The strange allure of the Middle Ages

Beware the new vogue for medievalism. The modern world hasn't been all bad, writes Blake Morrison
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The Independent Online
THE Middle Ages are back. With their stained-glass windows, haloed saints, hooded pilgrims, illuminated manuscripts and polished Excaliburs, they have never looked so chic. After the books and films comes Strange Landscape, a five-part series which began last night on BBC2 and goes out at peak viewing (that is, National Lottery) time. Presented by the excellent Christopher Frayling, it is both an expression and diagnosis of a dodgy cult: neo-medievalism.

Of course, the Middle Ages never really went away. In every century since the Renaissance they've been dug up, raked over, remade. One hundred years ago the Middle Ages - all blessed damozels and frizz-haired Guineveres - were in the keeping of the pre-Raphaelites. The seeds of the present cult were planted half a century ago by CS Lewis and JR Tolkien. Emmanuel le Roy Ladurie's Montaillou (1978) continued the growth. But the flowering was Umberto Eco's novel The Name of the Rose. Now rock bands, teen comics and computer games have found that the surest way to attract a young audience is by giving themselves dungeon-and-dragons type names. The novels of Ellis Peters show there's no limit to what's hidden under a monk's habit. Even the Monty Python bunch have done their bit, Terry Gilliam with films like Jabberwocky, Time Bandit and The Fisher King, Terry Jones with a history of the Crusades.

What is this all about? Eco gave the wittiest answer when he said that "I know the present time only through the television screen, whereas of the Middle Ages I have a direct knowledge." We have a palpable awareness of the Middle Ages, he suggests, because we are living in or with its buildings (cathedrals, town squares) institutions (banks, universities, governments) and technological inventions (forks, furs, windmills, rudders, horse-shoes, compasses, keyboards, maths). The monuments of ancient Rome or Egypt we keep a respectful distance from, but the Middle Ages are all around.

The thesis shows how much has changed. Once, the Middle Agesused to be lumped in with the Dark Ages, but as the 20th century began to exploit the extensive medieval documentation that exists (10 times more than we have of the ancient world), so bright spires could be glimpsed poking from the shadow. Gradually distinctions were made not only between the Dark (400-1000) and Middle periods (1000-1450), but between the early medieval and the late, with the suggestion that the Renaissance was not a break from the Middle Ages but its fruition. The French historian Jacques le Goff proposed that the Middle Ages "endured from the 3rd century till the middle of the 19th", when the Industrial Revolution and mass democracy finally destroyed it. Now Eco has capped even this, arguing that the Middle Ages are the new world.

As the Middle Ages have become fashionable, so have medievalists. For much of this century they were considered the nerds of the history faculty. They were made to feel that whereas the Renaissance or Victorian periods were exciting, theirs was a backwater, the refuge of hapless characters like Kingsley Amis's Lucky Jim, whose specialist subject is "The Economic Influence of the Development of Shipbuilding Technique, 1450-1485".

Eco and Ladurie have changed all that. Enrolment in medieval studies programmes in the United States rose dramatically in the 1980s. Now even the humblest specialist will flamboyantly argue the connection between leprosy and Aids, or St Francis and the 1960s counterculture, or the erotic adventures of Peter Abelard and those of Henry Miller. In The Medieval Machine (1988), a book typical of the new tendency to present the Middle Ages as a dynamic period which introduced industry and technology into Europe "on a scale no civilisation had previously known", Jean Gimpel carries this to cranky limits with a list of 48 parallels between medieval France and 20th-century America, comparing Beauvais cathedral with the Empire State Building and the Cistercians with Henry Ford.

If the upbeat justification for this is that it teaches us who we are and how we got here, the negative view is put by the French historian Alain Minc in his book Le Nouveau Moyen Age (1993). For Minc, it's not that the Middle Ages have come forward to meet us but that we've regressed: the collapse of nation states, the disintegration of the city, the divisions between gentry and underclass, the threat of war between Christianity and Islam, "the collapse of reason as the basic guiding principle" - all this is evidence that we're breaking away from the ordered scientific universe.

Continuities are certainly pervasive. Muslim pilgrims kissing the marble pillars in the great mosque of Damascus seem centuries old. The Crystal Palace fan who taunts Eric Cantona is felt to be behaving in a "medieval" fashion, as is Cantona when he retaliates. "Medieval" here can be shorthand for brutish or barbarian, but may also imply approval for unrepressed behaviour.

But is the modern world really so medieval as historians suggest? Take the analogy often drawn between the medieval fear of Armageddon and our own fear of nuclear annihilation. The first is a fantasy, the product of superstition, focusing on an unknown, intolerant Creator; the second is a proper and reasonable anxiety based on man's intimate knowledge of mankind. In this alleged parallel, the two lines are not only non-adjacent, they don't even get on the same map.

What's interesting is our need to make such parallels. Take the rise of fantasy fiction. Ten years ago, science fiction shelves were dominated by Ray Bradbury and Isaac Asimov, their dust-jackets adorned with robots and moonscapes. Now the big names are Terry Brooks and Terry Pratchett, Tad Williams and Anne McCaffrey, whose covers show Viking-helmeted horsemen, wild beasts and serpents, sorcerers with laserbeam fingertips, strange crags in Gothic mists.

Most of this fiction may be tosh but the feelings it plays on are not. Entropy and millennialism are driving us back 1,000 years. Frightened by the present, people can imagine time future only as time past. The 21st century looks like the 7th century refracted through the worst of the 20th: plague, pestilence, famine, genocide, blood-feuds, aliens, monsters. If millennial anxiety is part of this, so is a loss of faith in the state. While politicians talk piously of democratic values and a united Europe, the realities in the street - beggars, thieves, drunks, weapons - evoke a more brutal model of society. Unable to control events in Bosnia, say, or to moderate the greed of the robber barons in the privatised industries, we think back to a feudal age when the majority felt similarly shorn of power and the dominant imagery was of helplessness: those lonely martyrdoms, those heretics dying at the stake. It's a natural reflex but also a dangerous one: knowing things were bad 1,000 years ago somehow makes it more acceptable that they're bad now. The meliorist impulse gets lost.

Significantly perhaps, since the Middle Ages offer few role models for women, neo-medievalism is largely a male movement. Its origins here seem to lie in boarding school fantasies - Merrie England, fat monks and shining armour. Terry Gilliam has admitted, engagingly, that his love of the Middle Ages is "total infantilism ... It seems a simpler, more manageable kind of world, a more direct world where when there's a problem you have a knight go out and slay a dragon". Medievalism used to be something to grow out of. Now it offers a seductive alternative to the stresses and complexities of the adult world.

Two weeks ago I stood on the walls of one of the great Crusader castles, the Krak des Chevaliers in Syria. For 150 years this fortress was "a bone stuck in the throat of the Muslims", until a forged letter tricked the monks and knights inside into vacating it. For a moment I tried to imagine myself as someone standing up there 750 years ago - to feel his pride, belief, and pleasure in the solid stones. But other less wholesome feelings welled up: his panicky fortress mentality and fear of sappers; his bigotry, misogyny, terror of Hell, unacquaintance with hygiene, ignorance of the shape of the world; his belief that there are countries where people have three heads.

History is never neutral. Remembering is always a kind of forgetting. If the vogue for the Middle Ages reminds us of the greatness of Dante or of Chartres cathedral it can't be all bad. But we shouldn't wall ourselves up in castles oblivious to the achievement of the post-Renaissance world. Behind the colourful panes of neo-medievalism lies a dangerous fortress mentality.

Christopher Frayling,

Sunday Review, page 32