On Sunday, 20 September 2015, my family and I went to ScotFest in Tulsa, Oklahoma. On a purely personal level, it was a fun outing and a good way to spend time with parents and wife and child, a wholesome activity well worth doing. But it was also more than simply a pleasant daytime affair; it was one among a great many events in the United States that celebrate a particular view of heritage and history extending back into the medieval (although attending significantly to the post-medieval, as well).
There were some things, certainly, that the festival had "right," things that accorded with what is known of medieval practice and the British Isles. The weather on the day we went agreed with the event; it was overcast when we attended and had rained heavily before we got there. Not much of the area was paved, so muddy shoes were common. The festival organizers can hardly be credited for the weather, however, even if they took advantage of a happy coincidence. They can be credited, however, with having a double line of temporary vendors arrayed on the path between the major plazas at the festival site, traveling merchants hawking their wares from under tents and lean-tos (and at least one of the vendors, a sculptor, had what looked a rough-hewn setup in place, something not made from a lumberyard's offerings). And the food seemed more or less authentic, insofar as local health codes and the differences in what was available then and what is available now allow.
It must be noted that ScotFest does not advertise itself as reflecting older practice, necessarily. It celebrates heritage rather than reproducing the circumstances that give rise to that heritage. But in celebrating that heritage, it tends to fall into the same problem of accuracy as many such festivals do; it presents the middle and higher reaches of society only, neglecting the great majority of people in the world at the time. Rarely, if ever, does the peasantry figure at such festivals; more frequently, events and attendees figure themselves as being among the gentry and minor nobility, eating food and drinking drink that presuppose the ability to pay for them in currency or in kind, wearing frequently-cleaned clothing meant to resemble the long work of hands that is not able often to be washed for lack of another and the inadvisability of standing naked under the open sky in the cold and wet and wind. While it is the case that those in the lower reaches of medieval societies had time to themselves and found ways to enjoy life, it is also the case that they had much less with which to do so than did those above them--and that less is hardly ever shown at festivals such as ScotFest.
It makes sense, actually. Peasant life is unattractive, particularly to those whom depictions of it might point up their own equivalent status.* Festivals have to make some money to keep themselves going, and so the marketing aspects of the presentation need some attention. Too, they are not necessarily intended to be accurate representations of "how things were," although the problems with negotiating that intent remain as they have been discussed in earlier blog entries. But I think something else is at work in the depictions of older forms offered by such festivals, more than the other something else I note in an earlier post. I think there is some longing for exaltation at work, some thought that participation in the festival is in some ways participation in a past perceived as glorious when the present, for whatever reason, is not. As an escapist fantasy, taking on the trappings of the "medieval" allows for the re-presentation of an aspect of the self in elevated form, perhaps with the thought that "Had I been there then, I'd have done better," and maybe with the addendum that "Things would be better now, too." And if it is the case that festival-goers look to the medieval to make themselves feel better and provide themselves with images of how they can be better, that is surely something worth more than even a good day at a park with family.
*As ever, I write from a relatively mainstream United States perspective. Other perspectives' results may differ.