Accessibility statement

Medievalism and Imperial Modernity

Organiser: Oleg Benesch (History)

For over 200 years, medieval symbols have been widely used in the service of nationalism and imperialism in Britain and Europe. The rise of nativist movements across the world in the early twenty-first century has seen a resurgence of medieval imagery. Political parties and activists draw upon a wide range of medievalist symbolism, from crusaders to Vikings to castles. This medievalist trend extends far beyond its European origins, and societies as diverse as Japan and Turkey are rediscovering and reinventing elements of their own idealized medieval pasts. In the United States—itself too young to have a direct medieval heritage—medieval European symbols feature prominently in the popular political discourse.

Recent scholarship on medievalism has explored the strong connections between medievalism, nationalism and imperialism, as the age of high imperialism in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries coincided with the peak of medievalism in much of Europe and in the former European settler colonies, especially in North America. Colonial architecture borrowed from medieval designs. World’s fairs combined medievalist pageantry with the most modern technology. Medieval and medievalist literature was voraciously consumed by Europeans and their descendants overseas. Imperialism itself made use of the medieval by framing the non-Western societies it encountered as being in an earlier, often ‘medieval’ stage of development and therefore suitable for conquest and ‘guidance’ towards ‘civilisation’. These narratives of evolutionary progress were also attractive to many non-Western societies as they provided a seemingly empirical model for their own future path to prosperity and power. At the same time, medievalism could provide potent tools and symbols for processes of resistance and decolonisation.

The research strand Medievalism and Imperial Modernity looks at medievalism from a global perspective. It engages with the extensive academic scholarship on medievalism in Europe and the Americas to see how its development impacted non-Western societies. This exchange was not unidirectional, however, and this research strand explores how non-Western medievalisms travelled elsewhere—including the West—in a complex entangled process. It examines the responses of societies that encountered Western medievalism, and how non-Western medievalisms developed and in turn provoked their own responses in Europe and elsewhere. Questions at the heart of the project include: What is ‘medievalism’ in a global context? What is the relationship between medievalism and empire and decolonisation? How have different societies responded to medievalism? How have non-Western medievalisms developed? What role does global medievalism play in the world today?

Drawing on the expertise of the Centre for Modern Studies, the York Asia Research Network and the Centre for Medieval Studies, Medievalism and Imperial Modernity promotes discussions and collaborations between modernists and medievalists across disciplines. Our events are open to staff and students from across the university, as well as interested members of the public. For more information, or to receive notifications about our activities, please contact

Forthcoming events:

Thursday, 19 May 2022, 5:30 pm, in Vanbrugh College V/N/123 Lecture Room

Lost in keigo? The language of diplomacy in Japanese-Iberian encounters around 1600

Research Seminar by Birgit Tremml-Werner (Linnaeus University)

Co-organized with the Centre for Renaissance and Early Modern Studies and the York Asia Research Network. All are welcome to attend.

Politeness in its various forms is considered an important part of Japanese language and society and as stumbling blocks for intercultural learners. What role did politeness and the correct use of it in formalized communication and everyday life affect foreign visitors in late sixteenth and early seventeenth-century Japan? 

My talk will explore Iberian-Japanese encounters between 1590 and 1610, a period of intense contact with and expanding foreign communication involving different languages, scripts, beliefs, and thought systems. Within acts of communication and interpretation, politeness, and the adaptation of certain standards of communication, as well as social and cultural conventions and cultural codes affected the daily lives and the achievements of the parties involved. Drawing from linguistic studies, politeness research and global intellectual history, I will introduce three different scenarios: (1) studies and language aids about polite language and politeness, (2) politeness in formal encounters, for instance in audiences with Japanese officials, and (3) politeness in written communication. With this multi-layered approach I hope to nuance implicit narratives of cultural misunderstanding as part of European trade in Japan, while discussing crucial aspects of diplomatic history, missionary linguistics and aspects of expansion in Asia more generally.


Previous events:

Tuesday, 28 January 2020, 5:30 pm. Treehouse (BS/104), Berrick Saul Building

‘Reactionary Patriots and European Romance: Aspects of Medievalism in Early Victorian Wales’

Research Seminar by Huw Pryce (Professor of Welsh History at Bangor University, Wales)

Co-organized with the Centre for Medieval Studies and Department of History. All are welcome to attend.

