Arts & Culture

In celebrating Osgoode Medieval Fest’s 10 yrs, are we sanitizing the past?

Living and dying by the sword — in the Kingdom of Osgoode, even kings aren’t immune to this brutal reality.

When the Kingdom of Osgoode Medieval Festival reenacts the Dark Ages, the king will either be shot by an arrow or slain by the sword. It’s a reflection of the more violent aspects of the era, but it’s usually overshadowed by the romanticized aspects of the medieval period.

This year, the festival, which runs from July 8 to 9, celebrates its 10th anniversary. It has grown in popularity considerably — 200 people attended the first gathering; organizer Connie Bazil says 5,000 are expected this summer. That’s nearly double the population of Osgoode.

It’s not too difficult to understand why this festival has thrived, given that its core focus is all-ages fun, imagination, and nostalgia.

Yet in spite of flowing gowns, jousting knights, and piping pipers, it’s doubtful you’ll find festival-goers caked with dirt, smelling rank, or inflicted with the pox — all common to one of the most arduous periods in Western history. Lifespans were short, disease was rampant, and war was common. So what’s the attraction?

Bazil concedes that shows such as The Tudors and Game of Thrones have certainly helped create interest in the festival but says its success is hinged on more concrete aspects: its location, its reputation, its kid-friendly nature.

Still, for those who attend these festivals with serious gusto, a draw to the Dark Ages is based on nostalgia — that “yearning for a romanticized past,” as Fred Botting defined it in Gothic. In looking at this genre, the author of several books on English literature, and professor at the University of Kingston in the U.K., notes our contemporary fascination with the “nostalgic relish for a lost era of romance and adventure.”

In relishing the past, however, we may find ourselves rejecting the present and yearning for something that has been sanitized.

“By nostalgic remembering, we conjure up a past we desire to long for and thus paradoxically transgress history itself by way of memory,” notes Linda Hutcheon, a University of Toronto professor.

Fascination with the medieval era is an example of this “nostalgic remembering,” with the icky bits of the period scrubbed clean.

“If you look into this period, it wasn’t pretty,” says Bazil. “We forget how dirty people were back then. There was no bathing, there was no indoor plumbing — all those things seem to disappear and instead [most people] think only about the romantic aspects of the period.”

To the festival’s credit, an entire day is devoted to educating children about the era, including not-so-nice aspects of medieval life, explains Bazil. The kids love it.

A yearning for a romanticized medieval age is innocent enough when it comes to the festival; it’s less so when selective memory manifests itself in other, darker ways.

At its worst, it can be seen in the rise of right-wing populist movements; it’s also associated with back-to-the-landers, modern-day Luddites — even plastic-free-living movements.

It may seem unfair to connect the yearning for a sanitized version of the past with the fun happening inside the Kingdom of Osgoode; however, this “clean” version of the medieval era can be seen as a reminder of how easy it is to “transgress history by way of memory.”

Take, for example, the case of James Harris Jackson, a white racist charged with the murder of a black man in New York in March. In an interview with media, Jackson stated that his ideal society was 1950s’ America: a motive tied to his sanitized belief that life was somehow better back then because interracial couples were taboo. The Korean War, nuclear tension, McCarthyism, the polio epidemic — likely none of these bleak aspects of the 1950s ran through Jackson’s mind as he allegedly murdered Timothy Caughman.

Neither did it seem to occur to him that the weapon of choice in his Utopian 1950s’ America would not have been the sword he used to execute his crime.