- The Middle Ages in Children’s Literature by Clare Bradford
In The Middle Ages in Children’s Literature, Clare Bradford analyzes how the Middle Ages is depicted in children’s literature, but she more specifically situates her study within the field of medievalism, which analyzes how post-medieval texts respond to and use medieval culture. Bradford’s particular interest is in how medievalist texts for children create an experience of enchantment, but also how these stories can become a way to explore contemporary social issues.
Each of the seven chapters deftly uses a different critical approach. Chapter 1 (“Thinking about the Middle Ages”) builds on the connection between post-modern historiography and literary theory. Bradford looks to Alan Robinson and how he has explored texts that “narrate the past” (historical fiction or fantasy) and how they use a present past where “the imaginings of the past [are] shaped in relation to the present” (26). In this chapter, Bradford analyzes a selection of picture books and young adult novels to develop her larger argument that medievalist texts are able to engage contemporary social issues in a way that is less threatening because of the act of distancing created by the historical setting. Bradford sees Robert Munsch and Michael Martchenko’s The Paper Bag Princess (1980), Martin Baynton’s Jane and the Dragon (1988), and Karen Cushman’s Catherine, Called Birdy (1994) exploring a feminist perspective and challenging traditional gender roles (24). In Kevin Crossley-Holland’s Gatty’s Tale (2006), the medieval setting helps to foster a greater appreciation of religious and cultural diversity. Bradford also importantly underscores that the narrative value of the depiction of the Middle Ages in children’s literature is not predicated on a certain level of historical detail and accuracy, but rather in a recognition that the Middle Ages exists as a conceptual idea that is constantly reinvented and reimagined.
In chapter 2 (“Temporality and the Medieval”), Bradford uses Paul Ricoeur’s theory of time as a narrative construct to provide a framework for her analysis of temporality in medievalist texts for children. Bradford suggests that stories which are defined by a strong sense of time tend to cross the boundaries of traditional genre categories, which can be seen in gothic-inspired fantasy, realism and post-disaster fiction, and time travel novels that merge historical realism and fantasy. In this chapter Bradford examines approximately ten different young adult novels and one videogame. Her work is enriched by [End Page 347] these multiple examples, but the chapter is only twenty pages long, and there is a sense that longer discussions of fewer works might have strengthened her argument.
In chapter 3 (“Spatiality and the Medieval”), Bradford turns to the work of Foucault and notes the difficulty of separating the concepts time and place. She centers her analysis of spatiality around the figure of the manor house, which is frequently used as a way to invoke a medievalist (and European) sense of history. Bradford provides a strong reading of Edith Nesbit’s The Wouldbegoods (1901), in which she sees the manor house as a place of refuge and imagination for the children. She notes that the house itself, which has been rebuilt and repurposed many times over the centuries, reflects not only the medievalist narrative impulse within the story proper, but also its meta-textual function (64–65).
Bradford also observes that within gothic romances, the physical medieval setting (castles and dungeons and the like) are used to reflect the psychological turmoil of the protagonists (63), which she sees played out in Walt Disney’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1996). While the psychological dimension of gothic fiction has been often discussed in critical scholarship, Bradford more insightfully argues that in Robert Westall’s Ghost Abbey (1988) the medieval abbey becomes a character within the story that represents the stability and the wild unpredictability of the past; at the same that the abbey symbolizes the emotional pain of the Adams family.
Bradford draws on recent work in disability studies in chapter 4 (“Disabilities in Medievalist Fiction”). She notes...