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'tis the season!
a-wenching we will go
by juli mccarthy
pop culture

No, not that season.

The days are getting longer, the sun is shining, temperatures are rising. Which, in my world, means it’s time to dig sixteen pounds of brocade, velvet, muslin, whalebone and leather out of my closet and make sure it all still fits.

My name is Juli, and I am a Rennie.

Hi, Juli!

Back when I was still in high school, I discovered the wonderful world that is the Renaissance Faire. An old cow pasture had been converted to a 16th century English village. Banners flew in the sky, horses thundered in the jousting ring, costumed performers had swordfights in the streets. It was colorful, energetic, magical.

And, oh! The music!

I was hooked. It’s been 23 years since I first set foot on the grounds of King Richard’s Faire – now known as the Bristol Renaissance Faire – in Kenosha, Wisconsin, and in all that time, the magic has only grown stronger. Equal parts history and fantasy, it’s a 27-acre street theatre with non-stop audience participation. Resistance is futile; you WILL be entertained.

For most people, the Ren faire is like a theme park. It’s a fun place to go once in a while and see the sights, eat the food and listen to the music. With the $18 admission, $5 turkey legs and buskers wheedling you out of pocket change, it’s not cheap entertainment by any stretch. Have a couple tankards of ale and pick up a flower crown for your hair and before you know it, you’ve dropped a hundred bucks or more. But hey, you only live once, right?

When you arrive at the faire, you see grown men and women change in the parking lot from jeans and t-shirts into tights and doublets, bodices and chemises. As they walk toward the gates, their language changes – “yo, dude” becomes “good morrow, m’lord.” Then they join the ticket line, and you realize they’re not actors. They do this every weekend, and they pay for the privilege.

Rennies, like Trekkies, are easy targets for get-a-life derision, and I understand that. The time, effort and money we Rennies put into our hobby is considerable, and makes little sense to mundanes (and the fact that we refer to everyone else as “mundanes” doesn’t help our image much.)

Like most committed geeks, though, I don’t have any issues. I’m perfectly comfortable in my geekiness for one simple reason: I’m having way more fun than you are.

On summer weekends, I don’t go to the mall or mow the lawn or catch up on my laundry. With my tankard and tambourine hanging off my belt, I dance, sing and play in the sunshine. I eat freshly steamed artichokes and let the butter run down my chin. I watch jugglers and fire-eaters interact with Puritans and pirates. I walk through the gates of the faire and step into another world.

In this world, huge cauldrons of mushrooms in garlic butter simmer over open flames. Turkey legs the size of cricket bats roast on grills alongside crispy ears of fresh-picked corn. I can travel the length of the faire on my belly, stopping for a sauerkraut-smothered brat here, a bag of English toffee there.

The catchphrase of the Bristol Renaissance Faire is “where fantasy rules” but although you may encounter a faerie or even Robin Hood, there’s still an enormous amount of real history at play. Glassblowers, chandlers and other artisans demonstrate their crafts and sell their wares. While you watch a Scot fold a greatkilt (and you really should, it is SO COOL!) you can learn about the weaving process and the history of tartans. Lacemakers reveal the history behind various patterns and will allow you to join them to needleweave your own bookmark. Shantymen explain the workings of a ship. The Queen and her court faithfully re-enact the politics, manners and social customs of the day.

It’s a novelty for today’s Spongebob-and-Survivor audience to discover that here, the entertainment can see you, too. Street performers bring unsuspecting audience members on stage and weave elaborate tales or hilarious skits around them. You could turn a corner and run right into William Shakespeare (another recommended activity, ‘cuz he’s a hottie) or be taken prisoner by privateers.

Did I mention the music? On tiny wooden stages throughout the shire, singers and musicians gather for pre-arranged sets and impromptu jam sessions. Some perform nothing but historically correct melodies on lute and recorder. Others plunder the rich history of the British Isles through the ages for shanties and rollicking drinking songs. There’s amazing talent roaming the lanes at the faire, and they invite you to join in, clapping, stomping and shouting.

I love it. The Renaissance faire is my home away from home, my weekly vacation from reality. At the faire I’m not a suburban housewife with a mortgage; I’m a lusty wench with bells around my waist and a song on my lips. I can sit in the shade of the gazebo and listen to music, or I can run through a garden filled with windchimes. Faire folk know me by sight, if not by name. I may be a geek, but I’m a Ren Faire geek, and that makes me family to all other Rennies.

