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The Middle Ages in art: a Pre-Raphaelite painting of a knight and a lady (Lamia by John William Waterhouse, 1905) Redgirl and knight01.jpg
The Middle Ages in art: a Pre-Raphaelite painting of a knight and a lady (Lamia by John William Waterhouse, 1905)

Medievalism is a system of belief and practice inspired by the Middle Ages, or by devotion to elements of that period, which have been expressed in areas such as architecture, literature, music, art, philosophy, scholarship, and various vehicles of popular culture. [1] Since the 18th century, a variety of movements have used the medieval period as a model or inspiration for creative activity, including Romanticism, the Gothic revival, the pre-Raphaelite and arts and crafts movements, and neo-medievalism (a term often used interchangeably with medievalism). The words medievalism and Medieval are both first recorded in the 19th century. Medieval is derived from Latin medium aevum ("middle of the ages").

Middle Ages Period of European history from the 5th to the 15th century

In the history of Europe, the Middle Ages lasted from the 5th to the 15th century. It began with the fall of the Western Roman Empire and merged into the Renaissance and the Age of Discovery. The Middle Ages is the middle period of the three traditional divisions of Western history: classical antiquity, the medieval period, and the modern period. The medieval period is itself subdivided into the Early, High, and Late Middle Ages.

Popular culture is generally recognized by members of a society as a set of the practices, beliefs and objects that are dominant or ubiquitous in a society at a given point in time. Popular culture also encompasses the activities and feelings produced as a result of interaction with these dominant objects. Heavily influenced in modern times by mass media, this collection of ideas permeates the everyday lives of people in a given society. Therefore, popular culture has a way of influencing an individual's attitudes towards certain topics. However, there are various ways to define pop culture. Because of this, popular culture is something that can be defined in a variety of conflicting ways by different people across different contexts. It is generally viewed in contrast to other forms of culture such as folk culture, working-class culture, or high culture, and also through different theoretical perspectives such as psychoanalysis, structuralism, postmodernism, and more. The most common pop-culture categories are: entertainment, sports, news, politics, fashion/clothes, technology, and slang.

18th century Century

The 18th century lasted from January 1, 1701 to December 31, 1800 in the Gregorian calendar. During the 18th century, elements of Enlightenment thinking culminated in the American, French, and Haitian revolutions. This was an age of violent slave trading, and global human trafficking. The reactions against monarchical and aristocratic power helped fuel the revolutionary responses against it throughout the century.



Renaissance to Enlightenment

Voltaire, one of the key Enlightenment critics of the medieval era Voltaire.jpg
Voltaire, one of the key Enlightenment critics of the medieval era

In the 1330s, Petrarch expressed the view that European culture had stagnated and drifted into what he called the "Dark Ages", since the fall of Rome in the fifth century, owing to among other things, the loss of many classical Latin texts and to the corruption of the language in contemporary discourse. [2] Scholars of the Renaissance believed that they lived in a new age that broke free of the decline described by Petrarch. Historians Leonardo Bruni and Flavio Biondo developed a three tier outline of history composed of Ancient, Medieval, and Modern. [3] The Latin term media tempestas (middle time) first appears in 1469. [4] The term medium aevum (Middle Ages) is first recorded in 1604. [4] "Medieval" first appears in the nineteenth century and is an Anglicised form of medium aevum. [5]

Petrarch 14th-century Italian scholar and poet

Francesco Petrarca, commonly anglicized as Petrarch, was a scholar and poet of Renaissance Italy who was one of the earliest humanists. His rediscovery of Cicero's letters is often credited with inventing the 14th-century Renaissance. Petrarch is often considered the founder of Humanism. In the 16th century, Pietro Bembo created the model for the modern Italian language based on Petrarch's works, as well as those of Giovanni Boccaccio, and, to a lesser extent, Dante Alighieri. Petrarch would be later endorsed as a model for Italian style by the Accademia della Crusca.

Dark Ages (historiography) Term for the Middle Ages

The "Dark Ages" is a historical periodization traditionally referring to the Middle Ages, that asserts that a demographic, cultural, and economic deterioration occurred in Western Europe following the decline of the Roman Empire.

