The past is a foreign country: Medievalism and Time Travel Narratives

by Dr. Sarah Böhlau (University of Bamberg)

From the moment the time travel narrative entered human imagination at the end of the 19th century, opening doors to both past and future, the medieval period has held a special point of interest for many storytellers. Despite or even because of their often demonstratively constructed alterity, the Middle Ages have proven to be one of the most popular time travel destinations. Time travel narratives to the medieval past provide an exceptionally rich and unique contribution to medievalism, demonstrating the deeply complex relationship between Modernity and the Middle Ages.

To this day, the Middle Ages remain the object of time-travelling desire and attract a multitude of time travellers. The epoch appears as an often nebulous historical space in which historical facts are mixed with supposed historical facts and are shaped and overlaid by prejudice and narrative tropes.

Since time travel stories share many traits with traditional travel narratives, there is a central element of culture clash: the time traveller is ultimately a visitor to a strange land. Unsurprisingly, the opening line of L. P. Hartley’s 1967 novel, The Go-Between, has become surprisingly popular for those examining time travel narratives and their dealings with the past: ‘The past is a foreign country. They do things differently there’ (1953: 17). It is both ironic and fitting that Hartley’s novel does not feature any kind of time travel in the science-fictional sense. Instead, the novel features an older man piecing together an episode of his youth by reading his old diary, remarking on both the strangeness and irrecoverableness of the past.

David Lowenthal challenges the inherent nostalgia: ‘If the past is a foreign country, nostalgia has made it the foreign country with the healthiest tourist trade of all. But like other tourists, those to the past imperil the object of their quest’ (1985: 3).But nostalgia – the unfulfilled yearning for the past – is based on the unattainability of the desired. This aspect becomes obsolete the moment a time travel within the narrative succeeds. The essential aspect of the past – it being unapproachable – is therefore erased. Constructing the past as an open space thus opens up an entirely new form of engagement for us. In the Introduction to The Time Traveller’s Guide to Medieval England (2008), his study of late medieval England in form of a travel guide, historian Ian Mortimer emphasises that ‘As soon as you start to think of the past happening (as opposed to it having happened), a new way of conceiving history becomes possible’ (2009: 1).

This is an especially seductive concept for the Middle Ages, a time period so distant it can only be accessed by speculation. As medievalists, we are painfully aware that what we understand as the Middle Ages is largely a construct put together by examining historical sources, myths, references and a few solid facts obtained with scientific methods. In other words, we have only an imagination of the medieval period.

Image by by Sarah Böhlau
Image created by Alexander Pelz

The long time difference makes the most direct connections between time traveller and the medieval setting difficult. The connections tend to be bound to objects and places rather than persons or events. He might meet his own ancestors, but hardly with the same emotional value as meeting his own father as a child. But the medieval castle, whose dungeons the time traveller narrowly escaped in the past may house his boarding school in the present. The skeleton found by archeologists in the present may have been his adversary in the past. The figure in the background of a painting the time traveller has admired in a museum turns out to be himself.

As a construct within time travel narratives, the Middle Ages appear twofold: first the time traveller’s bias, representing an example of Modernity’s notions of the time period. The time traveller has only his contemporary knowledge about medieval life, mostly mixed with some romantic colours, prejudices and heavily influenced by popular culture. These notions are often oriented at one of two extremes: the ‘Dark Ages’ (dirty, brutal and ignorant) and the ‘Age of Chivalry’ (romantic and noble). The protagonists carry these notions into the foreign era of the past, putting them to the test within the space opened up by time travel, which claims the authority of being the authentic Middle Ages within the narrative world. It is a culture clash not only between Modernity and Middle Ages but between ‘modern’ Middle Ages and ‘medieval’ Middle Ages.

