I understand that I have a sort of specific set of interests. I understand that the average layperson doesn’t have an extensive knowledge of fashion history, feudalism, arms and armor. And I’m not making any judgements here – I’m no expert either.
But some things need to be cleared up.
Like the word “lance”. No one seems to know it. People ask what my husband does, I say he jousts, and they say something along the lines of, “Oh. Like with a … long… sword-stick?”
So allow me to illustrate some Renaissance faire-related things that people mix up a lot. The following can be a primer for people who slept through sixth grade European History, and just some fun pictures for everyone else.
The Medieval period happened after the fall of Rome but before the Italian Renaissance. Society ran on the feudal system, which means that lords, who owned land, traded protection and rights to use the land to vassals in exchange for the vassals’ loyalty.
The church had inordinate amounts of power, sending hundreds of thousands of men and sometimes children away to the holy land on the promise that their souls would be saved if they fought the Muslims and took Jerusalem. Some young men in the Medieval period were lucky enough to be educated, but most of their learning centered on religious matters and different animals’ relative fear of dragons. And then about a third of Europe’s population perished during the Black Death, an outbreak of Bubonic Plague that came from fleas on rats.
The art of the time was very stylized and usually religious in nature. Women wore scary pointy hats and gowns that made them look pregnant, and men wore tunics and surcotes and sometimes a glorified bathrobe called a houppelande.
It’s not the same as the Renaissance! That said, you still get a lot of Medieval stuff at Renaissance faires. You also get Spartans and Steampunks and gothic bat-people and stuff at Ren faires, and that’s cool too.
But let me tell you about the Renaissance! Sort of suddenly, art, science, humanism, and exploration came alive. Instead of focusing on religious matters, scholars started looking to the world around them and to the power of the human mind to inform their discoveries. The printing press came around, which meant people outside the clergy could have books, and several important thinkers challenged the authority of the Catholic church, giving rise to multiple denominations.
Artists drew inspiration from the Greeks, which gave us much more lifelike paintings and sculptures, and wealthy merchant families had enough money and taste to support the arts. Trade flourished, which meant that a lot of folks went overseas and brought back new ideas and fabrics and spices with them. People wore all kinds of odd things that distorted their bodies, like corsets and farthingales that made women’s waists look tiny and pointed and made their hips look like a sideways wagon wheel, big sleeves that made men’s arms look like large pieces of meat, and ruffs around the neck that made people look like a frilled lizard.
And then there was Shakespeare and Leonardo da Vinci and Galileo and the discovery of the New World and the invention of the microscope… and to our modern sensibilities these things are all much better than rolling around in the mud and dying of the plague.
And that, my friends, is all you really have to know to get around at a Ren faire without folks like me teasing you! But history is fun, so if you want to learn more, go to the library or click on some of the links below to deepen your knowledge of plague rats and houppelandes.
If you want to read more about the Medieval period, this website is actually really accessible and cool, and the articles are short enough that you can read ALL OF THEM.
Here is a ridiculously fun website about the Middle Ages with lots of fun games and interactive tools. Yeah, it’s for kids, but… shut up.
This isn’t really educational at all, but it’s quite addictive and way cooler than Angry Birds.
This website is a good jumping point if you’re interested in the fashion of the times.
Go here if you have an afternoon to kill. You’re seriously going to fall down the rabbit hole.