Revelers dance around a maypole at the Michigan Renaissance Festival.
Revelers dance around a maypole at the Michigan Renaissance Festival.

Riding atop their snorting steeds, two knights canter through the dry, sunny jousting arena. Both clad in glinting armor, they carry heavy lances and shout at one another, taunting and boasting of their many strengths. 

Around me, their supporters crudely cheer and heckle, egging on the match. I squint into the sun, trying to make out which knight is mine. “Sir Shiloh,” the eastern knight, represents those of us sitting on the eastern bleachers. 

If I’m being honest, I’m less “sitting on” the bleachers than I am sticking to them, sweating in the heat while I clap for my champion. I can’t help but wonder who Sir Shiloh is under his armor. Surely he has a civilian life to go back to. A day job. A car. A t-shirt and jeans. 

I’ll wonder the same about almost everyone I see at the Michigan Renaissance Festival. Wearing a polo shirt and khaki shorts, I stick out like a band geek at a rock concert. Around me swarm fully believable wizards and bar maids, plague doctors and peasant folk. And even though this village—nay, kingdom—looks like the set of a long-running television series, its colorful cast of characters are only here for the weekend. Come Monday, they’ll return to the 21st century, and medieval Michigan will only exist in their memories…and photo apps. 

The Michigan Renaissance Festival runs annually from August through October—and during holiday times throughout the year—in Holly, Michigan. Visitors will find themselves in ‘Hollygrove,’ a 16th century village filled with food merchants, vendors, archaic entertainment, and lots of mead. Running since 1979, it’s Michigan’s largest renaissance festival, spanning 312 acres. It boasts 17 performance stages, over 80 shoppes, and countless other attractions—including human-powered rides. 

I had never been to a renaissance festival before, so on a sunny late-summer weekend, I thought I’d check it out. I had so many questions: Should I wear a costume? How many people go to these things? Would I fit in at a place like this?

In uncertain times and in unfamiliar situations, it’s best to have a trusted friend by your side. So I asked my buddy John if he was free on Saturday. He was. And with two tickets to the Middle Ages in my email and a regrettable lack of sunscreen in my pocket, we set out on a quest to answer one question: What’s the deal with renaissance festivals? 

CROSSING THE THRESHOLD 

We pull into a big dirt parking lot—the kind a county fair might have. I stretch my legs and watch two peasants climb out of a Chrysler Town and Country. 

Following signs through the woods, fair goers chat excitedly as we all walk single file down a narrow path…many of us in questionable footwear. There are costumed villagers, noblemen and noblewomen, wizards, and creatures both vaguely historical and entirely fantastical. There are also young adults, seniors, families with kids, and teenagers, all of us heading toward a sound: the distant cry of bagpipes. 

And then I see it.

As we pass under an archway hung with a bold WELCOME sign, a castle wall looms before us. Two towers rise at either end. Court jesters heckle us from overhead as the barcodes on our e-tickets are scanned. We’re in. 

The place is huge. Streets stretch out in all directions, lined with stalls and stores. There’s live music, but from where I can’t tell. The air smells of traditional fair food, but also of roasting meats and smokey fires. Voices, some modern and some with the lilt of Middle English, fill the air. The buildings are from a storybook, made from stone or lined with colorful trim. It’s a lot to take in, and I need to find my bearings. I quickly skim a map and locate the single most perfect place for two newcomers to get a full picture of what they’re in for: the joust. 

THE JOUST 

John and I side-step to an open section of the wooden bleachers, which line three sides of a large arena. The fourth side has a raised viewing structure for the nobility to watch in comfort. 

In the arena, Lady Margaret welcomes us to the games. The knights ride in, pumping their fists to wind up the crowd, and we respond with cheers, already pledging our loyalty to Sir Shiloh of the East (since we’re sitting on the eastern bleachers). He’s a little more crass than Sir Edward of the West, which we approve.

Lady Margaret promises bloodshed and kicks off the family show by having the knights compete in feats of strength: chopping heads of lettuce off poles, throwing spears into bales of straw—that kind of thing. Sir Shiloh, who we love without question, takes a long gulp of water from a chalice, then flings the remains at the crowd. It’s gross and fun.  

Finally the main event begins, with both knights choosing someone from the crowd to fight for. They each choose a kid, which completely makes the kids’ days, and then Shiloh and Edward try to kill each other. 

No, not really. Riding horseback and holding lances (long wooden spires minus the metal spearheads), the knights fly down the arena. The crowd cheers as they close in. They lower their lances. It feels like it could be real. 

CRACK. A lance breaks as Sir Shiloh is hit in the chest. Though we know he’s fine—the lances are designed to break on impact—we can’t help gasping. Sir Edward gets the point, then they do it all over again until ultimately Edward wins. Western bleachers cheer; over here in the east, we’re booing the heck out of Edward.

As we shuffle out of the bleachers, a paper sign advertising a knight’s Venmo handle (for tips) reminds me what century it is—but I’m okay staying mentally archaic a little while longer. It’s really fun. 

REVELRY 

With a joust under our belts, John and I are feeling more medieval by the minute. We scan the streets of Hollygrove in search of our next adventure, and spot it in the wooden stalls toward the back of the grounds. 

Archery. Spears. Throwing axes, knives, and stars. With a $5 fee and no waiver to sign, why not throw a few? I step up to the range with confidence and grip a spear. It’s…awkward. Unwieldy. I lob four of them at the target, none even coming close to making impact. However, I do pierce the wall behind the target. I smile a little. I’m no knight, but come on, this is my first time even holding a spear. Imagine how well I’d do with a few weekends of practice.

