We cannot resolve this disconnect, this cynical optimism about our past, but perhaps we can seek to explain it. To do this, we should look into the milieu where it first appears: the period surrounding the First World War. Due to the Romantic impulses of the late nineteenth century, many of the European men and women who would experience the War to End All Wars, and particularly those with a literary bent, were steeped in a medieval mythos cultivated by fiction writers and historians. The nationalistic tensions that defined the prewar period often manifested in writings about the medieval past, for it was to the medieval and not to the ancient that the learned turned when they wanted to tell the story of their origins. Those familiar with medieval historiography are all too familiar with the fact that most of the histories written in this period are the product of nationalist fervor. Some authors satisfied the antiquarian impulse and related the history, nobility, and antiquity of the author’s town, region, and culture, filling in family trees and writing biographies of the local notables. Others attempted to trace the origins of their own modern nation-state (or, in the case of sectarian factions, what they wished to make their own modern nation-state) to the tribes and polities that had inhabited a particular region after the fall of Rome, in much the same way as the medieval Frankish, Irish, and Scandinavian cultures had followed the Roman model and claimed descent from groups of Trojan refugees. This nationalistic impulse was so important to those who practiced it, so ingrained in their work, that the discipline has been unable to completely excise it a century later, where it now exists wrapped in (pseudo-)scientific attempts to reconstruct cultures and migrations through DNA analysis. In other words, in the prewar period, the medieval past became intricately linked with not only the identity of nations, but also self identity. The American fascination with the medieval—manifested most prominently in the architecture we have already discussed, but also in a spree of collecting books, art, and other relics—is at least in part an attempt to participate in this Old World co-option of history to create identity.
The First World War is responsible for the final destruction of the medieval, severing the cord and dividing it from the modern. Although we traditionally interspace various historical periods between the end of the medieval period and the beginning of the Great War—Early Modern, Enlightenment, Industrial, Romantic—there is no discontinuity between any of them. One slowly fades into the next, the new transforming and adapting to the old. Omnia mutantur; nihil interit—everything changes, but nothing is truly lost. The trauma of four years of trench warfare, by contrast, cause a chasm, an abrupt disjuncture in this continuous progression. The world that existed the mud and the blood of the Western Front was fundamentally changed, its past a lie that had not survived the destructive fire of battle.
Many images of the Great War show how it turned the storied battlefields of Flanders, lands where kings and their armored knights had waged noble and chivalrous combat with worthy adversaries, winning glory and renown, into a ruined moonscape. The War obliterated towns and villages that had existed for a millennium. The great cathedral at Reims, the site where the Frankish king Clovis and all his men had converted to Catholic Christianity on Christmas Day in 496, burned and was destroyed. Manuscripts, or even entire archives, were lost.
Nor was this destruction only physical. In the Romantic imaginary of the medieval, heroic deeds on the battlefield must have their chanson de geste, their praise in poetry and song. The Battle of Roncevaux had La chanson de Roland; the charge of the Light Brigade had Tennyson. But there are no great Romantic epics for the First World War. The reality of trench warfare would not allow it. As Paul Fussell has put it, there was a collision
“…between events and the public language used for over a century to celebrate [them]…Logically, there is no reason why the English language could not perfectly well render the actuality of trench warfare: it is rich in terms like blood, terror, agony, madness, shit, cruelty, murder, sell-out, pain and hoax, as well as phrases like legs blown off, intestines gushing out over his hands, screaming all night, bleeding to death from the rectum, and the like. Logically, one supposes, there’s no reason why a language devised by man should be inadequate to describe any of man’s works.” (Paul Fussell, The Great War and Modern Memory (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000), 184.)
The only stories were grim, and the soldiers quickly “discovered that no one is ever interested in the bad news they have to report. What listener wants to be torn and shaken when he doesn’t have to be? We have made unspeakable mean indescribable: it really means nasty.”(Ibid.) In other words, the Great War destroyed the idea of battle as a chivalrous endeavor and the literary genre that went with it.
What replaced the old ideal was irony, an irony predicated on the author and audience’s understanding of what is expected from the traditional genre. But the finale upends tradition, destroys it, and mocks us for ever having found tradition true or useful. Captain Nevill bravely punts a football towards the Boche lines, encouraging his boys to put on a good show and signaling the advance, all with one swift kick. Captain Nevill is immediately shot dead. His men are massacred on the uncut wire by machine gun fire. The attack fails. The football is preserved in the Imperial War Museum with a little poem. (Ibid., 28–29.) So it goes.