For those of who enjoy a good costume event, Renaissance Fairs offer the chance to dress up and take on characters from a different time period while enjoying a good joust. At New York City’s Medieval Festival in upper Manhattan, it appears many go to not only partake in the medieval festivities, but also to give their Halloween costumes a dry run in advance of the actual holiday. Much like New York itself, it’s a melting pot of fun.
Get Thee to the Medieval Festival
New York City is known for so many things. Skyscrapers, New York style pizza, art and culture….the list goes on and on. But perhaps you didn’t know that within the city boundaries, once a year it plays host to a Medieval Festival. It’s hard to picture the place or space for it, but it’s been taking place for more than 30 years, held in historic Fort Tryon Park in the city’s Washington Heights neighborhood. Riding public transportation to the Medieval Festival at the Park and the Cloisters is the smart way to travel. It will bring you right to the entrance. Although the festival is technically free, as you move with the crowds towards the park gates, you’ll not only see jesters standing on stilts but also large signs asking visitors to please donate a dollar at one of the wishing wells in order to help ensure the festival will be able to continue next year.
If you arrive at the start of the festival, you’ll bear witness to the Opening Royal Procession at the Front Gate. The procession includes ye entire cast o’ characters. Never fear—if you arrive later, you’ll be seeing them throughout the rest of the day. And yes, once you walk through the gates, regardless of whether you’re in costume or not, you’ll feel inclined to say things to your children such as, “Prithee, play not with those parasols! If you breaketh them, you buyeth them. Thank thee.” It’s rather infectious. Although it was laugh-out-loud inducing to see some tents set up by sponsors that included banks, mini-storage and insurance companies and that had signs reading things like, “Joineth our medieval raffle to winneth prizes! Thou might windeth up with an iPad, PlayStation 4 games, Beats headphones and more!” Um no, iPads were not around in the medieval days, you may have to clarify with your little ones.
Music and Dance
Musicians playing lutes, harps, recorders, crumhorns, hammered dulcimers and some other medieval-looking instruments I’d never seen before are spread throughout the festival at locations such as the Unicorn Forum, the Pageant Wagon Stage and the South Lawn Village. A drum circle forming near one of the tents allows both children and adults to join. A group of monk-clad men sing Gregorian chants and as you walk on you can hear songs from across Europe, listen to traditional Irish Music, see Celtic dancers, belly dancers and snake charming. There are also ample opportunities for henna tattoos and fortune telling. A little revisionist history evidently.
No Costume? No Problem.
If you don’t come in costume, don’t worry. There is plenty of opportunity to purchase one onsite. From head to toe, there are shirts, skirts, kilts, jackets, corsets, vests, armor, swords, headpieces and more. Consider yourself lucky if you get away with only buying a headband strewn with flowers and ribbons for five-dollars. The swords and crossbows can run in the hundreds.
And then there are plenty of “other” costumes as well. Red Devils, Elves, Punkers, Trekkies, Men In Black and Ghostbusters are all represented, plus more. Dogs in dragon and knight costumes walk alongside other dogs dressed in hot dog bun costumes. Everyone mixes and mingles, takes photos of each other, and no one seems to mind that so many of the costumes have absolutely nothing to do with the Medieval time period. It’s like Halloween practice, or an excuse to make sure you get a second-wearing out of your favorite space suit.
Kids are encouraged to try out some more traditional games and can take juggling lessons, see puppets, watch magicians, use ribbon wrapped hula hoops and learn some basic sword fighting (plastic swords provided). In the later afternoon, children may want to take part in the children’s parade.
The Knight’s Oath
Representatives from the Knights of Avalon are there to teach about “the age of chivalry”, which includes inviting children to participate as junior knights and take the junior knights oath. Once they’ve done that, there’s no stopping them from, say, participating in a live chess tournament in which they may end up being a literal pawn when Robin Hood plays against the Sheriff of Nottingham.
There are real fighters who do battle in the Sir Stan Michel Tournament Field of Honour. They are members of the USA Knights Amored Combat League. They boast real weapons, real armor and real combat. You can witness them working to get themselves fairly well-padded under their chain armor before battles, and you can also see them treating wounds post battles. That said, some of the battles and rescues are a bit rehearsed and depending on the angle you get in the battlefield, you may see a bit of stage fighting as well.
Other activities include live jousting tournaments (on horses), learning dances, and watching artisans demonstrate stone carving, glass bead making and pottery. There are also a number of falconry demonstrations throughout the day. Although, the falcon master did explain to a later-day audience after his bird didn’t return, that, “Sometimes that happens.
The setting for the day is perfect as it stands on a hill overlooking beautiful views of the Hudson River on one side and surrounds The Cloisters on the other side. The Cloisters is a museum located within the park that’s a branch of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and it’s used to exhibit the museum’s collection of art, architecture and artifacts from Medieval Europe. During the festival there are multiple opportunities to take tours of The Cloisters.
So if you’re up for a day of “Dragon Scales and Faerie Tales”, enjoy large drumsticks and steins of beer, want to people-watch, partake in costumes and want to have a chance for your family to learn a bit more about medieval times, mark your calendar for October early next year as this may be the perfect renaissance festival for you.