Shrewsbury 1575 6/7/22

Events with Richard Bleil

Finally, home.  Friday, I drove out to Sioux Falls, and Saturday and Sunday I was Marco Bragadino at the Shrewsbury Fair, the Renaissance Fair at Sioux Falls.  Every Renaissance Fair has its own location and time within the Renaissance period, some locations based on actual locations, and some purely fictional.  Shrewsbury, to the best of my knowledge, never really existed, just as the year 1575 is entirely fictional.  Okay, that part is just silly, but Ren Fairs are just plain fun.

The Siouxland Ren Fair is entirely volunteer operated and nonprofit.  Every Ren Fair has vendors, educational events and entertainment.  The ratios change.  Sioux Falls is largely about entertainment and education, but even I purchased a three-ball morning star mace this year. 

Characters will always wander throughout the fair, some characters purely fictional and some based on real people.  My character, Marco Bragadino (born Mamut) is based on an actual person.  Mamut changed his name after the Sicilian military hero Marco Bragadini died in battle, claiming to be his son.  With the hero gone, nobody, of course, could refute the story.  Mamut was probably the most successful alchemist in history, because he wasn’t an alchemist.  He was a conman.  In my mind, this just makes him more colorful, and a great source of information for an educational material.

His story was that he had trapped the devil and refused to set him free until the devil gave Marco the secret of building the philosopher’s stone which was necessary for transmutation of metals.  This, in and of itself, demonstrates what people believed to be possible in the Renaissance, including the idea that the devil was an actual man who wandered the earth and that he could be trapped.  I often wondered why some people will argue of God is a man or a woman, but NOBODY doubts that the devil is a man.

People also believed that alchemy was real.  Without these two beliefs, Marco could have never been successful.  The alchemists had two goals, the most famous of which was the transmutation (change) of metals from cheap base metals such as mercury and lead, into precious metals like silver and gold.  The second goal, less well-known, was to discover the elixir of life so they could live young and healthy forever.  Ironically, all alchemists came from moderate to good wealth, but they spent their wealth on laboratory equipment in pursuit of an impossible feat to gain much greater riches.  As such, they all died as paupers in their reckless pursuit of gold, and because they worked with lead and mercury (heavy metal poisons), they died young and sickly.  This gives rise to lessons of morality in greed and trying to cheat nature.

However, my favorite lesson is about chemistry.  Many of the techniques developed by the alchemists are still practiced today by modern chemists.  Throughout the show, I am distilling flower pedals for essential oils.  I do extract some, but never enough to actually collect.  But that’s okay.  I can explain how the equipment today is a little more sophisticated (showing a distillation column as opposed to a retort flask), but that the technique is essentially the same.  I also have handouts showing the relationships between the ancient Greek Atomists philosophers (ca 2000 BC), the alchemists, and the post-Dalton Atomic Theory modern-day chemists.  They are remarkably similar. 

In this year’s show, I performed an example of transmutation.  Marco convinced people he was a real alchemist, so he had to have done something as proof.  There are some chemical tricks to make copper look like it turns to silver and gold, but the problem with these tricks is that the product eventually oxidizes and changes.  I’m thinking if he tried these tricks, word would have spread that it wasn’t real gold.  I believe he would have used some kind of trick.  Mine was simple.  I have a coin change pouch.  I “conned” children out of silver (it has to be silver, according to my story, because I don’t have time to convert a base metal, but one precious metal to a more precious metal would be quick), and I swapped it out with a gold-tone dollar coin.  Yes, I stole their silver, but the trick cost me $0.75 every time I did it. 

There were a couple of interesting lessons for me.  One of the funniest moments was when a couple that looked like maybe they were the grandparents of a young lady wouldn’t let her give me a coin because “he’s just going to keep it.”  Well, yes, I would have kept her quarter (or dime or nickel) and returned a dollar.  So, you know, very clever of them.  Another child came multiple times.  The last time, she brought four coins, and I refused to perform it because she was not learning.  She had already seen it, and that was enough (especially since she was interrupting my interaction with a new child).  That’s when she explained that she needed me to do it four times so she could buy a ring.  Yeah, that’s called “theft”.  At one point, a young boy came and threw a quarter on my table, “make this gold” he rudely insisted.  I looked at him, saying “please”.  He acquiesced, but I really didn’t appreciate being treated like I owed him.  Annoyed, I did it without much enthusiasm.  Off he went.  A young lady came up, and as I was interacting with her, he came back and threw the gold coin on my table.  “This is useless,” he said.  “I need thirty dollars.”  I picked up the coin, saying, “so you don’t want this?”  “No,” he barked.  I turned to the little girl and said, “here, this is for you.” 

It’s a funny thing.  I had hundreds of just charming, beautiful and enthusiastic young children, but these bad eggs are the ones I remember.  So, next year, it’ll be one per family and only in the presence of an adult.  But it was great fun, and although it cost me probably a couple of hundred dollars, it was certainly worth it.

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