It can be a challenge to bring up Medieval Times, the show and restaurant—let’s call it a show and restaurant, for now—without being mistaken for speaking of “medieval times,” the vaguely designated era of European history. A question like “Why am I obsessed with Medieval Times?” for example, is ripe for misinterpretation. But a sure bet is to say simply to your friends, “I’m going to Medieval Times this weekend,” and if your friends are anything like mine, their eyes will open wide, and they’ll say, “I want to go to Medieval Times!”
I did, too. I’d heard enough about it to know that it would speak to deeply rooted memories and cherished ephemera from my childhood. Why I loved the 1973 Disney animated version of Robin Hood and still sometimes mutter "Oo-de-lally, oo-de-lally, golly, what a dayyyyy" to myself, and why I became fixated on the King’s Quest graphic-adventure game series in sixth grade. These minutiae of my background are mostly-to-completely irrelevant to actual life in medieval times, but they’re hardly irrelevant to the excitement surrounding a visit to Medieval Times.
I finally got to live this dream on the cusp of my 36th birthday—a little later than some patrons, but not, it would turn out, nearly as many as I’d thought. On an unseasonably temperate Friday evening in August, my husband, Shaun, and I drove an hour from our Atlanta home to the Sugarloaf Mills mall in the very suburban suburb of Lawrenceville, Georgia, where one of Medieval Times Dinner & Tournament’s nine North American castles awaited.
The facade of the castle is turreted (natch), constructed out of stone-esque blocks in mall-neutral beige shades. The imposing grille-like gate beneath the modest sign is a decoy, as are the tall wooden doors set perpendicular to it; you enter through a set of normal glass-fronted mall doors, and walk past a couple of massive billboards promoting the spectacle you’re about to see. These may be meant as a distraction from the Forever 21 across the way, but mall environments being mall environments, it’s hard to completely forget where you are, even as a woman with an unplaceable English accent directs traffic outside the Medieval Times box office and gives you your first "milady" of the evening.
Our party of three—we had intercepted our photographer, Eric—was expeditiously checked in and given a red table card, which indicated we’d be seated in the red section and cheering for the Red Knight. We also received cardboard crowns to wear, which we did, gladly. After this, we were ushered through an antechamber, where our red card was checked at least one and maybe two more times, punctuated by more "miladies."*
The "milady" and "milord" treatment at Medieval Times actually extends to the customer service line’s phone scripts, as I learned when I called to make reservations (1-800-WE-JOUST, if you’re curious). But somehow you never get used to it, especially because the level of cosplay varies considerably among the staff—some employees speak with a hearty attempt at an accent along the lines of a Peter Jackson hobbit, while others use their natural voices; some wear tights or dresses with bosom-buoying cummerbunds, others the inconspicuous civilian attire prescribed for bartenders and souvenir sellers everywhere—but all of them will call you by your renfaire honorific if you engage them in conversation long enough, even about something as 21st-century as the price of a glow-in-the-dark dagger. This can be jarring. You’ll also end up facing the unprecedented question of how to answer when a long-haired, barrel-chested squire in a tunic passes by, inclines his head, and murmurs only, "Milady," with a soft smile. When this happened to me, I nonsensically responded, "Thank you," and immediately felt a degree of embarrassment that my surroundings didn’t really warrant.
The punctiliousness of the controls at the entry point seemed like evidence of a well-oiled commercial machine at work. A ticker screen above the box office window advertised birthday-party packages; a queenly robed lady, who would later reappear as part of the show, was on hand in the antechamber for photo opportunities; at every turn, a smiling staffer was there to guide or upsell us. I’ve never been to Disney World, but I imagine the effect is similar: The staff executes a carefully choreographed dance, designed to plunge you into a version of another time and place that meets whatever your need is at that moment, while keeping one eye firmly on your credit card.
As we moved into the enormous Hall of Arms, where attendees congregate for preshow drinks and amusement, the Disney feeling intensified. Shaun observed that, like the Happiest Place on Earth, Medieval Times seemed to attract all kinds—young families, yes, but also couples on their own and groups of friends, college-aged and middle-aged, majority white but not by much. "All of America is here," he said.
