Hidden in the pages of a thirteenth-century Vatican Library manuscript is a curious illustration of a cockatoo, said to be a gift from the Sultan of Egypt, al-Malik Muhammad al-Kamil, to the Holy Roman Emperor, Frederick II. Dr Heather Dalton’s article from June concerning what appears to be the earliest cockatoo in Europe – ‘How did a cockatoo reach thirteenth-century Sicily?’ – caught global attention. My social media lit up with academics expressing equal parts caution and wonder. This errant cockatoo – its defiant expression familiar to any who have fallen foul of that bastard beak – intruded into an Australian Middle Ages that hitherto existed only in echoes, fancies and emulation.
It is not the first time this has happened. In 2014, a semi-viral story circulated about a possible kangaroo in a Portuguese manuscript (dated between 1580 and 1620). And back in March 1897, the Adelaide Chronicle informed readers that prominent archivist Edward Augustus Petherick was preparing a paper to prove that Australia was actually discovered in the fifteenth century, as demonstrated by a kangaroo in the medieval Spanish court. Petherick’s paper – if it were ever written – has not survived. Even more bizarre is Rex Gilroy’s claim, published in Psychic Australia in 1977, that Vikings not only reached northern Australia, but also influenced the cultural traditions of Aboriginal peoples.
Australia has a long colonial history of creating links to the Middle Ages, but is widely considered to have no medieval history of its own. Yet despite this lack of direct contact, Australia is replete with incongruous medievalisms, gesturing furiously backwards.
‘Medievalism’ can be defined as an attempt to re-create, evoke or draw upon the Middle Ages in the present. It can be as much as a full-scale replica castle, or as little as a whimsical allusion. Medievalism haunts Australia: from Ned Kelly – our knight in battered armour, the Robin Hood of the bush – to Ballarat’s Kryal Castle, billed as ‘Australia’s only legendary land of myth and adventure’, which hits all the major medieval points: jousting, torture, dungeons, wizards, dragons and animal petting. An immersive medieval experience the whole family can enjoy – without the dysentery!
In Brisbane, where I live, there are the towering spires and stained-glass windows of the Cathedral of St Stephen, and its palm-shaded, Augustus Pugin-inspired Gothic Revival chapel. The heritage-listed Regent Theatre, now a tourist information centre, retains its original 1929 Spanish Gothic detailing and elaborate ceiling frieze of lords and ladies. Only a few streets away is the 24-hour Pancake Manor, a brick cathedral conversion complete with knight in shining armour.
This gleeful embrace of the Middle Ages extends beyond the city. One of Australia’s biggest, and boastfully ‘most authentic’, medieval festivals is held at the Abbey Museum in Caboolture, and the Masonic Order of Knights Templar, based up the road from the Big Pineapple, derives its values from symbolic medieval knighthood. Yet compared with earlier colonial states, Queensland is restrained.
There is nothing inherently wrong with the idea of Australian medievalism – the past is a foreign country, and the Middle Ages are not a geographically bound provenance. But, as Umberto Eco rightfully notes in Travels in Hyperreality, the Middle Ages are ‘messed up’ in different ways for different needs. Australia’s colonisation spanned various medievalist and medieval-inflected movements: Gothic Romanticism coincided with the earliest convicts, then came Gothic Revival, Aestheticism, Arts and Crafts, and finally pop- or neo-medievalisms. Indeed, medievalism both shaped and served the colonial effort, offering not only justification for the invasion but also fulfilling a nostalgic yearning for the ‘mother country’.
Being a locus of anxieties, aspirations, nationalism and whiteness, medievalism has become a defining feature of Australia’s colonising culture. Our various uses of the Middle Ages reveal much about our ‘national character’: insecure, defensive, longing for validation from the imperial centre while cringing inwardly.
Australia’s foray into the study of its own medievalism is relatively recent, best exemplified in the work of scholars such as Helen Young, Louise D’Arcens and Sarah Randles. Because Australia cannot take the heritage of the Middle Ages for granted, local scholars have approached the discipline from a slightly different angle, looking primarily at medievalism’s cultural constructs, potential absurdities and malign undertones.
