Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Mission statement and history

This blog has been live since February, and I just realized that I never posted our mission statement.

What follows is a slightly revised version of what was originally posted to our homepage, which is in limbo at present. The bulk of the text has not been revised since early 2008 and does not reference any of the excellent studies on medievalism that have appeared in the past year and a half.


Encompassing the period of human history from approximately 400 to 1500 AD (roughly from Augustine of Hippo to Martin Luther), the Middle Ages can appear to the unenlightened to be part of the distant past with little or no relevance to our contemporary concerns, especially in countries, like the United States, that never experienced the period. In truth, the medieval, represented, as Heather Arden explains, through the “survival, revival, or re-creation” of some aspect of the Middle Ages, continues to have an enormous impact on our lives (consider the power of the Crusading rhetoric with relation to the ongoing crisis in the Middle East).[1] These medievalisms (a term we adapt from Leslie J. Workman’s work on medievalism to refer to post-medieval reflections on the Middle Ages and/or on the medieval in general) are important features of post-medieval culture, and, of Arden’s three categories, re-creation of the medieval remains especially prevalent in our post-medieval world, although our conception of the medieval is extremely mutable.[2] Film scholar, A. Keith Kelly captures some of this variety, when he writes:

The Middle Ages succeeds in being many things for a modern audience: a mythic world where archetypal individuals or even archetypal cultures can take believable form, a realm where spirituality and even magic can be accepted without question, a time of uncomplicated heroism, of visceral violence, of injustice, of moral rigor and of depraved fanaticism.[3]

Thus, we find the medieval and medieval themes proliferating in works of popular entertainment (such as comics, digital and video games, films, music and musical theater, mysteries, novels, poetry, television programming, and various works of fantasy and science fiction), while our imaginative worlds are also deeply indebted to the medieval motifs (e.g. the questing knight, the damsel in distress, and the wise wizard) that provide the basis for many of the mythic stories that feature in these various media. Similarly, for many the medieval has become the site of nostalgia for a better time; the Matter of Britain, in particular, has for over a millennium inspired individuals with its promise of a Golden Age where Arthur, the fabled rex quondam rexque futurus, will return to save them from their troubled times, be these crises caused by royal politics (as in the reigns of Henry II, Henry VII, or James I), warfare (such as the American Civil War and World War Two), or national occasions of mourning (as when presidents Abraham Lincoln and John F. Kennedy were assassinated). Further spreading interest in the medieval, courses in Medieval Studies are mainstays in colleges and universities worldwide, and re-enactment groups proliferate internationally. These pursuits, engaged by professional and recreational scholars devoted to the re-creation of medieval matter, simultaneously merge serious attempts to study the survivals of the medieval world with efforts to revive aspects--be it its language, culture, cuisine, or modes of combat--of it. Professional critics (be they scholars or, in earlier eras, antiquarians) have long been interested in literature based on medieval subjects, and the twentieth century also saw the birth of the field of medieval cinema studies. This discipline blossomed in the latter third of the century and continues to expand into the new millennium, where filmic representations of the medieval, such as A Knight’s Tale (2001), King Arthur (2004), Kingdom of Heaven (2005), Beowulf & Grendel (2005), and the Science Fiction Channel’s Grendel (2007), have inspired much debate about the disparity between the “reel Middle Ages” of Hollywood and the realities of medieval history and literature. Released earlier in the decade, the success of Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy (2001-2003) has led to a renaissance in Tolkien studies at all levels and prompted countless students to take their first classes in medieval literature or history in order to discover more about the era that so fascinated J. R. R. Tolkien and his twenty-first century adapters. Currently in the spotlight, the appearance of Robert Zemeckis’s Beowulf (2007), a computer-animated retelling of the Old English epic, bodes well for both studies of the cinematic Middle Ages as well as the future of Anglo-Saxon Studies, while the release of the BBC’s Robin Hood (2006-) and Merlin (2008-), both live-action series, and Shrek the Third (2007), another computer-animated film, this one featuring Justin Timberlake as the future King Arthur, promises to introduce a new generation to the medieval legends of Sherwood Forest and Camelot.

