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Renaissance Fair

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It’s Sunday, and on Sunday I have an invariable routine.  Well, almost invariable.  As long as there aren’t any plumbing problems, or funerals, or that kind of thing.

What  I do on Sunday after I work and write this blog (sometimes), is make a lot of Stash  Double  Bergamot Earl Grey tea, put “early music” on the CD player, and read whatever it is I’m reading.

At the moment, what I’m reading is the very end of the  Trollope novel, The Duke’s Children, that I’ve been reading for a while, and the music that’s going on the CD player is a collection of lute music from Renaissance Venice played by Paul O’Dette.   If this is the kind of information you like having, Paul O’Dette is the person to go to for lute music, Renaissance or otherwise, and Gerhardt Leonhardt is the person to go to for harpsichord music.   In fact, I’ve got recommendations for just about anything done before 1700.  I do not have recommendations for the piano, because for some reason I don’t really like the sound of it.

Maybe because my mother made me take lessons, and then my father laughed at what I produced. Which was legitimately laughable, but still.

One of the priveleges of being born into a rich nation in the twentieth century is the luxury of retaining resentments about things that happened when you were eight.

Both Aristotle and  Aquinas would have called me an idiot for doing it.  Or worse.

But  I do this every Sunday and I don’t write about it ever Sunday, so there must be a reason I’m bringing it up, and there is.  Two reasons, actually.

The first is an odd thing that happened in the first of my classes on Friday morning.  We were discussing the ways in which to write a “definition” paper, and therefore what a definition is, and how it can be used, and what it’s place can be in an argument.

And I went through my usual thing about how, if you capture the language, you can often win great strides without having to do nothing else–consider the war of words that is the argument over abortion in America.  If you can get people calling you “pro-life,” then what is it that they’re instinctively calling the other side?

This is all pretty standard stuff, and I don’t know what got me going in another direction, but I got started on the concept of justic in Aristotle and in Medieval  England and the way in which it depended heavily on social assumptions that we are not all created equal–that men and women, slaves and freemen, highborn and lowborn have different natures and capacity, so that treating them alike would be injustice rather than otherwise.

Then I went off on a short sketch of how we got here from there–about St. Paul to the Corinthians (you are neither Jew nor Greek…), and the Protestant Reformation, and John Locke, right down to the Declaration of Independence.

I did not do a hugely wonderful job with this.   If the lecture lasted all of ten minutes,  I would be surprised.  I just gave a sort of sketch, in order to point out the importance of definition not only for winning a finite argument but for determining the course of civilization itself.

Okay, okay.  I can’t help myself.

But what got me was that my students responded by being absolutely fascinated.  All the noise in the room stopped, and when  I stopped and sent them back to the little group project I’d given them, there was an immediately clamor that I should “talk more.”

Because “you know all this stuff.”

These are the same kids who complain that they don’t see why they should have to learn any of this stuff that doesn’thave anything to do wi th their “major.” 

These are the same kids who spend half their time telling me they’re not interested in knowing anything.

It’s the kind of thing that makes me think I’m not crazy to believe that there is a real itch for education–real education, not just training–even among the kids without trust funds.  Or much of anything else.

The second thing that’s on my mind this morning is this, which is related in an odd way:  next week-end, my older son will be going with a group of his friends to the annual Renaissance Fair (Renaissance Faire?) near Philadelphia.  They do this every year, and, for Matt, the week in question is usually preceded by several weeks of working more than usual to make sure he’s seriously funded.  I’m not sure why, since he never seems to buy anything but the occasional puppet, but, you know.  Whatever. 

I don’t know if any of you have ever been to one of these things, but the ones I’ve seen, and the ones I’ve seen advertising for, have not been about the Renaissance so much as they’ve been about a sort of faux-Middle Ages.  They don’t go quite so far as events for the Society for Creative Anachronism, where people not only dress up, but have mock jousts and things, but the fundamental principle seems to be the same:  enormous costume parties where actual knowledge of standard or intellectual history is not required.

My question is:  why?  I think I understand what my students want when they want me to talk more about the history of ideas, but I don’t understand what people get out of going to Renaissance Fairs.  I can’t ask Matt, because he isn’t one of hte people who dresses up.  He just goes, eats a lot of food, buys his puppet, and then comes home to put this latest puppet into his latest film project.

Don’t ask.

But Renaissance Fairs are not a passing fad.  They’ve been big business in the US for at least two decades, and they show no signs I can see of petering out.  They’re just not about the Renaissance, or even the Middle Ages.

