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Traces of the Past: Reenacting the Medieval Period in Argentina

By María Laura de Brito

Medieval fairs in the city of Buenos Aires, Argentina are historical and cultural manifestations establishing points of contact between the Medieval period and Argentinian culture.

The twenty-first century in Buenos Aires, Argentina, has witnessed the enthusiastic creation of medieval fairs which echo the historical period in the form of cultural expressions and performances. Such manifestations result in an intercultural revival which merges historical data and art with the active participation of present day society.

In this sense, this type of medieval fairs is a modern manifestation of social interaction, reenactment and reproduction, where tokens from the fifth to the fifteenth century in Western and Eastern Europe are brought to the present time in the capital city of a South American nation.

Reenactment is a widely known broad concept (as defined by Vanessa Agnew), not only in the cinematic industry for the shooting of historical films, but also in the context of museums, historical places and theatrical performances. However, such events had not reached our country with so much strength until the last decade.  Medieval fairs and performances held in Buenos Aires are not only about a distant period in time, but they belong to distant cultures as well, and they reflect the rising relevance they have for the public.

This cultural revival is linked not only to the intrinsic traits of the medieval period, which has always had a special appeal to the general public due to its fantastic and mysterious aspects, but also to the worldwide spread of historical and fantasy films, series and video games through the media and the web. In this context, Buenos Aires is no exception. From The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien to Crusader Kings by Paradox Development Studio, members of different social levels and origins are touched by this medieval wave.

Medieval fairs cover all these areas with exhibitions open to the general public where different groups show their detailed work in areas such as costumes, warfare, dancing, singing  and cooking. They are aimed both at commemorating specific historical events and at reproducing the customs of the period. The portrayal is based on historical research and the exhibitions are meant to allow the public to interact with the re-creators, being that not only a form of transmission of knowledge, but also a way of entertainment.

One of these was the Feria Medieval del Sur III, held at the historical building of San Jose School (a National Historical Monument in Argentina since 1998) in the city center of Buenos Aires. The atmosphere was that of a medieval market, where it is possible to meet crusaders, kings, queens, friars and peasants and find armours, bagpipes, board games, handcrafts and beer. All of them coexisted in complete communal harmony with cell phones and families of the third millennium who visit the place, participate as audience and record their experience.

In this way, this event presents two levels of reproduction of the historical works: the reproduction of historical and artistic content, and the reproduction by the participants and the audience as regards the technical possibility spectators have of shooting photos of almost every instance of the events with their cameras and cell phones.

The former level of reproduction does not escape the current context in which medieval fairs are held and their intrinsic inclusive traits. Walter Benjamin’s view of the technical reproduction of the work of art provides some remarkable insight as regards the chain of reproductions which take place in such events:

…Reproductive technology removes the thing reproduced from the realm of tradition. In making many copies of the reproduction, it substitutes for its unique incidence a multiplicity of incidences. And in allowing the reproduction to come closer to whatever situation the person apprehending it is in, it actualizes what is reproduced.

When medievalist groups reproduce costumes, armours, recipes, pieces of jewellery, embroideries and images of Germanic gods and Celtic symbolism among others, they stick as much as possible to the original materials, sizes, designs, ingredients and techniques. Some others provide reproductions in modern materials or in every day life objects, such as stamped t-shirts or bags. In all cases, they actualize the original work in multiple reproductions which have a direct appeal on the spectator.

The latter level of reproduction is performed by the audience when they take photographs or record any part of the fair. They do it with the purpose of keeping some digital memory of the event or for artistic and journalistic purposes. Reproducing the objects, persons and events in this way creates a sense of endless mirroring. When this material circulates in the social networks, it works as an extension of the event and a record of the clash of cultures, the ancient and the modern one.

This is how the audio/visual reproduction of works and performances allows spectators to keep unique versions of the original reproductions, creating the endless mirroring mentioned above in a sense of closeness. For instance, reproductions of details from the Bayeux Tapestry embroidered in linen and wool (the same materials with which the original work of art was made) appear in canvas, bags and wallets. Some of the embroideries are produced in front of the public allowing the visitors to note the techniques applied. When the tapestry is reproduced in  this way, the input provided to the visitors participation in these events is an extension of sensorial history, as coined by Mark Smith.

Reproducing the Bayeux Tapestry at the Feria Medieval del Sur III in 2018. Photo courtesy María Laura de Brito

The sensory aspect is fully present in these fairs; both for the groups which show their works and for the visitors It is a clear instance of transmission of historical knowledge through some direct contact between the reproductions and  the spectators, who have the chance of asking the why, when and what for of the objects presented.

Claims in favour of historical reenactment see it as an expression of social memory with an implicit charge to democratize knowledge. So, one of the questions we may ask ourselves may be: What is the reason why more and more people participate in these events: historical curiosity, cultural immersion, entertainment, or all three of them?

If we assume that their purpose is that of reaching the participant with a live experience, and the social target is a broad one in terms of age, social level and knowledge of the period, then we may understand that these re-creators and their work are being accurate not only to the academic aspects, but also to their achievement aims and the democratization of their work.

If we refer back to the example of the Bayeux Tapestry embroideries, the levels of competency in the reproduction may differ from that of a museum specialist in replicas, but their purpose and the social target they are aimed at allows the differences that may arise in the manufacture process.

A warrior after one of the fighting demonstrations at the Feria Medieval del Sur III in 2018. The weapons and the full armour are made by the reenactment groups. Photo courtesy María Laura de Brito

As we have already mentioned, full armours and weapons can also be found in these fairs: Different armours from Europe are reproduced in their original shapes, sizes, designs and colours, trying to follow the materials that were used at the period as closely as possible. The Orden de los Caballeros de la Cruz is a reenactment group which concentrates its work in the Crusades, their origin and  the different cavalries and infantries that were part of them.

The live experience of medieval fighting demonstrations also highlights the relevance of dynamic interaction and participation, which is not possible in other contexts, such as online sources. The simultaneity of antiquity and modernity turns every fair  in a revival and an adaptation. It is this blurring, this ahistoricity, the one which allows whole families (including two or three generations among their members) to feel part of these events. Armour can be tried by visitors to understand their weight and the way a blow on a knight’s head may have felt like, food is tasted, linen and wool can be touched, all of this in the present time, as if the past was, suddenly, here and now.

The experience of medieval fairs reveals that every modern reproduction of objects, facts, characters and situations of this historical period multiplies its massive presence and joins with an invisible stitch its medieval origin with the twenty-first century. The increasing relevance of medievalism in Buenos Aires is remarkable. Its democratic essence, its social inclusiveness and the broad areas of historical studies it covers turn these fairs into a modern, close and active approach to a period which remains distant and exotic to Argentinians, and a creative source of research, learning and entertainment.

María Laura de Brito is a Licenciada en Lengua Inglesa from the UTN FRA (Universidad Tecnológica Nacional, Facultad Regional Avellaneda) and a teacher of English. She is currently teaching Language and Culture and English at tertiary level in Buenos Aires, Argentina. You can contact her at mldbingles@gmail.com

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