I had been a gypsy in 16th century England for less than five minutes and already my sister’s halfwit lad of a boyfriend wandered into the town’s only jail cell, guided by shouts of encouragement from the guard.
He would only be released if he’d “perform a jest” for her.
Naturally, Jimmy offered to twerk his way to freedom.
“Yes, against the cell wall,” said the female guard, who wore a Renaissance peasant dress.
Although it was the year 1588, she must have been quite well-versed in tactless 21st century dance moves.
“I can’t do that,” Jimmy replied, his courage gone.
“That’s okay, the idea was jest enough,” the guard responded. Her mock accent was heavy and convincing as she let him go.
The Pennsylvania Renaissance Faire is a place where anything is permissible, save for (real-life) violence, debauchery and crime.
It’s a land set aside for people who have retained their childhood love for dress-up and fantasy; for people who like a face-to-face interaction with history, one that can be breathed in and touched.
For each of the past for 33 years, this Renaissance town, the Shire of Mount Hope -- located in the woods and fields of Mount Hope Estate and Winery in Manheim -- has come to life as thousands flock to its gates every weekend from August to October.
This October weekend, citizens of the Shire – members of the Faire staff in Renaissance costumes – filled the streets with improvised songs, swordplay, begging, bantering, or hurling insults and innuendos at each other as well as passersby.
One peasant, covered in filth and ratty clothes, lay behind a bush holding a string that stretched across a portion of the walkway, connected to a box. He was waiting for the opportune moment to pull the string and trip someone, while people walked over and around it without even noticing him.
One little girl noticed, though, and as her parents stood by she kicked the box, ruining the man’s trap.
“Hey! Fix it! Fix it, you little brat!” the peasant shouted angrily while the girl skipped away.
A little later, another costumed staff member walked by, and the peasant pulled the string and started a scene that ended with a lashing.
Twenty-four Royal Kitchens dotted the Shire, with names like The Celtic Kitchen, Tutberry’s Tuber Tavern, and Die Deutsche Kuche. Swashbuckler beer and wine were also available at eight ale houses (Red Beard’s Irish Red, a malty Amber Ale, and the hot cider – good!).
The words on the not-quite-authentic plastic cups effectively summed up the Faire’s mocking, jovial mood: “Life, alas, is very drear. Up with the glass! Down with the beer!”
About 90 shows and musical performances filled the day. At the Shakespeare Globe, Scottish band Albannach performed ancient tribal war songs and haunting ballads, taking listeners back to a time when, allegedly, pipes and songs were banned because of their power to stir hearts. The Mud Squad bickered and threw each other into a mud pit, and Circus Vagabonds showed off acrobatic skills, one of them even balancing on an acrobatic swing while juggling three torches. Dozens of artisans’ booths and huts were scattered throughout town; Renaissance clothing, incense, clay flutes, soaps, pottery, books about sorcery or past centuries, and more were on sale.
Besides good ale and good company, what’s one thing every Renaissance village apparently needs? An elephant, of course. Once we realized it was there, my friends and I rushed across town to the corral to make a dream come true.
There, lumbering along in a life of walking in circles with (primarily) children on its back, was the beautiful, stinky, tragic beast.
My friend Kristen and I got in line, and soon enough we were awkwardly climbing onto the giant’s back.
From my newfound viewpoint, I realized we weren’t very far from civilization after all. I could see the road nearby. I waved to passing cars.
In the meantime the elephant’s backbone jabbed at our tailbones with each lengthy stride, and within a minute the $10 ride was over and we were climbing off the creature’s back.
Our encounter with the pachyderm complete, we hied ourselves to the wine tasting. Free tastings were available at Bacchus’ Retreat, a pavilion run by sweaty men and women in wine-stained linen shifts and trousers. A contrast to any wine tasting I’ve ever been to, there was lots of crowding, chaos and shouts from the wine samplers. I was actually starting to wonder if the mean, intimidating guy giving us samples wasn’t acting anymore when he warned me that he hated having to pull the same bottle out twice within a few minutes. After a few samples, I grabbed my final one, Honey Mead, a sweet wine made with Lancaster County Honey, and sidestepped the heck out of there.
The year 1588 was a time of peace in England, although unrest lurked just outside its borders in Ireland.
Based loosely on real events, the Faire tells the story of Pirate Queen Grace O’Malley, who had come to face Her Majesty and state her case for the freedom of Red Hugh O’Donnell, leader of the Irish rebellion, who had been captured by the Queen.
As evening fell and the crowd gathered at Bosworth Field for the Ultimate Joust between an English and an Irish knight, there was palpable tension in the air.
A young guy wearing breeches and a blue and red cotton shirt balanced atop a fence, egging on the crowd, which cheered its loyalty to the Queen while jeering at the Irish.
Loud, pulse-quickening music filled the air. And when the knights rode their horses onto the field and began to joust, shouts of encouragement or rage rang out from the crowd – and it didn’t feel like make-believe anymore.
Even the 5-year-old boy behind me -- wearing a kilt, his face covered in grape stains -- was roaring.
“On this day I ride for three reasons,” shouted the amply-bearded English Sir William atop his white steed. “My father in heaven, my country and you.” He indicated us, the crowd -- “My people.”
That final gesture transported the crowd to another time and place, and we became a part of it, shouting and booing as if the knights’ very lives were at stake. Forget that most of us were wielding iPhones to snap pictures – these passionate actors had the power to convince us, if even for a few hours, that we were part of another world.
Definitely worth the $30 entrance fee.
Things started to go wrong in fiction world when the Irish knight got too brash, leading a revolt of peasants and soldiers directly to the Queen’s throne. Cannon blasts (pyrotechnics) and smoke burst out during the quick hand-to-hand battle involving all of the characters.
Soon Grace O’Malley saved the Queen’s life, which led to a truce, and the evil Irish knight was stabbed to death by heroic Sir William.
The crowd and actors gathered at the Globe Theatre for a final hour of Celtic jigs and English songs, music and laughter before driving home, pulling off the costumes, and preparing for the next day’s nine to five.