Medievalism and Orientalism

Written by John M. Ganin
Review by Sarah Bower

At last year’s HNS Conference I remember being forcibly struck by Anne Harries’ references to ‘the magic realism of history’. In this collection of essays, John Ganim traces the intertwined histories of Orientalism and the Middle Ages as understood in the post-Renaissance period, showing how both are imagined as exotic other worlds far removed from the modern western present. The early humanists claimed an Eastern heritage for gothic architecture. Seventeenth and 18th century antiquarians traced a link between the Phoenicians and the Druids of ancient Britain. Considering the post-Renaissance concepts of the medieval and the oriental as genre, genealogy and display, Ganim uncovers the roots of our fascination with the idea of the past as ‘another country’, both exotic and challenging our idea of ourselves.

This is a strictly academic treatise, not an easy read but profoundly thought provoking for those of us who read and write historical fiction in helping towards an understanding of our abiding fascination with imagining the past.