Most tourists come to Italy in search of good food, good wine, and they visit the main cities. They get to see a lot of Roman ruins and Renaissance and Baroque art, but most don’t venture out on their own to more provincial destinations, hilltop villages and castles, nor to the vast plains and craggy mountains of the south. If they did, they’d get to feast on a wide range of Medieval forts and lore. The Italian Middle-Ages aren’t as popular as the Coliseum and Michelangelo et al, but there are dozens of traditional commemorations and events to celebrate Medieval roots all along the length of the Peninsula.
In the south-eastern region of Puglia, the town of Orea holds a yearly parade and tournament in early August in honour of Frederick II, Holy Roman Emperor, a historical figure that deserves much more attention than what he usually gets in European history books. He was an astute warrior and statesman, but also an open-minded multi-cultural polyglot, patron of science and the arts, a legal innovator, and an expert falconer in his free time. The parade in Orea is held to commemorate the jousts he promoted in 1225 in advance of his wedding to Yolande of Jerusalem.
It’s a joyous and colourful happening, and this year there were some 1,000 or so costumed participants – including school bands and “rioni” dwellers – parading through the historical center. It’s meant to be one of the largest Medieval re-enactments in the country, with a procession of noblemen, damsels, knights, jugglers, fire-eaters, courtesans, pages, snake charmers, armigers, marching bands and flag tossers, horses and camels . The costumes are richly embroidered with original designs. The overall atmosphere of celebration attracts spectators from nearby towns and from the coast, mostly Italian families with children of all ages.
Like in many of these events, the food was simple but good, including a fair variety of antipasti, excellent cuts of meat and sausages grilled to perfection. The local red wine is a variant of the fruity “Primitivo”. It’s served cold, which is a delight in summer.
But the Middle Ages were in fact a dark, war-torn epoch for most of its inhabitants, who lived on average to the age of 35. In the infancy of justice, the powerful crushed the poor into semi-slavery. It was cold, dank and uncomfortable in the castles. Illness, famines and epidemics were rife. Religious mores were often questionable: the trade in false religious items was relatively harmless, except in some of its most gruesome aspects.
I remember seeing a well-documented film on late medieval periods in which scavengers would strip the dead and dying on battle fields, chop them up and boil the pieces in huge pots to separate the bones subsequently passed off and sold as saints’ relics. The wars, the jousts and knightly heroism that were passed on through history books and fairy tales were in fact very brutal affairs. We’ve chosen to shine a softer light on these times, and have moved to tamer versions of history, often exaggerating as in Disney films and animated cartoons.
However, the Middle Ages that survive in these local enactments do seem to foster a local sense of culture and roots. So for many communities, if they could be turned into more authentic celebrations, they could serve as a reminder that humanity was far less gentle not all that long ago. We should remember the beast is always just round the corner…
Yet this last year, much of the developed world has gone wildly irrational. As if harking back to darker medieval mores…