Monday, August 08, 2005 | A stately young woman’s feet suddenly replace her head as she performs summersaults in the grass. Two stout figures dance about in tights, shouting heartfelt obscenities over the clank of jousting sticks. A bold suitor tickles a lady’s bare bosom with a feather, only to be tumbled to the grass as a rowdy courtship ensues.
“Rennies” like those who came to San Diego’s Morley Field over the weekend transform sedate neighborhood parks into festival playgrounds where decorum is left at the gate. Working a circuit of ever-popular Renaissance fairs across Southern California, these festival folk do their best to spread gleeful abandon in the guise of a medieval history lesson.
The colorful guildspeople, merchants and performers of the weekend’s festivities come from all walks of life, holding day jobs as police, janitors and CEOs. Although some are there to turn a penny, more often the world of festivals provides them with an escape from the constraints of everyday life into the imagined romance and revelry of 16th-century Europe.
“I live in corporate America in ‘Dilbert cube-land’,” said Nana Nicoll, a.k.a. Mistress of the Morgue, who is a tech editor for a defense contractor in San Marcos. “This is my playtime, where I go to rinse off stress.”
Nicoll started Dance Macabre 19 years ago, an informal troupe that performs a traditional medieval dance to protect festival-goers from the plague. She says that through nearly two decades of dancing at Renaissance fairs, she has become part of a “close-knit family” of diverse people who share an instant bond when they reconvene on the festival grounds.
Kenny Klein, who spent 10 years living in an RV traveling from festival to festival playing music of the British Isles on fiddle and guitar, says that in many ways, life at festivals can seem more real than the “real world.”
“A lot of people in our culture yearn for a different time and place – a different way to relate to one another,” said Klein. “The fair can provide them with that.”
Along with their thick brogues, period costumes and roguish attitudes, Rennies command an impressive, almost academic store of skill and knowledge about the Middle Ages. Many have formed guilds that specialize in a particular offering or craft which they use to entertain and educate the passing crowds.
House McFionn is a troop that portrays and re-enacts the history of 16th-century Irish mercenary soldiers. They stage mock battles to settle disputes for the “side with the highest purse,” teach archery and woodworking, and perform traditional Irish song, dance and storytelling.
Female members of the guild working with traditional looms knit elaborate garb for the soldiers to complete the illusion of a self-sufficient, traveling economic unit.
“For myself, I love Irish history,” said Bill “Liam” Cardinal, a retired hospital supervisor from the desert east of San Diego, who says that he is actually half Finnish and half Native American. “We try to show with authenticity what life would have been like back then, what it was like to be Irish and on the run.”
The Brotherhood of the Bottle is a boisterous acting guild that recreates the activities of the middle class, appropriately accompanied by consumption of large amounts of ale.
“Back then the taverns were the town halls, the game halls and the gathering places,” the executor of a CPA firm in Ventura explains. Lapsing into thick brogue, she adds, “Here we have crafts and tavern, and we use them to make a pretty coin.”
Keeping the dozens of Renaissance festivals in Southern California afloat each year are what are known as “pet patrons”- die-hards who travel far and wide to attend festivals, usually dressed in the full period regalia. They are drawn to the festival atmosphere for the same reasons as their hosts – the freedom and spontaneity that can be assumed along with new identities for a day.
“We’re not interested in dressing like lords and ladies,” said Nancy Melling, a La Mesa resident who has attended six Renaissance festivals with her husband. “We want to be peasants – to be comfortable and have fun.”
“People just don’t have the opportunity to be like this in real life,” adds her husband, Derek, whose authentic English accent blends seamlessly in the festival air. “Costumes really help people release their inhibitions.”