There is certainly reason to abjure the medieval. As I report in "More about Short-form Medievalist Scholarship," Kathleen Davis and Nadia Altschul argue in their introduction to Medievalism in the Postcolonial World, figurations of the traditionally-understood medieval have been used to justify the horrors of colonialist practice, and what has been so abusive can be readily shunned. Those nations that have formed as a result of throwing off colonial yokes, in whole or in part, could scarcely be blamed for repudiating the trappings of those nations which held them in thrall as peripheries to a colonial/imperial core. Less formal, but perhaps more pervasive, is the ongoing search for novelty, the drive to have the next, new thing--which suggests excision of the old. Similar and more explicit is the frequent throwing-off of inherited trappings, casting aside older standards and methods in favor of quicker and more convenient ways of doing things and more equitable social structures. Each works against the continued re-presentation of the medieval, and each is a substantial thread in the tapestry of contemporary popular culture in the United States and elsewhere.
Even so, there is abundant representation of the medieval among the contemporary--albeit representation that is not "authentic," as several of the sources noted above assert. Most of the corpus of fantasy literature, following Tolkien, partakes of it. So do many role-playing games of the tabletop and online variety. Television series such as Game of Thrones and Merlin focus on visions of the medieval that are recognizably, demonstrably medievalist, and they attract significant followings among the general public and among scholars who perhaps follow the mold Philip Helms asserts of early Tolkien fandom and look to them as diversions that allow them to feel somewhat daring in their work but perhaps recognize the work being produced now as being as worthy of study as the work being produced then. And while humanistic scholars may be perhaps understood to look at things vanished away and their afterimages, why the general public would do so is somewhat less obvious. This makes it worthy of investigation.
Tolkien motions toward an answer. In "On Fairy-stories," he argues in favor of the escapist nature of fantasy literature. The seeming removal of the largely rural medieval from the increasingly urban environments of the industrialized world following World War II, of the eminently local medieval from the increasingly globalized world economy, of the intensely physical medieval from the increasingly online world of the early twenty-first century all serve to position the medieval as a means of escape from the modern, promoting recourse to it. Admittedly, however, other historical periods could be sought for such reasons; the Classical past suggests itself as an example, as do pre-colonial pasts for the successors of indigenous populations.* Thus, there has to be more at work than simply the disjunction between past and present to account for the continued reliance upon the medieval, although that divergence surely accounts for some of it.
Nostalgia for the perceived past may explain more. While pre-colonization pasts do not often obtain for former colonist populations, the (Northern and Western European) medieval past very much does for them**--although the Classical past would, as well. But the Classical world presents other difficulties for much of the population, particularly in the United States. The non-Christian religious history of much of it grates against the overly-refined "faith-based" sensibilities of many people. So, too, do the perceived-as-more-open sexual practices that typify constructions of Classical Greece and Rome. The medieval, though, is ostensibly Christian and demonstrably concerned with the regulation and normalization of sexuality, aligning it to some of the prevailing attitudes of United States populations, suiting it to marketing to them, and thus spreading through much of the world because of the disproportionate influence the US media markets exert on the media cultures of the planet.
Another factor suggests itself as worth considering; the medieval is refigured now because it was a favorite subject of the Regency and Victorian English, from whom many cultural assumptions are still maintained in the United States and, it seems, elsewhere. The Regency saw an increase in population, displacement of labor, and shortages of food. Each contributed to social unrest that was augmented by fears of the kind of violence seen during the French Revolution, the social upheaval of the Napoleonic Era, and the flagrant misconduct of the children of George III. The Victorian Era saw the immense strains of empire and upheavals of understanding of the world due to emergent science. Society threatened to destabilize, and the medieval (particularly as constructed in Arthurian legend, as I argue in The Establishment of Malory's Le Morte d'Arthur as the Standard Text of English-Language Arthurian Legend) offered a palliative to all of those, one that successfully addressed the concerns of the emergent mass media population. It set a precedent that others were able to follow, and that precedent and its following established a habit of mind that remains with the consumers of popular culture today.
That there is more to say about the matter is certain; I know that I have only a limited view. But within those limits, I think a nostalgia for the imagined medieval past that the Regency and Victorian English focused upon does much to inform the continued appearance of the medieval in popular culture. Clearly, I do not view it as a wrong in itself, although I acknowledge that there are problems in the appropriation and in what is appropriated. Knowing this, though, offers some insight that can be used perhaps to anticipate future trends and perhaps to enable greater understanding of broader cultural constructs, benefiting all.
*I use the term because I am not at all certain how applicable the term "indigenous" remains for peoples whose cultures have been bastardized and abused through colonialist practice. Discussion of what term is appropriate would be welcome; I wish to know so that I may seek truth and avoid inadvertent offense.
**I know that Helen Young has more to say about the matter in "'It's the Middle Ages, Yo!': Race, Neo/Medievalisms, and the World of Dragon Age" and in a forthcoming piece.
- Davis, Kathleen, and Nadia Altschul. Introduction. Medievalism in the Postcolonial World. Eds. Kathleen Davis and Nadia Altschul. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 2009. Print. 1-25.
- Elliott, Geoffrey B. "About a Popova Piece...and a Bit of Rebuttal." Tales after Tolkien: Travels in Genre and Medievalism. Tales after Tolkien Society, 17 June 2014. Web. 24 June 2014.
- ---. "Continuing with the Issue of Historical Authenticity." Tales after Tolkien: Travels in Genre and Medievalism. Tales after Tolkien Society, 21 June 2014. Web. 24 June 2014.
- ---. The Establishment of Malory's Le Morte d'Arthur as the Standard Text of English-Language Arthurian Legend. Diss. U of Louisiana at Lafayette, 2012. Ann Arbor: UMI, 2012. Print.
- ---. "More about Short-form Medievalist Scholarship." Tales after Tolkien: Travels in Genre and Medievalism. Tales after Tolkien Society, 5 June 2014. Web. 24 June 2014.
- Helms, Philip. "The Evolution of a Tolkien Fandom." The Tolkien Scrapbook. Ed. Alida Becker. Philadelphia: Running P, 1978. Print. 104-09.
- Tolkien, J.R.R. "On Fairy-stories." "The Monsters and the Critics" and Other Essays. Ed. Christopher Tolkien. London: HarperCollins, 2006. Print. 109-61.
- Young, Helen. "'It's the Middle Ages, Yo!': Race, Neo/Medievalisms, and the World of Dragon Age." The Year's Work in Medievalism 27 (2012). Georgia Tech, n.d. Web. 24 June 2014.
- ---"Who Cares about Historical Authenticity? I Do." Tales after Tolkien: Travels in Genre and Medievalism. Tales after Tolkien Society, 16 June 2014. Web. 24 June 2014.
- ---. "Who Cares if Game of Thrones Is Authentically Medieval?" Tales after Tolkien: Travels in Genre and Medievalism. Tales after Tolkien Society, 12 June 2014. Web. 24 June 2014.