I couldn’t respond coherently to this comment due to the sheer onslaught of sensory information my brain was attempting to process. Kids ran to and from kiosks (and a separate souvenir shop) selling wooden and light-up swords, shields, and battle-axes, plus the obligatory magnets and keychains. Opposite the entrance, cocktails were served from a full bar, backed with shelves displaying every imaginable kind of vessel—ceramic steins, hurricane glasses, Weizens, even a couple of drinking horns—most of them colorful and emblazoned with logos. The combination of pink and purple frosted tulips, dispensers of whirling booze slushies, and workmanlike bartenders produced an ambience resembling the world’s least fun Mardi Gras party. At hulking wooden tables near an ersatz stone fireplace, paper-crowned guests in groups of three and four hunched soberly over their beverages and phones. Suits of armor flanked nearly every doorway. A staffer waved the morbidly curious and, alarmingly, their small children into something called the Museum of Torture.
As we milled about and Eric snapped away (I’d been warned of a proscription on photography in the Hall of Arms, which now seemed blatantly at odds with reality), a small commotion erupted from the Knightings dais in the corner. Until then, this had been where kids lined up to get draped in robes, tapped with a sword on the shoulders, and proclaimed "knights of the realm" by the long-haired squire with the most cinematically convincing English accent. But suddenly we heard a new voice take over the microphone, speaking indistinctly, perhaps of fidelity and lifelong friendship; oohs and aahs rose from the crowd gathering near the dais. The nearest teenage fake-sword purveyor nodded sagely. "You can always tell when a proposal is happening," he said.
On the topic of combining eating with horseback entertainment, I’ll start with the obvious: effluvia. It doesn’t matter how "majestic" or "stalwart" they are, or if you insist on calling them "steeds"; horses piss, and the evidence was in the air as we took our seats in the arena. Throughout the night, as we finished each dinner course, the smell of manure would occasionally surface—a bit of accidental authenticity, I thought, imagining the proximity of livestock that must have been a constant at every moment, including mealtimes, during the actual Middle Ages. To my delight, the knights were attended by a royal poop custodian (or so I imagined his title), a lowly figure who trudged through the space with a supersized version of the kind of scoop you use for cat litter, clearing as he went.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. The arena was a cavernous space, a large oval of sand ringed by tiered benches, though, when all the audience members had taken their seats, it seemed to be only about one-fifth full. Immediately, mugs and plates were dealt out like playing cards all along our row, in preparation for that evening’s meal service—a huge undertaking, given the size of the place.
The process was no-nonsense, no-English-accent, and no-tights-and-cummerbund either. Our server, a "humble and hardworking wench" by her own description, stood in front of her section and laid it all out for us in a raucous voice that reminded me of my Southern elementary school teachers trying to corral students during a hurricane drill. We were offered a choice of three unlimited beverages—alcoholic drinks sold separately—which we would indicate by pointing the handle of our mug toward us (Pepsi), to our right (water), or toward the center of the room (sweet tea). We were advised that we would receive no silverware, because historical accuracy, and one napkin apiece.
To judge the food at Medieval Times fairly, you have to bear in mind that successfully feeding four courses to so many people—or at least feeding a lot of people, including many children, squeezed into stadium seating spread out over a very large space, and engrossed in watching swordplay—both depends on and encourages a blunt, highly unimaginative form of dinner. Apart from the utensil prohibition, no attempt at historical veracity was made. The standard set menu, which Eric ordered, included garlic bread, tomato bisque, roast chicken, corn on the cob, and a slice of lemon pound cake. The vegetarian option, which Shaun and I ate, began with hummus, pita, and crudités, followed by a bean and potato stew made with a base of tomato bisque (for which we were granted spoons), and the same corn and pound cake.
Having stated the facts of this dinner and the appropriate caveats, I’m comfortable calling it without doubt one of the worst I’ve had in any kind of commercial food-service context. The stew tasted mostly of salt. It had been delivered to us with a couple packets of hot sauce on the side, which I eventually realized were intended as a hint. The celery crudités were pale and carelessly cut to include blemishes and white root, the pita was served cool-room-temp, the corn was the mushy texture of a soft cheese, and the lemon pound cake had a suspiciously bright color and faintly medicinal taste that conjured memories of a Walmart bakery department. I got the impression that meat-eaters were a bit luckier overall; Eric described his main dish as "slightly better than Publix rotisserie chicken."
