Exploring the vast and exciting world of medievalism all around us.

Saturday, November 6, 2010

Welcome to Pilgrimage

Today the Roving Medievalist got to visit the Shrine of St.Thomas a Becket. Not quite in Canterbury, delightful as a November trip to England might have been, but at St. John's in the Village Episcopal Church. The event, called "Welcome to Pilgrimage," featured a reproduction of the shrine of St. Thomas (see left) in the sanctuary, with a storyteller/nun leading tours, showing pictures of Canterbury Cathedral, and explaining just who this guy was. Although we were not invited to climb the stairs in front of the shrine on our knees, the reproduction had a cheerful quality that the original might not have; it resembled a large reliquary (but not large enough to hold all of the Saint) with sparkly jewels and silver curlicues all over it.

Visitors were also able to visit a Medieval "Street" fair (it was inside!), with various stalls--the Calligrapher, clothier, metalsmith, needle worker, stained glass maker, and wood worker's stalls. Throughout, there was music supplied by a green-clothed harper. A the calligrapher's stall, we made seals to authorize our own documents; the clothier told about Thomas' medieval vestments and invited participants to make Thomas a Becket paper dolls; the metalsmith offered rubbings; the needleworker was making banners for the procession, onto which we were encouraged to glue decorations of felt and jewels; the stained glass maker was a hit with the lovely medieval ladies featured above, who all made mini-windows to hang in their maxi-windows; the woodworker showed us how to make frames out of popsicle sticks.
Because no fair is complete without food, the Baker's Stall offered meat and vegetable pies (the Roaving Medievalist particularly enjoyed the mushroom variety, and horrified one of the hosts by suggesting that there traditionally were raisins in the beef pies to cover up the taste of rotten meat), cheese gnocci (delicious; thank you!), apples, and cider.
The fair ended with a procession with a bagpiper (the Miller leading us out of town, perhaps?); the decorated banners were carried into the shrine where evensong was celebrated. (A link to the announcement is below.)
The event was not particularly authentic, although it was great fun. After all, it's not April. And none of the crafts, apart from the seals, were particularly medieval in their actual form. But the spirit was an authentic mix of spiritual and secular; while the fair itself was primarily a secular affair, the particular nature of some of the crafts reminded us of what the impetus for the event actually was, and what would have brought pilgrims to Canterbury in the first place; however enticing the collecting of pilgrimage badges might have seemed, the real reason was the visit to the shrine. The flyer said, "We hope that you enjoy your medieval experience today and that what you learn will say something to you about your own pilgrimage and search for what is meaningful and holy in your life."
The Roving Medievalist is reminded about what is meanigful in the search for medieval vestiges in our own culture by this; even if the event is not truly medieval, or truly authentic, it tells us tha there is something inherently valuable in looking back to the Middle Ages for certain elements of popular experience, of the handmade over the mass produced, of the function of the communal experience in our individual lives; of the things that drew people together and how they might still draw us together for the kinds of experience that bring us to the edge of transcendence. We don't need a medieval fair to do this, but it does suggest something about that historical moment that we desire to reclaim and something about the way it speaks to us still.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

The Day to Write about Water

This blog entry is not about Medievalism. But since Bloggers are supposed to unite about a subject today, and that subject is water, the Roaming Medievalist is joining in. This lovely picture of ice and water is from Svalbard, taken by Carol Gee, who is a very talented photographer. Thank you for sending this picture, Carol! Because it's good to recognize connections, the Roaming Medievalist reminds readers that there is a mention of Svalbard in the Jonsbok, an Icelandic chronicle, which comments in 1194, "Svalbardi funden," Svalbard is found. Obviously, they got there by water. Also, the Icelanders were very much people of the water, known for shipbuilding and fishing. (And some less pastoral things.)
But more simply, water. We all need it. It is not a renewable resource, despite the cycles of rain and evaporation we all learned about in science class. Therefore, we have to preserve it. Take shorter showers (or as Mike Bloomberg says, "Shower with a friend"!); don't let the water run while you brush your teeth or wash your face; use your dishwasher and washing machine only when they're full; keep water in the fridge in a pitcher so you don't have to wait for the water to run cold to have an icy, refreshing drink; fill up a pot with soapy water and wash your dishes in it; use leftover cooking water to water your plants; don't flush every time you pee (thank you, Roving Medievalist, for that semi-scatalogical addition); and keep water at it's source to help the people who live by it by drinking your tap water instead of bottled water. (And then you're conserving plastic, too. Double eco-points!) If your tap water is disgusting, filter it. And if it still tastes funny, throw a couple of mint leaves; lemon balm leaves; a little brewed black, green, or herbal tea; some cucumber slices; an orange slice; or a combination into your portable water bottle (of BPA free plastic or metal), and your water will be exponentially more delightful. And you'll feel like you sprung for a fancy spa day for only pennies.
Or, if you're feeling medievalist, return to an old tradition and have ale for breakfast.
But be nice to your water, or we're all going to be drinking filtered pee in fewer years than we'd like to think about. Really.
Happy Blogger Water day.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Going Back in Time!

