D J Taylor: Jousting! Ducking for witches! Bring back the Middle Ages!

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The news that English Heritage has vowed to bring back an authentic form of medieval jousting at four of its centres will have raised a little tremor of excitement in the breast of anyone with a serious interest in our national history. Here in the machine age, the Middle Ages gets a bad press. Anglo-Saxon adventurers one can just about romanticise. The Reformation is awash with sturdy proto-modern folk busily devising try-outs for our own contemporary arrangements. But the 600-year stretch in between corresponds to George Orwell's cheerless vision of scurvy peasants frowsting in huts with the north wind blowing down from Jutland, no fresh meat until Easter and the priest terrifying you with tales of hell.

The news that English Heritage has vowed to bring back an authentic form of medieval jousting at four of its centres will have raised a little tremor of excitement in the breast of anyone with a serious interest in our national history. Here in the machine age, the Middle Ages gets a bad press. Anglo-Saxon adventurers one can just about romanticise. The Reformation is awash with sturdy proto-modern folk busily devising try-outs for our own contemporary arrangements. But the 600-year stretch in between corresponds to George Orwell's cheerless vision of scurvy peasants frowsting in huts with the north wind blowing down from Jutland, no fresh meat until Easter and the priest terrifying you with tales of hell.

There is a nice irony, too, in Warwick Castle's selection as the venue for one of these knightly re-runs. For this, a century and a half ago, was the setting for one of the great debunkings of the fashionable Victorian view of medieval life. "Those darling bygone times," Dombey and Son's Mrs Skewton rhapsodises to Mr Carker, "with their delicious fortresses, and their dear old dungeons, and their delightful places of torture, and their romantic vengeances, and their picturesque assaults and sieges, and everything that makes life truly charming! How dreadfully we have degenerated!" And yet Mrs Skewton, I feel, had a point.

What else can be done to coax this medieval tide back across the sea defences of our all-too-civilised modernity? One could start by bringing back medieval architecture - Norwich Cathedral, to my mind, is the most magnificent building in Europe - followed by certain aspects of bygone medical practice. Only the other week doctors were hymning the efficacy of leeches as an aid to blood-letting and the value of maggots in removing ulcerous flesh. That done, how about rekindling some of the era's enlightened attitudes to personal relationships, the medieval "courts of love" say, a kind of high-class agony aunt forum in which emotional problems could be chewed over by a committee of gentlewomanly advisers?

Ducking for witches! Tilting at the quintain! The stocks! Droit de seigneur! In half a dozen areas of our national life, coarse medieval usage seems to have the edge over more timorous modern methods. And then there are the salutary lessons that pre-modern England has to teach us about individual and communal well-being.

Urban medieval man lived in a walled and gated city with a watch ready to repel boarders and preserve his nightly security. He could acquire better parliamentary representation or trading privileges by banding together with his fellow citizens and buying them off an impoverished monarch in the form of a charter. And if all this sounds uncomfortably middle-class, there was plenty of scope for Angevin-era "chavs" - coin-clipping, for instance, or the commercial opportunities allowed by mass credulity.

There is the more abstract question of the kind of person one could be in Plantagenet England and the scope for self-expression it afforded. Many historians agree that what gets marked down as the origins of "individualism" - the chance to travel, and move up and down the social scale - date back to the 13th century.

As for one's own chances in this opportunity-conscious society, the other week I examined Carol Rawcliffe's and Richard Wilson's Medieval Norwich. Its 15th-century sheriffs maintained that Norwich was accustomed "for the conseruacion of the good rewle, peez and prosperite" of the place to imprison and try such "mysgouerned and mysrewled persons" as "diseres [dice-players], hazarders ... fournicatours, burgaleres, baudre and breker of housez". It sounds just the sort of place for my 600-year-old atavar, and no doubt the Lady Delia, mistress of ye pie-shoppe, would have enough money to ensure that the local foteball team was able to see off the knavish apprentice-boys from Chelsea.

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