Summer is approaching, as are Renaissance Fairs. In the past, their inaccuracies would irk me no end.
Has anyone wondered why we have Renaissance Fairs? Why not Restoration Fairs, Versailles Fairs, Belle Epoque Fairs or Ancient Egypt Fairs, or Saxon Fairs? It’s because the Renaissance is so firmly implanted in our cultural subconscious as an overall good time. And here is why.
Of course, most Renaissance Fairs are not really ‘Renaissance’ Fairs, they are really ‘Tudor’ or ‘Early Modern’ Fairs, and usually ‘Elizabethan’ fairs. But those don’t sound quite so catchy as ‘Renaissance’ or ‘Re-Birth.’ We associate ‘Tudor’ with a political period and architecture. And when you ask someone off the street when the ‘Early Modern’ period was, they would probably say something like the 1950s.
WHAT REALLY HAPPENED:
HUMANISM AND NEO-PLATONISM
Think Renaissance think humanism, and when most think of humanism most don’t think on Juan Luiz de Vives or Sir Thomas Moore, one often thinks of the ingenious Michael Angelo, Donatello, Leonardo, Raphael, and possibly of the body and celebration of individualistic spirit. Never mind that Renaissance Fairs usually encompass the English second generation Humanist period, or possibly the Neoplatonic period in the last half of Elizabeth’s reign, which was a different thing.
Elizabeth herself was a second generation humanist, in the generation following Moore. She lamented very much in her old age how her first generation teachers and those in her own age bracket were dying one by one and in their stead was a younger, more arrogant crew, but she adjusted to the times. Though she had no complaint with Philip Sydney – who was arguably the best of the lot – she found the rest frivolous at best, decadent and irreverent at worst. Hence our popular picture of Elizabeth being intellectual and steely in a shifty, love-smitten court.
POLITICS, ECONOMICS & RELIGION
To the American psyche the Renaissance period was the nascent stage of America, the period of European colonization of the New World. So it is associated with growth, vitality, and innovation in human thought. Ask any non-historian what their opinion is of the Medieval period or the Dark Ages, and they will reply that they were pretty bleak and stagnant (which wasn’t true but that is beside the point). Later periods are known to be less heroic and more fraught with contention. In the 17th century was the 30 years war, English Civil War, Absolutism in France, and a grim time of inbreds and inquisitions in Spain. The 18th, however witty it’s writers were, just lead to revolution. The 19th was stuffy, except for the Jane Austen period with all those Mr. Darceys and Pemberleys.
That the Protestant Reformation occurred in the 16th century is often and entirely misrepresented in contemporary culture. In the 16th century, punishment for crimes was usually bodily. A burning or two was not an outrage, but an upholding of the law and a weekend’s entertainment. Elizabeth’s predecessor, ‘bloody’ Mary was not so bloody by the standards of the day. She embarked on no massacres, or massive country-wide wars and her burnings were way fewer than those of her sister. That Elizabeth’s brother Edward had the makings of a Protestant extremist is not mentioned. Elizabeth and those seeking her patronage had her long reign to do their work in shaping cultural history. Mary needed to be vilified since she disapproved of Elizabeth, but she was in reality far more moderate than her severe, well-educated, half brother, Edward. For example, when Mary restored Catholicism in England she did not demand the return of monastery lands, and she listened far more to her cousin, Charles V, than to her Catholic prelates. Had Mary married her English relation Cardinal Pole instead of young Philip of Spain, Elizabeth would have had a different image, had she been allowed to live.
Since our nation was founded on the protestant bedrock of economic pre-destination, we have a sense of destiny about the Reformation, particularly over that in England. But the religion of states in the 16th century was up for grabs. A monarch inclined this way or that could allow a faith enough time to work itself into the economic structure of the state. Germany fought the 30-years war in the following century but it wasn’t nearly as clean as the religion question in England. The handful or burnings in England – and even the St. Bartholomews Day Massacre in France – looked like garden parties compared to the carnage of that war: A full third of the population perished by violence. A few dramatic burnings to prevent extremism in England weren’t such a bad idea, when fear of gruesome civil war was far from paranoia.
Charles V, the most glorious of all those Catholic Hapsburgs, was relatively pragmatic about religion, as his interest was primarily to keep his vast inheritance intact, whilst German Princes, the pope, Italian nationalists, and the sneaky French tried to overturn his apple cart. He used the religion of the German Princes as Casus Belli: he could attack French-aligned protestant princes with impunity. Philip II, his micromanaging son and successor in Spain and the Netherlands only, attacked England because it was French aligned and on the way to his Netherlands.