In Young’s essay ‘Whiteness and Time’, she reflects on Perth’s ‘Ye London Court’, a multistorey mock-Tudor shopping arcade opened in 1937. As well as the familiar Tudor Revival pitched roofs and half-timbering, the shopping centre incorporates various features intended to emphasise its link to the Middle Ages. Since 1997, for example, the centre has displayed a plaque commemorating the six-hundredth anniversary of Dick Whittington being installed as lord mayor of London. Signs in a faux-Gothic script announce the stores and goods on offer. One in particular – ‘Aboriginal Art Australian Gifts’ – perfectly illustrates how heritage medievalisms function in Australia: overwriting the landscapes and cultures of First Nations with symbolic European history.
We see this tradition from the other side in Alexis Wright’s The Swan Book. As the pan-European Aunty Bella Donna of the Champions listens to music in an Australian swamp, the narrator wonders: ‘How could she hear him? She was still attached to the libraries and archives left behind in the western part of the world. It was as though she had never left.’ By overlaying the country with echoes of that other place, by collapsing time and space, we place the truths of Australia out of hearing; we have long been looking back and writing ‘home’.
Europeans have regarded Australia as the ultimate blank canvas since they first spied its ‘wild’ shores, and our medievalisms continue to be entwined with acts of power and British hegemony. By default, whatever is founded, built and expressed on this ‘terra nullius’ of stolen land is a cultural imposition, an act of displacement and denial. In ‘Rebuilding the Middle Ages: Medievalism in Australian Architecture’, Randles notes the cognitive dissonance that allows for the whitewashing of our country’s past:
Although Australia’s Indigenous history stretches back thousands of years, the oldest buildings of European settlement are scarcely more than 200 years old, yet they are a much more visible and tangible version of an historical past for many Australians.
The medieval provides easy shorthand for deep time and historical identity, bestowing an immediate sense of legitimacy and authority. This is why Gothic in particular became the architectural language for our ecclesiastical and civic institutions. We invest in it a reverence for the imagined historical continuity to which it refers. Homes, towns and cities have been infused with traces of the Middle Ages: a crenellation here, some stained glass there – multiple archaeological impressions cobbled into a single church or state building, playing fast and loose with chronology.
Our love affair with the Middle Ages is not limited to architectural flourishes. For many Australians of my generation, our first significant exposure to homegrown medievalism was via popular fantasy. Since the 1990s, Australian authors have produced a flurry of medievalist stories, with significant authors including Sara Douglass, Catherine Jinks, Kate Forsyth, Isobelle Carmody and Sophie Masson. Some, like Jinks in her ‘Pagan’ series, have reproduced the Middle Ages, while authors like Carmody have made alternative realities with premodern medieval tropes: guilds, quests, feudalism, fantastic beasts. Others, like Cecilia Dart-Thornton, have created worlds from folklore and Romance.
Dart-Thornton gave me the first shock of Australian medievalism. Take, for example, the following scene, set in the midst of The Ill-Made Mute’s otherwise standard high-fantasy world:
Like rows of gnarled old graybeards, eucalyptus trees lined the streets, richly encrusted with red velvet flowers. A wizard rode by in his whites and tall, pointed hat; a peripatetic minstrel strolled with his lute across his back and a capuchin crouching on his shoulder. With a jingle of spurs and weaponry, several mounted knights of some nobleman’s retinue clattered over the cobbles. [Emphasis added]
Reading this passage, I found my assumptions about that fictional world suddenly shifting. Those eucalypts revealed the affectation of medievalism, leading me to query which was more ‘other’ to me: medieval, or Australian? They spring away from each other – the first one is unhomely, then the other, both curved around in Gothic alterity.
This sense of alienation and fascination with the country has persisted since William Dampier’s accounts of this strange new world, if not earlier – back when Australia was being hypothesised by medieval cartographers, it was imagined to be inhabited by strange beasts, an other-worldly inversion of the civilised north. For early colonisers, Australia was Gothic in its perceived emptiness, its un-European wilds and its uncannily wide skies; it could only be tamed through echoes of ‘home’. Europeans gestured frantically towards the world they had slipped out of, the world from which they would be cast adrift if they did not lash themselves tight. They perceived a total absence of history, a dizzying hollow of time, an incomprehensible emptiness, all of which fed their obsessive anxieties about dwelling in an ‘other’ world.
