An Open Access Review Journal Encouraging Critical Engagement with the Continuing Process of Inventing the Middle Ages

October 17, 2017

Lerner: Ernst Kantorowicz, A Life

Lerner, Robert E. Ernst Kantorowicz: A Life. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 2017

Reviewed by Ryan Kemp (

The lives of few historians merit a biography and still fewer one as learned and detailed as that produced here by Robert E. Lerner. Nor would many ever wish to experience the gripping drama of Ernst Kantorowicz’s career. Lerner’s biography chronicles the eventful life of one of the twentieth century’s greatest medievalists and does much else besides, offering a window into a world of scholarship, academia, and politics which will both provoke nostalgia and uncomfortable parallels in equal measure. In addition, Lerner neatly summarises and analyses Kantorowicz’s major works – his biography of Frederick II, his Laudes Regiae, and his most famous study, The King’s Two Bodies – alongside gripping, colourful, and critical character portraits of not only Kantorowicz, but the many notable personalities with whom he engaged and often clashed.

The biography proceeds chronologically except for thematic chapters discussing Kantorowicz’s three major works. Born in 1895 in Posen, Kantorowicz grew up in a wealthy German-Jewish household, expected to take over the family’s lucrative liquor business. Thanks to the “splendour of Prussian record keeping” (p. 18), we know he received the lowest possible passing grade in History and failed his written Latin and Greek exams. In 1914, the nineteen-year old signed up for his local artillery regiment six days after the outbreak of war. An early manifestation of the open, at times courageous, insubordination which characterised his later career found a somewhat different expression when he was kicked out of the army for sleeping with the mistress of a German general. The young Kantorowicz emerged from the war a fierce nationalist, who subsequently fought against Poles in his home city, the Spartacists in Berlin, and the ‘Reds’ in Munich. Lerner demonstrates, with a newly discovered letter from Kantorowicz to his parents, that his claims to be a fighter and victor in Berlin were exaggerated, though not for want of trying. Lerner’s approach, as throughout, is nuanced and sympathetic, but critical when necessary. Decades later, Kantorowicz claimed he had wanted to get with his studies and was driven to action when the lights cut out. As Lerner comments, in light of his other activities, “taking up a gun and grenade does not seem to have been a matter of dissatisfaction with the electric supply” (p. 38). In Munich, Kantorowicz did not hide the fact he had killed Communists. 

At Heidelberg, still expecting to return to the family business, Kantorowicz’s main field was economics, though his real interests lay in areas as diverse as geography and Arab philology. He quickly mocked unnecessary academic pretentiousness, referring to a ‘Heidelbergisch’ language of which he initially only understood every third word, but soon recognised that the speakers knew as much, or as little, as he did.  There were few indicators of future success. On his doctoral dissertation regarding Muslim artisan associations, Lerner comments “to say that this... equals a good American undergraduate senior thesis would be giving it too much credit” (p. 65). He did, however, attend a course on ancient history where he became interested in the ceremonial acclamations of rulers, an important prelude to his later research. He also met one of the most influential figures in his life, Stefan George.

A dominant cultural figure, seen as more prophet than poet, ‘St. George’ was worshipped by disciples, including Kantorowicz, whom ‘der Meister’ christened ‘EKa’, Kantorowicz’s favoured nickname thereafter.  These admirers were devoted to their master, speaking about him in the third person even in direct conversation (Would der Meister like some tea?). Readers will share the biographer’s bewilderment at this “insanely weird” (p. 79) devotion, but Lerner rightly highlights that it was far from parody. EKa’s own attraction turned on George’s poetry, politics, and charisma. In the 1920s, George’s poems inspired those who hoped for a ‘New Reich’, a re-awakening of truth and beauty. The firmly anti-democratic Meister thought the world currently consisted of a series of zeros until ‘the one’ emerged. Like many of his fellow citizens, the deeply patriotic EKa also resented the French occupation of the Rhineland and felt Germany had been utterly humiliated.