The biggest lie, therefore, of the Medieval Times experience rests not with any misrepresentation of history, but in the name. It makes about as much sense to call the company "Medieval Times Dinner & Tournament" as it would to call British Airways "Dinner and Flight" or Mass General "Dinner and Inpatient Recovery From Surgery." Sure, they feed you on the plane or during a lengthy hospital stay, but that’s only because they keep you there for a certain number of hours and it would be inhumane not to. It’s said of many restaurants with stunning views, a happening social scene, or, yes, live entertainment that you don’t go for the food, but let me just belabor this point: You really, really don’t go to Medieval Times for the food.
You go instead to see a snow-white stallion bound into the arena under red light and billows of smoke. You go to see an actual falcon soaring through the air above your head, and to witness a multipart jousting tournament that ends with pairs of knights flat-out brawling in the sand, miming mortal injury one by one until a winner is declared. You go to see reenacted the timeless and trite story of a suspicious foreign intruder demanding a powerless woman as chattel and the "honor" displayed in battling to the death over her fate. You go, in short, to indulge every conceit about the period in European history between CE 500 and 1500 that’s been instilled in you by not only Braveheart, The Sword in the Stone, and Prince of Thieves, but also Game of Thrones, Tolkien, Dungeons & Dragons, the Harry Potter series, Magic: The Gathering, and much more. As capable as I’d thought I was of maintaining my ironic distance, the streaming mane and tail of the white horse as it reared and pranced around the "Master of Horses" reached straight into my depths to find my nine-year-old self and defibrillate her into life.
The creators of the iconic pop-cultural works listed above, of course, were riffing on conceits instilled in them by the likes of Ivanhoe and The Once and Future King, whose lineage can in turn be traced back to Thomas Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur (1485) and eventually to the writings of Geoffrey of Monmouth (c. first half of the 12th century), who began to popularize the legend of King Arthur, a probably apocryphal sixth-century figure, in the largely mythic stories collected in Geoffrey’s History of the Kings of Britain. You’ll notice that at this point in the rough genealogy of Medieval Times, the show, we’ve reached well back into the heart of what many of us consider medieval times, the era. Yet we’re still trading in folklore, not fact. This was my first lesson on medievalism: A romantic and not terribly truthful notion of the Middle Ages was being constructed even as the Middle Ages were ongoing.
The late 11th and the 12th centuries are "the time when most knightly fiction is being written," Martin Shichtman, professor of English language and literature at Eastern Michigan University, told me over the phone. "That would be when the medieval aristocracy would be most interested in thinking about its knightly past—which probably didn’t exist." All that is to say, if you find yourself charmed by pop-culture representations of the Middle Ages, you’re no more deluded than the 11th- and 12th-century nobility who liked to believe themselves the heirs of a bygone chivalric tradition.** The Spain of that period, too, Shichtman noted, makes a particularly vivid backdrop for entertainment, given the rich cultural fabric woven from the intermixed Christian and Islamic traditions in the region.
** Self-awareness and irony not being the exclusive province of modernity, this trend was not lost on some of those who lived and wrote through the medieval period, before getting more famously lampooned in Don Quixote and elsewhere.
Looking at a more literal genealogy of Medieval Times, the show was in fact born from one man's enthusiasm for Spanish history generally and the 1961 film version of El Cid, specifically. Jose Montaner, a barbecue restaurant-owner on Mallorca in the 1960s, devised the concept of pairing dinner and jousting to lure customers on the heavily touristed Spanish island, then teamed up with other investors to open the first North American Medieval Times in Kissimmee, Florida, in 1983. Eleventh-century Spain remains the setting for the shows to this day, though the narrative changes every five years or so, most recently to incorporate the ascension of the first-ever queen in Medieval Times' history.
