The Contrivance gave them Delight,
and the Novelty rais’d their Admiration.
They could learn them perfectly, and repeat them often,
by which means the Instructions of Virtue covertly contain’d in them,
were inculcated on their Minds.
–Sir Richard Blackmore, Prince Arthur: A Heroick Poem in Ten Books
When I first decided to write The Renaissance Diaries last year, I had not the slightest inkling that the darn thing would turn out to be so oft-read. My raison d’être was catharsis, more than anything else. However, over the past 11 months, I’ve discovered that my impressions of a first-timer in the sometimes bizarre, occasionally disturbing, always fascinating realm of the RenFest touched a chord of sorts in many netizens. Comparisons between this, volume II, of the Diaries and the first year’s recollections are inevitable, and I am sure that this series will suffer from “sequel syndrome” in many respects. There are a number of reasons why this year’s prosaic reflection won’t be quite as illuminating as volume I, but the primary one is this: It’s not “new” anymore. Last year, I’d see a 200 pound woman in a thong and a bedsheet and think “Ooooh, that’s weird, lookit that!” This year–a guy in a tutu, a chainmail Xena, a guy with bat wings and a goth girl on his arm–*yawn*. However, I shall adhere to my accustomed Milton Babbitt-like ethos, and blather away to my heart’s content. In fact, I will draw deliberate comparisons ‘twixt this year and last’s TRF experiences, and for that reason, I encourage readers to plow their way through Volume I before embarking upon this year’s version.
Should you find my musings entertaining, edifying, or enlightening, I would, of course, appreciate an email saying so. On the other hand, if you find the prose boring, tautological, or uninteresting, by all means, keep yer damned mouth shut. :-]
June, July and August, 2003
For reasons far beyond my ken, Darryl Bayer, leader of The Texas Brass, has invited me back to perform with the group at this year’s Texas Renaissance Festival. I accepted, of course, for a variety of motives — not the least of which being that I really did enjoy myself last year. Besides, with the heat, I lost nearly a stone.
However, once my appearance with the group was solidified, I had some purchases to make. One had already been made, above and beyond the Renaissance Festival requirements–in January, I finally purchased a new horn, a wonderful Edwards B454 bass trombone.
Then, there was the matter of dress and costume.
Quite bluntly, I was NOT going to damn well dehydrate again this year. I started browsing SCA and RenFest oriented shops online, looking for something cooler to wear. Much to my chagrin, I discovered that costuming is BIG FUCKING BUSINESS. Prices were really outrageous in many cases — so much so that they were right outta my capital outlay range. The good news was that I had started my search early enough (June) that I had the luxury of expending time to find the “bargains” as opposed to having to just buy the first things that came along. I spent about three weeks looking for stuff to wear, finally settling on going with the unbifurcated approach–a kilt, in Baird ancient, my clan plaid. (For those of you interested, my personal recommendations appear later in this narrative)
Lemme tell you about KILTS, boys and girls.
Kiltmaking is a apparently a truly arcane trade. Most kiltmakers I discovered online were religious, fanatic, obsessive-compulsive, about their fabrics, dyeing, and other such bits and pieces. For a “full dress” kilt, most places were charging between $400 and $600 for a kilt. FOR A KILT. JUST FOR A KILT. No shoes, no shirt–just a skirt. Christ on a skateboard, it’s a 6 to 9 yard length of wool. What could POSSIBLY cost that much for a big ol’ piece o’ wool? Nonetheless, that was the going rate. I was somewhat downcast; I had no idea that it was going to cost that much. On the other hand, going English, French, or Italian was even worse, with doublet prices being at least that much–and that ain’t countin’ pants, neither.
Plus, there are all the “extra” things. To be a well-dressed anachronism, you have to have a neato hat, perhaps a sword and/or a dagger, the “right” kind of socks and footwear, and, of course, bling-bling appropriate to your assumed rank.
After almost a month of searching, I found a few vendors that sold or made medieval/Renaissance attire at a pocketbook hit that wasn’t Hiroshima-like in its impact. I feel it only right to give ’em a blurb here:
- Garb the World (http://www.garbtheworld.com): a small selection of made-to-order attire at affordable prices. Good People as well.
- The Inner Bailey (http://www.theinnerbailey.com): Leather goods–belts, baldrics, scabbards, etc. A really nice guy.
- The Renaissance Store (http://renstore.com): LOTS of stuff. They’ll send you a printed catalog, too.
- Clansman Knitwear (http://www.scottishclansman.com): Bling bling, primarily. They drop-ship all there stuff from the manufacturer, so the turnaround is slower than you would expect (up to three weeks) but a large variety of items.
- Dress Your Dreams (http://dressyourdreams.com): Much like Garb the World; small shop, made-to-order seamstress.
- Brothersmith Swords (http://www.brothersmith-swords.com): Affordable blades of all kinds. Exceptionally nice people.
These are the primary vendors I used–I certainly make no claims (nor incur any responsibility for anything, either!), but they all did treat ME right.
I ended up purchasing both a feileadh beg (small kilt) and a feileadh mhor (great kilt) hoping against hope that it will actually get cold before the end of the festival. I know, you’re wondering what’s the diff.
The great kilt is the “traditional” kilt (use “traditional” loosely when discussing kilts; for a further explanation and historically accurate discourse surrounding the myth of the kilt, pay a visit to Reconstructing History, a truly marvelous site, and here’s a link describing how to actually put on the great kilt.) A small kilt is basically a man-skirt. I now own a man-skirt in Black Watch plaid.
Of course, I got a brooch, a sgian dubh (black dagger, worn in the sock), a basket-hilt backsword (almost not even Renaissance, but really close, and besides, the rapier bumped against my arm) and a leine, those big floppy-ass shirts that go with a kilt, theoretically, although mine is not saffron-colored, which would most correct.
All in all, I completely costumed myself for around $300, and count myself lucky. No, I didn’t need the brooch or two kilts, but I wanted not to have to do two loads of laundry every Saturday night for seven weeks. (I sweat, regretfully, like a hawg)
14 September, around noon
As with last year’s quintet, we have exactly one full rehearsal before the madness begins. And, as with last year, the rehearsal takes place in The Texas Renaissance Brass Rehearsal Complex (my living room.)
Present for this year’s pre-Feste run through are Darryl and Chris on trumpet, stalwart Eric on horn, new guy Paul on tenor trombone, and me. I don’t know Paul at all, but after a few numbers (including that dastardly Claude Le Jeune piece that has all the slide-work in the tenor part) and a few smart-ass remarks by Paul, I decide he’s Good People ™. We practice for about two hours, and wham, bam, thank ye ma’am, that’s it. This always makes me nervous, but unless we schedule other rehearsal times, which is damn near impossible with all of our weird schedules, there’s just no way to polish things any more. Darryl teaches at a local school three-quarter time, has thirty private lessons in another school district, and gigs fairly regularly. I keep my own buisiness in web design afloat with frequent contracts, am the Big Tech Guy at another local company, and have twenty-nine private students myself. Chris, bless his little heart, has twenty or so students AND goes to school full-time at Rice. Eric isn’t even in Houston for 5 months of the year, playing in a Florida-based opera orchestra. And he works at Whole Foods. (heh). Anyway, we’re as ready as we can be now, which segues nicely into…
Day 1, 4 October 2003
And they’re off!
I’ve been checking the weather ALL WEEK, praying to God, Osiris, Mammon, Voltaire, Jeebus, and whoever else up there that will listen that it will be clear and relatively cool. And holy shit, it is–after spending the necessary 20 minutes wrapping the kilt around me, belting myself securely so I’m not haplessly embarrassed by an Unfortunate Occurrence, and loading up ye olde Grande Cherokee, I back out of the driveway and note that the temperature on my console thermometer registers 58 degrees! Thanks, Jeebus!
Those of you familiar with last year’s Diaries will recall my kolache addiction and subsequent cold-turkey kicking of the habit. I’m happy to report that I’m still clean. Coffee from the service station on the way to Plantersville, but no kolache.
