Published online by Cambridge University Press: 05 May 2018
Calling attention to what he identifies as a dearth of theory in medievalism scholarship, Nickolas Haydock addresses the need for studies in “medievalistics,” his term for analyses and theorizations of modern constructions of the historical Middle Ages. These constructions form a set of “contingent representations” that predicates the relationship between past and present on synchronically or diachronically imagined historical continuities, on the one hand, or on alterities that conceptualize the Middle Ages in terms of otherness, on the other. Tension between these kinds of contingencies is part and parcel of historicism; it is a necessary state from which negotiations of a past that was or may have been and the present that conceives of it can emanate. This essay theorizes how scholars of medievalism might maintain the tensions between Haydock's contingent representations without sacrificing the notion of historical authenticity, a concept ever under duress that seems to elude the historicist and challenge discursivity itself. Following up on Richard Utz's recent clarion calls for religion-based scholarship in medievalism studies, this essay makes two claims: first, it posits religious medievalism as the discourse within medievalism that can most effectively accommodate constructs of historical authenticity, and second, it suggests that the literary landscape of the nineteenth century was particularly hospitable to the cultivation of religious medievalism.
The idea of a lost Middle Ages, whether regrettably misplaced or fortunately displaced, has preoccupied historically minded westerners since the Middle Ages themselves came to an end during the sixteenth century. Some exhumed a rotten medieval body only to accentuate the pure, classical contours of the modern body by contrast, while others, wrapped in the fold of a romantic idealism that necessarily looks forward insofar as it looks back, imagined a utopian medieval body whose harmonious balance might be an antidote to the maladies of modernity. Contemporary social, political, economic, and religious spheres constituted but a few benighted categories of experience that medievalists of all eras believed could benefit from a medieval model, if only the medieval could be properly understood.