‘J. K. Rowling’s Medievalism’

Our wont here is to discuss Ms. Rowling’s postmodern themes and her use of Christian symbolism and alchemical imagery and story structure to advance these themes and criticism. Over on the “New for Medievalists” weblog, they take a different view. Among the subjects in their ‘Call for Papers for the 2009 International Congress on International Studies’ is “J. K. Rowling’s Medievalism.” I confess I was as intrigued by a few of the other subjects (Beowulf as Children’s Literature; The Serbian Middle Ages: Between Byzantium and the West; Beyond Beer and Celibacy: Exploring Monastic Productions) but a few thoughts come to mind about Medieval Harry.

(1) The Arthurian Romance elements of the Potter saga are numerous; when combined with the idea of a Grail-Horcrux Quest in Deathly Hallows and the Hero’s Journey structure of every year Harry has at Hogwarts, I think there is indeed plenty of material for a medievalist to feast on.

(2) I wonder, though, if the topic isn’t confusing the Gothic Novel genre elements in the books and the “medieval imagination” qualities a la C. S. Lewis with real Medievalism per se. Literary alchemy, Christian story-points and touchstones, and a spooky castle with witches and cauldrons don’t make an author a dinosaur nostalgic for life in caste and in church.

(3) Is anyone else curious if, even suspicious that this exploration of Ms. Rowling’s work from the Medieval niche of Academia will be spreading out from “literature” and “culture studies,” where most of the writing has been done thus far, to every corner of the Ivory Tower? I don’t think this is a bad thing; certainly Daniel Nexon’s views as a political scientist were fascinating and enlightening to this reader. But could it also become comic as everyone jumps on board to share what their field has to offer? Oceanographers, Depth Psychologists, and Nerve Cell Biologists, for example, could all contribute an idea or two…

The Medievalists, though, to risk repeating myself, do have something valuable to tell serious readers if they only detail the Arthurian backdrop to the stories. Ms. Rowling, as much as she uses explicitly medieval elements (think ‘Black family tapestry’ and ‘house-elves as serfs’) is critiquing as much as embodying the perspective of that era.

As always, I await your comments and corrections. I especially look forward to hearing from a medievalist, if there are any in today’s audience; please forward to your favorite Sir Cadogan for his or her thoughts.

(Thanks to L.O.O.N.y Linda for this news item — and Happy Birthday, Daniel Radcliffe!)


  1. I think your analysis here is on the mark. I do love the idea of medievalist experts doing work on the series, but you’re correct to say that can only go so far, because she’s critiquing a medieval mindset as much as she’s borrowing elements from it. I don’t think it would be accurate to say she shares Tolkien’s love of pre-modernity, for example.

    When we launched the new Hog’s Head website, on commenter said he didn’t like the banner, because it didn’t feel medieval enough. I said, “Precisely the point, and why I like it. This looks like a modern version of something medieval.” Or, perhaps better said – a modern town with more lingering medieval elements than in our muggle cities.

    In her critique of modernism – because ultimately, Rowling is critiquing both modernism and postmodernism at points – she chose to mythologize one particular oppressed group of medievalism (witches and wizards).

    I also think there’s danger of every area of academia writing up an HP book. I think where there’s evidence in the text that Rowling did her research, there should be articles and books; but there’s definitely going to be the temptation for folks to take it too far. It’s already frustrating enough to watch someone who took one course in one subject try to cram all those newly-found ideas into HP and present them at a conference somewhere, with little to no understanding of the series in the first place.

  2. Thanks for the link, John, and for your thoughts on it–and Travis. I really don’t know enough about it to comment, but I did look at their site. My question is who are they? Are they medievalist scholars? fans? What is their purpose? It looks interesting, but I couldn’t tell whether they are posting information that they have just pulled from the internet or news stories or if they actually have some academic inside sources for what they are posting.

    Pat (just curious, more than anything)

  3. My brother wrote a lengthy essay on the subject of wandlore for Scribbulus.com. One topic he addressed was the relationship of the chivalric code to wandlore. I hope the (very truncated) extracts below evoke some of the medieval elements in HP. (I have omitted detailed references to source material)

    …Nicolas Flamel (1330-1418) and the legend of the Philosopher’s Stone, Hogwarts founded over a thousand years ago,the Great Hall, the suits of armour throughout the castle, the banquets, etc. conjure a particularly medieval contextual setting and of course alchemy reached its apogee in medieval Europe. The wand is conquered,the previous owner disarmed, all indicate a violent and hierarchical context in which the parameters for wandlore have been set.

