Based on the stories that have been passed down, life was brutal in the medieval ages.
Tales from that era depict a time of suspicion and danger, when unseen forces could devastate life for everyday people. Dragons and monsters lurked in the imagination, and the threat of violence was omnipresent.
Hundreds of years later, those legends still resonate.
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“There were these mysterious forces working against us that we don’t even really know who is behind them. It was a dark and dangerous time. We’re not that far from that,” said Dolores Hydock, a master storyteller. “We tend to think that here in the 21st century, we’re encountering things that no one has ever encountered before. It might be more digital, but the basic things we face are the same.”
People in the Middle Ages found escape in the stories that were told, and Hydock hopes to provide similar comfort for modern times. She presents “Eglamore and Cristobel: A Medieval Love Story” on Jan. 13 at the Indiana History Center. The performance is adapted from a 44-page poem written in Middle English, taking the original oral tradition of medieval storytelling and reinvigorating it on stage.
The story has the familiar beats found in love stories throughout the ages: star-crossed lovers, a cruel father bent on keeping them apart, a perilous journey and the passion between the title characters that will not be tamped down.
Together with musical trio PanHarmonium, specializing in odd historical instruments such as the tenor recorder and a tamborine/drum called a riq, the experience is at once exotic and comfortingly familiar to audiences.
“Music sets a context. You know what to expect the minute you hear a certain kind of music; it helps identify what the story is going to be,” Hydock said. “You create a setting. When you hear these sounds, your brain begins to put you in the place you need to be.”
Hydock, who lives in Birmingham, Alabama, has been telling stories for her entire life. When she was 5 years old, she won a blue ribbon in storytelling at a contest in her hometown of Reading, Pennsylvania. She grew up to become an actress, featured in one-woman plays such as “Tony Curtis Speaks Italian” and “All I can Say is ‘I Love You.’”
As a storyteller, Hydock has appeared as a featured teller at the National Storytelling Festival in Jonesborough, Tennessee, where she also was teller-in-residence at the International Storytelling Center.
But her foray into medieval storytelling stems back to a Christmas performance she did many years ago. She had started adding string musicians to accent one of her stories centered around the Appalachia region, and a member of the historical ensemble PanHarmonium approached her after a show suggesting they team up.
“I asked him what type of music he did, and he said medieval music. I didn’t know anything about medieval music, literature, anything,” Hydock said. “He said that was OK, that they knew the music, and here was a story that might be a good place to start.”
That story was called “Silence,” and it focused on a 12th-century girl raised as boy, in order for her parents to protect her property rights. As long as she can stay silent, she can inherit her parents’ property.
Though the tale was intriguing, Hydock felt it was slightly too ambitious for their first attempt at reviving medieval stories.
Instead, she and PanHarmonium worked on the story of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. The Arthurian legend features heroes, giants and epic battles.
Hydock was in charge of molding the story while PanHarmonium constructed a musical performance to accentuate the action.
PanHarmonium is a three-piece band comprised of David Cantrell, Susan Marchant and Gilbert Ritchie. They have been performing medieval music for more than 30 years.
The challenge in performing as they do is taking a melody line, the only information that has been passed down over the centuries, and fleshing it out into fuller songs.
“It was unbelievable to me. They just start out with a line of notes, then they come up with a time signature and they figure out what instrument it should be on. It’s amazing to watch come together,” she said.
For “Sir Gawain,” they created special music that set the tone for different elements of the story. The musicians focused on making accurate tunes for the time and setting of the story, while Hydock ensured that the emotion behind it matched what the characters were experiencing.
“We worked together. The process is, where in the story can music amplify the emotion of the story, the plot, just like a movie score,” Hydock said.
Both Hydock and PanHarmonium were so pleased with the result that they started working on other performances. They built a show around “Silence,” and when Hydock was researching other 11th- and 12th-century literature that she discovered the story of Eglamore and Cristobel.
The poem stood out to her in many important ways. Most medieval tales are focused on men, warfare and violence, weaving in elements of a love story so overly sappy and sugary sweet that it’s unappealing, Hydock said.
But the legend of Eglamore and Cristobel is more realistic and grounded, with both characters contributing to the story.
“It’s more of a mature love story. It’s not this 14-year-old idea of love. This is the forbidden love, the love that you have to struggle to make work, when all of fate seems to conspire against you,” Hydock said. “It has some real meat to it.”
The problem was that the entire poem was only 36 verses long. Hydock had to figure out a way to take the raw material of the story and build up.
She envisioned a backstory of why the father character is so cruel, and what the different obstacles are that kept the lovers apart.
“I had the chance to fill in the outline of the story, so I researched that time period more and built that story,” she said.
Hydock also added in structure to present the story to the audience more seamlessly. She portrays an old woman, telling the story to the people watching as if speaking to a group in a 12th-century tavern or the back hallways of a castle.
To lead people into the tale, she starts with a rant about the vapid love stories that people usually think of from the Middle Ages.
“That’s all part of this backstory that I had to create to help people realize why we care about this story,” Hydock said. “That’s all my invention, it’s not traditional or based on anything other than letting people know why they’re listening to me.”
PanHarmonium provided the musical beats to match Hydock’s story, a process that plays out on stage much like a jazz performance.
Leading into the storytelling, PanHarmonium will give a concert showcasing period-friendly music and to set the tone for the performance. At the same time, the musicians will explain the instruments they use, how this music would have been performed and how they’ve resurrected it for modern times.
All of it serves to familiarize the audience and pull them into the medieval world.
“It all comes out of the tradition where you make the pictures in your own mind, and let it take you away to another time and place. You’ll still find yourself in that story,” Hydock said.
“Eglamore and Cristobel: A Medieval Love Story”
What: A storytelling performance of a Middle Ages poem by Alabama-based Dolores Hydock, with musical accompaniment by PanHarmonium.
When: 7 to 9 p.m. Jan. 13
Where: Indiana History Center, 450 W. Ohio St., Indianapolis
Tickets: $20 in advance, $25 at the door, $15 for students with valid ID.
Information: StorytellingArts.org or 317-232-1882.