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Notes From a Renaissance Faire

September 8, 2010 | by

At Ren Faire, all women are wenches. But the constant sexual innuendo is tiresome.

I remember a woman with a pear nestled between her breasts. That’s what most traumatized my pubescent self the last time I went to a Renaissance Faire, somewhere in Marin County circa 1989.

I’m here to report that nothing has changed two decades later at the New York Renaissance Faire: all women are wenches. T-shirts that read “Boss Wench” and “Wench Magnet” greet you as you enter the Tudor-style gates.

This is the kind of place where it’s always acceptable to just throw on a corset. “People should just admit they want to come just to wear a corset,” says Emily, one of the friends I dragged along with me, as she eats a turkey leg. In fact, the line between fetishwear and Ren Faire costumes is alarmingly thin; the chain mail shop sells armor fit for battle, but it seemed to be doing a much more brisk business in belly chains.

What I was even more confused by were the horns, raccoon tails, and fairy wings on sale, as if Renaissance England was some sort of catch-all fantasy world where Magick Reigns. Weren’t there a lot of nuns per capita in the renaissance? I didn’t see a single nun, nor one Queen Elizabeth, though I did spot several pirates (it was Pirate’s Weekend at the Faire), a sole leper, many gypsies, and a few teen boys in black robes that inspired me to write “heavy goth element” in my notes.

Ren Faire is supposed to be lusty and ribald, but the constant and unsubtle sexual innuendo is tiresome. “No one eats sausage like Austrian women,” says one of the seventy-five actors, this one dressed as a drunk Austrian noblewoman. Her maid, who is flirting with a group of men in Ed Hardy t-shirts drinking mead, says, “I always swallow, never spit.” The sleaziness never really lets up. “I see you like my balls,” one vendor at a glassblowing booth called out to me. I don’t think that was very period appropriate.

Personally, I was much more excited at the prospect of being a maiden for the day. There was hair braiding from a shop called Rapunzel’s, which mildly piqued my interest, but what I was really after were the floral garlands. I spent at least ten minutes trying on a variety of them—fake yellow flowers, fake blue flowers, feathered—as a moon-faced teenage girl helping me told me very solemnly, “I’m here for thee.” I went with a leaf-wheat-baby’s breath combo, hoping I resemble a Botticelli even though I’m wearing cut-off denim shorts.

The traditional may pole dance seemed like another innocent haven. I sincerely enjoyed it, although it would have been much improved with the addition of the May Pole song from the Wicker Man soundtrack (“In the woods there grew a tree/A fine, fine tree was he”). We used it as a time to ruminate on the men of Ren Faire. Lori, another friend who came along for the Elizabethan experience, decided that what the actors were missing were codpieces. “There needs to be more codpieces,” she said, philosophically. Emily noted that all the guys with their guts and their shoulder-length hair looked like they “could be in summer stock or in an Annie Baker play.”

I tried to get us all to pose for a photo with Robin Hood and Friar Tuck, but that idea was vetoed due to residual childhood Disneyland damage. “Are you a rich man or a poor man?” one of the Merry Band of Thieves asked to a passing festivalgoer in Crocs. His accent was abysmal. The Ren Faire presents a whole cosmology of poorly realized English accents to sample: dropping the R’s, sounding like a leprechaun, talking like Keanu Reeves in Much Ado About Nothing.

It was around this time that Emily announced that she had about another half hour in her, tops, and we made our way to the exit. As you leave, there’s a sign that says “Back to Reality.”

I was ready to leave bizarro olde tyme world for real life, but by the time I got in the car, I asked if anyone would ever go to Burning Man with me. I’m a little jealous of people for whom one festival can so encompass all their passions (be it Ren Faire or Insane Clown Posse fans at the Gathering of the Juggalos or feminist separatists at the Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival), who can let go and feel entirely in their element. “Maybe Burning Man would be just like that Geoff Dyer essay where he rides a bike around and paints his body,” I added. No one offered to be my date.

Marisa Meltzer is the author of Girl Power and How Sassy Changed My Life. She is still working on her fake English accent.



  1. Mary Miller | February 13, 2011 at 6:07 pm

    Hi Ran across this post when I was searching for old folkes who remember the Ren Faire in Marin, now that it is done and gone. I was there at your “awaking” back in 1989; I was a lowly pretzel vendor.

    Yes we were very bawdy, some might even say beyond that (I heard tales of people have multiple partnering on differing days behind many tents, and many on ‘shrooms’).

    Even more of an awaking than I was prepared for as a college student enjoying the fair and all of it’s glory.

    It took two weeks of faire service to pay off my costuming (hence work more than one fair or atleast return the next year!)

    But what I wanted to post about was my ditty that I thought you might enjoy. I remembered that most vendors back in early days didn’t just stand there waiting for people to buy; they actually sang or word sang their ware. So I did that.

    Ppppretzels, Fresh hot ppppretzels.
    Look to the North, Look to the South,
    Let me put a pretzel in thy mouth.
    Look to the east, look to the west,
    Let a pretzel lay upon my …..and I never finish the ditty, but judging from my size C’s, everyone got the joke.

    I think most of us remember heat stroke in Novato, or at least a bad turkey leg or two.

    But it was fun, truly fun. Unlike many Ren festivals that I see in the Midwest, where there is no ‘ren’ in the festival…just sales of cheap stuff or worse interpretations of the California faire.

    I miss it. The woman who ran the Festivals was absolutely a stickler for merchants being ‘in period’. She demanded we do homework on learning the period, produced massive paperwork on the language and it’s proper pronunciation, the music, the clothes, really it was a boot camp of three days prior to the weekend of the Faire that you would be working, learning, meeting and sewing.

    Thanks for the memory, I am sorry to see it gone.

  2. jdhfksl | March 26, 2013 at 8:53 pm

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