Connecticut Renaissance Faire participants bring history to life

By Janice Steinhagen - Staff Writer
Norwich - posted Mon., Oct. 14, 2013
Juggler Marco (Nathan Rumney) performs for the crowd as Isabella (Jennifer Rykowski) looks on. Both are members of Commedia Mania. Photos by Janice Steinhagen.
Juggler Marco (Nathan Rumney) performs for the crowd as Isabella (Jennifer Rykowski) looks on. Both are members of Commedia Mania. Photos by Janice Steinhagen.

History and fantasy typically mingle with wild abandon at the Connecticut Renaissance Faire, taking place this year at Dodd Stadium on Stott Avenue. Fairy wings, pretend horns and elf ears are as common a sight as doublet and hose or knights in armor. The Faire’s annual Time Travelers’ weekend varies the mix even more, with a generous assortment of characters from Dr. Who, comic books and Pixar films strolling the Tudor-period streets.

But amid the whimsy and frolic, history is still the focus for many Faire participants. And while their research is exhaustive, their presentations are anything but academic or stuffy.

Hanne (also known as Alena Shellenbeam) spent part of Saturday morning laboriously hand-stitching a bodice piece for a new gown. The New Hampshire resident was part of Das Geld Fahnlein (the Gold Company), a New-England living history group that portrays Landsknecht (land knights) of 1514 Bavaria. “Our goal is to bring a little of the reality” of the Middle Ages to the RenFaire, she said.

To that end, the men of the company demonstrate the use of their arsenal, which includes 14-foot spears, early muskets and a variety of swords. “This is the end of the period when armor was really useful,” said Shellenbeam. As use of gunpowder and cannons became widespread later in history, bladed weapons and armor proved a poor defense.

Women were ever-present in the Landsknecht camps, she said. Armies of the medieval period “paid the men, but they didn’t provide clothing, food or even shelter. So if a man wants to eat or have clothes to wear, he brings along a woman.” The women of the victorious army would enter the battlefield after the fighting stopped and strip the dead of their clothes. Garments, the fruit of much female labor in hand-spinning, hand-weaving and hand-sewing, were too valuable to waste.

Shellenbeam said that the fashion of the day, which called for decorative slits in clothing, is supposed to have resulted from that practice. The pillaged clothes “wouldn’t necessarily fit, so the soldiers would slash them up so they fit better and the fancier fabric [underneath] would show.” While strict laws governed the quality of clothing based on one’s station in life, she said, soldiers were exempt. The thinking was “they live short, brutal lives – let them wear what they want.”

Nearby, falconer Kitty Tolson Carroll canoodled with a sharp-eyed friend – a peregrine falcon named Mary Fiona, one of 18 raptors in her Birds of the Gauntlet display. “I love this weather,” Carroll said, glancing at the overcast skies. “Breezy, cloudy, cool, in the 60s – perfect flying weather.”

Among the birds of prey in her tent were seven hawks, six falcons, four owls and a golden eagle, many of them rescued birds and all of them protected species. Carroll explained that she has been licensed to own such birds since 1974. Throughout the day, she and her birds performed for the public, demonstrating the traditional art of falconry, or hunting with birds of prey.

“I’ve always liked birds all my life,” said Carroll. As a teenager, she fell in love with the Jean Craighead George book, “My Side of the Mountain,” which describes a young boy’s life in the woods with his pet peregrine falcon. Now she spends eight months of each year traveling with her birds to fairs and shows from New England through Louisiana. In the off-season, she runs Bird Strike Force, a pest control company that uses her birds’ natural hunting skills to eliminate nuisance birds and other wildlife pests. Unlike poisons or chemical repellants, raptor control is “totally environmentally safe,” she said.

Even the street performers at the RenFaire have done their history homework. Nathan Rumney, of Granby, strolled the fairgrounds in his patch-covered costume, juggling balls and telling jokes as he went. He is a member of Commedia Mania, a troupe of performers in the Commedia Dell’Arte tradition, a 16th-century form of theater which he said can trace its roots back to ancient Rome.

The comedy style features a cast of satirical stock characters: the lover, the soldier, the clown, among others. Rumney’s character is Marco, whom he describes as “very goofy, wiry and manipulative.” Juggling is part of Marco’s shtick, so Rumney picked up the skill about a year ago. “When it’s really important, you learn very quickly,” she said. “Now I’ve finally gotten pretty good at juggling.”

Interacting with Faire patrons and other actors makes the job enjoyable, said Rumney. “Being in character, you can play with the patrons all day… you can see a person later and remember a joke,” he said. Many of the actors and vendors stay over throughout the Faire’s run at local hotels or in a campground on the site, so camaraderie is strong. ”You become more like a family” than just co-workers, he said.

This is the final weekend of the RenFaire’s five-week run. The grounds will be open from 10:30 a.m. to 6 p.m. on Saturday and Sunday, Oct. 19 and 20.


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