Monday, February 4, 2019

Some Notes about the Kerrville Renaissance Festival

𝔇uring the weekend just past, my family and I went to the Kerrville Renaissance Festival (@kerrrenfest on Twitter, also present on Facebook and Instagram), to which I had won a pair of free tickets some months back. A smallish Renaissance festival taking place in a smallish town in the Texas Hill Country, this year, the festival took place across two weekends (25-27 January 2019 and 2-3 February 2019), and it featured a number of vendors and entertainers that varied across the two weekends. And, as was the case for the earlier Oklahoma ScotFest I attended, it marked a decent enough day to be out with the family (though the weather was more cooperative  for the present topic than the previous).
An attentive audience at the field performance.
Photo my own
As we entered, we were greeted by banners and pennants proclaiming the event; along our way from the parking lot into the event, we saw a number of people dressing in "period" costume. Not long after we entered, we found our way to a performance of a group of belly dancers. The troupe--if that is the correct word for such a group--also had shows on a stage further into the event, in one of which my daughter participated.
Classically medieval, fried ravioli and pecan pie
Photo my own
Not long after, because we had gotten off to something of a late start that morning, hunger became an issue, so we made our way to one of the several sets of food vendors the event had on site. (It is one of the marks of a better event that it has many food options available, and accessible in more than one place.) Some of the traditional festival foods were on offer, but not so much medieval food as "medieval" food--such as turkey legs, fried potatoes, and the ever-present-in-Texas barbeque sandwich . But it tasted good, and it helped us to press on through our tour of the rest of the event.
One of the handlers with a fine feathered specimen
Photo my own.
Soon after eating, we found our way (via a face-painting stop for my daughter) to the display being put on by the Last Chance Forever Bird of Prey Conservancy, which uses demonstrations of falconry and related arts to help fund its operations. The performing group, featuring beautiful animals, has appeared at a number of events in the Hill Country, and my wife had expressed a particular desire to see them. It was good to finally get to do so after hearing about them for years and missing out on many chances to see the large birds in flight or hear them discussed with such passion and fervor by the demonstration's head.
The dancers at their work
Photo my own.
Following the birds of prey demonstration, we toured a number of vendors' stalls and took a number of photographs. I missed getting pictures of the bawd who offered insults and chances to pitch fruit at his face for five dollars or the hawker handling hatchet hucking for the same rate. I did not, however, miss getting pictures of the dance troupe's stage show or of my daughter joining them on the stage when an audience participation number was called. (In the event, she was the only eager volunteer; another member of the audience joined after being pressured by her friends. She did well, though.)
The blower at his work
Photo my own.
We watched quite a bit of the dancers' show--my wife has studied belly dance, so it was something she wanted us to stick around for--and headed off into the rest of the festival. Most of our doing so saw us touring more vendors' booths with crafts of more and less connection to the period ostensibly being celebrated and the period more overtly so, but we did catch one more show. Of a sort, anyway; the demonstration was by a glassblower who had set up a small workshop on site. It was an informed discussion, certainly, and the work being done amid the narration was quite pretty.
The Dublin Harpers, a family musical group
Photo my own.
Though it may seem to be the case, and though I did very much enjoy having a day at a park with my family, I did not go to the festival solely to have a good time; I did so knowing that I would be ruminating on what I saw there--and what I have seen at other, similar festivals such as the Kerr County Celtic Festival and Highland Games that take place in neighboring Ingram, Texas, or the aforementioned Oklahoma ScotFest. I knew that I would not be able to help looking at what the festival got wrong--though I was surprised to find the things that it got right.
The sandwiches aren't exactly period-proper, either
Photo my own.
As is usual for such events, things were a mishmash of period and place at the event. While it is billed as a Renaissance festival, the tropes represented were predominantly medieval or "medieval" in form, even if the foodstuffs on offer--again, turkey legs and fried potatoes--are distinctly non-medieval. Vikings and Venetian-style glassblowers stood and strode side by side with high medieval archery and chivalric venery, so that centuries were compressed and presented alongside one another almost willy-nilly. This weekend was also the "time-travelers' weekend," overtly opening the already-anachronistic event to even broader a spread across time; the pseudo-Victorian steampunk aesthetic was on full display, as was no seventeenth-century piracy and eighteenth-century kiltwork. So, as far as remaining true to its name or to the earlier period it typically more fully portrays, the festival did poorly--but it is hardly unique in doing so. Indeed, most such festivals work with such compression and amalgamation; given their audience and its prevailing conceptions, they almost have to do so. (Others far more learned than I have treated those prevailing impressions at great length; I commend you, dear readers, to such as Paul Sturtevant and Helen Young.)
Some of the fair-goers, some in costume
Photo my own.
But the mishmash had one effect that helped the festival ring more truly medieval than many purportedly accurate presentations of that time; it overtly and openly incorporated persons of color into the events, and as active participants rather than as objectified subalterns, as they are too often presented. Perhaps it is an artifact of being in Central Texas, but many of the performers and vendors were people of color, enacting medievalisms that are typically associated only with white people, despite the overwhelming evidence and common-sense proposition that there were people of color throughout social strata, throughout Europe, throughout the period commonly described as medieval. Perhaps inadvertently, they got that part right.
My daughter on stage with the dancers,
because I am a proud poppa
Photo my own.
And there is one other thing, not necessarily medieval in itself, but certainly to the good that the amalgamation of times and places permits. For, although stereotypes overstate matters, there is some truth to the assertions that 1) small towns are suspicious of outsiders and 2) Central Texas does not reward being outside of certain social norms. But at the fair when we went, we saw a number of people openly enacting membership in non-medieval communities that their comfort in the enactment made clear that they belong to. And not only those groups which have been trying to appropriate the medieval (incorrectly) for heinous ends, either, but many groups such as are often overtly oppressed or covertly compelled to keep quiet who and what they are. On the day we went, the Kerrville Renaissance Festival was an open and welcoming place in which people felt at liberty to present themselves as they feel themselves to be.
If it is the case that some of the details are wrong--and it is; they are--it seems a far better correctness to help people enact themselves than to be sure all of the facts are right. As we move more toward informational accuracy, it will behoove us to keep that openness in mind.

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