- It's far more medieval than Renaissance.
- The Middle Ages weren't really like that! It's a myth!
- It's packed with a lot of overpriced garbage.
- Who ARE these geeks?
- Pirates? I mean, really, what crass exploitation of Disney films.
Yes, it's more medieval than Renaissance ... but the Renaissance was itself home of all sorts of interesting medievalism. Since the Middle Ages, people have enjoyed harkening back to those days, whether through Early Modern love of heraldry or contemporary American theme festivals. In large part, this impulse toward an a-historical medievalism is nothing new (heck, look at how a-historical medieval histories are about the earlier Middle Ages!), but simply an attempt to write for ourselves a mythic past in an effort to define ourselves today. We define ourselves both with and against this medievalism -- patting ourselves on the back that we somehow share in the honor and courage of the jousting knight, and patting ourselves just as hard because we no longer have stocks and public floggings (Oprah guests excepted). It's more about who we are than who they were.
Yes, much of it is myth, and, as I mentioned above, those myths serve a powerful purpose. Still, in a couple of weeks I'll be at the International Medieval Congress at Kalamazoo, hearing from other experts in the field, and I bet I'll have at least one myth punctured. I always learn something at K'zoo, because there is simply no way for a single man to know everything about the Middle Ages, or medieval literature, or Anglo-Saxon literature, or even a single Anglo-Saxon poem. It is hard for me to condemn others for their ignorance when medieval studies is just their weekend hobby, and it is my bread-and-butter. When people are ignorant of medieval truths, medieval scholars are culpable too.
Let's examine the "over-priced garbage" complaint. Yup, the stuff is waaaay to expensive. Yup, much of it is garbage. Still, people buy it. People buy a lot of it. People buy so much of it that the Renaissance Faires are run as for-profit commercial enterprises. Hear that? Medievalism is profitable! People pay too much money for over-priced garbage because they are starving for medievalism. All the time I hear this nonsense that "no one cares about medieval studies, it just isn't relevant, and if we offer courses in it, no one will come" -- BULL! Hundreds of thousands of people (perhaps millions, if someone has the statistics) pour into these Faires every year. When I gave a presentation on real medieval magical and medical practices at InConjunction last year, it was to standing room only -- even more than my Tolkien presentation! Let's see the over-priced garbage as instead an indicator of the market value of what we are offering.
Who are these geeks? They are folks just like you and me, without the degrees. They love the same stuff we love, but because their lives took a different path, they celebrate that love at Renaissance Faires rather than International Medieval Congresses. We scholars have a deeper understanding of this subject that we love, but that doesn't make our love more worthwhile -- it makes our knowledge more worthwhile, but not our love. When I was 17 years old and trying to decide what to do with my life, I almost decided on biomedical engineering, but in the end chose (for whatever muddled 17-year-old reason) to study English instead. A different choice in my life, and I wouldn't find myself in the Medieval Congress either. So, let's not mock these geeks -- they are our brothers and sisters, our fellow travellers. Hey, Ren Faire geeks, I might not attend these faires but once per decade, but I'm one of you too, as is nearly every other person at the Congress.
As for the pirates ... well, these pirates seemed to do a lot more sword-wielding than pistol brandishing. They auctioned off a lot of weapons, but not one was a replica gun, or cannon, or pegleg. They were all daggers and swords and axes and shields and katanas -- as if we were supposed to imagine the Caribbean dotted with extremely disoriented samurais. The pirates are simply the current liaisons between us and the Middle Ages. I don't know for sure, but I'd guess that at one time you could buy a light saber at a Faire. Some day the pirates too will be replaced by a new liaison, so let's let them have their time in the sun.
So, to summarize -- Renaissance Faires, cool. Faire-geeks, cool. Medieval Congress, cool. Medieval scholars, cool. Let's all bask together in the inherent coolness of medievalism.