Larisa Grollemond and Bryan C. Keene have written a fascinating book called ‘The Fantasy of the Middle Ages’ and the ways in which the images and ideas in manuscripts with the associated myths and legends, and our version of this period of time, have been interpreted throughout successive periods of history and in various media. It really is a riot of wonderful images and a real feast for the eyes!
It begins with, of course, the myths and legends of Arthur and the knights of the Round Table, shown here in a late fifteenth-century French manuscript. The Arthur of possibly the fifth or sixth century who may just have existed would have looked very different from that depicted in mediæval manuscripts as here, or indeed the twelfth-century and after romances of chivalric knights of derring do, pathetic princesses and ladies needing their honour to be defended (in the main), kings and queens, and, of course, evil old crones. Sir Thomas Malory and Edmund Spencer of later centuries and then Tennyson in the nineteenth century all developed these themes and stories.
The costumes designed for stage and screen reveal the slightly over-the-top attitudes believed to be of the period. Here is the one for Morgan le Fay in ‘A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court’ for the 1948 film.
The perception of mediæval women is of those completely dependent on their male relatives or husbands, whereas the reality was that many women ran workshops, estates or even countries – for the latter Melisende of Jerusalem (1105–1161) being just one example. In this image from Christine de Pizan’s ‘City of Ladies’ of the early fifteenth-century, here are the women planning and actually physically building the city with blocks of stone. These women have been reflected in stories by Chaucer with the Wife of Bath, Tolkien’s Éowyn, and Arya in the ‘Game of Thrones’.
William Morris was particularly susceptible to the mediæval influences and in a big way. The manuscripts during his calligraphy and illumination period produced by him show this and then the printed books he made from the Kelmscott Press – as an example – this image by Walter Crane produced for the first page of ‘The Story of the Glittering Plain or the Land of the Living Men’. The intense border decoration, enlarged decorated initial and dominating main image imitate manuscripts of the high mediæval period.
And the stories and influences continue not only on screen and stage with films, plays and television productions. The traditional ‘Procession of the Magi’ in Florence depicts the three kings in mediæval dress on horseback, their costumes relating back to a fifteenth century painting.
It was certainly a colourful and even flamboyant period in many ways and this has been picked up by the authors and designers of this book with a totally over-the-top gold embossed and angled cover title (it has to be seen to be believed!), and page after page of wonderful images and interesting, informative and thought-provoking text showing that, actually, those Middle Ages have never died! Thoroughly recommended!