This past weekend I went to the Texas Renaissance Festival (“TRF”) in the sprawling metropolis of Todd Mission, Texas, population 29 (sa-lute!). I’m a relatively seasoned veteran of Renaissance fairs, and the augmented reality of fake accents, mead, outfits from about twelve different centuries, and credit card machines and ATMs is something I really dig. This past Saturday was “Barbarian Invasion” day at TRF, so there were more Norse, Frankish, and Gothic outfits that one might have seen normally, but that’s okay; that just meant there were more people looking like Jon Snow instead of Robin Hood.
The whole day was tremendously fun, and the only blemish on the entire experience was that it took two hours and forty-five minutes to get from my parking space to the end of the row I parked on. You read that right. Almost three hours to go what I would guess was about 100 feet. Still no answer on what caused the backup, but after getting all the swearing and frustration out of my system, I have come to the conclusion that I will not allow the horribly mismanaged parking situation dampen my memories of an otherwise good time.
But all day as I walked around shops, restaurants, buskers, games, and display venues, I couldn’t help but take note of some observations about Renaissance fairs in general. I didn’t write them down and I did have my share of beer (and mead!) throughout the course of the day, but I think I more or less remembered everything. So, here we go!
1. “Renaissance” is a Misnomer
I’ll be honest, this point is pretty pedantic of me. But it’s something that’s bothered me since I was in the ninth grade and went to Scarborough Renaissance Festival in Waxahachie, Texas. Technically speaking, the Renaissance lasted from 1300 at the earliest until about 1600 or so at the latest. However, festivalgoers and performers tend to lean more Medieval, which is the era from approximately 400 to the beginning of the Renaissance in the 14th or 15th century. The Medieval era, also called the Middle Ages, is the age of knights and fiefdoms and the Crusades and the earliest days of the printing press and is decidedly not the Renaissance. The Renaissance was a time of embracing science and realistic art. The Middle Ages were years of the Church repressing science and art being limited to one step above stick figures.
And look, I have fun at Renaissance fairs either way, and there certainly are plenty of people in actual Renaissance costumes. But the Renaissance is a minority or at the very most a plurality of what is represented. In addition to the Renaissance and the Middle Ages, you’re likely to see the Roman Republic, the Roman Empire, Colonial America, eighteenth century pirates, Angles and Saxons, Vikings, Scottish clan-specific kilts, and even the occasional set of lederhosen. I know, I’m being a curmudgeon and a stickler, but still.
2. Mead Kinda Sucks
Since I turned 21 way back in 2010 I have gotten exactly one mead at every Renaissance festival I’ve been to. It’s tradition. It just seems like the right thing to do, right? I mean, nothing says Medieval/Renaissance Europe like fermented honey. And so every time I go to a Renaissance festival I get one. And only one. You know why? Because mead…really isn’t very good.
Let me rephrase. It’s not that mead sucks, it’s just that it’s very one dimensional and can be oppressively sweet. No matter how “dry” a mead is, it’s still fermented honey, so it’s going to be sweet. That’s the only thing you can taste—sweet. Generally mead has roughly the same alcohol content by volume as wine: somewhere between 10 and 18% or so. This means it’s typically served in the same volume as wine, and costs at least as much as a glass of wine would cost at any event like a concert or sporting event. So, to recap: incredibly sweet, kind of expensive, no higher in alcohol content than wine, and really only worth it for the novelty of having it at the Renaissance fair. That said, I’ll stick with tradition and continue to have one every time I go back.
3. Stuff is Expensive
The great thing about the Renaissance fair is that you can get as into it as you’d like. Me? I’m more of a jeans-and-hoodie kind of person, but I don’t pass judgment on the people who get super into it. I mean, there are plenty of people who get Hollywood costume quality outfits and authentically replicated weaponry, paint their faces, take on an accent, and just become someone else for the day. I admire that, but all of that stuff costs money and can be purchased at the festival for exorbitant prices.
If you want just regular, vaguely peasant-looking Medieval or Renaissance clothing, that will be about the same price as getting name-brand jeans and shirts. And if you want enhanced stuff like furs, coats, headwear, higher quality tops or bottoms, occupational-specific clothing, chainmail, armor, weapons, mugs and utensils, belts, shields, footwear, and the other accoutrement of the era, you’re going to need to be prepared to spend a lot of money. But fret not, because most vendors at the fairs take “New World Discover,” “Lady Visa,” “Lord Amex,” and even “Master Card,” which I guess doesn’t really need the quotes.
