Published online by Cambridge University Press: 05 May 2018
As rigged elections, identity theft, and pirated products fill newspaper headlines, which, we are often told, may themselves be fake, authenticity would seem to be in particularly short supply these days. And there are indeed many contemporary challenges to and manipulations of it, especially by politicians and media outlets that, often through those very machinations, have recently moved to the center of public consciousness. But debates about what constitutes authenticity and where it is to be found are nothing new to medievalism. Indeed, they have always been central to it.
The distance implicit in any response to the past represents a space for doubt as to the identity of that past, but that ambiguity may be particularly acute in medievalism. Though there are enough medieval artifacts to suggest the period's contours and to give it an enduring presence in contemporary culture, there are so many lacunae in its historical record, and often such large ones, as to leave extraordinary room for interpretation. Nor are those responses delimited by the kind and degree of self-consciousness that is endemic in later and, often, earlier periods. Indeed, the very erraticness with which that and many other traits apply to the Middle Ages indicates the elusiveness of an era that, as conventionally defined, spans all of Europe from at least the middle of the fifth century to the beginning of the fourteenth.
And it is precisely this slipperiness that makes medievalism extraordinarily informative and important. In creating their own particular middle ages, each interpreter reveals much about not only the malleability of the Middle Ages, but also themselves and their circumstances. As they flesh out, adapt, and/ or depart from the medieval record, they at least indicate, and sometimes outright declare, their own values, experiences, and expectations. They open large, clear windows to the very real contexts from which they often produce fuzzy, limited constructs.
Moreover, the elusiveness of their material frequently creates a secondary space in which scholars of medievalism may reveal themselves and their own circumstances. In examining responses to the Middle Ages, and particularly in discussing the authenticity of a medievalist's middle ages, researchers often reveal at least as much about their own biases and those of the moment in which they are working as about the medievalists, much less the Middle Ages.