David Dudley is the executive editor of CityLab. He is the former editor in chief of Urbanite magazine and a former features editor for AARP: The Magazine.
What’s behind the enduring popularity of all these medieval-themed living-history festivals?
I have two daughters, which has meant two trips through the Princess Phase, and many, many autumn visits to the Maryland Renaissance Festival. This is the second-largest such event in the United States, and thus the world, since nations that participated in the actual Renaissance appear to be less interested in these curious living-history fairs devoted to extremely loose simulations of ye olde village life.
I don’t own a jerkin and I haven’t read Tolkien since the sixth grade, but I’m very fond of my annual check-ins with helmeted GoT cosplayers and tavern wenches. Sometimes I go a few times over the fair’s nine-week season, which ended this past weekend—my kids, five years apart in age, now prefer attending separately, so I must take them serially. And I’m OK with that; who wouldn’t choose a fairy-tale kingdom over circa-2019 reality?
As we drifted about the straw-covered lanes of the 27-acre pretend village of Revel Grove, purchasing fried foods and dragon baubles and doling out cash for low-tech pastimes like axe-hurling, I wondered what made this goofy farrago of ingredients so inviting. Part of the appeal is the sheer human spectacle provided by costumed attendees (or playtrons, in Renfaire-ese). Though the village is ostensibly set in the 16th century, it most accurately represents an era that might be called the Age of Ribaldry. Along with all the bodice-intensive Elizabethan garb, you see puffy-shirted space pirates, winged fairies in leather bikinis, kilted barbarians, armored warrior-monks—it’s like walking around inside a mid-’70s Jethro Tull album.
But the fair is also a compact masterpiece of fantasy-town design. Despite the throngs and the blare of competing attractions (many, like the ATMs and porta-potties, unlovely accommodations to 21st-century needs), Revel Grove remains a peaceful space, a human-scale hamlet of mossy old half-timbered buildings that appears to be surrounded by trackless woods. Its winding lanes invite aimless strolling rather than marching from attraction to attraction, as visitors in conventional amusement parks might do. A Ren fest may not be a very authentic way to experience how our predecessors lived, but it’s a great way to reconnect with what often feels so wrong about modernity.
To find out what makes this made-up world work so well, I called up Jules Smith Jr., whose family runs the Maryland Renaissance Festival. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the answer involves the utopian “New Town” movement: Renaissance fairs were born of the same postwar desire to leave the crowded city for pastoral neo-suburbs that were supposed to be more than just generic bedroom communities.
Specifically, James Rouse, the shopping-mall developer and city-maker behind the Maryland planned community of Columbia, was a friend of Smith’s dad, Jules Sr., a Minnesota real estate lawyer who founded the festival. In 1968, the elder Smith worked with Minnesota State Senator Henry McKnight to assemble a New Town-style planned community called Jonathan, in Chaska, Minnesota—the first in the U.S. funded in part with Title IV funds from the Housing and Urban Development Act of 1968. A vaguely sci-fi enclave of modernist homes arranged in numbered “villages” connected by a maze of walking trails, Jonathan also played host to the first Minnesota Renaissance Festival in 1971. After meeting Jules Sr., who was an investor in that event, at a New Town symposium, Rouse invited him to assemble a similar fair in Columbia in 1977.
“He told my dad, ‘If you’d use some property I have in Columbia, I’d appreciate it,’” Smith told me.
The Maryland Renaissance Festival stayed in Columbia for seven years, moving to its current home on farmland in the town of Crownsville in 1985. Its shops, stalls, stages, and sundry buildings (including a crenellated castle wall and a royal palace overlooking the jousting grounds) are permanent structures, built mostly in a 16th-century English style, Smith says, with the exception of the Italianate Boar’s Head Tavern.
The New Town connection might help explain why the layout and features of permanent festival encampments like Revel Grove provide such an immersive experience: The site is arranged as a series of nested circular paths, which effectively hide the vast turf parking lot and nearby mobile home park. New Towns prized such self-containment; many, like Columbia and Reston, were formed out of linked villages with extensive walking trails. Thus buffered from the real world, Revel Grove is a miniature town-inside-a-town; hidden fire lanes allow vehicle access during the week, but when the fair is in progress on weekends, its connections to the modern world are largely invisible.
It’s also far more dense and pedestrian-friendly than just about any real city. All your essential Ren-amenities—food, booze, bodice-rental, drench-a-wench games, performance spaces—are strategically dispersed throughout. If you get bored with the glass-blower demo or the bagpipe band (but, c’mon, just listen to this guy), you’re never more than a few steps away from the nearest mead-flinging barmaid and smoked-turkey-leg vendor.
That same basic layout—and many of the same vendors and performers—are shared with the roughly 35 other North American multi-weekend Ren fests with permanent villages, and it can be traced to George Coulam, founder of the Minnesota and Texas festivals, which helped birth the national Renfaire circuit. “George really created the template for what a Renaissance festival is—a village with services interspersed,” Smith said. “He’s the Johnny Appleseed of Renaissance festivals.”
How, exactly, did these ersatz medieval bacchanals obtain such a grip on the American imagination? In her 2012 book Well Met: Renaissance Faires and the American Counterculture, scholar Rachel Lee Rubin credits Phyllis Patterson, an L.A. history and theater teacher who entertained her students with a backyard commedia dell’arte party, with kicking off the craze—and unintentionally triggering the 1960s itself.
With her husband, Ron, Patterson organized a “Renaissance Pleasure Faire” in 1963—“a kind of early, wimpled Woodstock,” as the New York Times called it. The Pleasure Faire became an annual event, spreading to Northern California and beyond. (Coulam, who brought the model to Minnesota and Texas, was an early Pleasure Faire worker.) The Rabelaisian atmosphere of these bawdy carnivals touched a nerve in anxious Cold War America. Not long afterward, hippies started turning up in dandyish frocks; rock bands began to pillage medieval history; and the rest is history. You can probably trace a line from the Pattersons’ backyard to Led Zeppelin IV to Burning Man.
The reality-bending appeal of these early SoCal gatherings, which established the interactive no-spectators vibe that carries on in today’s variants, remains a big part of the festival formula, Smith says. “Here was something you could participate in that was a little wild, but it’s also safe,” he told me. “It’s a form of shared fantasy.”
For him and his siblings, it’s also the family business. With Smith as company president, three of his younger brothers oversee the fair’s food service, decorations, and buildings. There’s something appropriately feudal about the whole operation: While the Smiths built the original structures, they’re owned by vendors, who then customize them to their individual specs. “We don’t want to restrict people’s creativity,” Smith said. The land itself is still zoned agricultural, but during festival season has about 80 full-time residents.
In recent years, there’s been sporadic talk about moving the festival to better accommodate the crowds and traffic it draws: Since the venue is served only by a two-lane country road, high-attendance days can mean big car backups. This year, the festival tallied about 330,000 visitors over the season, not far from 2017’s record 360,000. On some days, Revel Grove is bursting at the seams, but it’s hard to imagine where such an operation could relocate in the increasingly developed Baltimore-Washington suburbs. Few subdivisions, one guesses, would welcome a neighbor that holds jousting clashes and has its own elephant. For now, Smith says, the fair is staying put.
I’m hoping it can; in a world of increasingly flimsy made-for-Instagram spectacles, the earthy escape of a Ren fest can feel sorely needed. “People are so tied to technology,” Smith said. “Coming to something like this, you’re not sitting around watching something with a laugh track. It’s an immersion. You’re going to go home dirty.”