Cruising northwest on Kuykendahl Road, I am seized by a horrible reality–I don’t exactly remember how to get there. I try and try, but just can’t remember where the turns are. (I go “the back way,” meandering through the back-end of nowhere to get to Magnolia, TX) Thankfully, the Jeep seems to remember, and I arrive at 9:20am.
I park, with difficulty, as it’s actually crowded already, and assemble the big dual-bore Edwards bass trombone and warm up. I’ve been teaching private lessons since the beginning of September, and I assume that my embouchure will be in somewhat better shape. It is, but since I play the teeny (by comparison) King 3B Silversonic in my teaching endeavors, the bass damn near sucks my guts out when I start warming up. (I usually play the bass trombone in the Woodlands Concert Band when I’m not conducting, but this season, so far, I’ve been playing timpani in our embattled percussion section).
Today’s personnel are Darryl, Chris, Eric, Brian (on tenor trombone, replacing Karen for today), and me. We trudge out for our first set that begins at 10am. The Faire is PACKED. It’s a little disorienting; while I’m ridiculously myopic, I’m not blind and all the masses of humanity crowding around our gazebo are distracting, especially as they flit in and out of my peripheral vision. Honestly, this many people crammed into a few acres of land is a little bit scary. This is really different compared to last year. Sheesh.
We play through a few of our easier pieces to get warmed up, and then begin our usual rotation–what we refer to as “the front of the book” set. Yes, I am in better playing shape than last year, but, as I discover when we get to it, I still cannot accurately perform (insert drum roll and/or a fully diminished seventh chord here)…
Well, actually, it’s “Canzona Bergamasca,” one of the pieces of Scheidt…no, let me rephrase that–one of the pieces by Samuel Scheidt that we oftimes play. There are two measures in this damn piece that I just cannot ever seem to play right. I can play them fine on a tuba (for which the part was written–90% of the Texas Renaissance Brass music is for tuba, not bass trombone, but as nothing even remotely resembling tuben, Wagnerian or otherwise, existed in the 1500s, we use a bass trombone, i.e., me), and I can play it fine on a euphonium, but not on the frikkin’ trombone. To add insult to injury, Chris, the trumpeter whose part begins the Canzona (and who can play all of it just fucking fine) always kicks it off at Fujita level 5 (according to NOAA, to refresh your memory, that’s “Incredible damage: winds above 261 mph”) thus rending my orbicularis oris muscle from my face with surprising alacrity. Bah.
About halfway through this performance, I receive a kilt-flip from behind, inflicted upon my by the new vielle player for Istanpitta. Thea, last year’s vielle player for the group, has decided that commuting seven weekends from Oklahoma (!!) is too trying, and I don’t blame her a bit, although I will miss her sardonic wit. My initial fear was that Al, Istanpitta’s leader, would have trouble finding another vielle player who would fit in with the group’s mores (or lack of them). As I smooth down the rear of my kilt so as to cover my colorful non-period boxer shorts, I conclude that I was woefully mistaken. Please note: I do not even know who this woman is, and yet she has exposed my bulbous butt to the RenFest at large. Looks like Al’s found a keeper.
First set (save the haemoglobin gushing, geyser-like from my head) goes OK, and we retire through the Sacred Door (a la “The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe”) into the backstage area. This is when I discover two unrelated things:
- I’ve forgotten my damned tankard.
- An adult male, digging feverishly in his sporran (that little pocket thing, usually covered in fur, that hangs over your crotch on a waist chain and serves as a pocket) appears to bystanders to be breaking several Texas laws regarding public exhibition.
As noted in last year’s prose, a TRF performer SHALL NOT drink from a plastic bottle or anything else even remotely modern-looking. So, there’s no help for it. I buy a new tankard for the bargain price of $22. Twenty-two dollars for a glorified pencil-holder.
As promised, a couple of my former colleagues are in attendance today, our acquaintance stemming from a 4-month contract job I had. It’s good to see Eric and Curtis, and we spend an enjoyable hour talking and bantering–but in the back of my head, I’m ruminating, “They’re thinking: From an IT engineer to wearing a dress and blowin’ a foghorn for a living. See how the mighty have fallen.”