Renaissance European cultural period, 14th to 17th century

The Renaissance is a period in European history, covering the span between the 14th and 17th centuries and marking the transition from the Middle Ages to modernity. The traditional view focuses more on the early modern aspects of the Renaissance and argues that it was a break from the past, but many historians today focus more on its medieval aspects and argue that it was an extension of the middle ages.

During the Reformations of the 16th and 17th centuries, Protestants generally followed the critical views expressed by Renaissance Humanists, but for additional reasons. They saw classical antiquity as a golden time, not only because of the Latin literature, but because it was the early beginnings of Christianity. The intervening 1000 year Middle Age was a time of darkness, not only because of lack of secular Latin literature, but because of corruption within the Church such as Popes who ruled as kings, pagan superstitions with saints' relics, celibate priesthood, and institutionalized moral hypocrisy. [6] Most Protestant historians did not date the beginnings of the modern era from the Renaissance, but later, from the beginnings of the Reformation. [7]

Relic ancient religious object preserved for purposes of veneration

In religion, a relic usually consists of the physical remains of a saint or the personal effects of the saint or venerated person preserved for purposes of veneration as a tangible memorial. Relics are an important aspect of some forms of Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, Islam, Shamanism, and many other religions. Relic derives from the Latin reliquiae, meaning "remains", and a form of the Latin verb relinquere, to "leave behind, or abandon". A reliquary is a shrine that houses one or more religious relics.

In the Age of Enlightenment of the 17th and 18th centuries, the Middle Ages was seen as an "Age of Faith" when religion reigned, and thus as a period contrary to reason and contrary to the spirit of the Enlightenment. [8] For them the Middle Ages was barbaric and priest-ridden. They referred to "these dark times", "the centuries of ignorance", and "the uncouth centuries". [9] The Protestant critique of the Medieval Church was taken into Enlightenment thinking by works including Edward Gibbon's Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (1776–89). [10] Voltaire was particularly energetic in attacking the religiously dominated Middle Ages as a period of social stagnation and decline, condemning Feudalism, Scholasticism, The Crusades, The Inquisition and the Catholic Church in general. [9]

Age of Enlightenment European cultural movement of the 18th century

The Age of Enlightenment was an intellectual and philosophical movement that dominated the world of ideas in Europe during the 18th century, the "Century of Philosophy".

Edward Gibbon English historian and Member of Parliament

Edward Gibbon FRS was an English historian, writer and Member of Parliament. His most important work, The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, was published in six volumes between 1776 and 1788 and is known for the quality and irony of its prose, its use of primary sources, and its polemical criticism of organised religion.

Voltaire French writer, historian, and philosopher

François-Marie Arouet, known by his nom de plumeVoltaire, was a French Enlightenment writer, historian and philosopher famous for his wit, his criticism of Christianity, especially the Roman Catholic Church, and his advocacy of freedom of religion, freedom of speech, and separation of church and state.


William Blake's The Lovers' Whirlwind illustrates Hell in Canto V of Dante's Inferno. Blake Dante Hell V.jpg
William Blake's The Lovers' Whirlwind illustrates Hell in Canto V of Dante's Inferno.

Romanticism was a complex artistic, literary, and intellectual movement that originated in the second half of the eighteenth century in Western Europe, and gained strength during and after the Industrial and French Revolutions. [11] It was partly a revolt against the political norms of the Age of Enlightenment which rationalised nature, and was embodied most strongly in the visual arts, music, and literature. [11] Romanticism has been seen as "the revival of the life and thought of the Middle Ages", [12] reaching beyond rational and Classicist models to elevate medievalism and elements of art and narrative perceived to be authentically medieval, in an attempt to escape the confines of population growth, urban sprawl and industrialism, embracing the exotic, unfamiliar and distant. [12] [13]

Western Europe region comprising the westerly countries of Europe

Western Europe is the region comprising the western part of Europe. Though the term Western Europe is commonly used, there is no commonly agreed-upon definition of the countries that it encompasses.

Industrial Revolution Mid-20th-to-early-21th-century period; First Industrial Revolution evolved into the Second Industrial Revolution in the transition years between 1840 and 1870

The Industrial Revolution was the transition to new manufacturing processes in Europe and the US, in the period from about 1760 to sometime between 1820 and 1840. This transition included going from hand production methods to machines, new chemical manufacturing and iron production processes, the increasing use of steam power and water power, the development of machine tools and the rise of the mechanized factory system. The Industrial Revolution also led to an unprecedented rise in the rate of population growth.

