Bristol Renaissance Faire performer and Municipal Jester to the city of Milwaukee, Ann-Elizabeth Shapera a.k.a. “Jane the Phoole,” said, “In today’s culture we don’t know our neighbors and we don’t want to because if they knew us they might want our stuff. In general, we’re isolated and miserable. We live in boxes, work in boxes, transport ourselves from place to place in boxes, and even get most of our entertainment from boxes. Sixteenth-century people didn’t know boxes or self-consciousness; they simply didn’t have filters. They lived right out loud. And at the Renaissance Faire, our audience can finally join us and live that way too.”
I don’t think I’d go that far making the generalization that people today lead isolated and miserable lives (I think this as I type from the confinement of my office cubical). However, the idea of living in the Renaissance Period is pretty intriguing.
If you travel approximately 40 miles south from Milwaukee to Kenosha, you will find yourself in a time warp. Over the past 20 years, the Bristol Renaissance Faire has transported nearly three million guests back to a time when fencing was a popular sport, knights wooed maiden’s hearts, and politeness was actually a desired quality.
The Ren Faire was one of those things I talked about doing but never did. Since there has been nothing but rave reviews, this year I finally made it a point to go.
I met Eric at his place by 10 a.m. – that’s too early for a Sunday. Eric’s mom, dad and sister came shuffling in from their hotel shortly after (the Danielsons were in town for the weekend to visit Eric and to meet my parents for the first time). Once we gathered our necessities – including the tickets printed from our computer that saved us $5 per person – we were out the door and on the road.
The sun was finally shinning after eight-straight days of rain, yet the air wasn’t even humid like it typically would be; it was comfortable. The sky was the perfect shade of blue with white clouds that took the shape of dinosaurs and ships as we drove with the windows down.
After being stuck in a stream of slow moving traffic, we inched our way to the grassy parking lot. We were finally there.
Upon entry, it seemed crowded as I enjoyed the illusion of being in a village in the woods on a sunny day, with light filtering through the trees. The 30-acre wooded site was constructed into a permanent village of shops, pubs and performance stages. It was an accurate recreation of a day in the life of Elizabethan England – the summer day in 1574 when Queen Elizabeth visited the English hamlet of Bristol.
The Ren Faire was like the pages of a history book coming alive, with strolling minstrels, jesters, and other era characters mingling with faire-goers. Susan Fry, entertainment director of the Bristol Ren Faire, describes it as “one of the few remaining entertainment venues where patrons can safely interact and ‘play’ with performers and each other.”
A flower vendor told Eric to buy me a rose. Since Eric wouldn’t pony up the cash to buy a flower (I didn’t blame him since the roses were wilted and ridiculously priced), the vendor then shouted, “Hey, over here you romantically challenged imbecile!” as we walked away laughing. (He will never live that down.)
Besides the various costumes and role playing, close to 200 artisans – potters, glass blowers, broom caners, and forgers – displayed their wares in the Faire Marketplace. Offerings ranged from sterling silver jewelry and handmade leather works to sparring weapons, Viking horns and tapestries. Eric’s sister and mom were lured into the shops along the way, so we decided to split up for a bit since Eric, Sarah and I wanted to check out a couple shows before lunch.
After stopping at a stand for a cup of sassafras (it was my first taste of the root beer/licorice flavor. I liked it, at the same time, I didn’t) our first stop was Moonie the Magnif’Cent where Eric, Sarah and I were coaxed into watching the full show. As soon as Moonie saw we didn’t have a seat, he leaped from the stage, forced a section of the crowd to make room, took Eric’s sassafras and placed it on the open seats, and then motioned for the three of us to claim the spots. (Moonie only talked in grunts and whistles by the way, so that was interesting.) It was a good thing he forced us to sit otherwise we wouldn’t have stayed for his hilarious displays of ropewalking and fire juggling.
Soon after the show, the three of us met up with Jonathan, Eric’s friend and co-worker from MCW, and Lily, Jonathan’s girlfriend.
Then it was time for food – fresh roasted turkey legs, fish and chips, garlic sautéed mushrooms, steak sandwiches, gigantic BBQ ribs, grilled chicken – that doesn’t even include dessert! I definitely left my willpower at home. I had a Sheppard’s pie for lunch while Eric ate a sausage calzone since the line for the ribs stretched all the way back to the Jurassic Period. Sarah got a plate of potato wedges smothered in cheese and later in the afternoon, we had to have buttery corn on the cob. You can’t help but gorge yourself – after walking around for hours smelling the various foods, you’re bound to give in to temptation.
