How do you spend your spare time? Since you are reading this we could probably make a fair guess, but what if there were no television, no computers or game consoles, no internet, you couldn't read or afford books and, worst of all, no little plastic figures? Naturally those in centuries past had to make their own entertainment in what little spare time they may have had, but for most ordinary medieval people a highlight of the year was the fair, when almost uniquely the entertainment came to them. Most towns held fairs in the Middle Ages. Fairs were a time when merchants of all sorts came to town to sell their many goods, which meant exotic items not normally seen became available. Fairs meant business, and therefore tax, so both local landowners and the government were keen to encourage them. For the sellers, they reached a new market every week, and to help attract custom they always put on entertainments, which is where this set comes in.
Aside from the occasional troupe that might entertain very wealthy families or ply their trade in the major towns, most entertainers went round with the fairs, which is how most people saw them. There were many 'acts' at a good fair, and no set could cover them all, but many of the more popular ones are to be found here. Topping the bill (that is to say, in the first row), we have some jovial musicians. Music was a very popular entertainment in the medieval period, and the ability to play a musical instrument was far more common than it is today, but many acts would have music to accompany them such as this. Note the lower legs of the drummer; he is actually on stilts (the rest of which are not supplied as they would be tremendously fragile). Stilt walking was again exotic and a common sight at fairs. Next to the musicians we find a young girl in balletic pose. Apart from the general use as a dancer we were puzzled by this figure, but it turns out she relates to someone in the third row, so we will come back to her. Finally in the top row we have a man wrestling a bear. Animal cruelty was endemic in Medieval Europe, and bears would often be seen in bear-baiting contests, where they were attacked by large dogs and the spectators would gamble on the results. Alternatively, you might find a dancing bear, but here we have a man 'fighting' what is actually a tame and trained bear. With luck neither man nor bear would be harmed, so this is one of the more gentle forms of animal entertainment.
The second row is devoted to a puppet show. As with what we would today call theatre, shows would be almost exclusively religious in nature in the early part of the period, but later secular stories grew in popularity. Here we find puppets of a knight on horseback and a dragon, so perhaps the story of St George slaying the dragon is being performed. This kind of show was a favourite with the children, but enjoyed by many adults too.
The last row begins with another figure whose act is perhaps not obvious. However his tremendous physique is a clue as he is a strongman. In this case he is demonstrating his strength by supporting the young girl we saw in the first row in the palm of his hand – an impressive achievement by any standards. Next there is a monkey, who may have no more of a role than to be stared at, but most people would never see such exotic animals except at a fair. Beside the monkey we seem to have another strong man as he is holding a chain around him, or perhaps he is an escapologist who is freeing himself from the chain. Moving on, we find a juggler, who again is underlining his skill by juggling while on stilts, and beside him is an acrobat standing on his hands. Finally there is a generic well-dressed figure who could serve any number of ordinary roles but is probably here to address the crowds and perhaps runs the sideshow.
To our mind that's a great selection of performers, and everything about each figure is exquisite. They are all beautifully carved, as you would expect, and the level of fine detail is wonderful. All the faces are so expressive, and the poses are faultless. The flexible mould makes for fantastic three-dimensional figures, and the delicacy of such items as the chain round the man is more than impressive. Nothing here - not even the musical instruments - requires any assembly, yet there is no compromise in detail or form. We loved the puppet show - the cloth-covered wooden frame behind which the two women are holding up their puppets. It cries out for a set of medieval children, which Valdemar have addressed. Everything here is done to perfection, and to make a medieval town scene into something rather special this set is probably just about all you need.