Sunday, October 2, 2011

Wassail! Wassail! Arrgh!

No, I do not have a cup of hot, mulled cider in my hand at the moment but as we get deeper into autumn that does indeed sound yummy.

Where am I going with this? A few weeks ago, my family and I were in Michigan where we were visiting relatives and also where we spent a day at the Michigan Renaissance Festival. I did indeed hear people going about shouting “Wassail”, tankard in hand, sword at their side and covered from head to foot in leather and velvet. “Wassail” was a middle English cheer for good health in the English southwest but also a sort of wake up call for the apple trees at harvest time. In truth I don’t think the folks at the Renaissance Festival were drinking mulled cider; more likely a tankard of anything from the King of Beers to Guinness. There were also pirates aplenty, whence the “Arrrrrgh” thrown in at the top.

I know, some of you are thinking, Man, this guy has lost it. Geek! To that I say, ‘Ho there! Wait!’ Before you go bashing Renaissance fairs let me just say this. As far as living history, some aspects of them are pretty neat. Ok, I know that they are not exactly accurate depictions, attendees’ costumes being a mash-up of various historical periods from the Vikings to the Tudors to the Three Musketeers. People are going about mi-lording this and mi-ladying that with really bad accents. It is more the sense of a bustling marketplace that grabs one at a Renaissance fair, of people letting go for a day and haggling their through the marketplace.

And let me say that the Michigan Renaissance Festival has everything from woollen cloaks, swords and leather armour to incense, garlands and decorative glass. You can buy a didgeridoo and fairy dust or a bit of leather gear for the more kinky-minded among you. This place is, after all, about pretending. The best thing is that all of the items are made in North America so buyers are supporting small business and local artisans – an important thing in these difficult economic times.

There is beer, and lots of it but there is also that other Renaissance fair staple, the smoked turkey leg. I may not have been dressed up for the occasion but I did sink my teeth into more meat than I could possibly eat. I did think about hitting the gyros or sushi stations but those just didn’t seem authentic enough for me. What can I say? I’m picky.

There are also many troupes of performers at the Festival – acrobats, jugglers, fire eaters, belly dancers, musicians (folk and period) and actors. For those who have a mind, you can also try a little knife and axe throwing. I myself enjoyed the archery and didn’t do too badly if I do say so myself. I even had my own little cheering section.

The jousting was fun, though it lacked a certain realism for me. I mean, come on guys, you could swing those swords a little faster! I suppose that if it was too real, someone would have lost a limb or their life. It is, after all, entertainment. The horses for the joust were provided by a woman (dressed as a lady of the court) who rescues horses from destruction. Always a good cause.

This is not just a one-off festival. There are similar festivals across North America. If you really want to get involved, you can join the Society for Creative Anachronism (www.sca.org) which has divided North America into nineteen kingdoms. There may be a local chapter near you!

But, what can the writer get out of attending a Renaissance fair besides a nice set of ceramic crockery and a full belly? Inspiration can come from many places and a busy market smelling of wood smoke and roasted meat as good a place as any. Also, if your prose includes battles scenes, in any period, you should always make sure you have a good sword to make sure the moves you are describing are feasible. Just make sure you have enough space in your living room!
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