Knights, peasants, plagues: Medieval Mdina is back

Rapidly becoming one of the most anticipated events of the spring, the ‘Medieval Mdina’ festival returns to Silent City next weekend. We speak to Paul Spiteri, Executive Secretary of the Mdina Local Council, about the popular re-enactment activity, now in its fifth edition.

Scene from a previous edition of Medieval Mdina.
Scene from a previous edition of Medieval Mdina.

"There's something in there for everyone, you know?"

Paul Spiteri, Executive Secretary of the Mdina Local Council, finds it hard to pinpoint one single activity that he could describe as being the 'most popular' of the various little events and happenings going on during Medieval Mdina.

"Some people come for the fights," he tells me, in a reference to the staged skirmishes - performed in full, period-proper costumes and 'real' medieval weaponry - "but then again, some people complain about them. We've had parents coming up to us to say that the fights are pretty much promoting violence... and it's fair enough, I suppose... they do tend to get quite realistic..."

No matter though, Spiteri assures me: if costumed fighting isn't really your thing, you can freely turn another corner of the Silent City at any point during the two-day festival - this year happening on 13 and 14 April - and enjoy something else.

As ever, the popular 'sbanderatori' - flag throwers, this year shipped over from Italy - will be in attendance, along with magicians, a fire breathing act, falconry and birds of prey...

"The idea is to really try and embellish Mdina with a different kind of atmosphere than it usually has," Spiteri says, assuring me that, however, the city itself is already an excellent backdrop for this kind of event, which invites visitors to be transported back into a fantasy world of chivalry, pageantry and valour.

"We cover up postal boxes, for example. And dustbins. Other than that though, Mdina is perfect for this kind of thing."

While acknowledging that some locals still do complain about the noise and bustle that an event of this kind inevitably brings with it, Spiteri emphasises the importance of the 'embedded' or 'holistic' nature of a festival of this kind.

Paul Spiteri

Paul Spiteri: "Spontaneity is key to the festival."

"People often ask me: do you have a programme? And I have to tell them well, not really. It's not a case of having a series of events happening one after another... we have highlights, I suppose, but not really a programme of events."

Some highlights from this year's edition will be a Maltese musical group playing on medieval instruments (previous editions invited German musicians), a concert of Gregorian music, a returning Italian jester, fire-eaters, an animation group for children... along with the usual array of food stalls, lectures and magicians.

"The events won't just be propped up on a stage, but they will be scattered around in every corner of the city. We have a few basic 'guidelines' as to where we put our performers, but they're not all that strict. For example, although we're know that the illusionists will be hanging around the market, the artists will be roaming around and sketching or painting in different parts of the city, while skirmishes will be taking place all over Mdina."

There will also be a 'tavern' scene, where visitors may just get pushed around - or kicked - while ordering their beer. Spiteri is, however, sensitive to the fact that the Maltese aren't known to be that game when it comes to audience participation.

"Luckily, some of our international participants have noticed this, and are adapting their act for Malta, sort of trying to involve the audience gently. The Italian jester who will be performing here once again knows this very well - he'll get people involved for little things - like holding things for him, stuff like that - and not in a way that they might get embarrassed.

"Having said that though, once we had a troupe of German musicians and dancers who were a huge hit. They would pick on couples, and grab each partner to dance along with them, and as time went by more and more people joined the dance. So you never know - sometimes you manage, sometimes you don't."

This element of spontaneity is, of course, a key element to the festival - so much so that any real planning can occur only for basic, structural things - like a general theme - and it tends to happen months in advance.

This year's overarching theme, which will be acted out in various 'scenes' scattered throughout the festival, concerns the figure of Corrado Castelli, a Palermo Baron charged by King Frederick IV in 1376 to quell an insurrection which led to the occupation of Mdina.

"We always begin like this - we conduct a small bit of research from beforehand and build from there."

The fact that the event will also feature a series of talks by historians - Dr Vince Zammit, Kenneth Gauci, Liam Gauci and others - hints that although the festival is first and foremost a "fun for the whole family" sort of activity, it still has a historical backbone.

"Look, the aim is to have fun, of course. But we try to at least keep everything within the relevant period: this year, for example, we don't want to stray beyond the 1300s..."

In other words, no Maltese Crosses will be in evidence.