Tasmania is a microcosm of successive and persistent Gothic: dramatic devil-haunted scenery, a history of convictism, massacres and cannibalism, the sensational melancholy of Marcus Clarke, and in recent years the emergence of the Tasmanian Gothic genre, Tasploitation films and the Dark Mofo festival. Since colonisation, the island has been steadily filled with neo-Gothic: from the long arm of Pugin planting churches and Catholic accoutrements, to the ruins of the Port Arthur military complex, to the castle-fronted Flamingos Dance Bar in downtown Hobart. The Gothic – revived in a land where it never existed – now defines the colonised landscape of Tasmania. It lingers, too, in the oldest settlements on the mainland.
Joan Kerr and James Broadbent’s Gothick Taste in the Colony of New South Wales traces that earliest strain of Australian medievalism – Gothick Romanticism. Kerr and Broadbent explain how Gothick was ‘largely brought to Australia by Scots, clergymen and women.’ Elizabeth Macquarie, wife of Governor Lachlan Macquarie, fulfilled two of these criteria, and was fairly church-minded, too. Macquarie was a fan of the Gothick, and she used her considerable resources to support various projects. When she rebuilt a Parramatta church in the early 1800s, she drew on sketches, pattern books, magazines and memory, squashing together an architectural hodgepodge. When her double-towered vision was realised – British godliness in an unchristian land – she is said to have exclaimed, ‘There, now see my Westminster Abbey!’ Her two awkward towers survive, sandwiching the later Victorian Romanesque St John’s Cathedral. The church still houses a stone from the twelfth-century St Mary’s Church in Kent – one of Macquarie’s inspirations.
Colonial immigrants were anxious to stamp the landscape with British continuity, initially with little concern for suitability or stylistic coherence. The original St Mary’s Cathedral in Sydney was perhaps better burnt. In 1865, John Joseph Therry’s ‘architecturally illiterate enthusiasm’, as Kerr and Broadbent term it, was reduced to rubble, later being rebuilt by William Wilkinson Wardell in a style more sympathetic to the antipodean environment. In 1869, prior to the cathedral’s rebuilding, the site was visited by a gentleman from Tasmania, who in a letter to the Tasmanian Catholic Standard remarked on how its splendid ruins seemed to transform Australia into a landscape with history:
Seen on a calm moonlit eve, these ruins forcibly remind the beholder of one of England’s ruined abbeys; the stillness of the night and the celestial rays of Diana giving a serene air to the pile, and rendering the visitor for a while oblivious of the fact that he is in Australia, where all works (except Nature’s) are modern.
The dust jacket of Gothick Taste adopts a similar colonial tone, erasing Indigenous history and invoking the myth of terra nullius:
[Gothick Taste traces] artistic antipodean aspirations, from the sublime to the ridiculous. It gives the reader a new and entertaining picture of the results of importing European culture into an alien and empty land. [Emphasis added]
In typical Australian fashion, shame is reserved for the inferiority of Anglo-colonial aesthetics, not for colonisation. Kerr and Broadbent emphasise the ineptitude of local practitioners, suggesting they lacked the skills and vision of professional ‘taste makers’. While the authors attempt to judge Australian medievalism on its own terms, they still cringe when placing it beside the British ideal.
British culture remains Australia’s phantom limb. In our present-day parliament, the largely ceremonial role of Usher of the Black Rod has its origins in a long-abstracted English parliamentary tradition. The role was first mentioned in the reign of King Edward III as an officer of the Order of the Garter. As an office of a knighthood, the usher’s role in English Parliament was originally within the House of Lords, something we do not have, in service to the monarch, who does not attend our parliament. There is also a reverent mace for our House of Representatives. In this context, Tony Abbott’s 2014 decision to reinstate the titles of knights and dames in Australia’s honours system is not such an illogical political medievalism. Rather, it is another in a long line of insecure anachronisms, not dissimilar to the hunger of nineteenth-century Melburnians for noble forbears and coats of arms, gaining two additional ‘colonial’ volumes of Burke’s Peerage for their efforts. Those armigerous Melburnians were mocked through satirical cartoons for the folly of grasping the scraps of nobility, just as Abbott was mocked by contemporary media.
Earlier this year, when the Australian Conservatives, bizarrely, announced a day of mourning for the fall of Constantinople (29 May 1453), they linked themselves directly to the Middle Ages. It was as though their own ‘crimson thread of kinship’ – like that of which Henry Parkes spoke in 1890 as binding Anglo-Australians to England – also ran taut from their idealised white medieval Europe to the Australian present. Conservatives consider themselves to be the defenders and inheritors of Western civilisation, a holdover of earlier racial medievalisms. Young observes how, particularly in the nineteenth century, European nations looked for origins in the Middle Ages, ‘developing racial formations [that] created pan-national Anglo-Saxonism, later developed into “Whiteness”, and with it notable superiority over the rest of the world and its peoples.’ For colonial Australians, an ancestry of Angles, Saxons, Vikings and Normans made them brave and bold heirs of conquest.
