it was the best of medieval times, it was the worst of medieval times

Author’s note: in honor of the year anniversary of this story, I present you with a revised-and-expanded director’s cut of the tale, now with more ruminating on the meaning of my degree! So please enjoy, and if not, well…honi soit qui mal y pense.


I.

You know your academic position is terrible when you envy philosophy majors. People may rail against the impracticality of studying philosophy, but at least philosophy is something they’ve heard of. You’ve got to know something exists to disdain it, and philosophy’s notoriety for uselessness makes it identifiable, acknowledged, real.

The field of Medieval Studies should be so lucky. Despite the damning nebulousness of the “studies” suffix that tends to raise red flags relative to its rigor and eyebrows relative to its inclusion on a resume, it’s not, generally speaking, something people know about. It’s not surprising, really: it’s an interdisciplinary field that few schools offer as an undergraduate major, since it can reasonably be subsumed into History, Comparative Literature, Religious Studies, or even Philosophy, depending on the bent of the student in question.

But even with the discovery of its existence, its purpose doesn’t really compute. Despite denoting a sizeable chunk of recorded history, the medieval era—the period roughly between the fall of the Roman Empire and Columbus’ first voyage—is defined in our collective consciousness as a time of backwardness and ignorance. The customary labels these years bear (Dark Ages, medieval [Latin media aeva, in the middle age]) indicate either ignorance, or, at best, a stopping ground midway to the “rebirth” and “enlightenment” of the epochs to follow. These people lived on a flat earth, ate mud, and genuinely feared dragon attacks like some kind of Ye Olde Rednecks.

And yet, as willing as we are to dismiss the serious scholarly contributions of the medievals, we’re more than happy to ape, mock, and even meticulously recreate their way of life. Our popular imagination is obsessed with a romanticized pageantry of powerful kings and beautiful princesses, blithely gnawing at a turkey leg while watching a recreated joust. The middle ages are for spectacle, for sport, but not really for study.

Depending on whom you ask, Medieval Studies is the epitome of either everything that’s right about college education or everything that’s wrong with it. Because medieval scholars were themselves polymaths trained and productive in many spheres (what we would now call, rather unfairly, Renaissance men), the prescribed courses for a Medieval Studies degree typically involve work in the all-stars of the liberal arts pantheon: literature, history, art history, foreign languages, etc. But unlike other interdisciplinary fields (International Studies, Political Science) that seem to be able to translate a load of reading-and-writing-heavy classes into at least a few practical careers, Medieval Studies is fairly firmly locked in the realm of the theoretical. You just can’t argue that translating Beowulf is going to serve you in the professional world. Maybe you can parlay it into some kind of vaguely-related job doing something like curating museums, but if not, there’s always grad school to flee to and more debt to accrue before a long, publish-or-perish struggle to ascend in academia.

But what if you don’t want to be—if there is such a thing—a career medievalist? What if you genuinely love and believe in the works and writings of people dead almost a millennium, a people whose era has become synonymous with draconian, ignorant, and hopelessly underevolved? What if, like me, you wanted your four years poured into 12th century French romance and biblical exegesis and Gothic architecture to end up as more than a quarter-million-dollar party trick, to make good on their promise to give you the coveted critical thinking skills that were supposed to be part and party to a holistic discipline like this? And what if, despite all this, you found yourself in the pouring rain, wearing a paper crown, and sobbing into your cell phone in the parking lot of the Schaumburg, Illinois, Medieval Times Dinner and Tournament theme restaurant?

Welcome to my education.


II.

You need two things to enjoy the Medieval Times experience: a liberal attitude towards historical accuracy and a willingness to waste money on ridiculous shit. Being both a Medieval Studies major and a congenital dork, I am a prime sucker for their brand of schlock, and I refused to go anywhere else for my birthday. I recruited four friends, and despite varying levels of enthusiasm, our spirits were high as we piled into my ancient Volvo to head for the castle in nearby Schaumburg, IL.

“I went to the New York Medieval Times when I was six,” my friend Briseida was saying. “You eat with your hands. And it was the best fucking chicken I have ever eaten.”

“I looked it up on Yelp,” my friend Eli said. “A lot of people give it one star.”

I was incredulous. “Who would give Medieval Times one star?”

“They said the food wasn’t good,” he said. “And that the acting sucked.”

