Mostly Medieval: Lessons learned from modest attempts at recreating a Medieval Fair

Beware the pickled pigs lips. Steer clear the three-wheeled jousts. Make way for the trebouchet loaded down with water balloons. Just a few of the things I’ve learned from the four years of sponsoring a Medieval Fair at Episcopal High School of Baton Rouge. What began as a lark, a way of spicing up the Junior year curriculum has transmogrified into a bit of a hydra—a project that serves many interests and intents—and the heads keep growing. Next year, the year of quintessence, I hope to start cultivating certain educational uses and intents over others.

Our set up is pretty basic. The planning for the event takes less than a month’s time and this year the actual event transpires over roughly two hours. In concert with their reading of medieval texts such as “The Canterbury Tales” and “Gawain,” the students are asked to write a modest I-search essay on a topic of interest to them. One of the two products of this research is a presentation or contribution of some sort to the fair. You’d think this would be pretty simple. . . right.

One of the most difficult aspects of the research assignment is showing the students where to begin. I ask them to take their current interests, such as music, fashion, or even basketball, and look for the medieval equivalent. Then, I ask them to refine that topic into something manageable—something small enough so that their research will go beyond the general litmus test of what is generally known about that topic. I also push the students to specify to what segment of the population that activity was relevant to. I require the students to come up with two internet sources and two print sources. This past year I spent a fair amount of time preaching against sources that distort medieval ideas in order to make them more commercial—weddings was a topic that had a lot of trouble in this area. When possible, I try to utilize the faculty at Episcopal as experts for the students. Getting the students to work collaboratively with other instructors from different disciplines.

I require the research essays to be turned in two weeks prior to the fair. This is to allow time for the research to actually have an impact on the student performances and for me to schedule the various performances. I used to try to allow students fifteen minute blocks to perform in which forced me to schedule events simultaneously. I’ve come to realize that the average performance takes roughly five minutes and that there is really no need for double-booking. Next year I plan to have about a thirty minute block in-between the food and the performances so the students who are teaching a game or have some sort of static display can receive their due.

I mentioned food. Right. For the first two years, I allowed students to make food as their contribution to the festival. Even allowing for the fact that the dishes improved a good deal from the first year to the second, I still wouldn’t recommend this. Otherwise you’ll be sampling things you wouldn’t eat on a bet. For somewhat different reasons, I’ve also been phasing out any performances involving weapons, armour, etc. I did this not out of prudish or moral intents, but rather out of the frustration of watching young guys chuckle like Beavis and Butthead for two weeks while looking at or various web sites dedicated to torture. But back to the food. We eat, banquet style, roast fowle (chicken), greens (salad) and spyced cakes (ranger cookies). An event of this scope allows for a lot of creativity. This year I bought some multi-grain bread from a good local bakery and decorated the table with fall flowers, which I thought was a nice touch.

Are we at the festival yet? No, not quite. There’s still the matter of decorations, which have been modest so far. A few banners, some streamers. Whatever is handy. The entire food budget and decorating usually runs for less than two hundred bucks. This year I scammed a huge plastic banner from the Key Club which served nicely as a sign. Next year I’m going to offer it up to any artistically inclined students as the canvas for a medieval tapestry.

This year’s performances included among other things, a madrigal choir, an interview with Pope Urban the III, lots of blood-letting, a marriage, hair-styling, a witch-hunt, crusaders impressing others into service, geomancy, an original poem combined with interpretive dance, and a medieval fashion show.

The fair is continually evolving. It has come to serve a lot of different educational goals over the past year. Students refine their research skills during the I-search process. I spend most of my time working with the students on their topics, getting them to refine, or in some cases expand their field in order to come up with meaningful information. They practice citing sources and using tools such as noodle.bib. They all put into practice their writing skills. Some of the more resourceful students opt for living sources in their research, turning to faculty or contacting experts in the field via websites. Some students work collaboratively with other faculty or students on their projects. Students also practice their skills in speaking and/or acting in the enactment of their presentations. Other students learn a fair amount about some skill or craft, such as the fashioning of chain mail from individual pieces of wire. Finally, the students learn from each other something about medieval culture and life by watching the presentations. What is most satisfying about this project is the students who put the most into it generally learn the most.

Thomas W. Brandt
Episcopal High School – Baton Rouge, LA

Original Citation: Scientia Scholae, Volume II, Issue 2, February 2004

NOTE: Links have been corrected and/or deleted.  The original “look and feel”  of the journal has been preserved as much as possible, but the original logos have also been removed.  No editing to the actual texts has been done since their original publication.

TEAMS: Teaching Association for Medieval Studies