The Castles of our Youth

Fort Niagara, near Buffalo NY. The entire Niagara River was a strategic waterway that saw combat during the War of 1812.

This weekend my wife and I attended the renaissance fair in Sterling NY.  It’s a pretty large and impressive event as these things go.  I visited it a couple of times when younger but, having been away from NY for decades, I had not seen the fair in years.  I quite enjoy renaissance fairs.  The most interesting part for me is talking with those individuals who attempt to keep the traditional crafts, whether music, parchment making or swordsmanship alive.  In fact, ever since I started to train and experiment with full contact weapons sparring (all Chinese methods so far) I have become increasingly interested in parallels that I seem to see with the historic European martial arts.  At some point I will need to take some classes and pursue this line of thought further, and you can be sure that you will hear all about it.

All of this got me thinking about my youth a little bit and how I developed the interests in medieval history that I did.  I think most of the blame lay with my reading habits and public television.  Tolkien was an important influence on my young and impressionable mind, but most Tolkien fans don’t go on to seriously study the martial arts and martial culture.  No, for that we must thank David Macauly and his book (and later video) Castles.

I actually ran into the video before reading the book (both are excellent) as my parents had a VHS copy laying around the house for some inexplicable reason.  Even as a child I was immediately entranced by the idea that you could do modern (circa 1983) historical studies to reconstruct not just buildings, but the actual lives and struggles of people who lived hundreds of years ago.  The video mixed exactly the right elements of historical method and imaginative story-telling to get me permanently hooked.  In fact, I can safely say that I owe almost my entire life-long interest in martial studies to David Macauly, his beautiful line illustrations and his creative reconstructions of the Welsh castles.

Being ten or eleven when I first saw this program I was deeply disappointed that western NY had no castles.  Yet I quickly learned was that we were not without military history of our own.  Much of the War of 1812 had been fought in areas around where I grew up and my parents took me to see places like Fort Niagara.  I remember trying to construct my own Macauly-esque narratives about the fort to understand the lives of the people who lived and served there.

I you have never seen Castles its worth taking a look at.  Used copies of the book with its fine illustrations are readily available for practically nothing on the internet.  Better yet, PBS has posted a complete (if somewhat low res) copy of the program on you tube.  You can find the program here.  While somewhat dated I think that either the book or the video would still make a great gift for a youngster today.  You might just send them on a life-long journey of discovery. 

An Interior photograph of Fort Niagara, well worth the afternoon if you are ever in the Buffalo/Niagara Falls region.

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