I’d blame Tolkein for them, but I have a feeling that’s just too simple.

Maybe I’ll go listen to Elgar.

Written by janeh

October 4th, 2009 at 9:24 am

Posted in Uncategorized

12 Responses to 'Renaissance Fair'

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  1. Mandatory pieano lessons for me, too. No laughter, but it may still explain why the music of choice is brass and drums.

    The class on Friday: YES!! You made the transition from “this is worth learning for its own sake” or “you need to learn this because a bunch of other people know it” to “this is important because it affects how you think and how you are treated.” As a History major, that was where I started, but my English teachers never got past das ding an sich. (In fact, they never really got past “you can’t get out of this school until you say what we want you to say about these authors.” If you could say that in four words of Latin, it would be the English Department motto.)

    Ren Fairs: Closest is Maryland, and I’ve been. I haven’t been much, because it tends to be a group activity, and I don’t have a group. I’d go with SCA lite, though I have seen jousting there. From what I’ve seen, they’re Renaissance, but they’re northern Renaissance. Forget Borgias and think Wars of the Roses and early Tudors. Some people dress up, but watching costumed people can be fun without being costumed, there are tests of strength and agility, trinkets–some customised or hand-crafted–you can buy for your girlfriend, and lots of food you shouldn’t eat, but it’s a special occasion. It’s a jumped-up carnival, and if Sharon were still alive, we’d go at least every summer.

    I don’t think Tolkien’s remotely responsible, unless maybe at a remove or so, by way of SCA. He was a man who knew history from Adrianople through Bosworth down to his fingertips, and took it seriously. He understood the beliefs–religion, but also legend and folk philosophy–which stood behind the actions, and the words and what they meant. None of this translates into the Ren Fairs at all.

    If you want a Tolkien legacy, I’d say a badly-needed reinforcement of orthodox Christian belief, a hand in the “small is beautiful” movement, and a serious duscussion of the nature of evil, of the corruptions of power and of addiction. In all of these he is one among many.
    Where is stands almost alone is his defense of language. Whenever a character in Tolkien speaks the language of a modern political spokesperson, be he Hobbit (Lotho Sackville-Baggins) Wizard (Saruman) or Man (Grima Wormtongue and the Mouth of Sauron)–full of weasel words, euphemisms and excuses, using words not to express what he means but to conceal it, you know that person has gone over to the dark. Naturally, every such speech was excised from the film. But after 40 years of reading and re-reading Tolkien, WAY too many of our “leaders” sound like Saruman. And it’s a Very Good Thing that many of us now notice this.


    4 Oct 09 at 10:45 am

  2. I quit piano lessons because I wasn’t getting anywhere with them, except into fights with my mother over practicing, and kind of wish they hadn’t ended like that. But that’s all water under the bridge, and I still enjoy music. Some music.

    We don’t have Renn Faires up here, and the ones I’ve read about have been the SCA ones. I suspect their popularity in the US is nothing more or less than the pleasure some people get out of an communal outing that’s cheap, amusing, suitable for the whole family, and neither completely structured nor completely unstructured – that is, things to do or watch are organized, but you can stay for as long or as short a period as you like, doing as much or as little as you like.

    I’m reminded a bit of a local regatta, which startles vistors who think ‘regatta’ implies something refined, high-class and expensive. Ours combines a series of rowing races for quite a range of teams, from youth doing it for a lark to the seriously competitive teams going for the record. Then there’s the food (ranging from cotton candy through meat in various forms to the vegetarian offerings of the local Hindu Temple (my favourite)), scores of booths offering mild gambling opporunities for the chance of winning fluorescent stuffed toys or small sums of money, sometimes pony rides or a bouncy castle…anything anyone can come up with and buy a license for a concession stand. And then you dump in a good proportion of the local population who eat and gawk and gossip with people they haven’t seen in years and sometimes watch the races.

    It’s the opportunity of a communal easy-going outing that’s the appeal, not the races or (in your case) the costumes.

    And regarding the importance of definition – sometimes you just hit the right idea to connect the right way. That’s what makes teaching addictive.


    4 Oct 09 at 1:47 pm

  3. Bristol Renaissance Faire, in Kenosha, Wisconsin every weekend in the summer, is about a 2 hour drive from here, and I go every few years. They have jousting & swordfights, jugglers and acrobats, mini-plays and processions, and lots to buy (want a sword?) and eat. It’s livelier than a county fair (I’m not into livestock), but less manic than a theme park (I’m not into rollercoasters, either). It’s basically a pleasant day out in an unusual setting.

