I have a certain affinity for all things medieval. I do not know exactly where I picked it up, but fantasy novels, with their appealing environments, must have had something to do with it. And then there are the roleplaying games, which make such excellent use of medieval environs. I find the whole milieu appealing and captivating.
So naturally when I went to the Maryland Renaissance Festival on Sunday, I was excited. I went a long time ago as a kid, but looking back on it in hindsight, my assessment of it then was totally inaccurate. Yes, the Festival does have activities for children, including a jousting “competition”, puppet shows, music sing-alongs for kids, and the like. But that isn’t where the interesting story lies. Many places offer themed attractions of all varieties for kids; just think of Disneyland. The real story wasn’t in the huge turkey drumstick that I ate for lunch, as different as that was (think meat on a stick, but with no stick necesesary). No, the real story was the community that has grown up around the Renaissance Festival.
Unbeknownst to most, there is a thriving Renaissance subculture in America, akin in nature with the Goths, the pagans, the nerds and geeks, the roleplaying enthusiasts, and others (with considerable overlap). These people didn’t seem to be attempting to live a Renaissance lifestyle at home (nearly everyone arrived by automobile). It’s just something they do on the weekends. But when they are doing it, they go all out, complete with elaborate period costumes made of authentic materials. Many were even imitating European accents. But they were all realistic; I saw lots of knights, noblemen, and wenches, but not a wizard in sight.
I noticed a strange dichotomy at the Festival. The touristy attractions, like the stage shows and jousting tournament, had audiences that were mostly dressed in contemporary garb (such as jeans and a T-shirt). Some of the stage routines were mildly funny, but that wasn’t the most interesting part of the Festival. The best places to be were the places with the highest proportion of people dressed in period garb: mainly the bars and out-of-the-way places.
These regulars of the Festival pay their $18 to come to the faire and simply hang around in period garb, talking with like-minded folks. They are there for the community, not the touristy attractions, which they’ve long since seen multiple times if they ever held any interest. I did not show up in period garb myself (I don’t have any, in the same way that I don’t own any Roman gladiator gear), but I found myself having a best time when I was the only one in a T-shirt in sight. These people are really enthusiastic about the milieu they’re playing a part in, and it’s hard not to get caught up in it along with them.
The best part of the day came towards the end of the faire, when most of the families with kids had gone home, leaving mainly the diehards. I went to the “Dragon Inn” (an outside bar in the forest built around, and through, trees) where The Rogues, a Scottish music band with two bagpipers and two drummers, was playing. They were good, playing all sorts of fast and upbeat, danceable music to entertain the crowd.
And boy, did people dance (mostly young women in enticing and revealing attire showing off, too). Many of those who weren’t dancing were still contributing to the music by pounding their walking sticks andstaves on the wooden deck rhythmically, making the ground vibrate along with the beat. Others sat at tables, drinking ale out of goblets and conversing merrily. The atmosphere was indescrible (despite my best attempts). It felt like I had been transported to a scene from hundreds of years ago in a totally different time. I instantly understood the appeal of this faire, and why all of these people had come.
Then it all came to a crashing halt during The Rogues’ final song of the evening when their security goon got into a dispute with a random guy in the audience. I did not see what instigated it. The band’s leader had to interrupt the song to come break up the fight as it was progressing to the chest-shoving stage. It was a stupid, typical dispute caused by young males with too much testosterone. And then the faire was over on that sour note, having reached the appointed closing time, and all of the people in period garb filtered out through the faire’s main gates and into the huge field of contemporary automobiles.
We walked by one woman stripping off her elaborate dress, donning a helmet, and mounting a motorcycle. And when we got back to our car, a woman was frantically calling someone on her cell phone. Her car, which was on one side of our car, and another car, on the other side of our car, had both been broken into during the faire: just another reminder that this was, indeed, the real world, and that the Renaissance Festival was nothing but an ephemeral, if enchanting, illusion.