Ah, the romance of damsels in distress and valiant knights in shining armor casts a spell in modern times for chivalry and valor – values of a mysterious era between the 5th and 15th century. Also known as the Middle Ages, medieval Europe is the period just after the demise of the Roman Empire and just prior to moveable type and the discovery of the Americas by Columbus. It was a fascinating, but brutish time in our history. Yet the past also conjures more pleasant times, and these are regularly brought to life each year in many towns all across Germany.
Spectators flock to tournaments of courage, where medieval knights dressed in vibrant colors adorned with images of fire breathing dragons joust against a worthy opponent – always dressed in black. Castle ruins are explored for remnants of ancient folklore. Old stone steps are worn shiny, warped from the weather and years of use and punctuated with wild flowers and the faded echoes of former residents.
Medieval festivals, fairs and markets attempt to bridge the past and the present. These festivals originally revolved around feast days and pagan activities. They were based on ancient agricultural celebrations that marked when certain crops should be planted or harvested. Now a staple of the German summer, they take place all along the rivers of the Mosel, Neckar and Rhine, in the heartland where every town and village have a castle ruin or fortress and in every corner of Germany eager to give testimony to the long and varied history of this beautiful country.
The first highlight is the Medieval Procession: all the spectacle participants promenade around the festival grounds, displaying their colors and family crests. The procession is usually over in less than half an hour and is a mere taste of what is yet to come.
The Kaltenberg Knights Tournament is held every year in July at the Kaltenberg Castle. The festival attracts 120,000 visitors for the 10 days of the tournament and medieval market. The show at Kaltenberg Castle began in 1980 by Prince Luitpold of Bavaria and has grown over the years into a favorite summer event in Bavaria. More than 10,000 cheering fans watch the final battle between the villainous Black Knight and their hero, the Bavarian Knight. Who wins is subject to an up or down vote by the crowd, reminiscent of the Roman Coliseum. But you can pretty much guess who usually wins.
Aside from battling knights in the stadium, the festivals usually have markets, fairs and reenactments with costumed performers and purveyors of medieval foods, goods and crafts. They present a re-creation of life in the middle-ages – thankfully without the stench and pestilence that prevailed at the time.
At one little tent, a smith forges iron, at another the baker’s wife kneads the dough, while the baker bakes the bread in small outdoor ovens heated with coal. Jewelers make custom necklaces and charms, florists create pretty headwear, table centerpieces and door wreaths, and the indescribable scent of leather tells you a tanner has animal hides and fur pelts for sale. You can find some seriously unique gifts at the medieval market. Maybe Aunt Sally might appreciate an “Elixir of Lasting Beauty” for her 45th birthday?
The merry activities below the Niederburg and Oberburg Castles in late August are not only exciting but extremely picturesque – with not one, but two castles in clear view. The Historisches Burgenfest Manderscheid’s two majestic castles face each other and the respective knights fight for honor and glory every summer on the river Lieser, which separates the two once-mighty fortresses. Not surprisingly, inhabiants of the two castles were enemies for many centuries.
On the last weekend in August, the castles and the adjacent tourney field (Turnierwiese) are transformed by the Lion Knights. Elaborate jousting matches are held with lances, swords and bows. An exhibition of medieval camp life, a colorful handicraft market, a Tavern show along with strolling minstrels, jesters and stilt-walkers, brings the Middle Ages front and center. Fireworks above the ruins of Niederburg castle illuminate the sky and end the days’ activities with a thunderous exclamation mark.
Hundreds of official costumed performers and spectators don Renaissance garb, wandering among the stands, tents and castles as lords, ladies and wizards. Don’t have a period costume? Don’t fret. You can wear that dirndl or lederhosen you bought for Oktoberfest or your family kilt or Japanese kimono – ancient cultures that are also well-represented at most festivals.
And the food, well let’s just say festival food is a great reason in and of itself to attend one of the many seasonal celebrations. However, don’t expect to eat healthy. Fruits and vegetables were considered peasant food and were not a part of most 14th century festivals. You can’t miss the wafts of chicken roasting over open fires, suckling pig, steak mit brötchen, bratwurst, fried potatoes, honey mead and eiswein are just a few common delicacies found at most food courts. Try the schweinshaxe (pork knuckles). I hear they are delicious. Take a seat on one of the long benches and take in the sights, flavors and sounds all around you.
Storybook towns all over Germany make use of their medieval ruins several times in the summer as backdrops for the re-enactment of real and romanticized events from their town archives.
Dinkelsbühl performs its Kinderzeche in July, depicting the children of the town successfully pleading with an invading commander to spare their homes. The Rothenburg Der Meistertrunk is performed several times during the tourist season, and has the mayor downing a gallon of wine in one draught. The legend says he did it on a wager from the invading commander, who promised not to sack the town if he was able to perform this feat. Fürth im Wald holds its spectacular “Dragon Spearing” festival in August. A very convincing-looking dragon emerges from the forest and stalks the streets, belching real fire, roaring, rolling its eyes and snapping its jaws, only to shed very realistic blood as it is slain by the gallant knight Udo.
The narration of each performance is only in German, but even if you don’t understand German, you’ll still enjoy the action in the arena. Some of the best stuntmen in Europe, along with their stunt horses, perform stunning tricks. It’s amazing to see in how many variations a person can ride on a horse: standing, kneeling, making a handstand, below, besides, under, etc,. etc.
Kids are not forgotten at these events. At the festival in Bad Muenster, my son held a huge falcon, played medieval “Wack-a-Mole,” and took aim at targets with bow and arrows, cross bows and hatchets. Pony rides, puppet shows and medieval games of chance add to the excitement. Performances by jugglers, buffoons and fire-eaters can be seen throughout the festival area.
During the medieval period, festivals were a source of entertainment, a way of spreading news and also a place to meet and eat. It seems nothing has changed. Whether you just got here or have lived here for a while, attending a medieval festival can be an easy and fun way to discover German culture – channeling the past and those that lived it.