French Revolution social and political revolution in France and its colonies occurring from 1789 to 1798

The French Revolution was a period of far-reaching social and political upheaval in France and its colonies beginning in 1789. The Revolution overthrew the monarchy, established a republic, catalyzed violent periods of political turmoil, and finally culminated in a dictatorship under Napoleon who brought many of its principles to areas he conquered in Western Europe and beyond. Inspired by liberal and radical ideas, the Revolution profoundly altered the course of modern history, triggering the global decline of absolute monarchies while replacing them with republics and liberal democracies. Through the Revolutionary Wars, it unleashed a wave of global conflicts that extended from the Caribbean to the Middle East. Historians widely regard the Revolution as one of the most important events in human history.

The name "Romanticism" itself was derived from the medieval genre chivalric romance. This movement contributed to the strong influence of such romances, disproportionate to their actual showing among medieval literature, on the image of Middle Ages, such that a knight, a distressed damsel, and a dragon is used to conjure up the time pictorially. [14] The Romantic interest in the medieval can particularly be seen in the illustrations of English poet William Blake and the Ossian cycle published by Scottish poet James Macpherson in 1762, which inspired both Goethe's Götz von Berlichingen (1773), and the young Walter Scott. The latter's Waverley Novels, including Ivanhoe (1819) and Quentin Durward (1823) helped popularise, and shape views of, the medieval era. [15] The same impulse manifested itself in the translation of medieval national epics into modern vernacular languages, including Nibelungenlied (1782) in Germany, [16] The Lay of the Cid (1799) in Spain, [17] Beowulf (1833) in England, [18] The Song of Roland (1837) in France, [19] which were widely read and highly influential on subsequent literary and artistic work. [20]

Chivalric romance type of prose and verse narrative

As a literary genre of high culture, romance or chivalric romance is a type of prose and verse narrative that was popular in the aristocratic circles of High Medieval and Early Modern Europe. They were fantastic stories about marvel-filled adventures, often of a chivalric knight-errant portrayed as having heroic qualities, who goes on a quest. It developed further from the epics as time went on; in particular, "the emphasis on love and courtly manners distinguishes it from the chanson de geste and other kinds of epic, in which masculine military heroism predominates."

William Blake English poet and artist

William Blake was an English poet, painter, and printmaker. Largely unrecognised during his lifetime, Blake is now considered a seminal figure in the history of the poetry and visual arts of the Romantic Age. What he called his prophetic works were said by 20th-century critic Northrop Frye to form "what is in proportion to its merits the least read body of poetry in the English language". His visual artistry led 21st-century critic Jonathan Jones to proclaim him "far and away the greatest artist Britain has ever produced". In 2002, Blake was placed at number 38 in the BBC's poll of the 100 Greatest Britons. While he lived in London his entire life, except for three years spent in Felpham, he produced a diverse and symbolically rich œuvre, which embraced the imagination as "the body of God" or "human existence itself".

Ossian title character in the work of Ossian

Ossian is the narrator and purported author of a cycle of epic poems published by the Scottish poet James Macpherson from 1760. Macpherson claimed to have collected word-of-mouth material in Scottish Gaelic, said to be from ancient sources, and that the work was his translation of that material. Ossian is based on Oisín, son of Finn or Fionn mac Cumhaill, anglicised to Finn McCool, a legendary bard who is a character in Irish mythology. Contemporary critics were divided in their view of the work's authenticity, but the consensus since is that Macpherson framed the poems himself, based on old folk tales he had collected.

