"Most gentle, indeed, but most virile": the medievalist Pacifism of George Arnold Wood



Publication Details

D'Arcens, L, '"Most gentle, indeed, but most virile": the medievalist Pacifism of George Arnold Wood', in Altschul, N and Davis, K (eds), Medievalisms in the postcolonial world: the idea of "the middle ages" outside Europe, Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore, 2009, 80.


IT IS WIDELY ACCEPTED TODAY that modern conceptions of medieval chivalry were vital to the formulation of an iconography and an ethics of British imperial military engagement. In his recent study Bloody Good: Chivalry, Sacrifice, and the Great War, Allen J. Frantzen says "Two prolonged conflicts of the English Middle Ages were often remembered during the Great War: the Crusades ... and the Hundred Years' War ... The Crusades were a particularly rich point of reference for art and writing associated with the war, for crusading was a mixture of holy warfare and religious observance." In the performative and literary culture of colonial Australia, a martial vision of the medieval period was frequently evoked in the service of apologias not just for wars fought in the service of empire but more generally for everyday colonial dirty work: trade, occupation of land and indigenous dispossession, and the pedagogic dissemination of British ideology. Pastoral colonists were fancifully portrayed as AngloNorman conquerors, merchants as chivalric champions in the field of imperial industry, and educators as knights-errant hacking valiantly through the thickets of colonial ignorance. Yet the ideological elasticity of medievalism as a cultural discourse means that one also finds examples where the European Middle Ages have been instrumentalized to offer criticisms of imperial practice. The controversial career of Australian historian and pacifist George Arnold Wood (1865 - 1928), in particular his public1ectures on St. Francis of Assisi, provides a chapter in a less-considered counterhistory in which the European Middle Ages has been brought into the service of antimilitary and anti-imperial protest. Written and first delivered during the Boer War (1899-1902), Wood's interpretation of Francis's life can be read not only as a veiled though resolute criticism of Australia's involvement in this imperial conflict but also as a more general commentary on imperial military engagement and, indeed, the inequities of the imperial relationship itself. In Wood's hands, medievalism is detached from the British imperialist agenda and becomes a resistant practice, enacting proleptically what Simon Gikandi has described as the double imperative of the postcolonial literary project: "to mark a space of local identity in the language of the other and to reroute the signifiers of colonialism.

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