It was George who encouraged EKa to write a biography of Frederick II, in his view the most important medieval German emperor. He practically became a collaborator, offering to pay half the production costs upfront and editing the proofs in minute detail. Nor was this the first heroic biography George had encouraged. In a series published by Bondi, George’s house publisher, EKa’s first major publication would sit alongside equally heroic accounts of Caesar, Goethe, Napoleon, and Nietzsche.

This biography (discussed below) made EKa famous and he was appointed Professor at Frankfurt. When a Nazi boycott forced him to cease teaching, he had already attracted fierce, even foolhardy, admiration. Four of his students informed the Nazi minister of education that the picketers, “uninterested in serious work,” had preventing them learning “from a born teacher” (p. 155). Only the threat of resignation by Professor Karl Reinhardt saved them from expulsion. As for so many others, the year 1933 was one “full of drama and pain” for EKa (p. 159). Forced out, a six-month fellowship at New College, Oxford proved immensely formative and fortuitous. His command of English greatly improved, essential for securing a post in the US, and he became both an Anglophile and the close friend and lover of the classicist and wit, Maurice Bowra. On his return to Germany, the years 1934-1938, though quiet and productive, saw his capacity to conduct research gradually restricted. Chapter 14, perhaps the most gripping of Lerner’s biography, describes EKa’s attempts to flee Nazi Germany. For all the pressures of the current job market, none compare to the desperation Lerner evokes as EKa hurriedly prepared papers in English in the hope of securing a job in the US. He nearly did not make it. After Kristallnacht, he almost certainly would have been taken to Sachsenhausen concentration camp had he not been sheltered by the former diplomat Albrecht Graf von Bernstorff. Albrecht gave no thought to his own safety and was murdered by the SS in 1945 for such acts.

EKa’s first few months in the US were difficult. On Ellis Island, detained as an alien held for special inquiry, he could see the Statue of Liberty through a barred window. The man now regarded as one of the greatest of all medieval historians struggled to find tenure, employed at Berkeley on a series of one-year temporary contracts until he gained a permanent position six years later. The overwhelming importance of organisations such as the ‘Emergency Committee in Aid of Displaced German Scholars’ is made plain in those years. In the most tragic section of the biography, we follow EKa’s desperate attempts to rescue his mother as the situation for Jews in Germany worsened. Along with his cousin, Gertrud, she was part of a group which tried to flee to Switzerland. Only one of their number crossed safely. Of those caught, one swallowed poison, another was sent east and never heard from again, while EKa’s cousin and mother were transported from camp to camp. Gertrud’s dignity so impressed some Gestapo officers that they were eventually sent to the prison city of Theresienstadt where EKa’s mother died of heart failure. He later bitterly remarked “as far as Germany is concerned, they can put a tent over the entire country and turn on the gas” (p. 260). Some reviewers have thought that Lerner fails to answer definitively why EKa switched so decisively from Right to Left or why his scholarship moved from a “highly rhetorical, politically charged biography” to a “methodical, distanced analysis... for a small scholarly audience” (p. 5). For this reader at least, the causes seem readily apparent and one wonders how far any historian worthy of the name could live through such events and find their historical or political perspective unaltered.

Kantorowicz would happily have stayed at Berkeley had not all post-holders, at the height of the Red Scare, been required to make a loyalty oath. Before 400 other faculty members, Kantorowicz denounced the oath as “a typical expedient of demagogues” to be refused out of “professional and human dignity” (pp. 313-14). Forced out once again, EKa moved to Princeton’s Institute for Advanced Study where he published the work which made him famous, The King’s Two Bodies. He died there in 1963, forbidding any kind of funeral. Try as he might to avoid commemoration, he “led too remarkable a life to fulfil his desire to be left alone” (p. 387).

