Exploring the vast and exciting world of medievalism all around us.

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Knights of Mayhem

Any one besides me watching "Knights of Mayhem," and thinking that not only do the producers not really know how to tell a story, but that the "Knights," in their view of jousting as essentially an extreme sport are sort of missing the medieval point? They're hardly the first, of course; missing the medieval point is certainly the theme of this blog, but any ideas about honor, prowess, and courtesy seem to have gone out the window in favor of making something as violent and aggressive as possible. Although I was interested to see that the knights apparently wear favors into the lists; thus far (I've only seen two episodes, thank you DVR) there has been no commentary on this. Whose favors are these, and what are the relationships of these ladies to these "knights"? Another question that has presented itself to me is why there seems to be so much dwelling on the injuries--there's a lot of imagery of these guys spitting up blood and lying on the ground, whereas it might be more interesting to see how they learn how to joust, how they create their armor (which is a mix of authentic and inauthentic), and how they understand the sport. More posts after I've seen more episodes. But the Knights of Mayhem and their ilk seem, I think, to be missing out on an opportunity to gain fans through a more romanticized (and perhaps more authentic!) vision of what jousting is! Also, there might be some value in talking about the skill involved, rather than focusing so much on the interpersonal conflict. If we wanted to see that, we could watch Housewives, after all.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Sims Medieval

Any fans of the Sims out there? Starting April 22, you can create your own Middle Ages with Sims Medieval. Brought to you by EA games, which has something of a medieval fantasy going on, being the folks who brought us Dante's Inferno (game AND action figure!), the new game allows players to go on quests, some drawn primarily from medieval literature, some seemingly from medieval life. A look at Yahoo's series of images: http://blog.games.yahoo.com/photos/235-the-sims-medieval#OmgPhoid=11 will have medievalist enaging in fun games of "what's not authentic here?" (was that a dragon in the second picture, or a giant cloaca? and weren't the stocks invented in early America?), but no doubt there will be plenty of fun to be had. But why the criticism of Dungeons and Dragons http://blog.games.yahoo.com/blog/484-sims-set-to-go-medieval? Plenty of people spent an equally inauthentically medieval time entertaining themselves with dice and graph paper in an attempt to recapture the same impulses that Sims Medieval offers (except, I suppose, for those whose interest is primarily architectural!). But what's interesting is why the medieval games can't be open ended. This sense of the medieval as a closed narrative seems to inform Sims Medieval; rather than having a "real" medieval life, which like contemporary life involved getting by with what one has and looking for more, this game departs from Sims tradition in offering fixed narratives set in limited time frames, as if the medieval existed only as moments of narrative. Sims Medieval is like a book, with covers; it begins and ends, and things happen to drive the plot--avanture, entrelacement, etc.--that put the focus on "time out of time," rather than real time. So again, we find the impulse not in history but in fantasy; the Middle Ages can't be a time when people did regular things, only in a medieval milieu, but a time of knights, ladies, dragons (or cloacas?), swords, and costumes. Given the lack of attention to history, of course, all medieval things blend together; the hall in one image looks like Heorot, but the costumes are much more influenced by the fashions of the High Middle Ages. And of course, people didn't regularly run into dragons in medieval France. But whose counting?

Sunday, January 9, 2011

Vikings (and Giants)

It has been funny seeing all these Vikings on televison (for some reason, the Capital One adds seem to have been running a lot in our area). The adds started out with people being marauded by vikings trying to steal their belongings, from which the card was supposed to protect them. As Vikings are typically associated with raping and pillaging and raiding (and to some extent rightly so; in Egil's Saga, the author is prone to comments like, "Egil spent the Summer going raiding," one of the many violent ways Egil uses up some of his boundless, savage energy), this made sense. However, now the Vikings seem to have acquired their own cards, and instead of being invaded by Skralings (the one people, presumably native americans, too violent for the Vikings, according to the Vinland Saga, and who thus drove them back from Vinland to Greenland and Iceland from whence they came), they are running around all over the place, dressed in furs and horned hats causing all manner of chaos while having a jolly old time. Are these domesticated Vikings? Slapstick Vikings? The transfer from the "villains" to the "heroes" of these commercial narratives is interesting. Is this who we want to be? One popular holiday ad showed a Viking child (albeit a bearded one) asking Santa for a sword and an axe and a mace.

