Unexpected Medieval Family Counselling

On a recent weekend, my wife and I took our kids to the annual Medieval Festival in a park near our apartment, in upper Manhattan. We couldn’t not go; it’s one of the biggest events of the year in our neighborhood, and our eight-year-old daughter is obsessed with swords, dragons, magic, elves, and other things associated with the Middle Ages. And our five-year-old son likes fried dough. So we put on our winter coats, bundled against the dregs of Hurricane Ian, and walked to what the city’s parks department billed as a family-friendly event.

I have some questions about that. Is anything to do with the Middle Ages really appropriate for children? Roughly a thousand years of incest, plagues, massacres, poor dental care, oppression, alcohol abuse, cesspits, chamber pots, and goiters (with apologies to the medieval historians who will no doubt dispute this characterization). We didn’t see any goiters at the festival, but we did observe large men in plate armor attacking one another with swords and belligerent hugs. At times, the fighting resembled a strange, slow-motion game of rugby. At other moments, it really looked like hand-to-hand combat.

These battles were narrated by an ESPN-bro-type announcer, who shouted into his microphone things like “New York City, are you ready for a joust?” My kids took it all in with a level gaze. I wondered if they remembered how, in our family, we use our words, not our hands, to resolve our differences. Apparently not. After we left the bleachers, we went straight to a little practice area where you could join your friends and family in swinging padded swords and axes. My daughter challenged me to a duel; somehow, she had a sword and I had only my cheap bodega umbrella. She danced around me, light on her feet because of the years of ballet classes that I’ve paid for, and jabbed me in the ribs with her weapon, which I would say was insufficiently padded.

Later, my son hit me in the back of the head with his toy sword, but that is not unusual and is barely worth mentioning. What really surprised me was when my wife, Michelle, attacked me. One moment, we were examining a long, thinly padded sword that a combatant had passed over the fence for our inspection; an instant later, Michelle let out a battle cry and swung the thing at me. I have a photo of the assault, which a friend took and forwarded to us. It is a bona-fide action photo. Michelle, who is in her forties and suffers from a painful lower-back condition, looks as spry as a member of the Olympic fencing team, nimbly lunging for me while I duck and cover. The expression on her face is one of pure joy, of sheer glee. She appears happy in our wedding photos—but not this happy.

Maybe the reason she wanted to whack me with a sword was that, an hour or so earlier, I had brightly said “Sure!” when a young woman in an off-the-shoulder dress, the kind that people apparently used to wear in medieval times, had asked if I would take pictures of her and her friends. The woman had stood a little closer to me than was strictly necessary, I thought, as she showed me how to take the photo on her phone. Perhaps Michelle had noticed the closeness. (In the woman’s defense, and mine, it was extremely cold that day, and standing close to another human was a good idea. In fact, in the Middle Ages, it was often the only way to avoid freezing to death.) More likely, my wife’s playful violence had something to do with our seventeen-plus years together, years that have been good in many ways but have also brought their share of disappointments and frustrations. I would be happy to talk with her about such matters, maybe in couples counselling, or even just sitting on our couch some evening. But that wouldn’t be nearly as cathartic as a sword fight.

I know this because, later that night, as we were doing our physical-therapy routines side by side in the living room, on parallel yoga mats—our special alone time as a middle-aged couple—I said to Michelle, “You really liked swinging that sword at me.” And she smiled and said, “It was better than couples counselling.” I almost replied, “How do you know? We’ve never tried it!” But then I remembered that we did try it, years ago, shortly before we broke up, saw other people, and then got back together and got married. Wisely, and uncharacteristically, I said nothing.

So that’s one important life lesson I learned at this year’s Medieval Festival. I learned another, too, near the end of our excursion: when it’s fifty-odd degrees and raining sideways, there is nothing on earth so comforting as a giant piece of piping-hot fried dough with powdered sugar on top. That fried dough eased my mind and gave succor to my battered body. My family and I, so recently at one another’s throats with swords, sat huddled together, stuffing our faces with greasy food as the wind howled around us. It was like a feast day of old. It almost made me want to live in the Middle Ages. ♦

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