All the world’s a stage: A brief history of Renaissance Faires

Queen Elizabeth holding court
Queen Elizabeth holding court

Today’s American Renaissance Faires (yes it’s spelled faire) are becoming quite mainstream. It seems you can’t throw a juggler’s ball far without hitting one. Just about every state in the union has at least one yearly faire, some, like California host several. The faires are now popular family, and school events. Some faires even host special family and student days, with activities designed for educational purposes. Of course no American faire is complete without its many vendors selling everything from Elizabethan costumes to modern body scrub. Thousands of people attend these commercialized faires so it might come as surprise to learn that the original faires were presented as part of the 1960’s counterculture movement, specifically as playful ways of protesting American consumerism and uptight social norms.

In her 2012 book, Well Met: Renaissance Faires and the American Counterculture, author Rachel Lee Rubio tells us that the 1964 Pleasure Faire and May Market, featured “an authentically attired ‘monk in full beard and hooded robes’ hawking papal indulgences and calling to fairgoers, ‘Let me absolve you of the punishments and everlasting torments of commercialism!’” The faire, for the California radicals who first participated in it, was not just an entertainment but also a criticism of the establishment and all it stood for.

The first American Renaissance faire was the brainchild of Phyllis Patterson, a Los Angeles schoolteacher. In 1963, she held a very small Renaissance fair as a class activity, in the backyard of her Laurel Canyon home. It was so successful she and her husband Ron Patterson, held a weekend fundraiser for a local radio station. 8,ooo people showed up. This must have been a very successful fundraiser.

Two years later the Patterson’s staged the first Renaissance Pleasure Faire in Angora California. The first commercial vendors were artisans and food merchants who were required to demonstrate historical accuracy or plausibility for their wares. Groups of volunteers were organized into “guilds” to focus on specific reenactment duties (jugglers, singers, actors, blacksmiths etc.). It was hoped that by presenting the faire as a living history event the Renaissance period would be brought to life so that attendees would be reminded of an early age, before the world, or at least America, became immersed in modern technology. What the Patterson’s may have over looked was that the Renaissance period was also a time of growing technology and consumerism. The 17th century Romantic era was pushback to this, the original counterculture movement, if you will. It is a little ironic that the Renaissance era, not the Romantic period was the theme of choice.

The Pattersons wanted full participation from the attendees. According to Rubio, one did not pay to attend the faires, one paid to play.

[A]ttending the Renaissance faire was, during the 1960s and 1970s, a sort of statement of purpose: of belonging in some way to the counterculture, of resistance to consumerism, of side-stepping — albeit briefly — the external constraints of social convention. Through the faire, people could demonstrate public participation in, and affirmation of, a new type of community that was resolutely transnational, transhistorical, transcultural, and one of choice rather than birth.

I wish I would have known about the history of the American faires, for now I can make better sense of what I saw and participated in last Saturday. It turns out there was a hidden message that I completely missed. In a way, the faires are American experimental theaters designed in a way as to break the fourth wall and pull the audience into the action and not just respond to the players.

I’v been a fan of Renaissance faires ever since I attended the Black Point Pleasure Faire, held yearly in Marin County. The Pattersons also started this faire, and apparently during the late 1970s (when I first attended) was still part of the counterculture movement.

These years I attend the Valhalla Renaissance Faire, held annually in Lake Tahoe California. I even met a Guild Master Saturday who mentioned she knew Phyllis Patterson, but at the time the name meant nothing to me.

As my friend Karen and walked around we were invited to participate in games, street performances, (I ended up quoting Shakespeare near the front gate never guessing I had become part of the play) and was even invited to join the Fellowship Guild (be part of a guild? Sign me up!) I had no idea that we were being asked to join a community, even if only for a day, dedicated to the idea of breaking free from the modern establishment. There was a lot of bawdy talk being bantered about; this too was part of the antiestablishment movement. I thought the vendors were getting into the spirit of Shakespearian humor. I giggled but lightly participated. Leave it to an academic to view the experience through a narrow lens.

It’s not all my fault I saw the faire as a window in Shakespeare’s world. For you see, it was promised to be the weekend that the Bard would finally show his face! I had every intention of interviewing him. I asked and got permission. Wouldn’t that of made a good article? Sadly, he was called away. In fact none of the Lord’s Chamberlain’s men made an appearance. I was disappointed, yet amused that the man remains elusive, even to a time traveler.

Ah, see there’s the rub. I was under the impression I was there as a traveling tourist. Someone who didn’t quite fit in yet wanted a close and upfront view of an alien world. Now I know better. In October California is hosting yet another faire, this one outside of the state Capitol (see I told you they are everywhere). We are making plans to go only this time I will have a better understanding of what will be asked of me. I will pay to play in the spirit of the counterculture movement. I will shake the bonds of both academe and society and let the inner hippie wench out.


Meeting some of the Fellowship Guild members
Meeting some of the Fellowship Guild members

If the history of Renaissance Faires is of interest, or you just like good biographies, I found this gem on Vimo. It’s a video for rent, titled, Faire: the American Renaissance. It was fun to watch some old home movies of the early days of the original faire.

Rubio’s book is another source for a fresh look at the counterculture movement.

Rubio, Rachel Lee. Well Met: Renaissance Faires and the American Counterculture. NY Press. 2012

Author: sarij

I'm a writer, lifelong bibliophile ,and researcher. I hold a Bachelors in Humanities & History and a Master's in Humanities. When I'm not reading or talking about Shakespeare or history, you can usually find me in the garden discussing science or politics with my cat.

2 thoughts on “All the world’s a stage: A brief history of Renaissance Faires”

  1. An interesting phenomenon, unfamiliar to me, demanding much of visitors. It sounds similar to but in important respects different from role-playing groups or those re-enactment events that pop up at genuine historical sites here in the UK and in Europe (as with the restaging if the 1815 Battle of Waterloo on the original site), as well as the States. There you have a set skirmish or battle re-enacted, and an associated temporary settlement of camp followers demonstrating skills, crafts and pastimes. Renaissance faires (in England these would be spelt ‘fayres’) sound like a more immersive experience for the public, like a ComicCon or SF convention perhaps. In the UK we’re more reserved and uptight about such things…

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Oh my god. I hadn’t thought about it in these terms. Yes, I would have to say that Ren faires are the original cos play events. We have our uptight re-enactment events too; we are still very serious about the Civil War. Leave it to American men to take all the fun out of cos play.

      Liked by 1 person

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