The Medieval Festival is an annual event, often blessed with excellent Fall weather, that takes place in the park surrounding the Met’s Cloisters Museum in uptown Manhattan. The Cloisters has a fine medieval collection of European artifacts housed in actual cloisters purchased from medieval monasteries in Europe and schlepped across the seas by one of the Rockefellers. He also thoughtfully bought a huge swatch of New Jersey so no one could build ugly housing or offices to spoil the view over the Hudson. Thanks, John D!
By sheer coincidence, I showed up for the first festival and I’ve gone almost every year since. Over the years, it’s gotten considerably more popular and less medieval. Now, I’m not the kind of spoilsport who snarls at a 6 year old “who are YOU supposed to be? Catherine de Medici? THAT’s not medieval! That’s HIGH RENAISSANCE!!!” But still. Let’s review the history.
Early Medieval Period
The early years of the Medieval Festival were dangerous, heady times. The Holy Roman Empire had only recently failed to bail New York City out of bankruptcy, and people looked to festivals to bring meaning to their dismal lives. Life expectancy at the Festival was only a few hours, and there was little to no security for the casual fair-goer. Hygiene hadn’t yet
been introduced, so if you needed to take a whiz you either paid to get into the Cloisters museum itself (always worthwhile – go see the unicorn tapestries!) or you had to leave the park and beg your way into the nearest restaurant. Mass production was far in the future, and wares for sale included home-baked authentic gingerbread and charming handcrafted artifacts made of paper and wood. The constraints we take for granted in the modern world were entirely absent, and the falconer would let you get really close to an actual falcon just as it launched itself high into the air. That was cool. Horses were a luxury item that was
impossible to get, and only the elite could afford to sport the occasional helmet or leather hauberk. Population was sparse, and protein in the diet was nonexistent. Still, life was exciting and varied, and there were puppet shows.
Late Early Medieval period
As the early period ended, the population began to surge. Word had spread of a land filled with gingerbread and falcons, to be found annually at almost the last stop on the A train. Unwashed hoards of peasants filled the roads, and those who could read the many printed broadsheets in circulation started saying things like “hmmm—this looks fun, babe! Let’s give it a try.” In response to the new prosperity, markets sprang up like mushrooms after a rain. Gone was the gingerbread of yore, and in its place was a bewildering array of grilled
and wrapped lunchfoods. Roving vendors carried dozens of varieties of sweetmeats for sale on their heads. Music was provided by aging hippies disguised as troubadours, playing thrift-store wind instruments. Paper money was now accepted throughout the realm. Indulgent parents, seeing the joy in their little cherubs’ faces at witnessing the puppet show, were offered puppets of their own for purchase, to be toyed with at home for a day before the strings got all tangled and they ended up in the castle moat.
Early Middle Medieval Period
Peace and prosperity meant that the population increased at an alarming rate. No longer could the feudal system support voluntary trash removal, lack of port-o-sans, and a tax rate
of zero. The local Lords took council and instituted some lasting changes, including a thinly-disguised revenue raising system disguised as a “wishing well”. Vendors now had to pay for desirable spaces in the market, further adding to the war chest. An explosion of crowd-pleasing shows kept the venues packed. The falcon was long forgotten, though horses a-plenty were in view, and a temporary stadium was erected for scheduled jousting matches between mounted knights kitted out in authentic suits of armor that hid Jersey accountants underneath. A blacksmith demonstrated his craft with real fire. Puppets were
replaced by live actors. The children’s parade ensured the little cherubs were part of the fun and also had a chance to view not only the usual cheap marionettes on offer, but more expensive items that they might like to ask their parents to buy, such as elegant dresses, foam swords, marshmallow-launching crossbows, face painters, temporary tattoo artists, and some really pricey stuff like crystal balls. Troubadours increased in number as did the range of their material, including sea shanties not to be written for another thousand years. Security was in evidence for the safety of the populace, and the Cloisters cleaned up as long lines of peasants queued for a chance to pay to see the miracles within.
Middle Late Medieval Period
During this confusing and transitional epoch, people could be forgiven for forgetting this was a “medieval” fair. Ye Olde Verizon Wireless rented a booth, and disaffected youth
sporting clothing no more medieval than can be found at H&M handed glossy fliers extolling unlimited talk and text to the passing crowds. You had to come at 6 am with a sack lunch and sit in the stands until 2 pm to see the jousting. More Klingons than troubadours were to be seen. A half-hearted attempt at including more of the planet than Europe was tried and abandoned; apparently, the peasantry just didn’t believe that Africa and China did “medieval” quite as well as the Saxons. Huge booths selling the obligatory giant turkey drumstick sat across from stalls indistinguishable from Walmart’s Halloween candy display. Groups of very good authentic monks circulated, but this is one of the easiest medieval
costumes to put together, and most people were hardly trying: vampires and elves multiplied upon the land. Everywhere one turned, there were lords in steampunk top hats, ladies in bondage corsets, and baby-boomers who had searched the backs of closets for that tie-dyed tee to match their wizard hat. I swear I saw a guy on a skateboard wearing a silver body suit and an alien mask with “This way to Roswell” printed on his cap.
Today, the festival has hit its stride. The King and Council have suppressed the most egregious forms of revenue raising such as cell phone carriers, and there’s more of an attempt to stay within the spirit of the fair. Highlights this year were the Fordham medieval studies booth showing reproductions of actual medieval documents, a weapons master giving
demos with fighting staffs, a booth teaching about dentistry through the ages, and several groups of monks doing some actual medieval chanting. The Cloisters were doing a brisk business, as were the turkey-leg booths. Elf-ears to be had in abundance, but no Game of Thrones dragons.
All in all, about as authentic as you’re going to get.