Renaissance fair, Renaissance
faire, or Renaissance festival is an
outdoor weekend gathering, usually held in the United States, open to the public and typically commercial in
nature, which emulates a historic period for the amusement of its
Some are permanent theme parks, others are
short-term events in fairgrounds or other large public or private
spaces. Renaissance fairs generally include an abundance of
costumed entertainers, musical and theatrical acts, art and
handicrafts for sale, and festival food. Some even offer camping,
for those who wish to stay more than one day. Most Renaissance fairs
are set during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I of England.
set earlier, during the reign of Henry VIII, or in other countries,
such as France, and some
include broader definitions of the Renaissance which include
earlier periods, such as the Vikings, or
later, such as 18th Century pirates, and
some engage in deliberate "time travel" by encouraging participants
to wear costumes representing several eras in a broad time
Renaissance fairs encourage visitors to enter into
the spirit of things with costumes and audience participation. Most
tolerate, and many welcome, fantasy elements such as wizards
Chicago journalist Neil Steinberg
said (of the Bristol
), "If theme
, with their pasteboard main streets, reek of a bland,
safe, homogenized, whitebread America, the Renaissance Faire is at
the other end of the social spectrum, a whiff of the occult
, a flash of danger and a hint of the erotic
. Here, they let you throw axes.
more beer and bosoms than you'll find in all of Disney World."
Renaissance fairs are arranged to represent an imagined village in
England during the reign of Elizabeth I, as this period has been
generally considered to correspond to the flowering of the English Renaissance.
In a modern Renaissance festival there are stages or performance
areas set up for scheduled shows, such as plays in Shakespearean
or commedia dell' arte
tradition, as well
comedy routines. Other performances include dancers, magicians,
musicians, jugglers, and singers. Between the stages the streets
('lanes') are lined with stores ('shoppes') and stalls where
independent vendors sell medieval and Renaissance themed
handcrafts, clothing, books, and artworks. There are food and
beverage vendors, as well as game and ride areas. Games include
basic skills events such as archery or axe-throwing as well as
Drench-a-Wench and Soak-a-Bloke
allow a player with a good aim to hit a target and get a fair
employee wet. Rides are typically unpowered—various animal rides
and human-powered swings are common. Live animal displays and
exhibitions are also commonplace.
Larger Renaissance fairs will often include a joust
as a main attraction.
In addition to the staged performances, a major attraction of
Renaissance fairs is the crowds of actors - both professional and
amateur - who play all sorts of historical figures and roam the
fair, interacting with visitors. Visitors are encouraged to wear
costumes, once any weapons are suitably peace-bonded
, contributing to the illusion of
an actual Renaissance environment. Many of the fair vendors sell or
rent costumes for all ages and types. The Renaissance fair
subculture's word for these costumed guests is "playtrons", a
of the words "patron" and
"player", and they add a second level of enjoyment to their
experience by "getting into the act" as Renaissance Lords and
ladies, peasants, pirates, belly dancers, or fantasy
Most fairs have an end-of-the-day ritual, a parade or concert where
all employees gather and bid farewell to the patrons. For those who
work at the fair, the last concert that a festival holds for the
season is traditionally an emotional moment.
Renaissance fairs are staged around the United States at different
times of the year. Fair vendors, participants and crew often work
the "faire circuit", going from event to event as one fair ends and
another begins. They often camp on-site or nearby and develop close
bonds with their fellow performers.
History of the fairs in America
In post-World War II
America, there was
a resurgence of interest in medieval and Renaissance culture. In
the 1950s, there was a very strong early music revival
, and out of that
came folk musician and traditionalist John Langstaff
. In 1957, Langstaff
held "A Christmas Masque of Traditional Revels" in New York City, and the following year another in Washington, DC. A televised version was broadcast on the
"Hallmark Hall of Fame" in
1966 which included Dustin Hoffman
playing the part of the dragon slain by Saint George, and in 1971 Langstaff established
a permanent Christmas Revels in Cambridge,
In 1963, Los Angeles schoolteacher Phyllis Patterson held a very
small Renaissance fair as a class activity, in the backyard of her
Laurel Canyon home in the Hollywood Hills. On May 11 and 12 of
that year, Phyllis and her husband Ron, presented the first
"Renaissance Pleasure Faire" as a one-weekend fundraiser for radio
station KPFK, drawing
some 8,000 people.
The fair was designed by the Living History Center to resemble an
actual spring market fair of the period. Many of the original
booths were no-charge reenactments of historical activities
including printing presses and blacksmiths. The first commercial
vendors were mostly artisans and food merchants and were required
to demonstrate historical accuracy or plausibility for their wares.