In Old Songs in the Timeless Land, D’Arcens maps the strong medieval streak of Australia’s colonial writing during the development of a national literary ‘voice’. Rolf Boldrewood, aka Thomas Alexander Browne, relied on Anglo-Saxon triumphalism, with a hearty dash of Walter Scott, for the settler heroism of his protagonists. For Boldrewood, Anglo-Norman ancestry inspired wanderlust and conquest, and it was only in Australia, where the white hand could shape fate, fortune and land, that this colonising spirit could bloom fully.
Even our most dinky-di literary figures had a crack at a knight’s tale. Prominent ‘bush poets’ – the ultimate champions of white Australian frontiersmen – emulated a Tennysonian style. Henry Lawson wrote the heroic ‘Sir William’ poems published by The Bulletin in 1908, and Adam Lindsay Gordon managed a few Romance lays, as well as the torturous Ashtaroth, a Crusade-era ‘dramatic lyric’ (‘What ho! Art thou drunk, Sir Norman?’). When Gordon died in 1870, fellow poet Henry Kendall composed an Arthurian-inflected elegy, praising Gordon’s ‘fire of English chivalry’. A glimmer of knightly glory was not considered out of place in our ‘national literature’.
Those of bold vision tweaked the glorious medieval inheritance to fit the Australian image. In Edmund Blacket’s Gothic Revival design for Australia’s first tertiary institution, the University of Sydney, the quadrangle and great hall deliberately emulated Oxbridge buildings. Randles notes, however, that spaces once occupied by saints were left empty and the stained glass, normally reserved for religious iconography, was filled with British notables of learning, transforming the institution into a place of worship for Western greatness, free of sectarian holdovers. Similar projects took place in Melbourne, where Sir George Verdon, one of the city’s would-be aristocrats, oversaw the construction of Australia’s most lavish financial building: the ornate ‘Gothic Bank’ on Collins Street, an 1880s Italianate excess of gold leaf, painted ceilings and carved blackwood. Both the university and the bank include motifs and decorations incorporating native flora and fauna. I would stop short of Randles’ conclusion that this constituted ‘a kind of reverse colonisation’, instead arguing that by using Australian features in this way, the architects were remaking and domesticating the colonised country, claiming the exotic for their own and placing it within European aesthetic and cultural frameworks.
D’Arcens also presents turn-of-the-twentieth-century counter-readings that critiqued the Australian reliance on the Middle Ages for validation or status in the colonial present. Referencing Tasma’s 1889 book Uncle Piper of Piper’s Hill, D’Arcens notes how the author satirises the ‘fetish for medieval ancestry’, arguing that this ‘points us to a distinguishing feature of the work of Australian women writers, who seem to have been far less interested in Australians as atavistically medieval, and more interested in Australians as medievalists.’
Miles Franklin, in her 1901 novel My Brilliant Career, similarly rejects the idea of noble British ancestry underpinning Australian greatness, claiming pride in peasantry rather than ‘those blood-suckers who loll on velvet and satin’. Throughout, D’Arcens notes, Franklin ‘stridently demolish[es] the medievalist racial paradigms in which the settler romance genre had quietly but definitively rested.’ Critical of the medievalism of Boldrewood and his ilk, authors like Tasma and Franklin sought to move from dependency and nostalgia – of which unreflective medievalism formed part – to a forward-facing Australian identity.
Others have looked to medievalism for the creation of subculture and resistance to dominant ideologies. The Montsalvat artist colony – named after the mythical castle said to house the Holy Grail – was built in Eltham in 1934 from the ruins of Melbourne’s demolished Gothic Revival architecture. Other medieval flourishes were crafted by the artists who lived under the eccentric eye of their benign lord-figure Justus Jörgensen. A Depression-era manor of cast-offs and clay, Montsalvat was a medieval utopia reminiscent, in Randles’ words, ‘of William Morris’ vision of communities of medieval artisans,’ in a spirit of ahistorical allusion. The spiritual successor to Montsalvat is the permaculture castle-commune of Crossroads Medieval Village Cooperative in Yass. A functioning interdependent community since the 1990s, Crossroads offers a New Age take on the Middle Ages, with members constructing and maintaining their own medieval settlement.
