Medievalism in Nineteenth-Century Belgium
Welcome to the Medieval Herald Dr John! Can you please begin by briefly explaining what your book Medievalism in Nineteenth-Century Belgium is about?
At its heart, the book is about the creation in Brussels of a colossal equestrian monument to Godfrey of Bouillon (d.1100), a leader of the First Crusade and the first ruler of Latin Jerusalem, in 1848. The book sets that project in context, tracing how Godfrey came to be revered as a national hero in Belgium after its establishment through revolution in 1830-1, and how the monument shaped wider national perceptions of him. The overarching aim of the book, though, is use the project to create that 1848 monument, and the wide range of reactions and responses that it stimulated, as a stepping stone to explore three linked themes in nineteenth-century Belgian (and European) history: (1) interest in the medieval past, (2) the politics uses of public monuments, and (3) the creation and development of national identity.
Why are public monuments devoted to figures from the past created? Has this reasoning changed over time?
Some would say that the purpose of monuments to figures from the past is to give history lessons to anyone who views them. Boris Johnson, the then-Prime Minister, espoused this idea in June 2020 in response to criticism made of the statue of Winston Churchill in London’s Parliament Square. I don’t agree with this, though. To my mind, the creation of a monument to a historical figure generally reveals much more about the people who create the monument than it does about the figure commemorated by it. So, when a particular community (be it national, regional, civic, institutional, etc) erects a monument to a hero from the past – and this includes figures who lived many centuries earlier – the aspiration is that the monument will embody and transmit messages about that community in the present. While a monument can convey historical narratives, then, for the most part it conveys how a specific community would like us to think about the past, which is not the same as a history lesson. I’d say that this essential dynamic has remained constant over time. What changes are the particular ideas and narratives that monuments are built to embody; these vary according to time and space.
Your book focusses on Belgium which has often been neglected in English-language scholarship, why do you think that is and what was your reasoning behind focussing on it?
The most obvious explanation for the neglect of Belgium in modern historical scholarship in general is that it is a comparatively small nation, surrounded by much larger and more influential Western European powers in the form of France, Germany and the United Kingdom. Those nations (and their predecessors) have dominated European politics and culture over the past few centuries, and, accordingly, been the focus of a significant proportion of modern scholarship. An additional factor as regards Anglophone scholarship, one has to acknowledge, is the issue of language. Studying Belgian history requires knowledge of French and Flemish (and to a degree, German), which not all possess. Perhaps the most important reason why Belgium has generally been neglected, though, is that, owing to the circumstances of its foundation, it is often dismissed as a ‘constructed’ or ‘artificial’ nation. It is notable that figures who tend to see their own nations as ‘natural’ or even God-given often perceive Belgium in this way. What the book aims to show, however, is that the efforts of political elites to establish and consolidate Belgium after 1830-1 – a process in which Godfrey of Bouillon and other medieval figures served as central characters – in reality shed valuable light on politics and historical culture in that era. I suggest that these findings offer an important corrective to wider scholarly arguments that often hold true for Belgium’s larger neighbours, but not always for Belgium itself.
What is the relevance of your research today?
A central theme of this book is how statues can be used to advance particular narratives of history. The subject is as important today as it was in the nineteenth century. As I’ve hinted, monuments say much about the communities that produce them than about their subjects. The destruction of monuments arguably tells us even more; history shows us that pivotal turning points can occur when the narratives embodied by monuments begin to clash with the ideas held by groups served by a particular monument. One needs no explanation for the decision taken by the local authorities in the Ukrainian city of Odesa in December 2022 to remove the 1900 statue of the Russian Empress Catherine the Great. The book is also about how national communities interpret the medieval past. While the Middle Ages may seem distant to us today, this, too, is a subject that remains relevant. Reports in late 2022 about the English football fans who attended the World Cup in Qatar dressed as Templar Knights provided a salutary reminder of how misconceptions of the Middle Ages – or an absence of knowledge about that era – has the potential to exert real-world consequences to this day.
Tell us about your cover.
The cover is a lithograph from a volume commemorating a series of festivities held in Brussels in July 1856, in commemoration of the inauguration of Leopold I as the first king of the Belgians twenty-five years earlier. It depicts the moment at which, during a ceremonial tour of the city on horseback, Leopold rode into the city’s Place Royale, where the monument to Godfrey of Bouillon had stood since 1848. The king’s inauguration had also been held in the very same square in 1831. In front of a gathered crowd, and surrounded by symbols of Belgian nationhood, including the national flag and temporary triumphal arches, the king rode towards the bronze effigy of a national hero, one who in fact was often framed as a kind of medieval forerunner of the Belgian monarchy. The image encapsulates the importance of history – invariably channelled through the memories of Godfrey and other members of the Belgian national pantheon – in shaping ideas about Belgian nationhood in that era. This moment, a symbolic encounter between the medieval past and the present, was charged with nostalgia, which I think the lithograph captures powerfully.
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SIMON JOHN is Senior Lecturer in Medieval History at Swansea University.