Sunday, July 15, 2007

Rebuilding the Middle Ages

In case you didn't know, The Billings (MT) Gazette is a goldmine for information relating to the recreation/ reimagination of the Middle Ages -- or maybe it's just something about Big Sky country that makes people think of the period. I dunno.

Anyway, a while ago, there was this article about a guy in Laramie, WY, who's rebuilding a "Viking-Age" Mead Hall, complete with carved tribute to King Alfred the Great. More recently, there's another article about a guy in Heron, MT, who's trying to create a whole 17th-century "medieval" village. Now, putting aside the fact that it's debatable whether the 17th century is "really" medieval, the goal, as I understand it, is to create some sort of idyllic commune, where artists and philosophers will mingle in eco-friendly splendor (even if the developer's still hoping to make a buck or 2 off the whole thing). Interesting idea. Strange, but interesting nonetheless.

Then, all of this made me think of another article I read a while ago, an article about how the Middle Ages are big in Belgium. Much like the SCA or Civil War reenactors here in the US, many Belgians apparently spend their weekends living as if they were in the Middle Ages (I also had no idea that carrots were spawn of the devil, although many children have probably been on to that fact for some time). Oh, and there's also a medieval theme park beginning construction somewhere in Colorado and, of course, Medieval Times dinner-theater, but the proposed theme park in Canterbury was shot down.

Now, where in the heck did all of this come from? More often than not, "medieval" is a kind of dirty word -- the way it's spat out by Marsellus Wallace in Pulp Fiction. It means darkness, dirt, and ignorance. Probably, the rehabilitation of the Middle Ages has something to do with this quotation from Ivonne Janssens of Aarschot, Belgium: "[Life] was far less stressful in the Middle Ages, because there were no phones and no vacuum cleaners."


Sorry, that was my head hitting the keyboard.

I think that's also what's going on with the recreated medieval village in MT -- an idyllic, eco-friendly, social utopia. Because, you know, that's what the Middle Ages were. I certainly spend a good amount of time in my teaching trying to convince my students that the Middle Ages weren't all violence and ignorance. There was literature, art, scientific advancement, philosophy -- and great names are too numerous to list.

Nevertheless, I still think it's difficult to escape that fact that the Middle Ages were not a particularly nice time and certainly not a time I would choose to live in, if I indeed had that choice. If Ms. Janssens so likes the Middle Ages (and I don't mean to pick on her so specifically), perhaps she should spend some time in Darfur or the Congo or someplace similar because there you could really replicate what much of Europe experienced -- crushing poverty, endemic disease, and lives subject to the whims of a caste of self-serving warlords who can (more-or-less) rape and pillage at will. Undeniably, that's the Middle Ages too. Dan Reff's great recent book, Plagues, Priests, and Demons, reminds us all that real things happened to real people in the past. Often its too easy to read a text, even something so spare as a set of annals, and abstract what was going on. Yeah, it may be neat to be a 13th-century duke or duchess but only if you get to go home at the end of the day, if you get to see a doctor when you get sick, if you get to stop at the grocery store on your way home, and if the other pretend magnate down the street is committed to the illusion and uses the flat of his sword when he tries to take your land.


Another Damned Medievalist said...

Hey, don't forget about this place, which can't differentiate between the real MA and Tolkien!

meghanhw said...

Really, nothing says "medieval" or "eco-friendly splendor" like an enormous underground parking garage.

Matthew Gabriele said...

Well, the parking garage is subterranean, so it's kind of like a dungeon, perhaps with dragons...

Anonymous said...

Hello If there is a way that I can get any information about this rebuilding of the medieval city or the mead hall. I would really be interested in hearing more about the sed topic. If there is anyway you can get more information to me i would appreciate it. U can send it to Please reply it would really help thankyou goodbye

Anonymous said...

interested in the Medieval community...please email me more info...maybe how to get in contact with the person responsible?