Carol Lynne Symes
A MODERN WAR AND THE MEDIEVAL PAST: THE MIDDLE AGES OF WORLD WAR I
While World War I usually is described as a quintessentially modern phenomenon, recent research by medievalists has demonstrated how fully concepts of “the modern” are dependent on constructions of “the medieval.” Professor Symes plans to extend this research with a book-length exploration of how the heritage of World War I was shaped by competing visions of the Middle Ages.
Popular culture in the 1870-1914 years shows a markedly heightened awareness of the Middle Ages. In Germany, for example, notions of “the Gothic” were being evoked by politicians and intellectuals engaged in the construction of a new nation state. In the British Isles, fascination with the Middle Ages was a prominent feature of Victorian life, and this fascination was exported to Canada, Australia, and the United States.
By 1914, Professor Symes suggests, this widespread currency of the medieval past in the popular imagination meant that the deployment of rhetoric and imagery referencing that past could become a potent weapon and motivating force in wartime. She plans to examine closely how government-sponsored propaganda and advertising campaigns used medieval imagery to “sell” the war to the larger public; how the Middle Ages was manifested on the battlefield itself; the role of the Middle Ages in the commodification of the war’s destruction, before and after the signing of the Armistice in 1918; and the lasting effects of medievalism on the world after World War I.
Among the sources she plans to cite are two collections housed at the campus library: a largely unknown series of original World War I propaganda posters, and a previously unpublished collection of some 4,500 black-and-white photographs taken at or near the Western Front.