The Nazarenes

Jacob encountering Rachel with her father's herd by Joseph von Fuhrich 1836 JvFuhrichJosephRachel.jpg
Jacob encountering Rachel with her father's herd by Joseph von Führich 1836

The name Nazarene was adopted by a group of early nineteenth-century German Romantic painters who reacted against Neoclassicism and hoped to return to art which embodied spiritual values. They sought inspiration in artists of the late Middle Ages and early Renaissance, rejecting what they saw as the superficial virtuosity of later art. [21] The name Nazarene came from a term of derision used against them for their affectation of a biblical manner of clothing and hair style. [21] The movement was originally formed in 1809 by six students at the Vienna Academy and called the Brotherhood of St. Luke or Lukasbund, after the patron saint of medieval artists. [22] In 1810 four of them, Johann Friedrich Overbeck, Franz Pforr, Ludwig Vogel and Johann Konrad Hottinger moved to Rome, where they occupied the abandoned monastery of San Isidoro and were joined by Philipp Veit, Peter von Cornelius, Julius Schnorr von Karolsfeld, Friedrich Wilhelm Schadow and a loose grouping of other German artists. [21] They met up with Austrian romantic landscape artist Joseph Anton Koch (1768–1839) who became an unofficial tutor to the group and in 1827 they were joined by Joseph von Führich (180076). [21] In Rome the group lived a semi-monastic existence, as a way of re-creating the nature of the medieval artist's workshop. Religious subjects dominated their output and two major commissions for the Casa Bartholdy (1816–17) (later moved to the Alte Nationalgalerie in Berlin) and the Casino Massimo (1817–29), allowed them to attempt a revival of the medieval art of fresco painting and gained then international attention. [23] However, by 1830 all except Overbeck had returned to Germany and the group had disbanded. Many Nazareners became influential teachers in German art academies and were a major influence on the later English Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. [21]

Gothic revival

Notable Neo-Gothic edifices: top - Palace of Westminster, London; left - Cathedral of Learning, Pittsburgh; right - Sint-Petrus-en-Pauluskerk, Ostend Neo-Gothic001.jpg
Notable Neo-Gothic edifices: top – Palace of Westminster, London; left – Cathedral of Learning, Pittsburgh; right – Sint-Petrus-en-Pauluskerk, Ostend

The Gothic Revival was an architectural movement which began in the 1740s in England. [24] Its popularity grew rapidly in the early nineteenth century, when increasingly serious and learned admirers of neo-Gothic styles sought to revive medieval forms in contrast to the classical styles prevalent at the time. [25] In England, the epicentre of this revival, it was intertwined with deeply philosophical movements associated with a re-awakening of "High Church" or Anglo-Catholic self-belief (and by the Catholic convert Augustus Welby Pugin) concerned by the growth of religious nonconformism. [24] He went on to produce important Gothic buildings such as Cathedrals at Birmingham and Southwark and the British Houses of Parliament in the 1840s. [26] Large numbers of existing English churches had features such as crosses, screens and stained glass (removed at the Reformation), restored or added, and most new Anglican and Catholic churches were built in the Gothic style. [27] Viollet-le-Duc was a leading figure in the movement in France, restoring the entire walled city of Carcassonne as well as Notre-Dame and Sainte Chapelle in Paris. [26] In America Ralph Adams Cram was a leading force in American Gothic, with his most ambitious project the Cathedral of Saint John the Divine in New York (claimed to be the largest Cathedral in the world), as well as Collegiate Gothic buildings at Princeton Graduate College. [26] On a wider level the wooden Carpenter Gothic churches and houses were built in large numbers across North America in this period. [28]

In English literature, the architectural Gothic Revival and classical Romanticism gave rise to the Gothic novel, often dealing with dark themes in human nature against medieval backdrops and with elements of the supernatural. [29] Beginning with The Castle of Otranto (1764) by Horace Walpole, 4th Earl of Orford, it also included Mary Shelley's Frankenstein (1818) and John Polidori's The Vampyre (1819), which helped found the modern horror genre. [30] This helped create the dark romanticism or American Gothic of authors like Edgar Allan Poe in works including "The Fall of the House of Usher" (1839) and "The Pit and the Pendulum" (1842) and Nathanial Hawthorne in "The Minister's Black Veil" (1836) and "The Birth-Mark" (1843). [31] This in turn influenced American novelists like Herman Melville in works such as Moby Dick (1851). [32] Early Victorian Gothic novels included Emily Brontë's Wuthering Heights (1847) and Charlotte Brontë's Jane Eyre (1847). [33] The genre was revived and modernised toward the end of the century with works like Robert Louis Stevenson's Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (1886), Oscar Wilde's The Picture of Dorian Gray (1890) and Bram Stoker's Dracula (1897). [34]

