Living in the past

What’s behind our love affair with the Middle Ages?
Harley J. Sims | Dec 17 2013 | comment  



It is fair to assume that the Middle Ages were never so popular with medieval people as they are with modern ones. Although artists have been reimagining and reinventing the era since before the Romantic period, medieval material now dominates entertainment, enjoying unprecedented success not simply in literature, but also in the sorts of media that medieval peoples could only have imagined.

Many are currently enjoying the latest installment of Peter Jackson’s Hobbit films, or watching HBO’s Game of Thrones television series—both based on best-selling books and contrasted in my earlier article in Mercatornet. Some people might still not be aware, however, of the History Channel’s hit series Vikings, an Irish/Canadian production heading into its second season, or of Bethesda Studios’ Elder Scrolls role-playing video-games, whose latest title Skyrim has sold more than twenty million copies to date. There seems no medium the medieval has not come to master, thrilling audiences across spectra of age and taste, and likely generating enough revenue to refinance the Crusades.

Granted, the medieval element in these productions is not uniform. Some of it, such as Vikings, is properly called historical fiction or historical drama. Set in ninth-century Scandinavia it is comparable, at least generically, to the novels of Sigrid Undset and Umberto Eco, whose medievalism is temporal rather than elemental. It is supposed to take place within our own past, and within historical memory. Other examples, including The Hobbit, Game of the Thrones, and Skyrim are pseudo-medieval, though they might also be called fantasy. They must nonetheless be distinguished from such fantasy as Harry Potter, whose setting is not medieval, but which uses pieces of the medieval to frame its modernity.

These and other distinctions, sometimes represented by the terms “medievalism” and “neomedievalism”, work insofar as they distinguish the creature from the clothing. A problem is that the most celebrated and exemplary narratives of early times are themselves some sort of hybrid—of reality and the supernatural, of fact and fiction, of truth and falsehood ‑ and often in ways little different, though no doubt less elaborate, from the examples of modern medievalism. Medieval writers and audiences did eventually establish generic distinctions between tradition and escapism, but these tended to appear later, and as novelty became more acceptable as a literary value.

norse saga
Hervor, a shieldmaiden in the Norse cycle of the magic sword Tyrfing.
Image: Peter Nicolai Arbo /Wikimeadia Commons

The history of medievalism is the history of imaginative exploitation, beginning not with us, nor with the Romantics, but with medieval peoples’ own histories of themselves. Whether it is Beowulf, The Song of Roland, The Nibelungenlied, Njál’s Saga, The Táin, or any other medieval centerpiece, it is retrospective, it is nostalgic, and it is larger than life. Some works are more subdued than others, of course. The Old Icelandic Njál’s Saga has powerful heroes but no monsters; see Grettir’s Saga for those. Most of them are tragic.

In none of them, however, are legend and history divisible, which is why we tend to portray Western historiography as a progression from Herodotus—whose writings, though invaluable, are full of myths and supermen—to the rigidly scientific school known as the Positivists. Herein lies a worse problem, which is that we see the union of history and imagination as a hybrid at all. We know early audiences must have perceived the world in different ways, but we cannot read their stories with minds or imaginations other than our own. And so, as we imagine Arthur and Beowulf and Grettir, we are left, so to speak, in an amusement park with the power shut down, smugly confident though also disenchanted to know that make-believe, and not magic, is what makes it so attractive to its audiences.

So it is, and with more than a little irony, that modern audiences find their imaginations empowered more by the Middle Ages than by any other historical period. Comfort and convenience have never been greater than they are in our own time, but developing the necessary technology and medicine required the sort of knowledge and maturity that make heroic legends look like fairy tales for children.

As a result, it is likely that we have never felt more disempowered as imaginative creatures than we do today. Our fancy can still conceive, of course, but its products are basically illegitimate. No longer can we look to the horizon to safeguard our sense of wonder, not with Google Earth, and not with the sort of social media and crowdsourcing that makes every citizen a potential journalist of the extraordinary. If dragons and trolls were out there, we know we would have found them by now. If men could climb spears in mid-air like the Irish hero Cú Chulainn, or face down entire armies, we would see these men on YouTube.

What is worse than the sort of skepticism this global purview creates is how it often works to tarnish the wonders that do exist, such as great whales we have seen hauled out of water, the natural phenomena we compare with charts year-to-year, and the astronomical and other scientific discoveries whose meanings scientism and posthumanism—often in concert—rob of sublimity and transcendence. Amidst all the certainty and definition of the modern age, we remain essentially the same creature we have been for millennia. Nonetheless, and relatively speaking, we are probably the first human beings unable to believe wholeheartedly in wonders.

What medievalism affords us, the involuntary worldweary, is not an escape, but a sort of return—a recovery of almost infantile pleasure, without the discomfort and unknowingness we know went with it. Nor is it irresponsible, but rather an indulgence, a stroll through a playground with just enough equipment to enchant us, but no chaperones to intrude on our play. It is a retreat to the dawn of historical self-awareness, which for northwestern Europeans is the Middle Ages, but for Mediterranean peoples goes back further; (medievalism has never been nearly as big in Greece and Italy). Here, our modern will to investigate and to determine finds a unique sort of franchise, leaping into a credible historical context and bursting with creative speculation.

The conscious coexistence of history and imagination defines medievalism at every level, from scholarship to the latest fantasy potboiler. Though some people, particularly historians, seek to maintain a barrier between the medieval period as an objective civilization and the giddy hordes who want to play with the pieces, they try to wall out the sun with a pane of glass. What is most fascinating about the medieval period are not its facts but its circumstances—the ether of wonder and of awe that surrounds the relatively primitive technologies and superstitious values which ought to make us recoil rather than connect. Everyone wants to be in a Viking battle until he remembers they had not yet discovered antibiotics.

As for the occasional curmudgeonry of scholars, it is likely the worst kept secret of Medieval Studies that academic medievalists are among the most hardcore fantasists on Earth. The Centre for Medieval Studies at the University of Toronto, probably the best in the English-speaking world, brings together students and scholars from more than a dozen other disciplines; its Latin program, emulated worldwide, maintains pass/fail standards rarely found outside medical school. Students practice when and wherever they can, even if it means translating a song by the grunge band Nirvana, line-for-line, while it plays over the speakers in the Irish pub up the street.

So it was that in this aerie of top guns, I found myself in a graduate class on Anglo-Saxon perceptions of Doomsday, listening to the other students discuss Viggo Mortensen’s portrayal of Aragorn in Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy. I was happy to see one of my friends in the class, who once described Medieval Irish Romance as being “just like a Dungeons and Dragons campaign.” The professor arrived, and we were drilled unexpectedly on the names of figures from Norse mythology.

I got them all except one.

Good thing I’d read so many Thor comic books.

Harley J. Sims is a writer and independent scholar living near Halifax, Nova Scotia. He can be reached on his website at http://www.harleyjsims.webs.com/



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