What makes it such fun to immerse oneself for a day in a make-believe past? It’s sheer escapism, filled with unexpected treats and totally removed from everyday life. Unlike romanticizing the past, relishing the fair doesn’t mean supposing life was better in 1574. Instead we get the best of both worlds. Sword fights break out and we know they’re scripted. A plague cart rolls by and we laugh as we shiver.
The Bristol Renaissance Faire, in Bristol (Wisconsin) between Milwaukee and Chicago, plays at connections with Queen Elizabeth I’s visit to Bristol (England) in 1574. The earlier King Richard’s Faire at the same site in the 1970s played on the name of the original owner. Workers at the fair play their parts in every interaction. John Dee chats about astrology at the Queen’s Court; a wench thanks “My Lady” for the tip on a bottle of water. Fairgoers role-play as much or as little as they wish while they soak up Celtic music, cheer at a joust, visit a pirate ship, or gnaw on a turkey leg.
As for the fairgoers who come in costume, my sense is that they used to lean more toward authenticity. Today the mix extends to elves and fairies, belly dancers and wizards. The Kids’ Kingdom has dragons and hobbit houses. The fair echoes role-playing games and popular fiction in blending fantasy with medieval motifs (same as Renaissance for fantasy purposes), a trend that took off with Tolkien and Dungeons & Dragons. The occasional steampunk costume serves as a reminder that fantasy knows no bounds.
I'm a historian who writes novels and literary nonfiction. My home base is Madison, Wisconsin.