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.