Why Are Castles Romantic?

Why is it exactly that we automatically think medieval paraphernalia “romantic”, or at least exciting and fascinating? Carcassonne and other medieval European cities dress people up as mounted knights in armour; would it amuse the tourists as much to behold people wearing modern military battle gear? We consider castles and turrets romantic; does the same glory suffuse the modern military base and interrogation centre? One suspects not. “The splendour falls on castle walls”…. but we probably do not hear the Horns of Elfland blowing from the gates of the modern army camp or a derelict Soviet factory.

We need a new verb to express the process whereby we invest transcendent qualities in the medieval castle but not in Abu Ghraib. “To cute” might serve the purpose. The question would then become, What is it we are reaching for when we cute?
Cuting cannot be anything as simple as mere idealisation of the past, for this aesthetic and romantic approach to the Middle Ages and other safely distant periods seems somehow to coexist with all kinds of negative stereotypes and ignorant myths, such as being old at 30 and never bathing. Some might buy into the notion of chivalry, that egregious piece of twelfth-century spin-doctoring, and so imagine that the war, politics and gender relationships of those days were somehow nobler and more refined than our own. Can it be that European civilisation has just never gotten over the fall of Rome? It might help to know whether the Cambodians and the Mayans “cute” their past too.

And yet everyone knows, if they take the time to think about it, that getting an arrow through your gut is no more fun than being machine-gunned; popular fiction is also full of Evil Barons and Black Knights; and Carcassonne has a Museum of Torture and the Inquisition as well as its (19th-century fake) witch-hat tower roofs. We do not make noble-minded medieval films like Ivanhoe any longer, we make disillusioned films like Kingdom of Heaven; even then, the Heritage industry continues to boom.

Perhaps there is something in us that always cutes the past, whatever we might consciously know in its favour and disfavour, so that future generations will cute the military paraphernalia of our own day. Our descendants may therefore pay to see resting actors and amateur enthusiasts doing re-enactments of the Iraq war in authentic reproduction Kevlar; pubs may one day create olde-worlde ambience by hanging Toyota steering wheels from the walls. Indeed, already there are restaurants themed on the Fifties as if it were an alien planet, which it may well have been, so perhaps our medieval cuting is nothing but a particularly permanent form of retro chic. On the other hand, people do not travel thousands of miles to pay homage to authentic Norman Rockwell barbershops or Feminine Mystique suburbs; and even if Americans did, Europeans wouldn’t. We need a longer space of time before we start cuting.

Or maybe it is nothing to do with our own attitudes to the past at all, but depends on certain objective qualities in the medieval world, and indeed any world until quite recently. Perhaps there is an aesthetic standard hardwired into us, which spiky-turreted castles satisfy and barbed-wire gun emplacements simply don’t. When women dress up, they often seek to look more like a medieval princess; whereas a medieval princess transported to our time might consider jeans and T-shirts to be dressing down rather than up. (If only we could do the experiment!) It may be that we like to swish about in gowns and brocade and embroidery – or in doublets and hose – because these garments are simply more beautiful, in an eternal and objective sense that owes nothing to fashion, tastes and ideology; because we are created for them and they for us. We can, it is true, decide that everyone shall dress in a Mao suit; in the same way we can also enact that everyone shall eat earthworms rather than lamb chops; but it isn’t natural and it won’t last.

So, too, with the look of dwellings and cities. Perhaps the reason we are drawn to medieval cities is that the buildings are designed in accordance with some deep human nature, while modernist office blocks are not. Casements and scrolls and pitched roofs are created for us, and we for them; we hate concrete boxes and “glass stumps”, not because we are backward hicks who resist innovative and dynamic expressive forms, or whatever the current jargon is, but because they are inherently hideous and inhuman and depressing, in the same way as earthworms are an inherently icky foodstuff. If so, then to walk the cobbled street of a medieval city, between two-storied houses, each of them different, is like coming home, even if we did not know that we had been away. And if tourists like cities with walls and gates, perhaps that is because cities ought to have them, to create the sense of community that endless suburbs and strip malls so notoriously do not, and to evoke a feeling of protection. Perhaps it is no coincidence that one of the French terms for “fortification” is the word for “pregnant”, or the other way round.

Posted on June 22, 2009 at 09:38 by Hugo Grinebiter · Permalink
In: CULTURAL ODDS AND ENDS, The Futurist Fever-Dream

2 Responses

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  1. Written by Urban Djin
    on June 22, 2009 at 20:05

    Why do you think earthworms are non-nutritious? I have been told otherwise and figure they would provide the most efficient, locally available source of protein for our post-apocalyptic future. I have a friend who eats earthworms. He claims that they aren’t nearly as unpalatable as one might assume. The ick-factor aside, as any organic gardener knows, if one composts heavily there will be hundreds of them in every cubic foot of soil, dozens in every spadeful. Hungry people facing starvation have been known to eat voles, grubs, and rats. Why not worms?

  2. Written by Hugo Grinebiter
    on June 23, 2009 at 09:03

    Sheer ignorance on my part, apparently. Suggest a dysfunctional food that will make my comparison work, and I’ll use it.

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