American Renaissance Festivals and the Yearning for Merry England


mary costume arden forest

Mary sporting Elizabethan attire during her recent book tour for The Dark Lady’s Mask.

When I was a student in the 1980s, I spent my late summer weekends in another realm. Donning a green gown I had sewn myself, I became a Renaissance woman, or a low-budget facsimile thereof, my cheap, silver-plated goblet hanging from my belt to save me from the indignity of drinking from a paper cup.

For three summers from 1983 to 1985, I was a performer at the Minnesota Renaissance Festival, in those days a much more low-key and grassroots affair than it is today. My character was a historically inaccurate hybrid between a village minstrel and a faery queen out of A Midsummer Night’s Dream.  (I was trying very hard to channel Stevie Nicks.) I even spoke in a fake British accent, largely informed by Monty Python.

For the most part, I was unpaid, although I did earn minimum wage the summer I worked in the information booth. This involved giving directions and handing out site maps. The most exciting part was when some unsuspecting person asked the way to the restroom.

Leaping out from behind the counter, I’d grab my victim’s arm and race off, hell for leather, with them in tow. “Make way!” I’d yell, compelling the crowd to part for us. “Privy run!”

After depositing the blushing and winded individual in front of the plastic Portalet, I’d dash back to the information booth. As minimum wage jobs went, it was far more amusing than fast food.

When I wasn’t working at the information booth, I played Elizabethan music on my violin, but this proved far less interesting for the paying crowd. The most enthusiasm I could drum up was some drunk guy asking me to play Pink Floyd’s “Dark Side of the Moon.”

I soon learned to leave the violin at home and focus on street theatre, which is what most people seemed to be coming for. Having my picture taken with festival goers’ children who thought my dress was pretty. Joining my fellow peasants under an oak tree in the late afternoon. Sitting in the grass with floral garlands in our hair, we would sing ballads of such yearning that they would transport us to another time and place. This transpired late afternoon when everything seemed suffused in golden light. Such pastoral bliss! As a Reagan-era teenager, this was the closest I ever got to the Woodstock experience.

Our singalong closed with the Peasant Parade in which we merrily sang and danced our way around the entire site to escort the crowd to the gates at closing time. But the real magic transpired afterhours, when the “tourists” had all gone home. Then the festival grounds really did turn into something out of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. The guitars and wine bottles came out. Most of us camped overnight, but I never got much sleep.

Ah, the revels and trysts we had, still in costume but no longer quite in character. The Renn Fest was, and undoubtedly still is, the converging point for so many different countercultures. I hung out with Dianic witches, fortune tellers, feminist folk singers, Morris dancers, and herbalists. Before the internet, Renn Faires were a locus for all kinds of alternative-minded souls to connect.

Apart from Renn Fest, my summers were fairly dull. After a weekend of singing and cavorting, I was almost literally asleep on my feet while working my full time summer job as a cashier in a discount clothing store. Despite my fatigue, the allure of Renn Fest made the boredom of my job more bearable. I lived from one weekend to the next. The closing day of Festival was always bittersweet, with many hugs and tears.

These weekends were some of the happiest in my youth and ended only when I went to study, and then to live, in Germany. In a country filled with actual Renaissance buildings, who needs a Renn Faire? Instead Germans seemed far more interested in re-enacting the American Wild West. To truly offer a magical escape, one’s historical weekend fun must draw on a cultural context as far removed as possible from one’s day-to-day life.

Meanwhile, back in America, Renn Faires have boomed. There are festivals across the United States, even in Alaska. My old haunt, the Minnesota Renaissance Festival, now boasts an annual 300,000 visitors. For many of the performers and vendors, the festivals have become a way of life, as Renaissance Magazine attests.

But why, out of all the ages of world history, are Americans so fixated on Elizabethan England? Why not Byzantine Constantinople or—given Minnesota demographics—Viking-age Norway? What is it about Tudor England that so captures the American imagination? Is it because of our love affair with Shakespeare? Because the garb is so sexy? If you’re a curvy female, Elizabethan costume will make you look like a goddess.

