The past is a foreign country, they do things differently there (L.P. Hartley)
If the past is a foreign country, in the words of the writer L.P. Hartley, then that applies especially to the Middle Ages – a land populated by counts and dukes, noblemen and knights, farmers and sharecroppers, monks and whores, minstrels and pages, jesters and troubadours. It is a past that lives on in our collective memory, in shards and pieces without an over-arching narrative: half-forgotten fragments from history classes in dusty classrooms; an unforgettable face that seems to have stepped out of a Flemish Primitive painting; ominous names such as John the Fearless or Charles the Bold. The Middle Ages also live on in street names, local beers or TV series, in expressions, habits and traditions. They are more part of everyday life than we might imagine.
The medieval period continues to fascinate. That is probably also due to the way in which facts, anecdotes and stories have been embellished –in romanticized versions in popular culture, as a consequence of historical falsifications, or by politicians with a nationalist agenda who adapt facts, true or “alternative”, or who appropriate battles such as the Battle of the Golden Spurs to fit their particular discourse. Through the centuries, fact and fiction have formed a tangled web, and each historical period has had its own interpretation of the Middle Ages.
The Middle Ages are often represented as extremely violent, as a period of incessant warfare, between rebellious cities and shires, neighbouring duchies, or in the prosecution of bloody crusades. That neverending struggle demanded an impressive weapons arsenal, with evocative names such as goedendags and halberds, hauberks and lances, battering-rams and trebuchets – contraptions that continue to fascinate entire generations of children.
But then again the Middle Ages weren’t only about bloodshed, battles and burnings, but also about courtly love and devotion. This conflict between the earthly and the divine, the high and the low, is always present. In spite of the wars, the famines, the plagues and the brutalities, the Middle Ages were also a golden period for the arts – polyphonic music, sculpture and an almost hyperrealist style of painting, which culminated in Van Eyck’s Adoration of the Mystic Lamb. And then there were knightly tales, altarpieces and miniatures, stained-glass windows, gargoyles, baptismal fonts and votives. And what breathtaking architecture: castles with footbridges, sturdy fortresses, abbeys, churches and cathedrals in Roman or Gothic style. Our historic cities – or at least that is the claim – have plenty of these, even if they are mostly barely noticed. For what we consider authentic is often a restored version from the nineteenth century, a historical falsification, or a simulacrum. These different historical layers together form a palimpsest in which the boundaries between the authentic and the fake are blurred.
The Middle Ages offer many themes and motives that continue to inspire artists today. They sometimes even opt for ancient mediums such as tapestries, miniatures or stained-glass windows – usually with a contemporary or postmoden twist. For the medium had a different meaning or function back then – the past is a foreign country. Tapestries were used to commemorate battles and to isolate cold castles, miniature portraits served to present oneself on the marriage market, and heraldic art was a precursor of contemporary logos and a form of branding. Things like these return in the work of artists today, either as faithful reproduction or as free-floating signifiers, signs and symbols uncoupled from their original meaning. The Middle Ages are a bottomless well of inspiration, and however fragmentary and arbitrary our gaze may be, through misunderstandings, Hineininterpretierung, and distortions, they are coming alive once again.