Medievalism, Nationalism, and European Studies: New Approaches in Digital Pedagogy
This is part of our special feature, Imagining, Thinking, and Teaching Europe.
Patrick Geary contended in The Myth of Nations (2002) that the rise of ethno-nationalism, as a response to the ascendancy of the European Union, was inseparable from the weaponization of the middle ages. Nationalism, in both its current and nineteenth-century iterations in Europe, has always paid homage to the ghosts of an imagined past, one that frequently collapses the medieval with the modern present. As many historians have shown, institutions, practices, and identities that many European ethno-nationalists claim as dating to medieval times actually have a much more recent provenance. For Geary, both medieval history—specifically, the early medieval period (c. 500 – c. 1000) – and its perception in the popular consciousness, represent important sites for understanding recent European nationalist movements that stake their identities in nostalgia. Geary’s book was published nearly twenty years ago, but the current political culture in Europe, with the consequences of Brexit and the ethnonational backlash against refugees and immigrants still unfolding, has made its insights more relevant than ever.
Ahistorical representations of the medieval past in various forms of popular media—a practice known as medievalism—have shaped public perceptions of the middle ages. Media such as narrative fiction, video games, films, television shows, and historical re-enactment have served to wrest the actual middle ages from their specific historical context and into contemporary political debates about contested notions such as “nationhood,” “tradition,” and, in fact, the very question of “European” identity. As a mode of disconnecting the medieval from the middle ages, medievalism serves as a powerful example of how the past can be continually reformulated in new ways as an instrument of (often, reactionary) politics. As nationalists increasingly depend on the tropes of medievalism for ethno-nationalist purposes, we should be encouraged to confront the inherent biases and problems of medieval scholarship. In this sense, the study and teaching of medievalism has become as important for understanding the middle ages as is the study and teaching of medieval history itself.
I focus primarily on the pedagogical implications of the study of medievalism, particularly in the context of interdisciplinary fields such as European Studies to show that the teaching of medievalism can be a powerful vehicle to contextualize the various forms and meanings of European nationalism from the nineteenth century to the present.
Medievalism and digital pedagogy
I was the instructor of record for two courses on medievalism with strong digital humanities components, one an upper-division elective, “Medieval Hollywood,” at Fordham University, and the other an online graduate course, “The Middle Ages in Popular Culture,” at the University of Houston-Victoria (UHV). At Fordham, students taking Medieval Hollywood were required to watch a set of common films, supplemented by textual primary sources that helped inform them of the historical setting of the films. They also read critical essays about the films, the analysis of which came from scholars in a number of disciplines, including history, literature, film studies, and critical theory. In addition, each student was also assigned to research a separate medieval-themed movie and published their analyses on our website Medieval Hollywood, hosted by Omeka, which functioned as a repository of short critical essays and digital exhibits
The process of analyzing the medievalism of the films helped students examine them as cultural products of the era when they were produced, which in turn encouraged students to grapple with, for example, the evolution of the representation of women and ethnic minorities in media. As media scholars have shown, the dearth of speaking roles for women and ethnic minorities, and their frequent portrayals as one-dimensional characters, has been a persistent feature in mainstream cinema. Deeper investigations into particular films, especially through the curation of digital media, helped to disentangle fiction from the medievalisms of these movies. As a whole, the essays the students produced for the website functioned as scholarly contributions on representations of the medieval in popular culture. Though Medieval Hollywood was not a media studies class, I wanted students to be aware of the relationship between history and fiction, as well as gender and minority representation in film, and thus gain a nuanced understanding of how the visual medium—especially medieval cinema—can become a powerful vehicle for the dissemination of “medieval” tropes in popular culture.
