005). In Medieval Studies, we can point to a wave of scholarship on the visual culture of the crusade, some of which considers the material culture of the crusade enterprise in the East, while other work pursues the impact of military and religious pilgrimage to the Holy Land on the visual culture of Europe.

One of the products of our New Crusade is the 2016-17 show Jerusalem 1000-1400 Every People Under Heaven at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.


This show brought to light for the first time a range of objects under a single roof that were Muslim, Christian and Jewish. A multi-faith exhibition, Jerusalem offered an alternate picture of the material traces of cultural and religious exchange. As its title suggests, its approach seeks to deliberately erase the New Crusade in America – despite the fact that it was its fundamental pretext. And, while yearning for Jerusalem is an established part of discourses on the city as the catalog essays explore, this show does something very different, indeed.

Frequently removed from institutions of a religious and sectarian nature (Custodia Terrae Sanctae, the Greek Orthodox Patriarchiate, etc.), the objects on display had been stripped of their religious meaning to become works of art set within the oversized rooms of the Metropolitan Museum. Arguably, what was exhibited here was American might at the end of a political regime. The show was a figurative proposal for the coexistence of a multi-faith Holy Land facilitated by American political and financial might, grandly on display in the greatest art palace of the United States. A reviewer for the Wall Street Journal felt that the show reflected an active (if palatable) “historical revisionism” in which Jews, Christians and Muslims had equal claim to Jerusalem during the Middle Ages. The reviewer was not wrong, and it is apropos that the show appeared in 2016 during the final days of Obama’s Presidency (indeed the show was entirely planned in the Obama years). Understood in the light of current Trump-era politics, the show now seems to reflect the last gasp of a liberal American foreign policy and of a vision of peaceful and equal coexistence in the Holy Land.

The Queer Middle Ages

As a concept, the Middle Ages itself has been understood broadly as “queer” in recent years, existing as it does in a temporally unfixed and thematically unstable idiom or period between the antique and Renaissance worlds. But my focus here on queerness in the New, New Middle Ages’ is its more literal foregrounding of alternate forms of gender and sexuality. In his 2001 account of the famous January Page of the Tres Riches Heures (1412-16), the late Michael Camille argued persuasively something that should have been obvious all along: this courtly scene is a rich, homosocial space inhabited by beautiful, fashionable young men—each with their phallic puns—in the service of an older Duke. The January page serves as an index of a collector’s interests, which, in this context transcends precious objects to include young men.


Other scholars such as Robert Mills have explored the appearance of sodomites (a complex category in the Middle Ages) in the elevated context of the thirteenth century Moralized Bibles. That this work is underway now is of interest, but it may reflect much more than an increasingly liberal and open approach to sexuality within Medieval Studies. Arguably, Medieval Studies (and thus to some extent medievalist representation in general) has long been informed and imagined by queer scholars who saw in the Middle Ages a period of sexual possibility unfettered by codifications of sexuality imposed by modernity.

As I have argued in a book due out next year, Horace Walpole and the circle of medievalists that surrounded him were progenitors of a queer medievalist tradition. They employed the Gothic as a coterie style in Georgian London. Framing themselves as “brother monks,” “Goths” and even “nuns,” these men built homes that self-consciously opposed the hegemonic authority and gendered paternalism of Palladian classicism. In their originary Gothic fiction, they relocated their sexualized narratives from the Enlightenment present to a foreign, Gothic and Catholic medieval past. Matthew Lewis’s The Monk: A Romance (1796) situates an illicit, queer romance between a male monk and a woman dressed as a monk within the confines of a Spanish monastery. Located variously within Gothic castles and Monasteries, George Haggerty was surely correct to suggest that the monastery functioned as a sexual laboratory in the Gothic novel.

But Walpole’s glamorous, sexualized, violent, and “camp” image of the Middle Ages was not to be his alone: a complex, sinuous line connects him to a long tradition of medievalism promoted by homoerotically-inclined authors including William Beckford, Oscar Wilde, William Burges, M.R. James, Derek Jarman, and others. Such a vision of the Middle Ages as a place for the performance of illicit sexuality is echoed in some of our most popular medievalist productions such as Jeff Baena’s “unapologetically raunchy” 2017 film The Little Hours (based upon Boccaccio’s Decameron), and of course Game of Thrones which stages scenes of incest, sodomy, rape, and extreme sexual violence, all of which are naturalized in the brutal pre-modernity of its imagined Middle Ages for our wonder and titillation.

The Digital Middle Ages

I have noted already that digital technology has become our fundamental way to interface with the Middle Ages, whether we are viewing films, reading texts, articles, or books online, or viewing the millions of images of medieval art, objects, buildings and landscapes. The ability of CGI technology to re-present images that reflect a close approximation to our “real” perception of the phenomenological universe has fundamentally changed the meaning of medievalist representation, whether fictive or that based closely on medieval philology. I still recall one night in Brixton when I saw the first of Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings films. I was amazed not because he had captured the book, but rather because he had somehow captured my own imagination of it – something only possible with CGI.

