One of Maryland's most popular attractions just concluded its 25th season. For nine weekends every August through October, the Maryland Renaissance Festival in Crownsville, Maryland, brings medieval history alive with its re-creation of a 16th-century English village. What started out in 1977 as a rather small and unstructured theme show, has matured into the number one outdoor event in the region, employing more than 600 people serving 12,000 customers daily.
It's unlikely that life in 16th-century England was ever this much fun. But in the fictitious village of Revel Grove, spread over 50 hectares of woods, thatched cottages, craft and food booths, guests might be honored by a visit by King Henry VIII or attend a jousting tournament with knights in real armor. Or, they might take in a play or comedy at one of the eight outdoor stages; stop for a drink in a pub; or stroll along a dirt path and converse with everyday folk, a strolling musician; a beggar or a wench; or, if they're lucky, even the Queen of England.
Mary Ann Jung is one of several hundred professional entertainers who, all day long stay true to character, whether in performance or interacting with crowds. "Good morrow, my lady and welcome," she says to guests to the Renaissance Fair. "We are Queen Anne Boleyn of England, Ireland and Wales and this very day shall be crowned for all our subjects' eyes in ceremony. And in future we are Mary Ann Jung, professional actress, I have the pleasure of re-creating famous women from history," she said.
Ms. Jung, who has a degree in British history, also trains the Renaissance actors months in advance in dialect and improvisational acting. During the rest of the year, Ms. Jung performs in children's educational shows, corporate events, and she also takes her 'queenly duties' to other Renaissance Festivals held in cities throughout the United States and Canada.
"I've now turned this into a wondrous career and I love it. Because it's the fun, personal side of history. So many of us [actors] continue to see each other throughout the year, we're all friends as well as co-performers. In fact, many people literally travel the year round. The go from one to the other and make their living thusly."
When asked what is the attraction of so many people to this particular era, she responded, "Well, it has to be escapism. Although if they knew the real side of life, the 16th century was really very harsh and violent. The threat of death by plague or smallpox always surrounding you. But in that they managed to truly celebrate life. So I think for people it's really the escapism of knights and castles. And I can be a beautiful lady or a fair maiden and people will kiss my hand. And you know, children are allowed to make believe all the time [but] adults, not so frequently. And so this is a place where the adults get very dressed up, where they can really come out and have fun and pretend, which is something not all of us get to do once we grow up and have our real jobs and real lives."
Which brings up another thing the costumes, not the costumes of the actors, but of the visitors. At least half of the visitors seen by this reporter one afternoon were dressed in 16th century attire: women in long, flowing skirts, plunging necklines and wreathes of flowers in their hair; long-haired men wearing knee-breeches and hose, tunics and heel-less leather boots. One might find themselves standing in line for a drink next to a Viking or a knight.
Linda deMarlor of Rockville, Maryland was dressed as a princess. "Some days I feel like a princess and I get really dressed up and other days I just feel like a wench, so I have on my wench costume," she said. "It just throws you into the mood and it's so different from what I do during the week, so it's really escapism."
"I'm a tax accountant during the week, so my clients are very astonished when they meet me here," she said when asked about her daytime ocupation. "Matter of fact, last week I bumped into a couple I've been doing their taxes for about 10 years and they said, 'Linda, is that you!'" she laughed. The vendors selling food and crafts are also dressed in costume. One clothing vendor had a cloth mouse stuffed in her blouse. She said there was a reason.
"During the renaissance times, the water was not sanitized correctly. And it was very dirty and people, when they bathed, caught diseases and died. So instead of taking a bath and taking that risk, they would just stay dirty. So because of that, they would get fleas and lice and all types of insects on them and become ill from that. To keep those insects off of them the rich people would actually get small little dogs and hold them on their laps, which is where the term 'lap dog' came form. And an animal's body temperature is higher than a human's, so the fleas and lice would go to the animal and then they would just give the animal a bath. But for people like me, peasants and merchants, we couldn't afford to have a little dog whose only purpose was to sit on our laps. So we would trap squirrels, mice and rats and tame them, keep them in the bodices of our blouses. Of course we didn't stop to think of how much those bites from those rodents would affect us, even worse than the insects. Thus came on the plague," she said.
Yes, plenty of history and plenty of games to accompany those glasses of mead and smoked turkey legs that people carry in hand at the Maryland Renaissance Festival. At the 'Drench A Wench' stand, a woman sitting in a cage is doused into water, every time a person hits a bell with a ball. There's a juggler who offers juggling lessons for those who think they might like to be a 'fool' of the court. And, at one of the festival's most popular events, the jousting tournament, the King and Queen preside over the ancient game. A group of professional jousters dressed in metal armor race their horses in full gallop as they try to knock their opponent off their horses with wooden jousting sticks.
At the end of a day of jousting, eating, shopping and playing games, I talked with James Wyrick who was on his way back home to Baltimore with his wife and young daughter.
Reporter: "What is it about this era that's being represented that you find attractive?"
James Wyrick: "I don't even know if it's the era. It's just the variety of things that you get to see and witness and experience. Different types of foods that you can't normally get other places and just different types of people, different characters. The crafts, the arts, there's just so much."
Reporter: "I see your little girl got her face painted. She's probably a little tired now, but what a magical place for children."
James Wyrick: "It is. Just the shows, the clowns, magicians. She loves the horses, the jousting. There are things constantly to keep them interested until they get tired. Then nothing interests them but a nap."
And after the third weekend of every October, the wooded site where thousands of people gather in costume in an escape from their 21st century lives, the 50 hectares of wooded land in Crownsville, Maryland becomes quiet again. That is, until next year when the kings and queens and townspeople of Revel Grove return for the 26th Maryland Renaissance Festival in August 2003.