This confrontation starts with literature’s very first time traveller to the Middle Ages: Mark Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court (1889). On one hand, Twain was known to be highly critical of the medieval past, which he considered ignorant and miserable, and its romanticisation by his contemporaries. But working on the novel, Twain was also quick to assure a friend that he intended to treat his primary source material (La Morte d’Arthur) with the utmost respect: ‘Of course in my study I shall leave unsmirched & unbelittled the great & beautiful characters drawn by the master hand of old Malory’ (Wecter 1949: 257).

The time travel narrative allows past and present to be established in synchrony. The 21st century of the time traveller and the medieval past he travels to are now – at least from his point of view – overlapping. A teenage time traveller in the young adult novel Sent, by Margaret Peterson Haddix, literally slips into the body and medieval consciousness of a young boy in the 14th century, later describing the experience of two parallel mindsets functioning in perfect harmony:

I could look at the stars and know that they are lightyears away, that they’re red giants or yellow dwarfs, that they’re the products of nuclear fusion – but also think that they were painted by God, on a tapestry. I even thought that the stars resolved around the earth! (2009: 44).

It is in young adult literature that the spatialisation of time manifested in time travel narratives and the often heightened importance of liminal spaces in adolescent storytelling intertwine: historical space becomes a threshold space that enables adolescents to develop and search for their identity.

Rituals prove themselves as important support structures for the time travellers, as core concepts of human interaction, for instance hosting a guest or watching a sporting event together, can be applied across timelines. Culture and society are also concepts of central importance in adolescence, as the confrontation with the adult world entails the development of individuality and gender images. The fantastic metaphor of a journey through time, in which time and space are combined to provide a new cultural space for development, thus opens up a variety of narrative possibilities for the theme of self-discovery that is central to adolescent literature.

Stephen Guthrie attributes retrochronological time travel a colonialistically colored ‘temporal Orientalism’ (2015: 99). Like the orient of Orientalism, the foreign epoch serves as a projection surface for very different discourse. In the novel Lest Darkness Fall by L. Sprague de Camp (1939), for example, the Middle Ages are a horrific chapter among the history of civilisation, which the time traveller seeks to erase. Daphne du Maurier’s nostalgic dreamer in The House on the Strand (1969), on the other hand, finds the past of the 14th century a welcome distraction from his unfulfilling life in the present. When he is finally able to escape the spell of the strange time, the physical side effects of his time travels have cost him the ability to participate in modern life. Connie Willis’ Doomsday Book (1996) parallels the timelessness of human suffering and human connection. In Michael Crichton’s Timeline (1999), moral concerns and the safety of those involved are subordinated to the goal of a commercial exploitation of the past in the form of a theme park built in the Middle Ages. However, far from a docile building space, the foreign epoch quickly reveals itself to be both independent and lethal. On the other hand, in the novel Das Cusanus-Spiel (2005) by the German author Wolfgang Jeschke, the salvation of the human future itself lies in the medieval past: the seeds of long-extinct plants are to be collected there to turn the nuclear-contaminated earth of the present fertile again.

The culture of the Middle Ages and the space that shapes it (and which is in turn shaped by it) appear in the narratives under very different auspices. Regardless of the form that shapes the engagement with the foreign time, there is always an element of cultural bridging necessary. The Middle Ages is always the space of the Other, even if the elements of the otherness can be defused.


Steve Guthrie, ‘Time Travel, Pulp Fictions, and Changing Attitudes About the Middle Ages: Why You Can’t Get Renaissance On Somebody’s Ass’, Medieval Afterlives and Contemporary Culture, ed. Gail Ashton (London: Bloomsbury 2015)

Leslie Poles Hartley, The Go-Between (New York: NYRB Classics, 1953)

David Lowenthal, The Past is a Foreign Country (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 1985)

Ian Mortimer, The Time Traveller’s Guide to Medieval England: A Handbook for Visitors to the Fourteenth Century (London: Vintage 2009)

Margaret Peterson Haddix, Sent (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2009)

Dicton Wecter, ed., Mark Twain to Mrs. Fairbank (San Marino, CA: Huntington Library, 1949)

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