Ashley Morengo has been branded a witch. Her parents, Tom and Karen, chuckle as a dirty, burlapped crowd pelts the Tempe girl with Styrofoam rocks. A scary-looking monk commands her to confess. “But I’m not a witch!” she protests, laughing and giggling.
“Then why aren’t you married?” the monk shouts.
“Because I’m 12!” Her impertinence draws jeers and more fake rocks from the crowd, which does not relent until the blushing youngster is “sold” to an old man with latex scars, who promises her father a cow. “Good girl,” the monk tells her, handing her a churro. “Never show fear.”
It’s all part of Dark Age Days, a controversial fusion of medieval history and theme park high jinks, running through April 15 at the Fountain Hills Cultural Pavilion, and the open trenches behind it.
IT WASN’T EVEN DARK
Seizing on the popularity of the unaffiliated Arizona Renaissance Festival (running through this weekend near Apache Junction), Dark Age Days offers a full slate of activities, craft booths and staged events designed to educate revelers about a misunderstood era.
“The Dark Ages get a bad rap because the Renaissance, which followed it, was so productive,” festival organizer Ian Michael Blarney says. An “accredited expert” in Medieval Studies and Hygiene, Blarney says the Dark Ages have been maligned as an ugly prologue to the Renaissance because historians love dramatic contrast.
“But the Dark Ages were really not that bad,” he says. “Half the time, they weren’t even dark. In fact, between the sieges and the heavy snows, the people who survived the plague were actually quite festive.”
The festival runs along an unpaved midway, where information booths (Learn More About the Normans) alternate with souvenir stands (“holy relics” and peat carvings for $5 and up), jousting demonstrations and historically inspired games. In the Starving Serf Potato Hunt, contestants scramble through a dirt maze for a buried potato. “Winner gets to keep the potato,” the emcee promises. “Losers are bled with a leech.”
“Dark Age Days definitely has more attitude,” festival jouster Erik Soutlarman says. “But the Dark Ages was a tougher time.” Soutlarman, an Arizona State University humanities major, is having his gauze changed between matches at the hospital tent. He says audiences “appreciate a festival that doesn’t go all Disney and sugarcoat things.” He points to his own weaponry as an example. “By the time of the Renaissance, people understood metallurgy and made swords and shiny armor. But here, in the Dark Ages, we just hit each other with wood until someone falls down.”
The tone isn’t all downbeat. At a tent near the entrance, hooded monks offer reading lessons to the little ones. Nearby, the popular Desecrate the Parthenon exhibit allows kids to re-enact the fall of Rome. Beyond the warm-mutton vendor, the Starbucks booth and the serve-yourself porridge trough, Gargoyle Staredown pits amateur stone faces against an apelike fellow on a parapet. Then, near the exit, rival monks excommunicate the children for learning to read. “I think they’re trying to be ironic,” patron Dale Nutrip said. “Or else those monks are drunk.”
A jolly atmosphere prevails — until vikings attack the food court. Dark Age Days’ most controversial feature is these large, Nordic men with helmets and runaway facial hair, who turn tables over and scatter patrons with (hopefully) fake axes.
“Everyone is scared of the vikings,” Blarney explained, “as they were in the real Dark Ages.” Historically, families might offer their children to be spared. “Here, we’re more lenient,” he chuckled. “Any child seized by vikings can be claimed at the information booth. And everybody gets a churro.”
It might be easy to condemn a festival so bent on historical accuracy that its parking attendants check patrons for black plague sores. “We’re still making refinements,” Blarney explained. “But we’re more family friendly, now that we do those staff background checks.”
But the true purpose of Dark Age Days can be found at the Gregorian Calendar Tent. There, literate peasants — who follow the modern calendar and mark the New Year as Jan. 1 — mock the slackers who still celebrate New Year’s at the end of March. As they heap torment upon their clueless peers, they use a phrase now commonly applied to people who grab joy buzzers, sniff squirting flowers or believe in fictional Dark Age festivals: