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British Medievalism: A Subject Guide

Collection Highlights: Primary Resources

Medieval themes were popular in poetry, literature, and book illustration from the late nineteenth through the first two decades of the twentieth centuries. The Rare Book and Special Collections Division has examples of some of the most popular figures that influenced book design, book illustration, poetry, literature, and broader eras such as the "Golden Age of Illustration," as well as the Arts and Crafts and Aesthetic movements.

Primary Resources in Print

Portrait of Tennyson. New York, 1888. Library of Congress Prints & Photographs Division.

The Rare Book and Special Collections Division at the Library is the custodial home for more than 1 million items. Many of the special collections and rare books in the vaults draw inspiration from medieval history in some way. The special collections highlighted in this guide are selected as being representative of the kinds of materials housed in the division. This guide is not exhaustive.

Some of the most popular writers in both poetry and literature at the end of the nineteenth century were returning to medieval sources. Alfred, Lord Tennyson's poem called Idyls of the King was based largely on Sir Thomas Malory's Le Morte de Arthur and the Mabinogion, which are both medieval sources. Similarly, his poem The Lady of Shalott was based on"La Damigella di Scalot," which is the eighty-fourth tale of an anonymous thirteenth-century Italian source known as Il Novellino or, Le ciento novelle antike (one hundred ancient tales).

While Tennyson was influenced by poetry and tales of the Middle Ages, Thomas Carlyle (1795-1881) looked back to medieval chronicle literature (early histories) with an eye toward topics of social organization, leadership, and political science. Carlyle's novel Past and Present (1843) was inspired by a twelfth-century chronicle known as The Chronicle of the Abbey of St. Edmunds. In his novel, Carlyle contrasts the lives of Victorian workers in a utilitarian society with the lives of monks during the twelfth-century. The latter, he finds, operated in a more value-based society from which his own era might benefit.

Tennyson and Carlyle were influenced by the writings of the Middle Ages, but the English art critic John Ruskin (1819-1900) was particularly influenced by medieval architecture, specifically Gothic Architecture. In Ruskin's treatise The Stones of Venice, Ruskin describes three styles of architecture, but he claims that Gothic architecture is the ideal architectural expression. Several years later, William Morris and the Kelmscott Press printed a chapter from this work titled, The Nature of the Gothic (1892).

The sleeping beauty. Illustrated by Arthur Rackham. Philadelphia : Lippincott ; London : Heinemann, [1920]. Library of Congress Rare Book and Special Collections Division.

Broadly speaking, Victorian literary society and popular reading culture had an interest in poetic plays, tales, fables, folklore, romances, and myths. This cultural enthusiasm had an enormous impact on the production of children's literature in the age of industry, which was an economically formative time for children's literature as a genre. Technical advances in printing techniques, such as chromolithography, helped to usher-in what has become known as the "Golden Age" of illustration in children's literature.

The medievalisms incorporated into the presentation of many of these tales and their accompanying illustrations remained a strong cultural influence through the twentieth century. Even figures associated with contemporary children's media, such as Walt Disney, can be thought of as inheriting Victorian medievalizing tropes.

Due to the depth and complexity of historic children's media collections at the Library of Congress, researchers who are interested in studying medievalism in children's literature should contact the Reference Staff using the Ask-A-Librarian service before requesting an appointment.

Stories from Hans Andersen Illustrated by Edmund Dulac. London : Hodder & Stoughton, [c1911]. World Digital Library.

Post Script

Researchers should be aware that serialized literature, which was enormously important during this period of book history, can be found in several different custodial divisions within the Library of Congress.