decorated initial 'M' orris, who believed that he had been "born out of his due time," despised Victorian society: "Apart from my desire to produce beautiful things," he wrote, "the leading passion of my life has been and is hatred of modern civilization." His many creative works were attempts either to create environments and atmospheres which would enable him to avoid or to escape from that civilization — he would find refuges in the idealized mediaeval Past which appears both his poetry and his prose, in an idealized Utopian Socialist Future which owed a great deal to that Past, and, ultimately, in work itself — or, ultimately, direct attempts to change it for the better. Morris's work reflects his belief that the Mediaeval Past held all of the values — heroism, chivalry, beauty, and love — which made life worth living; all the values which his own age (in which industrial capitalism, in the process of creating a spiritually dead society, was busily violating the human spirit) so conspicuously lacked.

Before Morris's day there had already been a revival, amongst the aristocracy, of Mediaeval Gothic; a revival which was at least in part a reaction against earlier Neo-classical emphases. The great Romantics whom Morris admired so greatly — Keats, Shelley, and Coleridge, for example — had already brought a mediaeval emphasis to their poetry, and Scott had already written his Waverley Novels, of which Morris, at a very early age, was an avid reader.

It would be Carlyle (especially in his Past and Present, with its blistering attack on capitalism, and its emphasis on the nobility of labor) and Morris's "Master" Ruskin (in his The Stones of Venice, which emphasized the intimate relationship which existed between art and the society which created it), however, who would provide him with the basis for his portrait of a Mediaeval society which was all that his own grotesque age was not — organic, communal, pre-capitalistic, and pre-industrial. This emphasis on Mediaevalism would recur in his literary work and lead him to the moral and aesthetic premises underlying Morris & Co. and, eventually, to a militant Socialism.

The medievalism of William Morris takes many forms in his artistic and literary works. His designs for furniture, textiles, wallpaper, and stained glass all take the form of medieval revivals. His late prose fantasies, however, show a more complex relation to the past, because although knights appear in works, such as The Water of the Wonderous Isles, they are not the knights of medieval romance or the medieval revival, and for his ideal Morris turns to the pre-feudal society of democratic Germanic tribes. Even his most revivalist works sought, as Duncan Robinson points out, not antiquarian reconstructions but a means of recapturing the high standards and energy of the medieval craftsman:

Like many of the designs for furnishings for which Morris was responsible, Kelmscott books looked backwards to the standards and conventions observed by late medieval craftsmen. For Morris this was not a dry antiquarian preoccupation but an opportunity to recapture the freshness of vision and the dedication to his skills that were attributed by romantic critics of the nineteenth century to the medieval artisan. Like a number of his contemporaries, Morris saw the Middle Ages through the eyes of John Ruskin, whose famous chapter in The Stones of Venice, 'On the Nature of Gothic', had appeared while Morris was an undergraduate at Oxford, in 1853. As much an indictment of the Industrial Revolution as a celebration of medieval architecture, it was hailed by Morris as 'one of the very few necessary and inevitable utterances of the century'. He supported the claim in 1892 when On the Nature of Gothic was printed as an independent work at the Kelmscott Press. [13]

Related Material


Robinson, Duncan. William Morris, Edward Burne-Jones, and The Kelmscott Chaucer. London: Gordon Fraser, 1982; Mt. Kisco, N.Y.: Moyer Bell, nd.

Written 1987; last modified 15 December 2002