The Middle Ages in Popular Culture: Medievalism and Genre

by Helen Young


This book is in the Cambria Studies in Classicism, Orientalism, and Medievalism book series (General Editor: Nickolas A. Haydock).

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Contemporary Western society is in the midst of an efflorescence of medievalism, from political rhetoric to the names of sports teams, advertising, and themed restaurants, to the pages and screens of popular culture. Medievalism in the twenty-first century is layered, folding into itself the practices, processes, and representations of earlier eras, as well as those of the time and place in which it is produced. Reimagining history for mass consumption has as much, if not more, to do with the needs and wants of the present than with any historical reality. Profit and pleasure define popular culture, and genres are a major framework organizing the making of both: creative industries use them to make the former, and consumers to help find the latter. When the Middle Ages are reimagined in popular-culture contexts, they are shaped by the genre in which any individual creative work is produced and consumed. The nexus of medievalism and popular genres is the focus of this collection, which interrogates the interplay between past and present in mass culture.

Studies of popular culture medievalisms have not, to date, examined the interconnections of the two in any organized fashion, yet genre is a major framework structuring representation, production, consumption, and the making of meaning in popular culture. The conventions of any genre shape, even if they do not entirely circumscribe, what is possible in any constitutive creative work—this is as true of medievalism as it is of any other element—while genres themselves are shaped by the anxieties of the society which creates them. Given that a high proportion of today’s popular culture medievalisms are filtered through genre, this volume’s exploration of their interconnections sheds light not only on the nature of both, but on social issues and identity constructs of the present cultural moment.

Rather than focusing on the medievalism of a single genre, this volume puts multiple genres in dialogue and considers both medievalism and genre to be frameworks from which meaning can be produced. Chapters in it explore works from a wide range of genres—children’s and young adult, historical, cyberpunk, fantasy, science fiction, romance, and crime—and across multiple media—fiction, film, television, video games, and music. The range of media types and genres enable comparison, and the identification of overarching trends, while also allowing comparison of contrasting phenomena.

As the first volume to explore the nexus of medievalism and genre across such a wide range of texts, this collection illustrates the fractured ideologies of contemporary popular culture. The Middle Ages are more usually, and often more prominently, aligned with conservative ideologies, for example around gender roles, but the Middle Ages can also be the site of resistance and progressive politics. Exploring the interplay of past and present, and the ways writers and readers work engage with them demonstrates the conscious processes of identity construction at work throughout Western popular culture. The collection also demonstrates that while scholars may have by-and-large abandoned the concept of accuracy when considering contemporary medievalisms, the Middle Ages are widely associated with authenticity, and the authenticity of identity, in the popular imagination; the idea of the real Middle Ages matters, even when historical realities do not.

The Middle Ages in Popular Culture: Medievalism and Genre will be of interest to scholars of medievalism, popular culture, and genre.

See also

Fantasy and Science-Fiction Medievalisms: From Isaac Asimov to A Game of Thrones

International Medievalism and Popular Culture


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