I have blogged before about medievalism, the desire to re-create some aspects of medieval society and culture in the modern world. A lot of make-quality-crafts-by-hand is explicitly inspired by medieval craftsmen, as of course is the Society for Creative Anachronism, to say nothing of fantasy stories set in a vaguely medieval world.
But why is America such a center of medievalism? What we normally think of as medieval society took place in Europe, three thousand miles (or more) from the American east coast. Medieval Europe was mostly made up of kingdoms, whereas the U.S. was founded on the premise of We Do Not Have A King. During the Middle Ages no Europeans (other than the occasional Viking settler) knew the Americas even existed. Europeans first reached the Americas to stay in 1492, one of the dates often chosen as the end of the Middle Ages.
So why this fascination with medieval Europe by a society so far from it politically, spatially, and temporally? A big part of it is doubtless a highly romanticized view of a time when (supposedly) love and honor counted, people could make individual decisions without being forced into sameness, when people understood and appreciated their place in society, when objects were lovingly made by hand rather than being cranked out cheaply in a factory, when there were lots of colorful outfits and cool swords and handsome horses.
(You will notice that it is rare to imagine oneself being a peasant. We all have decided we're knights and princesses.)
But even at the founding of the U.S. there was an attempt to invoke the Middle Ages as a model. It was seen as a time of at least potential democracy, with things like the Magna Carta and the origins of Parliament, rather than the absolute monarchs of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. The "manly" knight was considered far better than the dandies of contemporary royal courts. The cramped (and stinky) cities of eighteenth-century Europe were compared unfavorably with the supposedly wide-open rural landscape of medieval Europe--just like North America! (supposedly)
One of the chief manifestations of modern American medievalism is the spread of the Renaissance Faire. Interestingly, it was originally going to be called a Medieval Faire, but sponsors thought the term "medieval" meant oppression and darkness, so the name was quickly changed. But it never was about the Renaissance.
In spite of its name and often a vaguely Elizabethan look to some of the outfits the performers wear, it is really a celebration of medieval society. None of the things that marked the real Renaissance appear, such as classical Latin, or gorgeous paintings inspired by Bible stories or by classical mythology, or gunpowder (though one can shoot at an archery range). One doesn't even get to mimic going into quarantine from the Black Death. It's true that tournaments featuring riders galloping at each other continued during the Renaissance, but the reenactors you see at a Renaissance Faire are usually wearing lighter weight medieval armor rather than the heavy plate of the sixteenth century (such as seen below).
Medieval scholars are of two minds about all this. On the one hand, it seems excellent to us that people are seeing the Middle Ages as in some ways admirable, rather than dismissing the era we love to study as dark and backwards and superstitious and disgusting. On the other hand, we are disturbed when white supremacists try to claim that the Middle Ages is their ideal society (listen up, guys, it was not a utopia of all-white all-Christian people).
There is a new book about American medievalism, called The United States of Medievalism (published by the University of Toronto), edited by Tison Pugh and Susan Aronstein. It is a discussion of all the manifestations of medieval style in American culture, from churches meant to look Gothic to things like Cinderella's Castle in Disney World.
© C. Dale Brittain 2021
For real medieval social history, see my ebook, Positively Medieval: Life and Society in the Middle Ages. Also available in paperback.