From punkin chunkin to the newfound popularity of witches, the festival of Halloween is reaching back to the Middle Ages for its traditions. Is this a good thing for medievalists?
This is the question raised by M.J. Toswell in her paper, “The Dangers of the Search for Authenticity? The Ethics of Hallowe’en”, which appears in the latest issue of Studies in Medievalism. The Western University professor examines how the popular North American holiday is in recent years seeking to give “a veritably medieval experience.”
For example, in the last few decades ‘punkin chunkin’ – also called ‘pumpkin chucking’ – has become an increasingly popular pastime during the days and weeks leading up to Halloween. Using forms of trebuchets and catapults, pumpkins get fired down fields, or sometimes at targets. Toswell notes how this evokes medieval siege warfare, and the popularity of these massive weapons in films such as The Lord of the Rings series. She adds that “part of the joy of the event does seem to be a squealing glee as the pumpkins explode into mush and pieces of squashed squash. There is an element of free violence, without repercussions, to the whole enterprise. And there is certainly a medieval element, though perhaps more of a medievalist element to pumpkin hurling.”
While Toswell finds pumpkin hurling to be “great fun”, she is less enthusiastic about the increased prominence of witches in Halloween festivities. While The Harry Potter novels and other mass media have portrayed witches in positive ways, they also “reconnect ideas about gender that many feminists have fought to disconnect: that women are dangerous or have the kind of weakness that makes them open to encroachment by evil, that woman require male supervision and oversight, that woman are untrustworthy and potentially monstrous.”
One might almost argue that the nostalgic search for the medieval in modern Hallowe’en encourages a rather crude and teleological simplification about how humanity has progressed. Moreover, in some respects it reifies and re-establishes social mores that might otherwise be disappearing. Under the guise of being historically accurate, deeply conservative ideas about human behavior can justify themselves as a pretense, a recreation of earlier times. In other words, recreating a “true medieval” experience, as these text attempt, is a highly dubious ethical endeavor.
The article “The Dangers of the Search for Authenticity? The Ethics of Hallowe’en” appears in Studies in Medievalism XXIII: Ethics and Medievalism. This collection of essays discusses a wide variety of topics, including Beowulf in film, Dan Brown and Dante’s Inferno, and the Harry Potter novels. See also Viking Human Sacrifices: Hollywood vs Reality
Top Image: ‘Punkin chuckin’ – Photo by Wigwam Jones /Flickr