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The Lure of the Medieval

Yesterday we visited another medieval fair, this time at a dramatically-placed castle in St. Peter Port in Guernsey. I say “another” because we went to one last week as well, in France.

children playing as medieval knights

children playing as medieval knights

Many of the people at yesterday’s event were dressed up in medieval costumes: women in long dresses, often showing ample cleavage, and men in noblemen’s or knights’ gear. And there were children all over the place, either dressed as princesses or knights.

What is it about that particular time period that draws people to it? After all, there are plenty of other historical periods to interest us. Why not hold an ancient Rome fair? People used to have toga parties, but that was different; it wasn’t an attempt to recreate a time period like these medieval fairs. Or perhaps we could hold a pre-revolutionary France fair. Now that would be a party! Think of the costumes!

Yet it’s the medieval that draws people: knights in shining armor, damsels in distress, castles, dungeons, jousting and so forth. Why?

It’s not like it was a good time in European history, after all. It wasn’t. Plague, famine, feudalism, war, all sorts of cruelty as a matter of course, ignorance, servitude, filth.

It’s that filth part that I think most people edit out of their view of the Middle Ages. There was no modern concept of hygiene. Cities and homes stunk. In cities, the streets were the sewers, and there were rats. People had fleas. They stunk because they didn’t wash much. Their teeth rotted in their mouths so their breath must have stunk. And people died young because of poor hygiene, poor diet, lack of medical care.

Our modern view of the Middle Ages leaves out all of that. The princess is beautiful and healthy. She chooses who she marries instead of getting married off for money or political convenience to some old and/or ugly man. She chooses when to have children and how many. Childbirth isn’t a life-threatening event.

The knight fights only when it’s the right thing to do, and is muscular enough to carry the armor he wears and fight skillfully. He does not die a gory, painful death on a battlefield. He fights in jousts for fun and competition, but never gets seriously injured. He can chew his food because he has all his teeth and they haven’t rotted in his mouth. He marries a woman he loves, who loves him back, rather than one who is politically and/or financially necessary to him.

This is what we imagine, and we always imagine ourselves in the role of the nobility, not the peasants who worked the land. There’s a certain romance in the nobility, not in the peasantry.

My son spent a long time yesterday at a booth where enthusiasts had various weaponry and armor on display, learning all about how each item was used. I asked him why this period interests him. His answer: “Swords and fighting.” He tells me that many modern games are based on the Middle Ages and use the same kinds of weapons.

And yet, I can’t imagine that any of these enthusiasts would really like to be in an actual sword fight to the death.

And what about the women? It’s so extremely anti-feminist to want to take the role of a medieval woman. She serves the man, she does his bidding, her opinion does not matter. As a noblewoman, she’s there to look decorative. And she does that: those dresses are beautiful. But if it’s only about the clothing, why aren’t these styles in fashion today?

a woman explaining common medieval ingredients

a woman explaining common medieval ingredients

I think at least part of the attraction to this time period may be about hearkening back to a simpler time, or, rather, we imagine that it was a simpler time. As the medieval period is portrayed in stories, there’s a very simple view of life: right vs. wrong. Good vs. evil. We ignore the grey areas between the two sides, the questionable decisions: the Crusades, for instance.

Why do we need to do this imagining anyway, to pretend to live in a different time? It’s one thing to read a book about another time, but acting it out goes much further.

Are we missing something in our modern-day lives that this fantasy fulfills? What? And if that’s so, does the answer lie in pretending to live in another time?

I think the idea of chivalry may be part of the reason: that everyone knew how to behave, and those who didn’t were clearly the bad guys.

So here’s an idea: bring back concepts of politeness, of doing right by the people around us, of behaving respectfully towards others. Then we might feel less need to escape to a time when people behaved properly.

What do you think? Why are we attracted to this time period in particular?

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