On Sunday, October 3, the Roving Medievalist (and 40,000 others) attended the Fort Tryon Park Medieval Fair, sponsored by the Washington Heights and Inwood Development Corporation and the New York City Parks Department. Located in the park around the Cloisters, the fair offers a whole range of entertainments--music, falconry, juggling, magic, demonstrations, jousting, food, tchochkes, people watching--worthy of spending an afternoon wandering. Also good for playing the game of "Medieval/Not Medieval." While the Society for Creative Anachronism was creatively anachronisitc, demonstrating medieval combat in a field surrounded by vendors who traded in authenticity, and there was some beautiful music performed by a variety of different groups, the definition of "medieval" was clearly being stretched quite creatively. See, for instance, some medieval (?) pirates who seemed to be wandering the festival.

The food offerings were also far more medievalism than medieval, as you will note from some of the selections listed under the optimistic "Medieval Food" banner!

While the falconry demonstrations were fascinating; I was slightly sorry they didn't allow the falcons to pick off pigeons, squirrels, and small children. The Unicorn and its colt were surprisingly charming; as inventions walking right out of the Cloisters tapestries, they were delightful. The all-while unicorn was ridden by an elegant lady in sky blue, while the brown and white colt was led by a park worker. For all the medievalism going on, more strikingly medieval were the two policewomen on horseback; something about the way they rode through the crowds on their large draft horses--the descendents of medieval destriers--captured a feeling that people must have experienced during medieval fairs--of their passage being disrupted by people riding by on large animals. Hard to describe but interesting to experience!

While not so tempted by the beef empanadas, the Roving Medievalist did have a turkey leg, and was tempted by Ye Olde Fried Dough, but the line was too long. Also enticing were the quite effective-looking weapons, although the thought of carrying a broad-axe on the A train was something of an impediment. The range of available weapons was, indeed, impressive. It's hard to believe there's a strong market for maces, axes, adzes, swords, daggers, and chakrams. I mean, where does one use them? I can see them being decorative at events of this kind, and I know jousting is enjoying a (may I say it?) renaissace, but these hardly seem like practical purchases. Of course, neither did some of the other offerings--quasi-medieval lingerie, dragon statues, fairy dust, and other things vaguely associated with the Middle Ages. But then, there were face painters essentially illuminating people's faces, so that their eyes looked like the capital letters in manuscripts, and a woman making authentic pigments out of ground stones, although the paintings she then made with them seemed less medieval than the face painting. Anyone looking for something truly medieval would probably find the musical offerings the most rewarding; from Melissa the Loud on the Hurdy-Gurdy, to the Salmone Trio, to the Machaut Men: Machaut must go on!, there were many opportunities to hear well-performed, interesting choices from the musical past. But, to be very non-medieval about it, with 40,000 people walking around, the music would have benefitted from some 21st Century amplification! It was often hard to hear, and the small rings of hay-bale seats didn't really bring the audience close enough not to need it. Trying to hear acapella singing while vendors sell fried dough and potions across the road is a challenge--doubtless one experienced by medieval people, but one that didn't add to the experience.
Thinking about the event, it is certainly easy to praise the WHIDC and NYC Parks Department and the organizers for putting together an event that brought so many people to upper Manhattan on a day when the subways were a mess, and for offering an eccentric, but at least minorly authentic sense of a medieval fair. But what "medieval" means in that sentence is certainly up for grabs; the official parts of the fair (i.e., the booths, performances, demonstrations, and theatre) provided definitions of the past that ranged from very accurate (the SCA and Adrian demonstrations) to eccentric (the unicorn, the plays for children) to parodic (the Canterbury Tales plays) to charming (the Roving Medievalist could not resist buying and consuming a gingerbread monk!). And the participants wandering the fair in costume suggested that "medieval" means anything decorative, past, fantastic, or historical; from the pirates, to the fairies, to the franciscans, to the seemingly edwardian ladies and gentlemen, to the strollers who walked right out of video games, the "medievalist" or "neomedieval" stood in for any kind of attempt to be truly like the period we call the "Middle Ages." So what is the fantasy? Of a more friendly, inclusive past? Of a simpler time, when pleasures were tied more to the physical than the technological? An opportunity to dress up and who cares what it means?
After all, while the fantasy clearly doesn't include the darker elements of the period, such as plague, intolerance, torture, violence, danger, and infection, one might say that in having to use the port-o-sans, they got as close as we get in contemporary American life.
This is the challenge the Roving Medievalist faces in studying medievalism. But it's not a challenge without its pleasures.

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Dante Cheese

So into the brave world of medievalism comes a new entry, Dante Cheese. On the left here see the Dante Cheese mascot. More information about Dante Cheese can be found at the Wisconsin Sheep Dairy Association website. As you can see from the mascot, draws on Dante as inspiration for Rodin's thinker. Only now Dante is a sheep. Since we're supposed to imagine, I believe, that Dante (after spending some time in Purgatory on the terrace of the proud) ends up in Paradise, does this mean the sheep have been separated from the goats? But we love goat cheese also!