    Wand Allegiance

    All the terms that apply to wandlore offer insights into wizard culture but allegiance is one of the most revealing, and fortunately Rowling went into some detail in an interview as to how it applied to mastering the Elder Wand:

    “To truly own the Elder Wand, which means to receive the full benefits, double-edged though it is, of all its power, you have to have conquered the previous owner,explained Rowling. At the end of Book 6, Half-Blood Prince,Draco disarmed Dumbledore before Snape killed Dumbledore. And that meant he [Draco] conquered him, even though Dumbledore was very weak at the time, he was very ill. He was on the point of collapse when it happened,Rowling said. Dumbledore didn’t want to lose his wand at that point and Draco disarmed him. So that meant the wand gave Draco its allegiance, even though Draco never touched it. From that moment on, that wand gave its allegiance to Draco, and it wouldn’t work as well for anyone but Draco.”

    The historical context for the use of the term allegiance in wandlore is discernibly medieval. Rowling focuses on the word allegiance to describe the Elder Wand’s transference of mastery over it from Dumbledore to Draco and finally to Harry. This appears to imply an independent existence if not the ability to make independent choices. Although allegiance in the modern sense can refer to a citizen swearing fidelity to the flag or Constitution, in feudal society it meant the obligations of a vassal to his liege lord, which is an accurate description of the relationship between wand and wizard: one is called master the other is a subject, vassal, or servant. Rowling’s description of the wand as merely a vehicle a vessel for what lies inside the person confirms its subservient position within wizard culture.

    For a wizard to become the true master of a wand, the wand’s previous owner has to be disarmed or conquered and the wand has to be captured or won in the medieval sense, by some form of combat. Both Harry and Dumbledore physically wrestle and duel with their opponents exhibiting courage, or more precisely chivalry, before they become true masters of their wands.

    The lesson in relation to the Elder Wand is clear: to become a true master of power one must not seek it, but should power be thrust upon you, you must render it impotent.In other words one must exhibit all the qualities of the chivalrous knight: courage, honour, justice, and a willingness to help the weak before one can become a true master of the Elder Wand.

    Dumbledore and Harry epitomise the spirit of Godric Gryffindor, or as the Sorting Hat explains:

    You might belong in Gryffindor,
    Where dwell the brave at heart,
    Their daring, nerve and chivalry
    Set Gryffindors apart.

    (there follows examples of chivalrous qualities, including the notion that the condition of one’s soul is of greater concern than the condition of one’s body).It appears that one of Dumbledore’s priorities was to save Harry’s soul by doing all he could to get Voldemort to kill Harry (thus destroying Voldermort’s own parasitic soul-fragment and so leave Harry pure of soul).

    If we use Gryffindor chivalry as a motivational guide to Dumbledore’s plan we can discern the first priority as the need to destroy the Horcruxes and Voldemort’s soul fragment within Harry (defend the weak), the second priority would be to save Harry’s soul (justice, honour), the third hope would be that by not fighting back, by sacrificing himself, Harry might offer some form of protection, from Voldemort alone, to those Harry loved, or even possibly those defending Hogwarts (courage, defend the weak), and the fourth hope would be that Lily’s enchantment may even allow Harry to return, whole, to rejoin the fight (courage).

    Snape made the Unbreakable Vow with Narcissa to protect Draco, on pain of death, in the full knowledge that it was Voldemort’s intention to sacrifice Draco as a punishment for Lucius’s failures. This appears to be a suicidal act on the part of Snape but becomes altogether different when seen as a chivalrous improvisation upon a larger plan.

    Snape was recognised by Dumbledore as potentially chivalrous and exceptionally brave,both men combined and embodied characteristics of Gryffindor and Slytherin.

  4. ‘Chivalry for Postmoderns’? I love it. Excellent post! Hats off to your brother, SeaJay. Is there a url to the original so we can read the whole thing?

  5. John, I am very happy that you enjoyed the extracts. The essay was a labour of love for my brother and he will be pleased as punch if more people read it!

    The link is:


    The essay is part of December 2007 and is titled ‘Still got your wand in a knot?’

  6. Coppinger Bailey says


    Thank you for sharing this! I love this insight on the Elder wand story in particular: “to become a true master of power one must not seek it, but should power be thrust upon you, you must render it impotent.” What a lesson!!! We should all be so fortunate as to have that one sink in a little deeper.

