Renaissance Fairs and Pandemics

En garde ! Renaissance fairs are reopening across the United States this summer, bringing the clanging of arms and armor back to an enthusiastic public. These festivals celebrate late medieval and Renaissance culture through costume displays and historical re-enactments—including jousts, swordfights, court festivals, pageants, banquets, dances, artisanal workshops, markets, culinary demonstrations, and musical and theatrical performances.

Renaissance joust re-enactment at the St. Louis Renaissance Fair,

Many of the Renaissance fairs emerged in the 1960s and 1970s, but they have grown into multifaceted fan festivals. The Washington Post reports that “folklore and fantasy stoked a nationwide boom in elaborate seasonal Renaissance festivals. At these multi-weekend events, artisans sold jewelry, candles and clothing; musicians played lutes and flutes; and fire-eaters, jugglers, acrobats and jousters performed feats of medieval derring-do. Video-jaded kids clamored for wooden shields, swords and magic wands that could last a summer of backyard play. Many fairgoers attended in costume; people-watching alone can be worth the price of admission.”

Most Renaissance fairs were cancelled in 2020 due to the Covid-19 pandemic. Before the pandemic hit, Renaissance fairs were attracting immense crowds. “In pre-covid 2019, more than 1 million people attended more than 200 such festivals from Florida to Alberta,” according to The Washington Post.

The reopening of Renaissance fairs this summer has many fans excited, but also reminds us of the economic recovery and cultural innovation during the Renaissance following the Black Death pandemic of the mid-fourteenth century.

“After the pandemic, signs of economic and cultural recovery began to emerge with the return of market fairs. That was roughly 670 years ago. History seems to be repeating itself,” according to The Washington Post. “European fairs before and after the Black Death were once-a-year events often tied to saint days, when traveling merchants and craftsmen set up tents on village greens to sell goods to locals also lured by food and entertainment.”

Actors often portray well-known Renaissance kings and queens such as François I of France, Charles V of the Holy Roman Empire, Elizbeth I of England, and Mary Queen of Scots. Meanwhile, historical re-enactors play diverse roles of the nobles, clergy, merchants, artisans, soldiers, and peasants who inhabit the villages at Renaissance festivals.

An actress portraying Mary Queen of Scots at a Renaissance fair.

Much of the entertainment at Renaissance fairs is only vaguely linked to the historical Renaissance, since the festivals tend to blur the lines between diverse literary and film genres and historical periods: medieval peasants and archers, Renaissance courtiers, early modern gypsies, and eighteenth-century pirates all make appearances. Magical and fantastic creatures such as fairies, elves, dragons, mermaids, and witches also inhabit the woods.

Many enthusiastic festival goers don their own costumes, often inspired by film, television, comic book, role playing game, and video game characters. The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings, Dungeons and Dragons, and Harry Potter have all fueled Renaissance fair personas. The popularity of The Game of Thrones television series has added new layers to the costume drama of Renaissance fairs in recent years.

The Washington Post reports on Renaissance fairs. Students at Northern Illinois University may be interested in the nearby Bristol Renaissance Faire or the St. Louis Renaissance Festival.

This entry was posted in Cultural History, Early Modern Europe, Early Modern World, European History, Historical Re-enactment, History in the Media, History of Medicine, Mediterranean World, Renaissance Art and History, Social History. Bookmark the permalink.

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