With my second course―a special topics graduate class offered online at UHV called “The History of the Middle Ages in Popular Culture”―I was able to expand on my previous pedagogical insights from Medieval Hollywood to incorporate more readings about the variety of artistic expressions that constitute medievalism in European and American culture ranging from the sixteenth century to the present. As with the Medieval Hollywood course, there was a digital humanities project, an online magazine hosted on HCommons.org, for which the students wrote short articles critiquing the medievalist aspects of novels, films, music and any other type of media that was of interest to them. I arranged the topics of the course in (roughly) chronological order, with the majority covering the nineteenth century and the rise of nationalism. After having taught this course, it is my contention that it would be difficult to disentangle medievalism from European nationalism. Thus, given how significant nationalism was to the “recovery” of a medieval past in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, instructors of European studies courses should thrive to incorporate readings or assignments that familiarize students with medievalism.
As many have observed, contemporary ethno-nationalists in Europe have appropriated imagined pasts from the middle ages to support their agendas; here, nation and identity depend to a large degree on the influence of medievalism. Consequently, the instruction on medievalism would be a very effective strategy for those teaching courses on contemporary European history. Given that ethno-nationalists have often invoked famous medieval figures and refashioned their biographies to suit their needs, a focus on individuals could be an effective approach to dismantle the myths that circulate about the medieval past. I offer here a couple of pedagogical case studies of medievalism that could be integrated into standard survey courses in history, literature, art history, political science, and film studies. These case studies examine the legacies of Joan of Arc and William Wallace in popular culture, which can be traced methodically from historical sources (all in translation) that were produced during the middle ages, to these figures’ nineteenth-century romanticist iterations in literature and film, and, finally, to political discourses about national identity in Europe.
Joan of Arc
There is a veritable treasure trove of sources for the life and times of Joan of Arc for students taking courses that fall under the wide umbrella of European Studies. These medieval sources can provide enriching opportunities for students to examine how nationalist legacies are built. Available to instructors are readable and easily accessible accounts of Joan’s trial, which allow, however imperfectly, for the past to speak. When teaching Joan’s trial, it is important to acknowledge the many strange irregularities of her inquisitional trial (for example, that the charges of heresy were vague and the process highly improvised) and that Joan’s mission had a deep spiritual conviction more in line with devotional practices of the time rather than any nationalist motives of the modern era. Joan’s understanding that a French people should be ruled by a French king must be understood within the broader context of the Hundred Years’ War, in which peasants like Joan might have witnessed the reach of English rule more than previous generations—a conflict that entailed requisitioned farms, conscripted country boys, and burdensome taxes. It is also crucial to understand, however, how the nationalist reading of Joan’s story changes once there is no French monarchy and only a French nation, born from the fires and blood of revolution in the eighteenth century, as well as several attempts to restore the Bourbon dynasty in the nineteenth century. Joan’s portrayal in art, in paint or on stage, reinforced the nationalist project in this period, defined as it was by its iconography as much as its leaders and activists.
The late nineteenth century saw a resurgence in Joan’s popularity and the new technology of moving pictures—cinema—is illustrative of how filmmakers adapted the story for nationalistic ends. The first-ever medieval film (and by medieval, I mean a film that takes place within either a medievalist fantasy milieu and/or roughly between the years 500 and 1500) was a short that, in its original form, likely clocked in at about one or two minutes. Made in 1898, the fragment that survives shows, quite simply, the execution of the French national heroine. Since her cinematic debut, Joan has been a popular subject of medieval cinema. Famed French filmmaker Georges Méliès produced his own version of Joan’s life in 1900, a silent film that served as a kind of run-up to Joan’s eventual canonization in 1920. The Méliès film—which dramatized the voices that called her to action, the aftermath of the victory at Orléans, the crowning of the Dauphin at Reims, her imprisonment, execution, and ascent to heaven as France’s saint—hits all the major beats of Joan’s story in about ten minutes, a story that was already well-known to French viewers at the time.