Three separate chapters examine Kantorowicz’s major works. As Stefan George intended, Kaiser Friedrich der Zweite was a tragic tale of a heroic figure, written with dramatic and rhetorical flourish. The book’s immediate popularity owed much to both this style and its celebration of authoritarianism. Kantorowicz’s emperor founded the first absolute western monarchy, with 154 pages of “explanation and applause” for “probably the most intolerant Emperor that the West has ever produced” (EKa’s emphasis, p. 104). Beheading prisoners was “a frightful necessity” and ethnic cleansing “wisdom,” from an emperor skilled in “handling human material” (p. 105). Stefan George felt “hot and cold flashes” (p. 106) when reading one section which called for the German people to avenge national humiliations inflicted by the French.

The work was also controversial because of the materials it drew upon. German scholarship had preferred ‘objective’ documentary sources to recreate ‘how it really happened’ (wie es eigentlich gewesen). EKa, in contrast, revelled in an uncritical use of chronicles, legends, prophecies, panegyrics, and ceremonial chants, to paint a romantic image of an emperor ruled by fate. For all its faults, the work was comprehensive and underpinned by extensive research. The first serious biography of Frederick II had been written by a 31-year-old who had never taken a course in medieval history. The progress from his doctoral dissertation was extraordinary. Even for those who did not share his values, he demonstrated “a different kind of medieval history, one that revealed the ideas and values that motivated the rulers of the Middle Ages, was possible” (p. 122).

Criticism came immediately from one of Germany’s most prestigious medievalists, Albert Brackmann. Not yet thirty-five, and still having never held an academic position, Kantorowicz defended himself at a congress in Halle before 140 professors. Responding to his critics, he claimed the great nineteenth-century German historians as his own, highlighting their literary style, their awareness of threats to Germany, the need to treat all generations as equal, and concluding, provocatively, with the motto of the Monumenta Germaniae Historica itself: “Holy love of the fatherland gives life.” His call to end neutrality met with no support and many left thinking the scholars EKa cited would have turned in their graves on hearing this self-appointed successor. 

In his biography, EKa had become fixated with the acclamation, “Christus vincit, Christus regnat, Christus imperat,” citing its use even when he lacked the necessary evidence. It became the subject of his second major study, the Laudes Regiae. For EKa, they were the medieval equivalent of ancient ruler-worship. Here, he laid out a periodisation repeated in The King’s Two Bodies, arguing the figure of Christ as king supported royal prestige until, in the early thirteenth-century, the acclamations lost their substance when a more intimate and human image of Christ emerged. Though congratulated by his ally, Percy Ernst Schramm, whose earlier work on the subject led the way, this “thicket with brambles” (p. 247) had some of the faults of his later classic, being riddled with undefined technical terms and huge swathes of untranslated Latin and Greek.

Ultimately, his use of liturgical sources proved less influential than the legal focus of The King’s Two Bodies. Lerner attempts to summarise a “fascinating but frustrating book,” written at the height of EKa’s scholarly prowess, which Joseph Strayer aptly claimed some would swear by and others at (pp. 345, 348). Kantorowicz examined the medieval antecedents for the bodies natural and politic: The Crown’s immortal authority and the king’s physical person. EKa was begged by the initial readers to drop irrelevant chapters on Dante and Shakespeare’s Richard II but refused.  Indeed, Kantorowicz left a space on the publicity form which asked for a summary of the author’s thesis completely blank. The chapters on Christ-Centred, Law-Centred, and Polity-Centred Kingship are more favoured and return to Kantorowicz’s previous periodisation. Tenth and eleventh-century kings had two persons in their natural bodies and the spiritual capacities attributed by consecration and unction. In the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, this duality gave way to a “new pattern of kingship centred on the sphere of Law, which was not wanting its own mysticism.” Finally, in the late thirteenth and fourteenth-centuries, the idea of the ‘body politic’ emerged, paralleling the mystical body of the Church. Lerner succeeds in the difficult task of summarising this complex work and highlighting how, in print ever since, its influence has stemmed well beyond EKa’s field, despite its gratuitous display of theological learning, undefined terminology, eccentric vocabulary, and enormous footnotes.

