In reading Tom Holland’s fascinating report on his visit to the First International Medieval Combat Federation World Championships, held in the Castilla de Belmonte in Spain (south of Madrid), I was mesmerized by the wonderfully hybrid time of this spectacle: even as participants experientially learn the pleasures and pains of medieval combat in a setting that Holland reads as quixotically medieval, very modern forms of nationalism seem to be structuring the events. After first giving a taste of Franco-Swedish combat, Holland moves on to what proved to be a fundamental rift in the participating community, and one which seems to be reproducing the East-West split that characterized the Cold War as much as today’s Russo-Ukrainian conflict: Russians had pulled out of the championship playoffs, marking a fundamental East-West scission in the medieval combat world.
The spectacular nature of faux-medieval fighting has always intrigued me—and the World Championship organizers nicely highlight, in postmodern-medieval fashion, the layers of artificiality in their choice of venue: the Belmonte, an actual medieval castle, is singled out as having been the setting for the 1961 film El Cid. Moreover, as I have discussed in terms of World Cup ethno-nationalism, I am more than a little intrigued at this juncture in time with intersections of sports and nationalism.
What most struck me about Holland’s reporting on the East-West split within this particular medieval combat world is that Russians are apparently quite contemptuous of Americans participating, “on the grounds that the US ha[s] no medieval history”— and this, after the very same Russians deployed Soviet iconography to evidently “taunt” a Polish contingent. Much as nationalist scholars co-opted the medieval past throughout the nineteenth-century rise of university literary studies, so do these medieval combatants also, through their sport, seem, in some cases, to lay claim to an ethno-national cultural capital—and one that cannot be transported, apparently, by immigrants moving to new locations and yet retaining their stakes in heritage (of which America is surely a clear example). It amuses me how un-medieval such an attitude is, especially considering how multiethnic and unstable Arthurian empire is, as I recently discussed in the light of recent critical activity in and around Russia. Indeed, the very diversity of medieval modes of claiming inheritance in America makes it seem perhaps the most fertile area for such revival.
On a final note, I do feel sorry for these literalist anti-American combatants on one score: if they feel that American soil does not host the requisite amount of medieval history, they will clearly probably also discount Canadian territory as a potential site for authentic faux-medieval combat, and thus never be able to bring themselves to enjoy the truly wondrous kitsch of a visit to my nearest and dearest Medieval Times.