In 1842 the Revd Thomas Price completed, in Welsh, the longest history of Wales written hitherto. Focusing mainly on the ancient and medieval past, Price pressed contemporary currents of European medievalism into the service of his patriotic agenda by claiming that medieval Wales had been the source of European romance and chivalry. Although the Welsh could be proud of their ancestors’ brave defence of their liberty before Edward I’s conquest in 1282, ‘this was only defence . . . Yet when they look at the effects of their literature, they see a cause for taking pride . . . for conquests of the most marvellous and honourable kind.’ Price belonged to a group of politically conservative Anglican clergy in Wales committed to the revival of the Welsh language and Welsh culture, and had a prominent role in a series of eisteddfodau (cultural festivals) held under gentry patronage in the Monmouthshire town of Abergavenny whose participants included scholars and dignitaries from England, France, Germany and India. This paper explores how Price and likeminded ‘reactionary patriots’ (Prys Morgan) used the Middle Ages to advance their vision of an ethnically and culturally distinctive Welsh nation conspicuous for its loyalty to Great Britain and its empire.

Thursday, 31 October 2019, 6:00 pm, in Treehouse (BS/104), Berrick Saul Building

'Memory, Modernity and L’ancien regime: the Swedish Nobility 1866-1974 as a Case Study'

Research Seminar by Magnus Bergman (PhD student in History at Malmö University, Sweden, and currently visiting scholar in the Department of History at York)

Co-organized with the Institute for Public Understanding of the Past and Department of History. All are welcome to attend.

One of the grand narratives concerning European 19th century history is the victory of the forces of modernity over those of the old society it replaced. Democracy, industrial capitalism and urbanisation (amongst other things) came to be the defining characteristics instead of the quasi-feudal, agrarian and rural old ways. While the overall ascension of these things is unquestionable, the persistence of the old regime, the monarchies, the nobility and the churches, even into the 20th century are often overlooked. From a European perspective, studying the meetings, conflicts and merging between the new and the old will produce drastically varying results – from the violent revolutions of France and Russia to the more peaceful incorporations of the old elite in the UK and Sweden (my particular area of research) – as well as many similarities. In this seminar, I will discuss the noble process of “adapting to modernity”, adopting a series of strategies and collective actions which were invariably linked to concepts such as memory, identity, power and heritage. This process followed the abolishment of noble political and economic pre-eminence in Sweden during the 19th century and included noble uses of history to legitimize the continuing existence of a noble caste in a modern society. Initially this was done to try to retain power in the new political system of the late 1800s. In the 20th century, the importance of heritage in relation to noble identity would eclipse that of power, in a process that can be understood as a veritable “heritageization” of the very concept of nobility. Some analogous European developments will be discussed as well.

Wednesday, 1 May 2019 5:30pm. Treehouse, Berrick Saul Building

'Emergent Environments: Victorian Medievalism, the East, and the Reform of Cities'

Research Seminar by Corinna Wagner (Associate Professor of Literature and Visual Culture, University of Exeter)

Co-organized with the York Asia Research Network and Department of History. All are welcome to attend.

This illustrated talk explores the relationship between ideas about the body and well-being, and the urban reform projects of the nineteenth century. We will examine how writers, artists, architects and others responded to the threats of a globalizing world in which goods, people, ideas and diseases circulated. Some thinkers combined medievalism and Enlightenment environmentalist ideas into utopian, and rather more practical plans for urban renewal. Others took the classical world as a model for turning supposedly unhealthy, insalubrious medieval neighbourhoods into rationalized, hygienic, progressive spaces. Nineteenth-century writers and photographers documented—and compared and contrasted—the ancient buildings and alleyways of such cities as Paris, London, Glasgow, and Beijing. They also documented the successes and losses of urban reform projects. An aim of this talk is to shed light on the complex (and sometimes unsettling) ways that we have recruited the medieval past in the name of modernity. Another aim is to consider how the Middle Ages has been conjured in our response to bodily, social and cultural ‘risk’ in global contexts.

Wednesday, 17 April 2019 5:30pm. Treehouse, Berrick Saul Building

‘Historical Memory Culture and the significance of the 1453 Ottoman Conquest of Constantinople’

Research Seminar by Gönül Bozoğlu (Leverhulme Research Fellow, Newcastle University)

Co-organized with the York Asia Research Network and Centre for Renaissance and Early Modern Studies. All are welcome to attend.