Alongside recounting EKa’s life and scholarship, Lerner’s biography renders two further important services. Firstly, it refutes the depiction of Kantorowicz as an intellectual or cultural Nazi and the “preposterous” and “nasty” comments of Norman Cantor (pp. 185-6). While admitting the Frederick biography is difficult to separate from the rise of the Nazis, Lerner provides a nuanced explanation for the stylised swastika on its front cover and title page. This first appeared in the book series in 1910, a symbol of Hindu mysticism and auspiciousness with no greater political or racial charge than “a dolphin with an anchor” (p. 113). The publisher Bondi, himself Jewish, declared in 1928 the books had no political connections. This was disingenuous and Lerner explains, without excusing, his subject that, “sadly,” the Kantorowicz of that time probably did not care (p. 114). Kantorowicz’s critics repeated several unverifiable anecdotes. The biography was supposedly on Himmler’s nightstand, presented by Göring to Mussolini, and read by Hitler twice. It was certainly reprinted in 1936 and quoted by Nazi historians. Nonetheless, the author was never a Nazi. Passages in the biography emphasise cosmopolitan ideals far out of step with Nazi racial thought. When asked later in life to sign the book, EKa claimed the man who wrote it had died many years before. While drawing attention to EKa’s nationalism, Lerner demolishes Cantor’s slanders. Kantorowicz grieved at how other George disciples supported the regime and gave a lecture at Frankfurt which presented a counter-mythology to that of the Nazis. He informed a packed audience, as he would at Berkeley, that the professorial title was meaningless if one could not courageously offer a profession at a decisive hour. To put his actions in context, professors elsewhere were informing their students that Hitler “himself and alone is the present and future German reality.” None spoke out so publicly against the Nazi ideology. Young men in brown uniforms stood outside the hall, asking attendees why they were listening to a Jew. To deliver such a lecture took immense courage.

Kantorowicz’s critics seized on how long he stayed in Germany after leaving Frankfurt. As Lerner points out, they ignore his family and economic circumstances and have never had to make such a choice (pp. 185-6). Cantor even claimed Kantorowicz was close to Göring and that this helped him retrieve his passport, enabling him to leave. The reality was quite different. EKa knew Helmut Küpper, whose wife was close to the Görings, but he was hostile to such connections. EKa in fact retrieved his passport thanks to other influences. The head of the Berlin police was the father of a former student. Hearing of Kantorowicz’s difficulties, he called a Gestapo officer to ask whether they were holding up the passport. Erhard Milch, Göring’s second-in-command in the Reich Aviation Ministry and EKa’s distant relative, was, in fact, the cause. Göring’s infamous remark that “I decide who is Jewish” was made in reference to him (p. 209). Milch explained: “It’s exactly people like this who make the worst propaganda against Germany when they get out.” The Gestapo officer shot back “It’s exactly people like you who make the worst propaganda against Germany by not letting people out! Kantorowicz will get his passport within 24 hours!” (p. 208). Lerner thus dramatically demonstrates that Kantorowicz was able to leave, not because of any Nazi connections, but because a Gestapo officer, tipped off by the father of a former student, overruled a hateful relative.

Further highlights are the fascinating anecdotes Lerner has marshalled of his subject and his associates. We learn, for instance, that the lectures of Friedrich Gundolf, at that time one of Germany’s most famous scholars, and listened to by both Kantorowicz and Joseph Goebbels, were a model in “how not to do it.” Reading a script in monotone directly after lunch, without eye-contact and skipping lines and pages by accident, Gundolf had to lock the door of the lecture-hall on one occasion to halt the ensuing exodus. Albert Brackmann, once so critical of Kantorowicz mixing politics and scholarship, later wrote history for the SS and insisted Nazi officials attend all scholarly meetings. In contrast, examples of the wit of Kantorowicz and Maurice Bowra provide light relief. The latter described how one Vice-Chancellor split so many infinitives the floor was littered with them. Upon reading engagement notices in the Times, he would announce dramatically “Damned! I slept with them both!” Kantorowicz, in turn, claimed “Cambridge is a week behind the times, and that’s awful, but Oxford is a hundred years behind, and that’s splendid” (p. 175). Famous for his culinary skill, EKa was asked by one dinner guest, inquiring into his preparation of the kidneys, how he eliminated the traces of urine. He replied, “on the contrary my dear, I usually put in some of my own.”

