DURING my adolescence, I was led to the Middle Ages by an unhealthy diet of nineteenth-century romantic novels. Alexander Dumas, Victor Hugo, Sir Walter Scott, and other novelists replaced my earlier fascination with Jules Verne and Emilio Salgari. My youthful and fairly feverish mind was always populated by knights and highborn ladies, by romance and pageantry. When I entered graduate school, I had to leave all that behind me, reluctantly. Becoming a professional historian in the early 1970s meant embracing either the institutional and political history practiced by my beloved master, Joseph R. Strayer, or the new social science-inflicted history which was very much in vogue at Princeton under Lawrence Stone’s brilliant direction. My knights were replaced by peasants, pageantry by structures. I do not regret at all that detour in my growing up as a historian, but having embarked recently on a long journey to re-read everything I read when I was fifteen or sixteen years old, it is only now, at the end of my career or, as Cervantes put it, with my foot almost in the stirrup for that long journey into the night, that I return to my first dreams and love.
Although I love fantasy and magic—my lively five-year-old granddaughter, Sofía, provides that—I am not foolish enough to think that all these delightful accounts that I will so lovingly gloss in chapters to come and relentlessly inflict upon you present anything like an accurate depiction of reality (whatever reality is). I am fully conscious that they are representations, distorted and ideologically-ridden versions of events that took place long ago and to which we have access only indirectly and at secondhand. Moreover, I am also fully conscious that these representations come, more often than not, from those close to the centers of power—whether royal, aristocratic, municipal, or clerical. As such, they reflect peculiar ideological biases. But, once again, these narratives were essentially representations. Despite how close to reality late medieval and early modern narratives tried to make them appear, they were mostly fantasy. Arches were described, even though they were never really built. Displays were exaggerated, and the nature of feasts was often distorted to suit the political needs of the sponsors and writers. But representations also tell us important things about the nature of society, about the men and women who participated in these festive events, who gazed upon them and upon each other, who paid for them, and who scripted them for the benefit of those in power, those seeking power, or those contesting power. Recently, Thomas Bisson, in a spectacular book on the crisis of