On celluloid, the appeal of Joan’s hagiography, which is a biography of a saint’s life, has always transcended the French nationalist climate during which the first films about her life were produced. It is likely, for this reason, that her hagiography has been more popular in modern times than it ever was in the middle ages. Joan’s popularity in American culture, for example, points to the salient features of her hagiography that could easily be integrated in other contexts. One of the most storied American producers of big-budget Hollywood films, Cecil B. DeMille, directed the first feature-length version of Joan’s life in 1916 called Joan the Woman, which was a celebration of Joan’s life that was firmly placed within the contemporary politics of World War I. As an archetype for national heroism, Joan’s image denoted militarism, spirituality, sacrifice, and the idea of pure womanhood uncomplicated by old age or motherhood. A student in the Medieval Hollywood course examined DeMille’s Joan the Woman for its uneasy placement of Joan’s life within the heteronormative lenses of early twentieth-century femininity. Such gendered examinations of Joan’s legacy can yield rich results. A graduate student at UHV examined Mark Twain’s fascination with Joan of Arc in a short article on Twain’s novel Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc (1896), which sought to reconcile the feminine and masculine dichotomies of Joan’s nationalist legacy.
The popularity of Joan in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries made use of the medium of film in reinforcing the special destiny of France, as a singular nation whose heritage stretched back to the middle ages. Most film critics acknowledge that the greatest adaptation of Joan’s life appeared in the French feature-length silent film The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928), which was notable for its highly focused narrative, showing only Joan’s trial and execution, a scene bleak and unforgiving in its framing but triumphant in its artistic expression of nationalist martyrdom. As a student noted about the film in her digital exhibit for the Medieval Hollywood website, “[Joan] strayed from society’s norms and held fast to her moral duties… Although she is shown to be clever during her trial, the film argues that she could not possibly win against [the English judges]…” France’s national origins, as it was understood, could be found chiefly in the struggle to define its borders and people as French and only French, though this fight for self-determination was imagined going back further than Joan’s time, to that of Clovis and Charlemagne and Philip Augustus.
As Andrew B.R. Elliott and others have shown, given that Joan’s story has many jingoistic qualities that involve pushing out foreigners (the English) from France in what was a military conflict spanning over a century, it was perhaps inevitable that Joan was re-appropriated by the far-right political movement in France, most famously by the Front National, recently rebranded as “Rassemblement National.” The party, which was founded by Jean-Marie Le Pen, embraces a Catholic identity rooted in the sexist and racist preoccupations of banning contraception and abortion for fears of being overtaken in population by Muslims. Joan’s appeal to this far-right group was evident from its inception. In the view of far-right ideologues like Le Pen, Joan’s zealous devotion to her Catholic faith and her country and, despite her cross-dressing, conformity to traditional femininity (that is, virginal and un-besmirched by sexuality) are the types of qualities that make a medieval figure like Joan an avatar for modern, nationalist anxieties. Since taking up her father’s mantle, Marine Le Pen has continued Rassemblement National’s public reverence for Joan of Arc. She has recently, for example, laid flowers below a statue of the Maid in Cannes on May Day in 2018 (and makes yearly speeches in front of Joan’s statue in Paris). After paying her respects, Le Pen warned, in front of a gaggle of reporters in Cannes:
Very clearly today, across Europe there’s a powerful upswing of a revolt against the policies implemented by the European Union, economic policies, migration policies. This prison-like Europe, this Europe of conflicts that’s only working with blackmail and threats. So, we are laying a first stone of a Europe of nations, a Europe that respects the nations’ sovereignty and that respects the peoples’ sovereignty.
Le Pen’s xenophobic speech framed immigration as antithetical to French interests. Her juxtaposition of the medieval (Joan of Arc’s statue, signifying her martyrdom by the English) with the modern (Le Pen’s own supplication to the statue, legitimizing it as a symbol of resistance to “foreign” influence) collapses the medieval into the modern present. In so doing, Le Pen used the medieval past to argue against an “oppressive” European Union that was, in her view, encouraging immigration policies that she and her allies intended to defeat via the elections that were going to be held the following year.
