Saturday, April 28, 2007

Renaissance Faires and Popular Medievalism

Medieval academics, admit it. Like me, you have a bit of a snobby attitude about Renaissance Faires. I went to my first faire some years ago, and spent a good deal of time scoffing that:
  • It's far more medieval than Renaissance.
  • The Middle Ages weren't really like that! It's a myth!
  • It's packed with a lot of overpriced garbage.
  • Who ARE these geeks?
And now, having some years later attended my second, I can add one more:
  • Pirates? I mean, really, what crass exploitation of Disney films.
Today I went to the Georgia Renaissance Festival, where I spent too much money, got too much sun, and had just the right amount of fun. On the trip back, I spent a good deal of time thinking about these attitudes, and submit to you the following responses:

Yes, it's more medieval than Renaissance ... but the Renaissance was itself home of all sorts of interesting medievalism. Since the Middle Ages, people have enjoyed harkening back to those days, whether through Early Modern love of heraldry or contemporary American theme festivals. In large part, this impulse toward an a-historical medievalism is nothing new (heck, look at how a-historical medieval histories are about the earlier Middle Ages!), but simply an attempt to write for ourselves a mythic past in an effort to define ourselves today. We define ourselves both with and against this medievalism -- patting ourselves on the back that we somehow share in the honor and courage of the jousting knight, and patting ourselves just as hard because we no longer have stocks and public floggings (Oprah guests excepted). It's more about who we are than who they were.

Yes, much of it is myth, and, as I mentioned above, those myths serve a powerful purpose. Still, in a couple of weeks I'll be at the International Medieval Congress at Kalamazoo, hearing from other experts in the field, and I bet I'll have at least one myth punctured. I always learn something at K'zoo, because there is simply no way for a single man to know everything about the Middle Ages, or medieval literature, or Anglo-Saxon literature, or even a single Anglo-Saxon poem. It is hard for me to condemn others for their ignorance when medieval studies is just their weekend hobby, and it is my bread-and-butter. When people are ignorant of medieval truths, medieval scholars are culpable too.

Let's examine the "over-priced garbage" complaint. Yup, the stuff is waaaay to expensive. Yup, much of it is garbage. Still, people buy it. People buy a lot of it. People buy so much of it that the Renaissance Faires are run as for-profit commercial enterprises. Hear that? Medievalism is profitable! People pay too much money for over-priced garbage because they are starving for medievalism. All the time I hear this nonsense that "no one cares about medieval studies, it just isn't relevant, and if we offer courses in it, no one will come" -- BULL! Hundreds of thousands of people (perhaps millions, if someone has the statistics) pour into these Faires every year. When I gave a presentation on real medieval magical and medical practices at InConjunction last year, it was to standing room only -- even more than my Tolkien presentation! Let's see the over-priced garbage as instead an indicator of the market value of what we are offering.

Who are these geeks? They are folks just like you and me, without the degrees. They love the same stuff we love, but because their lives took a different path, they celebrate that love at Renaissance Faires rather than International Medieval Congresses. We scholars have a deeper understanding of this subject that we love, but that doesn't make our love more worthwhile -- it makes our knowledge more worthwhile, but not our love. When I was 17 years old and trying to decide what to do with my life, I almost decided on biomedical engineering, but in the end chose (for whatever muddled 17-year-old reason) to study English instead. A different choice in my life, and I wouldn't find myself in the Medieval Congress either. So, let's not mock these geeks -- they are our brothers and sisters, our fellow travellers. Hey, Ren Faire geeks, I might not attend these faires but once per decade, but I'm one of you too, as is nearly every other person at the Congress.

As for the pirates ... well, these pirates seemed to do a lot more sword-wielding than pistol brandishing. They auctioned off a lot of weapons, but not one was a replica gun, or cannon, or pegleg. They were all daggers and swords and axes and shields and katanas -- as if we were supposed to imagine the Caribbean dotted with extremely disoriented samurais. The pirates are simply the current liaisons between us and the Middle Ages. I don't know for sure, but I'd guess that at one time you could buy a light saber at a Faire. Some day the pirates too will be replaced by a new liaison, so let's let them have their time in the sun.

So, to summarize -- Renaissance Faires, cool. Faire-geeks, cool. Medieval Congress, cool. Medieval scholars, cool. Let's all bask together in the inherent coolness of medievalism.


  1. One of the main factors behind the scorn professional medievalists dump on such "geeks" is that they realize that people in general consider *them* geeks, and they want to demonstrate that they are oh so serious.

    Do you know that the first Renaissance Faire started in the Bay Area at just about the same time the SCA started in the Bay Area, by people who vaguely knew each other but did not discuss or coordinate their activities in advance?

    Now there is something to think about!

  2. It is easy to go to these faires and spend the entire day pointing out the inaccuracy of weaponry or costumes (Star Trek, along with pirates, somewhat inexplicably present), but, somewhere along the line one has to admit that it's kind of fun. Honestly, where but the Maryland Ren Festival can you actually see legitimate jousting (which also just so happens to be the official state sport)?

  3. Anonymous11:23 AM

    Having been involved with them (Renaissance Faires and SCA) at various levels and having an education in early modern European history, I have been fond of saying (and you can quote me if you'd like): "Renaissance Faires are to history as Etch-A-Sketch is to art."

    With a few notable exceptions I doubt that people would pay to go to a realistic Medieval / Renaissance Faire. Besides, it's not about history, really, it's about theatre. One is better off, I think, comparing Renaissance Faires to Shakespeare's historical plays (say, Henry V.) He got some things right. He got some things wrong. And some things were changed to make the story more interesting and flow better in a limited time/space continuum. Such is the way of the RenFaire.

    I find usually that it only becomes a problem when one encounters a "historicity Nazi" -- usually someone trying to exert power in some appropriate way.

    - Jehosefatz

  4. Anonymous11:26 AM

    Edit: "... some inappropriate way."

    - Jeho

  5. A great post on medievalism - particularly the pirates of the Caribbean as our latest liasons to the medieval. I feel the same way when you see people re-enacting the Battle of Hastings at a big medieval conference (that shall remain nameless!) - my knee-jerk reaction (drilled into me by years of "study") is to look on with a bit of scorn, but that quickly changes to good old fashioned fun - chain mail is *heavy*....and COOL!