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  • Consuming the Past: The Medieval Revival in Fin-de-siècle France
Emery, Elizabeth, and Laura Morowitz. Consuming the Past: The Medieval Revival in Fin-de-siècle France. Aldershot: Ashgate, 2003. Pp. xii + 295. ISBN 0754603199.

The Middle Ages have never gone away, but at certain times they have been a focus of greater attention, either from scholars, or from the mass of the population. One such period of "revival" was the French late nineteenth century. Many Anglophone readers will be more familiar with its equivalents in Victorian England and will approach Emery and Morowitz's study from the point of view of making a comparison. This is precisely what the book itself does not set itself to do. The authors' desire is to examine culture in France from c. 1870 to c. 1905 on its own terms. Developments in the rest of Europe are not treated, and nor, save for a few paragraphs is the "other" medieval revival in nineteenth-century France, that of the early part of the century. Yet it was this period of romanticism and its aftermath that provided what the authors identify as the two competing paradigms of the later revival. The first can be considered in the light of Chateaubriand's Le Génie du Christianisme (1802) which "evoked the Middle Ages as a peaceful time in which a naïve but powerful faith controlled the lives of the worshippers. One of the aims of his book was to prove that the fine arts flourished because of Christianity" (17). The other paradigm is seen as stemming from Hugo's Notre-Dame de Paris (1831), which focussed on the people of the city of Paris: "paradoxically, he envisioned the cathedral, one of the most sacred of places, as a symbol of freedom from the constraints of religion" (17).

The ongoing importance of these two literary works signals something very significant to us. Despite the rising demand during the nineteenth century for "authentic knowledge" about the Middle Ages derived from scholarship the reasons behind the popular revival lay not in academic investigation, but in the contemporary usefulness of the Middle Ages as a popular concept. To some extent, one can argue that the full development of scholarly investigation helped to bring about the end of the revival. For what the historians found was by no means what the people of the late nineteenth century were necessarily expecting them to find. The potential of the Middle Ages as a basis for revivalism was partly derived from popular ignorance about its true nature. The point was that the Middle Ages could be imagined in ways that made it useful to contemporary society.

It is Emery and Morowitz's contention that the Middle Ages was needed in late nineteenth-century France to a much greater extent than it had been earlier in the century. In the early nineteenth century the Middle Ages appealed most to those who were nostalgic for the one-time power of the Catholic Church in France. Medievalism was, therefore, not simply a romantic, but also a reactionary phenomenon. A number of enthusiasts kept interest in the Middle Ages going through the middle of the century, but it was the Franco-Prussian war that led to the dramatic need for a popular appreciation of the Middle Ages. To some extent this might appear paradoxical. After all, revolutionary France had championed republican classicism, and the gothic past could popularly be foisted off as a barbaric and Germanic cultural hang-over. However, defeat in the [End Page 395] Franco-Prussian war led to a period of intense introspection in which the roots of France as a nation came under close scrutiny.

The problem was that France had previously been understood as being the product of a Gallo-Roman population onto which had been grafted a Germanic (Frankish) aristocracy. In order for society to strengthen and unite these elements had to be somehow unified. Medievalist imaginings could achieve this difficult feat. The essence of France could be seen to have been formed in the medieval period. The cathedrals and Christian monuments of France could be seen by religious and secular viewpoints alike as glorious monuments of a uniquely French artistic genius. This aspect of the revival partly mirrors the moralising attitudes of many British Revivalists who saw in Gothic architecture a system illustrative of personal and national virtue. On the other hand, the toils of the builders of cathedrals could be seen as expressive of collective values such that, as with Hugo, the religious past could become reconciled with the spirit of republicanism.

The volume begins by examining the historical context before moving into a very interesting discussion of the impact of medieval art. Perhaps the most striking argument here is that medieval art was not simply collected, reproduced and photographed, but it was also a strong influence on the development of the artistic avant-garde. In Britain we might think of Pre-Raphaelitism and the Arts and Crafts movement; for fin-de-siècle France, we need to think about symbolism. A powerful argument is made for the way in which the symbolists were inspired by medieval art in their quest to produce works which were authentic and meaningful in comparison with the products of mass-production. In other words, the status of medieval images as precious objects leant cultural prestige to paintings and other art work's influenced by their style. Flattened and simplified forms, as seen in Maurice Denis', Montée au Calvaire (1889), provided a way for art to become dematerialised and to acquire a quasi-religious aura of mystique (53). This helped its market value no end.

That, however, led to one of the difficulties that stood in the way of a wider medieval revival. If artists wished to look back to a pre-modern age of hand-craftsmanship as a way of validating their activity in an age of mass reproduction, their efforts nevertheless had to be sold in a capitalist market, rather than being made for patrons, as had been overwhelmingly the case in the Middle Ages themselves. Therefore, the desire of Huysmans and others to theatrically retreat to quasi-monastic houses where they could produce "pure" art was a questionable way of producing works which were truly "authentic" (the pleasures and hypocrisies of this aspect of the Gothic revival could be further examined through the concept of decadence, but this is not a major concern of our authors).

They appear to have been spurred to the greatest enthusiasm by the Victor Hugo side of medievalism in France which they see as having possessed a degree of true authenticity in terms of actively animating contemporary society in a way that participated in the development of mass consumption without pretending it was doing anything of the sort. Our authors examine the role of domestic decoration, cafes and cabarets, but are perhaps at their most vibrant when examining popular pilgrimages and, above, all, popular attendance at medieval exhibitions in Paris which recreated whole medieval streets. Examining of a series of events from the 1898 Feast of Fools, to Paris en 1400 and the Le Vieux Paris which were huge crowd-pullers at the Exposition [End Page 396] Universelle (1900), Amery and Morowitz talk of these as being "celebratory" (205). They argue that visitors to these shows – like participants in the Catholic Mass, but unlike those who objectified art objects in galleries – had a complex relationship with the spectacles such that these possessed "inner spirit" because they involved performances that that echoed those of the medieval past (205). This is a very interesting argument, although it begs some important questions about the role of the designers of these displays as opposed to the way in they were inhabited by visitors. Both our authors and many in the nineteenth century were looking for an "inner spirit" of the Middle Ages which could provide a sense of "depth" to what otherwise might simply appear to be another decorative fad. That popular sense of romantic longing for an authenticity can make the period an object of fascination and it also infuses, almost despite of the authors' best intentions, this fascinating study of reception.

Dominic Janes
Birkbeck College, University of London

Additional Information

ISSN
1536-0172
Print ISSN
0146-7891
Launched on MUSE
2006-09-27
Open Access
No
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