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:


Previous events:

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.