Though I have very little case for having had a previous life in the Middle Ages, I have to confess something. When I see these elegant restorations of 12th and 13th century interiors, or see medieval clothing authentically recreated, or hear medieval music done a certain way, I cannot, for the life of me, shake the feeling that this was a world I knew, firsthand.
Some of the weirder coincidences between John’s life and William’s still bother me, too, particularly their proximity to each other in defeat 7 centuries apart, and the fact that John’s regiment now house their museum in Shrewsbury Castle (where William Longespee was castellan for a while). There are weaker coincidences too, such as the places I gravitated toward while in England in 2003-05 (several of which were sites Count William would have known such as Dover Castle and the city of York). Such coincidences prove nothing, and I can never say I was him or anyone else in that era, but they stand out forever in my mind and breathe enough life into the thought that I don’t think it will ever die completely.
I still plan to visit sites that William and his family would have known, and I still plan to make it a point in my studies to learn as much about the High Medieval period, its culture, its people, its religion, its art, music, and literature, as I possibly can. I feel that having even considered the prospect of having been there, on the ground as a Royal retainer, has made the era more real for me now than it ever has been or ever will be.
I was lazy when I learned about that era before, but that was a mistake. I was missing so much that didn’t even click until I saw myself there. I had lost interest in it and begun to feel that the medieval period was an embarrassment to the West, a dark age best left on the spoil heap of history, derided and forgotten. I forgot what it was like to remember a world that wasn’t smothered in asphalt and concrete, choked with smog and garbage everywhere, or painted hideous beige from floor to ceiling because it was spoiled for choice when it came to color.
I’ve rejected the modernist narrative of medieval lives being “nasty, brutish, and short” for a more balanced one: that life could be even more “nasty, brutish, and short” during the Industrial Revolution (a mill worker in 1900 had fewer days off and a shorter life expectancy than a peasant in 1200), and that the Middle Ages were a period of chaotic flux that had many positive attributes among the negative ones. It’s not an era we can go back to or should want to go back to, and medieval religion would be absurd to return to because it would not fill our needs today, but it’s an era that was not without its highlights in artistic and cultural achievement and one that I think deserves its due as a period when the first stirrings of our culture as we know it today began in earnest.