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Journal of Medieval and Early Modern Studies 30.3 (2000) 519-545

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From Holy War to Border Skirmish:
The Colonial Chivalry of Sydney's First Professors

Louise D'Arcens
University of Wollongong
New South Wales, Australia

. . . Enid, Elaine, and Arthur . . . Geraint, Launcelot, Vivien, and Guinevere . . . [e]ach has a separate and living type, familiar to our daily observation, suffering, repenting, in the nineteenth century, and the unpoetical streets of Sydney, just as they did long ages ago in the wild forests of Devon, or the romantic castle of Astolat, in the glittering hall of Camelot, or the cloistered cell of Almesbury.

--John Woolley, Professor, University of Sydney 1

Medievalism and Postcolonialism

Launcelot gallops through bush land, while the dead Elaine floats inland from the harbor up the Parramatta River . . . the Reverend John Woolley's image of latter-day Arthurians populating the dusty carriageways of colonial Sydney arrests us with both its pathos and its almost comic incongruity. Conjured in the high summer of 1860 for the edification of the Darling Point Mutual Improvement Association, this romanticized picture of Sydney's "unpoetical streets," along with other medievalist images offered by Woolley, warrants attention on several counts. To begin with, it offers a remarkable example of the adaptation of Victorian popular medievalism to early Australia--an adaptation which, as I wish to argue, was not only mediated by the colonizing process, but in fact became crucial to the way in which this process was represented in Sydney's intellectual circles in the nineteenth century.

The medievalized image of Sydney cited above is also significant for issuing from the imagination of Australia's first tertiary-level teacher of med-ieval languages, literature, and history. Reverend John Woolley, foundational [End Page 519] Professor of Classics at the University of Sydney from 1852 to 1864, is a crucial figure in any consideration of medievalism in early Australia, because his dual function as professor and public intellectual provides an important connection between popular and institutional treatments of the Middle Ages. It is among Woolley and his colleagues at the University of Sydney that we find medievalist discourse articulated in the colony. 2 The following discussion explores the way in which medievalist motifs contributed to the articulation by Sydney's first professors of a particular--and particularly masculine--colonial identity.

A vast corpus of scholarship examining popular medievalism in the nineteenth century has been emerging for some time out of the field of Victorian studies, with texts such as Alice Chandler's A Dream of Order now a landmark study on the subject. 3 These Victorianist accounts have, moreover, been supplemented by medievalists since 1979 in the valuable interdisciplinary forum "Studies in Medievalism" initiated by Leslie Workman. More recently still, the field of medieval studies has witnessed the growth of another complementary strain of scholarship critically evaluating the development of medieval studies as an academic discipline from the late eight-eenth century well into the twentieth. Though Workman as recently as 1992 observed medieval scholars' "general indifference" to medievalism as being worthy of scholarly attention, I take his more recent avowal that he and his coeditors "have progressively abandoned our view of medievalism as modestly ancillary to medieval studies" as indicating that medievalism has become a serious area of study for medievalists, as is evident in much recent work produced by medieval scholars. 4

Of the scholarship produced within both medieval and Victorian studies, a substantial proportion has been devoted to exploring the role of medievalism in the formulation of cultural, political, and national identities not only in Europe and Britain, but also in North America. 5 Charles Dellheim has described Victorian medievalism as a "symbolic language" that formed part of a broader "quest for cultural orientation" in the unfamiliar world of burgeoning industrialization. Indeed, Dellheim situates the quest for identity at the heart of all nineteenth-century medievalist practice: "Medievalism . . . was nothing if not a plastic language. What unites the diverse uses of medieval symbols is that they may all be seen as part of a...


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pp. 519-545
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Archived 2004
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