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Cultural memory and the untimely Middle Ages
Author: Joshua Davies

This book is a study of cultural memory in and of the British Middle Ages. It works with material drawn from across the medieval period – in Old English, Middle English and Latin, as well as material and visual culture – and explores modern translations, reworkings and appropriations of these texts to examine how images of the past have been created, adapted and shared. It interrogates how cultural memory formed, and was formed by, social identities in the Middle Ages and how ideas about the past intersected with ideas about the present and future. It also examines how the presence of the Middle Ages has been felt, understood and perpetuated in modernity and the cultural possibilities and transformations this has generated. The Middle Ages encountered in this book is a site of cultural potential, a means of imagining the future as well as imaging the past.

The scope of this book is defined by the duration of cultural forms rather than traditional habits of historical periodization and it seeks to reveal connections across time, place and media to explore the temporal complexities of cultural production and subject formation. It reveals a transtemporal and transnational archive of the modern Middle Ages.

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Joshua Davies
in Visions and ruins
Joshua Davies

The Old English poem known as The Ruin meditates on the material remains of a long-passed civilisation and has often been read as typical of the nostalgic poetry of the Anglo-Saxons, but its reception history reveals how cultural memories of the Anglo-Saxons have been rewritten in the modern world and the importance of the idea of ruination to modern conceptions of the Middle Ages. This chapter constitutes the first extended study of the disciplinary and translation histories of The Ruin, traces the history of the poem from 1826 to the twenty-first century and explores the meanings of ruins in the Middle Ages and modernity.

in Visions and ruins
Joshua Davies

This chapter is the first extended study of the Eleanor Crosses. Commissioned by Edward I and built in the years immediately following Eleanor’s death in 1290, the monuments fashioned an idealised image of Eleanor that stands distinct from the historical record but which defined cultural memories of her. Over time, however, what were once memorials to an individual woman came to signify a more general sense of loss, melancholy and nostalgia that signified differently in particular times and places. E. M. Barry’s refashioned Charing Cross of the 1860s is but one of a number of nineteenth- and twentieth-century monuments that self-consciously repeated and reflected the medieval precedents of the Eleanor Crosses to create an idealised image of the medieval past. This chapter traces the reception, recreation and influence of the crosses in postmedieval England.

in Visions and ruins
Joshua Davies

This chapter interrogates the relationship between medievalist cultural memory and nationalism in Britain and Europe. Exploring work by the English poet Thomas Gray, the Welsh poet and critic Evan Evans, the Hungarian poet Janos Arany, the Icelandic scholar Grímur Jonsson Thorkelín and the Danish poet, historian and educator Nikolai Frederik Severin Grundtvig, this chapter explores how ideas of the medieval past are used to generate ideas of community and exclude some people, ideas and traditions from the future.

in Visions and ruins
Joshua Davies

This chapter explores the medieval interests of two twenty-first century pieces of art: Elizabeth Price’s immersive video installation, The Woolworths Choir of 1979 (2012), and Michael Landy’s Saints Alive (2013). Both of these works turn to medieval culture in order to examine the untimeliness of the body and this chapter traces their sources and explores how their work speaks with, and to, medieval representations of the body. It contextualises Price and Landy’s work with explorations of medieval effigies and the Middle English poem St Erkenwald. The methodology of this chapter is informed by Aby Warburg’s work on gesture in early modern art and interrogates moments of contact and communication across time.

in Visions and ruins
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Migrations
Joshua Davies

The Afterword is framed by a reading of Caroline Bergvall’s text and performance Drift (2013) and explores ideas of migration across time and space. Using Thomas Nail’s recent work on the figure of the migrant and Paul Zumthor’s celebrated work on ‘mouvance’ the Afterword asks, following Sara Ahmed’s work on orientation, what cultural possibilities emerge if we celebrate the diversity, multiplicity and untimeliness of ideas of the Middle Ages, rather than attempt to limit or define it. It suggest that medievalist acts of cultural memory often rely on an idea of the Middles Ages as singular, closed-off and stable, but nevertheless demonstrate its multiplicity, openness and indeterminacy.

in Visions and ruins