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Back to the Dark Age

From celebrating the earth-loving Celts to the myth of Robin Hood as a merry old cove with loads of mates: medievalism is on the march.

Patrick West

Patrick West
Columnist

Topics Culture

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Medievalism is an affectation of Western societies in the process of transition, specifically for those uneasy about the direction in which this transformation is taking them. Since the certitudes of modernity began to collapse in the 1970s, and as we entered an age of postmodernity in the 1980s, medievalism has become increasingly fashionable. Meanwhile ‘modernity’ itself has become a dirty word along with ‘progress’ and ‘civilisation’, words one seldom sees written without those snide, contemptuous inverted commas.

Medievalism, a concept that can be crudely described as a longing for a pastoral, pre-industrial golden age of heroism and moral and gender clarity, has manifested itself in many forms since the 1960s, the decade that spawned the counter-modern revolution. This was when we learnt that there was no such thing as the ‘Dark Ages’, merely the ‘early Middle Ages’. The ‘Dark Ages’, we were told, was a hubristic phrase invented by the scholars of the Renaissance. Romantic primitivism – the idea that non-industrialised people lived ‘in peace with nature’ and with each other – had been in gestation in the field of anthropology since the 1930s, but it came to be accepted as dogma only 30 years later.

But it is in popular culture that medievalism has made its mark most manifestly. The obvious example is the cult of JRR Tolkien, whose pseudo-medieval tales were taken up by the counter-modern, counter-culturalists of the 1970s. They believed (much to Tolkien’s horror) that the Lord of the Rings trilogy was a celebration of the rustic (in the form of the Shire) and a condemnation of the industrial (Mordor), and who perceived The Ring to be a metaphor for The Bomb: a terrible, apocalyptic creation that had to be banished.

Today, self-help books frequently invoke pseudo-medieval language and imagery, not least that of ‘the Celts’ – those virile, egalitarian heroes who lived in peace with the land, unlike the nasty, conniving English who used technology to suppress them. Go to the self-help section of your local bookshop and you’ll see what I mean: modernity is still associated with ruthless Anglo-Saxon repression – and self-repression. In his 2003 television programmes on medieval lives, Terry Jones told us how clever and civilised the people of the Middle Ages were, while in the 1990s Kevin Costner helped to perpetuate on the big screen the myth that Robin Hood was a chivalrous old cove with loads of mates.

This flight to medievalism has occurred during our transition towards postmodernity for very similar reasons that medievalism became very popular in the nineteenth century, an era that witnessed the transition from premodernity to modernity, and a change that similarly caused unease. It could be witnessed in the Pre-Raphaelite movement or in the writings of John Ruskin, but its most tangible legacy today is in the field of architecture. Anyone who has been to Bradford, Glasgow or Manchester will wonder at their Gothic-style town halls – and also wonder why these great Victorian cities imagined themselves to be fourteenth-century citadels.

The Palace of Westminster needs no explanation: it, too, was erected as a conservative reaction to modernity. Most Tube travellers who emerge from King’s Cross-St Pancras underground station in London, and are faced with the two mainland terminals, assume that King’s Cross, with its plain, square facade and clean arch, is the newer of the two. In fact, King’s Cross was completed in 1852, 16 years before its neighbour, the ornate, cathedral-like St Pancras, was erected. In the intervening years, a longing for the old in the face of progress had become a great concern. This nostalgia for a mythical medieval era in architecture reached its apogee in 1894 with the opening of London’s Tower Bridge, a building that sits so effortlessly – but so deceptively – adjacent to the Tower of London, which dates back to 1078.

Thus, medievalism signifies a culture uneasy with change, and I’m not the only one who believes we live in such a culture. This is why, last night, I was expecting the first instalment of BBC Four’s In Search of Medieval Britain to present a predictable narrative of how ‘people in the Middle Ages were actually quite clever; the Romans weren’t all that; neither were the Tudors’.

Yet, the programme managed to avoid this hackneyed story. The presenter, Dr Alixe Bovey, uses the Gough Map as the crux of the programme. Drawn in 1360, it was the first map of Britain designed to show where things were, how to get from A to B. Prior to this, maps depicted how things should be, often featuring deities and monsters. They were spiritual, not literal, representations of landscapes.

Yet, as Dr Bovey pointed out, even the more progressive cartographers of the time took liberties. Berwick-on-Tweed does not feature on the Gough Map because at the time this much-coveted town was in the hands of the Scots, something which the English map-makers were embarrassed about. In short, In Search of Medieval Britain hinted that people in the Middle Ages weren’t as brainy as revisionists would have us believe, and that even when they did finally stumble upon the notion of cartographical realism, they were informed by cultural and political concerns.

This is not to say the first programme was a polemic, which was a bit of a problem because, in fact, it was rather boring. If we’re talking of history documentaries, at least the 2004 series, Terry Jones’ Medieval Lives, was an entertaining and passionate polemic. And if we’re talking about travelling around Britain and exploring its architectural and cultural heritage, which seemed to be part of Dr Bovey’s remit, it’s a pity she seemed rather uninterested in the whole thing. Or maybe she’s just not suited for television. I could only compare unfavourably her flat, toneless Canadian drawl to that of the wonderfully intense, long-haired Scotsman, Neil Oliver – of Coast fame – a man who so palpably exudes an enthusiasm for the history of the British Isles.

In Search of Medieval Britain mostly resembled an old Open University documentary. There were lots of castles and cathedrals, and explanations as to how stained-glass was made, but we were left little the wiser as to what Medieval people thought, or even why they fought.

I’m not saying architectural history with a bit of cartography thrown in is a bad thing in itself. I just wish it wasn’t presented in the dull manner that has put generations of children off the subject of history. And unfortunately, it is those who desert history at school who take up ignorantly mythologising medievalism as adults.

Patrick West is spiked’s TV reviewer and an obituary writer for The Times (London). Visit his blog here.

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