Ages ago I wrote about my spontaneously developed “Junk Mail” lesson plan, which came to me courtesy of Medieval Times’ “educational division.”
For a long time I’d planned to write a dissection of the menu as a reflection of the medieval era, and also as a reflection of contemporary thinking about the historical past. However, I fortunately received two comments on the original post, which more or less addressed both of those topics and relieved me of the duty of spinning those points out of whole cloth.
Conveniently, the comments on that original post arrived in that topical order, so I’ll deal with them as they arrived: first, the issue of dissecting the menu and the historical issues it raises, and second, what the menu reflects about contemporary perspectives on the past.
The first comment reads as follows (to save you the arduous task of clicking on the link and the returning here, I’ve included the entirety of the comment here):
That menu is a study in anachronism: Most of the items on it are from the New World, for a start. To a medieval European, maize, potatoes, and chocolate would have seemed as alien as moon rocks, and prob. about as appetizing. I hardly need mention the Pepsi.
Don’t know the history of garlic, but my guess is that it would have been all but unknown to English, Norman, Frankish, or German knights, and certainly not as something to smear on toasted buttered bread. And white is a strange color for bread; are you sure this stuff’s edible?
The only item on the menu that seems appropriate to the era (even the “pure filtered water” seems out of place) is the roasted chicken, but the advertised “herbs” should have been pungent spices, capable of overpowering the less pleasant flavors of days-old meat.
Then there are the anachronistic utensils. If the organizers really wanted to “enhance the experience,” they’d have obliged their guests to eat with their hands, like all Christian folk.
In essence, the commenter nailed all the essential problems of technological and botanical anachronism that I raised with my students when I presented this menu for the first time. (While I just recently discovered this online, I suppose a more nitpicky dissection of the menu could take place with this document of the ingredients list that Medieval Times provides). Certainly, the dissection of the menu is a terrific way to present the concept of the Columbian Exchange and highlight the centrality of Columbus to historical developments unleashed by humans but primarily driven by biological and botanical forces.
With this emphasis, students get a real sense of just how different (and deeply impoverished, actually), pre-contact Europe was in comparison to pre-contact Meso-America. I like to follow this discussion of the matinee menu with a reading of excerpts from David Stannard’s American Holocaust, which, while sensationalistic in tone, do provide a striking descriptive juxtaposition of these two Atlantic civilizations before they interacted with one another.
(As an aside, the Stannard reading is also a really nice text to discuss the impact of the present and contemporary concerns on our thinking about the past. In the case of Stannard’s text, published in 1992, his reevaluation of Columbus came in the context of the five hundred year anniversary of Columbus’ arrival in the New World, and worked to overturn the incredibly celebratory commemmoration of Columbus that took place one hundred years earlier. See: 1893 World’s Fair).
In short, the Matinee Menu opened up a lot of nice topical discussion about the Columbian Exchange that can then segue into the historiographical issue of how we contemporarily remember Columbus. One of the big take-aways from this discussion is that it gets students thinking about how one of the “Great Men” of history has changed over time, thereby revealing the dynamic nature of how we understand the past.
The second comment, which in some respects is more interesting because it took issue with my tone and perspective on the menu, is also presented below in its entirety:
I realize this is an old post. I couldn’t resist leaving a comment though. I seriously doubt that the promoters of Medieval Times would even try to argue whether their menu is historically accurate. The point of this type of exhibition for students is to put them within the context, not to recreate history in pure detail. Your students would likely enjoy going to ‘MT’ and would then truly understand how ridiculous it would be to serve Pepsi at a Medieval feast. Perhaps they would actually add the word ‘anachronistic’ to their vocabularies.
There is nothing wrong with allowing students to make a relationship with history and then to contextualize and argue over details, etc. I would hope that the point would be to bring it off of the page for them, even if it is with dinner and a show. BTW, I think they actually eat with their fingers, but since they are wearing deodorant and tennis shoes, I guess it doesn’t matter. Relax. They might have fun and learn at the same time while you bring it all together for them.
At the core of this critique, seems to be the idea that the only way for history to be interesting is for it to be “fun,” which in this case relies on re-enactment and theatricality. While I don’t think the people who developed Medieval Times Educational Matinee actually claim that their program is a faithful rendition of the past, I do think that it is fair to look at their presentation of the past (and, more broadly, all presentations of the past) with a critical eye to understand what shapes their decisions about how to deliver ostensibly educational content to students.
I entirely agree with the commenter’s claim that it is vital for students “to make a relationship with history and then to contextualize and argue over details, etc.” However, I’d contend that it is having a critical eye toward representations of the past and being able to identify how those presentations reflect concerns or motivations of the present that constitutes an essential skill of historical thinking.
My concern about re-created events like the Educational Matinee is that they leave students feeling like they have experienced the “truth” of the past, yet my goal is for them to grasp the bigger truth that all presentations of the past are shaped as much by the author who describes those events as they are by the details and documents from the events themselves.
And in this case, it is vital to understand that while it is primarily a restaurant, Medieval Times also moonlights as a historian when it gets into the business of putting on programs targeted at school groups. Understanding Medieval Times as an author then forces us to think about their audience (school groups, and more centrally, students) and consider what their motivations are for putting on a program like this ($28.50 a head, anyone?). In essence, Medieval Times’ educational programming seems to me more about making an impact on a young, impressionable audience of the 21st century (“we also do birthday parties!), thereby helping the financial bottom line, than it is about helping students think critically about the medieval past.
Finally, I would contend that this type of analysis, which helps students develop the skills to dissect the world around them critically, is fun. Perhaps not fun in the traditional sense, but recognizing that we shouldn’t take the world (either the present or the past) at face value and then having the skill set to dig beneath the surface presentation is a very empowering and intellectually exciting thing to be able to do. And if I cost the Yellow Knight a member or two of his incredibly dedicated fanbase through this pedagogical emphasis, I guess I’ll have to live with it.
What do others think? Is dissecting this type of document taking all the fun out of history? Am I merely being skeptical killjoy who needs to “relax”? Is it possible that Medieval Times won’t win a Pulitzer Prize in history because of my examination of their Matinee Menu?
Perhaps the only way for me to alleviate this existential angst is to get into period garb and enjoy a freshly roasted turkey leg.