Originally published in the Globe & Mail, 2005
I am married to a woman from another age. She is practically Medieval, in fact.
Soon after we married, I made a pact with the demons of The History Textbook Club: I’d give up the twenty-first century in return for a happy marriage. I got the happy marriage, and the twenty-first century is looking very distant indeed.
Our nineteenth -century farmhouse has become decidedly fourteenth-century. My Latin is rusty but improves with each session of chanting. I have taken to singing motets in the shower (on those rare occasions when I take a shower. I’ve heard that being too clean exposes one to the vagaries of noxious humors.) The kids are keen on hunting wild boar should one ever cross the back garden.
I’ve become an afficionado of chain mail and wheel pommels, illuminations and flying buttresses. I’m as likely to crack open a cold pint of mead and read my Book of Hours by beeswax candle as I am to brew a java and scan the Globe on a Saturday morning. I no longer haunt the aisles of Canadian Tire on weekends. Instead, I’m on the prowl for crenelations, cruck-frames and seige engines.
It wasn’t always thus. My wife, Lady Katherine DeBurgh, was once just Katy. She was once just my young wife, mom to our three kids, firmly planted in the present, a woman who listened to U2, coached soccer and used a debit card like everyone else.
But now? Now she has gone all middle-ages on us and turned our farmhouse into Hillcrest Hall, Manor House of the Estate. Bolts of exotic fabric swamp the library floor. Barbettes, surcoats and various linen chemises be-deck the dining room table. Stacks of texts with arcane titles such as “ St.Benedict’s Rule For Monasteries” and “The Book of Margery Kempe” crowd the kitchen counter, amidst stone crocks of anise seed, cinnamon and nutmeg. She has a brood of colourful ancient chickens who know her by name and has taken to carrying a jangling ring of keys on a thick rope round her middle. Well, almost.
It all started a few years ago, when, in a fit of historical hysteria, Katy blurted out a long-suppressed dream that she’d kept inside her decidedly well-coiffed, mid-nineties head: “Hang it all, David! I’ve always wanted to be a Medieval Noblewomen, and darn it, I’m going to be! It’s now or never!”
And so, with her nose to the grind-stone and a keen eye for historical authenticity fueling her passion, Katy set about creating her persona. She began Medieval studies at the University of Toronto, gradually built an impressive library of hundreds of books on medieval life, studied costumes, and traveled to England in pursuit of the authentic. Then she took her act on the road, making presentations to grade four kids in the character of Lady Katherine, disrupting moribund history lessons with jolly cooking demonstrations, readings, courtly dancing and feast preparations, her un-stated mission to counter what Umberto Eco calls “the avalanche of pseudo-medieval pulp, wash and wear sorcery and Holy Grail frappe.”
We were all drawn into the vortex that swirled behind Lady Katherine’s rich robes. Little Sam, my gallant seven year old, became page to my not-so-gallant Sir Ranulph. I, in turn, would interrupt feasts in school gyms and regale children with tales of battle and inquire, perplexed, about their digital watches, Gameboys and televisions.
I’ve learned to live with chain-mail helmet-hair. My broad-sword quickly became my ticket to respect amongst the soccer-ball and Spiderman set. Yet, I remain but an amusing side show to the one who has made the fourteenth century her own.
She is, I must admit, very, very good.
When she dons her headpiece and Christine de Pisane costume of richest brocade, she has the ability to free, from somewhere deep inside a nine year old, that little beating heart of imagination that TV has not yet killed. She brings non-readers out of themselves and into a world of story-telling and haunting, simple melodies. The jaded skater-boy becomes the chivalrous noble. The frustrated teacher sees her plastic classroom transformed into a realm of ancient arts and simple joys.
Its all a bit like magic, even though there’s a deliberate lack of fairy princess and Merlin stories. It says as much about the magnetic pull of all things medieval as it does about Lady Katherine.
Admittedly, it’s just plain fun being along as armed accomplice. I’m learning to tell my villeins from my villains, my hammer-beams from hammer-dulcimers.
But even better, I get to build a Norman castle behind the barn without any twinge of guilt. Its just what I do. After all, my Lady Katherine will soon be 800 years old and her birthday gift had better be a big one.