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 oleg.benesch@york.ac.uk

Forthcoming events:

The events for the 2019-20 academic year will be announced this summer.

Previous events:

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

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

Research Seminar by Gönül Bozo─člu (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 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 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 www.birmingham.ac.uk/forts)

Thursday 8 November 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 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.