The avenue’s name derives from the bishops of London, who had a large hunting ground in the area in the late Middle Ages. Indeed, walking down this road – particularly as a young person who has no reasonable expectation of acquiring even a garage-sized flat in the city any time soon – can seem a lot like stepping back five centuries.
Why Gen Z Are Right to Get Medieval on Us
The mansions on ‘Billionaires Row’ lumber like medium-size-hotels, letting out death-rattles in varying states of decay. BEWARE OF GUARD DOG warnings are tacked on every long, wrought-iron fence. Occasionally, dogs bark in the middle-distance, but since ‘middle-distance’ here could mean ‘round the back of that mansion’, it’s hard to say whether these are guard dogs or just civilians. The Bishops Avenue, Hampstead is a ghostly fiefdom, whose owners are happy to let it run into disrepair. The empty, bramble-ridden, 2-3-acre plots are worth far more than the rotting castles sinking into them.
"The Bishops Avenue is a ghostly fiefdom, whose owners are happy to let it run into disrepair"
For Joel Kotkin, author of The Coming of Neo-Feudalism (2020), while our era might appear ‘progressive and multicultural’, he says, it ‘will be ever more feudal in its economic and social form’, citing falling social mobility and the decline of the middle-class as evidence of a return to something like a pre-modern caste system. If that seems a ridiculous idea, then try zooming out from The Bishops Avenue, where property is on the market for up to £65 million, and consider that buying the entire street would be Pick N Mix for the likes of Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos, estimated to be worth $183.8 billion and $182.4 billion respectively. Wave to the nice oligarchs, children.
In 2019, research by Insider found that 60% of the homes on The Bishops Avenue are owned by hard-to-scrutinise shell corporations and rightly identified the street as a ‘monument to the avoidance of tax’. Indeed, as our new big tech oligarchs become ever more masterful at abdication, the remaining middle- and working-class populations will foot the bill – which, as Joel Kotkin would point out, is exactly what happened in the Middle Ages.
Some might question whether the midst of a pandemic is the ‘right’ time to rail against growing extreme wealth disparity. Yet, this is the time to be at our most vigilant. In her 2020 essay ‘Screen New Deal’, Naomi Klein urges us to consider how big tech corporations are capitalising on the global fight against Covid-19: ‘the future that is being rushed into being as the bodies still pile up treats our past weeks of physical isolation not as a painful necessity to save lives, but as a living laboratory for a permanent — and highly profitable — no-touch future.’ Us turkeys are being tricked into voting for a heavily surveilled, gig-fuelled Christmas, ‘in the name of convenience, frictionlessness and personalisation’ and apparently pandemic-proofing our lives.
"Us turkeys are being tricked into voting for a heavily surveilled, gig-fuelled Christmas"
At the same time as we inadvertently inch towards a neo-feudal future, we are turning to medievalism as a form of escape. Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings proved medievalist fantasy could be big business and paved the way for Game of Thrones (2011-19) to dominate the 2010s. Copycat shows, such as Reign (2013-17) and The Last Kingdom (2015-), tried to heliotrope into the limelight, while The Elder Scrolls: Skyrim (2011), The Witcher 3 (2015), and Dark Souls (2011) are considered three of the best and most important video games of the last decade. These romanticised historical narratives, once considered niche and nerdy, have been appropriated by the mainstream as a way to escape the ever more confusing current socio-political landscape.
Today sees the third part of Disenchantment, a medieval fantasy from The Simpsons creator Matt Groening, arrive on Netflix, alongside Bling Empire, billed as Crazy Rich Asians the reality TV version: one show opens in Dreamland with sweeping establishing shots of hilltop castles and ramparts and follows princesses drinking their way through epic globe-trotting adventures, and the other is called Disenchantment.
Might our current infatuation with medievalism and wealth porn TV and film, such as Billions (2016-), The Undoing (2020), and On the Rocks (2020), describe two sides of the same coin? Both provide an escape to a world utterly removed from our own, and one marked by ignorance, illusion and ruthlessness that pleasantly disturbs us, somehow, like picking a scab. The series that most readily yokes the two genres together is Succession (2018-), which follows the Murdoch-like Logan Roy trying to decide which of his feckless children will inherit his global media empire, and is essentially a medieval ‘war of succession’ set in skyscrapers.
