Echoes of the Middle Ages heard in Canada today

Traditionally, the Middle Ages and Medievalism are not associated with Canadian history.


But Kathryn Brush hopes her latest teaching and research project will challenge and expand current narratives about Canadian history and visual culture.


By cutting across historical eras, geographies, cultures and canonical categories, Mapping Medievalism at the Canadian Frontier examines the rich and multidimensional impact of ‘medievalism’ on conceptions and representations of the Canadian frontier in the 19th and early 20th centuries.


“This project not only analyzes diverse forms of medievalism carried to the New World by European colonists, who transformed the Canadian ‘wilderness’ into knowable terms – by constructing medieval-inspired buildings – but also examines ‘medieval’ Canada,” says Brush, who collaborated with 10 M.A. and Ph.D. students from the faculties of Arts and Humanities and Social Sciences for the project.


She adds it provides the graduate students with an opportunity to collaborate with scholars and museum professionals in the creation of knowledge. The mapping of original conceptual territory via classroom debate, primary research and hands-on curatorial work aims to prepare them for future careers in the art and cultural sector.


While medievalism is a large and complex term, in this project it is interpreted as encompassing all that relates to the Middle Ages in Europe (the era from ca. 300 to 1500 CE) as well as the post-medieval reception of the Middle Ages, which took a variety of forms. These included the Romantic cult of ruined monasteries and churches in the visual and literary media, the late 18th and early 19th century Gothic novel and medieval revival architecture of the 19th and 20th centuries.


Brush says the project idea came about as a juried proposal for a special course to be offered in the Department of Visual Arts, to be sponsored by the Cohen Explorations Program in the department.


“I should say that I am trained as a medievalist, and the reinterpretation of Ontario’s history and visual culture through the lens of medievalism seemed to be an extraordinarily rich subject for a teaching and research program,” she says, adding her work toward the project was funded by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada and later the London Heritage Council. 


The project also received support from the Cohen Explorations Program in the Visual Arts Department, the City of London, the dean’s office in the Faculty of Arts and Humanities and the office of the Vice-President (Research & International Relations).


“This is my first foray into the study of Canadian art and culture, and I am trying to apply my knowledge about the European Middle Ages to Canadian circumstances. It is a novel project,” says Brush, whose primary goal is to address and involve a wide range of constituencies, and to provoke new questions and further interpretations through public display and dissemination.


This research initiative takes a multi-layered approach to the material and cognitive ‘mapping’ of medievalism at the Canadian frontier. It explores how diverse medievalisms, ranging from ancient/medieval technologies of transportation invented by Native North Americans (e.g., the canoe and snowshoes) to the colonists’ transformation of immense forests into medievalizing townscapes punctuated by castles and neo-Gothic buildings, have played vital roles in shaping Canadian identity.


Brush will speak about her project 1 p.m. Nov. 28 at Museum London. She hopes people will take from her project a new interpretation of Ontario’s history and visual culture and gain a new appreciation of the diverse ways in which ideas continue to influence our our Canadian identity today. 


Along with the multi-venued exhibition, public programming, art production, a film series and a symposium, a collection of essays on the topic (a 172-page book with 91 colour images) will be available in early December. The $25 book will be available for purchase at the McIntosh Gallery and Museum London. 


“This publication is a seminal part of the project because it will disseminate the knowledge generated by the project to a large local, national, and international audience,” says Brush.

Learn more about Mapping Medievalism at the Canadian Frontier and upcoming events at

The Exhibition


The exhibition, installed simultaneously at three venues in London, brings together objects, artifacts, and texts from diverse contexts and culture – principally medieval, Native, and colonial. It includes literary and historical works, maps, drawings, pottery, and artifacts and sculpture in a variety of materials. The three parts of the exhibition explore a variety of interconnecting themes.  


McIntosh Gallery, (runs through Dec. 11) This exhibition focuses on ‘medieval’ Canada (Native objects from the pre-1550 era) and on later cultural exchanges between Canada’s First Nations and European colonists, especially in the area of transportation technology. This site also features images of Native and Euro-Canadian leaders as well as historical maps and representations of the southern Ontario landscape. The scope of Mapping Medievalism at the Canadian Frontier at this site will be extended by an exhibition on Mapping Iroquoia by the internationally renowned First Nations artists Jeff Thomas and Shelley Niro.  


D. B. Weldon Library (runs through Dec. 11) The Weldon Library possesses one of the finest collections of Canadiana in the country. The John A. Schweitzer Gallery in the Archives and Research Collections Centre highlights some of these treasures, among them primary materials pertaining to the history of the Great Lakes region, and historical and literary texts that influenced the reception of ‘medievalism’ at the Ontario frontier.  


Museum London, (runs through Jan. 16) Medieval objects from the Malcove Collection, University of Toronto Art Centre, and Native objects from the Ontario Museum of Archaeology from approximately the same era (800-1500 CE), are placed together for the first time. This will permit visitors to study and cross-reference the “real” European Middle Ages and the “real” North American Middle Ages, both of which have left distinctive imprints on daily life and culture in Canada today.  


ArtLab and Concourse Gallery, (begins Dec. 2) In the ArtLab and Concourse Gallery in the Department of Visual Arts, a series of exhibitions will feature celebrate the artistic productions of students in the classes of Professors Jazvac, Wood, and Johnson, and textual responses to Mapping Medievalism produced by art history students. An exhibition opening and reception will be held Dec. 2 from 5 to 7 p.m.