Such details do much to flesh out Lerner’s biography, making it a revealing and enjoyable read. We learn that Kantorowicz was assiduous in his teaching preparation; one lecture course, written out as a script, came to 237 pages. His graduate seminars went on from 8 till 11pm, no doubt helped by the gallon of wine provided. Lerner has not written hagiography, however, and includes episodes which are not only negative but even repulsive. We find “ample documentation” of intrusions into the lives of his admiring students. He did not want them to marry, let alone have children, lest it affect their research. He threatened to disown Michael Cherniavsky when he did so. His wife, Lucy, kept her pregnancy a secret, and EKa’s nasty humour even sunk to asking if she would enjoy being raped in the “slums of Chicago” (p. 369). Whatever disgust this provokes from the reader, Lerner shows how both loved Kantorowicz regardless. For all the cruel humour and arrogance, his students remembered more the generosity and warmth of a mentor who lent them money, gifted wine, and even paid their doctor’s bills.

Lerner’s biography, the product of decades of research, is an exceptional achievement and his forthcoming edition of Kantorowicz’s letters will also be welcomed. Lerner has analysed these, in many cases for the first time, alongside numerous other writings. Many of those interviewed by Lerner are no longer with us and this biography will not only be difficult, but perhaps impossible, to surpass. Lerner jokes that the richness of documentation even allows us to tell what Kantorowicz had for lunch and, occasionally, the sheer weight of detail does weigh down the reader. Those who direct their students towards this book for Historiography papers, as they should, should consider carefully which sections to prioritise. If the biography, and Kantorowicz’s career, has a theme it is that of an interest in, and defence of, the human and professorial dignity which led to his two expulsions.  As one historian later recalled, Kantorowicz expressed ideals which “remain no less important to remember, no less essential for those who claim the right to wear the gown” (p. 387). Authoritative and definitive, Lerner’s biography will play no small part in that remembrance.

Ryan Kemp
Aberystwyth University

October 12, 2017

Utz: Medievalism

Utz, Richard.  Medievalism: A Manifesto.  Kalamazoo, MI: Arc Humanities Press, 2016.

Reviewed by Ryan Harper (

For those who have followed Richard Utz and his recent work, Medievalism: A Manifesto will likely seem quite familiar.  Significant chunks of the material here have appeared in one form or another in publications and presentations Utz has produced over the past several years, perhaps most notably in his 2015 plenary at the International Congress on Medieval Studies. This is not by any means a negative, however, since this volume is not intended to present new scholarship; rather, it is an exercise in interconnection, wherein Dr. Utz pulls multiple threads of thought together in an effort to weave them into a coherent argument about medievalism as a scholarly discipline.

His focus here is not on particular scholarship, but on the practice of scholarship, and the ways in which formal scholarship can better engage both popular and embedded medievalism in the larger cultural imagination.  The result is a slim, “unapologetically political” manifesto that opens with an overview of what Utz sees as the current and potential roles of professional scholars in a broader cultural conversation about the medieval era and its echoes. He follows this with three “intervention” case studies in which he puts some of those ideas into practice, and concludes with a series of short manifestos.

Chapters one and two are devoted to the argument that scholars should involve themselves more deeply in the personal, experiential, and experimental aspects of medievalism. Chapter One, “What’s Love Got to Do with It? Our Middle Ages, Ourselves,” is largely aimed at the academic self. It focuses on professional medieval scholarship, specifically the tension between the personal love of the literature, history and culture of the era (which draws most of us to the study of the Middle Ages in the first place), and the scholarly pose, which de-emphasizes such subjective or affective connections with that same material. In dialogue with Jacques Le Goff, Kathleen Biddick, Norman Cantor, Leslie J. Workman and many others, Utz traces this tension from the late nineteenth century through the present. His key intellectual player here, however, is Carolyn Dinshaw. Throughout the chapter, he references and returns to Dinshaw’s How Soon is Now as a kind of model of a potential resolution of this tension between the “amateur” and the professional, through its proposed queering of the rigid temporality that is a core element of professional medieval scholarship.