Many Renaissance festivals provide costume rentals at the entrance gates so everyone can have the chance to be a Renaissance person for a day. Kitted out in period attire, you can watch the jousting matches while sipping mead or nibbling on a turkey leg. You can leave behind your worries while immersing yourself in an idealized version of village life, a world as far removed from modern cares as it is from the actual historical Renaissance with its witch hunts and religious wars that tore Europe apart at the seams.

In my mind, this dream of unbridled revelry hearkens all the way back to a time and place historian Ronald Hutton calls Merry England, a period of peace and stability before the Reformation and its aftermath created a reign of chaos, uncertainty, and radical social change.

In his book, The Rise and Fall of Merry England, Hutton places the halcyon days of Merry England in the late medieval period, between 1350 and 1520. This era enjoyed the most splendid pageantry, with a yearly procession of sacred and secular feasts that bound all levels of society together and connected them to the cycles of nature. During holidays (literally holy days), people really did put their work aside and make merry night and day. Established religion even encouraged such hedonism. Churches hosted ale feasts, both to raise money and to build a sense of social cohesiveness. Living from harvest to harvest, it was nigh on impossible for people in small agrarian communities not to acknowledge these bonds of deep interdependence, both with each other and with the earth that sustained them. And it didn’t just happen in England—Pieter Bruegel’s paintings of partying Flemish peasants are full of raucous, bawdy, earthy delight.

This lost world seems a universe away from our own hyper-accelerated 21st century existence of the Puritan work ethic in overdrive. Just for one day, let us sit in the grass and sing ballads and eschew social media. I know that for my three summers at Renn Fest, I thought that I had discovered my secret passage into a realm of jubilant freedom.

Mary Sharratt now lives in rural England and, puritanical nanny-state notwithstanding, seeks to engage in revels whenever possible. The Dark Lady’s Mask: A Novel of Shakespeare’s Muse, her new novel drawn from the dramatic life of Renaissance poet Aemilia Bassano Lanier, is published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. Her previous book, Illuminations: A Novel of Hildegard von Bingenwon the 2013 Nautilus Gold Award, Better Books for a Better World. Visit her website: http://www.marysharratt.com.

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Categories: General

6 replies

  1. And there you are, dressed up like Aemilia Bassano Lanier! Were you writing poetry at the time? I hope everyone who publishes here reads your novel.

    I used to go the Ren Faires (as we called them) here in SoCal. This was in the early to mid-80s, shortly after I’d moved out here as a newly-hatched Ph.D. in English Renaissance literature who couldn’t get a teaching job in a university because there were no jobs at the time. (There were four openings for medievalists in the whole country!) I enjoyed the Ren Faires a lot, but I was very snobbish about details of Merrie Old England. I found very few anachronisms and always had a good time. Tudor and Jacobean England were certainly not very merrie, especially after Henry VIII decided to get his famous divorce. Also, there were zero sanitary facilities, so the cities stank. The movie Anonymous shows what London probably looked like in Shakespeare’s day; otherwise, the movie is ridiculous. I could go on…………. But I won’t.

    Ren Faires are fun! Thanks for the memories.

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    • Barbara, thank you so much for your kind words about The Dark Lady’s Mask! I wish I could have met you during our Ren Faire days! Maybe it’s not too late for the two of us to meet at some Ren Faire or other and compare notes about English Renaissance literature! Do you still have your costumes?

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  2. I am reading the Dark Ladies Mask! Loving it!

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  3. Mary, I love this post! Two of my daughters were involved in Ren Faires in Northern California, inspired by their high school drama teacher. My part was driving a station wagon full of teenagers not yet old enough to drive accross the Golden Gate Bridge to the North Bay for rehearsals and performances every weekend for what seemed like the entire summer, year after year. The Ren Faires have become a family tradition. My youngest daughter has continued her involvement here in Indianapolis. Her children have taken part their entire lives. So nice to know that we have yet another thing in common in addition to the Goddess.

    By the way you might be interested in knowing that their is a Facebook page for California Ren Faire former and current participants. My daughter is the admin for it, in case you would like to look up some of your Ren friends from the eighties. Fran Goldberg

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    • Fran, thank you so much for your comments and for reaching out to me about the Facebook Community. It sounds like such a lovely family tradition, now in its third generation! How wonderful for your granddaughters to grow up with this opportunity!

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