The turrents of the giant, fake castle shone from I-90 like a beacon.

“That’s not the point,” I said. “It’s about the experience.”

A costly experience, to be sure: 45 bucks admission, 20 bucks for our souvenir photo, and 24 more for fishbowl-sized cocktails flavored with massive amounts of grenadine. But it was all worth it. In the giant front hall, I was giddy, drunk on anticipation and overpriced alcohol, and could not resist yelling Actual Medieval Poetry at passersby.

“Whan that Aprille with his shoures soote, amirite, guys?” I called to a group of thick-necked guys in polar fleece. They seemed unfazed.

“I just want to eat that motherfucking chicken,” Briseida said. “Best chicken I’ve ever had.”

Seated in our color-coded section, we watched as multicolored lasers shot across the ceiling. The transportation to the past had begun, and there was no going back. The hissing sound in the arena wasn’t just a fog machine, but the mists of time. We went from ordinary people with no particular alliance to bloodthirsty supporters of our red-and-yellow champion. It was like a monster truck rally, but with more horses and only slightly fewer mullets. Our knight lost in combat about as convincing as the dance-fighting in West Side Story. One lapse in attention earned him a poleax to the stomach.

“I bet it’s rigged,” Eli said. “The section that spends the most money gets to win.”

And before I knew it, I had gnawed through all my chicken and the house lights came up. Dazzled, I gathered my many souvenirs and headed out. I felt like I never wanted to leave.

“I’m writing this up on Yelp when I get back. Five stars,” I said. Lexie looked at me, her face uneasy.

“Blair? Don’t get mad, but I just broke your car key.”

Just like that, my birthday celebration had gone from the ultimate wish fulfilment to a kind of Ye Olde Monkey’s Paw. Lexie handed me the twisted remains of my key. The rain got harder. Someone wandered off to get the attention of a cop car parked in the corner. I fumbled in my coat for my cell phone and dialed AAA.

“Are you in a safe location?” the woman asked.

“Yes,” I said. “I’m at Medieval Times.”

“What?”

“Medieval Times,” I repeated. “It’s a giant fake castle. I was there for my birthday and now my car key is broken and I can’t leave.”

I was informed that AAA could not let me in my car since it was technically registered to my father. I felt a stab of desperation. I was stuck with a broken down car and a beer glass with a knight on it and I had no idea how to get a car towed. I felt a sob escape.

“What is your address?”

“I don’t know,” I said thickly. “It’s Medieval Times. As far as I know it’s the only castle in the greater Schaumburg area.” The departing crowd had thinned, and now we were the only ones left in the exit area. At least no one would see me having a breakdown in a red and yellow paper crown.

I hung up with the assurance that a tow truck would be on its way within the hour, and we’d retreated to the inside of the castle with a lanky night manager named Matt, the first Medieval Timeser we’d seen without a period costume.

“Hope you didn’t have Saturday night plans,” Lexie joked.

“I mean, I get paid as long as you guys are here,” Matt said. “So it’s no big deal.”

The overhead lights had been shut off, and the great hall was now decidedly eerie. The badly-painted peasants dancing in the murals grinned demonically, and the suits of armor by the bathroom cast a menacing gleam.

“Did the cops help you?” Matt asked.

“They were here for an asthma attack,” my friend Kathy said.

“Oh, yeah. We always try to warn people, but then they still come in and can’t breathe. Happened a few nights ago too.” He shrugged. “I guess you guys can go in the torture museum if you want,” he said. We followed him around back and shuffled in front of the recreation iron maidens and spiked collars, halfheartedly absorbing the instruments of pain and punishment.

“So the winner is fixed, right?” Eli asked. Matt nodded.

“Yeah. The green knight always loses. And the other knights switch colors so that they can learn all the different fight moves. Which one did you guys have?”

“Red and yellow,” I said. “Do you know him?” I showed him a picture Kathy had taken.

“Oh, yeah. Eddie. Cool dude.”

Our noble champion and defender was named Eddie. The absurdity of it all had compounded.

“I can’t believe we’re stuck at fucking Medieval Times,” I said, and made a noise that was half laugh, half desperate wail.

We moved from the torture museum and gaped at the depressed-looking horses in their glass stables. The three girls decided to catch a taxi back, and I decided I would sit in the throne since no one was there to stop me. At last, my phone buzzed.

