"Middle Ages Modern"
That chain mail chair is a fairy tale, not medieval Europe
One thing historians are often asked is if we had a time machine, where/ when in our period of study would we like to go back to visit. As medievalists, we strongly encourage you - if confronted with an actual time machine - to decline to visit medieval Europe at all. Vaccines, indoor plumbing, and heat are really great.
But what if it worked the other way? This piece, originally from Architectural Digest, suggests that a new aesthetic is apparently taking hold, trying to take the “medieval” and bring it into our own modern world. Sometimes referred to as #castlecore, and the author here dubs it “Middle Ages Modern.”
The wonderful Dr. Larisa Grollemond from the Getty in LA, who helped curate the recent exhibition “The Fantasy of the Middle Ages,” noted in the article that medievalism allows us a font of inspiration because the period is “a staple of our collective cultural knowledge.” That seems to be what’s at work here with #castlecore - a riff on our collective cultural knowledge, with hand-hewn tables, lots of wrought iron, and candles.
This, of course, isn’t the real European Middle Ages. But it really isn’t pretending to be. This aesthetic, in other words, is what Dr. Andrew Elliott has called “banal medievalism” - a reference to the medieval past with no referent in the actual past. For example, in the image above, you get “medieval” from viewing it because you are thinking of Sleeping Beauty or Lord of the Rings, and not some 13th-century castle in France.
This is also, as we (and many others) have noted, how the “Dark Ages” work. In The Bright Ages, we wrote:
The fight against the “Dark Ages” is one that spans centuries. It continues to be of critical importance, but not just because people hold false impressions of the medieval world. The truth of all historical periods suffers under the weight of latter-day myths. Instead, this fight is critical because what binds all of these appropriations of the medieval together is the void at their core. That is to say, the particular darkness of the Dark Ages suggests emptiness, a blank, almost limitless space into which we can place our modern preoccupations, whether positive or negative. The Dark Ages are, depending on the audience, both backward and progressive, both a period to abhor and one to emulate. It is used as whatever one wants, as a “justification” and “explanation” for those ideas and actions because they supposedly go back so far in time.
The hand-hewn table above, for instance, makes you think of a Disney movie, which makes you think of other fantasy settings in castles, and so on. And this is possible because the European Middle Ages itself if somehow “unknowable.” No actual medievals necessary, just vibes.
When we talk about a “bright ages,'“ it’s not because it was “good” (or bad; it was just human) but because it was illuminated, and not just in books, but in clothes, in wall painting, in everyday objects, in religious art, and really everywhere. We in fact know a lot about what the medieval past looked like, sounded like (check out this on Florence, or this on Hagia Sophia), tasted like (medieval elite food had too much flavor for most modern palates, not too little. And it wasn’t because they were masking spoiled meat, but because they liked flavor!), and so forth.
On the one hand, there’s nothing wrong with this aesthetic. We both like dark wood and houses with crenellations. But look at how every image is dark and plain, except maybe for this gem-encrusted butter knife. It’s projecting a highly specific narrative about the medieval past that is dark and stark, rather than the riot of color that medievals sought.
The closing paragraph of the original article gives away the game:
The Middle Ages Modern aesthetic is both darkness and magical thinking; of the past yet also of our own imagining. Perhaps, after a shared transit through hardship, we’re all planting the seeds of a more hopeful renaissance to come.
The Renaissance, as Dr. Ada Palmer has written, was actually a terrible time to be alive. At Modern Medieval, we think we can do better, and aren’t sure that “Middle Ages Modern” is helping.
Don’t sit in the chainmail chair.
But the dark wood tables look great, for sure. We’ll take two.
The point about color reminds me of how William Morris knew perfectly well that medieval tapestries did not originally have faded colors but pushed those colors anyway, leading people to associate them with the Middle Ages, because he preferred them to the bright synthetic dyes that were newly popular in his time.
Love your book, and the way y’all think about history. I have enjoyed Ellis Peters’ *Brother Cadfael* series, as well as Derek Jacobi’s interpretation. What do you think of them? Thx!