Have you ever been to a Renaissance fair?
Believe it or not, I've only been to one. We live in Northern California, so several years ago we attended the Renaissance Pleasure Faire held in Novato (this fair, one of the country's oldest, has since relocated to Hollister). It was a wonderful afternoon. The setting was lovely and the weather not too warm. Eleven and eight years old at the time, the kids really got into some of the activities, trying their hands at archery, munching roasted turkey drumsticks, and waving to the Queen and her courtiers as they paraded through the site. The highlight of the day was the tournament, where riders in armor jousted with pine lances. I still remember the thud of hooves as horses pounded down the list and the clash of lance colliding with shield. It truly gave me a glimpse of how exciting a real sixteenth-century joust must have been.
I'll have to admit, though, it took me a little while to get into the spirit of the fair and to stop reminding myself that these were modern people running around in costumes and pretending to be something they weren't. The bawdiness of some of the acts and behavior at these fairs of can reach questionable levels; with kids in tow, one really has to be careful what one stops to watch. I was a little put off, too, by the commercial nature of event; there were many vendors selling things that were only remotely tied to Renaissance culture. On the whole, the fair seemed more show than substance, more an excuse to dress up and have a good time than to learn about life in a different era. From what I gather, this controversy over the nature and purpose of Renaissance fairs permeates the field. The detailed Wikipedia article on Renaissance fairs claims that whereas European fairs tend to resemble living history museums where the re-enactors strive to explain historical life to modern visitors, American fairs tend to cater to their patrons' greater interest in eating, drinking, shopping and watching farce than learning about the past.
Knowing better what to expect now, I think it's time to try the Northern California Renaissance Faire again. It will be held weekends, September 6-October 12, at the Casa de Fruta in Hollister. I'd love to hear about your experience with such fairs, in the US or abroad. And if any of you plan on attending the Hollister fair, let me know and maybe we can coordinate our visits.