This exploratory research and teaching project examines the rich and multidimensional impact of “medievalism” on conceptions and representations of the Canadian frontier in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. “Medievalism” is a large and complex term. In this project, it is interpreted as encompassing all that relates to the Middle Ages in Europe (the era from ca. 300 to 1500 CE) as well as the post-medieval reception of the Middle Ages, which took a variety of forms. These included the Romantic cult of ruined monasteries and churches in the visual and literary media, the late eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century Gothic novel, and medieval revival architecture of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.
This project not only analyzes diverse forms of medievalism carried to the New World by European colonists, who transformed the Canadian “wilderness” into knowable terms (e.g., by constructing medieval-inspired buildings), but also examines “medieval” Canada. Although Canada has never been considered to have had a “Middle Ages,” this project argues for a geographical and conceptual expansion of the term “Middle Ages”—the term itself is a construction—to embrace the Native North American cultures that flourished in Canada/Ontario during the era of the European Middle Ages. The project engages in particular with the era from ca. 800-1550 CE.
This research initiative thus takes a multi-layered approach to the material and cognitive “mapping” of medievalism at the Canadian frontier. It explores how diverse “medievalisms,” ranging from ancient/medieval technologies of transportation invented by Native North Americans (e.g., the canoe and snowshoes) to the colonists’ transformation of immense forests into medievalizing townscapes punctuated by castles and neo-Gothic buildings, have played vital roles in shaping Canadian identity.
The project focuses on the vast territory now called Ontario, which formed Canada’s “western” frontier for a large part of the nineteenth century. It concentrates in particular on southern Ontario and the region surrounding the “new” London on the Thames, a forested site envisioned by Lieutenant-Governor John Graves Simcoe in the 1790s as the future capital of Upper Canada.
The ideas generated by Mapping Medievalism at the Canadian Frontier will be communicated to local and international audiences via a multi-venued exhibition; a publication; and public programming, which extend the scope of the project to the present via contemporary art production, re-enactment, a film series, and a symposium. A primary goal is to address and involve a wide range of constituencies, and to provoke new questions and further interpretations through public display and dissemination.
(left) Polychrome tapestry square with a galloping horseman, Coptic, 6th century; decorative border, Coptic, 8th/9th century (Malcove Collection, University of Toronto Art Centre)