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.

Reflections on Public Medievalism

Plenary speaker, Jane Malcolm-Davies, University of Copenhagen

The delight of this conference was that all the presentations were pleasant, passionate, and powerful. The emphasis of the programme was on public history and the recreation of the past. We heard a lot of different reflections on medieval material and how it is reconstructed by or presented to the public. Over the two days, there were stimulating ideas about public history, guiding, interpreting the past in general, and re-creating, constructing and imagining the medieval past in particular.

The programme began with Paul Sturtevant talking about his experiences of “Making Medieval History Powerful and Meaningful without Losing your Soul (or Mind) in the Chaotic Contemporary Public Square” followed by Jane Malcolm-Davies (me) presenting “Character or caricature? Evidence for the educational impact of costumed interpretation at heritage sites”.

My personal passion in life is the arrangement of data to discover new knowledge. Data doesn’t have to be quantitative and shown in a graph (the way I presented it in my keynote) or powerfully anecdotal to illustrate principles as in Paul’s key note presentation. But for data to be influential it needs to be available for analysis.

Everyone who presented over the course of the conference had collected data. It was all very interesting and enjoyable to hear about. But how can we analyse what was presented through the conference to create new knowledge?

We need a research methodology which would allow us to gather all the experiences we have heard reported here and a framework for analysing them. Is it possible for us to formulate a theoretical framework against which we can study public history (if there isn’t one already)?

Many of the presentations directly referred or indirectly alluded to intangible aspects of the past as inspired by the study or presentation of an item or a range of items (for example, Paul Mortimer’s exploration of eye imagery on weapons, armour and ornaments from the 6th and 7th centuries in northern Europe, and Peter Johnsson’s reflections on swords). And this extends to objects and experiences produced more recently than during the medieval period such as reconstructed Viking ships (Sara Ellis Nilsson), the creation of Old Norse Worlds in comics (Martin Lund), or the recreation of Lombard life (Gabriele Zorzi).

As an interdisciplinary team, the conference participants have the imagination to move the interpretation of items to the interpretation of ideas. And since we don’t know for certain what the ideas of the past were (we offer only one interpretation of the past rather than The One True Interpretation, as Hannes Napierala said about “constructing a reconstruction” of buildings in southern Germany), we can explicitly empower the visitor to a heritage site or the user of history to make their own interpretations too. Mari Wickerts talked about encouraging school children to do this in the context of field archaeology and recreating Viking burials from Skändla. But might this be dangerous?

Paul Sturtevant showed us horrible examples of what happens when people make their own interpretations of the medieval past for political ends. Runes are suffering the same fate as Andrea Freund, who also explained how visitors to Orkney are “engaging with the past indiscriminately”. So here then is a need for visitors’ empowerment to be facilitated by expert tour guides who interact and inter-react with visitors by understanding where they are coming from – geographically, culturally, and philosophically as Laura Fitzachary outlined.

So – our new theoretical framework would include something about the use of source materials and how they are extrapolated by joining the dots (as Irene Barbina explained she did in her reconstruction of Lombard dress) or by stitching images together (as Carolina Ask does in her 3D photographic modelling), and the process of dating (discussed by Thomas Småberg with his example of the Long Viking Age), and the link between items and ideas.

We could have a catalogue of these criteria against which we classify examples of public history – and one of the most important criteria would be the treatment of gender, which Simon Trafford suggested is embodied by warrior women or portrayed as hyper-masculinity in pop culture.

We might also consider how the archaeological and historical material complements rather than conflicts with visitors’ experience of asynchrony, the presence of the past in the present, as Stefan Nyzell discussed as Medievalist temporalities.

Thanks to Sofia Winge’s guided tour, we were all able to consider the challenge of presenting the medieval past on our visit to Uppåkra.

The conference organisers are to be congratulated for bringing together speakers with interlocking themes and providing the perfect atmosphere for them to reflect on each other’s contributions.

Opening remarks on the conference, Medievalism, Public History, and Academia: the Re-creation of Early Medieval Europe, c. 400-1000

The conference’s opening remarks, on the conference theme and the role of the Department of Society, Culture and Identity in this field, were given by Stefan Nyzell and Thomas Småberg, Malmö University.

Stefan Nyzell:
This is an important conference!

In the late nineteenth century, when history became a formalized discipline within academia, borders were drawn between the professionals – and with this, I mean the professionally trained historians within academia – and those in the public field outside academia that nevertheless were closely engaged with history in one way or another.

These borders are still there.

In his Theaters of Memory, from 1994 Raphael Samuel, argued that:

history is not a prerogative of the historian […]. It is, rather, a social form of knowledge […] drawing not only on real-life experience but also on memory and myth, fantasy and desire.
(Samuel, Theatres of Memory: Past and Present in Contemporary Culture, Verso Books, London, 2012, p. x)

History is so much more than the academic discipline!
At the same time, I do have a great love for the academic discipline! I am after all a historian by profession.

What I do think is that it is important to engage in discussions across the borders of academia and the public fields of history. I think people from both sides of the border can learn from each other. As medievalist, Richard Utz has stated in his Medievalism A Manifesto, from 2017,

It is important for the academics to ”reconnect with the general public that has allowed us to become, since the late nineteenth century, a rather exclusive clan of specialists communicating mostly with each other.”
(Utz, Medievalism a Manifesto, Arc Humanities Press, Kalamazoo and Bradford, 2017, p. ix)

We, the organizers of this conference, have a similar agenda. Our purpose is to address these boundaries between public history and academia – and to make them into border crossings.

Thus, at this conference, we have gathered a lot of people from both sides of the border – and taken together a huge amount of knowledge about the Middle Ages, that I for one can’t wait to learn more about!


Thomas Småberg:

On behalf of the organizers, I would like to welcome you all to our conference entitled Medievalism, Public History, and Academia: the Re-creation of Early Medieval Europe, c. 400-1000 hosted by Malmö University in cooperation with Uppåkra Archaeological Centre and financed by The Swedish Foundation for Humanities and Social Sciences.

At the department of Society, Culture and Identity at Malmö University, we have worked on critical cultural heritage for some years now. We have, for instance, an online course focusing on cultural heritage pedagogy in which our partners, which include museums all over Skåne and a few international institutions and scholars as well, are invited to give guest lectures and seminars. We also work closely with museums in Skåne on their educational programs and their upcoming exhibitions. We have also compiled a few research reports for Region Skåne on cultural heritage pedagogy. Together with a select group of universities, we were also invited to give a course for cultural heritage educators by the organization Sweden Museums. 

On the academic side of things, we decided a few years ago to launch a series of workshops, seminars, and conferences to bolster cooperation between actors in the cultural heritage sector such as reenactors, museum educators, and researchers. The first two were held in Swedish and the topics mostly focused on Scandinavian fields of research. The first, held in 2015, involved a broad chronology and was entitled Cultural heritage and historical reenactment. The second workshop was held in 2017 on the topic  Recreated Viking Age: Public archaeology and scientific pedagogy. This year, we are hosting our first international conference in the series: three days of interesting presentations and good discussions.