The Middle Ages weren’t a great time for most people, with the corrupt social hierarchy, rampant plagues, and pitifully short lifespans. However, the Medieval Times and the following Renaissance period was a great era for the arts, culture, and cool swords. It’s for this reason that Renaissance Faires tend to be so popular for all sorts of crowds, regardless of the dark truth of the time period. From cosplayers to history lovers, performers and craftspeople, there’s a little something for everyone to find at one of these chipper summer festivals.
This June, I went to the New Jersey Renaissance Faire held in Bordentown, New Jersey, not too far outside of Philadelphia. Though a lifelong fan of all things fantasy, the closest I got to a Ren Faire prior to this was sword fighting with my brothers after watching a weekly episode of Game of Thrones. Still, I was excited for the experience, so after getting all dolled up in pirate costumes and a cool sword of my own, I was ready to show the Middle Ages what I was made of.
Now, I know what you might be thinking. Why would anyone dress up as a pirate for a Renaissance Faire when the modern image of a pirate wasn’t around for another 3 or 4 centuries? Great question, avid history geek. If we’re talking history, technically the jousting and knights-in-shining-armor that most people attend for isn’t very “Renaissance” either, even though that seems to be the meat and potatoes of most of these faires. In fact, the New Jersey Renaissance Faire was Robin Hood themed this year, a story that supposedly takes place during the 12th or 13th century, even though the Renaissance wasn’t until the 14th century.
One of the best things about a Ren Faire, in my humble opinion, is that the festival operates as more of a cosplay convention than a historical reenactment. There were plenty of knights and princesses as one would expect, but also lots of other costumes that didn’t quite fit the traditional mold, like Zelda from The Legend of Zelda, anime characters, and of course, lots of pirates. This fast-and-loose atmosphere at the Renaissance Faire left room for some very creative performances and booths, stretching the definition of “Renaissance” and ultimately just celebrating an old-timey atmosphere of magic and art.
This is really where Renaissance Faires separate themselves from other summer festivals or even other cosplay conventions. Everyone that attends is fully committed to the atmosphere, and attend to share their passion for the medieval fantasy aesthetic. I didn’t even know that these events had plotlines of their own, filled with compelling characters and exciting performances that everyone in attendance had their part to play in. I found myself fully sucked into the story, sitting with a band of pirates at a jousting match and verbally sparring with the king’s sheriff, or drumming the tables along to a Shakespeare play. There are even NPCs that walk around the booths and crowds, using formulated European accents and playing music that would give any bard a run for his money. It mixes a whole day of Live-Action Role Play with a traditional summer convention, surrounded by good food and a packed schedule of things to see.
I was particularly impressed by the artists in attendance and what they brought to sell or show off. It’s no surprise that many of them were local folks involved with spirituality and witchcraft, selling homemade candles, crystals, talismans, and even tarot readings. This is where I spent a lot of my time, admittedly, so interested to see the way other new-age witches express their passions and engage with their beliefs. Many of the booths were also run by costume designers, selling a whole plethora of outfit pieces that could be worn to similar events, like boots, corsets, kilts, and dresses. Though out of my price range, seeing the kind of hands-on craftsmanship that many of them put into leatherworking and sewing was refreshing to see after stepping out of the modern world of graphic t-shirts and fast fashion.
Some of the booths had nothing in particular to sell, but were instead showing off talents or interests that they developed over the years. There were historical booths, displaying swords and relics from the time period or even offering ancestry records for families to search through (I tracked down my Celtic ancestors once again). One craftsman set up an entire outdoor forge, complete with anvil and hammer, to create custom horseshoes and blades. Swordsmen, falconers, archers, and equestrians all had a part to play and a place to find here.
However, the longer I spent there, the more I recognized a sort of culture split among the attendants. On the one hand, the events seemed to be very in-line with nerdy communities and similar outcasted groups, making it common to see a pride flag whenever you turned your head. Yet, there seemed to be an unspoken prejudice with some of the older participants, shunning these newcomers and those that don’t fit the traditional “medieval” (straight, white male) look. It’s difficult to ignore the overlap between those that celebrate the aesthetics of a traditional European culture and those that promote white supremacy. I even overheard a conversation with some of the reoccurring attendees as they complained about event organizers being outwardly homophobic or racist.
It seems odd to me that a festival built on celebrating creativity and spirituality would be against the communities that make art so great. The art of costume design, performance art, and craftsmanship were pioneered by communities that lacked social power, so to enforce the kind of hateful attitude that forced them into creating these artistic safe spaces in the first place seems to discredit the nature of the faire as a whole. As one of the artists in attendance put it, “You can’t have a Renaissance Faire without the queer community. It just wouldn’t be the same.”
At the end of the day, Renaissance Faires aren’t truly about history or tradition. These festivals are at their best when they celebrate the people and attitudes that make fiction and fantasy so engaging to begin with. They can’t be places that foster exclusion, hatred, or limiting values. I hope to keep attending similar events in upcoming summers and watch them continue to celebrate artists, creatives, and blossoming spirits. Happy Renaissance Faire season, dear reader, and stay magical.
About the author: Myles is a 20-year-old English student, lifelong gamer, and ex-cowboy (in that order). When he's not binge watching Netflix shows or replaying Bioshock for the dozenth time, he's running the CBC Twitter page @ comicbookcuriou
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