Growing up in central Italy, one of the highlights of my summer holidays was visiting small towns re-enacting their medieval history with falconry shows, people in costume, storytelling and education about life many centuries ago. As an adult and adopted Mancunian, I never expected to find the same atmosphere during a weekend in Manchester. 

Organised by Chetham’s School of Music and Chetham’s Library, the Manchester Medieval Quarter Festival is in its second year. Over two days, a variety of activities attracted many different audiences. It was this variety that amazed me the most. 

Manchester Medieval Quarter Festival. Photo by Drew Forsyth.

My day started with a practical workshop, ‘Sleeping Well in the Early Modern World’, where knowledgeable costumed facilitators let us candy rose petals, squeeze quince paste, and crystalise flowers while they shared ideas and practices around sugar, food preservation, digestion and sleep in Tudor times. 

I then spent some time moving between Cathedral Gardens and Chetham’s Courtyard where cooks, soldiers, jesters, women busy with embroidery and falcon trainers (all in medieval costume) did their thing in front of rapt audiences, always ready to chat about the different trades and practices while theatre and puppetry shows kept children amused and entertained.

I could have talked all day to the Hurdy Gurdy musician who explained how it takes two years of practice to get the instrument to produce one decent sound, and I loved chatting to the falcon trainer who informed that one of the birds on display only likes people with blonde hair. Before long, I’d moved on to the Discover Medieval Manchester talk. Delivered by two archaeologists, Dr Mike Nevell and Ian Miller, the talk uncovered the many layers of Manchester in medieval times, with anecdotes from excavation sites and precious reflections about issues of conservation of archaeological finds. Amazingly, we were then able to view some of the finds discussed in the talk inside one of the chapels of Manchester Cathedral, where a special display of items normally kept in storage had been set up, including fragments of pottery and of weapons. 

Manchester Medieval Quarter Festival. Photo by Drew Forsyth.

On the second day, I caught the screening of the performance of Yiimimangaliso (The Mysteries), a theatre production by the South African-based company Portobello Isango, who reworked the medieval Chester Cycle, re-enacting the stories of the Bible in a compelling, highly moving, and technically awe-inspiring piece. The piece was performed in various languages, including Xhosa, Zulu, English, Latin and Afrikaans, and the screening did not have subtitles – this was a conscious choice, director Mark Dornford-May told us during the Q&A following the screening, and it allowed us to engage with the performance beyond the intellectual level.

If I’d been able to split myself in two, I’d have gone on tours of the Cathedral and Chetham’s Library, and on a walking tour of Medieval Manchester. In fact, such was the variety of events on offer that I could have attended a medieval dance workshop, or one on the printing process with a football twist. I could have listened to a Baroque music concert, or spent an evening enjoying non-European medieval music. I could have admired manuscripts in the John Rylands Library, and explored an exhibition about the production of vellum. There was even more on the weekend’s programme, including a lot of fun for families, with activities and theatre productions aimed at younger audiences. 

Overall, the Manchester Medieval Quarter Festival celebrated the city and its layered history. Importantly, it really thought about the communities who make it the rich place it still is today. 

By Sara Riccardi

Photos, including the main image: credit Drew Forsyth


To read Northern Soul’s interview with Fran Healey, the creative commercial director of Chetham’s Library and The Stoller Hall, about the Manchester Medieval Quarter Festival, click here.