Anton Petter: König Przemysl Ottokars Sohn Wenzel bittet Rudolf von Habsburg um die Leiche seines 1278 in der Schlacht bei Dürnkrut gefallenen Vaters (Wien, Österreichische Galerie), 1826, Öl auf Leinwand, 180 x 222 cm)  
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The project

is dedicated to explore the “archaic”, “medievalist” alternatives to antiquity that developed in the course of the nineteenth century. The Napoleonic cult of Roman or Egyptian Antiquity, and the rival varieties of nineteenth century “national antiquities” were paralleled and occasionally superseded by a newfangled admiration of archaic barbarian vestiges and medieval (Romanesque-Gothic) heritage.

Due to their ethnic and local-regional taint these traditions were more prone to become building blocks of the self-affirming national identities than the universalist legacy of classical antiquity. Our project proposes to analyze the varieties of this reaction against the cult of classical traditions in nineteenth century Europe in a comparative context. Such manifestations were obviously virulent in those regions where the “classical roots” were weaker or fully inexistent (Northern and East-Central Europe). Still, they were perhaps the most articulated in the influential “intermediary” zone of Germany, and they were not absent from such classically based territories as France (with its Gallic tradition) and Great-Britain (with its Celtic, Gaelic traditions) or South-Eastern Europe (where existing classical vestiges mingled with trends of Orientalism in the Ottoman Empire or the Bulgarian interest in Oriental, Turkic Proto-Bulgarians). In this age of the construction of national(ist) visions of the past, the appropriation of these traditions (or their outright invention/imagination, to speak with Eric Hobsbawm and Benedict Anderson) showed many similarities. The archaic and medieval traditions were frequently considered to be good alternatives to the dominating classical canon (they might have promised to reverse what was seen the Tyranny of Greece over Germany, to quote E.M. Butler's famous work), they offered a heritage more impregnated by “national character”. The project terms these two competing history-based value systems, the classical and the archaic/medievalist one, with François Hartog two distinct nineteenth-century “regimes of historicity.”

We will add a further dimension to our analysis: a general philosophical-aesthetic background. Here we would find the opposition of a Winckelmann-based „Apollonian” vision of Greek antiquity and a “Dionysian”, “orientalist” reading of this same tradition from Hamann to Nietzsche, and, in addition, the alternative approach to archaic and folkloric values by Herder. This could be complemented by an attentive examination of the process, how in the various branches of the emerging humanities (historiography, philology, archaeology, art history, comparative linguistics, folklore studies, etc.) the medieval and the archaic vestiges were gradually gaining academic, cultural and political respectability as central constituents of the “national antiquities”. In the first decades of the nineteenth century the related controversies got mixed and amplified by the aesthetic strife between Classicists and Romantics. As recent analysts (such as Reinhard Koselleck and Otto-Gerhard Oexle) have pointed out, the emerging medievalism of this period was far from being regressive; the real function of the rediscovered or invented Middle Ages was rather a definition of modernity by historical imagery and historicist reasoning. This characterisation seems to fit more or less the whole of Europe. The French case, epitomized by Chateaubriand, Victor Hugo, Thierry, Guizot, Viollet le Duc, and Michelet, could be considered as the most articulate model for this phenomenon. It is no surprise, however, if we find that the comparative weight of historicist national imagery, medievalism and rediscovered archaic vestiges was even greater in the regions we should like to focus upon: in Northern, East-Central and South-Eastern Europe.

For a detailed description of the project click here


Collegium Budapest. Institute for Advanced Study

a focus group project of Collegium Budapest


a project kindly sponsored by the Bank of Sweden Tercentenary Foundation


© Collegium Budapest, 2008-2009