Who’s living history?

Recently I attended a ‘Medieval Phantasy Spectacle‘ in Germany.  This is an evolution of what used to be medieval-inspired markets and events in towns and at heritage sites across Germany.  The format has changed, and in fact it has become much more like the encampments one sees today in the UK, albeit without any claim to historical accuracy or even an actual historical event.

I lament this change, for the format that these events and markets used to have actually offered a great blueprint for participatory, fun events at heritage sites.  All stalls and stages were built of wood and decorated with medieval-inspired flags.  Costumed craftsmen would do their historical crafts right then and there, and sell their wares, too.  A clear effort was made to evoke a sense of medieval times – historified language was used both in writing and in speech that was easily recognisable as medieval and yet still easily understood.  A Euro for example became a thaler which meant that with every purchase of food or crafts item visitors participated in the ‘medieval experience’.  Food was inspired by historical food and when it wasn’t, it was disguised by the language used – adding a fun element as visitors tried to find out what was on offer.

There were also performances, sometimes music, sometimes a short play, again inspired by actual medieval arts.  The performers always tried to draw the audience in; I remember being pulled out to portray a messenger gallopping across the field to speak to one of the knights.  And what was perhaps the most enticing thing of all about these events was that visitors were actively encouraged to come in costume also – it awarded you free entry to the site.

Did it matter that one didn’t know to what extend this was actually historically accurate?  Not a bit.  But the event held together by a strong sense of a medieval core with easily identifiable modern interpretations.  In fact, at the same time as these markets became more popular, so did medieval music – again, in modern adaptations.  As many heritage scholars have argued, that is what heritage is: a constantly evolving, living tradition.  What can do more for the preservation of medieval musical traditions and their appreciation than their being used by contemporary bands that are hugely successful with young people?

Today, the format seems to have deteriorated to a heartless sale of products, few of which were produced on-site.  There were lots of encampments, and like I’ve seen in the UK they offered nothing more than a glimpse over a rope onto people enjoying their hobby of camping medieval-style.  The performances had no more tie to the actual medieval arts, there was no more interaction, and no sense of medieval times.

It is a real shame, and I do hope heritage managers will be able to revive these events as they used to be.  And I would go that one step further of ensuring a high level of historical accuracy in costume, decoration, tools etc. without changing anything else about the format.  We need events like these where the crafts people are truly knowledgable about the general period and able to answer questions when visitors ask.  But beyond that, the events as they used to be delivered what we strive for today: participatory, fun events that might just inspire our visitors to find out more.

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