Fool's Paradise

Journey through the new Dark Ages of Shakopee Valley with the cowled, the corseted, and the coxcombed

The Prologue

At noon, the sun finally pokes through a sluggish haze that has hung over the village all morning. It filters down through the leaded windows of the quaint, half-timber shops and glitters on the steel tips of the pennants held aloft by the men-at-arms lined up like chess pieces across the green. The little hamlet is quite pretty in the sunlight, all aged wood and candy-cane detailing. There's a distinct smell in the air, too: wood smoke, roasting meat of one kind or another, and fresh-cut grass. A rooster named Chanticleer, confused by the sudden infusion of light, starts crowing. A sheep, confused by the rooster's crowing, begins bleating. An elephant, who doesn't care for all the noise, puffs indignantly and deposits what looks like a pile of bowling balls in the grass.

Michael Dvorak

It's the 16th Century, give or take four hundred years. Good King Henry VIII has taken Anne Boleyn as his second wife but has not yet had time to behead her. In Florence the Renaissance is producing a new aesthetic order and many, many pictures of naked people. In Germany the advent of the printing press is spreading literacy to the unread masses. In Switzerland, the invention of the clock is making everyone late. It's a time of unmatched plenty, and the automated teller machines of the village are well stocked with currency. The marketplace, too, is saturated with paintings of dragons, inexpensive jewelry, drinking horns, and hand-blown glass goblets.

A few minutes after noon, the King arrives, trailing lavishly costumed courtesans through the mud. He, too, is dressed in haute Renaissance fashion, with a long green doublet hanging over his belly, and a crown propped on his head. The King smiles serenely--great teeth!--and offers a meaty hand to the gathered onlookers, who part to facilitate his progress. From the other side of the green, the procession looks like a flock of exotic, flightless birds. "Look," cries someone in the crowd. "He's going to do something."

He doesn't do anything. The King smiles and continues on his merry way, followed by a long column of pale men in puffy shirts, large, silly hats, and tights splattered in mud, and pale women in billowing dresses and underskirts, also splattered in mud. The royal convoy passes a man in ash-colored rags who is rooting through a garbage can for the amusement of the crowd. "Who's that?" someone whispers. "That's the Rat Catcher," someone else responds, obviously pleased to have recognized a Rat Catcher on the first try. "Are there rats here?" Nearby, William Shakespeare, red-faced and a little unsteady on his feet, totters toward the privy.

The peasants seem to be slogging in a counterclockwise direction and, it being fairly crowded, the traffic ushers one down a narrow lane lined with small shops selling cappuccino and bracelets, past a woman trying to guide a stroller through a muddy ditch without tipping its contents into the water, and around a corner, to where a small crowd has gathered to listen to a pub wench calling herself Mistress Bawd sing risqué madrigals. After two songs, a woman in the audience says, "This is hardly family entertainment" and stalks off, dragging behind her two pretty little blond girls with pink fairy wings strapped to their backs.

In 1940 the Russian linguist Mikhail Bakhtin surveyed just such a scene depicted by François Rabelais. "Abuses, curses, profanities, and improprieties are the unofficial elements of speech," he concluded. "Such speech forms, liberated from norms, hierarchies, and prohibitions of established idiom, become themselves a peculiar argot and create a special collective, a group of people initiated in familiar intercourse, who are frank and free in expressing themselves verbally. The marketplace was such a collective, especially the festive, carnivalesque crowd at the fair."

The carnival, Bakhtin argued, represented an outlet for primeval urges--that is, eating, drinking, and the making of merriness. The release of this energy, he continued, was also an act of dissension from established social mores. The participants, freed from the strictures of decorum, were thus freed to reinvent themselves at will.

So what is this Renaissance Festival exactly? Maybe it is a lovingly manufactured kind of merry--the 16th Century, sponsored by Pepsi and Pabst Blue Ribbon beer. Or a kitschy summer camp for European history buffs. Or perhaps it's a fully interactive period drama with a 22-acre stage, no script, and no distinction between actor and audience.

The Renaissance fair is, in any case, a legitimate cultural phenomenon: a traffic jam of theater, art, commerce, and history as vulgar, loud, and puzzling as anything the 16th Century produced. It is also a thoroughly modern industry. There are now perhaps 70 major Renaissance festivals around the United States, one near almost every metropolitan area between New York City and Houston. Though the popular perception of such events remains that of a lumpen bacchanal during which Star Trek aficionados squeeze into costumes far too tight for their winter-white bodies, gorge on turkey legs, buy unicorn-shaped merchandise, and get falling-down drunk, the medieval pageants nevertheless draw throngs on the same scale as established amusement parks. The Minnesota Renaissance Festival, one of the largest in the nation, is expected to attract at least 320,000 patrons this year. If each buys an admission ticket and only one turkey leg, the fest will earn about six million dollars over a seven-week run. (The Festival's operators decline to reveal just how many ducats end up in the coffers each year.)

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