By Jamie Kwan
As a scholar of the Early Modern, I have made my yearly pilgrimage to the annual Renaissance Society of America (RSA) conference. As many of you may know, it is an academic, interdisciplinary, three to four day event filled with panels, roundtables, and networking; it is a prime time to cross paths with our colleagues scattered across the world and hear about the current trends in Renaissance studies (The global Renaissance! Women artists and writers! Ableism and disability!).
But ultimately, I receive questions from others who are not in the field and unfamiliar with RSA. They ask: is it like a Renaissance fair? Do you dress up? The answer, unfortunately, is no to both, although I would pay good money to see some eminent academics wear a codpiece and breeches. So, for the sake of “research,” I bought a ticket to the Renaissance Pleasure Faire, Los Angeles’s premier Renaissance Fair, which takes place yearly for a couple of weeks in April and May.
Before heading to the faire, I had many questions: Do I need to dress up? Will there be a joust? Can I buy a turkey leg? But perhaps the most pressing issues, as a scholar of the Early Modern, concerned how historically accurate the fair would be. Indeed, given the reputation of Renaissance fairs in general, would the whole event be recognizably Renaissance? I had always imagined these events to be the domain of LARPers and D&D enthusiasts, and perhaps historic costumers.
For academics who spend years (even a lifetime) trying to understand this period, the Renaissance, or Early Modern, remains complex and fraught. There are so many different Renaissances that can be understood through various disciplines (literature, religion, the visual arts, medicine, and history just to name a few) and within those, we can choose to view the past through lenses determined by geography, class, gender, etc. Today, we grapple with the bounds of Renaissance studies itself— to make study of the period more inclusive and relevant. While the Renaissance had once only focused on figures (i.e. white males) from Europe, ca. 1400 to 1600, now we are working to expand our conception of the Renaissance to include women, people of non-European descent, and the expansion of the Renaissance in Africa, Latin America, Asia and the Middle East.
So given the (fraught) current state of Renaissance studies, I naturally was curious to see what a modern layman’s conception of the the Renaissance entailed. And honestly, I was really excited about the turkey legs.
We arrived at the fair early, near opening time, and there was already a large crowd gathering in the parking lot. We could already spy people in costume, and some hard-core visitors even installed ship masts with flags and mini-crow’s nests in the back of their pickup trucks. Impressive. But also practical, as the parking lot was just an enormous empty field with no landmarks.
The fair itself is very large; it is basically a winding pathway lined by tents and exhibitions, and occasionally, a fair ride (all manually powered, of course) or a stage with a performance. It’s a smorgasbord for the senses, with music, criers, food smells, and colorful signs. The fair consisted mostly of tents and stalls, covered carts, and occasionally, painted stage sets or built up covered platforms or corrals. It’s mostly a commercial space, although there were many opportunities for entertainment, as artists, musicians, comedians, and theatre troupes were scattered throughout.
Many of the stalls or “shoppes” sold quite the variety: from handmade flower garlands, to carved tankards, swords and other iron works, art glass, crafty jewelry, vaguely “Renaissance” (rather, “wench”) inspired clothing, fake faerie ears, perfumes, teas, and leather goods. There were many Celtic-themed stalls, as well as faerie or fantasy inspired ones as well. None of the goods, except for a couple of the wooden carved mugs or reproduction hand-forged swords, would have existed during the Renaissance. Although there were interesting demonstrations of period crafts, such as smithery or glass blowing, scattered among the stalls.
The costumes of the faire-goers were worth the ticket price alone. I have never visited an event such as Comic-con, so it was impressive to so many people dressed in such elaborate costumes outside of Halloween. For women, the busty pirate or generic wench (laced corset, low fitting cotton blouse) outfit was very popular, as well as a variation of faery, witch, gypsy and goth. Men similarly dressed in pirate-inspired garb, Highlander (kilt and all), hobbit-chic.
Among these diverse costumes were the pockets of Renaissance “authenticity,” where most older members wore what seemed to be accurate Elizabethan costume, as if they had stepped out of a Holbein portrait. They often sat in some quiet corner, engaged in some activity such as spinning, sewing, or preparing onions for a stew. I later learned that these were hired enactors, whose job was to help recreate the English waterfront town of Port Deptford.
Aside from the general gawping at the fantastic (in both senses of the word) costumes and stall offerings, the Faire offered many events. We were harassed by a trio of raunchy comedy performers called the “Tortuga Twins” (why twins, when there were three of them, I don’t know), men in bright yellow, low cut shirts, breeches, and goatees, who looked like they could have been booked for public obscenity charges. More pleasantly, we listened to some music (lots of English folk tunes, such as “Country Gardens”— not Renaissance but pastoral, I suppose) and watched Morris dancers perform some rounds. There were jugglers, aerialists, singers, dancers, and comedians all around.
But perhaps the highlight of the Faire’s entertainment is the joust, which takes place in a large corral at the end of the site, surrounded by bleachers (click here to see videos of the joust, as well as music, dancing, and a smithing demonstration). The host of the joust was a lady, who announced the various challenges and introduced the different jousters and their mounts. In spite of being a jaded art historian, I was impressed to see how the jousters could accurately hit their targets on a galloping horse. The event, which was fairly accurate in its layout and mechanics, really highlighted the physical prowess of the participants; I could completely imagine how King Henri II of France lost and eye and subsequently died from this activity.
After the joust, we hurried over to the concession area to take a look at the various options. The usual carnival food was on offer, such as buttered corn, gyros, hot dogs, and brisket. There were also stranger, more “Renaissance” specific offerings, such as boiled artichokes, bread and cheese (literally a hunk of cheddar on a sandwich loaf), and fried quails. However, I was there for the most iconic of Ren Faire foods: the turkey leg. The popular imagination conjures the image of Henry VIII of England, fat and feasting, with large turkey leg in hand. However, this is a result of “Mandela Effect,” or popular false memory, as turkeys were native to the Americas and were not widely eaten in widely Europe during the 16th century.
I waited in line for 45 minutes for this prized turkey leg. Was it tasty? Yes. Was it worth $18 and the amount of time waiting in the hot sun? Maybe not; I was especially angry to learn that you can get a similar turkey leg at Disneyland for $13 (and at Disneyland, to boot). But in any case, the turkey leg, in a sense, encapsulates what the Renaissance means in popular consciousness—not the Renaissance as it was, but as it is imagined.
My visit to the Pleasure Faire highlighted how the Renaissance has been co-opted as the home for many different aesthetics. It is a space for fantasy and escapism, for the fringe and alternative. Yes, the Faire did include aspects that were historically accurate. But more striking was how the many faire goers interpreted the Renaissance to fit their own definition, be it busty pirate, faerie, highlander, or hobbit (which made me wonder, why the Renaissance, and not other periods, as a space for this sort of fantasy?).
For many of the faire goers, the Renaissance is not merely a historical period, but a lifestyle. Noticeably, a lifestyle for a specific sort of person. Not that I felt unwelcome, but like the field of Renaissance studies, which has struggled to diversify, both in its scholarly pool and in its subject matter, most of the Faire goers were white. Of course, this brings up, once again, the question of what the Renaissance entails in its scope— both in academia and in the popular imaginary.
But all in all, it was a pleasurable outing and I truly think RSA would attract a wider audience if it held a joust and sold turkey legs.