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The Anachronic Middle Ages: Public Art, Cultural Memory, and the Medievalist Imagination

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapter

Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationStudies in Medievalism XXV
Subtitle of host publicationMedievalism and Modernity
EditorsKarl Fugelso
PublisherBoydell & Brewer
ISBN (Electronic)9781782047094
Publication statusPublished - 2016

Publication series

NameStudies in Medievalism
PublisherBoydell & Brewer

King's Authors


Memory projects itself toward the future, and it constitutes the presence of the present.

In 1875 Dante Gabriel Rossetti wrote to Ford Madox Brown with an idea for a painting. His suggestion was blunt and enthusiastic: “I really think you ought to paint Chaucer beating a Franciscan friar in Fleet Street.” Rossetti explained to Brown that the idea originated from Charles Lamb, who suggested the subject to Benjamin Haydon in 1827. Lamb himself got the idea from Thomas Speght's 1598 edition of the works of Chaucer, and his letter to Haydon quotes Speght's Life of the poet. The records on which Speght based his report, and which he did not claim to have personally seen, are now lost. Regrettably, although Chaucer was a favorite subject of many nineteenth-century artists, neither Brown nor Haydon made the painting and neither Lamb nor Rossetti went into any detail as to exactly why they were attracted to the idea. As Velma Richmond suggests, beyond the “comic potential” of the scene, part of its attraction was surely the contemporary value of presenting Chaucer as an anti-clerical proto-Protestant. The idea of Chaucer beating a friar in Fleet Street appealed to Rossetti and Lamb because it transformed the poet into an anachronism. It proved that Chaucer really was a precursor to the moderns, even if he lived in the Middle Ages, as it refashioned the past in the image of the present.

The story of Chaucer and the friar on Fleet Street is, as Guy Geltner writes, “probably apocryphal” and likely speaks more eloquently about how sixteenth-century medieval studies intersected with religious and cultural debates than Chaucer's life. But it and the paintings never painted by Brown and Haydon highlight the vicissitudes of modern understandings of medieval culture and how blurred the lines between creative and scholarly practice can become. The historical record is partial, provisional, and situated, and the images of the past it creates are necessarily unstable, shifting according to disciplinary trends, historical discoveries, and creative interventions. As Ruth Evans puts it, “The discipline of medieval studies is not external to the archive of the past that it studies: the ‘Middle Ages’.

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