Meanwhile, embracing enthusiasm over empirical research, the Australian branch of the Society for Creative Anachronism (taking the form of the Kingdom of Lochac) ‘liberates’ the medieval from a perceived academic snobbery, exploring the past through literal re-creation. This happens mostly through role-play and related activities, such as researching and handcrafting costumes. The emphasis is on self-conscious anachronism, where tenth-century Vikings break bread with fourteenth-century French nobility. Despite utilising a playful romantic medievalism, the SCA does not fall into unreflective glorified nostalgia, and their mission statement is firmly inclusive. Significantly, Lochac’s current ‘monarchs’ are Kinggiyadai Ba’atur and Altani Khaligu – re-enactors of eleventh- to thirteenth-century Mongolian royalty. The crown’s titles, ceremonies and household retinue, traditionally European, changed with these new leaders.
Changing our expectations of the medieval undermines nostalgic European mythologies. A cockatoo in Sicily highlights thriving trade networks between Asia and the Middle East, reorienting us to see Europe at the periphery of multiple interconnected cultures. While the majority of Australian medievalist fiction is still based in the Western canon, recent works are challenging this Eurocentrism. Books like Enlightenment of the Greengage Tree, by Iranian-Australian author Shokoofeh Azar, are making vital contributions, weaving classical Persian literary tradition into magical realism. More non-Anglo engagement with the ‘medieval’ diversifies an area that usually privileges whiteness.
But even diverse and beautiful medievalisms that resist conservative, backwards-looking and racially charged structures are not free of the weight of colonisation. Lochac’s imaginary cartography of Australia, New Zealand and Antarctica is implanted onto the lands and cultures of First Nations peoples. Montsalvat is on Woiworung land; Crossroads is on Ngunawal land. There is a troubling juxtaposition in building victorious crenellations on a country never ceded, in playing knights in a landscape cleared through violence and dispossession. Any evocation of our incursive past displaced onto the Australian present must either confront its colonialism or be complicit by omission.
Medievalism has been used to promote the myth of terra nullius by denying the legitimacy of Indigenous histories. This is the significance of an unexpected cockatoo. The difference between Gilroy’s ‘Cairns Vikings’ and Dalton’s cockatoo, apart from academic rigour, is Gilroy’s picture of contact does not show any Aboriginal cultural influence on Vikings, or indeed anyone outside of Australia, only part-colonisation by Norsemen. Dalton suggests, conversely, that Indigenous Australians could have in some way influenced the life of a medieval monarch without being exploited or subjugated. Bruce Pascoe’s Dark Emu has shown that Australia’s Indigenous people were not – as the dominant narrative claims – hunter-gatherers in a timeless wilderness, but engaged in agriculture, effective, sustainable land management and trade, and ‘construct[ed] a system of pan-continental government that generated peace and prosperity’. This lends more weight to the hypothesis that Indigenous Australians were part of other sophisticated pre-colonial networks. While Dalton is not certain the bird came from Australia, the mere possibility was enough to open public discussions about pre-colonial history and, for one brief shining moment, our Middle Ages became less white.
Indigenous Australians can engage with the Gothic and medieval, of course. Aboriginal Gothic is a recognised genre – The Swan Book being an excellent example – filled with unrest, decay and the knotted-up weight of historical ghosts. Indigenous rapper Adam Briggs is a writer for Matt Groening’s parodic high-fantasy series Disenchantment, a non-nostalgic neo-medievalism disrupting traditional tropes. Recently I submitted a query about medievalism to an Indigenous online forum. Responses varied from general disinterest to a critique of medievalist literature as merely stories of invasion, dispossession, subjugation and plunder. I can certainly see that if we are to have thoughtful, inclusive and meaningful Australian medievalisms, then they must be accompanied by broader social, structural and material changes – in other words, they need to contribute to dismantling, not strengthening, colonialism and white supremacy.
The past is never dead and gone. The Middle Ages have and will continue to cast their thrall over successive generations; they are inextricable from our colonial foundations and national character. Medievalism is about the constantly evolving present. We always need it to be something different, and each time it manifests, it shows what we are.
For the traditional owners of places mentioned here, I used the Native Land database, which relies upon survivals of tribes, nations and knowledge. If there is nuance or contested territory I have not acknowledged, I apologise.
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