Out of the Zoo: “In Search of Knights, Peasants, and Bandits”

kalamazoo-valley-museum

The mummy exhibit at the Kalamazoo Valley Museum

Annie Thorn is a first-year history major from Kalamazoo, Michigan and our intern here at The Way of Improvement Leads Home.  As part of her internship she will be writing a weekly column for us titled “Out of the Zoo.”  It will focus on life as a history major at a small liberal arts college. In this column she writes about Medieval history and a museum she visited as a child.  Enjoy! –JF

A considerable portion of my childhood was spent inside the Kalamazoo Valley Museum, a three story establishment filled to the brim with free entertainment and learning tailored to our community. On the first floor there’s a planetarium and a weather exhibit. One half of the second floor is filled with interactive displays that teach physics principles, and the other half contains a life-size timeline of Kalamazoo’s history. The third floor, though, was my favorite–it housed a real Egyptian mummy and had a massive space that was renovated every few months for visiting displays. It was hard to predict what wonders the third floor would contain when we went on our regular visits.

One morning my mom made the 45-minute trek from my house to the museum with her three children in tow. We spent a while visiting our favorite spots; my brother Nate liked building rubber band cars, while my sister and I enjoyed seeing our silhouettes on the thermal camera. None of these compared, though, to the adventure that awaited us on the third floor.

The third flight of stairs opened up to a massive recreation of a Medieval castle and village, complete with costumes and props. It seemed as if half of the kids in Kalamazoo were at the museum that day, immersed in an elaborate game of pretend. Some kids put on heavy aprons and imagined they were blacksmiths, others hoisted swords and served as knights, while still more set tables in the miniature great hall with plastic plates and play food. I can’t say we learned anything about Medieval England that day (most of us were too young to read the plaques) but we were given the opportunity to immerse ourselves in a culture that was foreign to us, and had a little fun along the way.

It’s easy for me to forget that the Medieval time period existed outside the walls of the Kalamazoo Valley Museum or popular fairy tales. Perhaps it’s because many of the books I read and movies I watched as a child were fantasy stories saturated with images of brave knights and fair maidens, but for the longest time this unique period in history just didn’t seem real to me.

A few weeks ago, however, I started taking a class called “Knights, Peasants, and Bandits: A Social History of Medieval England” here at Messiah College. Since then I’ve begun to learn that knights, lords, and ladies were real people who stayed in real castles and faced real hardships. They existed outside of fairy tales, and had lives of their own. The class is helping me come to terms with the strangeness of the past too–I mean, how else would you describe a time period during which nobles hunted with falcons and people built siege engines? However, I’m finding familiarity in my studies as well; I’m discovering the little ways I’m similar to men and women who lived in Medieval England, despite the fact that they walked the earth hundreds of years ago. It’s the job of the historian to reside in this tension between familiarity and strangeness–seeing past fairy tales, empathizing with real people, and accepting the past for what it really was.