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Why Medieval? with Philip McDonnell

My love of the medieval started around the age of 4 or 5. I didn’t know what medieval meant but that didn’t matter. There was an imported French-Canadian TV series in the late 60s called “Desert Crusader” (Thibaud ou les Croisades to the natives) that grabbed my attention. I didn’t and couldn’t possibly have understood the political storylines it presented at so young an age but it inspired hours of playtime fun and planted the seed for where I am today. In passing, the whole series was released on DVD a few years ago and…well…it’s not a masterpiece of televisual delight: perfect 60s hair-styles, oversized swords, strange and disturbingly short tunics let alone the stilted acting. But I digress.

At primary school, my one memory of the that kindling interest in the medieval was a final year trip to Ashingdon Church in Essex (Assendune to the Saxons and Cnut when he landed and defeated the English to become King). In truth, my interest in history spanned all eras and wasn’t very selective. I watched all the old biblical epics as well as films like Ivanhoe, Longships and the Vikings which were often style over substance, horned helmets into the bargain. Yet, that trip to the hilltop church in east Essex embeded itself in my memory because I remember looking out over the River Crouch, imagining the Viking fleet and the slaughter that followed. I also remember feeling very affronted that Cnut won.

Grammar school, however, was the low-point in my historical interest. It more or less squeezed the passion out of me. It was alright in the first year; I did Mycenae, the Greeks and Romans. It was fun and I had an entertaining teacher. From then on, it was dreadful. The whole of the Saxon and Viking period was glossed over and ‘real history’ began with the coming of the God-fearing, chivalric Normans. Drivel, of course, but concepts were not explained. I recall believing at one point that the Saxons had been annihilated and the Normans had just walked in, bringing with them monasticism, the Domesday book, feudalism and peasant ignorance – none of which made any sense in the context of one set of dates after another. Add that the teacher was almost at retirement age, distant and a believer in writing all notes on the blackboard with no interaction beyond spitting out detentions when we were misbehaving. On one occasion, a few in my class played frisbee as he wrote and would have got away with it had the damn thing not swerved off and banged into the blackboard where here had just written! No, I had no interest in pursuing History at O-level by the time I was 14 when the time came to make my choices.

But all was not lost.

At the age of 16 or so, I was introduced to Dungeons and Dragons. Hardly history, but it was that re-ignition I needed to get where I am today. D&D, then AD&D, then Runequest and to a much lesser degree, Chivalry & Sorcery got that interestall fired up. Over the ensuing years, I looked at castle design, swords, arms, and armour. I draw a lot. I drew castles, plans, buildings and, obviously, warriors, thieves, wizards and their ilk. In 1985, I was relocated by my employer from Essex to Kent which left me dislocated from that gaming background. I decided to develop scenarios for games. I drew maps fully contoured. I developed a whole world. I considered sea-routes, language barriers, cultures all of which were hopelessly obvious as coming direct from history. What I couldn’t deal with was magic. It was unreal and it was here that the dawn of my return to proper history began. I had turned some of the scenarios into short fantasy stories. I attended nightschool to improve my writing but was urged – mocked by the lecturer – into placing the works in real history. I looked and found the 12th century. My stories had included a powerful queen. The only one that matched her in history was Eleanor of Aquitaine. And so, finally, my real passion was reawakened.

In the years since, I have turned the last of the short stories into a novel but it is now in its umpteenth year of rewriting because I cannot decide to end my research! Along side that, in 2003 I realised that I wanted to teach medieval history at university level. With a house and mortgage to keep as well as a demanding full-time job, I was able to do a part-time course at the University of Kent that took 6 years. I graduated with a 1st Class Hons in 2009 and went straight on into an MA in Medieval History at Birkbeck, London.

Currently, I am on a year’s sabatical to allow me to concentrate on my wedding on St George’s Day (23rd April) this year before starting the second year this coming September. From there, I am plaaning to go straight into the PhD and spend another 6 years to complete that. At that point, I will give up my job as a Quantity Surveyor – I hope – and set about passing my passion on to others.

As an aside, where did I get DustyProfessor as my Twitter name? My fiancee. She has already concluded that once I am deep in research, she will only see me when she comes in to the study with a mug of tea, bringing the Mr Sheen with her to remove the inches of dust I’ll be buried under. :)

Philip

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