England was French aligned because Spain was just too powerful in 1558 and the French could easily be swayed to uphold the auld alliance with Scotland. When Elizabeth came to the throne, the King of France was also King of Scotland. That was too close to home for comfort, so France and England were allies out of fear. When the King died leaving Mary Stuart a widow, there was absolutely every reason in the world to be aligned with England, including personal ones (Catherine de Medici hated Mary Stuart and Elizabeth strongly disliked Philip, despite the fact that Philip did his best to keep her alive when her sister was on the throne. Philip figured that a Protestant England was better than a French England, for with Elizabeth dead, England went to the French Queen, Mary Stuart).
One can imagine the sense of relief the nation of England must have had when French-speaking, French-raised Mary Stuart was forced out of France by her mother-in-law Catherine de Medici and into the hands of a Protestant Scotland. Those who new her nature, her old-fashioned sense of royal entitlement, and vanity must have been thrilled. Knox was to unleash the hounds upon her with his ‘Monstrous blast… against women’ (which he later slightly undated to include Elizabeth as an exception).
We also enjoy painting the economic situation in rich, flowing, vibrant oils, instead of their true grim harshness. It was hard to be a merchant. The Mediterranean was incredibly changeable as Habsburg silver was poured in from all directions: Spain, Italy, Germany. And England had the memory of the economic chaos of the latter half of the of the 14th and the entire 15th century.
When six-foot-tall, well-built Henry VIII Tudor rode in with his red-gold hair and lusty nature, spending the full treasure he inherited from his miserly father, Britain breathed a sigh of relief, and was way more politically and religiously permissive of their monarch than they would have been in times past. Elizabeth and her advisors including Thomas Gresham, had the benefit of watching her father and successor experiment with currency devaluation and a hike in taxes, and watched on the continent as Spain flooded the market with silver (Gresham never really wrote Gresham’s law, though. He only kind of, sort of, in an indirect way, inspired it, though it could be argued he was aware of idea behind it). It would take years for Elizabeth to stabilize the English economy, if she ever really did at all.
Further proof of the permissiveness of the people and the lords towards the monarch is that no less than two of Henry VIII’s daughters were named queen regnant, something that had never been allowed in the 500-year history of the Norman/Plantagenet Kingdom of England. These innovations, which some would call advancements in women’s rights, were really done more out of fear of chaos than noble promotion of the fairer sex. But, they were firsts.
So, Elizabeth was made Queen following what was politically and economically known as ‘The Mid Tudor Crisis.” The war-induced debt of Henry VIII and the poor, people-pleasing policies during the reign of his son, Edward VI, combined with continental pressures resulted in massive inflation both domestically and abroad. Mary’s tragic reign was plagued with unusually cold weather, a disfuctional privy council formed rapidly out of necessity, an illness afflicted Queen, and – I love to add – she was sadly and severely near sighted. How is a Queen to gage political climate if she can not see faces? But Mary did in fact lay the legal framework for a Queen regnant under the ‘Two bodies’ of the monarch principle, which Elizabeth could then apply to her own reign without having to do the legal legwork.
That Elizabeth came to the throne of a perfect kingdom is an untruth, but it was a better situation than had existed for her brother and sister. Her father waged expensive wars to appease his princely ego. Where he had inherited full coffers, his son inherited debt. His regent, the Duke of Somerset, a proto-socialist, was popular with the people, but his politics were insupportable, self-serving and idealistic. It was the intelligent Duke of Northumberland, John Dudley, who took the hit for the team in ousting him, setting into motion a tragic sequence of political decisions (the most famous of these was Lady Jane Grey) to save himself from the fallout of executing the uncle of an annointed, minor king. Had Edward VI not died, his role in history he would be remembered as a savior of the state. But Edward VI did die, and Dudley knew Mary, the Catholics of England, and the staunch Protestant allies of the beheaded Somerset would kill him. He panicked and saw Jane as his last chance of survival. That Jane died was the result of her own poor decisions, for Mary was very eager to see her live.