Like Joan of Arc, William Wallace, the thirteenth-century military leader most identified with Scottish nationalism, has also had a “career” in film. Wallace’s resistance to the English as a potent symbol of Scottish independence was one reanimated by the release of Mel Gibson’s film Braveheart in 1995, though the romanticized image of Wallace as the great defender of Scotland can be seen in nineteenth-century statuary erected around Scotland today—in places such as Aberdeen, Bemersyde House, and in Stirling, as well as monuments in Ayrshire and Elderslie, the latter which was erected in 1912. The inscription on the nineteenth-century Aberdeen statue reads, “I tell you a truth, liberty is the best of all things, my son, never live under any slavish bond,” which is a quote found in sixteenth-century historian and theologian John Major’s Historia majoris Britanniae (or History of Greater Britain, published in 1521). A classroom exercise that could stimulate a productive conversation is reading the inscription on these statues (images of which are readily available online) and comparing their sentiments to those found in Blind Harry’s fifteenth-century epic poem that mythologized Wallace’s legacy. The medieval sources and nineteenth-century images of Wallace could also be compared to popular retellings of Wallace’s life, such as in Jane Porter’s The Scottish Chiefs (1810). These types of primary sources are redolent of the type of medievalisms that were current in the literary romanticism of this period.
Such comparisons can occur across different media. For example, in the class Medieval Hollywood, a student examined an excerpt of the Blind Harry poem for how it inspired Braveheart, and also curated medieval manuscript images that were relevant to the history of William Wallace as part of a larger digital exhibit on the film’s medievalisms. In fact, examining the film’s influence on the popular perception of Wallace can also be critical to understanding how medievalisms seep into contemporary nationalist discourse. Though Braveheart was derided in some corners for its historical inaccuracies, Scottish nationalists like Alex Salmond passionately defended it, citing the Blind Harry poem for the film’s historical relevance. The politics of the film resonated most recently with the push towards Scottish independence. Randall Wallace, who wrote Braveheart, told NPR that he was “heartbroken” when the 2014 Scottish referendum vote had not resulted in Scotland breaking away from the United Kingdom. His disappointment over the result of the referendum, he claimed, reflected those of the “Bravehearts,” a generation of adults between 30 and 50 years old who voted passionately for national independence.
Toward other medievalisms
There are other examples one can use to examine how nationalist-inflected medievalisms have permeated popular culture in different media. The “recovery,” for example, of ethnocentric traditions in the nineteenth century led to the recreation of medieval music, despite the fact that music interpreting medieval notation is notoriously imprecise and reflect modern biases. Similarly, the building of neo-Gothic and restoration of Gothic buildings in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries highlight how romanticist notions of medieval architecture have echoed into contemporary political (Houses of Parliament) and sacred (Notre-Dame of Paris) spaces that have come to represent, for many people, a distinct national heritage.
Drawing the students into how the medieval past has been used by white ethno-nationalists can be an illuminating exercise for those who may think that the medieval period is irrelevant to politics today. The example of Marine le Pen’s worshipful homage to Joan of Arc is one of many. One could also point to, for example, the English Defence League’s recent “toxification” (or, rather, fetishization) of the flag of St. George, the fourth-century martyred saint, famed patron of England and of white nationalists wishing to replace the Union Jack (representing Britain, the collective) with the cross of St. George (exclusive to England, excluding the Welsh and Scottish and, by extension, others). Medieval symbols abound, and were—are!—interpreted in a variety of ways. The Teutonic Knights, a military order founded in the twelfth century, were, on the one hand, the bogeymen of twentieth-century Polish historiography rooted in anti-German sentiment and, on the other, the heroes of Nazi Germany, symbolizing the policy of lebensraum and the conquest of Eastern Europe. They were also the chief villains of Sergei Eisenstein’s classic film Alexander Nevsky (1938), which pitted fourteenth-century Russian peasants (standing in for the Soviet proletariat) against the evil Teutonic Knights (standing in for German fascists).
Medieval symbolism, of course, is also weaponized in the US. Though the white supremacist Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia in 2017 is now mainly remembered for the torch-bearing men who wore khakis and polo shirts chanting that Jews “will not replace us,” it is also significant that some sported shields with the red crosses associated with the Templars (and one, ironically, with the black eagle associated with the African martyr St. Maurice). The red Templar crosses in particular represent the medieval Crusades and, both in Europe and America, the Crusades have loomed large in racist retellings of history that have imagined white Christians and foreign Muslims to be “naturally” at odds for nearly a millennium. The history and current rise of ethnonationalist fascism in both America and Europe now make the study of the middle ages—its history, but also its various representations in media—a daunting but important pedagogical task. This history, moreover, can easily be integrated in one’s class activities for any or all European Studies courses cross-listed to any number of disciplines, including literary, film, and media studies, as well as political science, art history, and the visual and performing arts.
