Rain, Steam, Speed—and Turrets: How Green is Medievalism?

David Matthews (Senior Lecturer, English literature at the University of Manchester) transported us back to a strangely hyphenated time where huffing mid-nineteenth century trains passed castellated towers of a newly “medieval” landscape in “Rain, Steam, Speed – and Turrets: How Green is Medievalism?” In his paper he troubled nostalgia for a more authentic past that created strange ripples and dislocations in early industrial Manchester.

Traditionally, medievalism in its major phase from the 1840s to the present day is seen as having an innate eco-friendly impulse. In this narrative, medievalism arises in the context of the industrial revolution and usually in reaction against it, naturally espousing a green ethic against industrialism and technology. This can be connected to the parallel history of romanticism, which Katy Castellano traces back to Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France and Burke’s call for practices which deliver ‘an habitation over a ruin’. In the twentieth century, this initial impulse is only strengthened, especially with the rise of green ecology from the 1960s, which coincides with fresh impetus for medievalism. Postmodern medievalisms, consequently, very often take the form of an explicit return to a medievalised agrarianism. This can be seen in medievalist fantasy (the anti-industrial world of Tolkien’s Middle Earth, most obviously, with its espousal of a benign medievalist feudalism in the face of incipient industrial modernity). But it can also be seen in postmodern practical applications of medievalism, most particularly in the case of present-day medievalist communes, such as that at the Crossroads Medieval Village Collective in New South Wales, Australia, or the village being constructed by ‘Les Fous de la Sogne’ near Aujac in the Cevennes in southern France (and in medievalist re-enactment more generally).

In this paper I want to explore, first, whether this connection is as strong as it is often portrayed as being. It could be countered, for example, that the leaders of the industrial revolution quickly and lastingly co-opted medievalism. The city in which I now work, Manchester, is well known as the cradle of the industrial revolution; it can also be regarded as one of the first highly medievalised urban centres of nineteenth-century Britain, as the bourgeois mercantile class adopted the neo-gothic style (most spectacularly in the town hall opened in 1876). In this role medievalism was less the expression of agrarian nostalgia than the bold new face of capitalist trade, reimagined in specifically medieval guise (the town hall’s iconography played up a vision of the Hanseatic League, for example). I examine in particular the place of medievalism in industry and engineering. While JMW Turner’s famous 1844 painting, ‘Rain, Steam, and Speed—the Great Western Railway’, celebrates the railway in a distinctly modern idiom, in the northern heartland of railway technology the idiom was often more obviously backward looking. Stations, tunnels and bridges were often constructed in neo-gothic style, and the influence of this form (in defiance of some conventional histories of neo-gothic) continued well into the twentieth century, in such imposing monuments as the Derwent Dam in Derbyshire. This linkage between a medievalist architectural idiom and cutting-edge technologies brings to mind a dictum of Adorno’s, who suggests that ‘[s]o long as progress, deformed by utilitarianism, does violence to the surface of the earth, it will be impossible–in spite of all proof to the contrary–completely to counter the perception that what antedates the trend is in its backwardness better and more humane.’

With these things in mind I re-examine how workable the connection between nature and medievalism really is: are medievalism and nature such a natural pair? Actual medieval practices in relation to the agricultural environment and natural spaces were in fact highly interventionist and managerial. In medieval Britain, for example, woodland was not simply natural but was intensively managed; medieval monastic foundations were often profoundly transformative of the land they worked rather than in harmony with ‘the land’ or ‘nature.’ What, finally, are the lessons of medievalism for questions of ‘oecology’? Does present-day medievalism offer any real answers, or is it inherently bound by its own nostalgic framework, its own rootedness not in a sense of a medieval past, but in reaction to an industrial present?

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