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Rediscovering the Middle Ages at the Northern Tip of Manhattan

Thoughts on an era that still needs recounting, especially after a trip to The Cloisters Museum.

New York police officers on horseback next to medieval dames and knights in Fort Tryon Park by The Cloisters. (From YouTube)

The surprise came prior to arriving at The Cloisters museum: as soon as the train doors opened at the 190th Street subway station, we found ourselves in a group of children, adults, and seniors of all races proudly clad in colorful costumes, armors, feathered hats, shields, magic wands, baskets, bundles, axes…

No other historical period is as mistreated as the Middle Ages; consider the synonym “Dark Ages,” which is used almost interchangeably. The era, obviously, was a complicated one, and my university students are quite stunned when I explain to them that the “Renaissance” (as a term) dates back to the 1800s (in the 1400s and 1500s, if anything, it was called Rinascita). It was the intellectuals of the Renaissance (which was still not called that) who invented the dark legend of the Middle Ages – the period of about ten centuries during which the glory days of the ancient Greek and Roman civilizations were forgotten and abandoned due to ignorance and superstition – finally to be brought back by their studies and their courage.

When I ask students to state freely what comes to mind when they hear the term “Middle Ages,” the same catalogue of horrors is guaranteed—from the Plague to the Inquisition, from the Crusades to torture. It would seem that those poor souls were unfortunate enough to have had been born in those long Middle Ages, not realizing that they found themselves in the middle of two “splendid” seasons of human history. When you consider that even Quentin Tarantino had something to say about it in his movie, Pulp Fiction – he has Marsellus Wallace threaten an enemy by saying “I’m gonna get Medieval on your ass” – you would understand that saving the image of that ill-treated historical period would be an uphill battle.

These reflections – which I ponder to myself and share with my students each time the topic comes up in class – were shaken and turned upside-down during a little trip that my cousin and I took up to the northern tip of Manhattan, to The Cloisters, which contain part of the Medieval art collection of the Metropolitan Museum. It is an extraordinary place, built beginning in the 1930s using the parts of dismantled European churches and castles that were then reassembled inside the New York structure. We had both already visited this interesting, rich, and perhaps a bit bizarre, institution, but we wanted to complete our exploration of the “Heavenly Bodies” exhibit that ended on October 9 and that has been slated to be the most visited exhibit in the history of The Met.

Fort Tryon Park by The Cloisters.  (Image from  youtube)

The surprise, however, came prior to arriving at the museum: as soon as the doors to the subway opened at the 190th Street station, we found ourselves in a group of children, adults, and elderly people of all races proudly clad in colorful costumes, armors, feathered hats, shields, magic wands, baskets, bundles, and axes. Carnival is not celebrated here, and Halloween is just less than a month away. Halloween costumes are dark, with skeletons, zombies, and witches being commonplace; whereas this bunch was decisively happier and more colorful. It was only upon finally being able to exit the station that we realized we had ended up in the middle of a Medieval Festival that takes place every year at the beautiful Fort Tryon Park, which surrounds The Cloisters. There were themed performances with troubadours, knights with jousting poles, minstrels, orchestras with ancient instruments, and falconers. Others were less themed, such as illusionists and belly dancers. The food sold in the stands was perhaps not reflective of the period, with a lot of people brandishing large turkey thighs (which in reality arrived in Europe only in the 16th century) as if they were iron clubs. But the most extraordinary thing was witnessing how thousands of everyday people re-experience the Middle Ages each year with such a popular celebration, perhaps not an historically accurate one, but nevertheless joyous and reassuring, like one of the many beautiful tales that the mistreated period generated.

Translated by Emmelina De Feo

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