Lingua Americana

Año XXI Nº 40 (2017): 111-113

Richard Utz: Medievalism. A Manifesto. Kalamazoo: ARC Humanities Press 2017, 110 p.

“Nothing less than a foundational change in the way we conceptualize what it means to be a member of the academy” (p. 86)—professor Richard Utz (*1961), president of the International Society for the Study of Medievalism, has acquired international renown not only for having introduced the paradigm of literary nominalism to medieval studies, but also for his impetuous yet well-founded criticism regarding medieval studies’ status quo. His latest contribution to the field of medievalism studies—with medievalism being “the ongoing and broad cultural phenomenon of reinventing, remembering, recreating, and reenacting the Middle Ages” (p. 81)—has recently been published in the form of a manifesto: ninety condensed pages on the “boundaries between scientific and serious research in medieval culture on the one hand and indistinct images or ideas about the Middle Ages as represented in popular culture or the historical novel on the other” (p. 5). Crossing such boundaries emerges as central theme of the manifesto at hand. Following Utz, the growing gap between academic and lay reception of medieval lore since the 19th century has entailed the odd present status that established scholars would still argue in favour of discrete stages in human history (e.g. from the Middle Ages to the Renaissance) regarding society, politics, and mentality, whereas the public’s bird’s eye view had long since recognised continuities.

Unsurprisingly, looking back on more than two decades of personal scholarly engagement with the issues in question, Utz approaches the self-imposed task of highlighting and bridging prejudicial gaps along a broad front. Drawing particular awareness to the autobiographical element in any scholarship, the US-based medievalist fruitfully utilises his German background for the conflation of case studies from different cultural areas. Moving on from the reflection upon his own academic background, he compiles a variety of examples, both from the field of scholarship and popular culture, in order to demonstrate how intensified cooperation between these allegedly distinct spheres might eventually instigate deeper engagement with ‘the Middle Ages’ on any possible level.

Whereas some claims fall back on common places without further underpinning—

e.g. the vague mention of “reliable indicators” (p. 22) for the decline of medieval studies—one of his core arguments stimulatingly circles around what one might call the “semantics of historical time” (the title of a 2004 publication by the famous conceptual historian Reinhard Koselleck (1923–2006)). Utz refers to Koselleck’s study not least insofar as the latter convincingly demonstrated how the “rapid creation of ‘-ism’ terms”,

Recibido: 07/03/2017 / Aceptado: 30/03/2017

112 /

Lingua Americana Año XXI Nº 40 (enero-junio 2017):111-113

linked with “‘time’ per se”, had become a “dynamic and historical force” since the late 18th century (p. 12). Following scholars such as Jacob Grimm, Utz highlights a philological shift from the investigation of words for the sake of subjects towards the investigation of subjects for the sake of words as early as ca 1850—the beginning of a long-standing “spirit of gatekeeping” (p. 19) that Utz traces into most recent days: “Making one’s work inaccessible (linguistically, economically, hermeneutically) to larger audiences was almost a precondition to success among one’s colleagues“ (p. 83). His emphasis on the importance of linguistic and semantic analysis becomes all the more significant when one takes into account geo-ideological characteristics of France, Germany, and Italy, on the one hand, Britain and the United States, on the other hand. Whereas the former, as Utz claims, would identify medieval culture with “a usable past against which a different future could be constructed”, the Anglophone world rather would imagine “their countries and communities as linked to the medieval past by a unique kind of continuity” (p. 12).

It is against this background that the proclaimed decline of medieval studies in recent times might become explainable as the consequence of a “natural social phenomenon” (23), in the sense of academia’s failure in reacting to diverging public and student expectations and demands regarding the role of the Middle Ages in the early 21st century. Exposing the spectrum of invocations of the medieval past to the public thus emerges as a core concern of the manifesto at hand, regarding the often superficial communication of medieval semantics: “It is in a situation like this that a public medievalist can and should intervene to contribute to an informed citizenry aware of the manifold connections between the past and the present, and expose the potentially dark side of medievalism from underneath the ‘belle époque’ veneer” (p. 66)—an “ethical obligation” (p. 50), as Utz puts it. At the same time, following his argument, this public intervention is capable of making scholars aware of the “productive uncertainty” (p. 85) of medievalism studies beyond narrow disciplinary and even cultural borders.

In the face of Utz’s path-breaking publications on medievalism throughout the last decades it would be quibble to point out gaps in his present declaration. To be sure, occasionally, the argument tends to take a leap, skipping or sidelining certain points of discussion, such as the branching development of medievalism in 19th- century Germany, its rather complex relation to nationalism, or the role of linguistic proficiency in these developments (particular with regards to the repeatedly changing role of German in academia). Thus some interesting observations remain rather loosely connected to the overall argument—e.g. the fact that the English-language plural form ‘Middle Ages’ is not shared by other European languages. A manifesto, however, hardly subsists on contemplation. The present one might not read as provocative as Utz seems to suggest when stating that he was asking for “a foundational change” in academia. While writing this review, I have a number of MA theses by students from the United States and Germany on my desk, which explore the societal exploitation of medieval culture from the 19th to the 21st century. One must not jump to conclusions, but this coincidence might still be read as an indicator of the growing awareness of the phenomenon of medievalism among a younger generation in academia. That said, Utz’s appeal is far from uncalled-for. To the contrary, it just comes at the right time, as it succeeds in masterfully condensing the drawn-out and sometimes diffuse debate surrounding scholars’ public obligation in interpreting the past. Hopefully, it will incite intensified debate on medievalism well beyond English-language borders.

Richard Utz: Medievalism. A Manifesto. Kalamazoo: ARC Humanities Press 2017, 110 p. / 113

Jan Alexander van Nahl

Postdoctoral Researcher at the Árni Magnússon Institute for Icelandic Studies.

GraduateTeacher at the University of e Suðurgata, 101 Reykjavik


AÑO XXI, Nº 40

Esta revista fue editada en formato digital y publicada en noviembre de 2017, por el Fondo Editorial Serbiluz, Universidad del Zulia. Maracaibo-Venezuela

Universidad del Zulia / Venezuela / Lingua Americana / ISSN: 1316-6689


Licencia de Creative Commons
Este obra está bajo una licencia de Creative Commons Reconocimiento-NoComercial-CompartirIgual 3.0 Unported.