Renaissance Faires – KS, MD, PA
There is a reasonably good chance that every year or two, I will spend a day at a Renaissance Faire. These are not places for historical sticklers; the Society for Creative Anachronism is much more accurate when it comes to research and reconstruction, and Ren Faires in general give a bare nod to the cultures, societies, and history of the time period they celebrate. The setting is that of the English Renaissance, and each festival often focuses on a specific monarch’s reign for the pageantry that occurs throughout the faire.
Renaissance Faires frequently take the form of a seasonal weekend theme park; filled with shops, food stalls, games, and performance stages, they’re a great place to try your hand at new skills, or just to stroll and take in the atmosphere. There’s often a story that plays out through each day, and those interested can arrange to be in the right places at the right times to follow the action and intrigue. Performers play the roles of courtiers, common folk, and historical figures, and often some scandal is revealed or mystery solved by the end of the day at the final joust.
Yes, there is jousting. All of the traditional hallmarks of Medieval and Renaissance European culture make appearances, from sword-fighting demonstrations and archery to court dances and feasts. On my last visit, I learned how to shoot a crossbow. Novelties such as pirates, belly dancers, camel and elephant rides, and fantastical elements such as mermaids and dragons are mixed in with the historic features, so that a typical Ren Faire has something, somewhere, for just about everyone. Abbreviated plays by Shakespeare, harp and lute performances, jugglers, and magicians occupy every stage and many open clearings. Visitors as well as staff members often dress up in costumes, contributing to the festive atmosphere. Scheduled events such as jousts, concerts, plays, human chess matches, and pub sing-alongs can add some structure to the day, guiding visitors through the grounds to take in a variety of events.
Foreign visitors looking to experience American culture may enjoy Ren Faires, which, while not unique in the world, definitely have a distinct flavor all their own. They walk a line between historical reenactment and entertainment, mixing authentic period touches with the fanciful and fun, and there is a commercial aspect to it as well: shops selling art, carpentry crafts, herbs, jewelry, costumes, instruments, leather goods, chain mail, pottery, perfumes, and more cluster along the lanes and around the edges of clearings. Some artisans, such as potters or woodworkers, may offer demonstrations of their craft to onlookers.
Theme weekends are also a huge draw, giving visitors a taste of something specific along with the general Renaissance atmosphere. Oktoberfests, Scottish and Irish fests, pirate weekends, brew, wine, and ale festivals, and harvest celebrations add a little something special to the faires on certain weekends. Each faire and season might be slightly different; last year I attended my first steampunk weekend, which added a new twist to the experience. Here are some additional highlights from my favourite faires:
Kansas City Renaissance Festival, Bonner Springs, KS
Kansas’ faire has a lot of space, but a very short run, so you have to catch it while you can. My favourite stage act was the stage combat team Bawdily Harm, who were delightful entertainers as well as skilled stage combatants. Visit the Royal Sanctuary to see a falconry demonstration; there aren’t many places you can still get an up-close look at that art! For the fantasy-loving faire-goers, there’s also a Mermaid Cove maze where you can see costumed ladies swimming in their tanks or sunbathing. Finally, if you really want to geek out, a replica of the Iron Throne from A Song of Ice and Fire is tucked away in a pavilion for photo opportunities.
Maryland Renaissance Festival, Crownsville, MD
The House of Musical Traditions is one of my favourite stops in Maryland, for the variety of world instruments they have available for sale and display. Again: there are only so many places you can try out a hurdy-gurdy. The Bee Folks have a marvelous array of beeswax artisan products, including ornaments, lip balms, and scented candles. If you’re a jewelry addict, as I certainly am, Argenti Silverworks has some gorgeous pieces; intricate, unique, and well worth the prices. I want to give a special shout-out to The Wayt Gallery, which exhibits the artwork of R. Wayt Smith, awesome person and extraordinary artist. One of the first paintings I bought was his work.
Pennsylvania Renaissance Faire, Manheim, PA
I developed my taste for traditional Ren Faire food here, so this is where I’ll mention an important truth: there is nothing quite like eating chocolate-dipped cheesecake on a stick on a hot, dusty summer day at the faire. A lot of faire food can be found on sticks, all the better for portability—pickles, chocolate-dipped bananas, macaroni & cheese, even steaks. Non-vegetarians will want to try the holy grail of faire cuisine: the giant turkey leg. On the art side, the Rook and the Rose has some fantastic metalwork flowers in copper and brass. Historical Glassworks offers wonderful glassblowing demonstrations, and LaForge features blacksmithing demonstrations. Imaginarium Gallery & Museum is a cool place to check out—and I say this as a former employee. They have some magnificent and fun puppets, and the shop staff can usually put on quite a show for little ones.
Photos: Maryland Renaissance Festival