    And John, hang in there on the Dante! I, for one, want to read more about those connections, but am too ignorant to comment on it. Or at least my pride keeps me from typing knowingly-ignorant posts. 🙂

    I do think you’re on to something about the “architecture” of the Divine Comedy and how important that is to the delivery of the work. It’s like a deep symbolism of design embedded in the foundation and framing compared to images painted on the wall surface you’re looking at. That’s the only simple way I can describe it. See, there I go…. stopping now!!!

  7. I love this thread and I am sure there is a quality of «medieval air» in the HP-books which is positively intended by the author herself.

    Of course Travis is right that things may be overdone. I heard a Luther scholar a few years ago complaining that research produced «an idealist Martin Luther», «an existentialist Martin Luther», «a marxist Martin Luther» and «a feminist Martin Luther». The field is ripe with possible overdoings.

    On the other hand: Always checking an interpretation against canon is usually the best way to secure oneself against overdoing. Reading the SeaJay study above was, also in that respect, a big pleasure. That seems to be a vise way to identify medieval ideas (and their limitations).

    Yours Odd
    (Bergen, Norway)

  8. I had started to reply to this thread days ago, but got interrupted at the time.

    In regards to the question posed by Eeyore (Pat),

    The News for Medievalists blog culls a lot of news items from various media organizations. I don’t know if the people behind that blog are academics or simply devotées because their main website is down for maintenance and I cannot verify that information.

    However, the conference they culled that list of titles has been around for over forty years and is the highlight of the calendar year for many medievalists. Here’s a link to the page which has the Call for Papers and an icon for a PDF file which is a 34 page document.


    Here is a description from that same site about the Medieval Congress:

    “Sponsored Sessions are organized by learned societies, associations, or institutions. The organizers set predetermined topics, often narrowly focused and reflecting the considered aims and interests of the organizing group. Sponsored Sessions are proposed to the Congress Committee on or before May 15 for the following year’s Congress.

    Special Sessions are organized by individual scholars or ad hoc groups. The organizers set predetermined topics, which are often narrowly focused. Special Sessions are proposed to the Congress Committee on or before May 15 for the following year’s Congress.

    General Sessions are organized by the Congress Committee at the Medieval Institute.”

    I follow many different medievalist blogs, including the News for Medievalists blog, and know that this Congress is highly respected. I have never attended that Congress so I cannot speak with firsthand knowledge of how I anticipate such a topic as J.K. Rowling’s Medievalism. However, I would say that it would necessarily depend upon those who submit papers on the subject.

    I can readily see someone who has read the books once (or maybe not the entire series) to make some cursory conclusions and write up a paper without a great knowledge of the Potterverse. It would make fans of the series cringe, but we are used to that with superficial expertise demonstrated time and again in our popular media.

    Then again, it might wind up being over analyzed looking only at one aspect of minutiae while overlooking such important concepts as chivalry which was the topic that SeaJay brought up in his previous reply.

    It really depends upon who decides to submit their ideas and show up. The deadline for submitting a proposal is September 15th.

    Personally, I think that there is far more than just Arthurian legend as a backdrop that is important to emphasize. I would posit the use of hippogriffs and the name Ginevra points to the influence of the legends of Charlemagne as well.


  9. In reply to Coppinger Bailey ..your comment around seeking power reminded me of something G K Chesterton had to say on the subject in his ‘Orthodoxy’:


    “…The one specially and peculiarly un-Christian idea is the idea of Carlyle — the idea that the man should rule who feels that he can rule. Whatever else is Christian, this is heathen. If our faith comments on government at all, its comment must be this — that the man should rule who does not think that he can rule. Carlyle’s hero may say, “I will be king”; but the Christian saint must say “Nolo episcopari.”

    If the great paradox of Christianity means anything, it means this — that we must take the crown in our hands, and go hunting in dry places and dark corners of the earth until we find the one man who feels himself unfit to wear it. Carlyle was quite wrong; we have not got to crown the exceptional man who knows he can rule. Rather we must crown the much more exceptional man who knows he can’t.”

  10. I believe that the Harry Potter series opens itself up to analysis from a medievalist perspective, insofar as the themes of the hero’s coming-of-age via a mentor (in this case, probably Harry Potter via Dumbledore) parallel those of King Arthur’s tutelage under Merlin. Harry has to find his wand, in the same way that Arthur must ‘earn his right’ to his authority and power by plucking out the sword in the stone. This almost totemic form of power via a magical item is arguably ‘medieval’ in origins to an extent.

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