Late nineteenth century

Ludwig II of Bavaria built a fairy-tale castle at Neuschwanstein in 1868 (later appropriated by Walt Disney) as a symbolic merger of art and politics. (Photochrom from the 1890s) Neuschwanstein Castle Cropped frm PC.jpg
Ludwig II of Bavaria built a fairy-tale castle at Neuschwanstein in 1868 (later appropriated by Walt Disney) as a symbolic merger of art and politics. (Photochrom from the 1890s)

Romantic nationalism

By the late nineteenth century pseudo-medieval symbols were the currency of European monarchical state propaganda. German emperors dressed up in and proudly displayed medieval costumes in public, and they rebuilt the great medieval castle and spiritual home of the Teutonic Order at Marienburg. [35] Ludwig II of Bavaria built a fairy-tale castle at Neuschwanstein and decorated it with scenes from Wagner's operas, another major Romantic image maker of the Middle Ages. [36] The same imagery would be used in Nazi Germany in the mid-twentieth century to promote German national identity with plans for extensive building in the medieval style and attempts to revive the virtues of the Teutonic knights, Charlemagne and the Round Table. [37]

In England, the Middle Ages were trumpeted as the birthplace of democracy because of the Magna Carta of 1215. [38] In the reign of Queen Victoria there was considerable interest in things medieval, particularly among the ruling classes. The notorious Eglinton Tournament of 1839 attempted to revive the medieval grandeur of the monarchy and aristocracy. [39] Medieval fancy dress became common in this period at royal and aristocratic masquerades and balls and individuals and families were painted in medieval costume. [40] These trends inspired a nineteenth-century genre of medieval poetry that included Idylls of the King (1842) by Alfred Tennyson, 1st Baron Tennyson and "The Sword of Kingship" (1866) by Thomas Westwood, which recast specifically modern themes in the medieval settings of Arthurian romance. [41] [42]

The Pre-Raphaelites

The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood was a group of English painters, poets, and critics, founded in 1848 by William Holman Hunt, John Everett Millais and Dante Gabriel Rossetti. [43] The three founders were soon joined by William Michael Rossetti, James Collinson, Frederic George Stephens and Thomas Woolner to form a seven-member "brotherhood". [44] The group's intention was to reform art by rejecting what they considered to be the mechanistic approach first adopted by the Mannerist artists who succeeded Raphael and Michelangelo. [43] They believed that the Classical poses and elegant compositions of Raphael in particular had been a corrupting influence on the academic teaching of art. Hence the name "Pre-Raphaelite". In particular, they objected to the influence of Sir Joshua Reynolds, the founder of the English Royal Academy of Arts, believing that his broad technique was a sloppy and formulaic form of academic Mannerism. In contrast, they wanted to return to the abundant detail, intense colours, and complex compositions of Quattrocento Italian and Flemish art. [45]

The arts and crafts movement

"Artichoke" wallpaper, by John Henry Dearle for Morris & Co., circa 1897 (Victoria and Albert Museum) Artichoke wallpaper Morris and Co J H Dearle.jpg
"Artichoke" wallpaper, by John Henry Dearle for Morris & Co., circa 1897 (Victoria and Albert Museum)

The arts and crafts movement was an aesthetic movement, directly influenced by the Gothic revival and the Pre-Raphaelites, but moving away from aristocratic, nationalist and high Gothic influences to an emphasis on the idealised peasantry and medieval community, particularly of the fourteenth century, often with socialist political tendencies and reaching its height between about 1880 and 1910. The movement was inspired by the writings of the critic John Ruskin and spearheaded by the work of William Morris, a friend of the Pre-Raphaelites and a former apprentice to Gothic-revival architect G. E. Street. He focused on the fine arts of textiles, wood and metal work and interior design. [46] Morris also produced medieval and ancient themed poetry, beside socialist tracts and the medieval Utopia News From Nowhere (1890). [46] Morris formed Morris, Marshall, Faulkner & Co. in 1861, which produced and sold furnishings and furniture, often with medieval themes, to the emerging middle classes. [47] The first arts and crafts exhibition in the United States was held in Boston in 1897 and local societies spread across the country, dedicated to preserving and perfecting disappearing craft and beautifying house interiors. [48] Whereas the Gothic revival had tended to emulate ecclesiastical and military architecture, the arts and crafts movement looked to rustic and vernacular medieval housing. [49] The creation of aesthetically pleasing and affordable furnishings proved highly influential on subsequent artistic and architectural developments. [50]

