May 11, 2013
Fifty years ago today, the first Renaissance Pleasure Faire took place in North Hollywood, CA. Born of the same creative energy that spawned many other artifacts of the Sixties, the event was initially a project begun by teacher/artists Phyllis and Ron Patterson, designed to enhance arts and performance education in their community. The art form known as “living history” met the free-wheeling playfulness of Southern California culture, and countless turkey legs and huzzahs later, RenFairs have become a thriving industry in historically-themed improvisational entertainment.
I’ve experienced Renaissance Fairs and festivals as an attendee rather than a performer, but a slew of friends, not to mention my husband, consider the “original” Renaissance Fair in Southern California their artistic second family, and experienced the Faire though a variety of historical alter egos. It’s always fun to sit in on a conversation with veterans of the “real” Faire as they discuss the crimes against historical accuracy perpetrated by the vast network of “Renaissance” fairs that crosses the US today.
Turning history into entertainment is a time-honored business in the US and Europe (read Julian Barnes’ England, England for a particularly dystopian treatment of the selling of culture).The academy has recently turned its attention to this phenomenon as well.
Many more books can be and have been written about what American pop culture does with (and to) history – a topic I might pursue in more detail later. But if you want the phenomenon in a nutshell, a visit to a RenFaire will give you a good idea. Sadly, it won’t show you what the Pattersons and the makers of the California Faires achieved for a few brief decades, but this book, written by my dear friend Maggie Secara, gives you a sense of what the creators and performers of the Faire were striving for:
May 2 is the birthday of that great antiquarian, teacher, and scholar, William Camden (1551-1623), the man we can fairly give credit for the mind and career of Ben Jonson. Camden was the usher of The Westminster School when Jonson was a pupil there, and probably sponsored the bright bricklayer’s stepson as a scholarship boy. Camden took on the huge task of surveying all England for his monumental Britannia, which combined history, topography, and description to create a deep understanding of his beloved native land. He was a chronicler of his own time as well as an enthusiastic student of myth and folklore. Jonson remained devoted to Camden for the historian’s entire life, as the myriad exclamation points in his Epigram XIV demonstrate.
CAMDEN! most reverend head, to whom I owe
All that I am in arts, all that I know;
(How nothing’s that?); to whom my country owes,
The great renown, and name wherewith she goes!
Than thee the age sees not that thing more grave,
More high, more holy, that she more would crave.
What name, what skill, what faith hast thou in things!
What sight in searching the most antique springs!
What weight, and what authority in thy speech!
Men scarce can make that doubt, but thou canst teach.
Pardon free truth, and let thy modesty,
Which conquers all, be once o’ercome by thee.
Many of thine, this better could, than I;
But for their powers, accept my piety.
“GET up, get up for shame, the blooming morn
Upon her wings presents the god unshorn.
See how Aurora throws her fair
Fresh-quilted colours through the air :
Get up, sweet slug-a-bed, and see
The dew bespangling herb and tree.
Each flower has wept and bow’d toward the east
Above an hour since : yet you not dress’d ;
Nay ! not so much as out of bed?
When all the birds have matins said
And sung their thankful hymns, ’tis sin,
Nay, profanation to keep in,
Whereas a thousand virgins on this day
Spring, sooner than the lark, to fetch in May.”
— Corinna’s Going A-Maying
Robert Herrick (1591-1674), though a bachelor and a country parson most of his adult life, was a tremendous fan of rural fertility festivals and all the joys that came along with them. Scholars have long struggled to reconcile his religious profession with his frankly erotic verses (see “The Vine” for a poem that would make any modern teenager blush), but I see no contradiction here. Herrick lived during a time when everyone knew that life was short and pleasures few. The delights of the imagination, he suggests, are innocent, and beautiful, sensual language only honors the gifts of the creator. Herrick wrote his sermons for God but for himself he indulged in playful verse that celebrated life, love, food, and festivity.