Relics of the Tasmanian Gothic: Medieval Artefacts in Medievalist Australia

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Relics of the Tasmanian Gothic: Medieval Artefacts in Medievalist Australia
Nicholas Dean Brodie

University of Tasmania

This paper explores two objects in Tasmania and their relationships with Australian medievalism. One, a neo-gothic window, was later thought to be genuinely medieval. The other, apparently a Norman-era baptismal font, was only recently identified as being ancient. Through the way these items were treated and understood when installed and subsequently, this paper grapples with two main themes. Firstly, the possibility of confessional differences between Catholic and Anglican medievalist practices of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Secondly, the key problem of how Australian medievalism, generally held to be inspired and influenced by the absence of immediate medieval remains, understood and treated tangible medieval European artefacts in Australia.

Two objects crafted in Europe were subsequently shipped to the colony of Van Diemen’s Land (Tasmania) where they were installed in sandstone churches. One, a neo-gothic creation of the 1840s, was later believed to be genuinely medieval. Complex narratives of origin developed, and popular belief that the object was actually from the fourteenth century prevailed against critical scepticism. The provenance of the other object, most likely a genuine product of Norman craftsmanship, was of little interest at the time of its installation or subsequently. This seeming lack of awareness or interest in the second object’s origins is striking considering it is located in a neo-gothic building. These two objects, their stories, and the mythology built around one of them, are the subjects of this paper.

Without attempting to be overly prescriptive, it is fair to note that studies of Australian (and colonial Australian) medievalism can be broadly divided into three key thematic areas. There are those interested in a) the material fabric of Australia’s neo-gothic built heritage, b) medievalist literary expressions (increasingly broadly conceived), and c) other forms of affective or performative medievalism (frequently communal).1 Clearly the categories often overlap. But thus far, other than studies of particular manuscripts or manuscript collections, there has not been a significant focus on the actual material medieval European heritage within Australia and how such objects related to medievalist endeavours or conceptualisations.2 In fact, isolation, absence, and distance from the medieval past (geographically and chronologically) are, within current scholarship, common explanations for colonial and Australian medievalism generally and for their specifically localised forms.

In places such as Australia, where the archaeological and material traces of an in situ medieval past are necessarily absent, this absence, and the sense of historical discontinuity that accompanies it, are the conditions on which all medievalist practice is predicated.3

In part, while Australian medievalism certainly often inflects the intangibility and un-immediacy of the medieval past for most people in Australia, this is not always the case. Medieval manuscripts are a good example. For this paper, however, I want to commence an exploration into the relationships between the neo-gothic and the materially ‘gothic’ in Australia with some non-text examples. I want to understand more broadly medievalist treatments of and attitudes towards the genuinely medieval. If absence is an important part of Australian medievalist expression, then how does Australian medievalism deal with presence?

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