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Kings, queens and jesters: step back in time at Gotland’s Medieval Week

As I peer through the arched window of the 13th century Helge Ands church ruins (Holy Ghost) a voice from inside welcomes me in.

The show will begin in an hour, and Violina Juliusdotter, dressed in a medieval gown, is tuning her tagelharpa, the strings and bow of which are made of hair from a horse's tail.

Almost all instruments in her basket are handmade, using wood, skin, hair and bones. In an age of hi-tech, complex sound systems these come across across as simple, or even primitive, depending how you view them. But that is exactly the point. We are here for Medieval Week, a festival celebrated every year on the Baltic Sea island of Gotland, and these are inspired from forgotten instruments of the Middle Ages.

"I built this myself in 1995," she says, showing me a flute that still looks like a bone.

Violina Juliusdotter on stage inside the Helge Ands church ruins. Photo: Rupali Mehra/The Local

"They have found flutes made of bone that are older than this building," Juliusdotter says as she breaks into a tune. The acoustics inside the octagonal ruins are enchanting, and the benches soon start to fill up with people, young and old. It's an impromptu session, and her friends and other musicians she has never met will soon join in as the concert begins.

"I like to sing songs with many verses, and this is the only place where I can sing a song with 52 verses and people will stay and listen. That is why I love playing here. We are going to take some medieval tunes and old Swedish lyrics, with old folk songs called medieval ballads and we are going to sing them together. I am also going to show the audience these medieval instruments and tell them more about it," she adds.

Watch the video:

Now in its 34th year, Gotland's Medieval Week brings together about 40,000 people to Visby. Ringed by a 13th century stone wall and dotted by ruins that date back to medieval times, the world heritage town provides the perfect setting.

At Almedalen park, which hugs the western wall of the inner city, a group of musicians are practising for a performance. Nearby, over a hundred men, women and children are being taught a group dance. "Stallions to the right and the ladies to the left," says their instructor Thomas, dressed as a nobleman in ink blue.

"We have been doing this dance activity for over 20 years. It started with the local society that wanted to dance for their own amusement, and then it grew and grew. Now we get more than 100 people a day that come to dance these medieval dances. Different groups from across Sweden and other countries come to this week," he explains during a short break in between the sessions.

Preparation for Medeltidsveckan, as its known in Swedish, began early. "Some of us start planning about the next year on the boat home. So that is a full year of planning," he says.


Just another day at the Medieval Week in Visby. Photo: Rupali Mehra/The Local

Men in tights and tunics, and women wearing long gowns and hoods are everywhere; on bicycles, on their mobile phones, at restaurants and at the supermarket pushing trolleys. It's surreal; ludicrous and endearing at the same time. Role play is important here, and you could be just about anyone, a peasant, a knight, a jester or a nobleman, as long as you are medieval.

Most people choose to stay in tents in the medieval camp nearby for a real experience.

"Normally when it is not this hot and dry, you can make an open fire and cook your own food, like people did in the past. It is cool to live in," says Johan from Stockholm, who has been attending Medieval Week with his parents and brother Anders since he was a child.

"We've always been interested in history and our parents too. It is very interesting to recreate and relive like our ancestors," he adds.


A group of friends at the Medieval Week. Photo: Rupali Mehra/TheLocal

Away from the busy marketplace, Sebastian Benson, a programmer by profession, is giving the finishing touches to his struthätta, or a liripipe hood. "In the first year I borrowed everything. Then I added more and more stuff on my own," he says, showing what the hood looks like (watch the video above).

His friend David, who has a coif on to cover a modern haircut, shows the intricate pattern he has chain-stitched on his coat.

"The preparation runs almost the whole year, because we want to sew this or make that, make a new hat or new shoes. In February we decide who is coming, who we want to stay with. We then buy the tickets for the ferry here and the tickets for the medieval camp. So you know by February if you are going to the Medieval Week or not. But as I have been coming here for ten years now, there is not really an option not to come," says David, who is studying artificial intelligence.

The contrast could not be more stark.

"There is something very calming about using your hands to do something. We don't need to do this in our everyday life because we can buy anything and order things on the internet. But here, I put my soul into this (garment) and I really made this with love" says Jane, from Gothenburg as she makes buttons from cloth for her gown.

"I think because we are so tech heavy, you really need to escape from all of that," she adds.

Perhaps that is what draws thousands of people back in time every year.

Rupali Mehra moved to Sweden from India in 2017. She is a former television anchor & editor and now runs a communications consultancy. She can be reached at rupaliatwork@gmail.com.

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