One thing I often forget is that life needs some adventure to stay really alive and interesting.  Infusions of new experience are good for me, they wake me back up again, and I don’t pursue them often enough.  Especially when I am inclined to hang out inside my own thoughts too much, or spending too much time down in the dumps, both of which have been true lately.  Fortunately, I had an adventure planned in advance for this past weekend.  I was privileged to visit my friends Alison and James in Maryland, and accompany them to the Maryland Renaissance Festival, which they have been attending and involved with for many years.  Saturday was a perfect day to spend outdoors, wandering the village among the trees, experiencing the kaleidoscope of sights and sounds and tastes that make up Faire.  There’s no way I can write about it all, but I will make a start.  

I am sure many of the visitors to Faire think of it more or less as a sort of Renaissance-themed amusement park, but there is a great deal more underneath, for the regular attenders and those who work for the Faire or for one of the vendors.  Part of the fun of Faire is acting silly and bawdy and winking at the absurdity of the whole thing, in full recognition that it’s all play-acting, that it is made up of modern people with 21st-century cars and houses and jobs waiting for them outside.  But for some, the play-acting is rooted in real knowledge and curiosity about the people who really did live in the villages of Tudor England and elsewhere.  There is a great depth of knowledge about how the people of medieval and Renaissance Europe lived and worked, how they dressed, what they ate, how they treated each other, common customs, and all the details of real life.  While visiting a furrier, James, Alison, and one of the gentlemen of the shop whose name I sadly do not know, spontaneously engaged a number of visitors in a discussion about the history of garb, particularly male leggings, tights, tunic-length, and codpieces (yes, indeed), as well as the Scottish great kilt — a seriously practical article of clothing, as it turns out.  It was clear that this is a regular occurrence for them, that they are always ready to talk about what they know, to dispel myths and disclose surprising facts, to chat and correct and volunteer any sort of information to anyone who is curious.  As I was told at one point, it is a highly academic and educated form of geekery, and I love that.  The official events and entertainments are modeled on the same pattern: some of them are intended simply to be raucous fun, but others are seriously educational, the performers winding their jokes and gags around real information about types and uses of weapons, the various pieces that make up a full set of plate armor, all of the different games that collectively make up a joust (it’s far more than trying to knock your opponent off a horse with a stick), the personalities and conflicts between Henry’s six wives, and much more that I did not have opportunity to see this time around.

Some of the most interesting things for me were not the entertainments, but visiting the onsite vendors, particularly those making real articles that would have been characteristic of what was used at the time.  Far from simple tourist trinkets, there was such a huge amount of artistry and skill represented there, I can hardly get my head around it.  There were weavers and seamstresses, wood-turners, carvers of wood, bone, and antler, jewelers, glass-blowers, leather-workers (I am sure there is a proper word for someone who works in leather, and I confess right now I have no idea what it is), and more.  Some of the artisans were at work in their shops, and were completely willing to talk about what they were doing and how things were made.  I think I could happily spend several weekends just soaking myself in all of the craftsmanship and gorgeous items available for sale, wishing I could own many of them, but happy to at least see and touch them, happy that there are people who still value such work and develop it to such high degrees.

Many visitors to Faire get into the spirit of the thing by coming in costume, but coming as a guest of Alison and James means taking “costuming” to an entirely different level. Alison works for one of the vendors, a high-class clothing shop offering garb such as the nobility of the time would have worn, and Alison and James are both specialists and connoisseurs.  The garb-closet in their house is a sight to behold: acres of velvet and silk, dresses, bodices and stays (think “corsets”), doublets, fine linen partlets (think “shirts”), cloaks, pants, tights, gorgeous hats, belts, boots, and more.  It is a wealth of both clothing and research, most of it made with a real eye to authenticity of materials and construction, and all of it beautiful.  Very generously, I had my choice of nearly anything to wear, and I found it very hard to choose; I would have loved to try on just about everything, if there had been time.  The final choice was a knee-length pirate coat of burgundy velvet, richly trimmed in silver thread, with a swirling lower half made from literally yards of material.  Underneath the astonishing coat was a linen shirt trimmed in lace at collar and cuffs, a set of black stays, which provide a serious education all on their own to the person who dares to strap themselves in for a day, black breeches which were hugely full in the upper leg and laced tight around the calves, and black boots.  Finishing the ensemble was a leather belt, pouch, cup-holder and wooden cup — all completely practical and necessary items — and a brocade hat with a spray of feathers, in a shape reminiscent of a fez, in keeping with my chosen persona elsewhere online.  Hair was braided and left hanging; a deliberate choice, as respectable women of the time would never go out in public without their hair up.  But a pirate does as she pleases, thank you kindly, and never mind what the respectable sorts say.

So for Faire, I got to step briefly out of my life as mild-mannered, self-effacing Cris, into the persona of the Dread Pirate Westfaire, some distant relation I am sure of the famed Dread Pirate Roberts of Patagonia.  It was simply impossible to assume that garb without also playing the character that would inhabit it, all swagger and arrogance, and so I stalked around the Faire village, head high, scarce deigning to notice the “commoners” in lowly modern garb, though quite a number of them took notice of myself and my companions, James and Alison dressed as a high-class gentleman and lady of the time.  It was a good choice for the day, flying in the face of the doubt and lack of confidence in myself that I have been plagued with recently.  And above all else, astonishing good fun.  It’s been a long while since I had the chance to play a character of any sort, and it was marvelous to have the opportunity to feel a little of that again, without the accompanying responsibility of remembering lines or entertaining a crowd.  It was completely refreshing, and as I told Alison on Sunday morning before heading for home, I can’t imagine now going to Faire without wearing proper garb, it was such a vital part of the experience.  I hope very much I have another chance to assume a persona from the Closet of Wonderment and Velvet, and walk the paths of Faire as a woman from another time.

The Renaissance Festival is a singular event, which can be engaged in many different ways — many people attend simply to eat and drink and carouse and watch some shows and be entertained and go home happy and sated.  But for those with an active curiosity, it’s possible to learn and explore and think and feel your way into a sense of what life used to be like for some of our ancestors, to see how they approached the common things of life that we also need to address — as well as eat, drink, carouse, and carry on.  It was a great day, I’m hugely thankful to James and Alison for outfitting me and taking me along, and I highly recommend it to anyone who can get there.

So this week begins more positively than last week ended, with the fun of an adventure in between.  I’m already thinking about future adventures, because every time I get to have one, I’m reminded how good they are for me — but then I forget in the humdrum of everyday life, and I get bored and stale and mopey again.  This month is fairly full, I’ve got a few really awesome things coming up, but after that I need to make some further plans.  Next time I get mopey, someone remind me to get off my duff and go do something new, will you?


4 comments so far

  1. brother on

    I only have one thing to say. I have to see pictures!!

    • stitchesandwords on

      Pics will hopefully be forthcoming — I didn’t have a camera, but Alison got a couple of shots. Stay tuned :)

  2. Lynn on

    This is fascinating! I want to see photos, too. In fact, I really envy you your day – I’d love to try that sometime!

  3. Alison on

    We had a blast too – and we are super glad that you want to come back. Perhaps next year – a farthingale!

    I have a few pictures, it seems, as usual, I forgot to take as many as I’d like to. But I’ll get them to you!

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