Beyond television, medieval aesthetics have been appearing in memes for some time now, drawing on an era so far in the past as to be whimsical and yet so bleak as to comply with the hallmarks of Gen Z humour: shock, absurdity, nihilism, and at times downright depression-inducing. These memes were surfacing before we were hit with an actual plague. In the face of which, medieval aesthetics invaded our playlists, too.
Last year, Bardcore (or Tavernwave) – medieval inspired parodies of hit pop and rock songs – took over YouTube. ‘I doth loveth how Bardcore cameth from a terrible year, fil'd with none but a plague and civil unrest,’ reads one of the comments under a bardcore version of Katy Perry’s Teenage Dream performed on crumhorn and lute: ‘Truly, we are living in thine 1520s, not 2020s.’ Under Samus Ordicus’ take on Eurythmics’ ‘Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This)’ (that’s sweet dreams are born o’ this, to you, Squire), another comment reads: ‘Is Bardcore going to be a thing because it feels like we are going into another Dark Age?’ Yup.
Cornelius Link, a trailblazer of the trend who has over 200K followers on YouTube, has said that the decision to create his channel was inspired by the coffin-dance meme – 2020’s very own Danse Macabre. ‘One day a friend sent a medieval take on the image to a group chat, and someone said it’d be funny if it was set to medieval music,’ Link told i-D.
To recap, the meme comprises six Ghanaian pallbearers dressed in suits, carrying a casket while dancing. In February, a Tik Tok user paired the footage with the EDM track ‘Astronomia’ by Tony Igy in a clip of a skier’s epic fail that went viral that month. The Dancing Pallbearers were being used throughout March and April on Tik Tok, Reddit and YouTube as the punchline to similarly dark FAIL edits (implying the death of the victims in the preceding clips). But by the end of last year, everyone from teenagers to police departments were using the clip as a way to encourage people to stick to stay at home orders.
The coffin-dance meme has become an irreverent update on the medieval Danse Macabre, an allegorical concept of the indiscriminate and equalising power of death. Look past the waggish, jigging skeletons, however, and you’ll notice a paradox: in order to represent death’s universality, medieval artists must represent a highly stratified society, such that from a modern perspective they remind us of the social inequalities in health.
Like the memes of today, you can find sly references to the failures of authorities, both religious and secular. Hans Holbein the younger’s Dance of Death woodcuts are full of such takedowns. See the rich nobleman bribing the cardinal for some documents; Death lifts the cardinal’s hat, stripping him of his authority. See the advocate interrupted in the act of receiving money by a skeleton, leaning over his shoulder, as if to say, ‘Erm, WTF?’
Farmers, who in the earliest Dances of Death stand for diligence, austerity, and the humble acceptance of poverty, are heroic in Holbein’s hands: one scene sees the hard-working ploughman relieved when Death takes the weight of his work. In another, Death disguises himself as a farmer and attacks a nobleman; a flail (a medieval weapon) lies on the ground, referencing the German peasant’s revolt of 1524-5. It’s clear which side Death – and Holbein – are on.
While medieval peasants were probably more concerned with getting a decent station in heaven than the groaning gap between rich and poor, it’s clear that they weren’t blind to the fact that the few had much, much more than the many. Now, of course, we know that wealth is strongly associated with inequality in the length of life, and Covid-19 has exposed this more than ever. According to the British Medical Journal, ‘the rate of deaths involving covid-19 in the most deprived areas was 128.3 deaths per 100 000 population, which was more than double the death rate in the least deprived areas where it was 58.8 deaths per 100 000.’ What’s more, the World Bank predicts ‘as many as 150 million extreme poor’ by the end of the year.
Is it any surprise that the generation about to inherit this world of increasing wealth disparity are getting medieval on us? Besides irony and escapism, it might pay for us to examine the world through a medieval lens; that way, we can ensure we are steering forward, rather than back.
In the meantime, writing this article has been rather depressing. Time to laugh-cry to Samus Ordicus x The Rolling Stones: I see mine own red door, I must well paint it black / Maybe then I’ll fade away and not have to face the rack!
By Sammi Gale