Medievalist Temporalities

Stefan Nyzell, Malmö University

Just as my title indicates, I will discuss two things:

1. Medievalism,


2. Temporality.

Medievalism is the field of study in which I am currently conducting a research project – on the re-creation of medieval pasts in the present. What I study is such things as:

  • historical re-enactment, living history and historical role-playing;
  • depicting medieval pasts;
  • medieval pasts (note the plural) in the present.

As can be seen, the study in itself is very much about temporality, i.e. the theoretical aspects of time. I am a historian and as I see it, it is the job of a historian to do just this, to think deeply about the aspects of human life in and over time, and to think about time itself. Something we perhaps, as a professional community, tend to do less often than we should.

When I turned the focus of my research – which has been primarily in the field of contentious politics studies – into the field of medievalism it has led me to think much longer and harder about time itself. One real inspiration in my research has been the American scholar William Sewell. He has stated – quite correctly I think – that what really defines history as an academic field is its dedication to temporality (Sewell 2005: 2-6). At the same time, however, Sewell asserts that they (that is we historians) tend to do this without giving the theoretical concept of time much real attention. We work with time without giving it much thought.

Once again, I think Sewell is quite correct. Historians are trained from early on in their studies to analyse continuations and changes over time. But NOT to think about and theorize time itself. Most academic studies of temporality I have read have been done in fields such as sociology, cultural studies, or literary studies. Sewell, for example, is a sociologist. However, I think that we (once again the “we” here is for we historians) could really benefit from giving this much more attention. So here we go!

First, though, we need to go back to the concept of medievalism. Louise D’Arcens defines medievalism as:

…the reception, interpretation or re-creation of the European Middle Ages in post-medieval cultures (D’Arcens 2016: 1).

While Medieval Studies takes on the the Middle Ages (the time period between 500 and 1500), in itself medievalism is primarily interested in HOW the middle ages have been depicted in the 500 years since it ended. D’Arcens goes on to say that there are two fundamental ways to study the Middle Ages:

1. the found middle ages, i.e. the actual traces from the middle ages, sources, artefacts, etc.

2.  and the created middle ages that…

…are imaginative in their impulse and founded on the ideas of ’the medieval’ as conceptual rather than a historical category (D’Arcens 2016: 1).

Another scholar in the field, Leslie Workman, has expressed this idea as follows:

‘Medievalism is the continuing process of creating the Middle Ages’ (as quoted in Sturtevant 2018: 2)

Ideas of the medieval have been created and recreated many times over. The two most influential of these ideas in the post medieval era has been that of the:

1. grotesque middle ages,

and the…

2. romantic middle ages.

The first is an idea from the renaissance, i.e. the time period just after the middle ages, which wanted to see itself as the ancient time reborn, discarding the time period in between as a dark and barbaric era. This has had consequences. As medievalist David Matthews says:

the Middle Ages had to serve as the barbarous ‘other’, the dark age from which the reformation had liberated a newly renascent culture (Matthews 2015: 3).

The second idea, that of the Romantic Middle Ages, is the child of the early nineteenth century, from which we have the notion of the middle ages as a time of primarily heroic knight and beautiful ladies. There are more competing ideas, but these are the two most influential.

A mix of these ideas can be seen in most pop-culture depictions of the Middle Ages. From Ivanhoe to Game of Thrones, these are examples which include it all.

So this is my current field of study – to look into these competing and shifting ideas of the Middle Ages and the many ways in which they have been interpreted, be it novels, plays, TV-series, movies, festivals, or whatnot. As you can see the Middle Ages is NOT something entirely stable as to WHAT it is.

What, then, about WHEN it is?

Well I have just stated that the Middle Ages is the era between 500 and 1500. But I do not think that it is as simple as that. Indeed some scholars within the field of medievalism have argued that the WHEN in the Middle Ages is not something entirely stable either. In theorizing time, historians most traditionally have worked with two basic concepts for conducting research:

1. We stop time and go deep into a specific context. This is called the synchronic view.


2. We see continuations or changes over time. This is called the diachronic view.

What the cultural turn since the 1990s has taught us is that, in both the synchronic and the diachronic views, we ALWAYS also have the present-day view looking back in time. Thus, it frames HOW and WHAT we see.

This is very much the medievalist’s work-mode. That is, the HOW and WHAT, and even WHEN, looking back into the past tend to be a result of the constantly shifting present. Thus, the Middle Ages is indeed something different in the view of the 1820s, 1880s, 1920s, 1980s … and even in the view of 2018.

Here I want to end with a theoretical aspect of time that has been advocated by the American literary scholar (note not a historian) and medievalist, Carolyn Dinshaw, that is inspiring my own work just now. In her When is now? Dinshaw argues for the asynchronic view…. stating that:

Time is lived; it is full of attachments and desires, histories and futures; it is not a hollow form […] that is the same always” (Dinshaw 2012: 4).

She defines the asynchronic as: “different time frames or temporal systems colliding in a single moment of now”. (Dinshaw 2012: 5). This is more or less what Raphael Samuel said in his Theaters of Memory from 1994), stating that history:

is a social form of knowledge […] drawing not only on real-life experience but also on memory and myth, fantasy and desire (Samuel 2012: x).

I think this is I key concept here – our desires about the past. When talking to re-enactors this seems to be very important. In fact, many of them agree that one of the most desirable moments as a re-enactor is when the past and the present (if only for a short moment, even the blink of an eye) seem to be as one.

To really be there.

The presence of the past in the now.

So can the Middle Ages really be now?

Yes, it seems so.

And even in the future.

Indeed many visions of the Middle Ages do indeed put it in the future, as a vision of some kind of utopia, or as a vision of horrors to come. (See for example: Wollenberg 2018). Here, once again we see both the romantic and the grotesque Middle Ages as visions in the present for the future.


D’Arcens, Louise, “Introduction: Medievalism – Scope and Complexity”, in D’Arcens, Louise (ed.), The Cambridge companion to medievalism, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 2016.

Dinshaw, Carolyn, How soon is now? Medieval texts, amateur readers, and the queerness of time, Duke University Press, Durham, NC, 2012.

Matthews, Medievalism: a Critical History, Boydell and Brewer Limited, 2015.

Sewell, William H, Logics of History: Social Theory and Social Transformation, University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 2005.

Samuel, Raphael, Theatres of Memory: Past and Present in Contemporary Culture, Verso Books, London, 2012.

Sturtevant, Paul B., The Middle Ages in Popular Imagination: Memory, Film and Medievalism, London, 2018.

Wollenberg, Daniel, Medieval Imagery in Today’s Politics, Arc Medieval Press, 2018.

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