Late nineteenth-century Americans viewed medieval England as a benchmark for their own era. Some critics condemned England in the Middle Ages as a barbaric and starkly unequal society that anticipated the class- and race-based struggles of the Gilded Age. For many, though, medieval England represented a simpler, more vital, and heroic age, free from the ills of contemporary life such as its greed, artifice, and spiritual bankruptcy. Medievalism offered Americans across all sectors of society a regressive retreat from the modern world as well as a rubric for revitalizing the national culture. Artists and reformers established craft workshops on the model of medieval guilds, as a counterpoint to the dangerous and dehumanizing conditions endemic to the burgeoning factory system. Architects in the US chose the English Gothic style for houses, churches, and universities. Wealthy industrialists decorated their opulent residences with medieval tapestries and armor, fancying themselves a new American nobility to rival the great feudal families of England. Even children were swept up in the rage for medievalism: they thrilled to writer and illustrator Howard Pyle’s bestselling books based on English folklore, The Merry Adventures of Robin Hood (1883) and The Story of King Arthur and His Knights (1903).
Cope & Stewardson (American architectural firm, 1885–1912), detail of Competition entry: Brookings building section, 1899. Blueprint, 11 3/4 x 26 in. Washington University Architectural Plans, University Archives, Washington University Libraries.