Renaissance Festival – What, Where, When, and Who

The Renaissance; the words imply rebirth, to be “reborn.” It was a period when Europeans celebrated their transition out of the middle ages as they awakened to new artistic and cultural ideas, when light was welcomed into their lives after periods of war, devastating plague, never ending rains and the resultant famine hammered down on Europe for centuries. The renaissance festival captures the spirit of this period of great cultural changes in history.

If you’re planning your first trip to a renaissance festival, allow yourself the time to take in the abundance of sights and sounds. There truly is a lot to absorb at such a festival – it is a bustling atmosphere with sounds of musical instruments and bells in the air, flags and ribbons fluttering in the breeze and various accents singing and performing. The scent of delicious foods, fragrant flowers and warm sunshine – a renaissance festival is an experience you won’t find in any other festivals around the world.

 

History Of The Renaissance Festival

In early twentieth century, American and British musical historians began to study Renaissance music at a deeper level, paving the way for an early music revival in the 1950s. A terrific interest in Renaissance and medieval culture took place and a lot of that interest was expressed in the forms of art, literature and folk music. American musician John Langstaff was a celebrated folk musician of the time, and produced several traditional early forms of Renaissance festival style gatherings of early musical appreciation in New York City and then in Washington.

A decade later, Los Angeles school teacher Phyllis Paterson and her husband organized a Renaissance festival of sorts on the property of her southern California large backyard as an enjoyable learning activity for her class. Paterson and her husband organized the premiere fair as a local radio station fundraising event, and the fair drew an impressive crowd of around eight thousand participants!

Many years later, what came to be known as The Renaissance Pleasure Faire has been an ongoing Southern California renaissance festival and has become a tradition at the Paramount Ranch, welcoming approximately twenty thousand festival goers each year. The whimsical festivities triggered a movement that spread across the United States and Canada.

The renaissance festival did originate in the United States and remains a traditionally American event, however the festivities have gained popularity in Canada and Europe as well. The majority of renaissance fairs are organized in a way that represents a fictitious village in England during the reign of Elizabeth I, this period being widely considered to reflect the blossoming of the English Renaissance.

While American renaissance festivals are whimsical and sometimes even incorporate elements of fantasy,

Sword Fighting on a Horse at Iowa Renaissance Festival

Sword Fighting on a Horse at Iowa Renaissance Festival

European renaissance festivals are more educational and aim to be more historically accurate. That’s not to say that there aren’t historically accurate renaissance festivals in the United States, but overall America tends to do it a little differently than Europe.

For example, you will generally find a lot more vendors trying to sell their wares at an American renaissance festival. Swords and other weaponry, clothing, food, art, beer, jewelry, pottery – the list goes on.  European renaissance festivals typically gear themselves more towards the educational aspect of the fair, and are less about entertainment. You will also see a lot more fantasy incorporated in American renaissance festivals. Some festivals welcome costumes such as fairies and warlocks, pirates, witches, creatures such as centaurs and minotaurs, and other characters not specifically linked with the renaissance era.

 

What to Expect at the Renaissance Festival

The Renaissance festival is composed of a vast array of performance art, craft fair vendors, and historical reenactment.  Here’s what you can typically expect to find at any renaissance festival:

  • Many vendors selling renaissance apparel including armour
  • Swords and other weaponry
  • Paintings and artwork
  • Medieval themed food and drink – roasted meats and ale
  • Re-enactments of battles, comedy skits, and various other types of performance art
  • Condensed versions of Shakespeare’s plays
  • Celtic and medieval music
  • Dancers
  • Jugglers and magicians, fools
  • Swordplay and even jousting on horseback
  • Medieval style games
  • Wandering performance artists portraying themselves as historical figures

Costumes are donned by the festival employees and typically portray the later part of the Elizabethan period.  In order to transport you into the renaissance era, the festival employees keep in full character. There are an abundance of booths, especially at an American renaissance festival, offering renaissance period crafts and delicious food.  Fair organizers will typically conduct parades through the crowds of festival goers, and musicians and other entertainers will delight participants with their music and performances all day long.

Typical renaissance festival characters include:

  • Peasants
  • Nobility
  • Warriors
  • Fools
  • Thieves
  • Goldsmith
  • Executioner
  • Ale wench
  • Butcher
  • Hunters
  • Blacksmith
  • Baker
  • Fishmonger

    The Milk Maid at the Renaissance Festival

    The Milk Maid at the Renaissance Festival

  • Knights
  • Milk maids
  • Town Watchman
  • Candle Maker

Renaissance fair employees strive to ensure their costumes fit the part and take pride in the perfection and accuracy of the role they are portraying, mirroring what would have been the traditional clothing worn during the Elizabethan era, a time when clothing was truly a reflection of social status. It is for this reason that no one visiting the renaissance festival should wear the colour purple – purple was strictly a colour worn only by royalty. Colourful clothing was definitely not typical – most garments were natural coloured.

During the reign of Elizabeth, with clothing always being an indicator of social status, there would never be any reason to question to who was nobility and who was not. Clothing reflected a person’s wealth, and the affordability of clothing was directly in relation to the type of fabric used to make the clothes. Velvet, corduroy, and satins were strictly reserved for royal garments.Clothing made from wool and flax were worn by lower class citizens. It’s important to keep this in mind when visiting a renaissance festival if you’re hoping to stay true to the era. There generally aren’t any strict guidelines or dress codes at most faires, but it’s a good idea to stay away from clothing with neon colours or logos.