In my own field of art history, the technologies of laser scanning and 360 stereoscopic imaging now re-present the spaces of medieval buildings to a new generation of students. Atop this wave are extraordinary projects such as Mapping Gothic France and Visualizing Venice. The Mapping Gothic site in particular uses high quality digital photos that are stitched together to create seamless, interactive images, such that you can now zoom up and into a vault boss or a window (neither of which would be so readily visible with the naked eye at ground level).

Yet, how does the digital, and the manipulation of a static screen by a stationary viewer “moving through” a gothic building, from, say, their dorm room in Urbana Champaign or Toronto, fundamentally change our relationship to architecture and to the Middle Ages itself? I am always struck by how much students like it. As soon as I propose using these or other technologies in the classroom students are wildly enthusiastic. This probably has less to do with Gothic architecture per se, but rather with an inherent linguistic familiarity with the digital as their own hallowed interface with the world around them. While the digital allows us to explore medieval art at a granular level that was previously impossible, we do so via newly created simulations. Our construction of veracity, of “evidence” and its experience has shifted. Arguably, the aura of the original, informed by our own romanticism for experiencing the medieval past via complicated travel in Europe, North Africa and elsewhere characterized by the founders of the discipline, has diminished. Seeing is no longer believing.

The Millennial Middle Ages

Although we might not stop to acknowledge it (or perhaps we turn our heads away in dismay), an entire generation was raised on the medievalist fantasy of J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter books and films. For many “millennials,” the Harry Potter series is held with a reverence that is quasi-sacral. As an academic medievalist, I am always delighted (but also a little bemused) to be asked to read or supervise MA theses on medievalism in Harry Potter since there seems to be some perception that I know something significant about the books. In truth, I don’t. Of course, wizards and witches and private schools (well, for the most part) have little to do with the Middle Ages as someone like me might understand them. I experienced the books when they were passed about when I was a graduate student, and I read a few at that point before my interest waned (but the films were a guilty pleasure that I had to watch to the end). If not for my generation, the Harry Potter myth has brought up the next generation of medievalists with a foundational myth (of sorts).

I was struck when busily moving through King’s Cross Station to an appointment in London recently to see young people lining up for hours to touch the fictive “Platform 9 ¾” with a reverence that was surely not so different to how medieval pilgrims eagerly sought contact with sacred relics.


The pilgrimage reference is intentional: and have webpages for soon-to-be disappointed tourists to visit the actual medieval sites from the Harry Potter films (Durham Cathedral, Alnwick Castle, Lacock Abbey etc), thus creating pilgrimages to the real sites of the fictive narratives of Harry Potter.

How did this happen? Rowling is a talented storyteller to be sure, but Anne Carson or Thomas Hardy she is not. No specialist in English literature would claim that the books are either novel in their conceptions or particularly well written. They have repackaged and synthesized medievalia via Tolkein and others and the epic tradition in a way that is extremely satisfying. The Harry Potter myth offers to millennials a version of the epic in the sense that STAR WARS did for my own generation, although, sadly, the present has offered no profound interpreter of the myth in the way that Joseph Campbell did for my era.

But back to the point: if not due to its inherent originality or merit, how did Harry Potter become SO popular? More time will surely be required to fully understand this, but we can’t avoid the fact that these books were consumed by the new generation of children raised by “helicopter parenting.” But rather than being cuddly and affirming as this might suggest, the books are actually horrific in their subject matter: they confront alienation, non-normativity, the death of parents and friends, poverty, the violent struggles to metaphorically (and literally) kill a parent figure and usurper (Voldemort). All of this is digested, at least by my students, in the comfortable, upper middle-class confines of urban and suburban homes. The Harry Potter myth effectively sublimates the trauma and lived experience formerly known and lived by young people to the pages of a book (or the glowing screen of an e reader as the case might be). The adventures of Harry Potter and his friends offer psychic terrain upon which children experience loss and trauma, to effectively grow up. But more than this, the unfolding series of books and films developed with the millennial child, thus becoming the unlived experience of many children and future medievalists who are safely kept under lock and key by protective parents.

Every era creates the Middle Ages that it wants and needs, and our appraisals of the Middle Ages continue to tell us at least as much about ourselves as they do about the “real” Middle Ages. It has been possible here to discuss only a few aspects of what is a much broader picture. The Middle Ages of RPGs, of Dan Brown and faux philology, of the Celtic revival and tattoo culture, and other issues deserve consideration. But there can be little doubt that the efficacy of the Middle Ages will be felt well into the future.

Matthew M. Reeve is Associate Professor of Art History at Queen’s University. A medievalist by training, he writes on medieval art and architecture and episodes of medievalism in Western art. This essay is a lightly edited version of an essay he was invited to give at the IMC at Kalamazoo in 2018. His new book on Gothic architecture and sexuality in the circle of Horace Walpole (Penn State Press) is coming out in 2019.

Leave a Reply

Begin typing your search term above and press enter to search. Press ESC to cancel.

Back To Top
%d bloggers like this: