Dreaming the Middle Ages: American Neomedievalism in A Knight’s Tale and Timeline
By Zuleyha Cetiner-Oktem
Interactions, Vol. 18:1 (2009)
Abstract: Ever since the Middle Ages officially ended, there has been a constant return to the medieval era throughout the ensuing centuries. These persistent returns, though similar in form, have shown a great diversity in essence; hence the emerging terms, medievalism, modern medievalism, postmodern medievalism, and so forth. Since the current trend of returning to the Middle Ages has been defined as being neomedieval, this essay explores the concept of neomedievalism and questions the paradoxical condition of America returning to the medieval era. It argues that American culture may be consciously or unconsciously seeking to restore ancestral ties with Europe thus creating the illusion of an authentic rooted history.
Introduction: In The Postmodern Condition Jean-Francois Lyotard defined postmodern as simply being “an incredulity toward metanarratives” (xxiv). This statement, made back in 1979 was refreshing as it purported a rejection of all the established grand-narratives of Western culture allowing for mankind to pursue various strands of life and thought without being shackled to any aspect of the past. Yet, regardless of this postmodernist desire to discard past constructs, it is ironic that we still find the past fascinating and are unable to completely break away from it. The medieval era, especially, is one of those ‘traditional pasts’ that we keep on returning to. The past is significant, as it defines who we are; thus, even though we may feel the desire to reject it, we may find it difficult to do so. As Terry Eagleton noted in After Theory “[i]t is the very fact that we cannot live in the present–that the present for us is always part of an unfinished project–which converts our lives from chronicles to narratives. […] We cannot choose to live nonhistorically: history is quite as much our destiny as death”.
Postmodernism seems to have reached its limit as it is unable to contain this trend of returning to the medieval era which is beyond doubt a part of the grand-narrative. This shift from breaking bonds with the past back to restructuring these ties requires a new definition. Since this return has specifically been back to the Middle Ages, I believe Umberto Eco’s assessment that the era we are now living in is ‘neomedieval’ provides a quintessential explanation. All this holds true for the case of Europe, yet what about America?
This essay will not only explore Eco’s definition of neomedievalism, but will also extend it in order to understand the American attitude towards reimagining itself. The essential question that requires some kind of an answer is: why is America dreaming of the Middle Ages? Thus, this study will offer two Hollywood productions, A Knight’s Tale and Timeline, as visual representations that illustrate the reasons behind what may be called American Neomedievalism.