The Renaissance Faire garners a lot of criticism for their fluffy portrayal of history. And it is terribly fluffy. I hate to break anyone’s bubble, but frozen bananas were not a thing of the past. Nor were dragon puppets, bows with arrows tipped in rubber erasers, cloth tapestries of yin-yang symbols, or hair wreaths where the dye runs in the rain. Only the wealthiest people could afford to eat a turkey leg. Artichokes existed nowhere outside of Greece.
The atmosphere at Faire seethes. Dust clings to everything, mingling with sweat so that when I come home, I can tell the exact location of my bodice by the dark line of gray across my chest. The crowd is a confluence of those in trademark bodice and skirts or doublet and pants, those in princess costumes of satin with lurid gold trim, barbarians, colorful jesters with elaborate codpieces, fairies, those in jeans and t-shirts. A woman has pinned a button to the bodice in front of her vast breasts that says Nice day, aren’t they? The dusty road, really a sea of people, serpentines through aisles of booths. Hawkers cry their wares.
“Faire Special!” yells a man with a pole full of hair wreathes. “Buy two, get two!”
“Hot Chestnuts!” says a woman behind a red metal push cart. “Put my hot nuts in your mouth!”
The serpentine streets dump out at the jousting stadium, a collection of metal bleachers draped with flags.
And yet, for all the historical travesty, the Renaissance Faire gets at least one thing right. Public drunkenness. It is the truth that during most of history alcohol was readily available and most of the population was drunk most of the time. Water was usually polluted, untrustworthy. If you didn’t want to get dysentery, beer was much healthier than water. In the words of Dr. Estes from Chapman University, “back then almost everyone was drunk pretty much all of the time.”
When I heard this in class, a lot of things suddenly made sense. Like jousting.
And so the point of this meditation on the joys of the Renaissance Faire is to say, history might surprise you. The things that seem authentic are often not, and vice versa. The next time you see a sprite, wings attached by elastic to her shoulders, holding a plastic cup of beer in her hand, know that at least one thing in that equation is a certified historic experience.