This past Sunday, Carol and I went to nearby Malestroit to catch the last day of the town’s annual Medieval Days celebration.
When we lived in the US, my wife and I were big fans of medieval/Ren fairs. Unlike the States, though, which feature an unseemly dearth of thousand year old monuments, Europe is quite lousy with them — churches, castles, half-timbered buildings of every description and state of repair, etc.
So it surprises me just a little that there should be any middle ages-themed events in France, since you’re already surrounded here by the material culture of those times — no need for special evocation. It would be like going to New York City to attend a festival of banking and securities brokerage, catered by Starbucks and Pizza Hut. Yay.
All Our Yesterdays
That being said, though, I get that the flavor of any 21st Century medieval fair is, by design, rather ersatz. Demographically, it’s a complete sham — all knights, ladies, jesters and craftspeople, in immaculate and colorful rayon, with hardly a smallpox-ridden peasant in sight. It’s really a celebration of the history in our fantasies, rather than the real thing.
In fact, it’s kind of an interesting thought experiment to imagine what an authentic medieval fair might look like:
|Okay, honey, where would you like to go first?|
We could start with the technology tent. The sign board says they’re going to be demonstrating a new sundial at 10:30 — assuming they get it oriented right — and then some torture devices at 11. Fancy a new set of thumbscrews for the kids?
I dunno. That’s when I was hoping to head over to the starvation pavilion and watch the bark-eating contest. Last year’s winner almost gobbled down a whole tree, rest his soul.
Oh, sweetheart, you’re such a sports nut! All right, but I warn you, I’m not going to spend all afternoon watching bear baiting and cockfighting with you like last year.
Hey, what do you say at lunchtime we have some maggoty oat gruel and then visit the Inquisition tent? Alan was screaming so enthusiastically about that.
Absolutely! Let’s just make sure to buy some indulgences on the way in.
Of course. In any case, I don’t think we need to go to the library again this year, do you?
Maybe! The brochure says they’ve added a third book this year! Oh wait, it’s another Bible. Yep, Latin again.
You know, I think I may need to sit for a while before we go any farther. I’m not feeling so great all of a sudden.
It’s probably the plague, dear. Remember when you didn’t wear a mask at Jiffy Lube? Let’s get you over to the medical tent, so the doctor can bleed and cauterize you.
On Twitter the other day someone posted a question like “which decade of history would you like to live in?” Answers spanned pretty much every era from Roman times to the 1950s.
My immediate thought was, I dunno, when did they invent novocaine?
Why would you want to live before effective painkillers, scientific healthcare, air conditioning, electric light, reliable communication, a stable food supply…?
But sure, I get it: it seems to be human nature to want to experience what it’s like to be someone else, living in some completely different where and when. Why is that, do you think?
I personally am mesmerized by the military history of the 20th Century. I can’t tell you how many times I have imagined what it would be like to be a sailor aboard the USS Johnston, getting pounded to pieces during the battle off Samar Island; a Marine fighting the Chinese and the deep freeze of winter above the Toktong Pass in North Korea; a paratrooper making his first wild combat drop into the melee of Normandy; or a flyer of the Lafayette Escadrille, dogfighting thousands of feet in the air over France in a fragile plane with no parachute.
All of these are terrible, harrowing events; so why does my mind come back to them and many others of the same sort, again and again, the way one can’t resist probing a sore tooth or worrying a hangnail?
I suspect one big reason we go to the past, and live vicariously for a time in very different circumstances, is to find some piece that we feel is lacking in our contemporary lives.
Ever since I was a timid kid, I have wondered if I lack basic courage. I think of the horrific things my forbears have gone through, in the name of safeguarding my homeland, and I wonder: could I do that? Would I stick it out on the front line, and do what had to be done, or would I be the one to run away?
I read the accounts of D-Day, Belleau Wood, the Chosin Reservoir, the A Shau Valley, and I confront myself. I read the memoirs and interrogate the men, most of them dead now, who were in those places: How did you overcome the sudden surge of terror, the cold emptiness in your gut? How did you master the paralysis in your limbs and teach them to fight?
I wonder if others who obsess over this or that era of history go there in similar fashion, to find something missing within themselves.
Do people who dress up in highland kilt and plaidie yearn to replace the complexity of their 21st century lives and electronic ephemera with raw nature, and peat smoke, and the solid grip of a Claymore hilt? Do they need to test themselves against the dark wild?
Do those who study Stonehenge, Carnac, and other Neolithic monuments do so because they crave a connection to supernatural mysteries that their rational, ordered existence otherwise lacks?
When I was a kid, it was the future everybody wanted to go see. Flying cars, right? Alien visitors and distant worlds. Weirdly enough, nobody seems to want to do that anymore. Or maybe it’s not so weird: how far ahead would you have to go to make it past all the shitshow unfolding now — climate change, environmental collapse, the recrudescence of totalitarianism, and whatever fresh hell replaces TikTok for the under-30s — and get to something livable? Maybe we’re better off here.
When you look at it from that angle, perhaps the moment we are in right now has more going for it than we give it credit for. Maybe thirty or fifty or a hundred years from now, this is the time everyone will want to come back to.
Maybe we are the golden age, and we don’t even realize it.