Chapter two is broader, in the sense that it is more about moving beyond the academic self and connecting with the scholarly “other” represented by the enthusiasts, amateurs, and dilettantes who nurture their interests in the Middle Ages outside the formal academy.  His leading example is a pair of responses to the Society for Creative Anachronism (published in an article for Maxim magazine), which are used to illustrate a kind of wariness on the part of academics toward the public medievalist imagination. In this case, such amateur medievalism is seen as both good, in the sense that it supports and justifies an ongoing scholarly engagement, and bad, in the sense that this sort of affective re-enactment offers little epistemological value. In pushing against this conception of the amateur, Utz explores the same basic tensions as the first chapter, but from a more hands-on perspective, this time offering examples of effective collaboration and dialogue between professional scholars and the larger enthusiast community, including the BABEL Working Group (a “non-hierarchical scholarly collective”) and the Guedelon project to build a medieval castle from scratch in Burgundy. Such projects, he argues, allow spaces for scholars and enthusiasts to work together to understand both the material culture of the Middle Ages as well as the echoes and traces of it that we see re-imagined in present popular culture.

The next three chapters are each a sort of practical intellectual exercise, which he calls an “intervention,” intended to “reconnect the academic and non-academic engagement with the medieval past and its continuing presence in meaningful ways” (36).

The first intervention is building on David Matthews’ assertion that medievalism is tied to the present moment through residual elements of a past that remain active in the larger common culture, and the example that Utz riffs on throughout the chapter is the idea of the ill-blowing East wind in his native Bavaria. For Utz, this wind, a known meteorological phenomenon, stands, as a cultural phenomenon, for a “century-long fear of foreign invasion from the East” (44). What follows is a dense discussion of German politics in that region during the twentieth century, tied into the use of long-running medieval open air folk pageant (in which a brave knight rescues a damsel by slaying an evil dragon from the border forests of the East) as a kind of conceptual vehicle for German identity politics in different eras. In his conclusion to this chapter, he asserts that scholars have an obligation to publicly expose and discuss these uses of the medieval past as vehicles for present ideologies through this kind of residual medievalism.

In his second intervention, he looks to his present home city, and tackles the medievalism incorporated into the myth of the Old South in an examination of the history and cultural context of Atlanta’s Rhodes Hall. Built in the very early twentieth century, this large private mansion, intended as a kind of castle and built with the medieval clearly in mind, “conflate[s] and conjoin[s] the medieval and the ante-bellum past as one and the same” (60), creating a situation in which, he suggests, the “potentially dark side of medievalism” (66) should be actively engaged and exposed.

The third intervention works on a slightly different temporal frame, and considers the role of faith as a kind of bridge between the past and present. Utz here first asks why “so few scholars of medievalism delve into the enduring presence and influence of religion” (71), and then himself delves into the temporal peculiarities of Christianity, in terms of both faith (the temporal collapse implied by the Eucharist) and form (ritual practices and liturgy maintained over time) that can complicate such enquiries. He offers examples of ways in which other scholars have tackled these questions, before concluding, as with his earlier chapters, that it is a scholarly obligation to “investigate and historicize religion and theology" (78).

His concluding chapter is made up of no less than six short manifestos, all largely preoccupied with moving beyond what he calls the “pastism” of contemporary medieval scholarship, and reimagining the ways in which scholars envision and engage with medievalism as both a cultural presence and a field of study.  These manifestos range from an assertion that medieval studies are themselves a form of medievalism, to a full re-imagining of the professional scholar as a public figure, engaged in broader discourse beyond a small coterie of specialists.

In this final chapter, and in the volume overall, Utz seems in some ways to be late to his own party. This is not unexpected—as a driving force in the study of medievalism, he has been vocal about these issues for some time, and the ideas themselves have evolved in a relatively public manner. However, some of the more pointed comments about the nature of the profession (particularly those about the “protection of tenure” and the “protective ivory tower walls”) seem to have been written by someone occupying a very comfortable chair.

