Medievalist Traditions in Nineteenth Century British Culture

We thank Professor Simmons for answering some questions about her exciting new book Medievalist Traditions in Nineteenth Century British Culture: Celebrating the Calendar Year. Professor Simmons describes what her research process was like, uncovers that beautiful cover and shares her favourite seasonal ritual.

Your study examines how nineteenth-century Britons connected seasonal celebration with a conception of the medieval past that helped them think more sympathetically about what their ancestors’ lives may have like before the Reformation, how did you find this topic? Why did you decide on this topic?
It’s easy to think about nineteenth-century medievalism as idealizing repressive social structures such as the idea that in the medieval period, everyone knew their place in the social order.  Or to think of medievalism as elitist in bringing medieval style only to the wealthy and leisured.  I was interested in the ways that ordinary Britons might find pleasure in continuing, re-creating, or even imagining the medieval past, and that took me to times of seasonal celebration. 

The cover of your book is stunning, can you tell us how the cover image is related to your topic?
The cover image fascinates me because it is such a multi-layered example of medievalism!  Nineteenth-century Britons were interested in the history of Christmas carols, and one of the earliest examples they knew was the Boar’s Head Carol.  We don’t really know whether this carol was pre-Reformation or not.  But in the 1860s the Winsor and Newton art supply company created a colouring book to use with their paints that presented Christmas carols in the style of medieval manuscripts.  The Boar’s Head Carol was included in full colour to inspire owners of the colouring book to buy some beautiful Winsor and Newton paints—including gold—to complete the rest of the book.  So it’s a sixteenth-century carol presented as a medieval manuscript in the service of Victorian consumerism.

‘Medievalism became not only the justification but also the inspiration for community festivity,’ this is a fascinating statement, can you tell us why this is important today?
I was looking for joy in medievalist festivities, but I did uncover the sad fact that people often invoked the medieval past as an excuse for having fun.  I do think that it’s important for people to celebrate and enjoy themselves, and if they feel better about enjoying themselves because they can argue that they are following in the traditions of those who went before, then that’s something medievalism can do for us.  I understand, for example, that fairly recently some communities have tried to reintroduce heaving, or raising people on chairs around Easter, and that must be quite entertaining.

What was your research process like for this book?
I had the odd experience of researching both before and during a pandemic.  The shape of the book emerged when I had a Fellowship at the Armstrong Browning Library at Baylor University.  The Library has a wealth of nineteenth-century materials, including many manuscript letters where writers refer to the seasons and related traditions.  The latter part of the research was done during lockdown and mainly online, but because I am interested less in what “actually happened” than in how people think and write about what happened or what they do, I was able to find most of what I still needed in online archives.

What was the most surprising bit of research you found?
I was surprised to find that when so many supposedly medieval traditions cannot be traced back further than the 1700s, antiquarians weren’t particularly interested in Valentine’s Day, which is definitely mentioned by medieval writers.  I think maybe the antiquarian mind is scared of romance!

Do you have any favourite seasonal rituals?
My mum always said that if you catch a falling leaf in October you will be lucky all year.  I don’t know where she heard this but it’s something I told my own sons, and it’s fun to get a group of people together trying to catch autumn leaves, which is harder than it looks—at least for me.  So I’d say, you can make your own rituals out of half-remembered traditions, especially if they bring people together. 

Are you working on anything new at the moment? What’s next for you?
This project was so enjoyable to do that it’s going to be hard to find something to match it. But during my research for this book I spent time on William Morris’s huge work The Earthly Paradise, and I hope to do something more with that.  I’m also interested in doing more on the ardent and prolific Victorian medievalist Charlotte Mary Yonge.  She really does deserve a study of her own.

Clare A. Simmons is a Professor of English at The Ohio State University.

Medievalist Traditions in Nineteenth-Century British Culture
By Clare A. Simmons
9781843845737, Hardcover £39 or $64.35

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