The Past as an Imaginary World: The Case of Medievalism
A young man who constructed an imaginary world, complete with invented language(s) and layers of history: Thomas Chatterton, or J. R. R. Tolkien? A representation of the Middle Ages that makes use (ironic or not) of anachronistic material: Thomas Chatterton or Umberto Eco? A novelist whose self-reflection on the pseudo-medieval setting he created led to theorizing on building imaginary worlds: J. R. R. Tolkien or Umberto Eco? A writer fascinated by medieval manuscripts, which become integral to his medievalist fiction: Chatterton, Tolkien or Eco? Here are three seemingly distinct visions of the Middle Ages: the imagined past of medieval Bristol as envisioned by Thomas Chatterton (1752-70), Romantic ‘enfant terrible’, forger of medieval manuscripts, and the real agent behind the authorial persona of 15th-century monk Thomas Rowley; Middle-earth, the pseudo-medieval ‘secondary’ world developed over 60 years by J. R. R. Tolkien (1892-1973), Oxford don, philologist and arguably the father of modern fantasy literature; and a dizzyingly detailed representation of a 14th-century Benedictine monastery, albeit full of anachronisms, constructed by Umberto Eco (1932-2016), semiotician, postmodern theorist, and author of the best-selling The Name of the Rose (1980), a whodunit set in the Middle Ages. Forged Middle Ages, reimagined Middle Ages, postmodern Middle Ages. Although this trio of writers may seem to be a somewhat random and idiosyncratic selection,1 this essay will aim to show that all three ‘dreamt’ of the Middle Ages in strikingly similar ways: by following the ‘rules’ of inventing a Secondary World, and by leaving its relationship to the Primary World deliberately ambiguous.