Let’s see–who’s back this year:
- Ded Bob: skeleton ventriloquist’s dummy whose operator wears a sack on his head. Very funny.
- The Mud Show: Just what you’re thinkin’. Three guys, covered in mud, attempting to do the same to the audience. For some unfathomable, primal reason, they seem popular.
- Throw-Up: Knife jugglers. Woohoo.
- Istanpitta: Medieval dance music troupe; exceptionally good.
- The Cool People in the Info Booth Next to the Lion, Witch, and Wardrobe Door: These people have the patience of Job.
- Cantiga: The group with whom we share the Newmarket Gazebo. More on them later.
- The big fairy guy in the pink tutu and the plastic cigar: I still don’t know what to make of this fellow. He does not answer questions; he poses them.
Who’s new this year:
- While the Mud Show is back, it has different Mud Guys. This is lamentable; last year’s mud guys were a riot.
- Mud fairies: As near as I can tell, these folks sit in a cordoned off area, with lots of red clay mud, and sculpt it into figures, rather like ice sculpture. Except it’s mud. I cannot help but wonder if the TRF management, sometime back in April, were sitting around a table and pondering “More mud stuff, that’s what we fucking need!”
Who’s not back, as far as I can tell:
- Last year, there was a exceptionally literate and entertaining lady who was apparently a “barker” for one of the shops near the Newmarket Gazebo–apparently she is no longer there, which is too bad.
- Thea, vielle player from Istanpitta (see above for explanation)
Our remaining sets pass in a bit of a blur for me; while my face is in much better shape, my legs are slowly starting to cramp, even though I had a banana for breakfast and have been chugging water like a sump-pump. The info booth people tell us that the Fest has set a new opening day record–good news, especially after last year. My marked ambivalence towards crowds of humanoids is in evidence–you see, I really don’t like people very much. I certainly don’t like great stinking hordes of them. Good for the Festival, bad for my peace of mind.
So, with a vaguely tingly, numb upper lip, I head for home, wash the stinky linen shirt, and pass out.
Day 2, Sunday, 5 October 2003
Sunday dawns muggy, somewhat warmer than yesterday morning, and REALLY REALLY FOGGY. 63 degrees is better than 80 at 8am, but yesterday started more optimistically. Of course by the time I get on the road, I’m not terribly pleased at all.
Did I mention fog? Visibility is really down to about 20 yards.
Tail lights appear suddenly from the murk, and since I didn’t know it was foggy before I left, I now have to make it to the Faire in the usual 40 minutes, but with max speed reduced to 30 mph.
To paraphrase The Incredible Hulk, “Nnnnggggh! Goliard no like FOG.”
Somehow, I manage to arrive in one piece by 9:40am, but I note that it’s 7 degrees warmer in Plantersville than it was in Spring. Dammit.
Karen’s back today, having birthed her babe that she was great with last year this time. At least if she slips and falls this year, I only have to worry about catching the horn.
During the first set, I start glancing about to see what costumes are in vogue this year. Strangely, the Xena Brigades, chainmail babes, and Victoria’s Secret girls seem to be not so much in evidence–so far. I have seen a few, thus reinforcing my deeply-held belief that if one’s navel actually possesses an event horizon, one should not expose it; it could cause severe eddies in the space-time continuum. No Sholo the Barbarian that I have seen either; however, I am noticing a preponderance of wizard-types, male and female. Is this a Lord of the Rings-influenced costume? Or Harry Potter? Most of the wizards are pretty lame–coarse robes, stupid moon-and-star hats, and tennis shoes. I wonder about these pseudo-magisters, and whether they actually have any interest in medieval and/or Renaissance science.
Many people believe that the middle ages were to scientific research what Chernobyl was to environmental conservation. To dispel this myth, I have conducted exhaustive research on medieval and Renaissance scientific explorations, drawing heavily on the writings of Guillaume de la Belgique, a noted medieval author.