This, of course, leads me to think more broadly about the meaning of Vikings in contemporary culture. Despite the horned helmets, which we know Vikings only wore ceremonially, if at all, the association of Vikings and unmotivated, extreme violence is a fairly accurate piece of medievalism. After all, that was how they were thought of in their own time, if comments from the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle are to be belived. Do Vikings have a special place in our rhetorics of violence? Looking at the names of sports teams, it's interesting to find Vikings with other groups more problematically associated with dangerous, threatening behavior . . .Chiefs, Redskins (and if we're looking past football; Indians, Braves). Of course, those groups ARE the only peoples able to drive off the Vikings . . . although it's hard to imagine how far a team called the, say, Brooklyn Skraelings would go in popularity (this from a locale whose two teams, one lost one present, are the Dodgers and the Cyclones). Still. There are remarkably few medieval team names apart from the Vikings. While there are certainly many animals popular in medieval narrative (Ravens, although they're named for Poe's "Raven," making them the most literary team ever; Bears; Rams; Lions) many others are not (Cardinals, Blue Jays, Colts, Tigers, Bengals). So the only medieval team apart from the Vikings would be the Giants.

Somehow their look doesn't strike fear into one's heart, however. Although the Vikings/Giants game may have for some. (For more details, see our friends at NJSports Blog).

But some Vikings will . . .

Saturday, November 6, 2010

Welcome to Pilgrimage

Today the Roving Medievalist got to visit the Shrine of St.Thomas a Becket. Not quite in Canterbury, delightful as a November trip to England might have been, but at St. John's in the Village Episcopal Church. The event, called "Welcome to Pilgrimage," featured a reproduction of the shrine of St. Thomas (see left) in the sanctuary, with a storyteller/nun leading tours, showing pictures of Canterbury Cathedral, and explaining just who this guy was. Although we were not invited to climb the stairs in front of the shrine on our knees, the reproduction had a cheerful quality that the original might not have; it resembled a large reliquary (but not large enough to hold all of the Saint) with sparkly jewels and silver curlicues all over it.

Visitors were also able to visit a Medieval "Street" fair (it was inside!), with various stalls--the Calligrapher, clothier, metalsmith, needle worker, stained glass maker, and wood worker's stalls. Throughout, there was music supplied by a green-clothed harper. A the calligrapher's stall, we made seals to authorize our own documents; the clothier told about Thomas' medieval vestments and invited participants to make Thomas a Becket paper dolls; the metalsmith offered rubbings; the needleworker was making banners for the procession, onto which we were encouraged to glue decorations of felt and jewels; the stained glass maker was a hit with the lovely medieval ladies featured above, who all made mini-windows to hang in their maxi-windows; the woodworker showed us how to make frames out of popsicle sticks.
Because no fair is complete without food, the Baker's Stall offered meat and vegetable pies (the Roaving Medievalist particularly enjoyed the mushroom variety, and horrified one of the hosts by suggesting that there traditionally were raisins in the beef pies to cover up the taste of rotten meat), cheese gnocci (delicious; thank you!), apples, and cider.
The fair ended with a procession with a bagpiper (the Miller leading us out of town, perhaps?); the decorated banners were carried into the shrine where evensong was celebrated. (A link to the announcement is below.)
The event was not particularly authentic, although it was great fun. After all, it's not April. And none of the crafts, apart from the seals, were particularly medieval in their actual form. But the spirit was an authentic mix of spiritual and secular; while the fair itself was primarily a secular affair, the particular nature of some of the crafts reminded us of what the impetus for the event actually was, and what would have brought pilgrims to Canterbury in the first place; however enticing the collecting of pilgrimage badges might have seemed, the real reason was the visit to the shrine. The flyer said, "We hope that you enjoy your medieval experience today and that what you learn will say something to you about your own pilgrimage and search for what is meaningful and holy in your life."
The Roving Medievalist is reminded about what is meanigful in the search for medieval vestiges in our own culture by this; even if the event is not truly medieval, or truly authentic, it tells us tha there is something inherently valuable in looking back to the Middle Ages for certain elements of popular experience, of the handmade over the mass produced, of the function of the communal experience in our individual lives; of the things that drew people together and how they might still draw us together for the kinds of experience that bring us to the edge of transcendence. We don't need a medieval fair to do this, but it does suggest something about that historical moment that we desire to reclaim and something about the way it speaks to us still.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

