Festivals stretch to portray Medieval, Renaissance times, says Martha Rampton

Martha Rampton is a professor of Medieval history at Pacific University, which means she also teaches about the Renaissance because the two periods are so closely associated. She also helped start Faire in the Grove a decade ago at Pacific.

News-Times: What things at the Renaissance Festival were historically accurate?

MR: The clothes. And there was a little pavilion where there was a queen sitting with her attendants. All the trappings of that and the clothing seemed definitely Medieval.

Other than that, there was nothing there in my mind that said ‘This is absolutely Renaissance.’ It was just kind of a conglomeration of things that were kind of Renaissance-y and Medieval-y.

NT: What things were definitely not historically accurate?

MR: There were taco stands. And there was a hypnotist. And there were booths with sushi kinds of things and corn dogs. This was constructed to be a fun day, not particularly educational — and to make money. Everything costs. There were few demos, for instance, that didn’t cost money.

What you get at a bunch of these fairs are caricatures. What we miss is the fact that at real Medieval fairs, people were coming for very serious purposes. It wasn’t buskers going around and always joyful. It was dead-serious trading. Initially, there were only two or three opportunities to trade in a year. And the clothing would be extremely dirty and there would be kids crying and screaming and their parents were trying to sell something. I am in no way saying the Middle Ages was a dirty period, but it was complex.Rampton

NT: What’s the difference between the Oregon Renaissance Festival in Hillsboro and the annual Medieval Faire in Forest Grove?

MR: At the Medieval Faire, our focus is on education. There’s a demo section and they’re demonstrating braiding and blacksmithing and making food and making ale, taking bird feathers and making a hat. But you didn’t get that at the Renaissance festival.

The group behind the Medieval Faire here is the Society for Creative Anachronism, so they’re extremely interested in authenticity. But even here there are also pirates walking around in their pirate clothes and faeries and all that, so no, even this one is not completely accurate.

NT: Any other differences?

MR: Ours is free.

NT: Was there anything at the Hillsboro festival that was better?

MR: The jousting, of course. That’s definitely a positive addition.

NT: What did you like best at the Hillsboro festival?

MR: The Washing Well Wenches. It was a good show and it was funny. It was salacious. The two women were talented. People were laughing. More people were there than the place could hold. By contrast the hypnotist — there were like, six people there.

NT: So what’s the value of these Medieval or Renaissance festivals?

MR: Festivals are fun. It’s always nice to get people out in the community. I don’t think a person learns much about those periods. But it could get people interested in history.

NT: What’s the most important thing for people to understand about that period of history that they will not get from attending one of these festivals?

MR: You come to understand the value of lives that are highly structured and of an environment where people are not in a position to make very many life choices. There’s a tremendous amount of security and freedom within a structured society. That is true of the Medieval and Renaissance world.

In the U.S., our tradition is ‘You’ve got to be free, you’ve got to make your own choices,’ and I would say you don’t need to do those things to lead a really fulfilling, very happy life. In fact, I think it’s the freedoms and the choices we have right now that in many ways are making us so unhappy.

History is like a foreign country. You study history to learn and appreciate the value of people and lifestyles that are very, very different [from you]. It is an exercise in embracing diversity. It teaches us that our way is not the only viable way of thinking about the world.

You say Medieval, I say Renaissance

The Middle Ages are traditionally considered to have run from about 500 to 1500 A.D., with the Renaissance overlapping from 1300 to 1600. The Renaissance is typically associated with certain changes in art, culture and philosophy (the emergence of humanism) that showed up in England around 1600, but actually started in Italy in the 1300s — and a couple hundred years earlier in France. Because of such overlap, laypeople sometimes interchange the terms “Medieval” and “Renaissance.”

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