Today, the main goals of science are to cure disease and expand the frontiers of knowledge so that we, as a species, may advance confidently into the future. In the Middle Ages the main goal of science was to turn stuff into gold. This was known as the practice of alchemy.
Alchemists believed that everything in nature was composed of various “elements,” these being: iron, lead, water, smoke, straw, bacon, nuns and condiments. Each of these elements, they thought, could be transformed into gold simply by dipping it into a complicated solution of animal secretions. Understandably, the study of alchemy was abandoned early in the Middle Ages because no one could stand the smell of the laboratories, and was not resumed again until Renaissance scientists invented nose plugs.
The major medieval philosophical premise was that everything that happened on earth was caused by the will of God. When the crops failed, it was God’s will. When the village was infested by plague-ridden rats, it was God’s will. When the king and all his knights feasted on roast beef while the peasants killed each other to lick the inside of an unwashed pot of month-old gruel, well, that was God’s will too.
One of the most respected philosophers of the Middle Ages was Thomas Aquinas, who wrote the treatise Summa Logicas. Aquinas theorized that all experience and information known to a man was (get ready for a real revelation here) learned by his own senses. Aquinas also postulated that humans gather knowledge through other avenues, such as intuition, speculation, inhalation, annihilation, and intoxication. Aquinas later became St. Thomas and moved to the Caribbean to open the world’s first vacation resort, as well as establishing a small, ritzy college in Houston.
We take for granted today that when we have an injury or an illness, the doctor is not going to hack open a major artery or slap diseased parasites on our backs — unless, of course, we go to one of those mini-mall emergency clinics with names like “Dox R Us.”
In the Middle Ages, however, such medical practices were common. You see, medieval physicians felt sickness was caused by the presence of evil spirits within the body which could only be banished by killing the patient.
Medieval physicians also thought the human body was controlled by four biles, which were (in order of disgust) red, white, yellow and black. Red bile, they thought, was blood, white bile was spit and phlegm, and we’re not even going to get into yellow and black, if you catch my drift. Doctors of the Middle Ages believed sickness was caused by either:
A) an over abundance of one of the biles, meaning the patient needed to be “drained,”
B) a lack of one of the biles, meaning, God forbid, the patient would need to be “filled.”
These medical practices caused many medieval persons to feel better almost immediately after having the correctional procedures explained.
I really hope that the wizard phase this year is indicative of the movies mentioned above, and not a sudden upsurge in bile manipulation.
Of course, it doesn’t STAY cool in Plantersville…oh, no. By our last set, it is, as Eric puts it, “Damned hot. Too damned hot.” We’re all woozy, and I honestly think Karen is going to take a digger, but by crouching occasionally, she manages to make it through.
Having not actually had time to go listen to Istanpitta any so far, I pack up after the end of our final set and trudge down, fish-and-chips in hand, to catch their last show. Michael, the percussionist/singer/sacquebuter, has a spiffy new Robin Hood hat, and Al and the new viellist (whose name I would gladly insert into this paragraph, had Al actually introduced me to her, the mannerless snot) are wearing wee bonny coifs. I arrive in time for my favorite of the Cantigas de Santa Maria, the infamous Dancing Pork Chop. The Unnamed Viellist played the part of the Pork Chop with verve, sincerity, and aplomb. I was muchly impressed.
And, when I arrive, much to my surprise, Istanpitta’s resident tribal dancer, Sahira, is tootling artistically away on a Renaissance flute. When that number finishes, she sings. Really well. It seems unfair, somehow. She dances, she plays, she sings–she’s a veritable Renaissance Rosemary Clooney. I feel like a second-rate busker playing on the platform of a little-used spur line.
I notice when I return to the Cherokee that I’m parked next to this big green transformer electro-box thing with HIGH VOLTAGE written on it. Most electricity warning labels have a little guy with his hair on end, or some mild warning. THIS box has something somewhat more definite. I think I’ll park somewhere else next time.
And the morning, and the evening, and the second day. Now, back to “reality” for a week.