    I used to live closer to Wisconsin, and I knew quite a few people who worked the fair. Many were teachers on summer break, and all of them were hams. They worked really hard to learn the skills they needed, and to create the characters they play at the faire (they are acting, not just being themselves. More or less.) I’ve always found watching hammy actors chewing the scenery entertaining.

    A couple of years ago I arranged to have SCA come in for a day of demos at the library. You should have seen everyone in the library converging on the meeting room every time I announced over the PA that there was about to be a swordfight. (We couldn’t manage jousting in the library!) I think a lot of people find skilled combat fascinating.

    Congratulations on getting through to your kids!

    Lee B

    4 Oct 09 at 7:16 pm

  4. Ren Faires are fun for all, the louts and wenches, the musicians, the royalty and the SCA types they get in for the jousting and swordfighting. And the hoi polloi, as well. The faires I’ve been to have been really good about instructing the staff to allow spectators to participate or not, as they wish. So shy folks aren’t accosted, and the latent hams are hooked in to various mischief.

    Of course, historical accuracy is last on the priority list. I figure Renaissance Faire is more attractive to crowds than Middle-to-Late-Dark-Ages Faire.

    Interesting comments on the laid-back community gathering. I attended one of those yesterday…a chili cookoff. It’s the first one I’d gone to..what fun! There were probably 2000 people there, and about 30 chili and salsa contestants. Bands, boat rides and vendors of all sorts. The people-watching was excellent. It doesn’t matter what the theme is, getting together with one’s fellow human beings every once in awhile is good even for hermits.

    As for the teaching moment…how great. A moment when their minds were receptive, your passion emerged, and actual communication took place. Those moments don’t happen unless both parties are ready and participating. I’m not sure how or if one can make it more likely that students will enter that state, I’m sure it’s not reproduceable at will. The hunger is clearly there in them, to learn “all this stuff”, but it’s often drowned out by the clamor of life, and the conviction that “this stuff” isn’t relevant to them. Somehow in that moment you made it relevant, and stilled the clamor. Not an easy place to get to. Congratulations.

    I hope it happens again for you and your class. Often.


    4 Oct 09 at 9:24 pm

  5. And now for something completely different.

    I’m partway through the following podcast :


    Go to:

    Walking at the Edge of Reason and Awe

    Reason has been a blessing for humanity, but often at the cost of dulling our ability to appreciate the ineffable – that dimension of human experience that evokes wonder and awe. Frank Faulk seeks a balance between reason and the ineffable.

    Right click to Download Walking at the Edge of Reason and Awe
    [mp3 file: runs 48:39]


    5 Oct 09 at 8:10 am

  6. I’ve lived in west central Florida almost seven years and although there’s a bit of something for everyone here, I’ve not attended a Renaissance fair. However, when in Alabama, I have watched from afar battle reenactments from the Late War of Northern Aggression. “Saints preserve us,” she said, aghast. (stealing a line from GONE WITH THE WIND.) There’s (seemingly) no controversial connotations associated with Renaissance fairs. Not so with Civl war reenactments. Despite claims by participants that no overt racism is intended and they are just trying to protect their heritage, my feeling is that these events evoke nostalgia for a time when white people reigned supreme and black people, or members of any other race for that matter, knew their place. Idealizing past centuries, I think, is great fun and escape but in circumtances like that one, can also tromp on the feelings of those who were oppressed by society in those very same centuries. This probably stems from my reverse snobbery I tend to distrust people with piles of money and lofty positions in society and root for those on the poor side of the tracks.
    Psycic fairs are very popular in the Sunshine State and I’ve not been to one of those either. I’d like to sometime just for the entertainment. Rather like reading letters to the editor in most newspapers.

    Defining a word or concept depends on ones body of knowledge. Justice and freedom mean entirely different things to people in different cultures or centuries. Ayn Rand notwithstanding, there are no (or at least very few) absolutes. Doesn’t it, after all, depend on what your definition of “is” is?


    5 Oct 09 at 2:57 pm

  7. Just FYI, Jem–there are not only black ACW reenactors, there are black CONFEDERATE ACW reenactors. I know one, and others have a web site. They would appear to view these mattters differently.

    One would think, since there are English Civil War and American Revolution reenactors whose racist motivation eludes me, the ACW reenactors’ nostalgia for white racial supremacy might need to be established rather than assumed.

    And if you want to root for “poor people on the wrong side of the tracks,” a lot of southern whites might qualify. Sadly, neither poverty nor riches ensure virtue.