Esther Liberman Cuenca is an Assistant Professor of History at the University of Houston-Victoria. She received her PhD in Medieval History from Fordham University in 2019. She has taught a graduate course on the middle ages in modern popular culture and an undergraduate course on the representations of the middle ages in Hollywood and world cinema. Her article, “Historical Malapropism and the Medieval Blood Libel in American Politics,” was recently published in Studies in Medievalism, vol. 29.
Public Domain Resources
Jeanne d’Arc, d. Georges Hatot. France: Pathé, 1898.
Jeanne d’Arc, d. Georges Méliès. France: Manufacture de Films pour Cinématographes, 1900.
Joan the Woman, d. Cecil B. DeMiIIe. USA: Paramount, 1916.
La Passion de Jeanne d’Arc, d. Carl Theodor Dreyer. France: Société Générale des Films, 1928.
Alexander Nevsky, d. Sergei Eisenstein. USSR: Mosfilm, 1938.
Constable, Archibald ed., trans. A History of Greater Britain. Edinburgh: University Press for the Scottish Historical Society, 1892.
Jamieson, John, ed. Wallace, Or, The Life and Acts of Sir William Wallace of Ellerslie by Henry the Minstrel. Glasgow: Maurice Ogle, 1869.
Porter, Jane. The Scottish Chiefs: A Romance. Revised edition. New York: D. Appleton, 1866.
Skene, William F., ed. John of Fordun’s Chronicle of the Scottish Nation. Edinburgh: Edmonston and Douglas, 1872.
 Patrick J. Geary, The Myth of Nations: The Medieval Origins of Europe (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2002), 1-14, esp. 8-9.
 Elizabeth Emery, “Medievalism and the Middle Ages,” Studies in Medievalism 17 (2009): 77-85.
 Stacy L. Smith, Marc Choueiti, and Katherine Pieper, “Media, Diversity, and Social Change Initiative,” Institute for Diversity and Empowerment at Annenberg (Los Angeles: University of Southern California, 2016), 1-25.
 Clare A. Simmons, “Romantic Medievalism,” in The Cambridge Companion to Medievalism, ed. Louise D’Arcens (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2016), 103-118; Richard Utz, “Academic Medievalism and Nationalism,” in The Cambridge Companion to Medievalism, ed. Louise D’Arcens (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2016), 119-134.
 For a recent edition of the trial transcripts, see Daniel Hobbins, ed., trans., The Trial of Joan of Arc (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2005).
 See, for examples, Sarah Hibberd, “Marianne: Mystic or Madwoman? Representations of Jeanne d’Arc on the Parisian Stage in the 1820s,” Prose Studies 23, no. 2 (2000): 87-98; Eric Jennings, “‘Reinventing Jeanne’: The Iconology of Joan of Arc in Vichy Schoolbooks, 1940-44,” Journal of Contemporary History 29, no. 4 (1994): 711-34; Neil McWilliam, “Conflicting Manifestations: Parisian Commemoration of Joan of Arc and Etienne Dolet in the Early Third Republic,” French Historical Studies 27, no. 2 (2004): 381-418.
 David John Williams, “Medieval Movies: A Filmography,” Film and History 29, nos. 1-2 (1999): 20-32. This list, however, is only up to date until 1996.
 Patrick Duff, “Joan the Woman (1916),” Medieval Hollywood, ed. Esther Liberman Cuenca, https://medievalhollywood.ace.fordham.edu/items/show/197 (accessed 27 February 2020).
