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New Medieval Books: Dictionnaire du Moyen Age Imaginaire: Le médiévalisme, hier et aujourd’hui

Dictionnaire du Moyen Âge Imaginaire: Le médiévalisme, hier et aujourd’hui

Edited by Anne Besson, William Blanc, and Vincent Ferré

Éditions Vendémiaire
ISBN: 978-2-36358-389-5

Reviewed by Richard Utz:

For those of us mostly engaged in the Anglophone contributions to the study of medievalism, this volume is a welcome indication that our subject matter receives just as passionate attention in the Francophone world as in the United States, Australia, or the United Kingdom.

The title of this hefty tome of 468 pages and 90+ illustrations seems to hint at the fact that the term médiévalisme is perhaps not yet sufficiently established to be featured as more than a subtitle to such a project. Instead, Moyen Âge Imaginaire features as the title, which may render homage to the great medievalist Jacques Le Goff (1924-2014). While the historian’s L’imaginaire médiévale (1985; translated into English by Arthur Goldhammer as The medieval imagination, 1988) was a voyage into how medieval people may have imagined their own world, this dictionary imagines how we moderns reimagine the medieval world. Of course, Le Goff is one of those who openly acknowledged, for example in his 2003 memoir A la recherche du moyen age, that there was an affective foundation for his interest in the Middle Ages and that his biography often influenced many of his predilections as a researcher and scholar. The editors acknowledge him as one of their predecessor scholars, together with Paul Zumthor (1915-1995), Christian Amalvi (1954–), and Michèle Gally (1962–).


Many Anglophone medievalists may know Le Goff and Zumthor because their French studies were translated into English and published by various university presses (Zumthor’s 1980 Parler du Moyen Age, in Sarah White’s translation, reached numerous Anglophone readers as Speaking of the Middle Ages in 1986). Fewer may know Amalvi and Gally, which points to the relatively high degree of unsplendid isolation between Anglophone and Francophone medieval and medievalism studies. While the editors and a good number of the 72 contributors to the volume work at Francophone institutions or are French studies specialists elsewhere, the concise bibliographic lists after each entry indicate that the authors are well aware of non-Francophone publications and research traditions, a welcome sign of current and future collaboration and the mutual reception of impactful scholarly work.

Unsurprisingly, Vincent Ferré, who has played an important role at the intersection of various national medievalisms, authored an entry on the concept of medievalism that displays a comparative perspective inclusive of various cultural and scholarly traditions. In six small-print columns on three pages, he manages to sketch a panoramic picture of the history and joyous polysemy of the term and its uses, showing his conversancy with the representatives of the first modern wave of medievalism (John Ruskin, Walter Scott) as well as the scholarly wave of medievalism, with mention of Anglo-American (Alice Chandler, Leslie J. Workman), French (Le Goff, Zumthor, Amalvi, Gally), and other European (Umberto Eco) iterations. He dedicates sections to the journals and movements (Studies in Medievalism, Mittelalter-Rezeption) that have shaped discussions in the field, and tackles the sempiternal questions about potential distinctions between medievalism and neomedievalism. And I know how I would have answered the question on whether neo/medievalism encompasses medieval studies, or the other way around. Kathleen Verduin once offered this resolution in the Medieval Feminist Newsletter (1997):


[I]f ‘medievalism’ […] denotes the whole range of postmedieval engagement with the Middle Ages, then ‘medieval studies’ themselves must be considered a facet of medievalism rather than the other way around.

Ferré mentions the issue but abstains from judgment. And he is too modest to mention the impact Modernités Médiévales has had on medievalism studies over the years, and so I will add it here. He does discuss the need for the inclusion of what others have recently called “global,” “international,” or “world” medievalism, and considers the medievalism avant la lettre, the early modern reception of medievalia. Clearly, his entry is the most inclusive concise description of medievalism to date. Other entries, including Tommaso di Carpegna Falconieri’s on Umberto Eco, Justine Breton’s on Religion, or William Blanc and Maxine Danesin’s on Japan, to mention only three others, are similarly informative and comprehensive.

