The West Remembers (Its Premodern Self)

Berger, Matthias (12 May 2018). The West Remembers (Its Premodern Self) (Unpublished). In: 53rd International Congress on Medieval Studies. Kalamazoo, USA. 10.-13.05.2018.

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In the final decades of the twentieth century, interest in the European Middle Ages surged in the global West. The Middle Ages have held a powerful fascination since, to the point of having been described as an international “cultural lingua franca” (D’Arcens and Lynch) and as possibly the most fertile period for the global imaginary of today (Carpegna Falconieri). This paper focuses on a tendency complementary to the current internationalisation of medievalism: the appropriation of the Middle Ages by resurgent nationalisms. Such ‘national medievalism’ looks to medieval prece-dent and is concerned with clearly circumscribed group identities along familiar national lines. I will argue that after the heyday of national medievalism in nineteenth-century Europe and its deep fall after the excesses of political nationalism in the first half of the twentieth century, the cultural category of ‘the medieval’ today again proves to be the preferred reference point of histories of national origins. In such narratives, notions of medieval alterity interact and compete with notions of cultural filiation. Against this backdrop of renewed recourse to the “Middle Ages of national identities” (Eco), the paper then offers a reading of HBO’s ongoing Game of Thrones series as a sprawling statement of national identity. Its primary setting is Westeros, a nation-continent at war with itself and threat-ened by both foreign invasion from the east (Essos) and the largely unknown common enemy, the walking dead, to the north. Assimilating a ‘best-of’ of medieval and early modern European history (‘Vikings’, ‘Al-Andalus’), Westeros is an oblique but nonetheless recognisable adaptation of a specifically insular (British) premodern past. The show’s huge international success owes much, I argue, to its slippage between invocations of ‘British’, ‘American’ and ‘Western’ identities and the very woolliness of its historical analogies. Furthermore, its simultaneous fascination and unease with pseudo-medieval clashes of multiple allegiances and with the fluidity of territory re-calls deeply ingrained habits of interpreting history in nationalist terms. A dark mirror and ethical-ly challenging master narrative of Western history, Game of Thrones is thus representative of the way global popular interest in the Middle Ages is an interest in a supersized national – and insular – Middle Ages.

Item Type:

Conference or Workshop Item (Paper)


06 Faculty of Humanities > Department of Linguistics and Literary Studies > Institute of English Languages and Literatures

UniBE Contributor:

Berger, Matthias


400 Language > 420 English & Old English languages
700 Arts > 790 Sports, games & entertainment
800 Literature, rhetoric & criticism > 820 English & Old English literatures




Matthias Berger

Date Deposited:

23 Jan 2019 14:36

Last Modified:

23 Jan 2019 14:36

Uncontrolled Keywords:

Game of Thrones; medievalism; fantasy; periodisation; cultural memory; national identity; British/English national history; civilisational identity; master narrative; Anglosphere; Orientalism


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