Monday, July 15, 2013

Something Thoughtful

Nicholas Reid reflects in essay form on general matters and ideas related to literature, history, popular culture and the arts. You are free to agree or disagree with him.


            My intemperate grumble for this week began with my seeing an ad on Facebook for a wedding celebrant. I am in no need of such a person, but the ad at once intrigued and annoyed me. The woman wedding celebrant was offering clients “Medieval” weddings, complete with “Medieval” costumes and exchange of vows. There were accompanying photos of people dressed as knights and lords and ladies; and a groom in armour and a rather winsome bride in long-flowing, somewhat hippie-ish dress, standing in front of the presiding woman celebrant.

Being the mischievous person that I am, I wasted little time adding a comment in the comment box that if the weddings were authentically “Medieval”, then they would presumably be conducted by the local Catholic parish priest. That is what really happened in Europe in Medieval times. Needless to say, my comment was promptly taken down by the self-publicising wedding celebrant. I didn’t bother adding another. I was just being provocative anyway.

            However, this use of the term “Medieval” really troubles me.

            Let’s unpack it. Referring to an era as “the Middle Ages” was an invention of historians in the eighteenth century, with “Middle” meaning midway between the time of Christ and the present. At best, the terms “Middle Ages” and “Medieval” are vague, as all convenient labels for historical eras are; but this term has the added disadvantage that what is “Middle” will constantly change as time moves on. Logically, a time will come when we in the early 21st century are midway between the time of Christ and some future historian – so presumably we could then be labelled “Medieval”. But the odds are that by that time new paradigms of history will have been agreed upon, and the term “Medieval” will have long since been abandoned.

            As currently used, however, “Medieval” means approximately between the beginning of the ninth century and the beginning of the fifteenth century – that is, from about 800 AD to about 1400 AD. And, naturally, there are controversies about this labelling, as there always are when it comes to historical periodization. Some would set the onset of the “Middle Ages” earlier and some would set its ending later.

            For all that, “Medieval” does refer to a real period in European history, when real people did real things and lived real lives and celebrated weddings in real ways.
I’m fully aware that my provocative comment was reductive.

Overwhelmingly, in Western Europe (to whose “Middle Ages” we are referring), a Catholic priest would have presided at weddings. (Protestants didn’t yet exist, so the term “Roman Catholic” had not yet been invented). But I am aware that there were heterodox parts of Western Europe. Up in wildest Scandinavia, and over in the wild Slav lands, paganism lingered on and weddings would have been pagan rites – but people, including our woman wedding celebrant, are not thinking of this when they use the term “Medieval” now. Similarly, there were Christian heresies in some parts of Europe – in southern France, for example, before the Albigensian Crusades, there were dualistic Cathars who had completely different notions of marriage from those of Catholics. And of course, after 1054, in South-Eastern Europe, the dominant Christian church was not Western Catholic but was Eastern Orthodox.

Still, having said all this, in the Europe of armour-clad knights and ladies and so forth, weddings were Catholic-Christian celebrations and sacraments.

Which is clearly NOT what is being offered by the “Medieval” weddings of a modern woman celebrant.

So what has happened to the word “Medieval” in this case?

It has become vaguely associated with the world of fantasy fiction rather than the world of historical reality. “Medieval” means the world of knights and ladies and suits of armour – and quests and magic and wizards and dragons. In other words the world of Lord of the Rings rather than the world of anything genuinely Medieval. And prithee knave, I vow thoudst find plenty of faux “Medieval” language in the vows exchanged at a modern “Medieval” wedding. A modern “Medieval” wedding gives some of the external trappings of the Middle Ages without the very thing that made a wedding important in the Middle Ages – its Christian content. Indeed, most current fantasy fiction does the same thing. 

In a way it’s logical that the real Middle Ages have become confused with this fantasy version. Most of our inherited fairy-tales and folk-tales have Medieval origins and imply a feudal setting. Furthermore, the trend to mock-“Medieval” fantasy fiction is in part a romantic reaction against the technology of the modern world. Swords, spears and bows-and-arrows sound so much more appealing when slaughter is being carried out that assault rifles, anti-personnel devices and drones.

I add the personal comment that I find modern “Medieval” celebrations decidedly tacky and more influenced by Hollywood than anything hallowed and ancestral. You will at once argue that people have the right to choose whatever form of wedding they want. I would agree with you. But I would also say that I have the right to point out when “Medieval” has essentially become a nonsense word.


  1. Perhaps instead of 'Medieval' weddings, marriage celebrants should preside over "Harry Potter weddings but I would not be surprised if some already do so.

  2. Hmmm. I've been to a few "traditional" weddings in churchs.
    Something I find particularly silly about church weddings is the number of people who believe that they haven't changed in the last hundred years. Some even believe they haven't changed in two thousand years.
    I note that english is spoke by the priest and the woman are treated as though they are equal to the men. (Or, more or less equal to a man at a catholic wedding) In fact they didn't even ask the women to "obey" her husband in the vows. So the use of the word "traditional" is just as silly and irrelevant as the used of the word "medieval" in your example above.

    1. Gosh, what a defensive comment. You clearly do not understand the word "traditional" (=literally, that which has been passed on). As all who understand tradition know, tradition is a living thing - like a family tree of descendants. Nobody, except the uninformed, imagines it is static and unchanging. Therefore a modern Christian church wedding, with a sacramental element, is far closer to what would have happened in the real "Middle Ages" (as opposed to the non-existent fantasy ones)than a "Medieval" wedding made up of derived-from-movies fantasy elements. On top of which, o course, Hollywood "Medieval" weddings are simply not medieval at all.