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This review is taken from PN Review 182, Volume 34 Number 6, July - August 2008.

REFERENCES BACK MICHAEL ALEXANDER, Medievalism: The Middle Ages in Modern England (Yale University Press) £25

Michael Alexander includes two pictures in the introduction to his study of the English Medieval Revival: Wren's St Paul's Cathedral, a Gothic cathedral rebuilt in European, classical style after the Fire of London, and the Palace of Westminster, rebuilt in the Gothic 'national' style after a fire had destroyed the original medieval parliament building. The architectural decisions that created the two buildings demarcate not only the chronological focus of Alexander's study, but its terms: 'separated by six or seven generations.. .[they signal] an overturning of England's attitudes to her Middle Ages'. What the pictures make immediately clear is that Alexander's subject is no byway of cultural history, like surveying Gothic railway buildings or reassessing the novels of Clara Reeve. Changing understandings of the medieval past were - and are - expressions of changing concepts of origins and identity, of the status of church and state, not only interpretations of the past but statements of intent for the future: as Alexander points out, the choice of Gothic architecture for the Houses of Parliament was determined by historical and constitutional reasons rather than aesthetics or the picturesque.

Alexander is right to point out with some pride that his is the first attempt to write a history of medievalism that traces its broad sweep from the 1760s to the late twentieth century. It takes depth, as well as breadth, of knowledge to sustain this sort of confident narrative, and Alexander is very good at ordering his material into lucid chronological ...


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