You’ve heard the old saying that History repeats itself, right? Of course you have. But it’s not just the events of History that have a way of resurfacing every now and then. People have a tendency to look back to an earlier age for inspiration on both an artistic and spiritual level. At the end of the 18th century and in the Regency the trend was to look back to the ancient world of Greece and Rome. But as the 19th century progressed, artists and scholars began to take another look at a period of time that many of their contemporaries had written off as dark, bleak, and unenlightened: the Middle Ages.
In fact, Medievalism became such a fad with so many off-shoots by the end of the 19th century, that we are still feeling the effects of the revival today. What started as a small movement amongst painters and poets, a reaction against the modernization of Realism, turned into an expansion of creativity that today’s fantasy and paranormal fans would recognize, in spirit and practice.
But first, in order to understand the appeal and popularity of Victorian Medievalism, you have to understand why Medieval ideals fell out of fashion in the first place and how it came back.
The Roman Empire had been the measure of all things, even during the Middle Ages themselves. The memory of Rome was close to people’s hearts and minds in the centuries right after its fall. Even as the civilization of the High Middle Ages advanced, Roman ideals influenced what was then modern innovations. Then, when many of the works of the ancients were rediscovered in the Renaissance, there was a feeling, advanced by Petrarch in the 1330s, that the dark years between the fall of the Roman Empire and the beginning of the Renaissance were a time of stagnation and ignorance. Petrarch was ignoring the facts a little and devaluing the amazing world of the Middle Ages, but his ideas caught on.
It would be another four hundred years or so before people stopped to consider that not everything in the Medieval world was all bad. The movement known as Romanticism, the exploration of the emotional, the visceral, and the natural had its roots firmly in the “romance” of the Middle Ages. Romanticism was a reaction against the purely rational and logical ideals of the Age of Enlightenment and the rapidly disappearing way of life brought on by the Industrial Revolution. Romantics looked back to medieval epic poetry, translated much of it into the modern vernacular for the first time, and imitated it in visual and literary arts.
Hand-in-hand with Romanticism was the Gothic revival in both architecture and the arts. New buildings were constructed with medieval elements, and new stories were being told with dark, shocking, and wild elements, a lot like some of those great medieval epics.
Yes, Victorian Medievalism began with Romanticism. All of the elements had been put into place, the modern translations, the reexamining of medieval history and art, and the reaction against the modern. But the whole thing really kicked into overdrive mid-century thanks to people like the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, Alfred, Lord Tennyson, and the Arts and Crafts Movement.
The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood was formed in 1848 by the painters William Holman Hunt, John Everett Millais and Dante Gabriel Rossetti, and later expanded to include four other painters. You would absolutely recognize their work when you see it. The focus of these visual artists was to create worlds of vivid color and detail with the sentiment of medieval art. In some cases you can see the forced perspective and staging of medieval artwork in their paintings, but more often it is the subject matter and its emotional, spiritual significance that mattered to the PRB. The name “Pre-Raphaelite” is a reference to their belief that any artist who came after the Renaissance painter Raphael was a corruption of the truest artistic styles of the Middle Ages.
I happen to think this is a beautiful style, one that is appealing to me. But remember, these artists were working at the same time that Impressionism was gaining steam, and Existentialism was right around the corner. They were laughed at for the riot of detail and expression in their paintings.
In literature, the fad for the medieval is exemplified by Tennyson. Not only did he write famous works on medieval themes, like The Lady of Shallot and Idylls of the King, the style of his writing was a direct summoning of the great medieval romantic poems. These were juicy works that could be recited, savored, and swooned over. The essence of the Victorian Medieval movement could be summed up in Tennyson’s own words: “To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield”.
One possible reason that Victorian Medievalism caught on to such a degree could be that England itself was in the middle of an epic period, reminiscent of Camelot. Victoria reigned supreme, the British Empire was on its way to spreading across the world, and the darkness of ignorance was, in the eyes of the Victorians, being conquered not unlike Beowulf conquered Grendel. The second half of the 19th century was as much like a classic kingdom as could be found. Life was imitating art, and vice versa.
But another, quieter movement that came out of the Victorian medieval revival is one that spread to America and is near and dear to my heart. That is the Arts and Crafts Movement. Where the Pre-Raphaelites and other Victorian medievalists focused on the nobility and grandeur of the Middle Ages, the Arts and Crafts Movement embraced the fine craftsmanship and detail of the peasant and guilds of the Middle Ages. Authentic detail and intimate decoration were important to this movement. Handicraft had value, and many of the finest artisans of the movement were women.
The Arts and Crafts Movement is particularly special to me because I not only grew up in a town (Bryn Athyn, Pennsylvania) that was built in the Arts and Crafts style, I grew up in a house that was the epitome of the movement. Every detail, from the seams of the lintels over the doors to the blown-glass panes in the windows was meant to reflect the craftsmanship of the Middle Ages. Glencairn Museum and the Bryn Athyn Cathedral, places I grew up playing around, are everything that the Victorian Medievalists would have loved to have seen. Seriously, who grows up with a view of a gothic cathedral out their bedroom window in Pennsylvania? I did. And yet at the same time, it doesn’t have the same feel as a true medieval cathedral. It, along with the Pre-Raphaelite paintings, is its own hybrid of old and new.
We still feel the effects of the Victorian Medieval resurgence today. Interest in the Middle Ages led to the retelling of the epic stories of King Arthur and his knights, which led to classics like George MacDonald’s The Princess and the Goblin, which paved the way for the likes of J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis, who opened the door for J.K. Rowling. The fad for dressing in medieval clothing towards the end of the 19th century was followed by the rise of reenactments and renaissance fairs, and probably Dungeons & Dragons too (don’t laugh, my dad helped invent the game, but that’s a whole other story). And the willingness to reexamine a period of history that had previously fallen into disfavor has never gone out of style.
So if you’re tempted to think that the Medieval world and the Victorian world are two entirely separate entities, think again. Much of what we know about the Middle Ages we know from the work of Victorians, and much of the character of at least one segment of Victorian society was heavily influenced by the Middle Ages. The two worlds are much closer together than the years between them would suggest.