The vitality of medieval matter, despite the passage of time, lends credence to Umberto Eco’s comment, “it seems that people like the Middle Ages.”[4] Further validating Eco’s remark, enthusiasts of the Middle Ages have long been fascinated by medievalisms, like those mentioned above. However, to date, there have been relatively few studies that explore how the medieval has been incorporated into popular culture, especially with regards to medieval themes in modern texts of popular music, fiction, and film; television programming; children’s toys; the comics medium; role-playing and computer/video/digital digital games. Some treatment of this material has appeared in the sibling journals Studies in Medievalism and The Year’s Work in Medievalism--both founded by Leslie J. Workman--and their European counterpart Mittelalter-Rezeption, and a number of studies, reference works, and other collections have appeared in recent decades--most recently David W. Marshall’s Mass Market Medieval: Essays on the Middle Ages in Popular Culture (McFarland, 2007)--that do much to remedy this lack of scholarship, with students of Arthurian Studies being most active in this endeavor (a sample bibliography appears elsewhere on this site as “Making Medieval Studies Matter”). In an attempt to further such research, the Society for the Study of Popular Culture and the Middle Ages (PCMA) was co-founded in the fall of 2004 by Carl James Grindley and Michael A. Torregrossa. In its present incarnation, PCMA merges and incorporates the various web sites and discussion lists formerly sponsored by the Society for Arthurian Popular Culture Studies, which was formally founded by Torregrossa in March 2003 to foster research on Arthurian popular culture from all periods in which representations of the Arthurian legend appear, though the genesis of this society’s mission originated in 2000.

In addition to supporting work on more traditional aspects of the medieval in popular culture (and in the popular culture of the Middle Ages itself), PCMA is especially interested in the encouragement and promotion of scholarship that deals with topics traditionally seen as being “low brow” (especially subjects like television programming, popular music, juvenile literature, the comics medium, and gaming) and attempts to bring such studies into the mainstream, for as Clare Simmons has remarked, “Medievalism and medieval studies need no longer represent an opposition,” since “medieval studies cannot, at least in hindsight, be entirely free of Medievalism,” a field of study that Nadia Margolis has described as “a new transdisciplinary realm of cultural studies”.[5] Through our collective experience, we recognize that the study of popular culture is an important component of the modern academic world and provides a ready point of access for teachers, students, and enthusiasts to communicate the magic of the medieval world, as Lynn Bartholome explains: “Popular culture perpetually promotes discussion, participation, imagination, and evaluation,” because, “When a professor includes popular culture in the curriculum, it authenticates the culture that students already value. Utilizing it constructively produces an environment where students are involved, motivated, and willing to become engaged because they are already ‘experts’”.[6] Michael D. Meyer applies this approach to Medieval Studies and explains:

The history of the Middle Ages is, to a great extent, unknown in modern times, but its legends and images persist and form part of popular culture. The teacher must utilize popular culture and capitalize on it to enrich modern culture and to illuminate the medieval past. A comparison of themes found in the primary sources with themes found in popular culture introduces students to the tools and process of history, the function of legend, and the purpose of popular culture.[7]

Lee Ann Tobin makes a similar observation, when she notes,

our students now have a different background than students did twenty, thirty, or forty years ago. I believe that students today come to college with as much information as their predecessors, but it is information of a different sort. Rather than reading for entertainment and studying history and religion in fact-based ways, students have encountered process-oriented education and have spent much of their free time watching television and seeing movies. Rather than lamenting this situation, we need to take advantage of it by recognizing the value of popular medievalism as a base on which to build a stronger understanding of the medieval period and its literature.[8]

Guided by like sentiments, it is the intent of the Society for the Study of Popular Culture and the Middle Ages to bring medievalists and popular culture specialists into contact, with the ultimate goal to make Medieval Studies a richer field for investigation.

Michael A. Torregrossa
April 2009


[1] Heather Arden, “Editorial II,” in Medievalism in France, ed. Heather Arden, Studies in Medievalism, 2.2 (Akron: Ohio: Department of English, University of Akron for Studies in Medievalism, 1983), p. 5 [5-8].

[2] The definition is adapted from that provided by Workman in a 1993 essay “Medievalism and Romanticism,” were he declares, “In short, medievalism implies any aspect of the postmedieval response to the Middle Ages” (“Medievalism and Romanticism,” Poetica: An International Journal of Linguistic-Literary Studies (Tokyo) 39-40 (1993): 15 [1-44]). As the founder of both Studies in Medievalism and The Year’s Work in Medievalism (originally Year’s Work in Medievalism), Workman had many occasions to define medievalism in its forms as both an object of study (medievalisms, we propose) and field for academic work (Medievalism, we posit to further reflect the distinction). This quotation seems to represent his final thoughts on describing medievalisms and has been adopted, with some expansion, by the editors of Studies in Medievalism (though they do not distinguish between the two types of medievalism, as I have done), as attested by former editor T. A. Shippey’s statement on the journal’s website:

Medievalism is the study of responses to the Middle Ages at all periods since a sense of the mediaeval began to develop. Such responses include, but are not restricted to, the activities of scholars, historians and philologists in rediscovering medieval materials; the ways in which such materials were and are used by political groups intent on self-definition or self-legitimation; and artistic creations, whether literary, visual or musical, based on whatever has been or is thought to have been recovered from the medieval centuries” (“About,” Studies in Medievalism, <http://www.medievalism.net/about.html>, 16 August 2008).

[3] A. Keith Kelly, “Beyond Historical Accuracy: A Post Modern View of Movies and Medievalism,” Perspicuitas: Internet-Periodicum für Mediävistische Sprach-, Literatur- und Kulturwissenschaft, web posted 6 February 2004, available at <http://www.perspicuitas.uni-essen.de/medievalism/articles/Kelly_BeyondHistoricalAccuracy.pdf>, p. 16 [19 pp.].

[4] Umberto Eco, "Dreaming of the Middle Ages," in Travels in Hyperreality, trans. William Weaver (San Diego, Calif.: Harcourt Brace and Co., 1986), p. 61.

[5] Clare Simmons, “Introduction,” Prose Studies 23.2 (Aug. 2000): 12 [1-28]; rpt. in Medievalism and the Quest for the “Real” Middle Ages, ed. Clare Simmons (Portland, Or.: Frank Cass, 2001); Nadia Margolis, “Joan of Arc: Maneuverable Medievalism, Flexible Feminism,” Medieval Feminist Newsletter 22 (Fall 1996): 21 [21-25]. Simmons’s reflections on the relationship between Medieval Studies and medievalism are further developed by Stephanie Trigg, who remarks,

In terms of disciplinary positioning, [academic work on] medievalism can be seen as a subset, or an offshoot, of medieval studies; or alternatively, as an anomalous, secondary kind of field, with little more than thematic concerns to hold together its diverse subject matter across six or more centuries in a range of European and non-European contexts.

She later ventures the statement: “medieval studies (seen as the philological and scholarly reconstruction of the past), is necessarily a sub-branch of medievalism” (Rev. of James Gallant, ed., The Year’s Work in Medievalism: 1995, The Year’s Work in Medievalism 10 (for 1999) (Holland, Mich.: Studies in Medievalism, 2000), Prolepsis: The Tübingen Review of English Studies (posted 9 Nov. 2001) available at <http://www.uni-tuebingen.de/uni/nes/prolepsis/01_06_tri.html>; and Prolepsis: The Heidelberg Review of English Studies (posted 9 Nov. 2001) available at ). Workman himself was more cautious about the interrelationship between the two disciplines and states,

What I think will happen is that medievalism will adopt more of the attitude if historicism and that medieval studies will adopt more of the approach and procedure of medievalism. I think medieval studies and medievalism are moving closer and will continue to do so, though not to the point of becoming one and the same thing (qtd. in Richard Utz, “Speaking of Medievalism: An Interview with Leslie J. Workman,” in Medievalism in the Modern World: Essays in Honour of Leslie J. Workman, ed. Richard Utz and Tom Shippey, Making the Middle Ages, 1, series eds. Geraldine Barnes and Margaret Clunies Ross (Turnhout: Brepols, 1998), p. 444.

[6] Lynn Bartholome, “Guest Editorial: Is Community College Teaching the Road to Nowhere?,” The Journal of Popular Culture 39.1 (2006): 9, 7 [5-9].

[7] Michael D. Myers, “Teaching Medieval History Through Legend and Film,” Studies in Medieval and Renaissance Teaching 5.2 (Fall 1997): 75 [65-76].

[8] Lee Ann Tobin, “Contemporary Medievalism as a Teaching Tool,” Studies in Medieval and Renaissance Teaching 1.2 (Fall 1990): 19 [13-19].

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