If you were on the very upper west side last Sunday and thought you heard or smelled something a little different in the air, you weren’t imagining it. As it has every year since 1985, the Medieval Festival performed an occupation of Fort Tryon Park.
The Medieval era – the Middle Ages – lasted for 50 generations, from the Fifth to Fifteenth Centuries. When it began Rome was crumbling under its own weight. When it ended Leonardo and Michelangelo were transforming art and cartographers were filling in the map of the planet.
It began with the Dark Ages in northwestern Europe, a time of plummeting populations and mass migration away from urban centers. Two hundred years before the renaissance that began modern history and ended the medieval era, there was another renaissance that laid the seeds for the artistic, scientific, and philosophical leaps that were to come. Europe and Asia became better acquainted through the trade of each others unique food, clothes, art, and medicine. The Christian and Islamic worlds shared their philosophies and scientific discoveries.
Pulp papermaking, developed a thousand years earlier in China, finally made its way to Spain where the first water-powered paper mills were built just in time for a revival of Greek philosophy in Latin translation. Towns rose again and with them, for the first time, bureaucratic nation states grew, combining the cultural nationwith the political state. Nation states brought warfare on a new scale.
The Wikipedia entry for Medieval Weapons lists over 100 items including the horseman’s pick, the war scythe, and the hand cannon, sorted into categories like Siege Weapons, Spear and Polearms, and Trauma and Cleaving weapons. In Fort Tryon Park last weekend men representing New York City and Long Island bashed each others’ armored bodies with such ancient weapons.
Those who chose to forgo the hunting of his fellow man learned to hunt other species with the assistance of trained birds of prey. Two years ago at the Festival one of falconer Mike Dupuy’s birds flew over the Hudson and had to be tracked down in the wilds of Fort Lee, New Jersey.
The best thing about the Medieval era, and Festival, the thing that ties together and floats above the mead and ale, the giant turkey legs, the clanking swords, the pointed ears and wreaths of flowers, the nimble and the confrontational, is the music. Music theory and notation as we know it to
day was born Medieval times. At some point near the end of the Ninth Century, singers in a monastery in Switzerland experimented with chanting two parts in parallel harmony. Sheep guts and horsehair provided strings for early harps.
They don’t write ’em like this anymore. Probably for good reason, but that doesn’t take anything away from the genius behind this piece of music from the 1630s. It was written for a four-person choir and a five-person choir to sing together. At one time it was an offense punishable by excommunication to transcribe it or to perform it outside of certain ceremonies. There’s a particular segment of harmony that is almost frightening in its polyphony. It happens at about 1:37 in this clip of the Kings College Choir from Cambridge.
The earliest written records of polyphony in Western music date to approximately 900 AD. The words below are from the English translation of Psalm 51 from the 1662 Book of Common Prayer.
Have mercy upon me, O God, after Thy great goodness
According to the multitude of Thy mercies do away mine offenses.
Wash me thoroughly from my wickedness: and cleanse me from my sin.
For I acknowledge my faults: and my sin is ever before me.
Against Thee only have I sinned, and done this evil in thy sight: that Thou mightest be justified in Thy saying, and clear when Thou art judged.
Behold, I was shapen in wickedness: and in sin hath my mother conceived me.
But lo, Thou requirest truth in the inward parts: and shalt make me to understand wisdom secretly.
Thou shalt purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean: Thou shalt wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow.
Thou shalt make me hear of joy and gladness: that the bones which Thou hast broken may rejoice.
Turn Thy face from my sins: and put out all my misdeeds.
Make me a clean heart, O God: and renew a right spirit within me.
Cast me not away from Thy presence: and take not Thy Holy Spirit from me.
O give me the comfort of Thy help again: and stablish me with Thy free Spirit.
Then shall I teach Thy ways unto the wicked: and sinners shall be converted unto Thee.
Deliver me from blood-guiltiness, O God, Thou that art the God of my health: and my tongue shall sing of Thy righteousness.
Thou shalt open my lips, O Lord: and my mouth shall shew Thy praise.
For Thou desirest no sacrifice, else would I give it Thee: but Thou delightest not in burnt-offerings.
The sacrifice of God is a troubled spirit: a broken and contrite heart, O God, shalt Thou not despise.
O be favorable and gracious unto Sion: build Thou the walls of Jerusalem.
Then shalt Thou be pleased with the sacrifice of righteousness, with the burnt-offerings and oblations: then shall they offer young bullocks upon Thine altar.