Twentieth and twenty-first centuries

Historians have attempted to conceptualize the history of non-European countries in terms of medievalisms, but the approach has been controversial among scholars of Latin America, Africa, and Asia. [51]

Douglas Fairbanks as Robin Hood Fairbanks Robin Hood standing by wall w sword.jpg
Douglas Fairbanks as Robin Hood


Film has been one of the most significant creators of images of the Middle Ages since the early twentieth century. The first medieval film was also one of the earliest films ever made, about Jeanne d'Arc in 1899, while the first to deal with Robin Hood dates to as early as 1908. [52] Influential European films, often with a nationalist agenda, included the German Nibelungenlied (1924), Eisenstein's Alexander Nevsky (1938) and Bergman's The Seventh Seal (1957), while in France there were many Joan of Arc sequels. [53] Hollywood adopted the medieval as a major genre, issuing periodic remakes of the King Arthur, William Wallace and Robin Hood stories, adapting to the screen such historical romantic novels as Ivanhoe (1952—by MGM), and producing epics in the vein of El Cid (1961). [54] More recent revivals of these genres include Robin Hood Prince of Thieves (1991), The 13th Warrior (1999) and The Kingdom of Heaven (2005). [55]


While the folklore that fantasy drew on for its magic and monsters was not exclusively medieval, elves, dragons, and unicorns, among many other creatures, were drawn from medieval folklore and romance. Earlier writers in the genre, such as George MacDonald in The Princess and the Goblin (1872), William Morris in The Well at the World's End (1896) and Lord Dunsany in The King of Elfland's Daughter (1924), set their tales in fantasy worlds clearly derived from medieval sources, though often filtered through later views. [56] In the first half of the twentieth century pulp fiction writers like Robert E. Howard and Clark Ashton Smith helped popularise the sword and sorcery branch of fantasy, which often utilised prehistoric and non-European settings beside elements of the medieval. [57] In contrast, authors such as E. R. Eddison and particularly J.R.R. Tolkien, set the type for high fantasy, normally based in a pseudo-medieval setting, mixed with elements of medieval folklore. [58] Other fantasy writers have emulated him, and films, role-playing and computer games also took up this tradition. [59] Modern fantasy writers have taken elements of the medieval from these works to produce some of the most commercially successful works of fiction of recent years, sometimes pointing to the absurdities of the genre, as in Terry Pratchett's Discworld novels, or mixing it with the modern world as in J. K. Rowling's Harry Potter books. [60]

Living history

2003 re-enactment of the Battle of Grunwald Grunwald 2003.jpg
2003 re-enactment of the Battle of Grunwald

In the second half of the twentieth century interest in the medieval was increasingly expressed through form of re-enactment, including combat reenactment, re-creating historical conflict, armour, arms and skill, as well as living history which re-creates the social and cultural life of the past, in areas such as clothing, food and crafts. The movement has led to the creation of medieval markets and Renaissance fairs, from the late 1980s, particularly in Germany and the United States of America. [61]


Neo-medievalism (or neomedievalism) is a neologism that was first popularized by the Italian medievalist Umberto Eco in his 1973 essay "Dreaming of the Middle Ages". [62] The term has no clear definition but has since been used to describe the intersection between popular fantasy and medieval history as can be seen in computer games such as MMORPGs, films and television, neo-medieval music, and popular literature. [63] It is in this area—the study of the intersection between contemporary representation and past inspiration(s)—that medievalism and neomedievalism tend to be used interchangeably. [64] Neomedievalism has also been used as a term describing the post-modern study of medieval history [65] and as a term for a trend in modern international relations, first discussed in 1977 by Hedley Bull, who argued that society was moving towards a form of "neomedievalism" in which individual notions of rights and a growing sense of a "world common good" were undermining national sovereignty. [66]


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