Renaissance Fair Games and Fun

Soak a Bloke / Drench a Wench
Your typical dunk tank with a renaissance twist, the Soak a Bloke or Drench a Wench consists of a costumed actor awaiting an eager participant’s toss of a potato or similar object, in order to hit the target and plunge them into the vat of water.

Archery
Archers gather to fire arrows into targets

Swordplay
Swordsmen and women show off their skills in sword fighting

Jousting
A popular event, opponents combat each other on horseback, each attempting to knock the other off their horse with lance, dagger or sword

Plays
Shakespearean or anachronistic comedy skits are usually condensed into enjoyable compact performances that any passer by can enjoy – many involving audience participation

Magic
Similar to plays, many aspects of magic shows will involve audience participation, and are usually found at more fantasy-oriented renaissance festivals

Horse or pony rides
Children can enjoy a ride on a horse or pony, sometimes decorated as a warhorse

Wandering actors
Traveling the grounds of the renaissance festival and engaging in discussion with the festival goers, these amateur and professional performers allow visitors to immerse themselves a little more authentically into the environment that is the renaissance festival
Musical performances/concert
The majority of renaissance festivals culminate into a fantastic musical performance on the final day, where musicians perform period music for all in attendance

Parades
Quite often there will also be a parade on the final day of the renaissance festival, including all performers and musicians who have helped make the festival a success.

 

Popular Renaissance Festivals

 

Arizona Renaissance Festival

Dates: weekends – early February to late March

Gold Canyon, Arizona

Taking place in an authentic looking, specially crafted 30-acre village, Arizona Renaissance Festival is one of the top 10 renaissance faires in the USA, offering over 2000 costumed employees performing and dancing. Having been a popular renaissance festival for 25 years, it attracts over two hundred fifty thousand spectators each year. featuring more than 2,000 brightly costumed actors, dancers, and musicians, the Arizona Renaissance Festival has been a popular event for 25 years and is today one of the largest Renaissance themed events in the USA attracting more than 250,000 each year.  This renaissance festival features more than two hundred craft vendors, 13 entertainment stages, and a jousting arena.

Official Website: http://www.royalfaires.com/arizona/

 

Sherwood Forest Faire

Dates: Early February to early March

McDade, Texas

A family friendly event offering an array of of renaissance activities to from authentically presented all you can eat and all you can drink feasts, to children’s presentations as well as a faerie tea party. Witness the merriment of a grand renaissance festival parade, over forty stage performances and hundreds of vendors merchant shops, and a host of enjoyable games and rides.

Official Website: www.sherwoodforestfaire.com

 

Florida Renaissance Festival

Dates: February and March

Deerfield Beach – Fort Lauderdale, Florida

Middle-ages recipes, battling knights, jousting, archery, sword fighting, and Celtic music performances are just some of the events happening at the Florida Renaissance Festival, drawing crowds of over a million people to take part in the renaissance fun. Celebrating its 22nd anniversary, The Florida Renaissance Festival includes hundreds of vendors, a craft village of artisans, over twelve stages of performances, and even the world’s largest rocking horse.

Official Website: http://www.ren-fest.com

 

Scarborough Renaissance Festival

Dates: Early April – late May

Waxahachie, Texas

Over thirty two years in the making, the popular Waxahachie Texas renaissance festival is one of the most renowned renaissance events in the United States. Set up on a site of over thirty five acres, the Scarborough Renaissance Festival boasts over twenty stages and two hundred performances. The entertainment bill includes comedy acts and sword fighting. Vendors offer their wares: leather goods, jewelry and art, as well as delicious fair food inspired from the renaissance era.
Official Website: www.srfestival.com

 

Renaissance Pleasure Faire

Renaissance Pleasure Faire

Renaissance Pleasure Faire

Dates: Weekends from late April through mid May

Los Angeles, California

Southern California’s largest and most famous Renaissance Faire, the Renaissance Pleasure Faire has been an archetypal renaissance festival for almost half a century. Welcoming over twenty thousand participants each weekend, the festivities include eight theatre stages of comedy, dance, and musical performances, swordplay,  several parades and processions (including one for Queen Elizabeth I and her Court,) jousting competitions, a special food court, artisan booths, and fascinating glass blowing demonstrations.

For more information about the Renaissance Pleasure Faire visit:

Official Website: www.renfair.com

 

Valhalla Renaissance Faire

Dates: First 2 weekends in June

South Lake Tahoe, California

A double experience for the festival goer, the accompanying themes of the Valhalla Renaissance Faire portray two unique takes on historic era themed festivities on two different weekends. Celebrating its 23rd anniversary this year, Valhalla Renaissance Faire offers stage shows for both weekends, and hundreds of performance actors around the fair portraying their takes on Shakespeare, battles, jesting, dancing and storytelling for children and grownups alike.

Official Website: www.valhallafaire.com

 

Minnesota Renaissance Festival

Dates: Weekends mid August – end September

Shakopee, Minnesota

Into its 44th year, the Minnesota Renaissance Festival is considered the oldest and largest Renaissance Festival in the United States. This fair brings over two hundred eighty thousand visitors each year to celebrate medieval fun in a realistic looking fantasy kingdom. Features of the event include jousting and knights battles, renaissance crafters and artists, and food.

Official Website: www.renaissancefest.com

Visit information about festivals section to explore a full list of festivals happening around the world yearly!