Robin Hood, King Arthur, chivalry. But also witches, living land and water, stone circles, white horses. Crusades and pagans. The Pre-Raphaelites, the Romantics, the Ruralists and - I would argue - visual artists of the present day1, have all turned to the aesthetics of the neomedieval to either soothe the anxiety of, or search for meaning in, our anxious world. While I was in London over Christmas, two of the biggest exhibitions at major galleries (Tate Britain and the National Portrait Gallery) were dedicated to neomedievalists: William Blake and the Pre-Raphaelites. The medieval is having its moment yet again.

In Heterotopias, Foucault describes the medieval world as being spatially organised in a hierarchical way (as opposed to the heterogenous nature of spaces in the present age):

“in the Middle Ages there was a hierarchic ensemble of places: sacred places and profane places: protected places and open, exposed places: urban places and rural places”2

It’s easy to imagine that, without necessarily yearning for the guidance of religious order, these clear demarcations and moral constants could be appealing in a post-morality, post-truth age. But there are other ways in which medievalism as a world view could be making more sense to people than anything else: for example, rising economic inequality and the increasing feeling that the rich are insulated from the threats we face calls into question whether we ever left feudalism behind at all.

Medievalism is ultimately escapism, however, and as Glenn Adamson highlights in Thinking Through Craft, “the more purposefully a practice is distinguished from the normative state of affairs, the less likely it is to sustain itself”3. Art history is littered with short-lived artist colonies and radical ways of living, most of them based on a return to some past life. Though these attempts have been important, they are doomed to fail because, as Adamson also states, they rely on the “pastoral erasure of real history”4, which is a delusion. Adamson sees the pastoral as being made up of both idealism and self-deception, a hopefulness but also a wilful blindness to reality. I think that medievalism also runs into this danger and is a symptom of, rather than a response to, our shame-ridden contemporary world.

1. Many visual artists of my peer group working in Glasgow, for example the collective Bart Waltz, many of whom are friends of mine. Another example is Ben Walker, working in London. 

2. Michel Foucault, “Of Other Spaces, Heterotopias”, trans. by Jay Miskowiec, Michel Foucault, Info, 1984. Available online at <> [Accessed 9 March 2020]

3. Glenn Adamson, Thinking Through Craft, (London: Bloomsbury, 2007) p108 

4. Ibid, p115