Friday, 1 June 2018

The Modern Middle Ages

Many historians agree that the middle ages ended with the Battle of Bosworth Field in August 1485 when the Yorkist army lead by King Richard III was defeated by the Lancastrian army lead by  Henry Tudor who then seized the crown.   Shakespeare's Richard III is something of a comic villain as he always announces to the audience what he is planing to do next before he actually does it. Shakespeare no doubt wrote the play to flatter Queen Elizabeth and show her noble lineage.  However, the country did not change overnight after Richard III's death and life in the country carried on much as before. Jump ahead to the 1920s the author Joyce Lankester Brisley wrote a series of short stories about a little girl called Milly Molly Mandy  growing up in the countryside. Although the exact location of the village Milly Molly Mandy lived in was never identified by the author it is widely assumed to be Alfriston, just south of Crowborough. To many people the Milly Molly Mandy stories seem twee and over sentimental with their rosy depiction of the countryside but look a little more deeply and it is apparent that little has changed since the middle ages. Milly Molly Mandy lives in a thatched cottage with no gas or electricity with two other generations of her family, the roof leaks and often has to be repaired by the family members. The family are poor and she only owns two dresses (one for summer and one for winter), her diet is not very varied and is mainly based on bread, her father married into the family so does not have the same inheritance rights as the son of the family, the family grow vegetables which they take to sell at market by pony and cart, there is a train station at the next village but to get there they again have to travel by pony and cart. Foraging for food is an important countryside activity and the family are very connected to the seasons and nature and observe the spring equinox and May day. Apart from the nearby train station and visiting cyclists the village seems little changed since the middle ages. Milly Molly Mandy has to share a room with her parents until she is four or five (presumably this is one of the reasons she does not have any brothers or sisters!).  When the village blacksmith gets married although there is a church service the villagers attach more importance to firing the anvil with gun powder as marking a blacksmith's wedding. Its like the middle ages had continued. Using  Google maps I looked at Alfriston using street view. Its still very charming but there are cars and shops now (and a gift "shoppe" for tourists) and it looks like it belongs in the present time. My guess is that more has changed there in the past 90 years than in the previous 500 years. Sometimes the recent past seems a very strange place indeed. In Stratford upon Avon I have visited Anne Hathaway's cottage and also Mary Arden's farm (Shakespeare's mother). They are not so far removed from the rural village locations that Joyce Lankester Brisley describes in her stories. Of course progress eventually catches up with these rural hamlets as people spill out of over crowded towns and cities to find somewhere affordable to live. It struck me that whilst one cannot turn back the clock and relive the past it is possible to turn back the pages in a book. Turn back Romeo and Juliet and there is Mercutio cheerily waving at us from the pages in the first Acts or  Richard III in Shakespeare's eponymous named play scheming to seize the crown. We could even meet Sir John Falstaff inviting us to a merry evening in a tavern with young Prince Hal and a few disreputable characters. As Ben Jonson wrote Shakespeare was not of an age but for all time. Modern audiences still hiss at Richard III, laugh at Beatrice getting soaked in the garden and at Falstaff blustering in Henry IVth just as they did back in Tudor times.  I expect in another 500 years audiences will still be enjoying these plays as fresh actors breathe new life into the old characters.

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