Published online by Cambridge University Press: 05 May 2018
Medieval Battlefields and National Authenticity
In this essay, I will explore performances of what logic suggests cannot be performed at all: authenticity. More specifically, I am interested in anniversary events that recently took place on two Western European medieval battlefields, the British Hastings and the Swiss Morgarten. At these sites, I will argue, medievalism and nationalism intersected with practices of cultural heritage and national politics to create places richly layered in meanings of rootedness and abiding identity in the twenty-first century.
The comparison of these Swiss and British sites, though perhaps not an immediately obvious one, is fruitful for at least three reasons. The first is methodological and has to do with the fact that, without exception, nationalisms claim exceptionalism. By juxtaposing countries greatly differing in size, (geopolitical) history, and cultural traditions, I can put such claims to uniqueness into perspective when dealing with negotiations of national identity.
Secondly, both Hastings and Morgarten have traditionally been accorded comparable status as a founding event of the respective nation. They therefore offer a means to interrogate the medievalist foundations of some recent forms of British (or, more properly, English) and Swiss nationalisms. The strong nexus of medievalism, war, and nationalism is well-established. As Linas Eriksonas has pointed out, European national histories have stressed military conflict at least since Walter Scott popularized the idea of “national history narrated as a series of key battles” with his Tales of a Grandfather: Being Stories Taken from Scottish History. In battle narratives, truth and clarity emerge from moments that are, quite literally, on a knife edge. Whether recounting glorious triumph or tragic defeat, such narratives have both underpinned claims to national destiny and, since the nineteenth century, fulfilled the need of different nationalisms (including British and Swiss nationalisms) for “authentic” cultural and political roots in the Middle Ages. Andrew Lynch has described the affinity of this quest for national origins with what he calls the “ideology of war” and noted that “the medieval” has become more strongly identified with war than any other period.