The ideal past
Some of you may be familiar with people who call themselves “trads”. Trad is short for “traditionalist”, and often what they are traditional about is faith and home, or marriage (or some romanticised version of the above).
But some do take it further, and seem to look back a thousand years through rose colored glasses to their ideal. Like this guy:
One gets the sense most of the people pushing this trad vision are men. That's not to say there are not women who celebrate the tradwife role: they enjoy being homemakers and mothers. Their “traditional” though is usually fixed somewhere in the modern sphere. They want to stay at home with their children, not live without running water or electricity.
But it's the men who tend to go much further with their tradvision having this rather quaintly soft-focused vision of some preindustrial idyll, in which one lived completely in harmony with the rhythms of the season and with one's neighbors. You’d be harvesting grain, wooing ladies, and somehow spending each afternoon lounging in a meadow and drinking mead.
It’s the next level of the rural fantasy wouldn’t it be nice to live on a farm? that many daydreaming cityfolk have, cranked up to wouldn’t it be nice to live on a farm in the 11th century? This vision of rural life is only a thing for urban dwellers.
While I may enjoy some elements of rural living, like horse riding, there's a lot to be said for living in a world with antibiotics. And I think some understanding of that reality is perhaps what makes fewer women go in for this trad peasant fantasy.
It seems to be mostly men who feel that somehow they would have been winners in a more patriarchal world, but it's like men who fantasize about polygamy thinking that everyone gets four wives. No: rich men get four wives, most men (including you) get no wife.
And as it is with this visions of pleasant peasantry: the unpleasant realities are somehow shaded out. In truth life for medieval peasants was hard. Aside from the limitations of technology, there were the hard realities of society.
An element of these trad fantasis is the notion that things were better in the past because of “traditional” values or Christianity, making people behave better. In truth medieval Europe was full of violence (including a murder rate far higher than today), capricious leaders, and regular unrest. Anyone living back then would trade their lives for ours in a heartbeat.
But this urge to idealize the past is a regular feature of industrial and postindustrial world. We saw it in the nineteenth century. In the wake of the Industrial Revolution, the dark satanic mills, many artists and thinkers started to idealize the medieval period.
This resulted in the gothic revival of nineteenth-century architecture, and literature playing up medieval folklore and culture. Artists and designers of the Arts & Crafts movement tried to hark back to preindustrial techniques and aesthetics.
The nineteenth century was a period of a lot of inventing traditions, and establishing practices that are now looked back on as timeless. Many of what we think of as ancient folkways were invented or revived at this time.
A smaller wave of this took place in the 1960s and 70s, a response to the dislocations of the postwar period. From back-to-the-landers to people wanting to rediscover traditional handicrafts, to medieval influences on fashion and music.
Fantasies of the past recur in a range of discourses, all with their own particular “good old days”, whether it’s men who think women should staying in the kitchen, or anti-GMO food types talking about how before pesticides people were healthier.
It's all crap. Biological anthropologists will tell you the number of diseases and illness we can see on the bones of people who died centuries ago. The human body is a frail vessel. And that has not changed.
But the idea that if we lived in another time, somehow things will be better is one that keeps recurring. We cannot escape from ourselves so we build a better world in an imaginary past.
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