American Medievalism: Medieval Reenactment as Historical Interpretation in the United States
By Ryan R. Hatch
Master’s Thesis, Arizona State University, 2015
Abstract: This thesis will examine how the Middle Ages are historically interpreted and portrayed in the United States. In order to keep this study within reasonable bounds, the research will exclude films, television, novels, and other forms of media that rely on the Pre-Modern period of European history for entertainment purposes. This thesis will narrow its focus on museums, non-profit organizations, and other institutions, examining their methods of research and interpretation, the levels of historical accuracy or authenticity they hold themselves to, and their levels of success. This thesis ultimately hopes to prove that the medieval period offers the same level of public interest as popular periods of American history.
This focus on reenactment serves to illustrate the need for an American audience to form a simulated connection to a historical period for which they inherently lack geographic or cultural memory. The utilization of hyperreality as described by Umberto Eco lends itself readily to this historic period, and plays to the American desire for total mimetic immersion and escapism. After examining the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s exhibition of medieval history as high art and culture, the thesis focuses on historical reenactment, as it offers a greater level of visitor interaction, first by analyzing R.G. Collingwood’s definition of “reenactment” and it’s relation to the modern application in order to establish it as a veritable academic practice.
The focus of the thesis then turns to the historical interpretation/reenactment program identified here as historical performance, which uses trained actors in controlled museum conditions to present historically accurate demonstrations meant to bring the artifacts on display to simulated life. Beginning with the template first established by the Royal Armories Museum in the United Kingdom, a comparative study utilizing research and interviews highlights the interpretative methods of the Frazier History Museum, and those of the Higgins Armory Museum. By comparing both museum’s methods, a possible template for successfully educating the American public about the European Middle Ages; while a closer examination of the Frazier Museum’s survival compared to the Higgins Armory’s termination may illustrate what future institutions must do or avoid to thrive.