Huzzah for the King!
A Medievalist at the Renaissance Faire
Everyone assumes that I must despise a Renaissance faire. You know, those things where a bunch of people go into a ramshackle pseudotown in the forest somewhere to dress in a variety of historical or fantasy clothes, guzzle mead, and abuse the English language. Huzzah!
They assume this because I am a medievalist, but even more so because I am a medieval historian, and historians (as it is well known) are Ruiners of Fun. We rampage through everyone’s favorite book or movie or whatever, pointing out all the historical inaccuracies and destroying one’s immersion in the story with a well-timed “well, actually.”
This perception, we must all admit, is not entirely without merit. The professional historian has been trained to interpret the past accurately, precisely, and with lots of footnotes. We are hyperaware of flaws and factual inaccuracies in our own work, and we have learned through long seminar hours the fine art of finding flaws in the work of others. And let’s be frank: it’s annoying when a celebrity gets paid millions of dollars to misrepresent one’s life’s work. Actually, let’s be frank and honest: it’s annoying that they’ve never read our life’s work and wouldn’t be interested in doing so if ever provided with the opportunity.
Renaissance faires are inaccurate. The dress is a mishmash of historical periods, when it’s not an outright fabric fabrication—though I do love those who dress up in Star Trek uniforms and pretend to examine a primitive culture. None of the early modern English spoken is grammatically correct; often it’s barely intelligible. The ubiquitous mead attracts swarms of bees eager to reclaim their honey and angry it was stolen in the first place. All the food is, inexplicably, served on a stick, and one cannot avoid the wandering minstrels.
I love them. I trekked to the Maryland Renaissance Festival near Annapolis twice this fall, wearing my mishmash of fantasy leather and Etsy linen. My key lime pie on a stick (?!) was delicious, and I got a remarkably small number of beestings. I cheered “my” knight in the joust (the state sport of Maryland), booed his antagonist, and stood aside respectfully for King Henry VIII and his retinue.
I love the Renaissance faire because of its historical inaccuracies, not despite them. Because history isn’t the point, which is why historians’ critiques of Ren faires (or any other bit of history in popular media or culture) come across as irritating rather than helpful. Premodernity, the temporal space a faire supposedly occupies, is a periodization defined by its opposition to everything we currently are as “moderns.” It’s a space that’s simultaneously historically grounded and entirely fictional. Whether fantastical or historical, the premodern is that which is not modern, and it is therefore a uniquely easy place to play with one’s identity.
More darkly, the premodern can be a space where white supremacists create their fiction of a preracial past. The shopkeeper selling Futhark necklaces at the Maryland festival told me that his bestseller was the othala rune (ᛟ), a letter beloved by the Waffen-SS and the Conservative Political Action Conference. These days, I view anyone at the faire dressed as a Knight Templar (a white mantle with a big red cross on it) with deep suspicion due to the role the memory of that order plays in current white supremacist narratives and neofascist ideologies.
“The past is never dead,” Faulkner once wrote. “It’s not even past.” Nowhere is the idea of the premodern as both reviled origin and privileged past more on display than a Renaissance faire, and that is why it is so attractive to me as a student of the past. And for the historian still seeking historical fidelity, I suggest you take some inspiration from the American Historical Review’s recent series of articles on historical smells. Where but a Renaissance faire could you find the authentic smell of a medieval pit latrine?
L. Renato Grigoli is the editor of Perspectives on History.
Tags: From the Editor
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