4. World Class Peoplewatching
I love peoplewatching. My all time favorite place to peoplewatch is the airport, but Renaissance fairs might be a close second. Aside from watching all the folks who are enthusiastic about the characters they are portraying, you have first-timers who are clearly overwhelmed by what they’re seeing; the people who clearly did drugs before they came in and are simultaneously lost and ecstatic; the drunks; the people dressed up as folks from rival factions who talk good-natured trash to one another; the people who dress up as Medieval versions of modern characters (this year at TRF we saw Big Bird, Elmo, Cookie Monster, and Oscar the Grouch in 8-century leather-and-fur armor); the buskers and vendors trying to get folks to come to their performance (comedy, drama, concert, or random talent like cracking whips to the melody of popular songs); the kids who sword fight with wooden weapons and inevitably accidentally hit each other too hard; the knights who will be participating in the tournament (jousting, close-quarters combat, archery, horse riding, etc.); the tradesmen exhibiting how glass or paper or rope or pottery or jewelry is made; the moody teenagers who were clearly dragged there by their parents and are hating it; the moody teenagers who were clearly dragged there by their parents and who are loving it but are trying to remain moody; people dressed up as characters from Monty Python and the Holy Grail, complete with coconuts in lieu of horses; people who insist on assuming an accent even though English wasn’t even truly perceptible to modern ears until about 1600 or so; belly dancers; and, of course, the people who are just straight up weird (example: I saw someone put mustard on a funnel cake). Absolutely world class peoplewatching.
5. The Food Selection is Actually Awesome
I’ve been to plenty of Renaissance fairs in my life, and the food has been excellent each time. Expensive, to be sure, but delicious. TRF is especially nice because there are different areas of the fair that focus on different cuisine. In the Polish area you’re bound to find kielbasa and pierogi. The Greek amphitheater is surrounded by gyros and spanakopita. There is even a “Hispanic” food area, although to be honest I don’t exactly know what they have over there because Hispanic is a pretty vague adjective. On top of that, there’s the normal fair stuff like [insert meat here]-on-a-stick, turkey legs, fried spiral potatoes, barbecue sandwiches, funnel cakes, ice cream, kettle corn, and pretzels. Everything I’ve ever had has been awesome. And that’s not to mention the plethora of beer, margaritas, wine, mead, and other beverages to be found at so many different stalls.
Like everything else, the food can be pricey. But look, the atmosphere at TRF and other Renaissance fairs is always on point, so to me having a $7 beer or eight is worth it.
6. Craftsmen are Talented
Are you a fan of the TV show How It’s Made? If you are, you’ll enjoy the Renaissance fair. Glassblowing, longbow making, pottery making, papermaking, bookmaking, printing-press operating, woodworking, jewelry making, mapmaking, and various forms of art from watercolors to henna tattoos can be found at the fairs. Personally I love watching glassblowing because it’s a little bit hypnotic and requires a level of patient precision I don’t have. It’s amazing how talented the men and women who do these things are. As I was looking around for the shortest beer line I watched a woman binding a book with strips of homemade rope and it was incredible. I’m always blown away by just how talented people are, and it’s one of the best parts of going to the Renaissance fair.
I could go on and on. I love going to Ren fairs. It’s a great way to spend a Saturday or a whole weekend if you’re so inclined. I enjoy imagining what all the people who are dressed up do when they’re not at the fair. There are undoubtedly accountants, lawyers, doctors, construction workers, bankers, policemen, architects, landscapers, welders, stevedores, and all sorts of other professions represented in the ranks of knights, jesters, peasants, pirates, Greeks, Romans, and Vikings who attend the fair. I like to imagine there are at least a few people who are the quiet, unassuming, mostly anonymous person at their office who would have some very shocked colleagues if they only knew that a few weekends a year their mild-mannered office mate dresses up in chainmail and carries a broadsword.
The Renaissance fair is somehow simultaneously a brief glimpse into the past and a suspended present. When you’re at the fair it feels like nothing really exists except your exact present and a vague past. Cell service is normally bad no matter what Ren fair you attend, so even the mundaneness of emails and text messages is briefly suspended and replaced with a funny accent and a $12 glass of mead. It’s tremendous. If you haven’t been, you should go. I’m convinced as long as you are willing to accept that your day will be just a little bit odd, anyone can enjoy going to a Renaissance fair. There’s something for everyone, and we saw people ranging from probably a month old to at least seventy-five years old. It’s really an incredible experience.
Huzzah! Opa! Prosit! Have fun and be sure to catch the Renaissance fair next time it’s around.