A woman picked up a sword from a table. Its hilt was wrapped in green felt and decorated with copper wire. The colors went well with the dress and corset the woman was wearing. The blade was slim and short, barely from her fingertip to her elbow. As she handled it, a smile spread across her face.
“Husband!” she cried out, “Come buy me a sword!”
This was at the Winter Renaissance Faire, hosted by Vermont Gatherings – they also host the Vermont Renaissance Faire in the summer. Renaissance faires are pieces of modern recreation inspired by a time long-past. The Winter Faire took place on the first weekend of February and was held inside the Champlain Valley Exposition Center to keep visitors out of the cold weather.
When I arrived, the ring and wobble of steel echoed through the building and caught my attention. Fencers were warming up in the ring, providing a short show for passersby. As the crowd started to accumulate, they donned their helmets and begin chatting. Unzipping their modern protective equipment, they leave the taped off area as the visitors dispersed to find something else to seize their attention.
While I visited, a street magician had placed himself between some stalls and called out to wanderers. A briefcase lay open beside him with a few books and some card decks. As visitor pass by, he offered to read their minds or perform a card trick.
A red-haired woman wearing an ankle-length blue skirt and a corseted olive top agreed to a mind reading. The magician handed her a pile of books, from which she chose one of the Harry Potters. Complying with the magician’s instructions, she picked an eight letter or longer word from the text.
The magician then drew a picture of an animal which the girl was thinking of – its name started with the same letter as the word she chose. Revealing his artwork showed a four-legged stick figure with a smiley face.
The woman said it was supposed to be an elephant. The magician looked at his drawing, added ears and a trunk, apologized for the inaccuracy, then wrote “embarrassment” on the paper – a correct guess of the word the woman had chosen.
All the food was laid against a single wall. Half a dozen tents each selling meals were presented in renaissance fashion, though maintaining a modern twist. I had vegetable samosas, and barely resisted a cheese covered pretzel. Across the way, a stall displayed bottles of mead. Alongside traditional honey, flavors with cranberries, blueberries and more were available.
Most of the event was catered towards small businesses or hobbyists showing off their talents. Artists had works in a plethora of styles – sculptures carved from wood or stone, paintings and pottery, jewelry made with gems, metals, and even bones. Steel helmets and gauntlets were even available in limited quantity.
Swords were the cash crop of the renaissance faire blacksmiths, of course. Their iconicity masked their historical role – swords typically served as sidearms on the battlefield or as jewelry among the antiquated upper class. I couldn’t find a single spear for sale while at the event, which left me disappointed.
Rapiers, longswords, sabers, and other forms of swords typically attract the most customers. Much like how a different type of blade would have different applications in the renaissance, there are different forging processes for modern swords. High carbon steel is durable but flexible – perfect for blade to blade contact. Stainless steel, on the other hand, is not designed for performance but only fashion.
Clothing was displayed on racks and hangers. Dresses and corsets in vibrant colors and patterns were on show next to heavy cloaks with fur or wool lining. Most of the items are handmade, which the tailors report to potential buyers through pitches disguised as casual conversation.
Leatherworkers had prop armor and decorative pieces for sale. Sword sheathes, belt pouches and other period fashioned articles were all available. Anachronistic leather armor, complete with studs, also made it to the faire.
Interactivity is a big part of renaissance faires. If you stand in front of a shop too long, its owners will start up a conversation. Discussion of the renaissance faire itself is most common. I myself got pulled aside by a leatherworker who gave me a speech on the versatility of his handmade leg bags.
Visitors came in all stripes. Some were dressed in plain clothes – these folks tend to be stuck in marvel at the scene around them. Others are dressed up, but simply. A corset added to a dress, or a poofy shirt under a colorful vest served as a quick costume for a few of the guests.
Most of the guests had more elaborate costumes, ranging from remarkably reproduced to perfectly period accurate. Corsets and doublets, leggings and skirts. Some of the more invested guests wore chain mail or gambesons – layers of cloth sewn together to form padded armor.
Then there were the handful of guests who came wearing the fantastical. Horns, ears, and face paint made these costumes stand out. Average renaissance clothes paired with a bit of creative flair could turn a costume from a commoner to a wizard. Middle aged Americans in baseball tees taking selfies with satyrs was a common sight.
Whether it’s watching sword fights, talking with local artisans, admiring the atmosphere and costumes or having your mind read by a magician, there’s something for everybody at a renaissance faire.