With a cup overflowing with feudal courage, I turn to the classic strength test involving a hammer and bell. With levels from peasant to knight, I score viking, the second highest. John scores knight. I must have warmed it up for him. 

And then: the distant call of drums floats over the crowd. We follow it, and come upon a drum band called Tartanic. Armed with bagpipes, giant drums, and killer dance moves, several kilt-wearing musicians and dancers put on a merciless show. The drums echo into our chests, and it’s hard not to feel part of the show. 

We find out that there are a lot of other live performances, too. A group of carolers strolls the grounds singing tavern songs, a jester juggles and walks a tightrope, there’s even a falconer, who shows off the amazing abilities of his birds of prey. As we watch a barn owl land on a perch, John makes a suggestion that my stomach knows is absolutely crucial—after all, we are here to report on the culture and customs of medieval Michigan, in all their glory. 

Giant turkey legs. 

We follow our noses to a stall selling them, and as we sit on a bench to eat, I’m in awe at how massive it is. I try at first to maintain some sort of refinement while eating it, but there’s no way to consume the thing without getting messy. 

We wash it down with mead from the Battle Axe Pub. I consider tossing my last sip at the crowd around me, like Sir Shiloh, but then the bartender asks if ‘Master Card’ or ‘Lady Visa’ will be paying on our behalf and I pull myself together. If you’ve never had mead, it’s a little thicker than water, and very sweet. The bartender calls it honey wine, which is a fitting description for the taste.

Now with a head full of mead and a full commitment to this festival, John and I hit up one of the ‘human-powered rides.’

You heard me.

The ride itself is a large wooden swing, seating one person on each side. The ride is powered by the alternating tugging of a rope, which connects to a beam above (like an inverted see-saw). Soaring through the air, our height limited only by how hard we pull the rope, I laugh. Looking down the row of swings, there’s kids and adults alike enjoying them, all laughing and grinning ear-to-ear. A mechanical ride at a fair can be fun, but powering the ride yourself is a visceral, physical thrill. 

THE WORDS OF THE PEOPLE 

With an average of 240,000 attendees annually, the Michigan Renaissance Festival is a big draw. But what exactly do so many people come for? 

A college-aged man named Eddie, dressed in a t-shirt and cap, shakes my hand with a firm grip. “I’ve been coming here since I was a kid,” he tells me. He’s looking forward to the turkey legs. Since he turned 21 last year, he’s also enjoyed the alcohol. 

He has some thoughts on his favorite spectacle, the joust. “Pay them a couple grand to get decked off a horse, you know?” he says. “I’d do it. Give me five grand, I’m in!” 

Like Eddie, a couple named Mark and Kaitlin are also in street clothes. Even so, they’ve been enjoying the costumes around them. “Being a sports fan, you see people wearing jerseys all the time,” Mark tells me. “Here, we’ve seen pirates, kilts, people in full armor. It’s fun to let people really lean into what they love.” 

Mark’s right. A band of armored warriors walks past me, which admittedly is a bit intimidating. Striding in silence, their faces concealed, I wonder if they’re acting in character. Many costumed guests are, including another couple I talk to.

They introduce themselves as Princess Elgar and Cadbury Ovaltine. Elgar is dressed in a decorated dress and tiara, whereas Cadbury wears a purple vest and puffy black hat. They’ve been talking to me completely in character. Interviewing them is a little awkward, as the only character I’m playing is Aaron Voogt. But I try to roll with it.

Elgar and Cadbury are no different than Eddie: They’re just there to have fun at the festival, and this is how they do it. “We’ve been every year, since we were small children,” Cadbury explains. Princess Elgar enjoys the joust, and looks forward not only to ice cream, but also resting her head after a long day. A sentiment that people from all centuries can relate to. 

Not all who dress up perform in character. A green ogre named Sterling shakes my hand, talking in modern English (albeit through two pearly tusks). He’s been a regular for years, so much so he can’t remember how many times he’s actually come. His approach to the festival is similar to mine: “You can wander around wherever, and always come across something.” 

A woman wears iron armor with modern eyeglasses. When I ask her what she likes most at the festival, she’s quick to answer: “The people watching. It’s the one place you can be a little silly, a little campy. It’s socially acceptable.” 

“Everyone gets super creative!” a woman with elf ears tells me. 

I even talk to a plague doctor, although he mimes every answer he gives, concealing his face and voice behind the pointed mask. He’s excited for potions. I think. 

THROUGH THE AGES 

The sun’s setting and mournful bagpipes suggest it’s time for us to head home. Returning to the car, I reflect on the things I’ve seen. Whatever expectations I had for the festival fell short of what it really was, that’s for sure. Good family fun, but also primal. Exhausting.

But it goes deeper than that. With a foot in history and another in modern times, it’s a bizarre, anachronistic escape. Sure, it’s similar to a comic convention; both have costumed attendees and various themed attractions. But the Michigan Renaissance Festival almost feels like its own world. It’s not a heavily commercialized weekend event held in a convention center (although you can spend a lot of money here if you’re not careful); rather, it feels closer to a truer kind of experience. A celebration, I think.

A celebration of what, I’m not exactly sure. I don’t think everyone in attendance is a major history buff, nor do I think everyone is really into, say, The Lord of the Rings. Perhaps it’s a celebration for the sake of having one. A chance to enjoy outdoor festivities with the masses, pretending to be somewhere you’re not, far away from the problems of today (like a pandemic) and at the same time, far away from the problems of the Middle Ages (like…a pandemic). I think humans have always celebrated like this; with games and food and costumes and stories. Maybe by being so far away from the time we’re in and the time we’re pretending to be in, we get some perspective on them both—and realize that we’re not so different these 500 years later. Better footwear aside, of course.