The article by Cory Grewell in The Inklings & King Arthur begins by reminding me of an old essay by Umberto Eco that takes a swipe at Tolkien’s “neo-medievalism”. Grewell agrees with Eco (and Tom Shippey) that some kind of medievalism is happening here: “Certainly both The Lord of the Rings and The Fall of Arthur are both readily identifiable as instances of ‘devotion to medieval ideals.'” (p.221)
Despite the fact that Grewell is building on the work of some of my favorite scholars, I feel like I need to push back on this. JRRT is certainly talking about the Middle Ages, but not in isolation. LotR relates the medieval world to many other periods of history. Nowhere in Middle-earth is exactly like a real-earth culture, but we can infer a place’s spot in history by focusing on its role in the story. Let’s take a tour and see who’s where on the real-earth timeline.
Their role in the story is military. They speak Anglo-Saxon, live in Anglo-Saxon houses, and fight with weapons you can see on the Bayeux Tapestry. Inference: Medieval
The only important thing about Dol Amroth is military. Imrahil is wearing the armor of a 15th century knight. Inference: Medieval
Minas Tirith has both military and cultural roles in the story. Their fighting style could be from any time between the Marian reforms and the invention of mounted knights. They have a monumental scale of construction. They wear high-crowned helms. A big part of the city is ostentatious mausoleum facilities. They have legible 3,000-year-old scrolls in the library. (see also Letter #211) Inference: Roman Egypt
Hobbits are in no way medieval. They wear 18th-Century clothing. The Shire is dominated by a civilian aristocracy. It is supported by freehold agriculture. The Shire was easily nudged into a fossil-fuel economy by Saruman, so it couldn’t have been far from one to start with. Michel Delving has a public museum. Their military technology is medieval, but with a couple of individual exceptions, hobbits’ role in the story is anything but military. Inference: 18th Century
We get no explicit textual indications about Bree, but from the descriptions of the Prancing Pony my mental image was a Tudor half-timbered building. This is bolstered by the fact that alehouses with painted signs were a 16th Century invention. Bree is not a mono-ethnic state. Narratively and historio-technologically, it is a transition between the Shire and Arnor. Inference: 16th Century
Arnor contains conspicuous ruins of a civilization far above anything the inhabitants could reconstruct. It is depopulated. If we knew more about plagues hitting Europe in Late Antiquity, we could pin down Arnor’s location in history better. The term “dark ages” is deprecated by modern historians, but it seems appropriate here. Inference: Medieval
Its role in the story is military. It is a land of metal and wheels. Its armies used artillery at Helm’s Deep. Beechbone was attacked by napalm. Uruk-hai are products of biotechnology. [ETA: via the self-correcting Internet, I am informed that Treebeard was wrong about this – the Uruk were created by Sauron about 500 years earlier.] Inference: 20th-Century Europe
To the denizens of Mordor, the most frightening threat is to be reported to faceless authorities. Though they are militarily advanced, they are technologically backward. They live among wholesale environmental destruction. Mordor has an array of subjugated satellite nations, but it is not an empire. Inference: Mid-20th-Century Soviet bloc
Elves are timeless, and what we see of their societies doesn’t conform well with anything I know of human history. Militarily they’re medieval, and have been since the dawn of time. Socially they’re all over the place. Some elves live under almost-human monarchies, but I’m not sure what to call Rivendell. A certain looseness of organization might be expected when governmental succession is a trivial detail, instead of the most important decision a society has to make. Elves play equally-important roles as healers and craftsmen, though, and they don’t seem very Medieval at all in those respects. Inference: Vaguely Medieval
Dwarves are difficult to place chronologically. They don’t change, either. “Aulë made the Dwarves even as they still are.” (Silm., ch.2.) Metalworking is surrounded with a magical nimbus in human societies, which sent me to this marvelously-titled paper: “The Faerie Smith Meets the Bronze Industry: Magic Versus Science in the Interpretation of Prehistoric Metal-Making”. In essence, the legends whence the Dwarves sprang originated in the technological transition from bronze to iron. The best match seems to be Neolithic Iran. Inference: New Stone Age
Looked at through this lens, the story in LotR is that an exemplar of the 20th Century is so awful that every other period of history needs to marshal its unique virtues and combine forces to eradicate it. The “return of the king” subplot could be seen as how the medieval societies (Rohan, Rivendell, and Arnor) bring a classical civilization (Gondor) into the medieval period. That’s a fairly weak “devotion to medieval ideals and usages”, if it counts at all. So, from the technological perspective, I think LotR is a neo-medievalist work only at the most superficial (i.e. cinematic) level.