When I first arrived in England in the first few days of September, I immediately began sending postcards home to the United States with the phrase, "England is so... mediaeval." Then I found myself in the great bastion of Oxonian mediaevalism - the Arthurian Society.
Now, I am no stranger to anachronists. This is my fourth year on the executive board of a mediaeval society, sporting the ridiculous name `That Mediaeval Thing', which was begun at Drew University eight years ago. So when I joined the Arthurians, I wondered how different the scholarly, refined, proper Oxford students would be from their very silly American counterparts at Drew. I soon had my answer... not very different at all.
There are only two noticeable differences. First, Oxford mediaevalists don't try to feign `English accents' in an effort to sound more authentic, as so many Americans try to do (often with horrible results). Second, the English consume much mulled wine. In the United States, the legal drinking age is twenty-one; thus, only students in their fourth year, and some in their third, are allowed to drink (legally, anyway). We try to make up for this by mulling cider, which, in America, is normally non-alcoholic. Beyond these minor points, however, much is the same.
The Michaelmas pilgrimage is a good example of the commonality between groups. Amidst the Victorias chanting "We're all going to die," getting lost - or rather, having the roads mysteriously move from where they were supposed to be - and experiencing *ahem* near misses with stationary objects, I felt right at home. Craig at one point said something to the effect of, "I'd like to say that this is unusual... but it isn't." He was right. Similar fates fall upon mediaevalists both in England and the `New World'. I've got many pilgrimage stories of my own with titles such as `The McCaffrey, Lord of the Wilderness Story', `Camping Trip from Hell', `Driving Three Hours Through Cornfields in the Middle of the Night Having No Clue if We'd Ever Get Home' and `Upholstery Man', all of which involve getting lost, being silly and wondering if we'd get home alive.
Then there was the banquet. There's not much difference in cooking for thirty-six and cooking for one hundred and twenty, except that fewer ovens are required. There's still just as much chaos. Invariably an oven will refuse to work just when you need it to. Always there is someone who is running (or biking) all over creation to retrieve miscellaneous items, getting drenched in the rain. Never are there enough containers that look sufficiently mediaeval in which to serve food. And I have yet to see a skit take place in which one of the main actors is not mysteriously missing up to thirty seconds before the performance is to begin. Memorable disasters in the last three banquets in which I was involved include a cinderblock rendering a serving wench unable to walk, a table falling on three trays of plates and crystal goblets during cleanup, and chickens turned blue and green with food colouring so that they would look like peacocks.
Yet, despite, and sometimes because of, these little catastrophes, there is always much fun and much laughter. There are always songs that bring people together in fellowship - everyone, everywhere sings `Wild Rover' - there are always `mundanes' who will stop you on the street if you're in period dress to ask if you're in a play or headed to a strange Druidic ritual, and someone invariably decapitates or impales the marzipan animals.
Dame Brangien, otherwise Alexandra Schmidl, was in Oxford in Michaelmas 1993 attending the Centre for Mediaeval and Renaissance Studies, while in her final year at Drew University.
Originally published in Ceridwen's Cauldron no 28, Trinity 1994.