But at the performance we witnessed, the court and the tale were steadfastly male-dominated. This included the white-haired king, who presided over the jousting tournament, led us in toasts, and read the names of birthday celebrants off a long scroll; the ragged, sneering "Herald of the North," who would eventually face one of our knights over the hand of the princess; and, most spectacularly, the knights themselves, six dashing young bucks whose every action was accompanied by dramatic swells of music and wild cheers from their color-coded fans in the audience. We didn't hesitate to whoop for our own Red Knight (and boo his mortal enemy, the Green Knight) as they competed in javelin throwing, spearing rings on lances, and other manly pastimes. The winner of each contest received a flower, which he threw to a lady in the crowd. Because flowers are nice, and winning is nice, and sometimes even staunch feminists find it best not to overthink these things, I acquired one for myself, when the Red Knight won the first contest, by thrusting my arms out and screaming like a maniacal baby.
The visceral appeal of the main features here—the horses, the knights, the readily identifiable foe—was obvious, but my questions only piled up as the evening ground on. Why did all these previously affable knights suddenly start fighting each other to the death? Was the Herald fighting so he could marry the princess, or so his king could? If I could so easily lose the thread of this plot, and struggle to stay focused as the show crawled toward the two-and-a-half-hour mark, how could kids under 10 be expected to keep up? Did we really need to see multiple rounds of dressage? Is falconry usually this boring?
The partial answer is that Medieval Times seems determined to maintain a patchy veneer of some nebulous idea of authenticity, though how it has decided what needs to be authentic and what needs to serve modern exigencies is still unclear to me. On its website, the company extols its use of historically accurate equitation and falconry training techniques, which seem like the elements least likely to be called out as anachronistic by anyone watching. Ditto for the connection Medieval Times claims between the story it presents and a "true story of a noble family with documentation dating back to the 11th century."
When I emailed with Richard Utz, a medievalist who teaches in the School of Literature, Media, and Communications at Georgia Tech, about the role of authenticity in medieval-inspired entertainment, he identified these details as a foundation of credibility on which to build a myth. "To help suspend disbelief about where the [Medieval Times] castle is and how artificial it looks, a 'real' anchor of the 'true' family connection is used to assist audiences at feeling a 'true' alterity,” he wrote. In this way, authenticity itself, in even small doses, becomes a standard feature of fantasy.
After the final cymbal clash had sounded, we paid our bill and staggered from our seats, back into a much quieter Hall of Arms. Gradually the knights from the show began to join us there, hanging around the bar for those who wanted photos. I posed with a now-sweaty Red Knight, who seemed suspended between his character and his everyday self, answering my small-talk questions with only mild laughter. The space was emptying fast. The vendors remained, polite and helpful, but their accents were dropping like flies.
I had entered Medieval Times that night a canny adult prepared to be thoroughly entertained but unimpressed and left it having fulfilled my end of the bargain: For a few disconnected moments, I had become a kid again, willing to cheer and boo on command, uninterested in such trivialities as the quality of my food, and ready to make a fool of myself to receive a piddling trinket.
Before the show began that evening, as I wandered up and down the Hall of Arms, I came across a knot of guests gathered around a stretch of wall. They were peering through a glass window into a small room, empty except for one very noticeable occupant: a magnificent owl, three feet long from ear to tailfeathers if it was an inch. A plate on the wall nearby identified its name as "KRATOS," but offered no explanation for its presence. The owl perched quietly, returning the favor/insult of our stares through dark-rimmed eyes. I like to think myself above superstition, but I knew that some small, insistent part of my lizard brain interpreted its stillness as placid stoicism and read the fabled wisdom—a quality that, I later learned from Shichtman, began to be attributed to owls in the Middle Ages in works like "The Owl and the Nightingale"—in its bespectacled look.
Was Kratos placed there to be just such a symbol of wisdom? Was this owl a symbol of anything other than Medieval Times’ proclivity for sewing together disparate elements of medievalism into a patchwork quilt of fantasy to swaddle and comfort us? I don’t know, though maybe the questions themselves are proof the encounter wasn’t entirely valueless. Because I am, after all, not a child, I could contextualize my experience that night in what little I knew of the real medieval times, yet because I am—well, human, I guess—I also instinctively reached my mind’s hand across the centuries to imagine myself standing next to other women and men long dead, wondering what they felt when they looked at the eyes of an owl, or fire reflected in steel, or the mane of a horse, and what the balance of like and unlike was between us.