The Complete History of Renn Fayre Part 1: 1967-77 "High Medieval to Huge Party"

“As these twenty-seven years have gone by, I have been reluctant to claim ownership of this spectacle which barely resembles the original festival. . .”

— Letter from Linda Howard to RF Czar Wendy Belt, 1995

“Venerable Reed’s College annual cataclysmic cathartic fantasmageria [sic] is but a scant fortnight away [. . .] We of the Central Committee urge all comrades to spontaneously activities [sic] expressing joy, brother/sisterhood, and general brou-ha-ha.”

— The Quest, April 26, 1976



    You may have asked yourself: how did we get here?

    Sure, it makes sense for us to end the year with a brilliant celebration of our hard work and our mutual love that also serves as an ultimate expression of the freedom we have created for ourselves through our diligence and honor. But cataclysmic catharses don’t just happen because they make sense.

    Any of you who have put in time working for the student body will recognize the way Reed traditions grow and survive; original flashes of inspiration are brought to reality by collective effort and then passed down to the next generation; who expand upon them and toil to keep them alive in a sort of simultaneous preservation, resuscitation and evolution.

    This article, the first in a series, explores the beginning of that process. During its first decade, Linda Howard’s wholesome Renaissance Faire was built upon (and gradually diluted) by more and more of the recognizable components of today’s Renn Fayre. We’ve chosen 1977, the year of the first Renn Fayre Quest and the first softball tournament, as a cutoff for this edition, but that’s somewhat arbitrary. Like everything at Reed, Renn Fayre has been cumulative;  each year, everyone builds upon last year’s efforts. That means what you do this year might just shape its next forty-eight iterations.


Proto-Fayre: Watermelon Baths

Plenty of colleges end the year with a party, but the austere pre-1960s Reed was not one of them. According to Reed Magazine, for the school’s first half century the completion of a senior thesis was an “uncelebrated, unmarked and solitary activity,” an occasion for numbed relief rather than explosive celebration. One’s Reed career ended not with a bang but with a whisper.

The first revels — a fleeting glimpse of what was to come — began in 1961. Deciding that a bit of spectacle was in order, the senior class organized a thesis parade. They marched from the library to the registrar’s office, theses in hand, cheering and playing “various unrehearsed tunes” on a ramshackle collection of musical instruments. The bonfire, kissing, champagne and glitter would not appear for many years, but the seniors finally had the recognition they deserved and Reed finally had an end-of-year tradition.

Thesis parade was the extent of the festivities for most of the decade. It wasn’t until 1967 that several students decided to follow up the parade with a campus-wide party. This proto-Fayre was called the “St. Cecilia’s Day Festival of the Arts,” and seems to have been largely forgotten – perhaps understandably so. The mistakes started with the title of the event: Saint Cecilia, the patron saint of music name-checked throughout musical history from Gregorian chant to David Byrne, actually has her feast day in November.

The few accounts of St. Cecilia’s in the archives give an impression of chaos. Mark McLean ’70 recalls a “pagan feast” consisting of obscene amounts of fruit and vegetables and one roast beast (“some kind of deceased creature”). The unprepared students had no idea how to cook their beast and ended up with “about a five millimeter layer of actually edible meat on the thing.” Meanwhile, the organizers of the event bought so many watermelons that nobody could eat them all, so people began smashing them and pouring the juice into a bathtub – after which a naked woman hopped in and began serving watermelon chunks to everybody. Unfortunately, unplanned psychedelic trips gave a few St. Cecilia devotees a bad time, and to cap it all off, it rained.

There were moments of fun, but most of the party was a mess. “There was, of course, no karma patrol or anything like that,” McLean points out. “No official recognition that any of this was going on, which led to a couple of pretty nightmarish situations [. . .] But usually we’d watch out for each other.”


Enter Linda Howard

In the spring of 1968, Linda Howard, a sophomore math major, was head of the student body’s Social Activities Board and acutely aware of the importance of those social activities. In her Oral History Project interview, she recalls observing the introverted and antisocial behavior of many Reedies despite the “enormous commonality that [they] all had” as scholars and as young maturing people. She describes in eerily familiar language how “Students arrived here, eyes wide open, head up, and within a couple of months people were sort of paired up with their buddies, it was raining, their eyes would be cast down towards the sidewalk [. . .] not really engaging that much with each other.”

