People often wonder what relevance Medieval Studies has in today’s world- or at least they ask me what I plan on doing with a degree in Medieval Architectural History. I think for many the Middle Ages seems like a faraway place that has little influence on their everyday reality. And yet, if you look for it, it’s there in some appropriated and reinterpreted fashion.
Why do Vikings make an appearance in my home through Capital One commercials? And why choose Vikings to sell credit cards anyway? Why do several of Lehigh’s academic buildings recall the Ye Olde- what is the legacy of the style? When one thinks of dark deeds, do they usually occur on a dark and stormy night, set against the backdrop of a castle or ruined cathedral? Why is the imagery so evocative? And of course, there is the noble King Arthur & the dream of Camelot or the outlaw hero Robin Hood, whose story was lately retold in the Ridley Scott/Russell Crowe action flick. There are the tales from our childhood: fairy tales, folk tales, Harry Potter, and Disney princesses- the role of Snow White will be reprised by K.Stew in 2012. How many of us geek out to Monty Python and the Holy Grail, J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy (books, movies, action figures, or Elvish), or most recently HBO’s adaption of George R.R. Martin’s Game of Thrones?
Linderman Library’s 2011 winter exhibit is entitled Being Medieval. The purpose of the exhibit is to question what informs our understanding of the Middle Ages and the idea of Medieval through a juxtaposition of Lehigh University’s medieval and renaissance manuscript collection with later artistic and literary interpretations from the last three hundred years. The manuscripts were last displayed in 1970 by John C. Hirsch, currently at Georgetown University. Professor Hirsch researched and wrote an exhibit catalogue entitled Western Manuscripts of the Twelfth through the Sixteenth Centuries in Lehigh University Libraries: A Guide to the Exhibition. His catalogue remains the authority on Lehigh University Library’s manuscripts and will be included in the online exhibit.
The ground floor exhibit was inspired by Marcus Bull’s work, Thinking Medieval: An Introduction to the Study of the Middle Ages (New York, NY: Plagrave Macmillian, 2005) and a class I took as an undergrad many moons ago at the University of Missouri. According to Professor Bull, “To ‘think medieval’, in other words, is to ponder what the words ‘Middle Ages’ and ‘medieval’ have come to mean beyond the academic context. What associations do these terms trigger, and why?” (Bull, Thinking Medieval, 1). He begins his treatise with a discussion of Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction (1994). He wonders why Tarantino chose to use the phrase, I’m gonna git medieval on your ass!, to describe the violent torture about to be undertaken in the film (Bull, Thinking Medieval, 10-12). The other source of inspiration was an interdisciplinary course shared between English and Art History that examined the changing artistic illustrations of Sir Thomas Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur and Dante’s Inferno. At the time of the course, I was not yet a medievalist; however, the class has always stuck with me and was one of the best classes I took as an undergrad. We examined these images from the Early Modern Period through the Late 2oth century not simply as a reflection of the texts themselves but also situated in the artistic and cultural periods of the artists. I’ve assembled a few of them for you in the cases outside Lucy’s cafe.
It begs the question why are certain stories told again and again- why do they continue to resonate with us? The exhibit does not attempt to answer these questions; however, the artifacts assembled allow you to ponder both the questions raised and your own construction of the Middle Ages. The exhibit will run between November 15, 2011 and February 24, 2012 and will give our community the chance to compare the authentic Ye Olde with later interpretations and inspirations of the Medieval. Information about tours will be forthcoming.