A few years ago it became fashionable to observe that we are living in a neo-medieval society. The pervading language of computers was cited as one reason for this, as was a growing underclass of social and economic dissidents, whose purpose in life - in common with the heretic mendicants of the 13th century - was to rove around the landscape guilt-tripping people about their lifestyles, making an unholy racket in public places and manuring the highway with bits that dropped off their filthy bodies.
It also became plain that society had divided itself down the middle, between those who worshipped lucre and those who worshipped lucre but in a spiritual way. Also, men started to wear skirts again.
Pop musicians have been au fait with the neo-medieval thing for decades, but on a more sophisticated level than the rest of us. They have been aware since the Sixties that to be medieval is, by some curious twist, to be modern. Put another way, every phase of pop music's recent history has recognised in the medieval world-view a great opportunity for selling records. We'll draw a spangly veil over Rick Wakeman at this juncture. His Myths and Legends of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table, though camp as a row of knightly pavilions, was entirely fraudulent, being a pantomime staged on ice and founded in the Gothic Revival idealism of Pugin and all those guys with frothy Victorian sideboards. Nothing is less medieval than a Victorian sideboard. True pop-medievalism began in the late Sixties, with those hippies who realised that there is only a stylistic fairy-step to travel between greasily flattened Plantagenet hair and full medieval mufti: pointy shoes, tights, jerkins, hats like lava lamps and all. Many of these insightful fellows took a further step and swapped their Fenders and Pearls for lutes and tabors to convey a folksy and/or psychedelic pop-whimsy for Tolkien readers everywhere. They called themselves Amazing Blondel, Dulcimer, Magna Carta and Led Zeppelin. To be fair to Led Zeppelin, their medievalism was only partial. However, it was their conflation of saga-boogie with hippie mysticism and tight trousers which furnished the nascent heavy-metal scene with an excuse to pursue the Harold Hardrada Method for world domination. Indeed, so all-encompassing was HM's hairy embrace of the pop- medieval reference bank that for a decade at least (with the exception of punk's very own spindly Falstaff, Edward Tudor Pole), Metal remained the sole curator of the spirit of Malory. Chief among these scholarly types was an American group called Manowar, who first appeared carrying lumpy weapons in the early Eighties and went on to become officially the loudest band in the world, as well as the only heavy metal group to record with Orson Welles and perform the Overture to William Tell as a bass guitar solo. The Manowar ethos was grounded in a fundamentally ahistorical, Hollywood counterfeit of the medieval fun palace - great fun but complete cobblers. Compare and contrast that fun palace with the wobbly castle that was England's Gryphon, who, in addition to wearing the togs and striking courtly attitudes, actually played medieval and Renaissance idioms on authentic instruments through thick beards on top of a prog-rock rhythm section. Gryphon were to Manowar as Thomas Campion is to Ted Nugent, and, as a consequence, sold few records to American teenagers. However, it has never been that important to get your idioms right. More important in the feudal Eighties - perhaps even more so than the clothes - was getting your stance right. …