Our intrepid reporter undergoes a Renaissance, finds the Middle Ages can be fun

Prithee, dear reader, let me tell you a tale about the scariest thing I’ve ever done. And I’m not talking about public speaking. I’m talking about going to a Renaissance faire.

“Oh, come on,” I hear you saying, “everybody loves Renaissance faires. Who doesn’t want to be magically transported back to that Golden Age of bad teeth, rancid food, terribly abbreviated life spans, bubonic plague, holy wars, inescapable vermin, near universal ignorance, fiendishly creative torture devices, and famine?”

Sure, Renaissance faires (don’t even think about dropping the “e”) give people the opportunity to play dress up, allowing them to be Tormund Giantsbane for a day. And they’re big on spectacle—where else can you find quality jousting nowadays?

That said, my take on Renaissance faires has always been the same as my take on the quaint Medieval practice of trepanning—I need one like I need a hole in my head.

But, hey, Renaissance faires are big deals and I get paid to do the things I least want to do, so I pointed mine iron steed toward the heart of Amish Country and the Mt. Hope Estate & Winery in historic Mannheim, site of the 38th Pennsylvania Renaissance Faire, which took place over 13 weekends from early August to late October.

Getting to the faire was part of the fun, if your idea of fun runs to the nerve-wracking. Horse-drawn buggies filled with Amish in their Sunday best thronged the edges of the scenic (and very narrow) back roads of Pennsylvania Dutch Country, and we English in our horseless buggies were forced to pass them, often on hair-raising hairpin curves.

As for my costume, I originally intended to wear a T-shirt that read “I Hate Renaissance Faires.” But my fiancée warned me that I risked being bludgeoned to death by an incensed mob wielding oversized turkey legs. So I put codpiece aside, donned a standard T-shirt and shorts, and went dressed as a nondescript historical anachronism. 

I discovered that the Mount Hope Estate & Winery is well worth a visit. The spooky Victorian mansion that stands guard at the entrance to the faire comes complete with stained glass windows and widow’s walk, and would make the perfect setting for an Addams Family movie. And the adjacent winery store, with its selection of some 30 hand-crafted vintages, is a vino-lovers’ delight.

Mike with Alexandre Abdoulaev, who displays his spring-loaded wrist dagger.

A Pyrate Invasion

The large formal garden that serves as a fairground is breathtakingly lovely. Unfortunately, its flower-bedecked grand avenue and winding stone walkways were crawling with hobbits, elves, and sundry other backyard pests, and you couldn’t swing a cutlass without hitting a fearsome buccaneer (it was “Pyrate Invasion” weekend).

Upon entering the faire, I was thrilled to see a plump friar munching on that historical mainstay of the Elizabethan diet, ye olde pickle on a stick. If there’s one thing I love to do it’s eat, and while none of the faire’s 27 “royal kitchens” were selling roast swan, calves heads, or heifer’s udder pudding, I did have my choice of such authentic Renaissance fare as pizza, egg rolls, kettle corn, ice cream, hamburgers, and that handy staple of the wandering minstrel, the “king-sized walking taco.”

As for potations, parched patrons were not limited to Mount Hope plonk. They could also slake their thirst with Swashbuckler Ales and Lancaster Ciders at the faire’s 11 pubs and “pourhouses.” And soda, fresh fruit smoothies and crushed ice were on proffer for the puritans and wee serfs in attendance.

And I didn’t have to wipe my greasy hands on the alehouse dog after dining, either; evidently napkins and plastic cutlery were common in Sir Walter Raleigh’s day, as were the “Got Beer” Dr. Seuss hats being sold by one of the faire’s numerous vendors, although I’ve yet to see a portrait of Sir Walter wearing one.

But enough with the snark. Because here’s the thing: If I walked into the Pennsylvania Renaissance Faire expecting to succumb to a bad case of black bile, I was quickly won over by the very thing I was prepared to mock—the people.

“All the world’s a stage,” wrote my 10th grade English class nemesis, William Shakespeare, “and all the men and women merely players,” but the folks I saw weren’t taking their roles too seriously. They were enjoying themselves, and the mirth was—despite the cynicism I wear like a suit of armor—contagious.

And such an infinite variety of players! While I didn’t encounter a single wandering minstrel (thank God), I soon found myself surrounded by monks, privateers, bully rooks, and strumpets, to say nothing of one fairy-winged chihuahua and a very out-of-place human in a Corgi suit.

Knight of the Black Laund

I took the opportunity to chat up a convocation of elves, then accosted Alexandre Abdoulaev, who cut a dashing figure in grey cowl, black leather vest, puffy pirate shirt, colorful cape, orange breeches and hanging mead stein. Abdoulaev explained that his outfit was inspired by the video game Ubisoft Assassin’s Creed II, and proudly told me it was his wife who designed it. The outfit’s piece de resistance: a trigger-operated wrist dagger that made me glad I’d passed on the “I Hate Renaissance Faires” T-shirt.

