Barbara Abou-El-Haj envisioned a third section of her study on the medieval cathedrals of Reims and Amiens. There she hoped to show in the post-medieval history of the sites, as well as in the art-historical literature on them, how current understandings of their construction history have been influenced by the modern formulations of patrimony and subsequent layers of collective memory based upon myths constructed during the First World War. As she put it:
The rationale for ending this discussion with a brief consideration of the modern history of medieval churches has much to do with the multiple ways in which Europe makes ideological and economic use of its patrimony. In nineteenth-century France, the church and its monuments were rescued as a matter of state policy for nation-state building aimed at social consensus, projected as a uniform national identity rooted in the medieval past. It should be no surprise, although certainly disconcerting, that at the beginning of the twenty-first century there remains the space for a dispute over whether the European Union, potentially a post-nation-state entity, should characterize itself as Christian in heritage, notwithstanding all those deadly medieval and modern exclusions thereby erased, and that the leading advocates should be countries with less than stellar credentials, while elsewhere in the world, under the banner of religion and nation state, the same deadly exclusions are brutally pursued. Perhaps we can be relieved that Charlemagne’s empire, also invoked for post-war Franco-German reconciliation by a joint exhibition at Aachen (or Aix-la-Chapelle, depending on nationality, and side stepping the notorious Charlemagne Brigade), is not counted among the models for the new Europe and its struggling constitution.
Of course, this text was written in 2006 and much has changed about the identity of the European Union, as the propriety of its very existence has been called into question. More so than when Abou-El-Haj first wrote, there is a crisis of ideologies in France (and elsewhere in Europe) that stems from resistance to non-Christian cultures (particularly hostility to non-white immigrants to Europe), monolithic beliefs about Muslim terrorism, and hate crimes against Jewish citizens.
- How do you understand Abou-El-Haj’s drive to analyze the political uses of the medieval past in light of events in Europe in 2015 and 2016? Do you think it is appropriate to consider nineteenth- and early twentieth-century medievalism in relation to the current rise in nationalism and right wing political movements in Europe?