After finding a shaded bench in the Streets of Shire and devouring our lunch, we met up with Eric’s family just before Sarah went for a Tarrot reading and the rest of us went to see Adam Crack Whipmaster at Lord Mayor’s Forum Stage.
Mr. Crack selected a young lady from the audience to be his assistant. She nervously held an apple in her hand followed by a twig in her teeth, which the Whipmaster split in half with a 30-foot whip called “the big black whip of death.” He later sliced open a full can of Coke that erupted with an explosion of foam and fizz.
From there we went across a wobbly bridge to the Kids Kingdom, an enclosed play area filled with oversized sandboxes, a huge climb-aboard pirate ship and a cast of fable-favorite characters. Here we watched amateur fencing (I told Eric to join the competition since he was a competitive fencer in Singapore), and then found a petting zoo featuring a variety of animals – zebras, turtles, donkeys, cows, pigs, goats, lamas. It was my first time being so close to such animals, although I tired to keep my distance from the goats… I don’t want to talk about it.
Unfortunately at mid-afternoon, Eric’s family had to head back to Peoria and Sarah to Madison. Despite our dwindling group, the four of us continued to explore the market shops and performance stages.
There are 16 entertainment stages featuring nonstop music and revelry where characters were juxtaposed with fictional scenarios like the street-fighting escapades of Robin Hood and his Merry Men and scheduled shows featuring jousting knights on horseback, swashbuckling swordsmen, dancers, musicians and an eclectic assortment of comedic performers who invite their audiences to become part of the act.
In particular, Dirk and Guido, “the Swordsmen,” became a favorite of ours as they performed daring sword fights and taught several men (whose wives or girlfriends volunteered them) how to woo unsuspecting ladies in the audience; as well as, the “super secret swordsmen laugh.” Since it’s “super secret” I can’t go into further detail; you’ll just have to see it for yourself.
On our way to the most anticipated portion of the day, the Joust to the Death, we came upon a loudmouth heckler in a stockade. We then noticed he was the target for the two teens, “Jay and Not So Silent Bob” as dubbed by the heckler. The teens were launching tomatoes from a stand where they paid $5 to be, well, insulted. At least they got to take revenge with juicy, red tomatoes. This was Vegetable Justice - it definitely wasn’t for the easily offended, but hilarious to watch.
With ten minutes until the start of the jousting tournament, we went to find a shaded spot in the arena, which was packed with cheering fans ready to witness the fate of the four knights. After the battling knights took their starting positions, the basic challenges began. These tests of skill were followed by jousting on horseback, that is, until the knights were knocked from their steeds and forced to battle on foot with only a shield and sword keeping them from “death.” We cheered and booed while other members of the crowd waved green, black, blue or purple flags in representation of their favorite knight. At the end of the nail biting finale, our knight was victorious.
Following a thrilling jousting tournament, there was no better place to conclude our day at the Ren Faire than the weapons tent, which featured swords, rapiers, axes, daggers, or anything to inflict pain on a rival. A young man dressed in peasant garb and using an English accent offered us insight into the knight’s weapons of choice during 16th century combat. We were really getting into it (as you can tell from the photos).
As we headed towards the exit, I stopped to watch a maypole dance. I participated in a maypole at my elementary school, Tonawanda, when I was in fourth grade. I don’t remember it looking so difficult – the skipping and twirling of the ribbons turned into a tug of war with the pole. It was pretty entertaining.
Although I wasn’t sure if I’d like the Ren Faire, it quickly became a favorite of mine. While this trip back in time might not be for everyone, it’s a great place to go with friends and family; and was quite probably one of the best days I’ve had this summer.
As we drove back to our boxed houses in our boxed transportation to eat boxed food, I thought back to living outside of the box and was glad I finally went to the Bristol Renaissance Faire. Despite not feeling miserable for living in current time, the Ren Faire was a great escape from modern life. Still, after a long day of fun and brief insight into 16th century plumbing (apparently they had disgusting Port-O-Johns too) I was glad to be back in 21st century Milwaukee.
Bristol Renaissance Faire
Saturdays and Sundays, plus Labor Day
Monday, July 7 through September 3
10 a.m. – 7 p.m.
Children (ages 5-12) $9.50
Discounted tickets available here