|"Agricultural calendar from a manuscript of Pietro de Crescenzi," via Wikipedia.|
Recently, as I was listening to an audio lecture on King Arthur's reception in the Victorian age, I was struck by a realization-- nothing was truly changed between the Victorian period and now in regards to how people treat history.
Now, obviously, much has changed between then and now, let's not deny that. But it is indisputable that scholars agree that the Victorian age is where we in Western civilization, base many of our modern sensibilities about law, love, and economics. Because of this lineage trace it is unsurprising that the Victorians treated history the same way that we do (or, said another way, we inherited it from them). Meaning, they used it as a prop to promote and deride hotly debated ideas about life, art, and death.
Anyone who did not read my previous note installment on the Arthurian tradition's reception in the Nineteenth Century, should be aware of the following: during this period, the Victorian age, a resurgent interest in King Arthur emerged. People were once again writing great poetic works about the legend, scholars were searching anew for clues about the real life figures, and artists were busy debating among themselves the merits of the legend and what potential it held for art. Soon, the Arthurian tradition was widespread among the merchant class and variations of the legend's great scenes from popular works were inscribed, emblazoned, and sown on materials far and wide.
Does this sound familiar? It should because it is exactly like today when a new fad materializes. While hardly surprising that the Victorians would busy themselves with commercial plying of King Arthur since they were living at the time of capitalist development, does their appropriation of King Arthur and their production of commodities from the legend, not remind you of our own time? I feel that it is a perfect fit.
Why, you ask? Simple answer: sociality and materiality.
Humanity reacts to its material reality-- its industrial development, the economic base and superstructual elements, who owns the Means of Production, etc.-- and this reality is subject to change with each succeeding generation; as upcoming generations react to the old art and commerce, ephemera which were, in turn, shaped by the material conditions of a society and its economic base, art is continuously re-shaped under new auspices, constantly reacting to new and emergent reflections on a regime of capital accumulation. New generations encounter the same social-materialism which their fore-bearers bore, albeit in an altered form since nothing remains static in a bourgeois economy. As such, as new ideas and philosophies come forth, the artistic-practice of the old world is called into question-- interrogated-- in order to justify radical alterations or stringent conservative ideals. In this way, all of society is in a never-ending dialog, a conversation about what it means to be alive and a member of a certain group, which is in turn a member of another group (and so forth). Truly, a poetic rendition of historical sedimentation.
I knew all of this beforehand intellectually. But sometimes you just need to hash things out before you come to a solid understanding. This is because we see these same ideas play out over and over again throughout history; the Victorian appetite for the medieval is little different than our own appetite for base Hollywood adaptations of foreign classics; can we really say that Geoffrey of Monmouth's History of the Kings of Britain and its mytholgization of British history is any different than our democratic facade promoted by liberalism, or even the fascist delusions promoted by Racialist ideology?
What each of these things held in common was that it was taking historical minutia and re-working to different ends, usually ones concerned with power and domination. Why this happens is because the human story is one of rationalizing existence and the underdog finding justice. It is a slow and painful journey filled with much injustice but it is a journey which takes many turns and so demands people react to their material reality with the best that their epoch is able to offer them in terms of artistic inspiration.
This is what's most inspiring about the study of history and literature-- it cuts through falsehood. And sometimes you need to go back throughout the centuries and critically examine why and how certain events transpired the way that they did, in order to truly understand where you came from, where your ancestors came from, and why falsehoods and lies were ushered from their mouths or why certain truths were diminished.