Something needed to be done to bring together “this community that [didn’t] engage as a community, not socially anyway.” And yet it needed to be something with a modicum of planning behind it — not an impulsive mess like St. Cecilia’s had been.

Howard had been very fond of her Hum 110 conference leader, T. C. Price Zimmermann [history 1964-77]. In those days, the Hum syllabus continued into medieval texts, and Howard had noticed her professor’s eyes drifting dreamily away whenever they discussed the Middle Ages: “you just got the impression that he would rather be in a medieval village [. . .] than with us in that moment.” It was Zimmermann’s love of medieval Europe that inspired the form of Howard’s community-building festival: a Renaissance Faire to be held at the end of the year, supplanting last year’s pagan feast, just as the medieval Church had held its festivities on the days of pagan rites to ensure participation.

The first announcements for the “Gaye Faire” went out in the Quest in April. The schedule for the one-day event is totally unrecognizable to a modern Reedie. The main attraction was to be a midway of booths running through the quad, at which students could sell their medieval-style handicrafts. Entertainment included a maypole dance, poetry readings, and a beauty pageant. The only continuities with today’s Renn Fayre activities were the human chess game and a fireworks display. Yet the organization of the festival sounds remarkably familiar: “The Fair will not be a time for many to enjoy what the few have prepared; it will be something in which everyone will contribute as well as partake.” The collaborative ethos of Renn Fayre was there from the start.

As she planned the festivities, Howard faced a problem of her own: as a black woman, where did she fit into the European Renaissance? “As this young black girl, I wasn’t going to be the princess on the hill. I wasn’t going to be one of the peasants in the field. Who the heck was I in my own village? So, I started doing some reading [. . .] and what I came up with was that I would be a Moorish woman. I learned that Moorish women were very active in commerce and very often were entrepreneurs, not necessarily attached to a husband or brother. They were very liberated women.” She crafted a costume based on her research and readied herself for the big day.

The First Annual Renaissance Faire (as Howard demanded it be titled, to ensure there would be more) went off without a hitch. Students, faculty and family members sold their wares, all of which had been precleared for authenticity by a panel of history majors. One student distributed calligraphed letters of indulgence. At the festival’s conclusion, a grateful Professor Zimmermann presented Howard with a bottle of wine. The whole day was “a dream and a fantasy and a wonderful thing,” she recalls. The event’s total cost came to two hundred dollars.


“Reluctant to Take Ownership”

The Grail attempted to contact Linda Howard to ask for further details, but she did not respond, and a quick glance at any of her public statements on the issue reveals why. While she doesn’t regret founding our favorite party, she doesn’t quite approve of the direction future generations have taken it, and is also somewhat disappointed that it has become her most well-known legacy. She opened her 1997 commencement address by remarking that “Who would have guessed that after all these years, the one thing I have done that would most impress the seniors was that I organized a great party in the spring of 1968?”

Howard has done much, much more than organize a great party. The very next year at Reed she played a key role in the debate over Black Studies, negotiating with professors during the occupation of Eliot Hall to win them over to the Black Student Union’s point of view. (She was not originally part of the BSU, but was offended by the fact that the faculty didn’t respond to their list of demands: “From my point of view, right or wrong, one deserves a response. So I joined up to get an answer!”) During the occupation, she was elected Student Body Vice President and ascended to the Presidency when that election turned up no quorum. She had been so busy that she had forgotten she had entered her candidacy, but decided to keep the position and keep up her involvement with the BSU since she believed her actions were in the interest of the whole student body.

After graduating, she went on to the University of Virginia Law School, where she was the first black woman to earn a degree and also the first to be elected student body president. After a long career as a legislative assistant, State Department lecturer and law professor, she became a legal counsel to the New York City government and a trustee of Reed College.

None of us want to see Renn Fayre revert to a Renaissance Faire, and future generations will no doubt continue to disappoint her in that respect. Yet as we do so, perhaps we should honor her in another way, and remember Linda Howard as a lawyer, as an activist and as a trailblazing woman of color as well as the founder of our favorite tradition.


