Written by Megan Crutchley
As the West developed and became more industrialised, turning into the landscapes that we are familiar with today and forming values that are still currently practised, there was an imperceptible pull towards the past. Change is a daunting prospect for anyone, but the change that occurred during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries had never been seen before on that scale before, and it has not stopped since. It is understandable that people were terrified of it and sought out comfort in societies that seemed simpler and more familiar to them. So, in short, a fear of the ‘new’ is what pushed people to the ‘old’.
The medieval revival was not something isolated to British shores, although the reasons it came about in the United States, I believe, are different to that in the UK. Britain is unique in the way our society values its history – which is not to say that other countries do not, but interest in our history is a casual part of our culture, and more people here claim to be amateur historians than anywhere else. Therefore, as a nation we are inclined to look to our past. The preservation of historical sights even today is something most people can sympathise with, and we hold a value for physical relics of the past in this country. It is possible the values we hold had their roots in the medieval revival.
As I began, the industrial revolution impacted every aspect of life – it not only affected the physical landscape, but relations between classes. Where before the landowner would work alongside his employees when tending to the land, the industrial revolution meant that workers were alienated from their employer. Nurture between the classes was replaced with money and people felt as if they were entering a colder world, one of self-interest and isolation. Constants through this change were the ancient buildings, like original Gothic churches, and the unchanging nature of Britain’s natural spaces. During the eighteenth century, there was a large effort made to restore Gothic churches across the UK, but the strive to reconnect with our past did not end at architecture.
Simultaneously, there was a revival in medieval literature, which can be traced back to the publishing of a work by Thomas Percy called Reliques of Ancient English Poetry in 1765. These were collections of songs throughout history and did include some contemporary ballads, but the attention of the literary world was caught by the earliest songs. To them, they were not great works of art, but instead a raw first effort for human beings to express themselves. It was not static or artificial, striving for greatness like the poetry of the time, but a refreshing change. They were poems written for the joy of writing, not as a performance to impress others but to express the feelings of the soul. It is this refreshing way of viewing and writing poetry which inspired the Romantic Revival.
Across the Atlantic, the Americans were taking inspiration from the same period, however, I would argue, for slightly different reasons. America at the time was considered a young country. It did not have a past to build itself from in the same way the UK had. They took inspiration from the values held by medieval society and implemented them into their own, and this borrowing of a culture was reflected in material possessions. For example, when building houses there were a few popular options of what architectural design to aim for. The house design that someone chose shows a lot about what they value, and a medieval home, opposed to some of the other architectural options like Greek or Egyptian, was unique in that its design came from a Christian society.
It was an area of interest for professional historians too: after the civil war, more articles were being published by widely read academic journals, like the North American Review, than ever before. The public interest was being reflected in academic writing. In many of these writings, the similarities between medieval society and contemporary were emphasised. However, the way that America was trying to write itself a history, a history dominated by white people, at a time when America was facing mass emigration as well as a significant proportion of its population not being white at the time, suggests the attempt to make connections with medieval society was rooted in racism. The white elitists of American society were creating an echo chamber, where they were trying to reaffirm their superiority with historical examples. The forced connections that were being made at the end of the nineteenth century were beginning to lose their meaning. American society had become so far removed from what they were trying to compare themselves to that writing about the medieval period no longer felt relevant. The writing lost its audience, and so people stopped writing. It was also not up to historians anymore to comment on societal patterns, like they had been trying to, as there had been a recent rise in a new kind of science – social science.
To conclude, Western society attempted to reinforce the values of medieval society into their modern changing worlds, to reassure themselves. The threat of change, in the form of architecture, social relations between people, and values that society held, made people desperate to prove that the past held a better way of living. It is no surprise that this pull to the past was instigated by those whom that society would benefit – white elitists.
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Dellheim, C. (2004). ‘Preface.’ In C. Dellheim, The Face of the Past: The Preservation of the Medieval Inheritance in Victorian England (pp. xiii-xv). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Fleming, R. (1995, no. 4). ‘Picturesque History and the Medieval in Nineteenth-Century America.’ The American Historical Review, Vol 100, pp. 1061-94.
Roberts, H. E. (1980). ‘Victorian Medievalism: Revival or Masquerade?’ Browning Institute Studies, 11-44.