Belgians Hail the Middle Ages (Well, Not the Plague Part)

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AARSCHOT, Belgium — During the week, Ivonne Janssens, 57, is a hospital cleaner. But come the weekend, she climbs the narrow steps of a three-story medieval tower and turns into a 14th-century duchess with a faux-emerald necklace, a linen headdress, a leather satchel full of fake gold coins and a retinue of mercenaries to fend off invading French knights.

Her husband, Daniel Grandjean, a 50-year-old furniture maker with a pot belly and bushy beard, becomes an ax-wielding soldier-for-hire. It was he who persuaded the council in this sleepy Flemish town to let the couple live part time in the 700-year-old Sint-Rochus tower, where guards once stood watch to prevent Aarschot, then built of wood and straw, from catching fire.

When not inhabiting the tower, the couple sleep in a replica of a medieval bed at home. They avoid eating tomatoes or drinking coffee because Columbus had yet to discover America in the Middle Ages, and such foods were not available in what was to become Belgium. Carrots are also off the menu because they grow in the ground, and the medieval church deemed them food of the devil.

“I feel proud to be a duchess,” Ms. Janssens said from the tower, which is decorated with swords and animal-skin rugs. “If I had the money, I would pretend to live in those times all day long. This was a glorious period in the history of Belgium. It was far less stressful in the Middle Ages, because there were no phones and no vacuum cleaners.”

In Belgium, a country of 10 million, there are at least two dozen groups re-enacting the Middle Ages, rubbing stones together to make fire, eating their dinners out of caldrons, re-enacting heroic battles and staging mock hangings....

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