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Introduction: Living Medieval
Gail Ashton

I come from Tolkien ’s Middle Earth, lived a neo-medieval past, a child, a young girl, in a world I read about in books – Arthurian stories, half-dreamed, half-forgotten, snippets of folk tales, legends retold in the dark to my sister and cousins, ‘ adult ’ fiction I slipped into my mum ’s library choices, Anya Seton ’s Katherine – a particular revelation. Chaucer’s ‘ Pardoner ’s Prologue and Tale ’ and the ‘ Tale of the Prioress ’ were my ‘ A ’ -level set texts at seventeen. I hated the round-the-class, line-by-line ‘ translation, ’ loved the narrative swerve and verve,
the sly interjections and subtle deflections. I had been handed a key without a door to open; that came years later as a postgraduate with Valerie Edden and Steve Ellis at the University of Birmingham. At teacher-training college the intellectual snob in me deplored our reading of Coghill ’s ‘ modernized ’ ‘ Miller’s Tale’ , even as I now applaud its inclusion at all.

There were days out to midlands cathedrals and abbeys – Worcester, Hereford, Lichfield, Gloucester. On a school trip to Chester I wanted to cry when I heard the monk ’s unaccompanied chant and stood in the stream of light from the cathedral’s stained glass. I slid out with the others for a sneaky smoke behind the coaches instead. Special Sundays took us to Cannock Chase, a vast forest that once covered as far as we then lived, the very street in fact; at primary school I learnt that we were named after that Norman hunting ground: Leighswood, a clearing
in the trees. While my uncles watched re-runs of Richard Greene in The Adventures of Robin Hood (original series, 1955 – 9), I read their American comics, dark fantasies of Batman and Gotham City. I longed to see the Bayeux Tapestry we kept hearing about in history but we were not princesses, and had never travelled farther than Wales.

Today, 30 years later, I inhabit the land of Richard II ’s famous bowmen, Gawain country, or near enough. A short distance to the west is the Wirral plain and the mountains of North Wales. Just south are the Roaches. My friend and fellow medievalist John Anderson told me this was the site of the Green Chapel. Every year we said we ’d go. He died before we could make it, another quest to make alone which is, I guess, the exact point of a quest.

Each day when I walk the dog I track the fringes of Lyme Park with its moors rising to the Peak District, one of the backbones of England, and its medieval deer park. Herds of these fallow and red deer have roamed this country for more years than I care to count. Sometimes I glimpse them ghosting a path, drifting like smoke across a fi eld. I always hold my breath. These are my ympe-tree mornings, border crossings into another reality, at once familiar, at once so strangely out of key.

I have never been to Runescape or been caught in a Dungeon Siege . I don ’t watch Merlin or Game of Thrones . I don ’t read Chaucer for pleasure or anything at all in Middle English, even as its cadences go round in my head. Fragments, phrases, narrative freeze-frames surface like wondrous fish at the oddest of times. I still love the cover of Avalon (1987, Roxy Music, EG Records Ltd) with its silhouetted helmeted ‘ knight ’ – the horns suggest he ’ s a berserker –
hawk on his (or her) gloved fist, the moody Celtic kit and caboodle of it. I love it so much that its song titles are the section headings for this book. Put on a film like Shrek or How To Train Your Dragon, anything to do with Harry Potter, and I will watch compulsively, repeatedly. I love medieval romance’s sense of loss, its interlacings, ‘ magic ’ objects, even its formulaic genre, and, best of all, its contemporary reincarnations in fantasy and sci-fi : so much bricolage , so much creative reinterpretation and reimaginings.

Sometimes it makes me laugh out loud. How amazing is Full Metal Jousting (Emery, this volume)? The wacko ‘ love childs ’ and imaginative leaps of Harry Potter ’ s fandom (See Allen, this volume)? That Mickey Mouse has his own Dantaesque comic book (Tondro, this volume), Geoffrey Chaucer Hath A Blog (Brantley L. Bryant 2010), or that Afrikaans renders Alisoun in the ‘ Miller ’ s Tale ’ as Alisoen, ‘ arse ’ and ‘ kiss ’ (John Boje 1999. See Barrington and Hsy, this volume)? What did I do until http://www.fyeah.medievalandrenaissancememes with its mash-ups of Eleanor of Aquitaine, music and art, or Chaucer’s Tales California Dreamin ’ -style ? Or that
today I saw a removal van called ‘ Knights of Old ’ (a Northamptonshire village), its motto ‘ service with honour ’ ? That I get to see a ‘ medievalist ’ Bayeux Tapestry after all, Aled Lewis ’ s ‘ The Coruscant Tapestry, ’ a hand-stitched narrative of film stills from Star Wars?

What do we mean by heritage? Sometimes it has a reality of its own, it ’s an artefact, a ruined site or building. Or it may have been built over, fake (D ’ Arcens, this volume), a composite (Finke and Aronstein, this volume), even almost overlooked: those strange stones or objects you can ’ t quite recall until you get to a place like Stamford with its Eleanor Cross or re-imagine Bamburgh as Lancelot ’s Joyous Garde.

There is a medievalist past around every corner, and we take it for granted. It may not look like what any of us were expecting, but then we don ’ t know the reality of that time in any case. Which of us can say this or that is authentic, or authoritative? When did historiography, chronicle, a mappa mundi became ‘ history ’ ? Travel anywhere in the United Kingdom and you thread through a living heritage of Viking and Anglo-Saxon place names, towns and trails recalling saints ’ shrines and cults, cities hoarding medieval cathedrals and castles, fortified walls. The Normans left their cultural marks all over Europe and Scandinavia. In Australia, ‘ fake ’ heritage sites invoke a conflicted colonial presence, while the United States is ‘ medieval ’
to its (electronic) core with its Renaissance faires, Medieval Times Extravaganza, conventions (like Kalamazoo), games, websites, fanzines, memes, blogs and social media platforms.

Of course, academics want to theorize the past. We might define ‘ medievalism ’ as any attempt to reimagine or reinvent the medieval. Or call it neomedieval to signal its inauthenticity, that it looks to ‘ simulate ’ what we think of as medieval rather than ‘ reproduce or otherwise recover it ’ . In so doing, we render a version that ’s then ‘ more medieval than the medieval, ’  a fantasy – often nostalgic – a facade, something that takes us into an ‘ alternative universe of medievalisms ’ just as we might fall asleep under a tree and wake up in a de-familiarized ‘ homescape ’ , or be translated, in every sense, in cyberspace. Sometimes, we can even outmedieval
the neo-medieval text, take a fantastic other-world and double-bluff to imagine it
anew, a ‘ medievalist ’ text – like the Star Wars Bayeux Tapestry mentioned previously, if you will.

I still like that at somewhere like Whitby on the northeast coast of England, a huge ruined abbey can host goths and steampunks, that Celtic paraphernalia and neo-medieval artefacts – a knight ’s helmet, his glove – sit, literally, next door to the Holland and Barrett health store (See Kinane, this volume). And if any of us had forgotten that this, and all of mine and your favourite things, are medieval -ish , then the librarian who decided not to participate in this project – for fear that ‘ their ’ mappa mundi might be degraded by its more eclectic or popculture bedfellows – certainly missed the point.

The above is an extract from my Introduction to Medieval Afterlives in Contemporary Culture.