 Raymond Hinds, “Joan of Arc vs. John of Arc: Because Joan was the Fairer Sex,” History of the Middle Ages in Popular Culture: A Magazine, https://medievalism.hcommons.org/literature/joan-of-arc-vs-john-of-arc-because-joan-was-the-fairer-sex/ (accessed 27 February 2020).
 Rachel Julian, “The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928),” Medieval Hollywood, ed. Esther Liberman Cuenca, https://medievalhollywood.ace.fordham.edu/collections/show/4 (accessed 27 February 2020).
 Andrew B.R. Elliott, Medievalism, Politics and Mass Media: Appropriating the Middle Ages in the Twenty-First Century (Cambridge: D.S. Brewer, 2017), 1-5.
 Peter Davies, “The Front National and Catholicism: From intégrisme to Joan of Arc and Clovis,” Religion Compass 4, no. 9 (2010): 583.
 “Le Pen lays flowers at Joan of Arc statue in far-right tradition,” Associated Press Archive, May 1, 2018, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MCkH5YnzcKQ (accessed 27 February 2020). English transcript of Marine Le Pen’s comments are found at “France Le Pen,” Associated Press Archive, May 1, 2018, http://www.aparchive.com/metadata/youtube/6d9fbb7ac437dd0281d657c1c45d4b8b (accessed 27 February 2020).
 A phenomenon I call “historical malapropism.” See Esther Liberman Cuenca, “Historical Malapropism and the Medieval Blood Libel in American Politics,” Studies in Medievalism 29 (2020): 3-12.
 Archibald Constable, ed., trans., A History of Greater Britain (Edinburgh: University Press for the Scottish Historical Society, 1892), 204.
 Patrick Donahue, “Braveheart (1995),” Medieval Hollywood, ed. Esther Liberman Cuenca, https://medievalhollywood.ace.fordham.edu/collections/show/28 (accessed 27 February 2020).
 Ewen MacAskill, “Salmond has taken Scottish nationalists from margins to independence vote,” The Guardian, September 12, 2014, https://www.theguardian.com/politics/2014/sep/12/salmond-scottish-nationalists-snp-margins-independence-vote (accessed 27 February 2020).
 “‘Braveheart’ Writer ‘Heartbroken’ Over Scottish Referendum,” NPR: All Things Considered, September 19, 2014, https://www.npr.org/2014/09/19/349908346/braveheart-writer-laments-with-other-scottish-independence-supporters (accessed 27 February 2020).
 Annette Kreutziger-Herr, “Imagining Medieval Music: A Short History,” Studies in Medievalism 14 (2005): 81–109.
 John M. Ganim, “Medievalism and Architecture,” in The Cambridge Companion to Medievalism, ed. Louise D’Arcens (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2016), 29-44.
 Stuart Jeffries, “Patriot games: how toxic is the England flag today?” The Guardian, November 26, 2014, https://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2014/nov/26/patriot-games-battle-for-flag-of-st-george-english-identity (accessed 27 February 2020). See also Elliott, Medievalism, Politics and Mass Media, 155-182.
 Adam Kożuchowski, “The Devil Wears White: Teutonic Knights and the Problem of Evil in Polish Historiography,” East Central Europe 46, no. 1 (2019), 135-55; Stefan Goebel, The Great War and Medieval Memory: War, Remembrance and Medievalism in Britain and Germany, 1914-1940 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007), 134-5.
 Josephine Livingstone, “Racism, Medievalism, and the White Supremacists of Charlottesville,” The New Republic, August 15, 2017, https://newrepublic.com/article/144320/racism-medievalism-white-supremacists-charlottesville (accessed 27 February 2020).
 Nicholas L. Paul, “Modern Intolerance and the Medieval Crusades,” in Whose Middle Ages?: Teachable Moments for an Ill-Used Past, eds. Andrew Albin, Mary C. Erler, Thomas O’Donnell, Nicholas L. Paul and Nina Rowe (New York: Fordham University Press, 2019), 3-12.
Photo: La statue dorée de Sainte Jeanne d’Arc sur la rue de Rivoli à Paris, France. Sculptée par Emmanuel Frémiet en 1864
Published on June 3, 2020.