It’s a fine day in Revel Grove, England. Banners flutter in the wind; the aroma of meats cooking over open flames fills the air; and a juggler catches whirling globes with casual ease, while at the tavern, minstrels strum their lutes as they serenade patrons with songs of lost love and life in these Medieval times.
The year, you see, is 1536. And you are part of the Maryland Renaissance Festival, where the traffic jams, the world wide web, bank machines, and international crises of the 20th Century don’t exist. This is England during the reign of Henry VIII.
Renaissance Faires are part festival, part costume party, and part interactive performance. Held on weekends during the summer and fall, they celebrate the life and times of the Middle Ages or, at least, all of the fun parts of it. Unlike Civil War reenactments, which stress historical accuracy down to the finest detail, participants at the Faires mostly want to have fun. Long skirts hide ReeboksÔ and the court jester might wear sunglasses. Paying patrons mingle with actors who play the roles of historical and fictitious characters and performers who juggle, eat fire, stage plays, and demonstrate Medieval sports – like jousting and mud wrestling.
The bleachers fill up early for the jousting tournaments. While there’s no ‘beer man’ making the rounds, there are cheerleaders – peasants goading opposite sides of the arena with Olde English cheers. Not exactly Shakespearean sonnets, but a lot more fun to recite.
The actual jousts are performed by skillful riders on well-trained horses. Of course, there’s the Black Knight – arrogant, disdainful, and usually drop-dead handsome. His opponent, championed by the Royal Court, never manages to win as much support from the crowd.
In a well-choreographed performance, the riders demonstrate the weaponry and techniques of the joust with murderous enthusiasm. Knights are knocked off their horses by padded lances and battered by blunted broadaxes swung in the Medieval equivalent of an NFL game.
Spectators can’t participate in the jousts, but the Faires offer other ways to play. Most have a Medieval equivalent of carny games, with ax-tossing booths, target shooting with arrows, and the pea-under-a-walnut-shell game. The dunking booth becomes “Drench the Wench,” with an appropriately-attired woman daring the crowd to hit the target and send her into the pool.
Less interactive entertainment is found at stages scattered throughout the grounds at the Faires. Performances never stop. Children are delighted by the story-tellers and magicians. Shakespeare’s plays are usually on the schedule, although they are often abbreviated versions of his classics. Choral groups and troubadours recreate court music and the Medieval Top 40 with formal concerts and casual performances.
Some of the Faires have planned – although generally unscripted – scenarios involving the activities of the Royals or other important people of the times. The Maryland Festival, for example, always introduces visitors to the latest scandal in the Court of Henry VIII. Considering his marital record, there’s no shortage of gossip. Part of the fun is watching the soap opera that unfolds as the King, his current, not-yet-beheaded Queen, and their retinue of hangers-on, opportunists, spies, and loyal retainers tour the grounds and attend the jousts.
Food is another major element of the Faires. There’s enough variety to keep everyone well-sated, and if there is the occasional anachronism, well, that’s part of the fun. Besides, who’s to say that the booth promising “Authentic Medieval Tacos” isn’t operated by someone who did a great deal of research into the foods of the Renaissance? More authentic are the turkey legs which patrons gnaw on as they stroll through the grounds. That’s not a good snack to take to the falconry demonstrations, though. The birds have been known to swoop down on inattentive diners and soar away with a turkey leg in their talons.
One of the major draws for Renaissance Faires are the crafts. High-quality practical and accent artwork and crafts are sold at the open-air period shopping mall. Many of the artisans specialize in theme pieces – lots of silver charms and amulets, unicorns and fairies, pentagons and crystal pendants, and rings bejeweled with semi-precious stones. Leather vests, jackets, boots, and leggings are snapped up by people wanting to make a fashion statement, be it in the 20th or 15th Century. Handwoven shawls and tapestries flash more color on the scene. Children become the first on their block to have their own wooden sword and shield set. It comes complete with markers with which to decorate their shield with their heraldic crest – the Medieval equivalent of a sports team’s logo. Glaziers and potters fill shelves with bowls, platters, mugs, jars and other practical and beautiful housewares. Herbalists offer the finishing touches for the house with their jars and sachets of scents, dried flowers, and herbs. And, wonder of wonder, banks of the Middle Ages took Visa, AmEx and MasterCard!