Nonetheless, there are some thought-provoking ideas here, worth serious consideration, but the volume itself is less than ideal as a vehicle for those ideas. It is dense and bookish, even for a volume intended mostly for members of the academy, in the sense that the references come thick and fast, and he covers his material in a very short space, which creates the continual sense of rushing through.  The interventions themselves are tightly packed bundles of ideas and observations that don’t always come together as a cohesive whole. This comes, in part, from the brevity and concision of the volume; I expect that doubling the length would greatly improve the argument by allowing these ideas a bit more breathing room, and the connections could be more deeply and clearly made. The matter of length, however, seems to be the result of the imprint; the Past Imperfect series presents concise paperback overviews rather than weighty tomes. It’s an unfortunate mismatch, but the volume as presented is worth a read nonetheless.

Ryan Harper, American Public University

October 11, 2017

Elliott: Medievalism, Politics and Mass Media

Andrew B.R. Elliott, Medievalism, Politics and Mass Media (D.S. Brewer, 2017), 223pp.

Reviewed by Daniel Wollenberg (

Medievalisms, Andrew Elliott argues in this important book, are being amplified and accelerated. As a communication studies scholar, Elliott focuses his attention on mass media and the increasingly chaotic closed circuit networks distributing self-referential medievalisms for global audiences. What is particularly novel here is the distinction made between intentional medievalism and what Elliott calls banal medievalism, as well as the communication theory approach that the book takes. Medievalism, Politics and Mass Media transfers the spotlight of the study of medievalism from historical, literary, and aesthetic inquiry to communication theory, studying how new media theory can show us something important about the ways that medievalisms today are reflections of “sources and patterns of influence and transmission” (42). The book narrows its focus to online medievalism, and an important point is made that mass medievalisms feed off of meme culture. The truth-value or historical accuracy of an image is less important than the mutual recognition and acknowledgement of an image as a medieval representative, as a stand-in for an easily identifiable and easily understood symbol of ignorance, or injustice, or primitiveness, or intolerance, and so on. Mass media medievalisms do not usually refer to actual history but to blurry notions filtered through layers of online mediums and commentaries.

Elliott argues that the medieval in political rhetoric since 9/11 reflects “a collective shift in our understanding of [medievalisms’] function and meaning in modern political discourse” (203). Through its rapidity and scope, mass media helps undergird the conception of an unbridgeable gap between us and them, between past and present, recirculating ideas and images without reflection or analysis. Popular medievalism can only be understood through appreciating the role that mass media plays in promulgating it. Medievalisms no longer necessarily refer to the medieval per se, instead referring to others’ uses of a meme. They take on meaning and gain validation via mutual identification and re-transmission.

There are eight chapters plus an introduction, with increasing specificity as the book progresses. Although it is not officially marked in such a way, the book is essentially divided into two parts: the introduction and first chapters being the first part, and chapters four through eight being the second. The introduction and first chapter define terms, establish methodology, and offer an overview of the work; the second chapter, with a clever pun for its title (“Getting Medieval on your RSS”), situates the discourse within the framework of communications theory, and the third chapter addresses big-picture issues like the Dark Ages and the myth of progress. After the third chapter, the book moves on to its “second part,” taking something of a chronological turn, starting with 9/11 and the War on Terror (Chapter 4) and then moving to Al Qaeda (Chapter 5), Anders Breivik (Chapter 6), the English Defence League (Chapter 7), and ending with Islamic State (Chapter 8). There are a handful of helpful full-color images and the book is printed on high-quality glossy paper.

