Trigg and Prendergast, Affective Medievalism

Affective Medievalism is a kind of manifesto for medieval studies and medievalism studies. It begins with a paradox pointed out by Paul Strohm and others about medievalism: attempts to get at the “real” medieval will always fail. If this is true, and this book starts from the premise that it is, what is the point of studying the medieval period? More to the point, if the “medieval” is as much a construction as post-medieval interpretations of the medieval, then what is the difference between medievalism and medieval studies?

Trigg and Prendergast end not by arguing that there is not one, but rather that differences that do exist between the two fields are not enough to justify separating them from each other in the way they have been. They share what the authors call a discontent, sometimes with the present moment, and sometimes with the inability to “touch” (borrowing from Carolyn Dinshaw) another time completely. If medievalism is the former (broadly speaking) and medieval studies is the latter, both fields have more in common than they do differences.

The first chapter takes issue with the way the medievalist is usually positioned as the expert on the medieval period, who can either “touch” the medieval or reimagine it. This positions the medieval period as a static and finite place which people can return to by interacting with physical objects and returning to the stable “place” of the medieval. As the authors argue, this ignores the ability of those in the medieval period to imagine their own futures or practice medievalism themselves. One example they use of this medieval capacity to imagine pasts is Sir Orfeo, specifically the sections in the poem about its Breton origins and the name of Traciens. This capacity, which they call “temporal switching”, testifies that medieval people were frequently engaged in new ways of imagining time that are flexible and overlapping. (This chapter also includes Derek Pearsall’s commentary that Sir Orfeo is not about Christian allegories, but that “the very topic of the poem is ‘unknowableness'” (40).)

The book concludes by returning to the question of why medievalists should study a period that is a facsimile of itself, a copy of a copy. Invoking Benjamin, they argue that neomedieval reproductions are just as worthy of study as the “original”, which is, in fact, an original copy. Our discontent with this insufficiency can be an opportunity for greater collaboration, and critiquing the field more effectively.