Unlike an encyclopedia, a dictionary does not need to aim for a comprehensive treatment of a topic. Still, the editors wisely selected 124 entries many of which would probably come up if we asked anyone about their most common associations with the medieval period (angels, castles, crusades, dragons, grail, inquisition, knights, monks, monsters, swords). However, there are also seminal historical and fictional figures (Clovis, Genghis Khan, Jeanne D’Arc, Merlin, Mélusine), historical and fictional places (Avalon, Byzantium, Camelot), various national and faith traditions (Africa, Islam and the Islamic World, Japan, Spain, Turkey, United States), cultural topics (calligraphy, food, peasants, religion, sexuality, wars), famous creators of our modern medieval imaginary (Eco, Scott, Tolkien), and important genres and sites of cultural production (advertisement, cinema, fantasy, music, obscurantism, orientalism, philology, poetry, TV series, video games). The visuals, from Caspar David Friedrich’s romantic painting Abbey in the Oakwood (c. 1810) through a still from the movie The Return of the Jedi (1983) offer a helpful cross-section of impressions. A name index assists those in search of specific mentions of non-fictional persons. All in all, this is a valuable handbook (the cover calls it “bréviaire”) for anyone seeking reliable orientation about the key concepts regarding our postmedieval perspective on the medieval past.

Medievalism, the creative, cultural, and scholarly reimagination of the medieval past in postmedieval times, is a major social phenomenon, and so it is easy to find areas or examples that might have found inclusion in what already is a thorough selection of entries. I mark two major lacunae: One is related to medieval Christianity’s anti-Judaism, which became modern anti-Semitism, one of the major continuities, even after the Second Vatican Council, between the modern and the premodern. The other one is modern racism and its reception of medieval attitudes towards racial difference. Both are referenced in entries like Religion, Richard Wagner, or Monsters (de Zwarte Piet), but might deserve their own spaces.


I also have some less significant suggestions for potential future revisions: The entry on Russia, in its section on recent developments, might take account of the neomedievalist convergences between Putin and the Kremlin with Aleksandr Dugin’s neofascist International Eurasia Movement, as revealed by Dina Khapaeva. The entry on Archaeology includes a short mention of Guédelon Castle, but I wonder if this example of reverse archaeology might not deserve more attention, mostly because of its unique integration between practitioners and academic researchers, the kind of bridge-building also advisable for other fields. And the entry on Authenticity goes too far when accusing the makers of The Name of the Rose (1986) of “taking great liberties” with the real Middle Ages (as available in the works of medieval historians). This general claim obliterates that there probably has not been a medievalist film that has spent as much money and effort on creating marks of authenticity than director Jean-Jacques Annaud, producer Bernd Eichinger, production designer Dante Ferretti, and cinematographer Tonino Delli Colli: Science educators far and wide have selected the film as a pathway to teaching the birth of modern science. Ferretti submitted several thousand sketches to the team of seven historians (including Jacques Le Goff and Michel Pastoureau) hired specifically to avoid potential anachronisms.  The props, from the kitchen utensils to hand-woven monk’s habits, were created from scratch based on medieval originals. Even the manuscript pages, only seen by audiences for seconds, were made to meet rigorous standards.

For Anglo-American users of the dictionary, the numerous references to non-Anglo-American periodizations (not everyone knows about the exact duration of the “French Third Republic”) and Francophone terminological selections (“obscurantism” is a key term in France’s political and intellectual rejection of religion-based monarchy) may produce a welcome alienation effect, reminding them to question the linguistic and cultural predominance of English medievalism studies (and medievalism studies in English) and consider the inclusion of diverse vantage points in their own work. As such, the Dictionnaire du Moyen Âge Imaginaire has the potential of expanding and enriching our eternally undisciplined discipline of medievalism studies.

Richard Utz is professor of medievalism studies in the School of Literature, Media, and Communication at the Georgia Institute of Technology. He is editor of Medievally Speaking, an open-access review journal encouraging critical engagement with the continuing process of inventing the Middle Ages, aka Medievalism.


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