The story of the Ottoman ‘Conquest of Constantinople’ has taken on new significance for politics and identity in Turkey. The government administration makes conspicuous use of the Conquest as a counterpoint to Kemalist national history and as part of ‘Neo-Ottomanist’ politics. 1453 is – in some settings – pervasive in public space and life: in films, in metro stations, public anniversary celebrations and in museums that glorify the ‘Conquest’ as a righteous victory in which citizens can find a stock of Ottoman characteristics to emulate. In this talk, I explore the meanings of, and contests over, the taking of the city.

Thursday 7 March 2019 4:30pm. Treehouse, Berrick Saul Building

‘A Critique of Medieval Contemporaneity: Temporality and the Medievalization of Nineteenth-Century South America’
Research Seminar by Nadia Altschul (Hispanic Studies, University of Glasgow)
Co-organized with the York Centre for the Americas. All are welcome to attend.

The Eurocentric world-order is premised on normative ideas about historical time, of which a prominent example is the category of the “medieval”. As part of my forthcoming book Politics of Temporalization (UPenn 2020) on the medievalization of former Spanish and Portuguese American colonies, I will discuss how Chile, Argentina, and Brazil were named medieval and Oriental in nineteenth-century metropolitan as well as Euro-American thought. By discussing the presence of the “medieval” in the Ibero-American postcolonies, I will examine how this lesser-known medieval naming affects our own understandings of temporalization and the medieval-modern divide, leading to a critique of the notion of multiple temporalities and of current ideas about the contemporaneity of the medieval in the modern world.

Thursday 28 February 2019 5:00pm. BS/008

‘An Archaeology of Power: The Use of Fortifications in Desert Spaces since Roman Times’
Research Seminar by Berny Sèbe (Colonial and Postcolonial Studies, University of Birmingham)
Co-organized with the York Asia Research Network. All are welcome to attend.

Desert spaces have often been a blind spot of colonial endeavours, metaphorically, practically and historiographically. Yet, for all the apparent lack of attractiveness of these expanses of ‘wind, sand and stars’, as St-Exupéry defined them, empires from Alexander the Great to the twentieth century have frequently sought to expand into arid regions. In doing so, conquering powers had to devise a set of strategies of conquest and administration in order to control nomadic populations (elusive by definition), and to assert their power symbolically and in practice. Faced with different notions of authority, most of which were based on mobility rather than the fixed nature of Westphalian states, invading administrations frequently used fortifications as a way of upholding their control of arid spaces. In so doing, they often recycled and adapted approaches inherited from the Roman concept of limes. This paper explores the genealogy of desert fortifications, considering the case-studies of the North African Sahara and the Central Asian Steppe. (More information about the project on

Thursday 8 November 2018 5:30pm. Treehouse, Berrick Saul Building
‘Medievalism and Imperial Modernity: from the “Global Medievalist Moment” to Today’
Research seminar by Oleg Benesch (History).
Co-organized with the York Asia Research Network. All are welcome to attend.

In the nineteenth century, much of the world was colonized by European empires that projected a combination of supposed civilizational and technological advancement along with medievalist traditions related to virtue, Christianity and martial valour. Focusing on examples from Japan and China, this talk examines how a ‘global medievalist moment’ in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries had impact far beyond Europe, which in turn came to be influenced by Japanese medievalism. This talk further introduces for discussion some of the larger questions underpinning the research strand.

Wednesday 21 November 2018 5:30pm. V/N/123
‘“We come with passports instead of swords” unpacking the 1926 Mediterranean Pilgrimage of the Order of St John’
Research seminar by Mike Horswell (Visiting Tutor, Oxford), discussant: Harry Munt (History). Co-organized with the Department of History and the York Asia Research Network. All are welcome to attend.

This paper unpacks the 1926 ‘Pilgrimage’ of the Order of St John, parent organisation of the St John Ambulance Association and order of chivalry of the British crown. Rather than merely following the participants’ presentation of themselves as pilgrims, the excursion needs to be located in the context of twentieth-century tourism, imperial presence in the Mediterranean, and British investment in crusader medievalism. The tour revealed the ways in which the Order was entwined with structures of British imperial power whilst simultaneously attempting to bridge fractures in the Order’s relationship with the medieval past.