I spent last weekend at Tewkesbury Medieval Festival helping my brother promote his new book, Kings Man, the third in his series The Outlaw Chronicles about Robin Hood. The festival is held to commemorate the Battle of Tewkesbury in 1471. This was the final battle of the Wars of the Roses in which Prince Edward, the heir to the House of Lancaster, was killed.
During the festival, the whole town is decked out in medieval flags and the streets throng with knights in armour and medieval re-enactors. It all culminates with a big battle down by the river on the historic battleground. A riot of cannons, men at arms and pikes as the Lancastrian and Yorkist armies clash. It is a big festival which has been going for 25 years but there are plenty of others which are popping up all over the place; not just in Britain but in France, Belgium and Eastern Europe too.
Historical re-enactment is a booming market these days. At the Tewksbury festival there are countless traders stalls selling medieval gear; hauberks, hose, vambraces, gauntlets, broadswords, smocks and jerkins. Fancy something special for the weekend ? How about a dog faced bascinet? There are so many different stalls it finally dawns on you that this is a big business. You have stumbled upon an underground fetish scene; not sexual but cultural. And it’s coming out of the closet to a town near you!
The big question is this: why is it suddenly so popular? The answer, although an oblique one, is in the title of a new exhibition that has just been announced at the V&A Museum: Postmodernism – Style and Subversion 1970 – 1990. Yes – notice that last date! This is a retrospective exhibition. That means postmodernism is officially over.
Post modernism was always a difficult concept since it sounds like something “after the future” and how can some thing be after a future that has not happened yet? The best way to explain it is like this. Modernism, as an artistic movement, had a tremendous sense of earnest optimism about the future. It believed that art could morally improve people; that a modernist skyscraper could improve your life. Postmodernism went in the opposite direction, not optimistic but ironic, not earnest but mocking. So where can you go next ? What is post postmodernism? After the earnest futurism and then the ironic futurism what is the next stage in the cycle? Logic dictates it must be the earnest past.
And lo, the pop charts are filled with folk music again. Mumford & Sons and The Arcade Fire are the hot new groups. And the streets of Tewkesbury overflow with people dressed in medieval tunics seeking community in the past: a secular commonality from a shared history to soothe the fits and agues of the modern world. Anywhere else, you would be arrested for wandering the streets after dark with a four foot blade in your hands. At the Tewkesbury festival, the pubs are welcoming you in for another drink.
You may be wondering where the catataxis comes in. Well, there I am in a pub dressed in a monk’s habit with a Spanish guy dressed as an elegant nobleman to my left and a French bloke in a man at arms outfit to my right. I am pointing at my costume and trying to explain a joke about ‘dirty habits’ but it does not come out so well in the translation…and suddenly it hits me. I am in a pre-national Europe. In 1471, there were no nation states. There were powerful barons, principalities, duchies and territories in a complex patchwork throughout Europe. Henry VI, King of England was also, for 30 years, the King of France too. Countries, as we know them today, did not exist. The Nation State, level four in the hierarchy that goes up from individual to family to community, does not yet exist.
And right there, in the beery good cheer of a friendly pub, surrounded by Europeans in fancy dress it strikes me that there is nothing to fear about a federated Europe. Maybe the time has come for the post Nation State, a return to a complex patchwork of entities under an EU umbrella. The resolution of the Greek Debt Crisis will be to push us all in that direction. Maybe the V&A museum will soon hold a retrospective exhibition called The European Nation State – Power at the 4th degree 1648 – 2018. After all, we do share the same values, the same history, and since I got the phone number from the elegant Spaniard, the same medieval outfitter too…