Thursday, 1 November 2018

Through the Looking Glass

A while ago, there was some ‘controversy’ when Warhorse Studios, the chaps behind the game Kingdom Come Deliverance (set in Bohemia [roughly the Czech Republic] in 1403), were criticised because everyone in it was white. The game’s set in a small geographical area, and everyone being white then is realistic, which is the angle that’s strongly pushed at every level in KCD. Larger cities were more cosmopolitan, but there’s no equivalent of Prague or Vienna in the game. In my view, those wanting diversity were simply trying to impose modern standards on historical reality (which isn’t necessarily unreasonable if you have a fast and loose approach to history, but the whole KCD game was focused on being realistic).

But it did get me thinking. Sometimes, people want to impose modern social, moral norms on historical works of media, whether videogames, film, TV etc. But what if it happened in reverse? What if we had a roughly medieval mindset, and assessed modern works by that standard?

In Stargate: Atlantis, female cast members often have bare arms. That would be frowned upon. (Plunging cleavage, not a problem, but biceps? Titillating beyond acceptability). There’s also a lot of loose hair. Again, at some periods in history this was rather indicative of, er, prostitution (as were the bare arms). A medieval person, once having gotten over the witchcraft of television, would be bemused to see this.

In the West, there’s generally been a decrease in formality between higher and lower status people (thinking primarily of working relationships, but also in those wonderful countries that still benefit from the splendidness of monarchy). This lack of formality would seem quite odd to those of a medieval mindset, where one’s social superior (local lord, say) could be the man sitting in judgement on you one day, and it paid to show due deference.

Medieval attitudes to vegans would be interesting to observe. Animal cruelty was pretty widespread, yet meat wasn’t eaten on around half the days of the year (it was permanently banned on Wednesdays, Fridays, and Saturdays, as well as being forbidden on certain holy days). Voluntarily not eating meat might be seen as indicative of religious devotion.

Sticking with food, being fat was seen as a sign of prosperity. In a world where one bad harvest can kill the frail and two bad harvests can destroy peasant villages, having sufficient food to not merely meet but exceed needs was proof of wealth. Paler skin was also indicative of high status, as more time was spent indoors rather than working the fields. Thinner people (generally but not always considered more attractive these days) were seen as less attractive because it was down to lack of food, rather than an aesthetic choice.

Despite certain glass-ceiling smashing memes, women have had leading roles in sci-fi for quite some time (Ripley, Janeway, Samantha Carter, etc). In a world where petty treason makes it a criminal offence for a wife to disobey her husband, and which could be successfully used by a woman ordered to commit a crime to escape legal punishment, this would probably be seen as really rather odd. That said, there were exceptions in medieval times (Black Agnes commanded a Scottish castle when her husband was away, defying English attempts to capture it, for example) but it’d still seem rather peculiar in medieval eyes.

The absence of references to God would be utterly perplexing. Excepting the odd expression (“Thank God for that” etc), most people hardly ever refer to God in day to day conversation. Obviously religious people do more often, but even that would be dramatically less than was usual for medieval England, which was steeped in Christianity.

Which brings us to an ugly aspect of medieval thinking: widespread dislike of the Jews. Jews came over with William the Conqueror in 1066, and suffered particularly during the reigns of John and Edward I. They were generally concentrated in a small number of urban centres, mostly London, and were pretty well-off due to usury (the forerunner of modern banking). However, this was against Christian teaching at the time, so, whilst economically beneficial for the Jews, and also more widely, the wealth was achieved through acts against Christian doctrine, by a minority. Sadly, the average medieval fellow watching TV showing anti-Jewish behaviour might be more likely to side with the bigot than the victim.

It’s almost as if imposing the moral and social attitudes of one time period on another, far removed, is a daft thing to do…


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