LOS ANGELES — To explain why I am standing outside the dinner theater juggernaut Medieval Times in the name of journalism, I would have to go back to the beginning: specifically, to 500 CE, the generally agreed upon start of the Middle Ages, which is a contemporary term for a 1,000-year period (500–1500) in world history. This term is now preferred to the “Dark Ages,” which derived from the assumption that the enlightened learning of Greco-Roman antiquity was extinguished with the collapse of the Roman empire. The retroactive valorizing of past eras — reflected in our names for them — is as constant as our passage into new ones. The Getty Center’s latest exhibition, The Fantasy of the Middle Ages, explores this historical habit by depicting how people have reimagined the medieval period in the centuries since, and how they have revealed their own interests and ideals with each new interpretation.
The compact and effective show, curated by Larisa Grollemond, assistant curator of manuscripts, illustrates the medieval aesthetic primarily through manuscripts in the Getty collection, along with loans from other California collections. The first room focuses on histories and legends of northern Europe from the period, while the second highlights their reinterpretation in later reenactments, landmarks, costumes, fantasy series, and movie designs, including Disney’s iconic animations of fairy tales like Sleeping Beauty (1959).
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The fantastical imagery that many of us consider “medieval” today has been invented, at least in part, in the centuries since. While some legends are rooted in the period, like the stories of King Arthur and Camelot, many others were embroidered onto an imagined, “medieval-ish” past through fantasy stories, films, and other forms of popular culture, especially from the 19th century on. Modern medieval tales have become populated with knights, dragons, witches, and fairies — though, as the show explains, only the first two were frequently depicted in the period, and anything magical or mysterious was understood through the lens of religion. The exhibition pairs medieval and later imagery to explore these shifting depictions and the powerful legacy they have left.
Much material is drawn from the 19th century, when the Romantic movement created its own version of the Middle Ages in the art, illustration, and architecture of the Gothic Revival. Their works embodied a romantic vision of simpler, more straightforward times and projected Victorian social mores onto medieval tales of heroism and tragedy. Everything from William Morris’s elaborate page borders (echoing illuminated manuscripts) to the now-iconic gargoyles added to Notre Dame contributed to an idealized aesthetic of the Middle Ages — and influenced our subsequent view of the time.
This “medieval” aesthetic was further perpetuated through children’s literature, as the rise of 19th-century book illustration introduced a collective, imagined visual idiom that placed popular fairy tales in a distant-yet-familiar past. Their imagery established a nostalgic platform that was easy to evoke in subsequent retellings, including Disney’s, whose early fairy tale films began by turning the pages of a pseudo-medieval manuscript. One of the first frames of Sleeping Beauty, included here, along with the prop book from The Sword in the Stone (1963), pays stylistic homage to manuscript illumination in the acid hues required for Technicolor. The movie’s concept art shows how closely art director Eyvind Earle looked to French manuscripts like the Duc de Berry’s Très Riches Heures for inspiration, while costume drawings that mash up centuries of fashion reveal a much looser interpretation.
So why do we keep reimagining medieval imagery and legends? “We see the Middle Ages as really flexible because they have this long association with magic and the supernatural,” Grollemond told Hyperallergic. The shared visual language established through 20th- and 21st-century Euro-American popular culture has, in turn, influenced our perception of the historical period. But, cleverly, the exhibition’s wall texts are not focused on pedantic corrections. Instead, they contextualize where these images come from and how and why they still resonate.
One wall panel addresses the elephant in both rooms: this definition of “medieval” is, broadly speaking, a Euro-centric framing of the arc of history. During the medieval millennium, momentous changes took place on every continent: art and culture flourished under the Tang and Song dynasties; the city of Teotihuacan declined, and the Aztec empire ascended; the Islamic Delhi Sultanate established its reign. Yet in the Euro-American world, the view of the Middle Ages is often narrowed to a slice of northern and western Europe. Even there, it was a period of travel, exploration, and exchange, with fluid borders and interchanging dynasties: “There were people with many different racial backgrounds, religious backgrounds, all present … in Western Europe,” Grollemond pointed out. But in the centuries since, a narrow, whitewashed vision of the past has frequently been perpetuated in popular fiction and fantasy versions of the Middle Ages.
The exhibition’s excellent companion publication critiques and expands on this topic, including sidebars on medieval conceptions of identity, gender, and race, but the examples it cites would be a powerful addition to the show to continue enlarging this perception. Several medieval texts include Black knights at the Round Table of Arthurian legend, such as Sir Palamedes, a Muslim knight who was sometimes represented as Black and sometimes as Middle Eastern. Amid a wealth of European manuscripts, the show contains just one Iranian illustration from the Persian epic Shahnama, and an Egyptian manuscript of One Thousand and One Nights.
In the past few years, some white supremacist groups have co-opted medieval symbols and narratives to dangerous and destructive ends. While scholars are working to counter false claims about the past, this can also be achieved in the realm of modern fantasy by diversifying both casting and narratives. “Fantasy media can be a tool for countering the very prejudiced and narrow view of the Middle Ages that a lot of people have,” Grollemond said. “The story is so much more complex. If we can see [a] more equitable and inclusive medieval world through fantasy, I think that can really affect the way the period is interpreted today.”
The ways we create and consume new versions of the past often reveal more about our own eras than they do about the Middle Ages. The show proves this point with a sampling of familiar 20th- and 21st-century pop culture paraphernalia, drawn from the Getty staff’s collections: Lord of the Rings, Game of Thrones, Harry Potter, anime, games, movies about knights and quests, and sendups of them like Monty Python and the Holy Grail. (The exhibition itself emerged from the popularity of the museum’s “Getty of Thrones” social media series, which highlighted elements of history being reinterpreted by the television series.) The stories and visuals of the Middle Ages are repeatedly revivified in new media, and in ongoing reenactments like Medieval Times — a show that rewrote its script in 2018 to accommodate a female monarch. The question is, will we continue to expand our vision of the past, or limit it?
The Fantasy of the Middle Ages continues at the Getty Center (1200 Getty Center Drive, Los Angeles, California) through September 11. The exhibition was curated by Larisa Grollemond.