    5 Oct 09 at 4:13 pm

  8. Hmmmm – an evening at the theatre demands no dress code, but a day at the ren fair calls for a costume. There must be something there. I suspect people don’t want to dress like Mom and Dad – so no tie or skirt when going out, but people do like to dress up, so they put on a costume that doesn’t carry the weight of Mom’s dress up or Dad’s tie.


    5 Oct 09 at 4:40 pm

  9. Jem – reverse snobbery is a good name for what you describe. I suppose the ideal would be to take each person, rich or poor, as an individual. Or in other words, not put too much emphasis on whatever box they happen to be classified into this time.

    I also really dislike the idea of ‘oppressed by society’. I know what you probably mean – I’ve heard all to much on the subject – but I tend to think that approach ignores the fact that you have to be human to deliberately oppress someone, and ‘society’ is a thing, a way of grouping people, not a person. And thinking of all the poor as ‘oppressed’ is a great way to avoid giving them any recognition as individuals or for what they have achieved and value themselves.

    You’ve hit a bit of a hot button of mine.


    5 Oct 09 at 7:49 pm

  10. FYI Robert and Cheryl, you,too, have hit on a hot button of mine. ROBERT:perhaps you have found one small example of a black person engaging in the farcical practice of civil war reenactment. I suggest you read CONFEDERATES IN THE ATTIC by Tony Horwitz. That might give you an idea of the intellectual capacity of that movement. I dare say the great majority of black people I know(and yes, I do know any number of them. Alabama has come a long way in that regard) would strike up tune of Dixie given the chance. And, excuse me, did I mention a race when I referring to poor people? There is more to riches than money. Cheryl, you can dress up language any way you want and do semantic backflips regarding people who cannot rise above poverty but pulling yourself up by your bootstraps assumes the playing field is level and it’s not. Yes, there are some people who are dealt a bad hand and are unable to rise above it.


    5 Oct 09 at 8:13 pm

  11. Jem:
    “Yes, there are some people who are dealt a bad hand and are unable to rise above it.”

    I never said they weren’t. I was trying to say that I’m extremely leery of any attempt to help such unfortunates by treating them as indistinguishable elements in a lump of humanity rather than as individuals.

    There are lots of examples of initiatives that have certain effects on some members of some groups, and discussing them can be beneficial. Overgeneralizing and institutionalizing responsibility usually seems to be damaging to everyone involved, in my experience.

    I didn’t mention bootstraps at all, but now that you’ve brought them up, I’d assume that anyone who raises himself by his bootstraps must of necessity have less in the way of financial & family resources. It doesn’t make any sense to have a level playing field and then say that some of the players used their bootstraps and some didn’t. Where’s the point?

    Not everyone who tries to raise themselves by their bootstraps succeeds, of course. That must make the accomplishment all the sweeter for those who do. There’s a great satisfaction in doing something very difficult.

    As for those who fail, I could come up with lots of possible things to do to support them or give them a hand up. None would include thinking or saying, ‘too bad, ‘society’ is keeping you down, there’s not much any of us can do against society, is there, except perhaps try to change it.’ They’d include practical aid specifically targeted to the people’s needs, including basic food, housing and medical care for those who cannot and never will be able to support themselves.

    I actually don’t know, of course, if you’re one of those people who go on and on about changing a repressive society without actually doing much to improve the lot of people in society as it presently exists, so please don’t take this personally. I’m just clarifying my views a bit since you seem to think I’m just playing with words and don’t know many people who are dealt a bad hand and can’t get over it.

    Not that there’s anything wrong with playing with words. I love doing that, but I’m not doing it here.


    6 Oct 09 at 7:40 am

  12. One more time, Jen: you have accused a class of hobbyists–reenactors–of being white racists. That there are whole units of black Confederate reenactors–not to mention Union reenactors of various colors and reenactors of periods having nothing to do with race-based conflict–ought to put some dent in the notion that they are all engaged in nostalgia for the antebellum South. Perhaps the obvious question is “how many reenactors of any sort do you know?”

    “Farcical” is an interesting word choice. Usually, a farce is something greatly exagerated for comic effect, or something with procedures wildly at variance with the ostensible purpose–as, say, flying first class to Johannesburg and eating $100 dinners by way or an anti-poverty conference, holding anti-semitic rallies at a conference on ending racism or taking a jet to a global warming conference. I can’t quite fit reenacting in those categories.

    It’s true I don’t camp out or engage in precision drill since the Army stopped paying me to do so, but if such things are farcical and the participants racists, you need to have a long look at the campers at Yellowstone Park and various dance companies.


    6 Oct 09 at 3:42 pm

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