Notes from the Late Antique and Medieval Postgraduate Society on Experiencing Medieval Spaces

Written by Daniel Sharp

On Monday 23 October, I attended a meeting presented by the Late Antique and Medieval Postgraduate Society. The society is conducting a series of research seminars this year, in which papers and research is presented and discussed. The meeting I attended was not, unfortunately, a seminar – it was a general roundtable discussion and a meeting for administrative decisions to be taken. Nonetheless, it proved to be an interesting and fruitful evening.

The first half hour or so was driven by an open discussion about peoples’ experiences of medieval spaces, such as castles and ruins. There were interesting points made concerning the merits of recreational activities, for example models of historical people in castles – do they realistically portray things as they would have been in the past, or do they take too many liberties and romanticise, commercialise, or even ‘Disneyficate’ these spaces?

There seemed to be a consensus among the participants that ruins – in comparison to full extant castles – have a uniquely beautiful aura. Someone suggested that this is because we can actually see the effects of time and events on these remains – the old feels palpable. The beauty of missing, unseen structures really allows us to feel the history in a way that, perhaps, sophisticated, technologically advanced recreations and models cannot. I can attest to this from my own experiences – St Andrews Cathedral is a ruin, yet it feels all the more historically authentic for that reason.

An interesting point raised was that it seems likely that historical spaces with sophisticated recreations have more money behind them and profits to make. Therefore, they are perhaps geared more towards the general tourist industry, possibly at the expense of historical authenticity. This may take away from a genuine, authentic historical experience. Ruins, on the other hand, do not tend to be money-making machines (although that could rapidly change with the building of new areas within them dedicated to profit-making), and thus they preserve a more authentic historical feeling.

This is not to dismiss all such medieval spaces – when done correctly, even the most commercialised remains can be interesting and fun. But there is perhaps a danger inherent in the industry which must be taken into account, in that a balancing act must be carefully conducted. Sites like Edinburgh Castle and Stirling Castle may have a salient tourist-focused aspect, but one can still appreciate the merits of those historical spaces despite that – perhaps even because of it, due to the time, effort and money put into presenting these spaces in a genuinely historical way. To return to St Andrews Cathedral, the commercialised aspects of the Cathedral and surrounding areas are respectful, genuine and informative despite the presence of the profit motive. (I very much recommend St Andrews as a place to visit – I believe it is one of the most beautiful places in the world).

Relatedly, the use of audio tours was discussed, specifically the musical aspect of them. Does music on these tours take away from the experience and the appreciation of the space? It was pointed out at the meeting that, as above, this involves a balancing act – between cheesy, hokum music which distracts and undermines the experience, and genuine music which can enhance one’s experience. For example, it was suggested at the meeting that music can imprint a memory more than simply hearing spoken words on an audio tape. Listening to, say, the religious chanting of medieval monks whilst also listening to an informative guide and walking around a cathedral can arguably make the experience all the more memorable and valuable for tourists, students and scholars alike.

Another topic of discussion was the increasingly common usage of medieval spaces and ruins as a place of marriage ceremonies. A range of reasons for this phenomenon were suggested – from the more superficial, such as the photogenic nature of the spaces, to deeper reasons, such as the fact that committing to a spouse for life in a place which has survived for centuries is a testament to the strength of commitment that is present in a marriage. A participant referenced Robert Browning’s poem ‘Love among the Ruins’, which was recited at a wedding they attended in the ruins of a church in South Carolina. The irony of such a commitment of lifelong love in the ruins of a destroyed space was also commented upon.

Thus, the roundtable concluded, and the administrative procedures began. I was, alas, disenfranchised from voting for the new committee members, due to not being a paid-up member. Nonetheless I was impressed by the contest and the candidates’ desire for outreach to the wider community. Some upcoming talks were also flagged up, and Christmas dinner was arranged. All in all, it was a nice hour or so, and it proved to be very interesting. The seminars will be commencing later in the semester and hopefully I can attend to see what research the postgraduates of our School are working on – I am sure it will be very interesting indeed.

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