For the six years now I have assisted in chaperoning the seventh grade on an annual trip four hours away by coach bus to Lyndhurst, New Jersey to attend Medieval Times (1-800-WE-JOUST), a two-hour “dinner and tournament.” Those of you have had this experience will likely understand that these are the two hours during which I earn my summer vacation. I’m never sure how to feel about this particular field trip, and usually spend the day debating it with myself while trying to remain enthusiastic for the kids and my co-workers.
Upon entering the castle (one of eight cartoonish structures scattered across the U.S. and Canada), you are given a paper crown à la Burger King and a numbered card with your table assignment. You wait in line to take your picture with whomever is playing the king or princess that particular day, and from there are released into an indoor holding area with vendors selling any kind of ye olde crappe you could possibly want, assuming you are under the age of fourteen and/or have a rather tenuous understanding of what the Middle Ages were like.
I’d be lying if I said that at that as a kid I wouldn’t be tempted by an old-timey flower crown to wear in my hair or a light-up rose. I probably would have wanted them, begged for them, and worn them quite happily for any and all occasions ever after. It’s more the lightsabers that bother me, along with the inexplicable miniatures of skeletons wearing bunny pajamas and pink rhinestone key chains that say “Princess.” It’s all very Renaissance Faire meets Hot Topic.
Then there are the drink stations around the perimeter of the room where you can have the surreal experience of watching your twelve-year-old students belly up to the bar and order non-alcoholic slushies served in colored metal or plastic goblets, dying their tongues bright green or blue. I’m not suggesting that, in the interest of authenticity, we serve them ale (although this is usually the point in the day that I would love some ale, thank you), and I understand that the next best non-alcoholic thing, like apple cider, probably wouldn’t sell nearly as well as neon libations topped with whipped cream. However, it’s clear that in this moment, the kids aren’t playing at being knights and princesses, but rather playing at being adults.
When the show is about to begin, you are ushered into the main “banquet hall” and seated at long tables that overlook the arena. It looks more like a rock concert than a tournament, with dimly lit colored spotlights sweeping the stands, loud music, and the disembodied voice of an announcer over screaming kids. Each section of the arena is assigned a knight to root for and given a corresponding flag: blue, green, black and white, red, yellow, and red and yellow. Even before the show begins, a lot of the kids have instant identification with their knight, starting chants (“WHO ARE WE? BLACK AND WHITE! WHO ARE WE? BLACK AND WHITE!”) and flapping the flags around violently.
As the show starts it ramps up some more, with smoke machines and even louder music. From here the show is part theater, part sport, and part education, although I can’t sort out how much of each. The king and princess narrate the show, providing information on the Middle Ages that is, to its credit, decently informative. Topics include living conditions of the time, heraldry, and the history of Andalusian horses. Knights and squires in the arena give demonstrations of equestrianism, falconry and sword fighting. There are also multiple-choice questions throughout the show during which the audience cheers for the correct answer. However, many of the kids are too busy yelling to really take much away from the lesson. Also, much of the material would probably be covered by any social studies unit on the Middle Ages, which I assume most of the students have had, considering it would probably lead to a trip to Medieval Times in the first place.
The whole presentation is also strangely meta, making a point of pointing out the theatrical devices at work and making frequent references to “His Majesty’s castle” (a.k.a. Medieval Times Dinner and Tournament™). This includes some information on hiring practices (for example, I learned that a “knight” undergoes a year of training at the castle) and compliance with animal welfare laws. It’s not unlike what you might see at Disney World, where there are occasional references to behind-the-scenes work where they make the magic. However, Disney World this is not, and I’d much rather hear actual information on how long it used to take a real squire to become a real knight, not the training period of an employee at the Medieval Times franchise. The most extreme instance of this self-awareness is upon the arrival of the knights in the arena on horseback, at which point the announcer says, “And now, the spotlight focuses on the rider, drawing your attention in. The smoke effects increase and the music rises, adding to the drama of the scene.” This is probably the clearest evidence that Medieval Times knows it’s not authentic. In fact, it might be the smartest way to get the audience to forgive any and all anachronisms; if they’re obviously not trying to convince us, we shouldn’t care that the serving maids walking up and down the stands are peddling LED light-up jewelry.
In short, Medieval Times is not for me. Then again, that’s the point: it’s not for me. If I want to get my fix of medieval history, I’m more than happy to go to a museum, read a book, or watch a documentary on the subject. After all, I was a graduate student; my tolerance for the “boring” is pretty high. Medieval Times exists for the kid who isn’t going to love a trip to a museum, with the goal being to entertain that kid, sneak in a low dose of education, possibly plant some seeds of interest in history, and sell them some overpriced souvenirs along the way. And by the way, that kid is every kid. In the days following our trip, I asked some of my students what they thought of the show. I was surprised to find that even my most serious students loved it, their only complaints being that “the corn was gross” and that sometimes they could tell the swordplay was choreographed (it should also be noted that they also thought the bus ride was more fun than the show).
Perhaps more importantly, I should be happy that my students, who sometimes seem to have outgrown imagination a little prematurely, are still childlike enough to be excited about buying a jester hat or cheer for “our” knight in the joust (even if in some cases it’s because he’s super cute). And so, I’ll keep on being a good sport, waving my banner at the appropriate moments and keeping my crown on all throughout the meal… but under the banquet table, I’ll keep my fingers crossed that next year we’ll be going instead to The Cloisters in NYC, the knights exhibit at Worcester Art Museum in MA, or Hammond Castle in Gloucester, MA.