The Day to Write about Water

This blog entry is not about Medievalism. But since Bloggers are supposed to unite about a subject today, and that subject is water, the Roaming Medievalist is joining in. This lovely picture of ice and water is from Svalbard, taken by Carol Gee, who is a very talented photographer. Thank you for sending this picture, Carol! Because it's good to recognize connections, the Roaming Medievalist reminds readers that there is a mention of Svalbard in the Jonsbok, an Icelandic chronicle, which comments in 1194, "Svalbardi funden," Svalbard is found. Obviously, they got there by water. Also, the Icelanders were very much people of the water, known for shipbuilding and fishing. (And some less pastoral things.)
But more simply, water. We all need it. It is not a renewable resource, despite the cycles of rain and evaporation we all learned about in science class. Therefore, we have to preserve it. Take shorter showers (or as Mike Bloomberg says, "Shower with a friend"!); don't let the water run while you brush your teeth or wash your face; use your dishwasher and washing machine only when they're full; keep water in the fridge in a pitcher so you don't have to wait for the water to run cold to have an icy, refreshing drink; fill up a pot with soapy water and wash your dishes in it; use leftover cooking water to water your plants; don't flush every time you pee (thank you, Roving Medievalist, for that semi-scatalogical addition); and keep water at it's source to help the people who live by it by drinking your tap water instead of bottled water. (And then you're conserving plastic, too. Double eco-points!) If your tap water is disgusting, filter it. And if it still tastes funny, throw a couple of mint leaves; lemon balm leaves; a little brewed black, green, or herbal tea; some cucumber slices; an orange slice; or a combination into your portable water bottle (of BPA free plastic or metal), and your water will be exponentially more delightful. And you'll feel like you sprung for a fancy spa day for only pennies.
Or, if you're feeling medievalist, return to an old tradition and have ale for breakfast.
But be nice to your water, or we're all going to be drinking filtered pee in fewer years than we'd like to think about. Really.
Happy Blogger Water day.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Going Back in Time!

On Sunday, October 3, the Roving Medievalist (and 40,000 others) attended the Fort Tryon Park Medieval Fair, sponsored by the Washington Heights and Inwood Development Corporation and the New York City Parks Department. Located in the park around the Cloisters, the fair offers a whole range of entertainments--music, falconry, juggling, magic, demonstrations, jousting, food, tchochkes, people watching--worthy of spending an afternoon wandering. Also good for playing the game of "Medieval/Not Medieval." While the Society for Creative Anachronism was creatively anachronisitc, demonstrating medieval combat in a field surrounded by vendors who traded in authenticity, and there was some beautiful music performed by a variety of different groups, the definition of "medieval" was clearly being stretched quite creatively. See, for instance, some medieval (?) pirates who seemed to be wandering the festival.

The food offerings were also far more medievalism than medieval, as you will note from some of the selections listed under the optimistic "Medieval Food" banner!

While the falconry demonstrations were fascinating; I was slightly sorry they didn't allow the falcons to pick off pigeons, squirrels, and small children. The Unicorn and its colt were surprisingly charming; as inventions walking right out of the Cloisters tapestries, they were delightful. The all-while unicorn was ridden by an elegant lady in sky blue, while the brown and white colt was led by a park worker. For all the medievalism going on, more strikingly medieval were the two policewomen on horseback; something about the way they rode through the crowds on their large draft horses--the descendents of medieval destriers--captured a feeling that people must have experienced during medieval fairs--of their passage being disrupted by people riding by on large animals. Hard to describe but interesting to experience!

