Before setting off on our North American trip, we did what we always do – research and watch a ton of YouTube videos to find the best places and must-see neighbourhoods in a city. Our first destination was New York, so by the time we were driving to the airport, I realised that I had found every foodie spot and non-touristy gem worth noting in NYC, but hadn’t really touched on the rest of our trip. Exhausted from New York, and the long drive up to Niagara, we were sat in our Airbnb in Toronto, frantically trying to get the lay of the land. We came across Reformatt, a Dutch YouTuber who focuses on ‘hidden secrets travel guides’, whose snappy and fun videos told us everything we needed to know. Perhaps his best tip off was an attraction I never knew existed. It was so perfect it felt like it had been made for me; we had been introduced to Medieval Times.
My fascination with the medieval has been a long-enduring one. The Battle of Hastings, 1066 and all that, preoccupied my brain as an 11 year old. The Bayeux Tapestry seemed to me the greatest piece of artwork ever produced. A Knight’s Tale is still today my favourite movie of all time, and my degree highlighted works of genius like Bergman’s The Seventh Seal. I even opted for an Anglo-Saxon module at university, learning the language and its literature, as well as every work of Chaucer they would let me study. It’s this lifelong fascination that fuelled my uncontainable excitement at the prospect of an albeit, not exactly historically accurate, but aesthetically enchanting: Medieval Times.
The concept is this: to transport a modern day audience back to ‘a forgotten age and a tale of devotion, courage and love’. The franchise has become hugely popular across North America, originally beginning in Spain in the 80s, and now operates in cities like Chicago, Atlanta and Orlando – plus of course, Toronto.
Despite being born and bred in Great Britain, the kingdom of King Arthur himself, I can’t think of anywhere that embraces the spirit of the medieval quite like this. Sure, we have many a castle – Alnwick in Northumberland puts on perhaps the best display with costumes and a sword fighting arena, but it still has the feel and quality of a museum, desperately trying to be ‘interactive’. Meanwhile, Medieval Times refuses to get hung up on the details and has more spirit than anywhere I’ve ever been. It is unapologetic in its nerdiness, and forces people, of all backgrounds, genders and ages to embrace the stories of their childhood.
Located just past Exhibition Place in Toronto, the ‘Tournament’ is just a short tram ride from central Toronto. We happened to be there on Labour Day weekend, so we circled through the crowds, looking for the right building. Upon entering the ‘castle’, we were given a knight’s card, for us the Blue Knight, which allocates your seat and the Knight you will support throughout the tournament. Through the doors, and you’re into the Great Hall, complete with Court, Bar and of course, gift shops galore. You can buy all kinds of medieval-themed memorabilia, everything from the Queen’s Crown to babygrows with medieval puns, and there’s something very Harry Potter about it all.
The entire dinner experience was like something in A Knight’s Tale. After sitting in the Blue Knight’s section, we were greeted by our ‘wench’ or host, as she invited us to call her (thank the lord). The hosts rallied our support and injected us with enthusiasm, with every person in the place bellowing from the deepest depths of their soul by the time the lights were dimmed.
Drinks were poured, and the show began, with our Knights: Yellow, Green, Blue, Red and Black, all represented by different sections of the onlookers. As they walked out into the centre, their squires presented them - I was in heaven. I felt like at any moment, Paul Bettany would walk out from under the arch and present Heath Ledger in his comical latinate prose. The entertainment only got wackier from then on.
We had dances from the horses, one in particular I’ll never forget from a pure white stallion, who danced solo as blue lights made his coat glow. It really felt like maybe, just maybe, unicorns did exist. The falconer then presented his birds, and I felt tears prick my eyes as this small powerful beast looped over our heads, following the subtle instruction of his trainer. He was so intelligent, so agile and truly beautiful. During these sections, our host presented us with multiple courses, tomato soup, roast chicken and potato, and the common medieval treat – ice cream. The fun here was the no-cutlery rule, with all meals served in pewter bowls and plates and we had nothing but our hands to eat things with. T was an exception in his vegetarian options, as bean chilli is hard to eat at the best of times, never mind with your hands, but the meal felt suitably rustic all the same.
The knights continued on with their antics, and we saw horsemanship, the joust and perhaps most comical of all – the sword fight. Here, the theatrics of Medieval Times really came into their own. While we’d been aware of the narrative of Queen Isabella and her court throughout the first half, it took a turn when one of the knights took the sword fight too far. Isabella had to intervene, and her main advisor showed his true colours. As the story unfolded, an ultimatum was reached, a sort of Chaucer meets Eastenders – with bad British accents.
Historical purists could have picked apart the whole affair within 6 seconds. The costumes, decoration, obviously the modern stage lighting, and even down to the sports and entertainment. Yet in reality, the overall picture was very clear. Medieval Times appeals to your imagination, and forces you to think about how it would have felt to attend a tournament. All this from a fairly new perspective too – as movies tend to focus on the interesting love triangles of the nobility rather than the experience for the crowd itself.
In the Special Features of A Knight’s Tale, the director Brian Helgeland, explains that the crowd for the famous sword fighting scene was made up of the local people in Romania where they filmed. They couldn’t understand English, or what was going on at all, so it was only with encouragement from the actors that they knew when to cheer. I felt like one of those crowd members, whose day had been taken over by the matters of the court, relishing in the entertainment and the togetherness of the crowd. Rather than being dressed as the poor as these local extras had been, the eating experience and rallying for a single knight bound us all together. We had purchased flags too, to wave when our Knight was competing, which only added to the age-old crowd mentality, bound by our common goal – to see the Blue Knight victorious.
The biggest lesson, in what was a hugely entertaining evening came when the ultimatum presented itself. Once good overcame evil, I learned something huge that no history lesson has ever achieved. The squire shouted to the crowd, asking if we wanted to see the evil knight killed. Did we want to see him killed? We’d been shown that he had intended to murder, that’s for certain. But in this moment, we forgot that there was a world outside the room, that they were actors playing the parts of knights. Before I could even help myself, wholly caught up in the crowd, I shouted my cheers for him to suffer. Why had I done that?
We all want to see justice in the world, an eye for an eye and all of that, but just imagine if this whole thing had been some sort of psychological experiment. You take a crowd of people, who are all pretty liberal (we are in Canada after all), put them in a room, and as they get excited and wrapped up in the entertainment of it all, you suddenly make it real. The Good Knight kills the Evil Knight, the room is in shock, and split in the actions. While we were thrilled in the harmless fun of the show, the dark reality of the medieval is shown – often ‘justice’ meant death, ‘honour’ meant death and ‘chivalry’ meant certain death. It’s these moments that allow you to understand the behaviour of our ancestors, understand the power of the majority and really feel connected to a time that can otherwise feel like an endless stream of events, dates and Kings.