Is there a Lexicon for Medievalism?

Medievalism’s Lexicon: Preliminary Considerations

The following observations, first shared at the 49th International Congress on Medieval Studies in Amy Kaufman’s roundtable on “Medievalism in the Academy”, are meant to suggest a new departure in how we practice medievalism studies, one that would begin to systematize scholars’ terminological choices when discussing the reception of me- dieval culture in postmedieval times:

1) Medievalism, if we may believe our colleagues in historical semantics, is a term coined as part of a conservative English response to a particularly invasive species of so-called “–ism” terms which attempted a hostile cultural takeover of the happily isolated British isles in the late eighteenth and first half of the nineteenth century. To- gether with “conservatism,” the similarly past-oriented “medievalism” gave expression to a mentality of national bourgeois resistance to revolutionary continental coinages such as Immanuel Kant’s “republicanism”, Friedrich Schlegel’s “democratism”, “feminism”, “socialism”, and “communism”, all of which represented the modern obsession with temporality and threatened progressive movement and change.

Based on a perceived unique continuity between the medieval past and nineteenth- century British government, institutions, and customs, “medievalism” would become pretty much synonymous with “romanticism”, another term that implied nostalgia for the days of a merry old England in which, via more or less organic and allegedly un- bloody developments like Magna Charta and the Glorious Revolution, the foundations of the modern nation were created. If “medievalism” emerged as a term that ex- pressed a continuist and conservative national ideal in Britain, profound social and cultural disruptions, like the French Revolution or the failed liberal uprisings in Italy and Germany around 1848, may well have prevented the original coinage, easy translation, and quick adaptation of similar terms in various continental national languages. Thus, “medievalism’s lexicon” reveals semantic variations due to specific national histories and mentalities, variations we need to be aware of when viewing medievalism as a transnational phenomenon and assuming that the English term and concept must needs exist elsewhere.

To read the full essay and data from Google N-Gram viewer, see: Utz, Richard: “Medievalism’s Lexicon: Preliminary Considerations.” In: Perspicuitas. Internet-Periodicum für mediävistische Sprach-, Literatur- und Kulturwissenschaft. Online at: