It’s a scene straight out of Tudor England: Two knights clad in full body armor sit atop horses on either end of a long, dirt-floored stadium. Suddenly, at the blare of a fanfare trumpet, the men take off, jousting lances in hand, ready to knock their opponent off his horse. Watching from the sidelines, an eager crowd cheers, waiting for the collision.
And then someone pulls out their cellphone to snap a picture.
When you’re at the Maryland Renaissance Festival, it’s not hard to forget that it’s the present day, and you’re only 28 miles from Washington, D.C., but from late August to mid-October every year, that’s the goal.
For those nine weeks, the festival grounds aren’t part of modern day Maryland – they become a recreation of a 16th century English village. Throngs of people you might usually see on the street in jeans and t-shirts transform into lords and ladies in tunics and bodices.
There are dozens of Renaissance festivals throughout the United States, but the Maryland festival is the second largest by size (after a festival held in the U.S. state of Texas), and is often either the first or second largest by attendance.
On average, about 300,000 people visit the festival over 19 days. Carolyn Spedden, the festival’s artistic director, said there are at least as many reasons why people attend.
Some come to follow the festival’s storyline, which is based on the reign of King Henry VIII. Many attendees dress up in elaborate costumes similar to the clothes worn during the English Renaissance, and adopt the accents and personas of people who lived five centuries ago.
Spedden likened festival-goers’ fascination with England and the Renaissance to the fascination people in other parts of the world have with cowboys and “Wild West” America. Additionally, as a former British colony, the United States has a long-standing historical connection to England.
“It’s far enough removed from our history that it becomes a fun escape for people,” she said. “I don’t think you have to worry about political connotations, as you might if you were doing something more American” — like, for example, a Civil War reenactment, which is more recent and more politically charged.
When Anna Snodgrass began doing palm, Tarot card, and lip readings at the festival’s Ancient Mysteries Divination booth over 30 years ago, she was drawn to the historical reenactment. But she soon realized that the festival is more than dressing up and playing a character.
“I think the difference between this kind of event and the kind of acting that happens at places such as Williamsburg (a U.S. colonial village in the state of Virginia) is that there’s a real sense of community with the Maryland Renaissance Festival,” she said.
The idea of community is one of the reasons Brogan Conner thinks the festival has become so popular, despite the fact that the United States has no connection to the Renaissance.
For the past three years, Conner has worked at “The Dragon’s Den,” an attraction where festival-goers can see reptiles and even have their picture taken with a snake draped over their shoulders.
While the festival may celebrate the Renaissance, he said that it’s really a chance for people to “feel in place while they feel out of place” – an underlying spirit that is uniquely American.
But even those who don’t dress up – and, Spedden points out, there are many “passive bystanders” – enjoy watching juggling, musical acts, and jousting, which happens to be the state sport of Maryland.
“The history is there, but it’s an entertainment venue first; it’s the fun stuff that draws people in,” she said.
The entertainment has a uniquely American spirit, too. While popular with many Americans, the Celtic music featured prominently at the festival would never have been heard during Henry VIII’s time. Numerous shops sell historical outfits, handcrafted wares, and replica weaponry. And the food options are a mix of old and new: booths selling turkey legs and mead (honey wine) stand next to booths selling gyros, crepes, and key lime pie on a stick.
“Overall, the festival is a lot more fun than it would be if you went back to the 16th century,” Spedden said.
Ultimately, the way Snodgrass views it, whether you go for the sense of community, the history, or the attractions, the Maryland Renaissance Festival gives everyone the chance to “leave their worries, work, and woes at home for a day, and immerse themselves in a simpler time.”
Even if it really is the present day.