Postmodern Middle Ages: Medieval Music at the Dawn of the Twenty-First Century

Postmodern Middle Ages: Medieval Music at the Dawn of the Twenty-First Century

By Susan Fast

Florilegium, Volume 15 (1998)

Introduction: In the October 1995 issue of Good Housekeeping, there appears an advertisement for a new “Barbie Collector’s Series,” featuring for the first time a doll called “Medieval Lady Barbie.” Clad in a precious garment of the high Gothic style, this icon of our time is a dramatic representation of how the Middle Ages are perceived m popular culture at the end of the twentieth century. Medieval Lady Barbie is certainly not meant to function as an historically accurate document: she is first of all a toy, one of Mattel’s many collector’s series toys, and the use of a medieval garment for this twentieth-century doll illustrates that the Middle Ages have become a kind of treasure trove that can be mined in any way we like; they have become a kind of “queer accessory,” as Erica Rand has expressed it in her anthropological study of the Barbie. By using a medieval dress, the maker does not wish to allude to the Middle Ages as a whole; rather, he wishes to play with isolated aspects of the distant era. The dress has a strangely comforting quality about it and an emotional nearness that is both apparent and mysterious. These qualities stem not from the Barbie, nor from the medieval accessory alone, but from the combination. The imagined dialogue between the Middle Ages and the twentieth century should convey an assurance to the modern reader that, amidst all the social, cultural, and political chaos present at the dawn of the twenty-first century, there are constants in our cultural understanding of ourselves, in our cultural identity. The reality, of course, is that there is no dialogue going on. The Middle Ages has its twentieth-century speakers; the past can never speak for itself. The present takes over this function, for it has tamed the Middle Ages.

As our era swallows up the earlier one, it denies it its individuality and completeness, while at the same time supposedly gaining for it some substantiality and integrity. The Middle Ages serves as a toy. It is the sum of small pieces of hidden meaning, a collection of diffuse images and yearnings illustrating that this time has indeed sunk into oblivion, but it has left behind a treasure of legends, ideals, dreams, hopes, and “visions.” As the Mattel introductory text states:

Let’s journey back to Medieval times of 1400, where the beautiful Lady Barbie is wearing a richly elegant … gown with golden trim … Medieval Lady Barbie is gracious, elegant, and timeless. Her beauty symbolizes the richness of the Middle Ages and its contribution to our exciting past (Text on the packaging for “The Great Eras Collection: Medieval Lady™ Barbie,” Mattel). 

The reduction of the Middle Ages to a decorative function has nothing to do with the Middle Ages and everything to do with our era: the Middle Ages have become part of the vocabulary of our time—they have become present in the twentieth century. Why is this so? And how are we to construe the sense of this word “present”?  What is “present” when we speak of the presence of the Middle Ages? And is it sufficient simply to state the profound interest and, in a sense, deep yearning for the Middle Ages that many people have today?

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