I’m switching disciplines today. Last weekend I, along with tens of thousands of others, attended the hugely popular European Medieval festival held annually in Horsens, Denmark. It turned out to be a wonderful way of bringing history to life for both children and adult spectators and participants. The small city centre was transformed, by covering up street signs and rubbish bins, covering the streets in woodchips and erecting a large number of tents serving as food, drink and craft stalls.
I was amazed at how the festival not only drew in large number of tourists from across Europe, but also at how strongly it was based on community involvement – hundreds of local people volunteered at the event, and everyone had bought or rented proper costumes from a charity specialising in Medieval gear for the festival. Thus, I found myself surrounded by nuns, monks, knights and maidens, who were doing everyday things such as cleaning up, bringing items to the stalls or selling mead, bread and – for those that way inclined – roast pig on a spit. Practical demonstrations of crafts such as woodturning and ironmongery were somehow more fascinating in such a convincing setting, although the jousting and fighting displays kept violence at a playful level to suit the mixed audience.
A medieval school had been constructed and offered lessons in reading, music and early forms of medicine. But learning was constant, it was everywhere – you couldn’t help but take in knowledge as you encountered bishops, beggars and birds of prey, while drinking nettle soup and watching archery competitions.
Sometimes learning requires the sort of information found is dusty old history books. Other times, though, knowledge can take a tacit form. This is the kind of knowledge that cannot be standardised, formalised, written down. It needs to be experienced. And tacit learning can be at least as effective as the formal kind. Visitors to the Medieval festival did not only encounter words or even visual displays about the Middle Ages. They ate, drank, touched and smelled them. They wore them, lived and breathed them for a day or two. They consumed medieval times, and in the process they learned a lot.
Last Saturday, history had a field day.
Now, how can we make social science this much fun?