“Hello?” I said breathlessly.

“Yeah, uh, we’re coming to tow you and uh, our truck broke down. So it’s gonna be another forty-five, fifty minutes. An hour, tops.”

I set my jaw as I hung up the phone.

“Was that them?” Eli asked.

“We’re going to die here,” I told him.

Matt apparently did have Saturday night plans, and so we had become the wards of a hefty bear of a man named Ivan who led us back to the offices to hang out. We passed by a huge room, full of racks of identical puffy blouses and doublets (“So this is how the sausage is made,” Eli said) before settling in a back office. A faded VHS of Home Alone lay on a counter, offering an ironic mise en abyme of our fate.

“Yeah, the horses sometimes get all fussy at night, so I have to take them out and walk them around the arena,” Ivan was saying. “They have four stomachs, you know, and they can get all knotted up if they get stressed. They work here like twenty, thirty years. Must make ‘em crazy.”

A light flashed on the CCTV and a grainy truck pulled in the lot. We trailed back out, past the costume shop and back out into the main hall, rounding Merlin’s Green Screen and the motionless frozen daiquiri machines to where our glasses awaited us and out into the parking lot.

A short man in a hooded sweatshirt was waiting for us. “This your car?”

“No,” I said. “I’m just hanging out in the parking lot of Medieval Times at midnight for no reason.”

“People do that,” Ivan said. “Come out here to offroad. I chase ‘em off.”

After a few minutes and much clanking of chains and scraping of steel, my humble Volvo was heaved onto the flatbed of the truck, a time capsule from a different era.

“I bet this is one of the weirdest pickups you’ve had to do,” Eli said as we got in the cab.

Our driver shook his head. “Weird, maybe, but not the worst.”

“Oh yeah?” I asked.

“Worst is fat people. And people who smell. Je-sus.”

My ability to make small talk had finally run out.

An hour later, dropped off by the tow truck and walking back to our apartments, Eli tried to patch together the tatters of my birthday celebration and console me.

“Look, it was awful. But it was also kind of awesome. And you get a great story.”

I opened our souvenir photo and looked at our faces: innocent smiles beneath our paper crowns, so unaware of the fate that awaited them back in the modern age. The inscription below seemed taunting. A Knight To Remember, indeed.

“Yeah,” I said. “It is about the experience, after all.”


III.

That was a year ago.

In Montreal, where I’ve been living, the Art Museum is free. So I went, once, because it was a Thing To Do and working as a freelance writer means I have nothing but time to kill. I skipped over all the actual exhibitions of modern photography and Degas and went straight to the Medieval section, which is small but respectable, and there I pressed a free audio-music-tour device to my ear and listened to the spare elegance of chanted counterpoint as I wandered through familiar faces: Jesus on the cross, Mary as the sedes sapientiae, a hedgehog-looking Saint Sebastian.

To my surprise and delight, there was even a picture of Queen Dido, a woman I’d spent nine months contemplating, studying, watching off herself, and picking apart in the Latin Aeneid and the Old French Roman d’Enéas. Seeing Dido her felt like seeing her again, like we’d gotten to know each other personally despite one of us being a mythological Sidonian monarch and the other being a modern creep of an undergraduate who entertained a borderline-unhealthy obsession with this particular story of lost love.

A lot of Medieval literature is about this–the ache for the full jubilation of mead-halls long since emptied, the unfillable emptiness carved out by the passing of time. My BA paper was all about how twelfth century literature borrows this idea from antiquity, but it took me until now to really get it. My hair is no longer blue and my degree is no longer listed on my resume as expected. I’ve been out of school for almost six full months now and zero jobs have come my way because of my ability to speak Old French. My friends are no longer a mere Volvo-drive away.

It is bittersweetness, the home-return of nostos and the pain of algos. It’s universal and it’s human and it took me 23 years, $250,000 worth of education, and one absurd instance of being stranded at an inaccurate theme restaurant to get it. But I finally think I understand what Vergil meant when he wrote Aeneas’s speech to his men in book 1, the ones fleeing a ruined Troy and facing a jumbled-up future on land or on sea:

Forsan et haec olim meminisse iuvabit.
Perhaps one day it will be pleasing to remember even this.

Aeneid, Bk. 1, line 203

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  1. Pingback: ars longa | blair thornburgh

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