Medieval Times Dinner and Tournament consists of nine modern-built castles spread through the United States and Canada (a single location in Toronto) in which customers purchase seats to dinner and a theatrically staged tournament. Food is served by ‘wenches’ to ‘Lords and ladies’ decked in paper crowns who eat with their hands. Commercialization surrounds the event: swords, glasses, banners, and other objects are constantly proposed for consumption throughout the day’s or evening’s activities. The company was begun by Jose Montaner, who created a medieval-style attraction influenced by the film El Cid to enhance his barbecue restaurant in Majorca. He exported the model to Spain and then to Kissimmee, Florida (near Disneyworld) in 1983. It was absolutely unique for its time and well-reviewed in newspapers, particularly for the staged tournaments featuring jousting and equestrian feats performed on beautiful Andalusian horses. It welcomed 183, 272 visitors the first year and 257, 350 the following. In five years the initial number had more than doubled.
The original location near Disneyworld is a testament to Medieval Times’s family-oriented focus. Its web site caters to the fantasies of children (the voice over on the site in 2012 featured a boy chanting: ‘I dreamed I was a prince, a mighty warrior’, followed by an adult voice: ‘The fantasy comes alive. Incredible jousting, thrilling combat’) and it offers steep discounts for children and school groups. The phenomenon is so well-known in the United States as to have been satirized in a recent children’s book (as ‘Medieval Days Family Restaurants’).
The narrative arc of the Medieval Times performance changes every few years, but comes straight from Arthurian romance. The lord welcomes the guests to his castle to celebrate peace with a tournament (this includes explanation of medieval customs and clothing, demonstrations of falconry and weapons, and other information about medieval life). An interloper arrives to issue a challenge and a knight must leave the court. He is captured and ransomed. Other knights must fight for his rescue. The storyline is difficult to follow, particularly since it is accompanied by booming microphones, swelling Hollywood-style music, and light shows, but it weaves the action sequences into what is a fairly informative and action-packed show about the Middle Ages in which the audience cheers for the knights representing their section of the arena. It is an inclusive setting, where all participate in the festivities (eating, cheering, receiving flowers from the knights). This is a ‘fantasy’ of romance, adventure, and combat (as the voice on the web site proposes), but it also features impressive pageantry, from the horses themselves, to the costumes, banners, staged jousting, and horse tricks. Visitor Bill Taylor summed it up well in a 20 August 1993 Toronto Star article describing the recently opened site: ‘There’s an element of circus, a touch of rodeo, a huge chunk of all-in wrestling. You know the fighting is fake from start to finish— of course it is— but you’re still on the edge of your seat and wincing.’
In fact, if full-contact jousters criticize Medieval Times so sharply, it is probably because it is where many of them got their start (familiarity breeds contempt). Like many other children who bought into the dream of becoming a knight, Shane Adams became a theatrical jouster for the company: ‘I thought by working at a dinner show, my childhood dream of being a knight would be lived. But instead, I realized I wasn’t a true knight in shining armour. I was only a knight in shining polyester and tinsel.’ From the outside, Medieval Times seems shining and magical, but the courtly tournament, like the advertised ‘four-course meal fit for royalty’ (a greasy chicken leg, fried potatoes, cornbread, and cookie) does not live up to the marketing.
The same criticisms about authenticity are often made of the Renaissance Faires that have flourished throughout the summertime in North America since 1963. They are ‘partly a craft fair, partly historical reenactment and partly performance art,’ as the national organization’s web site puts it.
People working at Faire dress in costumes (garb) typical of the late Elizabethan period. Booths sell crafts and food. Parades wind their way through the crowds. Jugglers, musicians, magicians, and other entertainers perform through the day. Your day is spent wandering about, examining wares, sampling foods, watching plays and performers, and of course drinking fyne English Ale’.
‘Some are Renaissance era, some Medieval, but all have a home for Pirates, Elves, Fairies, Vikings, Klingons and You.’ None of this is particularly authentic, nor is it particularly medieval, but Renaissance Faires have become an important part of what Americans think of as ‘medieval’: an eclectic amalgam of picturesque costumes, foods, and commercial activities through which one ‘wanders’ in order to forget the present. From Disney’s Epcot Center to Las Vegas casinos, Americans have long adopted elements of world culture, recreating them in miniature according to their own tastes. Excalibur and Luxor Casinos, Medieval Times, and Renaissance Faires all follow in this spirit of appropriation, recreation, and family entertainment, and it is at these venues that one is most likely to experience live jousting in North America.
By Elizabeth Emery (see her chapter, Medieval Times: Tournaments and Jousting in 21st century North America, in Medieval Afterlives in Contemporary Culture, available now.)