Tuesday, July 16, 2013

On knowing how to be medieval.

The Abbey Medieval Festival in Brisbane is the biggest in the southern hemisphere.

We knew there would be actual jousting from the website and there was a place on the form for buying tickets where you had to register your weapons. We expected something cute - a few stalls, some rented costumes. We were way impressed.

There were hundreds of exhibits. Vikings were commonplace and there was a big camp of Varangian guards. Outremer was also well represented. We liked the catapults and siege engines. We watched a display of archery where guys with mostly English yew longbows shot a running pig.* We really liked the Italian style fencing where unarmoured rakes in doublet and hose fought each other with two rapiers each. Very flashy and theatrical. We missed a lot, including being too late for the display of medieval surgery. There were tree nymphs on stilts and Gypsy dancers and a blacksmith and plague victims. I hadn't seen so much hand tooled leather since 1975.

There were some hard core re-enactors and some very period costumes. Overheard at the Hornmaster stall, a young woman looking at a knife: 'I would buy it but the handle's not quite period'. 'Yes', replied the Hornmaster's wife, 'He usually makes them for about a hundred years earlier'. There were also some very strange mashups of costume and style bleeding into Gothic and vaguely Romani-ish hippie. There were quite a few vampires. A group of Goths got told off by the security detail for smoking, and sulked like, well, stereotypical told-off Goths. I ate stew and drank elderflower cordial.

We had tickets for the jousting. I have to explain here I am married to a pedant. I sat on the bleachers and watched them warm up their horses, and thought, if they couch their lances wrong I will just have to walk out, I will just have to, or my husband will never forgive me. All the time on the TV they couch their lances wrong and it infuriates him. I sat there and nobody tried to sell me a rat on a stick, and I thought well, I won't be able to walk out because the place is packed, but I will just have to delete all the photos or he will wave his arms around and shout.

So, they came out on their horses, and bless my soul they did actually couch their lances correctly. The horses were so eager to go they had to be held back by mounted squires, and they took off at full noise, and being unhorsed wearing 40 kgs of armour looks truly painful I can tell you. It looked a bit like this (these are mine and my daughter's photos):

I enjoyed everything, from the people who saved greyhounds** to the pen with all the small kids racing around whacking each other with wooden swords. And I watched the kids in their toy armour shouting Huzzah! and Have at you! and I wondered, as you do, how come we know how to be medieval?

By medieval I don't mean feudalism, crop rotation and the invention of the stirrup. I would suggest that medieval means two vital things:

1. lace up tops, on all sexes including underwear (seen it), and
2. hair, as much as possible, worn long by all sexes

It is true that the most ordinary people look stunning in medieval garb. Plump women look comely. Stocky men look fierce, especially with lots of hair. And if all else fails you can just wear armour or go as a nun.

We think of the medieval world through many historical filters. They used to be called the Dark Ages, meaning the times between the Roman Empire and the Renaissance. They seemed mysterious. During the Victorian age the Pre-Raphaelites found this attractive. They wanted to react against industrial-strength modernity and valued things that were artisan, bucolic and spiritual. I think of Pre-Raphaelite art as being a filter - think the Lady of Shallot, Arthurian legends, dim forests, floating hair, death and the maiden. It is very romantic and somewhat airless in large doses.

1960's hippiedom also harked back to medieval-ness as being innocent and free. I am a bit young for this but I knew slightly older people who were still into this - Merry Pranksters, Hurdy Gurdy men, folk music. This is another filter.

Now you can play a heap of games that are based on alternative medieval-type worlds, such as Mount and Blade which is set in a parallel Eastern Europe. You can watch or read Game of Thrones and almost think Westeros exists. At the Abbey Festival, a stall advertised 'Game of Thrones Cloaks'. You will find a medieval costume section in your local costume shop.

All this has its charm, and it means that when I go to a medieval festival I know pretty much what to expect and how to behave. However, even the most dedicated re-enactors who replicate the tech down to each link of ring mail is seeing her world and her actions through filters of time and thought. You can never really get it right. And that is part of the fun.

* not a real live pig.
** 25,000 greyhounds are bred in Australia. Hundreds survive their racing careers to be rescued and adopted. The rest, well, the racing industry has a lot to answer for.


  1. Pedant, huh? I strongly suspect that were you to ask the Queensland Mediaevalists why they couch their lances the way they do, rather than the method enshrined in recent movies, they would tell you they tried the 'movie' method, and it did not work very well. Not if you wanted to stay on your horse, that is to say.

    Imagine. You go thundering down the lists at great random, lance laid diagonally across the horse behind his neck. Your aim is true, you strike your opponent squarely upon the shield, and... then what?

    1. The momentum of the enemy drives the point of your lance at an angle somewhere between the line of the lance and the enemy's direction of travel. Your own lance swings further to your left across your middle, and sweeps you from the saddle as effectively as a broom. Your opponent suffers a like humiliation.

    2.The angle of the enemy's shield deflects your lance away from the enemy's corpus delicti, causing it to swing right, clipping your trusty destrier across the left ear hole or his neck. Taking umbrage at this, and possibly shying away from the lance pennon flapping in his peripheral vision, the war horse indulges in a few unchivalric contortions that shortly have you sitting in the dust.

    I recall the battle between King Pelinore and Sir Grummore in T.H. White's 'Sword in the Stone'. Despairing of hitting their opponents after several passages of arms, both elected to couch their lances far out to the right, intending to sweep their enemy off their mounts. The result was as you can imagine, the horses both concluding their respective careers riderless. I suspect T.H. White's method of jousting was as much a 20th Century invention as the notion of couching the lance across the back of the horse's neck.

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  2. Corrected cause i can't spell. A pedant. That s correct