By Gillian Polack
I’ve written recently about some of the paces our Middles Ages travel to reach us. Today I want to talk about a major change that happens to the Middle Ages when it follows the most standard literary paths.
England in the Middle Ages was a Christian country, but it wasn’t only a country for Christians. In 1290 is expelled its Jewish population, but until then, it contained Christians and Jews. Even after that time, it had people from other religions. They were few, but they existed. Medieval France, likewise, was not solely Christian. In some parts of the south of France, in fact, the Jewish population was a major part of the community.
The nature of the popular Middle Ages means that we often tend to take our sense of Christian England from Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe. In Scott’s novel, Jews were an educated minority that was treated badly and expelled.
This is only a part of the more complex everyday history of religion in the West. The earliest group of Jews returning to England I’ve been able to find was in 1316, when a doctor was needed and so he and enough other Jews so that he could celebrate his religion (ten adult males, to form a minyan – and their families) were allowed in. Historians are beginning to find more and more examples of Jews in England during this time. This kind of small return of a few people may have happened throughout late Medieval and Early Modern English history.
Given this, it would make sense if all the standard depictions in novels of Jews in England in the Middle Ages followed Walter Scott’s. It depicts the racism and the cultural differences and the humanity and the cost of hatred to a specific family. It’s easy to write about in fiction because it touches a lot of important points. It focuses on one family, which means the full racism involved and the possibility of returning and living quietly in one’s homeland as a Jew can be ignored. It’s clever writing.
This pattern, however, is not followed for a lot of modern fantasy novels that have been set in an invented Middle Ages. The interesting thing about the invented Middle Ages is that it carries over the aspects we enjoy from history and dumps the things that are less fun. It’s prone to stereotyping and it is far more a dream Middle Ages than an historically correct one.
The interesting thing about reading someone’s perfect dream Middle Ages is what it shows about the culture that story rests in. What does John Flanagan’s series of adventure novels for young adult readers show about the culture of Australian fiction? That the Middle Ages lacks Jews. No idealised Jews through Rebecca. No evil stereotypes through a Shylock type of character. Simply no Jews.
Flanagan is not alone in this.
Australian fantasy novels that rely heavily upon the Middle Ages are more likely to have Jewish characters if they rely more on the same material that historical novelists use, but if they are set firmly in the world of Medievalist fantasy, then they may have many amazing cultures and artefacts and much culture and drama that is inspired by the Middle Ages… but at the most there will be a Jewish minor character.
There is no Rebecca. Australian modern fantasy does not draw upon the same material as Walter Scott draws on. While the lack of Jewish major characters (and, for the most part, the lack of Jewish characters at all) is only one aspect of this, it’s a very telling aspect. It’s a clear indication of cultural choices and interest. It also tells us what the Middle Ages is being used for in that kind of novel.
Scott’s Ivanhoe is known for bringing the Middle Ages to life. It was part of a cultural movement in the nineteenth century that gave the period credibility and made it a time of value rather than a few centuries caught between important epochs. Flanagan’s novels are part of another movement, where the Middle Ages is a fantastical place and time. It is a variant of fantasy trilogies set in worlds other than Earth. The Narnia stories and Middle Earth tales were part of the inspiration. It relies on a feel for Medievalism rather than an attempt to re-recreate history.
When I ask re-enactment groups what their work is, their answers tend to fall into two groups. One group tries to understand history by working with it. They make artefacts and set up events that reflect as far as they can, the material and social life of the Middle Ages. This end of re-enactment is linked to Living History and to experimental archaeology. Culturally, it’s closer to Scott’s brand of Medievalism rather than to Flanagan’s.
Other groups explain that they use the Middle Ages to create history the way it should be. It’s an emotional affiliation with the past and a sense that one can reach for story ideals through re-enactment. This end of re-enactment is closer to Flanagan’s style of Medievalism. I say ‘closer’ carefully, because it is still more likely to not exclude Jews than Flanagan’s form of Medievalist fantasy.
What is important here is the decisions made within each group of re-enactors as to what aspects of the Middle Ages are critical for their work and play. The deep choices reflect how they see value in the Middle Ages as a period of history and where the emotional links are with our present society.
This is why I was astonished by the loss of a whole religion and several cultures in one group of fantasy novels. Australian Medievalist fantasy at this end tend to focus on cultural privilege. It (quite probably unintentionally) reinforces that privilege.
It’s a very interesting phenomenon. It’s even more interesting because there is an active Medievalist in the Australian fantasy writing community (that would be me) who gives workshops on demand to those who want to understand the Middle Ages and who co-wrote the reference book on Medieval England.
Australian novelists who write historical fiction consult far more than those who write fantasy. The historical fiction writers are thus closer to Walter Scott’s Medievalism than to fantasy Medievalism through choices they have made about the research they need to do and the questions they need to ask for any given novel. The books are made through genuine choices that lead to this fantastical Middle Ages, since there are avenues open to learn about the historical Middle Ages. At the end of the road, these decisions can lead to the loss of a whole culture that belongs to the historical Middle Ages. Choices have consequences.
From Scott to Flanagan, then, we can see an illuminating path into how the Middle Ages are used in modern culture and how type of novel reflects type of Medievalism.
Gillian Polack is an Australian writer and scholar who focuses on how historical fiction, fantasy and science fiction writers see and use history, especially the medieval period. Among her books is The Middle Ages Unlocked. Learn more about her Gillian’s work on her website, or follow her on Twitter @GillianPolack