A Tradition Accumulates

Regardless of her feelings about what it would become, Howard discovered that Reedies needed a collaborative end-of-year festival, and it was such a hit that it immediately gathered momentum of its own within the student body. She attended the next two — following her junior and senior years — and then never returned for Renn Fayre again. Yet it lived on. Throughout the early 1970s, the Renaissance Faire expanded year by year, slowly taking on more familiar aspects and becoming a bigger celebration while retaining the medieval theme.

In its first few years, Renaissance Faire events expanded to include a beer garden (then run by Professor Ottomar Rudolph [German 1963-98] and the German department), live music, sword fighting demonstrations from the Society for Creative Anachronism, and a panoply of games. These included everything from tug-of-wars to inscrutably named contests such as “Tweasly-wopping” and “Clench a Wench, French a Mensch.” The event grew to two days — the Saturday and Sunday after Friday’s thesis parade. However, by 1973 it was still possible for the Quest to summarize the weekend’s events with a modest line: “The Renaissance Faire seemed to draw a favorable response from the student body.” That would be the grossest of understatements today.

The “Faire” became “Fayre” in 1973 after the student body received a cease-and-desist from a company that had copyrighted the term. It’s more difficult, however, to say what provoked the transformation of the Renaissance Fayre into a self-celebratory festival of debauchery — the high point of the year — rather than just a two-day spring funfair. It appears to have happened gradually in the middle of the decade: by 1976, the Quest was referring to it in fervent anticipation as a “cataclysmic cathartic fantasmageria [sic]”, which sounds a lot more like today’s Renn Fayres. Perhaps it had something to do with the perennial one-upsmanship prompted by hearing Olde Reed legend (“We’ve got to make our mark, too!”), or with a rise in drug consumption, but there is a more subtle possibility: It may be because at some point in the mid-70s, the festivities expanded to Friday and the thesis parade started being considered part of the Renaissance Fayre.

There’s a lot of symbolism in the fact that Renn Fayre officially begins at 3 p.m. on Friday with the start of Thesis Parade. It’s the first and most spectacularly joyful event of the weekend, and it is all about the completion of a year’s hard work and the four years of the seniors’ Reed journey. It defines the whole festival as something we’ve earned: a culminating reward to ourselves. Once that’s what the Renaissance Fayre became, there was no longer any chance it would remain a tame costume party.


RF1K977 Huge Party

The first “Renaissance Fayre Supplement” to the Quest was published on April 22, 1977, and its exhaustive schedule now promised “Dionysian delights” and quite a few of the modern trappings of Renn Fayre. The first softball tournament, officially entitled the “Wild Turkey Challenge Cup,” was held that year. Chemistry was the only department to field a team — facing seven ad-hoc teams of students — but unfortunately posterity has not recorded who won the Wild Turkey.

1977 was also the first year of another longstanding tradition: law enforcement interest in the weekend’s events. “NARCS ON CAMPUS,” trumpets a banner headline. “Yes – Neighborhood Hobbits. The big folk are mustering for an invasion of our territory [. . .] They are a nasty bunch. Their sweat is of the most offensive nature. They breed in muck yonder over the hills. They are racists. They are specially [sic] biased against Jews. If this invasion wasn’t a special operation, we might see them as they slip and ooze with virile valor along the asphalt paths of their beat. . .” (Gotta love the ‘70s, am I right?) Apparently, after hearing reports of the previous year’s revels, the Portland Police Bureau planned to send several undercover cops to RF1977 to take a look. It seems as though no arrests were made — just as no arrests were made in either 2002 or 2010 when the FBI supposedly came to visit.

Perhaps the lesson to draw here is that law enforcement is really a lot less interested in what we get up to here than we think they are. Perhaps the lesson is that tradition is a lot more resilient than we think it is, and that Olde Reed spirit can’t be killed by occasional publicity and scrutiny. The most obvious conclusion, however, is that in less than a decade, Reed’s Renaissance Fayre had become a really great party.

This history of Renn Fayre will continue in future issues of The Grail.