Groups of volunteers were organized into "guilds" to focus on
specific reenactment duties (musicians, military, celtic clans,
peasants, etc). Both actors and vendors were required to
successfully complete workshops in period language and accents,
costuming, and culture, and to stay "in character" while
For many years thereafter, the Renaissance
Pleasure Faire of Southern California
(RPFS) was held in the
spring at the Paramount Ranch located in Agoura, CA, partaking of
the rich lore and age-old customs of English springtime markets and
"Maying" customs. Five years later, the Pattersons created a fall
Renaissance fair, with a harvest festival theme, first at what is
now China Camp State Park in San Rafael, CA and two years later at
the Black Point Forest in Novato, CA. Both fairs developed into
local traditions and began a movement that spread across the
country, though fairs that copied the original frequently did not
attempt such historical accuracy
An American phenomenon?
historical reenactments are by no means exclusive to the United States (for example, the Earl of
Eglinton in Scotland sponsored a
large tournament in
1839), the Renaissance fair is, arguably, a uniquely
American variation on the theme, having as much the flavor of an
amusement park combined with a
shopping mall as of a historical
European historical fairs, on the other
hand, operate more on the living history
model, in which an actual historic site is peopled by
reenactors whose job it is to explain historical life to modern
visitors. American Renaissance fair patrons may be as interested in
drinking, eating, shopping, and watching farce
as they are in an educational experience.
In recent years, American-style Renaissance fairs have made inroads
in other countries. Germany has seen a very similar phenomenon
since the 1980s (see :de:Mittelaltermarkt
), and beginning in
the mid-1990s, Renaissance fairs have spread into Canada.
of Renaissance fairs also include fairs set in other time periods,
such as Christmas fairs set in Charles Dickens' London.
American approach has apparently been exported back to England; a
warehouse-based theme park, "Dickens World", opened in Kent,
England, in May 2007.
Myths and lore
on exhibit in most Renaissance fairs is
not real combat
. As with professional wrestling
"fights" are often carefully scripted mock combat. The weapons are
real, but the participants are skilled, trained actors and stunt performers
. Some jousting troupes, however,
do perform real lance passes (using real pine lances).
Although the stocks
displayed in some Renaissance fairs look
alarming, they are not actually functional. They are provided for
amusing photo opportunities and for entirely fictional stunt acts
by professional actors.
Acts at a Renaissance fair usually have years of skill behind them
and are highly choreographed, taking weeks of classes and, in some
respects, years of practice in order to make it appear as authentic
Renaissance fairs have several variant names, many of which use
old-fashioned spellings such as faire
These spellings originate from the Middle
(variant spellings include
, and fayre
), which comes
from the Anglo-French word feire
. They can also be
referred to as "Elizabethan", "Medieval", or "Tudor" fairs or
festivals. "Ren Fair" and "Ren Fest" are popular colloquialisms. A
(literally "medieval market") is
very similar to a Renaissance fair.
Within the Renaissance fair community, there is difference of
opinion as to how authentic a fair ought to be. Some feel the fair
should be as authentic an experience as possible, to be educational
and like European living history
. Others feel that entertainment is the primary
This is a partial list of Renaissance fairs in the United
- "State fairgrounds could benefit from fuller
calendar", Battle Creek Enquirer, 2007-09-05.
- See, for example, the Louisiana Renaissance Festival.
Steinberg, "Out of Time, Nearly: Feast of Fools", Chicago
Sun-Times, Wednesday, August 15th, 2007, p. 23.
- John Langstaff's obituary in "The Guardian",
- Peter Thomas and Richard J. Sneed, The Faire: Photographs
and History of the Renaissance Pleasure Faire from 1963
onwards, The Good Book Press, 1987.
- Mark Girouard, The Return to Camelot: Chivalry and the
English Gentleman, Yale University Press, 1981 ISBN
- Val Horsler, Living the Past, Weidenfeld &
Nicolson, in association with English Heritage, London, England
2003. ISBN 0297-84312-5.
- "What the Dickens?", "The Guardian",
- "Bristol Renaissance Faire organizers strive for authenticity,"
according to the Chicago Heights "Star" at "Bristol Renaissance Faire for more than kings,
queens" on 2007-08-23.
- Richard Shapiro, who founded what later became the
Bristol Renaissance Faire, said he
favors entertainment. “We were so authentic back then it was almost
painful” ("King Richard’s Faire brings a Renaissance revival" at
projo.com, the Providence Journal online,