While Adboulaev was menacing, John Riggin made him look like Sir Wimpalot. Riggin went full-tilt Knight of the Black Laund in a suit of black armor complete with helmet, face-obscuring visor, and very real sword. The day was warm, and Riggin must have been hot as Joan of Arc (I have it from my tailor that armor doesn’t breathe nearly as well as cotton) but he was unrelentingly cheerful, and laughed when I asked if it was his goal in life to provoke nightmares in small children.

The author with the Knight of the Black Laund.

He told me his idea of fun is standing outside pourhouses, waiting for tipplers to mistake him for a statue. He has, he said, scared the wits out of plenty an ale-soused fairgoer just by moving, and I believed him. 

The Pennsylvania Renaissance Faire has more than enough activities to keep you busy all day long, and as a result you have to prioritize. I happen to be a big fan of mayhem, so the first thing I did was rush to Gaming Village.

There I hurled a few battle axes, and it only cost me three bucks to learn I wouldn’t have lasted 10 seconds in mortal combat. In troth, dear reader, I couldn’t hit an Orc in the ass at two paces. You could also test your knife-throwing and archery skills, and there were a couple of primitive (and very dizzying) rides for the kids.

I’m sad to report I didn’t catch the falconers, but at the rescue aviary (the province of many a rare bird) I met Edgar the one-footed raven, who would snatch a dollar out of your hand with his beak and then hop it over to a nearby donations box. I also enjoyed a meet-and-greet with Lily the Unicorn, who spends her regular work hours visiting children’s hospitals.

It was while waiting to pet Lily that I met Captain Jack, a 7-year-old chatterbox and Jack Sparrow wannabe who warned me about the very crusty Captain Grumbles, an elderly buccaneer in a motorized cart who had all the charm of the French pox.

I’m not certain if Captain Grumbles was said freebooter’s real name, or merely a sobriquet bestowed upon him by Captain Jack, but it was appropriate. “Get in line, stay off the road, and keep out of my way!” he snarled as Jack and I stood in line. In fear for our throats, we did just that.

I was sorry to miss the goings on at the Mud Pit, but don’t regret skipping the dreaded human chess game; verily, dear reader, I can’t imagine a duller way to while away one’s day. I would sooner down a flagon of dragon’s piss, or check myself into the Tower of London.

And the same went for the bawdy theatrical troupes treading the boards at the faire’s various stages. I don’t know about you, but my idea of Old School humor begins and ends with the Will Farrell movie. I gave the musicians a wide berth as well; my taste in music runs toward classic (not classical) rock, and the last thing I wanted to hear was “We’re an American Band” played on sackbut and tabor.

But there was no way I was going to pass up on the jousting at Bosworth Battlefield, and rollicking good entertainment it was. Canned trumpet fanfare was followed by some royal pageantry and much witty banter by the king’s crier, whose talent for inflaming the crowd soon gave said games the bloodthirsty feel of a WWE steel cage match.

“I can tell by the gleam in yon eyes that ye want to see something more violent,” he cried after the knights on horseback demonstrated their skill at spearing hoops at full gallop. Mad cheers. “Knights could be injured or even killed,” he added darkly. Even madder cheers. “You people have some serious issues,” he said, clearly concerned.

And he was right; you should have heard the hue and cry when a jouster was knocked from his steed. And the large Francophobe contingent raised a lusty cheer when England’s knights emerged triumphant. Verily, brethren, I can’t think of a more vicious good time this side of a public drawing and quartering.

Souvenir Swords

Of course no trip to the Pennsylvania Renaissance Faire would be complete without souvenirs, and the vendors thronging Guildsman’s Way were selling all manner of historically suspect goods. I doubt you could buy lip balm in Henry VIII’s London, and if you could it almost certainly would contain enough mercury to kill you.

But the faire is the place for you if you’re in the market for a real sword. Or a wooden or rubber sword, for that matter. Also on sale: corsets, hats, masks, herbs, wooden ducks on sticks, crystals, capes, parasols, commemorative T-shirts, animatronic beasties, fake elves ears, dragon eggs, incense and gewgaws.

Oh, and while many vendors weren’t accepting credit cards, yon handy ATM was ready to dispense thee all the farthings required for a Borgia Family-sized spending spree.

I did note the absence of such realistic Renaissance touches as raw sewage and offal running in the streets, tumbrels filled with plague victims, and peddlers hawking the well-nourished kittens that were believed to cure jaundice.

But then again, where else are you going to see a friar in red walking with a goth knight with ram’s horns helmet, or find oneself caught up in a queen’s entourage making a mad dash for the women’s privy?

Don’t get me wrong; Renaissance faires are, to borrow a phrase from David Foster Wallace, a supposedly fun thing I’ll never do again. But there’s no denying they’re filled with all manner of weird yet wonderful people.

Just be wary of Captain Grumbles. The man’s a bloodthirsty menace.