Published online by Cambridge University Press: 05 May 2018
Where is the study of medievalism going? Grand statements about disciplinary directions have a way of rebounding on those who pronounce them. But I am emboldened by the fact of writing this just a few days after hosting the third “Middle Ages in the Modern wOrld” (MAMO) conference, when more than a hundred scholars from around the world converged on Manchester, all professing in their different ways the study of medievalism. It is a striking feature of MAMO that it is now as autonomous as can be imagined from the discipline of medieval studies. Although, this year, 2017, it was hosted by an English department that still offers medieval literature at all levels, the bulk of participants are not medievalists in any traditional sense. Many of them would not claim to be; they profess medievalism, and they do so with a confidence that I do not think would have been seen just fifteen years ago.
There was relatively little discussion at MAMO, consequently, of whether medievalism's artifacts were defining an authentic Middle Ages. There was, instead, a broad assumption that, from fantasy novels to computer games, from eighteenth-century drama to present-day museums, there is a vast range of ideological investment at work in representations of the Middle Ages. There was also relatively little meta-reflection on this. The question of what medievalism studies actually is – a discipline of its own, a subdiscipline, a version of cultural studies? – was largely left alone. Is that a sign of a field in rude good health? Or one that is not confronting certain intractable problems? I think there are in fact elements of both, and I want to approach this via a long, historical route.
So far as I have been able to determine, it was exactly two hundred years ago, in 1817, that the minor antiquarian Thomas Fosbroke accidentally coined the adjective “medieval.” This occurred in a larger context in which, in the post-Napoleonic period, a new phase was opening up in the European study of medieval culture.