And poor Mary! She came to the throne very unexpectedly, had no chance to prepare, and was required to oust an already crowned competitor. Her reign started with the deaths of Northumberland, Jane, and others, though she very clearly did not want it to. She threw a government together quickly, having in mind gaining as many supporters as possible to make sure she could firmly remove Northumberland and Lady Jane. And, she needed to do so from a distance in Framlingham, not in London, where she could not feel first hand where the wind was blowing. After a generation of mayhem, Henry VIII – who had died not so popular – started to look good. And Elizabeth, his unmarried heir with striking resemblance to her father, just as good.
So to say that both young Henry VIII and his daughter, Elizabeth benefited from a marvelous confluence of circumstances would be accurate. But they also played them extremely well.
The English theater was born at the end of the 16th century. The middle class was rising. The longer Elizabeth reigned and avoided war, the more stable the politics and the economy. As monarchies around Europe slowly shifted from personal property a la Mary Stuart, to nation-states a la Elizabeth, the burgeoning pageantry business was public relations. Social position was becoming an abstration, and the clothes art, drama, and public politics reflected this. A person wore their image on their bodies, in their clothes. The prince was on a stage, or as Shakespeare so aptly wrote “all the world is a stage and we are merely players.” Obvious examples of this shifting view of politics and the institution of the monarchy are the execution Mary Queen of Scots, the Earl of Essex insanity, and the proliferation of court romances and scandals towards the end of Elizabeth’s reign. It wasn’t so much a cult of personality as it was cult of the icon.
Elizabeth was not the fashionista many supposed her to be. The some 3000 gowns she had in her wardrobe were primarily gifts. A handful of them she inherited 45 years before from her sister. In almost all movies or representations, Mary Tudor is shown wearing grim black, dressed somberly. Nothing could have been further from the truth. Mary Tudor was often criticized for her love of expensive gowns, and the style she chose was the fashion, not her personal choice, and it was an English, not Spanish style. Elizabeth, conversely, was praised for her austerity of dress and protestant virtues.
During the first decade of Elizabeth’s reign she primarily focused on saving money, which she desperately needed to do since she had none after Mary decided to invade France. (Why did Mary invade France? Because so many of the out-of-favor noblemen from her brother’s pervious reign urged her so they could regain favor in battle. So, that war was, for Mary, public relations.) It wasn’t until the last half of Elizabeth’s reign, the theatrical, symbolic, Neo-Platonic half, that Elizabeth assumed her more famed and bedecked image, when she demanded her ladies wear all white to provide a backdrop and had a wardrobe of pearl-studded wigs. (She wore wigs from the age of 28 after her hair inexplicably fell out. The jury is out on whether it fell out from hormonal imbalance, stress, venereal disease she inherited from her father, or overactive use of primitive hair dye. I have a great book, miles thick on her medical history with a chapter devoted to the subject of her hair loss. She was never the fiery red head we picture her as, though she did have reddish hair. All early accounts describe her as ‘more blonde than red.’) Elizabeth was fortunate though to live in a time when the body was simply the base upon which the trappings of class, philosophy, and power were literally painted and draped.
SO WHY RENAISSANCE FAIRS?
They are our history, they are not offensive, and they are what we would like to be. Elizabeth is an abstract leader, devoted to her people. The nation is prosperous, producing art, celebrating individual expression within a very clearly defined structure. The social structure and power systems of the Elizabethan world were defined to the point of characture. The lusty barmaid knows she can’t be the queen, but she feels her role in the system that his her nation and culture. The adventurous explorer knows he may die, but the queen will be sure to reward him if he comes back. The conniving, beautiful lady-in-waiting will be kept in check by the queen (or not). And the conspiring Spanish-allied Catholic nobleman will be justly beheaded. Invaders will be struck by the hand of God, and by the good captains that pilot the ships of Gloriana. Exotic elements are introduced from the New World before it was turned into a cash cow. When the appearance of an Ottoman could be justified by their opposition to the Spanish. When the World was opening up, and Elizabeth was open to it.
WHY YOU SHOULD GO
Now Elizabethan England was quite a bit different from ‘Renaissance’ Fairs in so many ways, but that is no excuse to not go. A Renaissance Fair is a ritual, where we all play out and affirm our image of the ideal world and society, where faults are excused so long as they don’t cross the lines of the social structure (a barmaid, for example, will never been queen).
But that is just a fancy way to say that you should just show up and have a good time.
*Note: It is hard to write when you have an infant. They distract you a lot. So this was my best shot.