Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Renaissance Faires, a Historical Fiction

I have been pondering the historicity of Renaissance faires.

Renaissance faires are most commonly weekend events, they are found all around the US, some in Canada, and are gaining popularity in Australia. Probably not surprisingly, special events on Medieval and Renaissance history can be found all over Europe, but the events that I am focusing on are a particularly colonial phenomenon. They vary widely in size, and intent from faire to faire. Some are long established, permanent enterprises, some are more ephemeral church or school fund-raisers. Faires also vary in historical accuracy, which is not necessarily related to size or any other factor. All Renaissance faires are based on festivals, markets, and celebrations in Renaissance Europe, but none of them intend to recreate life in a particular time and place with the accuracy expected of a museum. So where does that lead someone trying to make generalizations about Renaissance faires as concerns their historical basis or lack thereof? In quite a conundrum.

I’ve been working Renaissance faires for 6 years. Before being hired as a Stage Manager at a faire in 2002, my historical background was in museums. And now that I am expending more of my energy towards history and less towards theater I am looking to museums again. Today I find myself justifying my time spent at Renaissance faires to colleagues in the museum field. Many of these folks (who may or may not have ever visited a Renaissance faire) speak of Renaissance faires with derision, but are unable to tell me exactly what a faire is, though they all tend to agree “its not history.” The only response to these folks I’ve come up with so far is: the Renaissance faire is historical fiction.

I think the analogy between Renaissance faires and historical fiction is fairly solid, especially since there are so many forms of historical fiction: novels, plays and movies are most obvious. Historical novels, like Renaissance faires, vary widely in their portrayals of history. Middle schools use the novels of Karen Cushman to teach medieval history, but very few would consider novels like The Crystal Cave for teaching history, even if it is a great story. The same can be said for plays and movies. HBO’s series on John Adams, strives to be accurate within the confines of the mini-series, and is certainly more accurate than the movie The Patriot or the musical 1776, though all are based on the Revolutionary war, and all portray actual events.

Some Renaissance faires strive to include as much history as they can, training their actors in history and biography as well as interaction. Some have special days for school field trips that are more educational than the average weekend day. Some insist that only hand-made items be sold in the many shops and booths throughout the faire. But many more welcome the fairies and sprites of fantasy, celtic inspired art and goods, and entertainment that owes more to Victorian England (the 1800s) than Renaissance England (the late 1500s, early 1600s).

Renaissance faires share another important element with other forms of historical fiction: author/producer intent versus reader/viewer/visitor experience. Many authors will tell you that once they have released a creation into the world, once a story is published, each individual reader will bring their own interpretation to the book. No two readers will experience a story the same way, no two viewers will see a movie the same way, and no two visitors to the Renaissance faire, will have the same experience. Actually, this element is heightened at a Renaissance faire, where the many elements that make up the faire will all lead to varied visitor experiences.

At the Renaissance faire there are many varied live performances going on all day long, and no one person can catch them all. Just like at the mall, a person is unlikely to visit every shop, or shop for the same items. A large part of the Renaissance Faire experience is centered around personal interaction with the historical characters, so every actor tailors their performance to the people they are encountering at the moment, guaranteeing a level of personalization just not possible in books or movies.

So, can a Renaissance faire be called history? I think it can safely be called historical fiction. How historical is a Renaissance faire? Well, it depends.

I welcome your comments, please let me know what a renaissance faire is to you.

Photos, Top: Guild of Saint Michael lines up for parade, Bristol Renaissance Faire (photo by Alena Shumway), Middle: “Willow” the Fey of trees, Connecticut Renaissance Faire (photo by Jess Boynton), Botom: King Edward knighting a young visitor, Maine Renaissance Faire (photo by Rob Mohns.)


  1. I think you have it nailed. Renaissance faires cannot be more than historical fiction unless they turned into a living museum, like Sturbridge Village or Plymoth Plantation. Their intent is for entertainment first, education second. Whereas the other events are education first, entertainment second. The element of play is what gives the Renaissance faire that element of theme park that a living history museum never wants to have if it wants to be taken seriously as a scholarly endeavor.

  2. Yes, in Europe they are far more like living history events, unless its by something like the Society for Creative Anachronism . You would not see anyone dressed as Captain Jack Sparrow or Turkey legs at European events. Turkey has no part in the Middle Ages: its an American bird and was not introduced to Europe until the late 1500s.