Drew University has many long-lasting traditions, but few can rival the 36-year-long tradition of That Medieval Thing’s Medfest. On a college campus with a “castle,” it makes sense that an annual renaissance fair would be hosted free of charge to Drew students. This long-standing tradition consists of performances, crafts, dancing, music and more, and it is one of the most anticipated events at Drew. This week’s article will be dedicated to the fascinating history of the event and will also serve as a reminder to dust off your corsets and crowns and get ready for a day of fantasy and fun.
The first-ever Medfest was actually called the “Medieval Festival” and was held on Monday, May 4, 1987. Originally hosted by Drew’s English department, the event featured “a living chess game where ‘the cosmic forces of the good and evil battle for the fate of mankind,’ the mystery plays ‘Noah’ and ‘Lazarus’ and Jacob’s Ladder, plus vexillators, minstrels, madrigal singers, jugglers, and mounted knights,” according to an advertisement in the May 1, 1987 edition of the Acorn. It was an all-hands-on-deck event made possible by various departments, vendors and over 50 student volunteers.
By 1989, the event was being called “That Medieval Thing” (or just the “Thing” for short) and was run almost solely by students as part of an academic assignment for an independent study with five students. Students putting together the event were required to reflect on their experiences in a two-page paper. That same year, the event also received a grant from the state of New Jersey meant to fund humanities projects. Student opinions about the festival were captured in a letter to the editor from April 28, 1989, in which a student wrote, “A Medieval Festival is often seen as an opportunity for certain people (who have missed the joys of Halloween since adolescence) to dress in odd clothes and act in an odd fashion” and that the event was so important “because everyone needs to fool around once in a while.”
The tradition continued in a prominent fashion for years to follow. Games of live chess, plays, musical performances and competitions in archery continued to color the event. At times, even The Commons stepped in to serve themed meals in association with the festival. As the event grew, it became more complex and widespread, involving students from all three schools of the university and attracting an increasing number of community members and alumni with each passing year.
By its fifth year, the festival still did not have access to school funding. This was especially problematic when the group’s storage space was cleared of all props and costumes in the summer of 1991, leaving the members of the planning committee scrambling to raise money and recreate all necessary materials. Despite the setbacks, the event was still successful, bringing the Drew community together to find a solution to the shortage of funds and materials.
In researching this week’s article, several Drew alumni who took part in That Medieval Thing were contacted and asked a few different questions. In response to the question of why they thought the event has been successful enough to run for 36 years, past members of the club—alumni ranging from 2005 to 2017—stated that the alumni network is to thank for such a long-standing tradition. That Medieval Thing’s alumni continue to attend events, financially support the program and advocate for keeping the organization alive. Some of the interviewees pointed out that the club had provided so many wonderful memories and that the hard work put into the event led to wonderful experiences; others emphasized that such a unique and exciting event has always been cherished by the Drew community, explaining the massive turnouts that the event sees with each passing year.
The alumni were also asked why they feel drawn to continually participate in MedFest, to which they responded that it allows them to share their unconventional interests with people in their communities. Many said that they felt like the group became a second family during their time at Drew, and thus they feel compelled to show up and be an active member in order to make their community both happy and proud. Overall, That Medieval Thing’s members are some of the most committed students on campus, and they work hard all year round to put together an event for the whole Drew community to come together and enjoy.
This year, MedFest, as it is now referred to, will be on Saturday, April 15 from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. around the grounds of S.W. Bowne (the castle in the middle of campus). Attendance remains free, but remember to bring money to support the vendors that have been invited. There will be performances from TikTok personality and professional performer @jacqueszwhipper (Jack The Whipper), who has been performing at MedFest for nearly 15 years. Jack the Whipper also has a personal connection to Drew—his mother used to be a Drew professor. There will also be other Renaissance fair activities such as the consumption of giant turkey legs, the making of flower crowns, a small jail cell for unruly friends and madrigal performances. So come join That Medieval Thing for one of Drew’s oldest traditions, and make sure you dress up!
Jocelyn Freeman is a sophomore majoring in history, English and Chinese.