Dante cheese also has a lovely red rind, as you can see above. So is this to remind us of the fires of hell? Hard to know. The cheese, however, is delicious. Here is its description from the abovementioned website:
"Made with 100% pure sheep milk and aged a minimum of six months, DANTE has a firm and somewhat dry texture. DANTE complements pasta, dried fruit, and balsamic vinegar as well as medium red wines and semi-sweet white wines."
Dante cheese can be purchased at the WSDC website, which also has a list of local retailers

Saturday, September 4, 2010

Medieval Drama--more from the Summer of Medievalism

The Brooklyn Friends Middle School's Spring Play this year was the Canterbury Tales! It was a big surprise; they didn't really edit a whole lot for the audience, so we got to see a whole lot of Chaucer, but with interesting anachronism. There seemed to be a lot more focus on Canterbury than there is in the actual text, and the language was either completely modern or taken out of the old Penguin translation by Neville Coghill. For some reason (lots of girls tried out?), the Prioress told the "Nun's Priest's Tale" (she probably couldn't have told her own tale, given the school's population!). Also featured were the Wife of Bath, the Miller (who ended up having to play Absolon himself), the Reeve (an unconventional choice!), the Franklin and the Pardoner, as well as a running joke about the Cook (played by a tiny girl) not being able to tell a tale. She fainted every time she tried.) It was a funny mix--lots of "grown up" stuff (no farting in the Miller's Tale, but the ass kissing and the poker made an appearance!) stayed in, but some of the more interesting stuff was left out. Which I guess is medievalism! The Middle Ages is constructed as a rollicking old time with funny, bawdy stories (romances and fabliaux, with the exception of the Pardoner), with Aesop like morals. It seemed funny that everyone complained about the Prioress telling a virtuous story when she told the Nun's Priest's Tale, which may have a morak, but also has canoodling chickens. (The chicken costumes were amazing.) There wasn't much sense of "moost sentence and moost solaas," but there was a lot of skipping around. They could have used better music--I thought they should have used some medieval tunes. But three cheers for the 6th and 7th graders and their teachers who put together a fun evening. A valiant effort! And a shout out to Maya Kaul, a most romantic Dorigen in her green guinevere dress, and also played death in the Pardoner's Tale.

Friday, August 27, 2010

A Summer of Medievalism

The Summer of 2010 (about to end for us in the academic world!) was ripe with medievalism. The idea for this blog arose when the Roaming Medievalist saw a man on the subway reading a book about Medieval Combat in Russian. Before anyone thinks the Roaming Medievalist is THAT multi-lingual, it was pretty clear from the somewhat dated black-and-white photographs that this was what the book was about. Was he reading for purely intellectual reasons, or becuase he was planning to engage in medieval combat? On the Subway? Was he planning to join the Russian Society for Creative Anachronism?

Later the RM discovered a relief sculpture of Dante's head on the facade of Tilden House, home of the the National Arts Club in Grammercy Park. (Grammercy Park South, between Irving and Park Avenue South, for those of you who wish to make a Pilgrimage. Dante was at the bottom right; at the top were Shakespeare and Milton, Benjamin Franklin in the middle, and Goethe on the lower line with Dante. Why Dante instead of Chaucer, and why these as the paragons of the arts?
The RM then ran across "The Last Defender of Camelot," an episode of the 1986 Twilight Zone. Richard Kiley played the immortal Lancelot, living in 1980s London. Morgana was a fortune teller. They, and a punk named Tom, went back to Stonhenge, where Merlin and Morgana died in a conflict with each other, while Lancelot and Tom survived. A great deal of dry ice died in the making of this episode, and it made not a lick of sense.

It was so hot this Summer that the RM ended up staying inside a great deal in the airconditioning. This meant watching far too much television, including some food shows. In the 2006 "Food Network Challenge, Birthday Cake Surprise," the competitors made medieval castle cakes for a kids birthday. In the end, the kid picked the white castle with pink turrets and green cartoonish dragon made out of rolled fondant over the chocolate castle replete with a huge spiked mace. On an episode of Cake Boss (TLC), Buddy Valastro made a cake for Medieval Times, replete with stands, a king and queen, and jousting knights on some kind of motored track that allowed them to ride towards each other. Buddy also got to joust with one of the knights at Medieval Times, in his chef's whites. He won, although it may well have been rigged. Then he was knighted by the king--how many bakers were knighted in the Middle Ages?

There are so many other examples, but the RM is now hungry from writing about all those cakes.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Welcome to This Week in Medievalism

Welcome to "This Week in Medievalism," where the two scholars who constitute the Roaming Medievalist explore the vast and exciting world of Medievalism that is all around us. From carvings on the fronts of buildings, to people engaging in role-playing games in the park, to artworks in museums, and all sorts of other examples, we strive to bring you a wild and wide world of the past living in the present.