While not so tempted by the beef empanadas, the Roving Medievalist did have a turkey leg, and was tempted by Ye Olde Fried Dough, but the line was too long. Also enticing were the quite effective-looking weapons, although the thought of carrying a broad-axe on the A train was something of an impediment. The range of available weapons was, indeed, impressive. It's hard to believe there's a strong market for maces, axes, adzes, swords, daggers, and chakrams. I mean, where does one use them? I can see them being decorative at events of this kind, and I know jousting is enjoying a (may I say it?) renaissace, but these hardly seem like practical purchases. Of course, neither did some of the other offerings--quasi-medieval lingerie, dragon statues, fairy dust, and other things vaguely associated with the Middle Ages. But then, there were face painters essentially illuminating people's faces, so that their eyes looked like the capital letters in manuscripts, and a woman making authentic pigments out of ground stones, although the paintings she then made with them seemed less medieval than the face painting. Anyone looking for something truly medieval would probably find the musical offerings the most rewarding; from Melissa the Loud on the Hurdy-Gurdy, to the Salmone Trio, to the Machaut Men: Machaut must go on!, there were many opportunities to hear well-performed, interesting choices from the musical past. But, to be very non-medieval about it, with 40,000 people walking around, the music would have benefitted from some 21st Century amplification! It was often hard to hear, and the small rings of hay-bale seats didn't really bring the audience close enough not to need it. Trying to hear acapella singing while vendors sell fried dough and potions across the road is a challenge--doubtless one experienced by medieval people, but one that didn't add to the experience.
Thinking about the event, it is certainly easy to praise the WHIDC and NYC Parks Department and the organizers for putting together an event that brought so many people to upper Manhattan on a day when the subways were a mess, and for offering an eccentric, but at least minorly authentic sense of a medieval fair. But what "medieval" means in that sentence is certainly up for grabs; the official parts of the fair (i.e., the booths, performances, demonstrations, and theatre) provided definitions of the past that ranged from very accurate (the SCA and Adrian demonstrations) to eccentric (the unicorn, the plays for children) to parodic (the Canterbury Tales plays) to charming (the Roving Medievalist could not resist buying and consuming a gingerbread monk!). And the participants wandering the fair in costume suggested that "medieval" means anything decorative, past, fantastic, or historical; from the pirates, to the fairies, to the franciscans, to the seemingly edwardian ladies and gentlemen, to the strollers who walked right out of video games, the "medievalist" or "neomedieval" stood in for any kind of attempt to be truly like the period we call the "Middle Ages." So what is the fantasy? Of a more friendly, inclusive past? Of a simpler time, when pleasures were tied more to the physical than the technological? An opportunity to dress up and who cares what it means?
After all, while the fantasy clearly doesn't include the darker elements of the period, such as plague, intolerance, torture, violence, danger, and infection, one might say that in having to use the port-o-sans, they got as close as we get in contemporary American life.
This is the challenge the Roving Medievalist faces in studying medievalism. But it's not a challenge without its pleasures.

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Dante Cheese

So into the brave world of medievalism comes a new entry, Dante Cheese. On the left here see the Dante Cheese mascot. More information about Dante Cheese can be found at the Wisconsin Sheep Dairy Association website. As you can see from the mascot, draws on Dante as inspiration for Rodin's thinker. Only now Dante is a sheep. Since we're supposed to imagine, I believe, that Dante (after spending some time in Purgatory on the terrace of the proud) ends up in Paradise, does this mean the sheep have been separated from the goats? But we love goat cheese also!

Dante cheese also has a lovely red rind, as you can see above. So is this to remind us of the fires of hell? Hard to know. The cheese, however, is delicious. Here is its description from the abovementioned website:
"Made with 100% pure sheep milk and aged a minimum of six months, DANTE has a firm and somewhat dry texture. DANTE complements pasta, dried fruit, and balsamic vinegar as well as medium red wines and semi-sweet white wines."
Dante cheese can be purchased at the WSDC website, which also has a list of local retailers