Annual Medieval Festival Brings the Met Cloisters to Life

By Brittany Aufiero

Kathleen Finnegan strums a Celtic melody on the harp. Photo by Brittany Aufiero.

Tens of thousands of medieval history enthusiasts from across the five boroughs flocked to Upper Manhattan on Sunday, Sept. 30 to enjoy an afternoon of free festivities at Fort Tryon Park.  The sprawling forest was transformed into a market town straight out of a medieval fantasy world -- complete with crafts, vendors, and foods common to the Middle Ages.  Festival-goers embraced the theme, many of them choosing to dress in peasant robes or knightly armor, immersing themselves fully in the experience.  In the evening, the events concluded with a group of knights jousting on horseback on the tourney field.

Fort Tryon Park is home to The Met Cloisters, a branch of the Metropolitan Museum of Art that specializes in European Gothic and medieval architecture.  The museum occupies four acres of land, and its castles and bridges are visible to all guests at the fair, adding to the authenticity of the event.

This year’s festival was jointly sponsored by the Washington Heights and Inwood Development Corporation (WHIDC) and the New York City Department of Parks and Recreation.  The WHIDC is a private and publicly supported not-for-profit corporation which has successfully kept the Medieval Festival alive in Upper Manhattan for over 34 years.  According to their website, for the past five years attendance at the event has averaged 60,000 people.  

For many businesses and performers in New York, the festival is an opportunity to advertise their crafts and services, and to bring awareness to the public about different cultural expressions of art in order to enrich communities.  One such business is UrbanGlass, which used their platform at the festival to bring attention to their outreach program, The Bead Project.  According to their flyer, the free program “was created in 1997 to serve economically disadvantaged women living in the New York Area.”

At another booth, Fordham University advertized their Center for Medieval Studies program.  Displaying replicas of manuscripts and handwritten texts from the Middle Ages, the school used the theme of the festival to highlight course offerings most likely to appeal to attendees.

Anatolia Fire Goddess of the Mystical Muses performs an illusion act. Photo by Brittany Aufiero.

One of the festival performers, Purna Shakti, is a member of the Mystical Muses, a belly dance duo which performs internationally and displays different forms of traditional dance from India and Egypt.  Hosting their show right outside the entrance to the Cloisters, the Muses drew inspiration from the folk dances such as tanoura -- which is derived from a spiritual Egyptian dance in which the performer wears a colorful, weighted skirt -- as well as Indian gypsy veil dances, in creating their routine.  Following each performance, they posed for photos and provided hands-on instruction to spectators.

Shakti, describing her experience as a performer at the festival, said, “We love to perform! The crowds are great, and it’s fun to be able to introduce them to new forms of dance that they may not have witnessed before.”  The Mystical Muses have performed at the Fort Tryon Medieval Festival for three years and expressed their wishes of returning next year.

Kathleen Finnegan, a harpist, celebrated her tenth year playing at the Fort Tryon Fair this September.  Though she travels to many different states throughout the U.S. to play, most of her time is spent in Florida and New York.  When asked whether she believes the yearly event makes a difference within the community she said, “I have had patrons of the fair, who didn’t come to the neighborhood in the past, tell me that they come at other times of year now because they see the beauty of the park and how much the [Cloisters] has to offer.” She added, “Of course, they use the businesses in the area several times a year because of that.”  

Through good food, dancing, music, and the arts, Fort Tryon’s Medieval Festival strengthens communities by supporting local businesses and exposing New Yorkers to traditions and practices that are foreign to them.  It is a hub of cultural exchange that looks to continue for many years to come.