And that’s M’LADY Geek, to you.

“So let’s raise up a glass to our friends not around
And lift up another with the new friends we’ve found
As the day fades to night we must bid you adieu
But we’ll always remember this time here with you.”


Lyrics from "Raise Up A Glass" copyright 2000 by Jon Baade


A whole gallon of attitude, poured into a pint container.

more about juli mccarthy


there goes the neighborhood
remembering a good man
by juli mccarthy
topic: pop culture
published: 2.28.03

renaissance man
the wit and will of jeff mclane
by juli mccarthy
topic: pop culture
published: 7.18.04


dan gonzalez
5.27.05 @ 1:00a

Sweet Freya's teat you brought the faire to life!

Sorry, bodices bring out the Viking in me.

So sad that re-enactors often feel like geeks for providing entertainment AND an experience that is both instructive and interactive, the diametric opposite of the tripe that is passing for public school curricullum these days. I think my kids would be way better off living at ren faires for a year and working with whatever people than another year of [insert politically correct curricullum units here].

tracey kelley
5.27.05 @ 9:32a

I so want to see the mackerel!

I think this year might be a good year for a Ren Faire trip. Last big one I went to was in Shokopee, MN - that's awesome.

juli mccarthy
5.27.05 @ 9:43a

Shakopee has an adorable Queen (and her real name is Lolly, how cute is THAT?)

matt kelley
5.31.05 @ 12:13p

Hey, Trace, I've seen the wrong side of the mackerel and trust me, you DON'T want to see it. :)

Actually, Juli gave me the grand tour of the Bristol faire last year and even procured a kilt for me to wear. The event was everything she's described, and was a bundle of fun. Even if she is only as tall as a knight's belly button.

juli mccarthy
5.31.05 @ 12:20p

Oh come on, Matt. The mackerel barely bruised you at all. Not where anyone could see, anyway.

Yep, Dan, one of the best things about the faire is the way it weaves history into entertainment. You can get a heck of an education just from the music.

heather millen
5.31.05 @ 12:21p

I went to a couple of these in college and had a wonderful time. Perhaps it's time to rediscover! Especially now that I can have that tankard of ale.

Jules, you paint a fun and frothy picture here!

juli mccarthy
5.31.05 @ 5:07p

First tankard's on me, Heather. ALL your tankards on me if you can get Mikey to wear tights.

jael mchenry
6.1.05 @ 3:38p

I've never been to one of these but this description makes me want to go. Do they ever play life-size chess or am I thinking of a different kind of Faire?

juli mccarthy
6.1.05 @ 3:50p

Several of the Ren Faires have Living Chess, and it's awesome ("Blood makes the grass grow!") Bristol is, sadly, not one of the Living Chess shows, although it used to be.

Come to Chicago for Labor Day weekend and I will take you!

sarah ficke
6.2.05 @ 11:14a

They did Living Chess at the faire I went to in Pennsylvania, and it was tons of fun to watch. Especially the chessmen in kilts. I've decided that the next time I go to one I'm going to make more of an effort to look vaguely renaissancy.

juli mccarthy
6.2.05 @ 10:54p

One of the most fun things about dressing up, Sarah, is when non-garbed patrons ask if you're part of the cast. (hint: if you want to know if they're cast, check out the shoes.) Incidentally, a bodice is loads more comfortable than a bra. You wouldn't think so, but it's true.

Now, having immersed myself in the Renaissance, I just signed on to sell my jewelry at a medieval faire in three weeks. I have NO medieval garb!

russ carr
6.3.05 @ 9:30a

Having spent a few hours with Juli at a regional show recently, I can admit I felt terribly anachronistic wearing hiking shoes and pushing a stroller. It would be a shame to leave the camera behind, but honestly, it would be a lot more fun if people were forced to check the 21st century at the gate.

jael mchenry
6.3.05 @ 10:27a

Juli, about the shoes: do the cast go 100% garbed down to the details, but more casual attendees wear modern footwear? I assume that's what you're saying, but thought I could ask for clarification.

sarah ficke
6.3.05 @ 12:31p

I was going to ask that myself. How comfortable can renaissance footwear be to stand on all day?

juli mccarthy
6.3.05 @ 2:15p

Ren footwear is VERY comfortable. On women, you'll see soft cotton Mary Janes, suede or leather sandals that lace from the toe to the ankle, or soft boots. On men, leather or suede boots or sandals similar to the women's. If you really want comfort, check out Bald Mountain - custom-made ren shoes (note that the Rennie selections are the ones without fringe.)

