Middle Ages Modern Is a New Aesthetic for Our Increasingly Medieval Times
Last week, an early medieval burial site—since characterized as one of the most significant ever excavated in the UK—was discovered. Buried alongside its inhabitant from the Middle Ages was an intricate necklace of striking craftsmanship and complexity, made of wrought gold, garnets, and other semi-precious stones. It looked like something the popular jewelry brand Mondo Mondo might make. I’ve been taking note of a rising design trend that spans the realms of jewelry, fashion, and art. If you ask me, a major shift is afoot, and it appears to be taking us down an enchanting path, one far away from the Nickelodeon-ified postmodern and Peeps colored palettes that somehow managed to curdle the Ultrafragola in all its glory. (I won’t say good riddance, but I dare declare I’m ready to move on.)
While I’ve never particularly wanted a canopy bed, lately I can’t help but wonder if I might sleep more soundly, wake more peacefully, and make love more ravishingly beneath sloping damasks and tousled in sumptuous silks. Blame the change of seasons if you must, but I chalk it up to more than just a brisk breeze. Whereas cottagecore—an undeniable reigning trend of the pandemic era—might have pointed to our collective longing for cozy and pastoral vibes, the emergence of this new aesthetic points to a tougher, more dramatic, and even mystical turn.
TikTok, being the lightning rod of fledgling trends that it is, is already awash in the aesthetic which is being called castlecore. The hashtag has garnered 43 million views, spanning candlelit goth intonations and glittering fairytale fantasies. #MedievalTikTok has commanded 4.4 billion views. I’ve settled on the term Middle Ages Modern (MAM) to define this aesthetic for interiors.
The medieval era, often referred to as the Middle Ages or the Dark Ages, is bracketed between the fall of Rome in the fourth century through the beginning of the Renaissance in the early 16th century, a dizzying sprawl of time. To make matters even more expansive, it’s a particularly permeable period and genre within our collective imagination thanks to fantasy films and mythical tales. Where real medieval history ends and medieval myth begins can be hard for the average pleb to pin down. This intermingling impacts the way we experience and process a so-called medieval aesthetic. It might just be one of the few visual languages that someone without any knowledge of an art history background can point out. (Suspending strict academic definitions, it’s a bit of a “you know it when you see it” kind of thing.)
Larisa Grollemond, a curator in the Manuscripts Department at the Getty Museum who recently contributed to an exhibit called “The Fantasy of the Middle Ages,” notes that Medievalisms—the remixing of aspects of medieval art, architecture, and literature—are “a staple of our collective cultural knowledge.” Thanks to representations of the period in film, television, video games, and a huge variety of other media, this world is “easy to reach for” when we’re hungry for a new aesthetic. Within the collectible design space, a growing class of contemporary designers appears to be gravitating toward this world too, creating work that points to a longing for rawness and permanence, protection, and perhaps a bit of escapism.