By Katy Shenk
Elm Staff Writer
One of the pride and joys of a liberal arts school is discovering a connection between two seemingly unrelated disciplines.
The Medieval May Day Celebration—being planned by the Garden Club, permaculture interns, and Dr. Courtney Rydel, assistant professor of English—combines medieval literature and food sustainability.
Shane Brill, Garden Club advisor and videographer for college relations and marketing, explained how the idea originated from the inspirations of two senior students: Emily Castle and Casey Williams.
Castle, the Garden Club president and a permaculture intern, first proposed the idea of a “dandelion festival” to correspond with May Day.
This aligns with one of the ongoing missions of the garden club, which is to develop a permaculture by exploring wild edible plants in the area.
“We want to discover how people grew food sustainably thousands of years ago,” Brill said.
The Garden Club also manages beekeeping and develops products out of honey. When Williams attended a workshop about turning honey into mead, she connected it to her discussions of Chaucer’s work, “The Canterbury Tales,” in Dr. Rydel’s class.
“Mead was a common drink during the Middle Ages and being a fan of medieval literature, I thought it would be great to share what I learned with Dr. Rydel,” Williams said.
“We both realized that there were a ton of connections shared between the campus Garden Club and medieval literature, and that mead-making was just the tip of the iceberg.”
The marrying of these two concepts—mead-making in Chaucer and a dandelion festival—resulted in the Medieval Feast idea.
“The premise of ‘The Canterbury Tales’ is all about whoever tells the best story at a big feast,” Dr. Rydel said.
A number of the foods mentioned in the prologue of “The Canterbury Tales,” including meat pies, wheat bread, and ale, are all in the process of being sustainably developed by Brill and his students.
As May day approaches, the Garden Club will plant cabbage and radish seeds, which will later be fermented to create different condiments and salad dressings, Brill said.
Brill has already led students on a “First Friday foraging,” where they discovered nine edible plants during the course of a 20-minute walk.
Other tasks students will complete involve grinding milled wheat, extracting honey, tapping maple trees for syrup, churning butter, and even making candles.
“When students are actively involved in a process like grinding wheat, they realize that, ‘Oh, this didn’t come from a bag, it came from a plant’,” Brill said.
To make the meat and fish pies, students have a Chester River fishing expedition planned. They will also use local venison. “The point is that it’s all local, all sustainable food,” Brill said.
Other items on the menu include herbal teas and floral essences, wild crackers, Italian pudding, and rhubarb pie. Ingredients for the wild salad and meat pies will be gathered the day of the feast.
“‘The Canterbury Tales’ is grounded in the physical world, and the economic realities of post-plague Europe,” Dr. Rydel said. “Going through the experience of physically seeing what food-making tasks are unexpectedly hard gives you a new perspective on what life was like during that time.”
Williams also noted the importance of food harvesting in “The Canterbury Tales.”
“Chaucer paid careful attention to describing the occupations and lifestyles of his characters, so by harvesting, preparing, and eating the same foods he and his characters did, we as students can become closer to the text,” she said.
Any feast-preparation activities are open to all students, whether or not they have been previously involved in permaculture. Interested students should contact Brill at email@example.com.
Dr. Rydel is offering extra credit to students in her Chaucer class who attend the feast and encourages them to recite a portion of “The Canterbury Tales.”
The feast will take place on Friday, May 4, and will most likely be served in the campus garden.
“I’m hoping it will become a May Day tradition,” Brill said.