For many European nations, the Middle Ages became the site of their national origins. However, in scholarship of the same era, the period has been subject to infantilizing defamation and dismissal, even by those who claimed to be medievalists. Studies of medieval art and literature, discussion of medieval music, historiography about the period, and so on have assessed the Middle Ages as a time of naïveté, superstition, and violence by individuals who were not fully formed. To this day, the term medieval carries the derogatory connotation of “primitive.” This language is strikingly similar to discourse about colonized and other peoples who were contemporary with the researchers of the period. Focusing on a luminary scholar of the Middle Ages, the art historian Émile Mâle, this essay explores the link between the study of the medieval sense of beauty and the discourse concerning the aesthetics of the art of colonized and indigenous peoples to consider a particular dynamic of European identity formation around the turn of the twentieth century. It argues that the medieval self, pushed away by the teleological model of history, pulled in by nationalism, ruptures and leads to recognition of an unstable European identity.

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