Non-cast will most frequently be seen in contemporary sandals or mocassins... and occasionally Chuck Taylors.

I truly find my garb to be more comfortable than "normal" clothing. A loose chemise lets air circulate, a full skirt (ditto), a bodice WAY more comfy than a bra - instead of hanging from your shoulders, a bodice supports from beneath, which makes way more sense. Stays keep you from slouching without constricting. However, it should be noted that noble garb is considerably heavier than peasant class garb. Our Queen's dress weighs more than 30 pounds and it takes two people to get her into it.

Still, the question asked of almost every Rennie without exception is, "Aren't you HOT?" (Answer: "Thank you! You're pretty hot yourself.")


juli mccarthy
6.3.05 @ 2:18p

Oh, and Jael - MANY regular patrons are authentic down to skin, sewing their garb only by hand, and with materials that were readily available to their character's class at the time. Some even dye their raw materials using only natural dyes. No elastic, and their stays are often made of wood.

The rest of us have what we call "the 10-foot rule" - if it looks authentic from 10 feet away, it's good enough.

juli mccarthy
6.3.05 @ 3:29p

It would be a shame to leave the camera behind

Which reminds me - did you get any good pics?

russ carr
6.12.05 @ 4:25p

I'm getting to that.

I also found a way to work the St. Louis Ren Faire into an upcoming Daily Sauce column... or at least the propensity of the roasted corn vendor to run out of product!

Juli, guestimate how much money it would take for a mundane to kit himself up. And why, if he was a non-cast, would he choose to garb. Oh, and what's the best way to ingratiate yourself when you're on the fringe of the cloth?

juli mccarthy
6.12.05 @ 11:10p

Garbing is so varied - I have cobbled together perfectly acceptable costumes out of thrift store buys for under $10, whereas full noble gear from a Ren garb vendor can easily run into thousands of dollars.

For non-cast members who garb, dressing up is simply a way to feel part of things - think of it in the same light as painting your face or wearing a football jersey to the big game.

I'm not sure what you mean by "ingratiate" but if you want to get to know other faire folk, check your local faires for some variation of Friends of Faire - this is a group of "playtrons" who are regulars at the faire, who know the ins and outs, and will cheerfully welcome you into their midst. Some FoF organizations are casual and loose, others are more formal. At our Faire, FoF maintains a members-only garden with private privies and free water and juice. Members also get preferred parking, discount tickets, online lessons in garb and dialect, and several potluck feasts throughout the season.

Tipping the performers well (and/or buying their music)is another good way to make friends :)

karl kiessling
8.6.05 @ 1:07a


Love your garb and I love to give you the occasional smack on your well placed tamborine

See you at faire love,


juli mccarthy
8.6.05 @ 2:46a

I feel at this point I must mention that Karl is one of Bristol's wonderful Friends of Faire people. He's also a former EMT and current nursing student, and has been supervising the rest of us idiots through a recent heat wave. You haven't really experienced ecstasy 'til a giant in a kilt has thrown a cold wet towel on you.

jonel burge
3.27.06 @ 5:56p

What of being a servant to the king/queen or noble? Do any of them have their friends help out with dressing them, holding their keys and helping them around? I've heard that in real life, many would have servants just for that. Does this go on at ren-faire? I've never been, but would like to go, and wondered if this might be a good way to "break-in"?

juli mccarthy
3.27.06 @ 8:51p

Hi Jonel, and welcome aboard!

Each faire has a different set-up. At some faires, the Court is entirely made up of hired actors. Some faires don't even HAVE a Court. At Bristol, we have a number of volunteer guilds that patrons may participate in, including the Guilde of St. George, which is the Queen's Court. (The Guilde St. Michael is the military guild and does weapons and barber surgeons demos - really cool, if a little queasy-making sometimes!) The guilds usually have training sessions, costume and dialect workshops, history seminars, and other activities. And yes, at Bristol, the Guilde St. George is a pretty accurate representation of Queen Elizabeth I's court, and includes knights and their ladies, household members, body servants, a court jester, military guardsmen, visiting dignitaries and "camp followers."

Don't know where you are geographically, but I do know that many faires have a similar set-up. If you go to your local faire's website, you're likely to find a link for volunteer/ participant/ actor /etc. information. All that said, I thoroughly recommend just going one day and having a look (and listen) around - it's a lot of fun!


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