Al Qaeda, Breivik, the EDL, and Islamic State are well-chosen focuses of the last four chapters not only because they are all steeped in the language and imagery of the medieval, but because their use of mass communication so well illustrates Elliott’s central argument about the necessity of mass communications to the spread of medievalism. The copy-and-paste nature of Breivik’s manifesto; the meme culture of nationalist Islamophobes like the EDL; and the manipulation of mass media and global commercial and communications networks by Al Qaeda and Islamic State all demonstrate how and why medievalism spreads so rapidly now. Elliott draws together many disparate arenas of mainstream and extremist political rhetoric and action by showing how they deploy medievalisms banally, re-processing and circulating medieval imagery and rhetoric without actually engaging the Middle Ages. An impressively broad range of disparate sources are handled deftly and seemingly effortlessly, from the tweets of soccer fans and members of Parliament, to the blog posts of white supremacists, to the manifestos of a white terrorist like Anders Breivik and Islamic terrorists like Islamic State. The glue binding them together is the copy-and-paste nature of their medievalism. Identity is constructed and expressed by tropes and memes.

At the core of the book is a term Elliott coins “banal medievalism,” which is defined as being when medievalisms are deployed without historical intent and without reference to the Middle Ages. They do not directly engage medieval texts or buildings or art but instead rely on an identification with an already-knowing audience who see the medieval as a cultural shorthand, a representative of pastness, or primitiveness, or racial and religious solidarity, and so on. In short, Elliott approaches the medieval as a trope, or perhaps more accurately, as memes, rather than as a discrete period of history. In such deployments of medieval imagery and rhetoric, there is an absence of the “authentically” medieval and thus no distinctly medieval meanings. The Middle Ages thus have become “unconscious sites of unchallenged heritage,” passing unobserved as a marker of easily understood and digestible history (16).

A distinction is drawn between the “genuinely medieval” and the “pseudo-medieval,” but I find this distinction to be somewhat problematic (14). I wonder whether arguing for the existence or even possibility of a “genuinely medieval” plays into extremists’ hands by opening up the possibility that there is a singular path to getting the Middle Ages right, rather than leaving medieval texts and documents open to – and requiring – continual interpretation. I also wonder whether it is viable to maintain as sharp a distinction as this book sometimes does between “regular” (scholarly, academic) medievalism and medievalism aimed at mass audiences. There is surely an obvious difference between archival research published in well-documented scholarship and a “medieval” symbol on the shield of a white supremacist in Charlottesville, but perhaps the writings and ideas of amateur enthusiasts are not, or ought not to be, as distinct from academic work as we might assume.

Despite some of the ground here being well-trodden, especially concerning the idea of the Middle Ages as representative of the primitive, atavistic, and retrograde (“a catch-all term for anything one wishes to be disassociated from,” 204), because the “medieval” and the “Dark Ages” are so pervasive and – to use Elliott’s term, banal – it is useful to see so many examples of medievalism used in so many different spheres, from governmental debates to news broadcasts to hotel reviews to sports commentary. Some of the most effective and productive moments in the book are when Elliott slows down and really digs into the specific nuances between tweets, online comments and reviews, and newspaper articles and blog posts. These moments can be eye-rolling (“I think that it’s like living in the Middle Ages, where you hate to go outside because the wolves are going to eat your grandchildren,” says a New York Daily News reporter, p. 69); they can be comical (a negative review on the website Trip Advisor that calls a hotel medieval for its unreliable Wi-Fi); they can be dangerous (“I am a Christian and I think there needs to be a Crusade soon. We need to arm ourselves and…call a Crusade and kill all of them,” says a commenter on an extremist blog, p. 148). The book is at its best when Elliott deconstructs the English Defence League logo and traces back the inspirations and origins of its various parts to Wikipedia entries and Google Image searches. Moments like this one are essential reading for both specialists and non-specialists alike, as the book makes a very persuasive case for the closed-circuit and self-referential nature of medievalism.

The sheer number of these examples of online medievalisms cited by Medievalism, Politics and Mass Media is staggering. The astonishing quantity of them cited in this book perhaps proves Elliott’s point: that the medieval is so much a part of our discourse that most people probably don’t even notice it anymore. Giving readers so many examples drives home that point well and insists that we notice what is right in front of us.

Daniel Wollenberg
University of Tampa