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British Medievalism: A Subject Guide

This guide provides information about collections items and resources for studying the medieval revival in Victorian England (1837-1901) and the first three decades of the twentieth century.


This guide provides background context and resources for researchers who are enthusiastic about the art and culture of the Middle Ages, and who want to undertake a project that can be researched in modern English. Many of the popular assumptions about life in the Middle Ages originate from modern sources rather than from actual medieval texts. This guide provides information about collection items from the nineteenth and twentieth centuries that reference the Middle Ages and inform the way that contemporary culture views medieval European society.

Carol M. Highsmith, photographer. North Reading Room, west wall. Detail of mural by Ezra Winter illustrating the characters in the Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer. Library of Congress John Adams Building, Washington, D.C.. 2007. Library of Congress Prints & Photographs Division.
William Morris, The Earthly Paradise. Hammersmith : Kelmscott Press, 1896-1897. Library of Congress Rare Book and Special Collections Division.

Forget six counties overhung with smoke.
Forget the snorting steam and piston stroke,
Forget the spreading of the hideous town;
Think rather of the pack-horse on the down,
And dream of London, small, and white, and clean,
The clear Thames bordered by its gardens green;
Think, that below bridge the green lapping waves
Smite some few keels that bear Levantine staves,
Cut from the yew wood on the burnt-up hill,
And pointed jars that Greek hands toiled to fill,
And treasured scanty spice from some far sea,
Florence gold cloth, and Ypres napery,
And cloth of Bruges, and hogsheads of Guienne;
While nigh thronged wharf Geoffrey Chaucer's pen
Moves over bills of lading--mid such times
Shall dwell the hollow puppets of my rhymes.
- William Morris, The Earthly Paradise

"Medievalism" is the term used to describe a recasting of medieval-inspired cultural products and ideas. Studying the life of the Middle Ages beyond its own time is important historical work. Much of what the twenty-first century considers "medieval" is actually the product of Victorian medievalism that has been handed down through fairy-tales, opera, theater, neo-gothic architecture, painting, and book production.

Industrial cities in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries were crowded, noisy, and polluted. Many artists, poets, and authors turned to nature and to traditional myths as an animistic refuge from the new social reliance upon unfeeling machines. Seeking escape from the seemingly soulless nature of industrial society, many influential authors and artists looked back to the Middle Ages for inspiration. Looking at history through coal-smoke lenses, these artists saw the past as beautifully primitive, unspoiled, inspired, and idyllic. Many artistic creations--such as the famous Tower Bridge in London--were fashioned to look like idealized versions of objects (such as castles) from the Middle Ages. In practice, however, many of these artistic creations bore only a slight resemblance to their actual historical counterparts.

This guide highlights the wealth of resources available in the Rare Book and Special Collections Division relating to medievalism, as well as secondary sources and resources available through the Library's general collections and electronic resources.

About the Rare Book & Special Collections Reading Room

The unique materials of the Rare Book and Special Collections Division, now totaling over 1 million items, include books, broadsides, pamphlets, theater playbills, prints, posters, photographs, and medieval and Renaissance manuscripts. At the center is Thomas Jefferson's book collection, which was sold to Congress in 1815. The Rare Book & Special Collections Reading Room is modeled after Philadelphia's Independence Hall. This room is home to the divisional catalogs, reference collection, and reference staff. Collections are stored in temperature and humidity controlled vaults.