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What Is a Renaissance Festival?

Alan Rankin
Alan Rankin

A Renaissance festival is a theme park based on the culture of Europe in the 14th-17th centuries, the historical era known as the Renaissance. Participants in these festivals attempt to recreate the feel of this earlier period with archaic costuming, architecture, and speech patterns. These festivals, sometimes called Renaissance fairs or faires, also showcase handmade arts and crafts and live entertainment. They are part of a wider trend of historical re-creation events and parks around the world. A Renaissance festival is a seasonal, outdoor event; faire grounds are often located on the outskirts of major cities.

The Renaissance was a period of high cultural and scientific advancement on the European continent. The era has been the subject of intense fascination in succeeding centuries, especially for those with interests in history, art, or social sciences. The first Renaissance festival was held in California in 1962. Initially an educational effort similar to “living history” exhibits, the successful festival spawned many commercial imitators in the following years. By the late 1980s, there were nearly 200 large and small Renaissance festivals throughout the U.S., Canada, and other countries.

People may be be found dressed up as William Shakespeare at a Renaissance festival.
People may be be found dressed up as William Shakespeare at a Renaissance festival.

Each Renaissance festival is an independent entity, and procedures vary by event. In general, however, participants are strongly encouraged to adopt archaic methods of dress and speech and feign ignorance of modern conveniences. This explains the Middle English spelling of the word “faire,” which has become common shorthand for Renaissance festivals among participants and fans. Many faires are based around Elizabethan England, the era of writer William Shakespeare. Others have wider historical and geographic themes, ranging from the Roman Empire to the Victorian era of Charles Dickens.

In the United States, Renaissance faires are often weekend-only events, like many theme parks; they can last from two days to nine weeks. Many artisans, performers, and supporting staff travel from one Renaissance festival to the next; these workers whimsically refer to themselves as “Rennies.” Several faires have created avid fan followings, with visitors who return year after year, often dressed in period clothing themselves. In the U.S., the Renaissance festival has become a subculture, often linked with science fiction and fantasy fandom. This subculture has been spoofed in movies and TV series such as The Simpsons, Family Guy, and The Big Bang Theory.

Historical re-creation parks are popular attractions around the world. Many of them follow the model of “living history” exhibits, in which a historical site or era is recreated to give modern visitors a unique view of the past. Similar activities include re-enactments of the American Civil War and other famous conflicts. Some European festivals have imitated the American version of the Renaissance festival. Like those in the U.S., these events combine a theme park with an arts and craft fair and do not always place a priority on historical veracity.

Discussion Comments


Renaissance festivals used to be purely historical events some decades ago. Now, I see more and more fantasy elements and I attribute that to popular culture. People see wizards and hobbits in films and read about them in books. And they also want to see them at Renaissance festivals, especially kids. I suppose this is both a good thing and a bad thing depending on whether one likes fantasy characters or not. I'm not much into fantasy, so I prefer a purely historical Renaissance festival.


@SteamLouis-- You must visit a Renaissance fair again. There is definitely more to a Renaissance festival than smoked turkey legs, although I do know several people who go every year for that food item alone.

I think the theatrical reenactments and fantasy characters (when available) are the best parts of Renaissance fairs. I love the costumes and the shows that are put on. There are so many lively characters and actors. One really feels like in England during the Renaissance period.

I go to the Renaissance fair every year and for the past three years, I've been wearing a costume. It's so much fun interacting with other visitors as well as the performers at the fair.


I've only been to a Renaissance festival once. My school had taken us to a Renaissance festival as a school trip. I remember the elaborate Renaissance costumes. I also remember smoked turkey legs and wax dipped roses. Unfortunately, I don't remember much else. I would love to go to a Renaissance festival again.

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    • People may be be found dressed up as William Shakespeare at a Renaissance festival.
      By: Georgios Kollidas
      People may be be found dressed up as William Shakespeare at a Renaissance festival.