Fandom As a Very Old Thing

Wanderers, we spend a lot of time in this here ‘zine talking about internet fandom. We also talk a lot about taking photos, making videos, and all sorts of modern technology-based fan activities. Young fans could be forgiven for thinking that fandom is a relatively new innovation, ushered in with the rise of networked computers and automated mailing lists, but that’s not the case at all.

Before the internet, ‘zines were created with paper and ink – from professionally printed fanzines sent out by post to hand-stapled newsletters covering the latest developments in favourite TV shows or comics, and everything in between. Fanartists were already well and truly established, though it was sometimes harder to get your work any exposure, and anyone who was recording music was quite at liberty to release a single obliquely referencing their latest obsession – or explicitly naming it if it was old enough to be free of copyright laws.

Even before that, though, there were already fans. It may have been harder for them to connect with one another before the 20th century, but they were definitely out there. People wrote fanfiction about Jane Austen’s minor characters – it seems a fairly safe bet that that was the foundation of Charlotte Brontë‘s Jayne Eyre, in fact. Two rival actors’ fans became entangled in a confrontation outside a Shakespeare performance at a theatre, fighting over who was the better actor. Fortunately we all know better than to pull a stunt like that now, don’t we?

Speaking of Shakespeare, he and many of his writing contemporaries had their own fans – one of Shakespeare’s, notably, was Queen Elizabeth I of England – and indeed the patronage of their wealthy fans was how they survived. Some people would even pay to sit on the stage to get closer to the performances (and, admittedly, to be seen by the rest of the audience). Meanwhile, Shakespeare himself was lovingly ripping off stories he’d picked up elsewhere, from histories to legends – and, of course, adding his own unique Shakespeare flair. Before that, there were people like Thomas Malory, who wrote a crossover of Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Historia Regum Britanniae and some of his favourite French romances and called it Le Morte d’Arthur, now considered by many to be the definitive version of the legends of King Arthur.

“Alright,” I hear you cry, “I get the point. Fandom’s been around since approximately the time of the Norman Conquest. You don’t have to add in the fans of sports like football and jousting, I get it.” But you, dear reader, are wrong. I’m not even nearly finished yet. Still, I appreciate you bringing up the sports fans, because it means I don’t have to labour the point there. No, I’d rather take you further back.

Take the Ancient Romans. If you lived near a gladiator training school, or an arena, it’s likely that you’d end up picking out your favourites over time (assuming those favourites lived long enough) and become sort of fans of those. The Romans also had their own famous writers and artists, of course, if you were educated enough to be able to read or rich enough to be able to commission a mosaic or sculptor by your favourite artist for the atrium of your villa. Some of those famous writers and artists emulated each other, too, making some of the greatest works of the classical age fanworks!

So fandom dates back as far as writing? I wouldn’t say that, either. Of course, writing developed at different times across the world, but if you look at Ancient Greece, many philosophers still famous today (in part because their theories were eventually written down, ironically enough) either pre-dated writing as a widespread skill or were extremely distrustful of the idea – much as some people fear that computers are eroding our ability to write by hand, they thought that writing things down would erode our ability to just remember things – and they certainly had their fans and disciples. In pre-Roman Britain, legends were passed down by word of mouth and many a child would have grown up with the ambition of becoming just such a legend, like their favourite warrior of yesteryear. And everyone would have their favourite story to tell around the fire, of course.

OK. So, we’ve established that fandom – or at least the act of being a fan – is not a new thing. Why does it matter? Well, because it tells us something about human nature. It’s very human to look up to someone, or get attached to a story. It also reminds us that fandom isn’t something we’ve invented, or some fad the teenagers of the world have grown into and will simply grow out of. For one thing, a lot of fans aren’t the teenagers some people assume we all are. For another, it’s only the way fandom expresses itself and is perceived that changes. A phenomenon that predates the Roman Empire probably isn’t going to just fade away any time soon.

So the next time someone tries to criticise you for being too into your fandom or spending too much time writing fanfic, it might be worth reminding them that you’re simply participating in something that’s been going on since almost the dawn of time, participating in something that you share with Shakespeare, Malory, Dante and Brontë, to say nothing of countless other people whose fanworks have – or haven’t – stood the test of time. How many other people can say that?

Eleanor Musgrove (just really likes looking back at fans throughout history)

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This entry was posted in Fandom As..., Issue Forty-Five and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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