Coming to Terms with Medievalism

Richard Utz: “Coming to Terms with Medievalism: Toward a Conceptual History.” European Journal of English Studies 15.2 (2011): 101-13.

Amy Kaufman summarizes the essay for Medievally Speaking (2012): Richard Utz’s contribution to the collection, “Coming to Terms with Medievalism,” serves as a kind of second introduction, one that contextualizes medievalism historically, temporally, linguistically, and theoretically. Utz argues that the term “medievalism” is a kind of  “…linguistic performance responding to particular pressures in and outside the academy as well as to the almost coeval emergence of competing terms and practices related to the study of the past” (p. 103-4). He describes the well-known split between academic ‘Medieval Studies’ and non-academic ‘medievalism’ which, though it was invented by nineteenth-century scholars, persists today. Utz adds an important distinction, however: that the boundary is temporal in nature, a division between “…academic pastist research of the ‘real’ Middle Ages and the various non-academic presentist representations of the medieval past” (p. 104, original emphasis). In other words, Utz argues, this often artificial distinction is about perceived distance. Scholars whose ‘medievalism’ comes too close to touching a past prized for its alterity are rendered academically suspect. Utz’s essay also traces the efforts of Studies in Medievalism founder Leslie J. Workman to make medievalism “an independent academic area of study”; this history, one suspects, is an effort to preserve and protect Workman’s legacy in the face of medievalism’s new popularity, for as Utz points out, previous scholars who have become enamored by the promise of a ‘New Medievalism’ “…maintained their academic aloofness towards Workman’s Studies in Medievalism movement and rather attempted to operationalize the term as a weapon for transforming academic Medieval Studies according to their own progressive self-image” (p. 107). Despite his cautious historicization, Utz, like the editors, ultimately is optimistic about the fact that “hundreds of scholars have now embraced medievalism as the term that provides them with the creative space in which scholarly rigor and enjoyment, educational experience and emotion, may bridge the rigid alterity between the two non-contiguous historical moments” (p. 109).