Sarasota Medieval Fair Guide

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    Sarasota Medieval Fair: Nov. 9-10, 16-17, 23-24; Sarasota Fairgrounds, 3000 Ringling Blvd., Sarasota; $16.95 ($8.95 for children 5-12); sarasotamedievalfair.com

    Forsooth!

    25 years ago, when I was in the Human Chess Match, the Fair was held on the Ringling Museum grounds, with the banyan trees for shade and the bay as a backdrop. The Pretzel King still ambled along in his too-short tunic, wooden swords were the biggest sellers and the human chess match – where I and my friends fought sword-to-sword -- was the centerpiece of the day. In the decades since, the Medieval Fair’s venue may have changed, but the feeling is still the same. In the wooded area at the back of the Sarasota Fairgrounds you’ll still find the same costume mish-mash spanning hundreds of years and dozens of movies and novels, the same game attempts at accents, the same good-natured fun that draws thousands of people – young and old – to experience a little taste of friendly fake history. And now that the fair has expanded to three weekends from two, there’s even more opportunity to travel back in time. If you’re unfamiliar with the Fair, take advantage of my decades of experience with puffy shirts and courtly speak to prepare yourself for the spectacle that awaits you.

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    Noon and 4:15 p.m., daily during the fair

    Human Chess Match

    The centerpiece of any Medieval fair, this martial spectacle features 16 people on each side, fighting for territory with axes, staves and swords. Participants – mostly volunteers – drill for weeks before the fair opens, practicing their fights and honing their stage combat skills. There are two matches each day, one at noon and one at 4 p.m., the earlier contest a warm-up for the more extravagant fight later in the day. Keep an eye out for the inevitable melee, when some imagined affront causes all the players to rush the field and brawl in a dozen different simultaneous set-pieces, like those bench-clearing brawls we see so few of in modern hockey or baseball.

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    12:45, 3 and 5 p.m. daily

    Jousting

    Pounding hooves, steel armor and an eight-foot piece of carved wood means only one thing: Someone is going to end up in the dirt. As the professional jousters say, falling isn’t the painful part – it’s the sudden stop at the end that hurts. With a precipitous rise in professional jousting’s popularity thanks to reality television shows, the Sarasota Medieval Fair has brought two different troupes to town, each with their own brand of heavy-hitting fun. The first weekend features Knights of Noble Cause, with their showy brand of theatrical jousting that adds storyline and choreography to the occasionally brutal excitement. The final two weekends of the fair will see the Knights of Mayhem – as seen on the National Geographic show “Knights of Mayhem” -- in the lists, displaying their skills in the newly minted sport of full-contact jousting, with more serious hits and true competition.  

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    See the entertainment schedule for Nov. 9-10, 16-17, 23-24.

    Shows and Performances

    Scheduled stage shows are often an afterthought for Medieval Fair visitors, attended if they happen to coincide with a need for meal-time seating or begin with fanfare (and a lot of cajoling by the players) as spectators pass by. That’s a mistake – you should plan your day around these little nuggets of often humorous stagecraft. From musical performances using instruments neglected for hundreds of years to middling magic and punny comedy, these shows feature performers who have honed their acts (and their corny jokes) through seasons travelling the country on the ren fair circuit. Make sure to have a few dollars on hand to slip into the tip hat at the end – that’s how these professionals make a living, after all.

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    Medieval Fare

    Much of the fair is an exercise in historical leeway – just see all the people dressed up in movie-inspired pirate garb or faerie wings – with the worst perpetrator found at the food stalls. But, honestly, who would want to eat actual medieval fare, with the lack of modern sanitation or seasoning that comes with it? Instead, you can enjoy ye olde Philly cheesesteak, crepes, pizza and a host of modern gustatory delights. There’s also a Bud tent for ale and lager fans, with mead – honey wine – for brave souls looking for a perfect match for their slightly more authentic giant smoked turkey leg or candied nuts.

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    Shopping: Kids

    Many kids (and their fathers) will be drawn instantly to the prodigious display of weapons featured by vendors throughout the fair. Wooden weapon technology has progressed since the days of simple swords, with axes, daggers, hammers and more available in all shapes and sizes, perfect for pretend play and mostly only dangerous to shins and exposed knuckles. There are also bows and crossbows made from flexed PVC pipe, with ammunition of wooden dowels topped by erasers to shield victims from the worst harm, as well as shields painted with all manner of imaginary heraldry. For kids who have saved their pennies (or have generous parents), there’s also everything you need to create a fantasy costume ranging from Viking warrior to noblewoman, from fairy princess to Caribbean pirate. There are also miniature catapults that shoot marshmallows, clever puppets that sit on your shoulders and all sorts of baubles and gewgaws.

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    Shopping: Adults

    Wooden swords? Bah! You’re old enough now for the real thing, whether it’s a purely decorative recreation of Gandalf’s Glamdring suitable for hanging on the wall in the living room, or a full-tang, sharpened, combat-ready bastard sword that will go into your zombie apocalypse survival kit. Whatever your edged pleasure, it’ll be available. For those interested in less deadly pursuits, there’s a full range of costuming gear, delicate handmade jewelry, leathercraft and a host of other pretty things on display.

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    Games

    Yes, they cost extra money, but who can be concerned with a few dollars when faced with the opportunity to heave throwing axes at wooden targets, shoot arrows at hay bales, or chase your friends through a plywood maze? There are also clever rides – most powered by either human or purely mechanical means – and a variety of fragrant animals to amble around on, from camels to ponies.