[(essay date 2009) In the following essay, Bordone analyzes the varying historical interpretations of the Middle Ages, arguing that chivalry is the “dominant figure” of contemporary interpretation because it has been inherited from a “nineteenth century romantic vision.” Bordone further traces the roots of the nineteenth-century interpretation to the Renaissance, which effected the transformation of the “knight into a gentleman.”]
1. The Perception of the Middle Ages in Today’s World
The capacity which the Middle Ages has consistently shown to re-invent itself over the centuries, going well beyond the limits of academia to embrace many expressions of Western society, is historically unique. A re-worked Middle Ages is, in fact, an ever-present feature of our world and cultural-anthropological horizons to the extent that the reasons for its existence are sometimes difficult not only to interpret but even to determine so rooted are they in our patrimony of widely held pre-conceptions. In other words, it is to appeal to the “unconscious Middle Ages” in each and every one of us that, for example, that advertisers consistently resort to direct and de-contextualised medieval symbols to promote a product.1
There is also today, however, a consciously promoted media Middle Ages in popular literature, comics, films and television consisting of adventure stories set in the Middle Ages and, as such, of guaranteed public success. That these adventures allow us to escape into an alternative world where we project needs and desires frustrated in modern life is too obvious to require supporting evidence. Adventure is clearly not only medieval: from the western genre to the “archaeological” escapade Indiana Jones style, to mention only two, the mechanisms of the stories follow the same dynamic of action, suspense and cathartic ending. But there is no doubt that the medieval adventure has something extra, linked to its setting in a far-off time which does not, however, feel alien (unlike ancient Rome, for example, which meets with very limited popular success) and allows us to switch off from our everyday lives but not from its emotions, thanks to pre-conceptions of the Middle Ages, which appear even in the symbols of advertising.
The great success in France and abroad of the comic book saga Les Tours de Bois-Maury, eleven volumes published between 1984 and 1998 in which the scriptwriter and illustrator Hermann (full name Hermann Huppert) recounts the eleventh to twelfth century adventures of the knight Aymar de Bois-Maury and his squire would otherwise be inexplicable. The illustrations are realistic and the historical reconstruction seems accurate. In Hermann’s wake, there was a whole series of comic book stories filled with fairytale characters sometimes interacting with real historical figures portrayed with singular faithfulness to historical sources. We are a long way from the faux-medieval pastiches of Prince Valiant, the Arthurian knight of Hal Foster’s comics, which have been so successful since the 1930s but, despite a certain iconographical and historiographical modernisation of the contemporary French comic strip and its imitators, the Middle Ages evoked by the bandes dessinées has remained essentially...