Monday, August 13, 2012

Merry Ole England Reborn, Part I: The Revolution is Over

Merry Ole England Reborn: How the Victorians Made the Middle Ages Cool Again

By J.T.M. Griffin

            Those of you who know me personally may know that I’m involved in several communities, including San Antonio Neo-Victorian Association, my city’s premier club for steampunks (Victorian science fiction enthusiasts… or, people who use Jules Verne as a pretext to wear top hats and brass goggles in public). “Why Victorians”, you ask? “Aren’t they the horribly repressed British people who invented ugly wallpaper, got horny over women’s ankles, and conquered all non-white people on earth?” 

            Well, yes. But as sci-fi fans, steampunks and neo-Victorians generally prefer to celebrate the ways in which the Victorians shaped the future. They think of steam engines, Darwin, Ford, Tesla, electric power, industry, progress, SCIENCE! Modern values, but of course, they were more stylish. What gets lost in the shuffle is how those same Victorians hated the change their new toys brought, with its newfangled smog, urban unrest, and wage slavery. They turned to the simplicity, chivalry, and splendor of the Middle Ages.

Queen Victoria and Prince Albert in an early example of Renaissance Faire chic, 1842.

The Revolution is Over

“You can take that liberty, equality, and brotherhood of yours and shove it up your arse.” –Arthur Wellesley, 1st Duke of Wellington (probably)

            Before we can examine the history of medieval revival, we have to look a bit further back into Europe's love of copying past styles. Before there was neo-medievalism, there was neoclassicism. It was the culmination of a style that began in the Renaissance's rediscovery of ancient Greece and Rome.

            Our story starts in 1814. Napoleon Bonaparte, dictator and Emperor of Revolutionary France, barely escaped from that catastrophe known as the invasion of Russia. Behind him laid a trail of 400,000 dead or missing French soldiers. With no troops to hold together an empire stretched thin, Napoleon’s old enemies licked their wounds, regrouped, and forced him to abdicate. 25 years of war, all thanks to a jailbreak, had finally come to a close. The French Revolution was over. Nobles and ambassadors of the European powers convened at the Congress of Vienna to decide how to restore order and powdered wigs. Kingdoms were repaired, borders redrawn, peace and conservatism reigned, and “mmm, yes…” punctuated the end of every other sentence. The ambassadors were so happy to have the old Europe back that even the Protestant kings were happy to put the Pope back in Rome (Pope Pius VII had effectively been held hostage by Napoleon in France for seven years). Most importantly, Great Britain finally vanquished its old rival, leaving it the sole superpower of the 19th century.

            So what went wrong? How did an honest plea for liberty, equality, and brotherhood devolve into looting churches, cutting people’s own employers’ heads off, and going to war with twelve countries at the same time? Europeans looked back at the past few hundred years of their history to find an answer. They saw that they, in their quest to understand the workings of the natural world, had reduced the idea of an intensely personal, self-sacrificing God to an absentee landlord. They had abandoned Christianity and chivalry in exchange for a new idol: Reason. But Reason demanded its own temples too, so they were built in accordance with slavish imitations of pagan Greek and Roman architecture (Washington, D.C. being the example par excellence). Slavery, after having been mostly abolished in the medieval world, was re-instituted. Those Greco-Roman temple knockoffs weren’t going to build themselves, after all; and since the Greeks and Romans had slaves, it must have been okay. Perhaps the worst enigma was that the movers and shakers of the Age of Reason made a great gab of the rights and dignity of Man, but they lost sight of men. Man became an abstract idea, to be celebrated in nude sculptures and constitutions. Men, though, were cogs in a machine that you could convince to take a musket and a uniform, stand in a line and die in a battlefield hundreds of miles from home in the name of “civil liberties”. God forbid those men would be more concerned about such trite matters as whether there would be a good harvest, or whether their wives would continue to give them lip in the afterlife. 

             Indeed, the Age of Reason and the French Revolution may have advanced their civil liberties, but only at the cost of their souls. For a people embroiled in decades of war and strife, the monumental paintings of Jacques-Louis David, with their hemlock-chugging philosophers, naked Spartans marching to the slaughter, and stern Roman fathers sending their sons to death for the virtues of the Republic, no longer swelled up feelings of patriotism and a desire to march and die for the mother country. They became, rather, cold reminders of the Reign of Terror: toga parties one day, mass executions the next. The virtues of pagan Greece and Rome were finally exposed as heartless and morally bankrupt. Neoclassicism simply had to die.

            It was thus under these conditions that the young Victorians would turn to the myth and mystery of their Christian ancestors, from whom the Enlightenment philosophers casually dismissed as the “dark ages”, for inspiration in an increasingly unstable world. 

The Lictors Bring to Brutus the Bodies of His Sons, by Jacques-Louis David, 1789. Shrouded in darkness, the founder of the Roman Republic sentences his sons to death for the sin of fighting for the monarchy, and doesn't look back.

Leonidas at Thermopylae, also by David, 1814. Naked Greek men brandishing swords were a favorite subject for the neoclassicsts.
The Death of Marat, again by David, 1793. Jean-Paul Marat, a leader of the French Revolution, is portrayed a martyr, stabbed to death in his bath, resting like Christ in the tomb. All signs of his paranoid, psychopathic tendencies are conveniently wiped away.
Out with the corsets and hoop skirts, in with the frat parties!


  1. Interesting note about how slavery had been all but abolished. I think the book
    "Those Terrible Middle Ages: Debunking the Myths by Regine Pernoud" makes similar claims. I loved this line: "God forbid those men would be more concerned ... whether their wives would continue to give them lip in the afterlife." Classic.

    1. I started out reading Pernoud's books in high school, including Those Terrible Middle Ages! I recommend it for everyone.