Pub talk to peer into the everyday life of medieval England

Illustration of masked performers at a medieval festival

Fans of the popular Netflix series “The Last Kingdom” — or any film portrayal of the Middle Ages — see a lot of armies and swordplay, but they miss the fun of the rest of medieval life.

Martha Bayless, a professor of English and folklore at the University of Oregon and an international expert on medieval England, plans to plug that hole with a Quack Chats pub talk Wednesday, April 10, by opening a window on Anglo-Saxon life, some of which endures into the present day.

Her talk, “The Surprising Middle Ages: Beyond Kings & Swords,” will begin at 6 p.m. at the Ax Billy Grill & Sports Bar, on the third floor of the Downtown Athletic Club, 999 Willamette St. Admission is free. Food and drinks will be available for purchase.

The Netflix series "The Last Kingdom," now three seasons old, premiered in 2015, taking viewers into the year 872. England is divided into seven separate kingdoms, with Wessex as the last major stronghold against the Danes, invaders from Scandinavia in the Viking era. And, of course, the Middle Ages lent much of the atmosphere to the popular series “Game of Thrones,” as well as to movies about Robin Hood and King Arthur.

“They do get a lot of stuff hilariously wrong,” Bayless said. “Like those leather sleeves the warriors always have on their forearms in the movies. Those are actually from motorcycle jackets, which are designed so the wind doesn’t blow up your sleeves. The costume designers just thought anything macho must be medieval. And when they show them gnawing away on turkey legs at feasts — don’t get me started.”

Medieval jousting shows also are hilarious violators of history, according to Bayless.

“What’s even more fun about the Middle Ages are the parts you don’t hear about so much,” Bayless said. “Like when you see inky cat-prints on manuscript pages. It reminds us that they invented the cat door, and that they had a delicious sense of humor. They also figured out some things about the good life that we’ve forgotten, including the best way to get a good night’s sleep. I think we can learn some surprising lessons from the medieval way of life.”

Bayless has a doctorate in medieval culture from the University of Cambridge, and with another Cambridge scholar has formed the Early English Bread Project to explore the making and meaning of medieval bread. She also studies medieval games and magic, and is founder of a new game studies project at the UO. She also is curator of an upcoming exhibit on the history of magic at the Museum of Natural and Cultural History.

In her pub talk, Bayless will talk about how grindstones, fast food, clothes, games, cooking and even humor all had important roles in medieval England.

“It’s the parts of life that don’t necessarily show up in movies,” she said, “but are no less fascinating. People in the Middle Ages liked to have fun. They were so much unlike us, and yet so much like us.”

Quack Chats is a program of University Communications. For more information, see the Quack Chats section on Around the O. A general description of Quack Chats and a calendar of additional Quack Chats and associated public events also can be found on the UO’s Quack Chats website.

—By Jim Barlow, University Communications