Today my wife and I went to the Texas Renaissance Festival—one of my long-time favorite things to do. My parents first took our family to the Tex Ren Fest back in the 80’s (it started in 1974, but we didn’t move to Texas until ’77) and we went almost every year. When I moved out on my own, I didn’t go back until 1993 when I returned home from the Army.
From the time we first went to the festival all the way until ’93, the whole focus of the event was to experience as closely as possible what life might have been like during the renaissance period, which—for those who may have forgotten history—was the period after the medieval from about the 14th century until sometime around the 17th century. The era was marked by significant social and economic changes, but mostly it heralded changes in the arts and sciences. Most historians would call the renaissance a bridge between the Middle Ages and modern times.
So walking the grounds in Plantersville, one could see artisans making wonderful works of art and crafts. Wandering minstrels played mandolins and piccolos and fiddles or sang songs. At that time the only people in costume were the festival vendors and performers and they took great pains to be as accurate to the period as they could. In fact, if a vendor slipped character—spoke without the proper European accent—they got into trouble with park management. The costumes were Irish, Italian, French or British, and they were period specific. Going to the Texas Renaissance Festival was almost as good as a history lesson about the age.
Since I didn’t go every year, I cannot pin down when it happened, but I first noticed the change in 2003, when I went back after moving back to Houston. Gone were the artisan booths where craftsman were making things. Oh, there were face painters and you could still make a sand sculpture in a bottle, but the craftsmen who carved your name in wood, or hammered it into metal were gone. They were replaced with prefabricated sun catchers. Sure, they are pretty to look at, but I doubt they were in use in the 14th century. There were also a lot of knife and sword vendors selling replicas of weaponry from the middle ages, and vendors selling costumes of all kinds.
When I say all kinds, I mean just about any historical period. Gone it seems is the period specific requirement of old. Now people dress in medieval or barbarian garb and—in the most egregious anachronism ever—fantasy costumes. No longer is it just the vendors and performers who dress in costume. Guests come from all over the country to dress in what they seem to think is appropriate attire, based, it seems, on what they have seen in movies. Plenty of girls prance about in pixie or fairy costumes (and, yes, there is a distinct difference) while the guys cavort about dressed like the wraith king from Lord of The Rings. This year, there were—I swear—2 storm troopers from Star Wars the Clone Wars. The sword vendors now sell all kinds of cutting implements, including Narsil—Isildur’s sword from Lord of the Rings—and a bat’leth from Star Trek the Next Generation.
The Texas Renaissance Festival should be called the Texas SciFi and Fantasy festival because it bears little resemblance to the actual renaissance period for which it is named. And just to be clear, it is still fun. With the increase in restaurant pricing thanks to the economy, the food at the festival is actually about what you would expect to pay at any dining establishment. There is no end to the interesting things you can see at the festival. People dress in all manner of garb including chainmail with little to nothing else. And there are still those who do dress according to the period. Just don’t go expecting a history lesson.